Monday, 15 August 2022

The Tangled Web We Weave

By Keith Tidman

Kant believed, as a universal ethical principle, that lying was always morally wrong. But was he right? And how might we decide that?


The eighteenth-century German philosopher asserted that everyone had ‘intrinsic worth’: that people are characteristically rational and free to make their own choices. Lying, he believed, degrades that aspect of moral worth, withdrawing others’ ability to exercise autonomy and make logical decisions, as we presume they might in possessing truth. 


Kant’s ground-level belief in these regards was that we should value others strictly ‘as ends’, and never see people ‘as merely means to ends’. A maxim that’s valued and commonly espoused in human affairs today, too, even if people sometimes come up short.


The belief that judgements of morality should be based on universal principles, or ‘directives’, without reference to the practical outcomes, is termed deontology. For example, according to this approach, all lies are immoral and condemnable. There are no attempts to parse right and wrong, to dig into nuance. It’s blanket censure.


But it’s easy to think of innumerable drawbacks to the inviolable rule of wholesale condemnation. Consider how you might respond to a terrorist demanding the place and time of a meeting to be held by the intended target. Deontologists like Kant would consider such a lie immoral.


Virtue ethics, to this extent compatible with Kant’s beliefs, also says that lying is morally wrong. Their reasoning, though, is that it violates a core virtue: honesty. Virtue ethicists are concerned to protect people’s character, where ‘virtues’ — like fairness, generosity, compassion, courage, fidelity, integrity, prudence, and kindness — lead people to behave in ways others will judge morally laudable. 


Other philosophers argue that, instead of turning to the rules-based beliefs of Kant and of virtue ethicists, we ought to weigh the (supposed) benefits and harms of a lie’s outcomes. This principle is called  consequentialist ethics, mirroring the utilitarianism of eighteenth/nineteenth-century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, emphasising greatest happiness. 


Advocates of consequentialism claim that actions, including lying, are morally acceptable when the results of behaviour maximise benefits and minimise harms. A tall order! A lie is not always immoral, as long as outcomes on net balance favour the stakeholders.


Take the case of your saving a toddler from a burning house. Perhaps, however, you believe in not taking credit for altruism, concerned about being perceived conceitedly self-serving. You thus tell the emergency responders a different story about how the child came to safety, a lie that harms no one. Per Bentham’s utilitarianism, the ‘deception’ in this instance is not immoral.


Kant’s dyed-in-the-wool unforgiveness of lies invites examples that challenge the concept’s wisdom. Take the historical case of a Jewish woman concealed, from Nazi military occupiers, under the floorboards of a farmer’s cottage. The situation seems clear-cut, perhaps.


If grilled by enemy soldiers as to the woman’s whereabouts, the farmer lies rather than dooming her to being shot or sent to a concentration camp. The farmer chooses good over bad, echoing consequentialism and virtue ethics. His choice answers the question whether the lie elicits the better outcome than would truth. It would have been immoral not to lie.


Of course, the consequences of lying, even for an honorable person, may sometimes be hard to get right, differing in significant ways from reality or subjectively the greater good. One may overvalue or undervalue benefits — nontrivial possibilities.


But maybe what matters most in gauging consequences are motive and goal. As long as the purpose is to benefit, not to beguile or harm, then trust remains intact — of great benefit in itself.


Consider two more cases as examples. In the first, a doctor knowingly gives a cancer-ridden patient and family false (inflated) hope for recovery from treatment. In the second, a politician knowingly gives constituents false (inflated) expectations of benefits from legislation he sponsored and pushed through.


The doctor and politician both engage in ‘deceptions’, but critically with very different intent: Rightly or wrongly, the doctor believes, on personal principle, that he is being kind by uplifting the patient’s despondency. And the politician, rightly or wrongly, believes that his hold on his legislative seat will be bolstered, convinced that’s to his constituents’ benefit.


From a deontological — rules-focused — standpoint, both lies are immoral. Both parties know that they mislead — that what they say is false. (Though both might prefer to say something like they ‘bent the truth’, as if more palatable.) But how about from the standpoint of either consequentialism or virtue ethics? 


The Roman orator Quintilian is supposed to have advised, ‘A liar should have a good memory’. Handy practical advice, for those who ‘weave tangled webs’, benign or malign, and attempt to evade being called out for duplicity.


And damning all lies seems like a crude, blunt tool, with no real value by being wholly unworkable outside Kant’s absolutist disposition toward the matter; no one could unswervingly meet that rigorous standard. Indeed, a study by psychologist Robert Feldman claimed that people lie two to three times, in trivial and major ways, for every ten minutes of conversation! 


However, consequentialism and virtue ethics have their own shortcomings. They leave us with the problematic task of figuring out which consequences and virtues matter best in a given situation, and tailoring our decisions and actions accordingly. No small feat.


So, in parsing which lies on balance are ‘beneficial’ or ‘harmful’, and how to arrive at those assessments, ethicists still haven’t ventured close to crafting an airtight model: one that dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s of the ethics of lying. 

At the very least, we can say that, no, Kant got it wrong in overbearingly rebuffing all lies as immoral. Not seeking reasonable exceptions may have been obvious folly. Yet, that may be cold comfort for some people, as lapses into excessive risk — weaving evermore tangled webs — court danger by unwary souls.

Meantime, while some more than others may feel they have been cut some slack, they might be advised to keep Quintilian’s advice close.

* ’O what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive’, Sir Walter Scott, poem, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field’.


Monday, 8 August 2022

A Linguistic Theory of Creation

by Thomas Scarborough

Creation of the Earth, by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)

Perhaps it has been obscured through familiarity. There is an obvious curiosity in the opening chapters of Genesis (the creation of the world). Step by step, God creates the world, then names the world—repeatedly both coupling and separating his* creating and his naming.
Would it not be more natural simply to describe God’s creative acts without embellishment? Would not a description of his creative acts alone suffice? Unless God's naming has some special significance in the narrative, it may seem quite superfluous.

Under any circumstances, the opening chapters of Genesis are supremely difficult to interpret. Bearing this very much in mind, the purpose here is to present an alternative view—unfinished, unrefined—as a new possibility.

Existing interpretations of Genesis include the following:

  • Heaven and earth were created in six days
  • The six days were six (longer) periods of time
  • The earth’s great age was ‘created into’ a six-day sequence
  • Genesis represents the re-creation of the world
  • Genesis stitches various creation stories together
  • Its purpose is to glorify God, not first to be factual
  • It is a synopsis, which may not be sequential
  • It is a myth
  • It is a spiritual allegory
  • It describes a dream of Moses

Here, then, is a new alternative—presented merely as a possibility—for greater minds to examine the rough edges and (possibly) inadmissible ideas on an exceedingly complex text.

We begin with a simple linguistic fact. Names, in the Bible, were often commemorative. The ATS Bible Dictionary sums it up well: ‘Names were assumed afterwards to commemorate some striking occurrence in one’s history.’ Therefore, an event took place—then it, or the place of its happening, was named: Babel, Israel, the Passover, and so on. In fact, often with a pause.

If we assume that the creation account in Genesis includes, similarly, a commemorative naming, then the account may separate a stage-by-stage creation of the world from a stage-by-stage naming of it. With this in mind, there would then be four stages to each act of creation in Genesis. For example, in the NASB translation of the Bible (abridged):

  • ‘Then God said, Let there be light.’
  • ‘And there was light.’
  • ‘And God called the light day.’
  • ‘And there was evening and there was morning, one day.’

One may reduce this to two stages:

  • God created.
  • Then God named it.
And with some nuance, we may possibly say:

  • God created, within unspecified periods of time.
  • God named his creation during equal pauses (days), as commemorative acts.

In this case, Genesis could be viewed as a series of linguistic events. Its opening verses could set the tone, as a linguistic announcement: ‘And the earth was formless and void’—reminiscent of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, ‘In itself, thought is like a swirling cloud, where no shape is intrinsically determinate. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure.’ 

Further, one may see a major linguistic shift in Genesis 3:7: ‘Then the eyes of both of them were opened …’ We have, from this point, the language of ‘ought’, as the first rational creatures ostensibly discern right from wrong. Then, needless to say, Babel represents a major linguistic shift in Genesis chapter 11, as languages (plural) appear.

From this, two major issues arise.

Firstly, is God's creating, in each stage of creation, coincident with his naming of it? In other words, did God name things on the same day that he created them, or did he name them afterwards? 

If it was on the same day that he created them, then the theory suggested here would presumably unravel. But arguably, in its favour, each naming is preceded by the word ‘And … ,’ which in the creation account is mostly used to indicate sequences in time. ‘And God called ...’ may represent separate periods of time in which namings occurred, after acts of creation.

A possible problem lies in Genesis 5:2, ‘God named them … in the day they were created.’ However, the word ‘day’ may here encompass every day, as we find in Genesis 2:4. ‘In the day’ may not refer to the separate stages of creation of Genesis chapter 1.

A second issue arises: God's naming does not seem to appear in the text consistently. ‘God called …’ appears only three times in Genesis 1, in connection with the first three days of creation. 

However Genesis, in general, liberally makes use of related words. Take the key words ‘God created ...’ Alternatives that we find in the text are ‘made, ‘formed’, ‘brought forth’, and so on. The same is true of the key words ‘God called …’ Alternatives are ‘saw’, ‘blessed’, ‘sanctified’. An act of commemoration may be implied in all of these words.

In short, the time periods which are described in Genesis may be attached, not first to the creation of the world, but to God’s naming of it—and, incidentally, to man's naming of it. On the sixth day, ‘the man gave names …’

Such a theory would potentially remove major problems of other creation theories. In particular, it could possibly move beyond both literal and liberal readings of Genesis, without colliding with them.


* I follow Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: “We refer to G-d using masculine terms simply for convenience’s sake.

Also by Thomas Scarborough: Hell: A Thought Experiment.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Picture Post #77: The Picnic

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'


Posted by Martin Cohen

Another image from another war. The 1999–2000 battle of Grozny saw the siege and assault of the Chechen capital by Russian forces, and left the city devastated. In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on Earth.

But pause to look at this image. There’s a bizarre juxtaposition of suburban normalcy and wartime horror here. For a start, the table set with four chairs. Who else will be coming to dinner? Notice at the moment the two soldiers are a man and a woman, again echoing many a more homely, family scene.

Of course, as with most picnics, it is the setting that makes the moment, but here it is a nightmare scene of blasted apartment blocks and grey, smoking ruins. Not the family car, but the “family tank” is parked nearby.

On the table, the actual food is rather meagre.which may explain why both figures at the table look, frankly, rather miserable.

Monday, 25 July 2022

‘Philosophical Zombies’: A Thought Experiment

Zombies are essentially machines that appear human.

By Keith Tidman

Some philosophers have used the notion of ‘philosophical zombies’ in a bid to make a point about the source and nature of human consciousness. Have they been on the right track?


One thought experiment begins by hypothesising the existence of zombies who are indistinguishable in appearance and behaviour from ordinary people. These zombies match our comportment, seeming to think, know, understand, believe, and communicate just as we do. Or, at least, they appear to. You and a zombie could not tell each other apart. 


Except, there is one important difference: philosophical zombies lack conscious experience. Which means that if, for example, a zombie was to drop an anvil on its foot, it might give itself away by not reacting at all or, perhaps, very differently than normal. It would not have the inward, natural, individualised experience of actual pain the way the rest of us would. On the other hand, a smarter kind of zombie might know what humans would do in such situations and pretend to recoil and curse as if in extreme pain. 


Accordingly, philosophical zombies lead us to what’s called the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, which is whether or not each human has individually unique feelings while experiencing things – whereby each person produces his or her own reactions to stimuli, unlike everyone else’s. Such as the taste of a tart orange, the chilliness of snow, the discomfort of grit in the eye, the awe in gazing at ancient relics, the warmth of holding a squirming puppy, and so on.


Likewise, they lead us to wonder whether or not there are experiences (reactions, if you will) that humans subjectively feel in authentic ways that are the product of physical processes, such as neuronal and synaptic activity as regions of the brain fire up. Experiences beyond those that zombies only copycat, or are conditioned or programmed to feign, the way automatons might, lacking true self-awareness. If there are, then there remains a commonsense difference between ‘philosophical zombies’ and us.


Zombie thought experiments have been used by some to argue against the notion called ‘physicalism’, whereby human consciousness and subjective experience are considered to be based in the material activity of the brain. That is, an understanding of reality, revealed by philosophers of mind and neuroscientists who are jointly peeling back how the brain works as it experiences, imagines, ponders, assesses, and decides.


The key objection to such ‘physicalism’ is the contention that mind and body are separable properties, the venerable philosophical theory also known as dualism. And that by extrapolation, the brain is not (cannot be) the source of conscious experience. Instead, it is argued by some that conscious experience — like the pain from the dropped anvil or joy in response to the bright yellow of fields of sunflowers — is separate from brain function, even though natural law strongly tells us such brain function is the root of everyone's subjective experience.


But does the ‘philosophical zombie’ argument against brain function being the seed of conscious experience hold up?


After all, the argument that philosophical zombies, whose clever posing makes us assume there are no differences between them and us, seems problematic. Surely, there is insufficient evidence of the brain not giving rise to consciousness and individual experience. Yet, many people who argue against a material basis to experience, residing in brain function, rest their case on the notion that philosophical zombies are at least conceivable.


They argue that ‘conceivability’ is enough to make zombies possible. However, such arguments neglect that being conceivable is really just another expression for something ‘being imaginable’. Isn’t that the reason young children look under their beds at night? But, is being imaginable actually enough to conclude something’s real-world existence? How many children actually come face to face with monsters in their closets? There are innumerable other examples, as we’ll get to momentarily, illustrating that all sorts of irrational, unreal things are imaginable  in the same sense that they’re conceivable  yet surely with no sound basis in reality.


Proponents of conceivability might be said to stumble into a dilemma: that of logical incoherence. Why so? Because, on the same supposedly logical framework, it is logically imaginable that garden gnomes come to life at night, or that fire-breathing dragons live on an as-yet-undiscovered island, or that the channels scoured on the surface of Mars are signs of an intelligent alien civilisation!


Such extraordinary notions are imaginable, but at the same time implausible, even nonsensical. Imagining something doesn’t make it so. These ‘netherworld notions’ simply don’t hold up. Philosophical zombies arguably fall into this group. 


Moreover, zombies wouldn’t (couldn’t) have free will; that is, free will and zombiism conflict with one another. Yes, zombies might fabricate self-awareness and free will convincingly enough to trick a casual, uncritical observer — but this would be a sham, insufficient to satisfy the conditions for true free will.


The fact remains that the authentic experience of, for example, peacefully listening to gentle waves splashing ashore cannot happen if the complex functionality of the brain were not to exist. A blob that only looks like a brain (as in the case for philosophical zombies) would not be the equivalent of a human brain if, critically, those functions were missing.

It’s those brain functions that, contrary to theories like dualism, assert the separation of mind from body, that make consciousness and individualised sentience possible. The emergence of mind from brain activity is the likeliest explanation of experienced reality. Contemporary philosophers of mind and neuroscientists would agree on this, even as they continue to work jointly on figuring out the details of how all that happens.

The idea of philosophical zombies existing among us thus collapses. Yet, very similar questions of mind, consciousness, sentience, experience, and personhood could easily pop up again. Likely not as recycled philosophical zombies, but instead, as new issues arising longer term as developments in artificial intelligence begin to match and perhaps eventually exceed the vast array of abilities of human intelligence.


Monday, 18 July 2022


Mountaintop to Mountaintop

Aphorists in Dialogue

Yahia Lababidi and Fraser Logan

Yahia Lababidi: We live and unlearn. 
Fraser Logan: Few learn the difference between critical thinking and criticising without thinking. 
YL: When the student is not ready, imposters appear.
Torment is a prerequisite of intellectual growth, not something to stifle in students. 
Let humiliation be your teacher. 
Mockery exposes falsehoods, but truth is already naked. 
Desert: the spiritual sensuality of the world, denuded. 
Alone, the heart denudes itself of pleasantries and splatters forth vulgarities. 

Style is the garment we shed on our way to nakedness
Stylised nakedness puts the art in cathartic. 
Art for art’s sake is a dead end; art for heart’s sake is the way out. 
Art today defies old masters and defiles the world with new disasters. 
Good artists are heralds of the world to come. 
A few artists hear the echo of an ancient starting gun; but we deem them rigid and unfree. 
Being hostage to beauty: the strength and weakness of artists. 
The best artists love morals as much as they hate them. 

We inhabit a moral universe—amorality is immorality.
Truthfulness is moral, but there are immoral truths. 
The best and most dangerous lies are mixed with truth. It’s truth that attracts others and allows them to accept untruths. 
Speak the truth, or speak to soothe. 
We are granted different powers to help one another. 
Socialite virtues are troglodyte vices. 
Some human sins, such as jealousy and pride, are Divine virtues. 
We sinned against the earth—by inventing sin. 

Strange, how what is life-giving―if not handled with care―can become life-threatening.
Those who contradict life, invariably suffer from life—until they are contradicted by death. 
Those with apparent contradictions are better equipped to understand Life’s inherent paradoxes. 
Fear of contradiction ties the tongue. 
If you cannot do good, practice biting your tongue. 
There are nowadays no individual palates, only tastebuds on a common tongue. 
Silence is a powerful punctuation mark. 
The talkative hiker spoils the view. 

The straight path is available to all who forsake crookedness. 
Beware the will which never wandered. 
We are unfree when we stray from Divine Will. 
True freedom oscillates between anarchy and constraint, tires of oscillating, tires of being tired… 
The path less trodden is harder on the feet, but better for the soul. 
When we advance on our enemies, we often use their paths and lose our friends along the way. 
To despair, hate or seek revenge is to be seduced by evil. 
Honesty marries hatred in the prison cell of love. 

When we love our prison, we no longer see the bars. 
Man is carried in the wind, like a leaf; but the wind is also carried in man. 
One day, leaf. One day, branch. One day, root. 
Youth climbs up single branches, hoping to be seen at the top of the tree. Adolescence longs for the all-encompassing view, but ends with a snap. 
Doubt, as a season of the soul, is like a strong wind that prunes trees — loosening dead leaves and weak branches — to fortify our foundation against future storms of the spirit
Maturity stands back to contemplate the tree, judging that every branch can bear fruit. Wisdom seeks out new seeds, advising youth to do the same. 
Wisdom is recovered innocence. 
The sight of youth upsets the old, but overjoys the elderly. 

Much of the suffering in our world is the result of wounded children, parenting. 
Man can suffer from pleasure or take pleasure in suffering. 
Spiritually understood, everything can be used for our development and advantage. 
The eradication of pain would be insufferable; the maximisation of pleasure miserable. 
The punishment for avoiding suffering is superficiality; the reward for embracing it is spirituality. 
Even stars have blackspots. 
We inhabit ourselves more fully when we find our inner light switches in the dark... 
Honesty is strike paper, and we are pyrophobic match-heads. 

Metaphors, like all possible explosives, should be handled with care and by those who know what they’re doing. 
Honesty erupts at the election booth; scholars hide away in yellowing ivory towers. 
Imagine if presidential candidates were required to be well-versed in moral philosophy. 
Politics is a zero-sum game in which dishonest politicians represent an alethophobic electorate. 
Nations fail for the same reason that people fall: they lose their balance. 
Most political arguments stem, not from curiosity, but from the impression that lopsided people need to be righted—or lefted. 
Birds use their wings, not only to fly, but also for balance―just like us. 
There is virtue in being a vole, if one is a vole; but life amongst soil and shrubbery is a cage to those with wings. 

Anything freed from the marble is an angel. Never cease chiselling... 
Greatness is sculpted. 
Better to be good than great. 
Only those who fall from great heights ever make a sound; but we are flattening the earth. 
If you ask to be raised in spiritual station, expect trials to match such an elevation. 
Hardship accelerates maturity. 

In imperilled states, the soul defends itself with poetry. 
The best writings begin with misery and find merriment along the way. 

Poetry is what happens to prose at boiling point. 
Aphorisms are muses brought to climax. 

Aphorisms are the sushi of literature. 
Aphorisms should be chewed on and swallowed—or spat out. 

Yahia Lababidi, an Egyptian-Palestinian author of ten books, has been called "our greatest living aphorist". He has contributed to news, literary and cultural institutions throughout the USA, Europe and the Middle East, such as: Oxford University, Pearson, PBS NewsHour, NPR, and HBO.

Lababidi’s latest work includes: Revolutions of the Heart (Wipf and Stock, 2020), a book of essays and conversations exploring crises and transformation, Learning to Pray (Kelsay Books, 2021) a collection of his spiritual aphorisms and poems as well as Desert Songs (Rowayat, 2022) a bilingual, photographic account of his mystical experiences in the deserts of Egypt.


Fraser Logan is an M4C-funded PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Warwick, UK. His project examines Nietzsche's views of honesty. Fraser’s aphorisms have been commended by the Oscar Wilde Society, and he has written a book, titled Eruptions, of 600 original aphorisms.

Monday, 11 July 2022

Religions as World History

Religious manuscripts in the fabulous library of Timbuktu. Such texts are a storehouse of ancient knowledge.
By Keith Tidman

Might it be desirable to add teaching about world religions to the history curriculum in schools?

Religions have been deeply instrumental in establishing the course of human civilisation, from the earliest stirrings of community and socialisation thousands of years ago. Yet, even teaching about the world’s religions has often been guardedly held at arm’s length, for concern instruction might lapse into proselytising. 

Or at least, for apprehension over instructors actions being seen as such.

The pantheon of religions subject to being taught span the breadth: from Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism to Buddhism, Christianity, and Sikhism  including indigenous faiths. The richness of their histories, the literacy and sacred quality of their storytelling, the complexities and directive principles held among their adherents, and religions seminal influences upon the advancement of human civilisation are truly consequential.

This suggests that religions might be taught as a version of world history. Done so without exhortation, judgment, or stereotyping. And without violating religious institutions desire to be solely responsible for nurturing the pureness of their faith. School instruction ought be straightforwardly scholarly and factual, that is  without presumption, spin, or bias. Most crucially, both subject-matter content and manner of presentation should avert transgressing the beliefs and faiths of students or their families and communities. And avoid challenging what theologians may consider axiomatic about the existence and nature of God, the word of authoritative figures, the hallowed nature of practices like petitionary prayer, normative canon, or related matters.


Accordingly, the aim of such an education would not be to evangelise or favour any religions doctrine over another’s; after all, we might agree that choice in paving a child’s spiritual foundation is the province of families and religious leaders.

Rather, the vision I wish to offer here is a secularised, scholarly teaching of religious literacy in the context of broader world histories. Adding a philosophical, ideas-based, dialogue-based layer to the historical explanation of religions may ensure that content remains subject to the rationalism (critical reflection) seen in educational content generally: as, for example, in literature, art, political theory, music, civics, rhetoric, geography, classics, science and math, and critical thinking, among other fields of enquiry.


You see, there is, I propose, a kind of DNA inherent in religion. This is rooted in origin stories of course, but also revealed by their proclivity toward change achieved through a kind of natural selection not dissimilar to that of living organisms. An evolutionary change in which the faithful — individuals, whole peoples, and formal institutions — are the animating force. Where change is what’s constant. We have seen this dynamical process result in the shaping and reshaping of values, moral injunctions, institutions, creeds, epistemologies, language, organisation, orthodoxies, practices, symbols, and cultural trappings.


In light of this evolutionary change, a key supporting pillar of an intellectually robust, curious society is to learn — through the power of unencumbered ideas and intellectual exploration — what matters to the development and practice of the world’s many religions. The aim being to reveal how doctrine has been reinterpreted over time, as well as to help students shed blinkers to others’ faith, engage in free-ranging dialogue on the nature, mindset, and language of religion writ large, and assume greater respect and tolerance.

Democracies are one example of where teaching about religion as an academic exercise can take firmest hold. One goal would be to round out understanding, insights, skills, and even greater wisdom for effective, enlightened citizenship. Such a program’s aim would be to encompass all religions on a par with one another in importance and solemnity, including those spiritual belief systems practiced by maybe only a few — all such religious expression nonetheless enriched by the piloting of their scriptures, ideologies, philosophies, and primary texts.


The objective should be to teach religious tenets as neutral, academic concepts, rather than doctrinal matters of faith, the latter being something individuals, families, and communities can and should choose for themselves. Such that, for example, whose moral code and doctrinal fundamentals one ought to adopt and whose to shy from are avoided — these values-based issues regarded as improper for a public-education forum. Although history has shown that worship is a common human impulse around the world, promoting worship per se ought not be part of teaching about religions. That’s for another time and place. 

Part and parcel, the instructional program should respect secularist philosophies, too. Like those individuals and families who philosophically regard faith and notions of transcendentalism as untenable, and see morality (good works) in humanistic terms. And like those who remain agnostically quizzical while grappling with what they suppose is the unknowability of such matters as higher-order creators, yet are at peace with their personal indecision about the existence of a deity. People come to these philosophical camps on equal footing, through deliberation and well-intentioned purposes — seekers of truth in their own right.


In paralleling how traditional world histories are presented, the keystone to teaching about religions should be intellectual honesty. Knowing what judiciously to put in and leave out, while understanding that tolerance and inclusion are core to a curious society and informed citizenry. Factually and scholarly opening minds to a range of new perspectives as windows on reality.


As such, teachings focus should be rigorously academic and instructional, not devotional. In that regard, it’s imperative that schools sidestep breaching the exclusive prerogative of families, communities, and religious institutions to frame whose ‘reality’ — whose truth, morality, orthodoxy, ritual, holy ambit, and counsel — to live by.

These cautions notwithstanding, it seems to me that schools ought indeed seek to teach the many ways in which the world’s religions are a cornerstone to humanity’s cultural, anthropological, and civilisational ecology, and thus a core component of the millennia-long narratives of world history.


Monday, 4 July 2022

Picture Post #76 Ancient Salt Marshes

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'


Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Remains of Cape Town's Salt Marshes (Thomas Scarborough, 2022)

In Cape Town, there are everywhere reminders of the Holocene ‘transgression’ which peaked around 3400 BC. At that time, most of the area on which the city now stands was invaded by sea and salt marshes. Then the sea retreated once more.
However, in this picture, railway lines, separating Cape Town’s suburbs of Milnerton and Rugby, reveal the remains of ancient marshes on either side of the tracks. One finds patches of these marshes all over: along freeways, on undeveloped properties, and surrounding remaining wetlands, in particular. Once one is aware of them, they seem to be everywhere. They are older than history, so often undervalued, and yet they are still among us.

The image reminds us us that another kind of history surrounds us everywhere. This is cultural history. I think in particular of the culture of thought. Richard Feynman once said, ‘History is fundamentally irrelevant.’ But is it? Where did today’s thoughts come from? Why? How much more would we better understand, if we were aware of the ancient remains among us?

Monday, 27 June 2022

The Rules of Capitalism

by Allister J. Marran

The philosophical theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, ‘The fundamental virtues in the ethics of a capitalist society are economic efficiency, developed to the utmost degree of ruthless activity.’

The rules of capitalism put profit over everything else. Everything else. Nothing is sacred or taboo.

It is a complex man-made set of rules, it does not exist in nature, and requires its servants to ignore common sense and its obvious dangers and pitfalls.

It is a giant pyramid scheme of investors and producers at the top, and consumers down below, that requires the base to constantly grow, which is why we now have eight billion plus people on a planet that has very limited resources. It demands infinite growth cycles when raw materials are in short and finite supply.

To ensure its ongoing sustainability, we have constantly to create hype about new products that nobody wanted or asked for in order to make another sale, with built in obsolescence so that we can sell a new model again tomorrow.

Marketing costs for products and services often far exceed R&D and cost-of-production budgets, in order to convince you to fill your house to a large degree with, call it ‘trinkets’, ‘junk’.

The over-mining, over-fishing, over-production, and mass pollution is not sustainable. That's simply a fact.

While every scientist on earth is predicting doom and gloom for future generations, the economist disagrees, and tells us to put out heads in the sand, and ignore the signs. Keep calm and keep spending.

There is another thing. In its appetite to compete, capitalist economics has now become the science of scarcity.  In order to compete, we need to optimize—and optimize everything we possibly can. We strive for less wastage, smaller margins of error, faster turnover.

This means that we sail ever closer to the wind. Let one thing go wrong—a computer hack, a bacterial contamination, a military invasion in a faraway place—and millions of people’s livelihoods and even lives may be imperilled.

As capitalism multiplies the dangers, so it multiplies our vulnerability.

This generation, our generation, the ones who were told by the scientists and experts to just look around and heed the obvious warnings, will be known as the idiots who could have stopped it but chose greed over life, profit over common sense.

We have no water where I live, because the rains haven't come for nearly 10 years. The world is cooling where it's hot, and heating up where it's cold. Smog sits over the cities, and poison infects our water sources. Landfills are full, and growing fuller every day. Our oceans are being fished to extinction, and good farming land is being paved over and cleared for urban development and new roads and highways.

Having stuff, and being able to read and write, and exploit a man-made system, does not make a person smart. If people can't see beyond their basic, immediate, satiating needs and zoom out to see the bigger picture of an exhausted ecosystem with resources heading to zero, and the only world we will ever have struggling to cope, then perhaps we were never that smart or evolved in the first place.

We do not have a divine right to rule this planet. We are just the next animal to over-evolve and get to the top of the food chain. It's an awesome responsibility which sees us on a perilous perch which can be toppled if we do not proceed with caution and humility.

Just ask the previous mantle holders, those fearsome and magnificent dinosaurs, how tenuous that grip on the top dog spot is.

We can’t ask them, of course. They are extinct.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Modesty (a Poem)

by Carl-Theodor Olivet *

Henri Matisse, Branch of Flowers, 1906.

I love you and give myself to you,
Yet you must promise me one thing;
Do not betray too much of you to me,
It could break our happiness in pieces …

The way that you consider and joke and risk it,
All have their origins, I know,
Your clear look, the vague fear,
The cheeky mockermouth.

Your magic, which tenderly plays about you,
Just as it is, is entirely preserved for me,
The days, the nights, year after year,
Shall design me delightfully.

Do not forewarn me, that I’ve gone too far
With my sweet daydreams,
I’m treating myself to a piece of eternity
And would not want to squander any part of you.

Do not betray yourself, lest you manoeuvre
into place to thwart me in some way, wickedly,
I do not analyse either
Whether you will always remain so unique.

Don’t speak in reply; that would be a mistake,
Permit me to paint the greatest bliss,
It will yet be, as mother says:
There comes a day to pay one’s wages.

If it’s over, then say it coldly, boldly.
That has broken many hearts, indeed …
And would tear me likewise from my dream.
Surely, I will get over it. 


* Theo Olivet is an author, artist, and retired judge in Schleswig-Holstein.

Bescheidenheit (ein Gedicht)

von Carl-Theodor Olivet

Henry Matisse, Blumenstrauch, 1906.

Ich liebe dich und geb mich dir,
doch  eines musst du mir versprechen:
verrat mir nicht zuviel von dir,
das könnte unser Glück zerbrechen ...

Wie du bedenkst und scherzt und wagst,
das hat ja alles seinen Grund,
dein heller Blick, die vage Furcht, dein kecker Spöttermund ...

Dein Zauber, der dich zart umweht,
nur so bleibt er mir ganz  erhalten,
die Tage, Nächte, Jahr für Jahr,
soll er mir wonnevoll gestalten.

Mahne mich nicht, ich ging zu weit
mit  meinen süßen Tagesträumen,
ich gönn mir  ein Stück Ewigkeit
und möchte nichts von dir versäumen:

Verrat dich nicht, falls du taktierst
und bös mit was mich hintertreibst,
ich hinterfrage ja auch nicht,
ob immer du so einzig bleibst.

Sag nichts dazu, es wär verkehrt,
lass mich mir größtes Glück ausmalen,
es wird schon sein, wie Mutter sagt:
Man müsse einst für alles zahlen.

Wenn´s nicht mehr geht, sag´s kalt und dreist,
so etwas bricht zwar manche Herzen ...
wenns mich auch aus dem Traume reißt,
ich werde es gewiss verschmerzen.

* Theo Olivet ist ein Autor, Künstler und pensionierter Richter in Schleswig-Holstein.

Monday, 13 June 2022

The Diamond–Water Paradox

All that glitters is not gold! Or at least, is not worth as much as gold. Here, richly interwoven cubic crystals of light metallic golden pyrite – also known as fool’s gold – are rare but nowhere near as valuable. Why’s that?

By Keith Tidman

One of the notable contributions of the Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Smith, to the development of modern economics concerned the so-called ‘paradox of value’.

That is, the question of why one of the most-critical items in people’s lives, water, is typically valued far less than, say, a diamond, which may be a nice decorative bauble to flaunt but is considerably less essential to life? As Smith couched the issue in his magnum opus, titled An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776):
‘Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarcely anything; scarcely anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarcely any use-value; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it’.
It turns out that the question has deep roots, dating back more than two millennia, explored by Plato and Aristotle, as well as later luminaries, like the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke and eighteenth-century economist John Law.

For Aristotle, the solution to the paradox involved distinguishing between two kinds of ‘value’: the value of a product in its use, such as water in slaking thirst, and its value in exchange, epitomised by a precious metal conveying the power to buy, or barter for, another good or service.

But, in the minds of later thinkers on the topic, that explanation seemed not to suffice. So, Smith came at the paradox differently, through the theory of the ‘cost of production’ — the expenditure of capital and labour. In many regions of the world, where rain is plentiful, water is easy to find and retrieve in abundance, perhaps by digging a well, or walking to a river or lake, or simply turning on a kitchen faucet. However, diamonds are everywhere harder to find, retrieve, and prepare.

Of course, that balance in value might dramatically tip in water’s favour in largely barren regions, where droughts may be commonplace — with consequences for food security, infant survival, and disease prevalence — with local inhabitants therefore rightly and necessarily regarding water as precious in and of itself. So context matters.

Clearly, however, for someone lost in the desert, parched and staggering around under a blistering sun, the use-value of water exceeds that of a diamond. ‘Utility’ in this instance is how well something gratifies a person’s wants or needs, a subjective measure. Accordingly, John Locke, too, pinned a commodity’s value to its utility — the satisfaction that a good or service gives someone.

For such a person dying of thirst in the desert, ‘opportunity cost’, or what they could obtain in exchange for a diamond at a later time (what’s lost in giving up the other choice), wouldn’t matter — especially if they otherwise couldn’t be assured of making it safely out of the broiling sand alive and healthy.

But what if, instead, that same choice between water and a diamond is reliably offered to the person every fifteen minutes rather than as a one-off? It now makes sense, let’s say, to opt for a diamond three times out of the four offers made each hour, and to choose water once an hour. Where access to an additional unit (bottle) of water each hour will suffice for survival and health, securing the individual’s safe exit from the desert. A scenario that captures the so-called ‘marginal utility’ explanation of value.

However, as with many things in life, the more water an individual acquires in even this harsh desert setting, with basic needs met, the less useful or gratifying the water becomes, referred to as the ‘law of diminishing marginal utility’. An extra unit of water gives very little or even no extra satisfaction.

According to ‘marginal utility’, then, a person will use a commodity to meet a need or want, based on perceived hierarchy of priorities. In the nineteenth century, the Austrian economic theorist Eugen Ritter von Böhm-Bawerk provided an illustration of this concept, exemplified by a farmer owning five sacks of grain:
  • The farmer sets aside the first sack to make bread, for the basics of survival. 
  • He uses the second sack of grain to make yet more bread so that he’s fit enough to perform strenuous work around the farm. 
  • He devotes the third sack to feed his farm animals. 
  • The fourth he uses in distilling alcohol. 
  • And the last sack of grain the farmer uses to feed birds.
If one of those bags is inexplicably lost, the farmer will not then reduce each of the remaining activities by one-fifth, as that would thoughtlessly cut into higher-priority needs. Instead, he will stop feeding the birds, deemed the least-valuable activity, leaving intact the grain for the four more-valuable activities in order to meet what he deems greater needs.

Accordingly, the next least-productive (least-valuable) sack is the fourth, set aside to make alcohol, which would be sacrificed if another sack is lost. And so on, working backwards, until, in a worst-case situation, the farmer is left with the first sack — that is, the grain essential for feeding him so that he stays alive. This situation of the farmer and his five sacks of grain illustrates how the ‘marginal utility’ of a good is driven by personal judgement of least and highest importance, always within a context.

Life today provides contemporary instances of this paradox of value.

Consider, for example, how society pays individual megastars in entertainment and sports vastly more than, say, school teachers. This is so, even though citizens insist they highly value teachers, entrusting them with educating the next generation for societys future competitive economic development. Megastar entertainers and athletes are of course rare, while teachers are plentiful. According to diminishing marginal utility, acquiring one other teacher is easier and cheaper than acquiring one other top entertainer or athlete.

Consider, too, collectables like historical stamps and ancient coins. Afar from their original purpose, these commodities no longer have use-value. 
Yet, ‘a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for them, to evoke Smiths diamond analogue. Factors like scarcity, condition, provenance, and subjective constructs of worth in the minds of the collector community fuel value, when swapping, selling, buying — or exchanging for other goods and services.

Of course, the dynamics of value can prove brittle. History has taught us that many times. Recall, for example, the exuberant valuing of tulips in seventeenth-century Holland. Speculation in tulips skyrocketed — with some varieties worth more than houses in Amsterdam — in what was surely one of the most-curious bubbles ever. Eventually, tulipmania came to a sudden end; however, whether the valuing of, say, todays cryptocurrencies, which are digital, intangible, and volatile, will follow suit and falter, or compete indefinitely with dollars, euros, pounds, and renminbi, remains an unclosed chapter in the paradox of value.

Ultimately, value is demonstrably an emergent construct of the mind, whereby ‘knowledge, as perhaps the most-ubiquitous commodity, poses a special paradoxical case. Knowledge has value simultaneously and equally in its use and ‘in its exchange. In the former, that is in its use, knowledge is applied to acquire ones own needs and wants; in the latter, that is in its exchange, knowledge becomes of benefit to others in acquiring their needs and wants. Is there perhaps a solution to Smith’s paradox here?

Monday, 6 June 2022

Picture Post #75 The Calm of the Library

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Martin Cohen

What makes this image particularly striking to me, is the quiet and earnest way the figures regard the books even as they stand amidst a scene of utter devastation. The man on the right nonchalant, hands-in-pockets browses the shelves seemingly oblivious to the collapsed roof just behind him; while another visitor to the library (in the left background) is clearly lost in the pages of one of his finds…

So, what‘s the back story? And this is that on the evening of 27 September, 1940, the Luftwaffe dropped 22 incendiary bombs on London's Holland House - a rambling, Jacobean country house, dating back to 1605, destroying all of it with the exception of the east wing, and, incredibly, almost all of the library.

The picture was originally used to make a propaganda point about the British shrugging off the Blitz, and that’s fine too, but today, stripped of its wartime context, I think it contains a more appealing message about how books and ideas can take us into a different world.

Monday, 30 May 2022

Theological Self-Assembly

by Thomas Scarborough

The Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner wrote, ‘World-views may be grouped in pairs.’ His original word for ‘pairs’ was Gegensatzpaare—pairs of opposites.

We see this in every dictionary of philosophy: realism vs. anti-realism, theism vs. atheism, altruism vs. egoism, and so on. Brunner himself provided these examples: materialism–idealism, pantheism–deism, rationalism–sensualism, dogmatism–scepticism, and monism–dualism (pluralism).

When Brunner made this observation, in 1937, on the face of it he could have meant two things. He could have meant that truth will always have its opposite—or that world-views are merely manifestations of our dualistic thinking. That is, they are mere phenomena, which have little if anything to do with the merits or demerits of the world-views themselves.

In fact Brunner meant the former—namely, that truth will always have its opposite—yet with an interesting twist. All of our world-views are untrue, he wrote, while faith is true: ‘If faith is lacking, a world-view is necessary.’ Further, world-views are theoretical, while faith is responsible. ‘We understand existence from the point of view of responsibility.’ Faith, therefore, belongs to a category all of its own, far from the realm of world-views.

This raises a thousand questions. Is this not intellectual suicide? Are world-views a true opposite of faith? Are world-views without responsibility? Do they not drive our actions in every case? And if faith is not about world-views, on what does one ground it? Of course, there is the question of definitions, too. How does one define faith, and world-views? *

More than this, however, Brunner apparently did not see that grouping world-views in pairs of opposites is especially theological. Theologians themselves are past masters at it. The language of personal salvation suppresses the language of social commitment; the language of community excludes the language of justification by faith; the language of religious values marginalises the language of the glory of God, and so on, and vice versa.

In theology, we find pairs of opposites such as liberalism–conservatism, immanence–transcendence, legalism–antinomianism, premillennialism–postmillennialism, and so on. These are not peripheral doctrines, but belong to theology’s core, and demonstrate that theological language has a natural, powerful tendency to exclude other theological concepts.

Brunner himself was aware that the separation of faith and world-views could be problematic. He wrote, ‘Can we, for instance, understand the spirit without ideas, norms, values, laws of thought, logos?There can never be any question of depreciating the reason, of hostility to reason, or of setting up a plea for irrationalism.’ Yet in that case, how may one interpret world-views as opposites of faith?

Theologians generally explain theological opposites in terms of the one-sidedness of their opponents—alternatively, they hold that their opponents are just plain wrong, or even apostate. Yet what if we simply have a natural tendency to generate pairs of opposites, regardless of truth?

It seems much like the honey-bee that remarks to another honey-bee that their colony has developed a most marvellous system: the exquisite selection of nectars and pollens, navigational skills second to none, with storage most wonderfully engineered. The other bee observes that the same is true, in fact, for all bees in every part of the world, over all of the known history of bees.

There is a powerful case in philosophy, not so much for our tendency to generate pairs of opposites, as our inability not to. The philosopher and logician Gottlob Frege described it as ‘the rule of words over the human mind.’ The literary critic and philosopher George Steiner wrote, ‘It is language that speaks, not, or not primordially, man.’ And the linguists Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen wrote, ‘We are thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics.’

That is, we are not free to think as we please. Whatever we turn out is the result of the dictatorship of ideas over the human mind—and over good sense, we might add. If this is the case in theology, then we have a theological crisis. Our cherished beliefs are merely the product of something more powerful than us, which holds us in its grip. How, then, to escape?

With our increasing awareness of various kinds of opposites—markedness, priority thoughts, term weighting, and otherness--among other things—it seems time that theologians should ask what is going on. For what reason are major concepts, both philosophical and theological, grouped in pairs of opposites? Is it, as is usually held, that some are true and others not? Is it that faith belongs to a category all of its own?

Or could it be that theological tenets of various kinds simply self-assemble?

* Emil Brunner is difficult to interpret, perhaps due to no fault of interpreters. A seminal statement of his: ‘Our nous therefore is the vessel but not the source of the Word of God. Where it receives the Word of God it is called : faith.’ Bearing in mind that Brunner is not so much the subject here as

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