Radical Evil

kant2 The subject of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of religion has received more attention in the beginning of the 21st century than it did in Kant’s own time. Religion was an unavoidable topic for Kant since it addresses the ultimate questions of metaphysics and morality. For, as he presents it in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and elsewhere, the universal moral law does not entirely depend upon demonstrating the existence of God, but rather upon reason (though he believes that its source cannot be divorced from the concept of God). Nevertheless he shocks the casual reader of the First Preface of his Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (hereafter Religion) by claiming that morality “inevitably leads to religion.”

Obedience to the moral law, of which Kant believes religion should be an example, appears to be an expectation that is neither universally nor willingly practiced. What is notable about the first two chapters of Religion is that he addresses this phenomenon in a manner that his Enlightenment predecessors had not: The failure of human moral agents to observe the moral law is symptomatic of a character or disposition (Gesinnung) that has been corrupted by an innate propensity to evil, which is to subordinate the moral law to self-conceit. Because this propensity corrupts an agent’s character as a whole, and is the innate “source” of every other evil deed, it may be considered “radical.” However, this propensity can be overcome through a single and unalterable “revolution” in the mode of thought (Revolution für die Denkungsart), which is simultaneously the basis for a gradual reform of character in the mode of sense (für die Sinnesart); for without the former, there is no basis for the latter. This reformation of character ultimately serves as the ground for moral agents within an ethical commonwealth, which, when understood eschatologically, is the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Kant’s account of radical evil demonstrates how evil can be a genuine moral alternative while nevertheless being an innate condition. Given the general optimism of the time, Kant’s view was revolutionary. It not only harkened back to an older Augustinian account of human nature, but also affirmed a propensity to evil within human nature using his apparatus of practical reason.

Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of religion is the philosophical study of the meaning and nature of religion. It includes the analyses of religious concepts, beliefs, terms, arguments, and practices of religious adherents. The scope of much of the work done in philosophy of religion has been limited to the various theistic religions. More recent work often involves a broader, more global approach, taking into consideration both theistic and non-theistic religious traditions. The range of those engaged in the field of philosophy of religion is broad and diverse and includes philosophers from the analytic and continental traditions, Eastern and Western thinkers, religious believers and agnostics, skeptics and atheists. Philosophy of religion draws on all of the major areas of philosophy as well as other relevant fields, including theology, history, sociology, psychology, and the natural sciences.

There are a number of themes that fall under the domain of philosophy of religion as it is commonly practiced in academic departments in North America and Europe. The focus here will be limited to six: (1) religious language and belief, (2) religious diversity, (3) concepts of God / Ultimate Reality, (4) arguments for and against the existence of God, (5) problems of evil and suffering, and (6) miracles.

Feminist Jurisprudence

American feminist jurisprudence is the study of the construction and workings of the law from perspectives which foreground the implications of the law for women and women’s lives. This study includes law as a theoretical enterprise as well its practical and concrete effects in women’s lives. Further, it includes law as an academic discipline, and thus incorporates concerns regarding pedagogy and the influence of teachers. On all these levels, feminist scholars, lawyers, and activists raise questions about the meaning and the impact of law on women’s lives. Feminist jurisprudence seeks to analyze and redress more traditional legal theory and practice. It focuses on the ways in which law has been structured (sometimes unwittingly) that deny the experiences and needs of women. Feminist jurisprudence claims that patriarchy (the system of interconnected relations and institutions that oppress women) infuses the legal system and all its workings, and that this is an unacceptable state of affairs. Consequently, feminist jurisprudence is not politically neutral, but a normative approach, as expressed by philosopher Patricia Smith: “[F]eminist jurisprudence challenges basic legal categories and concepts rather than analyzing them as given. Feminist jurisprudence asks what is implied in traditional categories, distinctions, or concepts and rejects them if they imply the subordination of women. In this sense, feminist jurisprudence is normative and claims that traditional jurisprudence and law are implicitly normative as well” (Smith 1993, p. 10). Feminist jurisprudence sees the workings of law as thoroughly permeated by political and moral judgments about the worth of women and how women should be treated. These judgments are not commensurate with women’s understandings of themselves, nor even with traditional liberal conceptions of (moral and legal) equality and fairness.

Although feminist jurisprudence revolves around a number of questions and features a diversity of focus and approach, two characteristics are central to it. First, because the Anglo-American legal tradition is built on liberalism and its tenets, feminist jurisprudence tends to respond to liberalism in some way. The second characteristic is the goal of bringing the law and its practitioners to recognize that law as currently constructed does not acknowledge or respond to the needs of women, and must be changed. These two features can be seen in the major debates in current feminist jurisprudence, which range from questions of the proper perspective from which to understand the problems of the law, to questions of legal theory and practice.

God and Humanity
by Swami Krishnananda


A question which is purely technical, which cannot be decided at once by the generality of mankind, arises in the mind of a serious seeker after Truth, viz., his relation to society and to its institutions. Judged dispassionately, the issue of the necessity or otherwise of such a seeker to concern himself either with society or institutions seems to arise due to a thoroughly misconceived notion of the nature of the Truth – the existence of God. The need or the absence of need for relations of any kind, much less obligations or duties, towards society and institutions crops up only if God is an other-worldly being, as is the conclusion of the usual theological concepts in all religions, and his existence somehow falls outside the scope and operation of the world and society. There have been controversies and heated arguments over the extent of importance to be given either to meditation or service, for example, and several schools of thought have risen out of this dichotomy in position. This is, to put it prosaically, the controversy between the schools of Jnana and Karma – knowledge and action – a subject which has been discussed by many scholars ever since the Acharyas wrote commentaries on the cardinal scriptures on which Indian culture is based.

All this is just mentioning in different ways the same old problem of man's relation to God and to the world or society. Unfortunately, people get emotionally warmed up in themselves whenever this question is raised and it is rare that one finds time to consider the subject in a scientific spirit by objective observation as a research man in any field of learning would actually be expected to do. The factor of emotion immediately rushes in whenever there is a talk of humanity, 'other people', 'our brethren' or 'the sufferings of people', and the general mind would even regard it as heretical to raise the question of the need or otherwise of a person to concern himself with this complexity, which is almost equated with the duty of man.

But, to come to the point again, our approach has naturally to be scientific and not emotional and, really, this is one of the precise conditions of conducting any successful research. Hence, the problem has to be tackled in an unbiased manner, placing oneself in the position of a mere witness and not a party in the game. Thus analysed, it comes about that the question of man's relation to society and institutions has much to do with the nature of God's existence and, unless this is first settled, what follows from it is a consequence also cannot be properly ascertained. Now, the existence of God, to define it impersonally, taking God by himself in his own independent status, has been accepted to be free from limitations of any kind, which means to say that he covers all states of being, manifested or unmanifested, and there can really be nothing unknown to him and hence outside the purview of his existence. This would imply that there can be no reality worth its name outside the Being of God, and the world and the individuals have to be summed under his Infinite Being, so that the world and humanity fall within the scope of the Existence of God.

Here, any doubt as to whether God exists or not should be considered wholly irrelevant, since our definition of God is that it is an appellation of the nature of Being in its absolute state, whose significance cannot be set aside even by modern physical science, what to speak of the more amenable sciences of biology and psychology. The theories of electromagnetism, quantum, wave-mechanics and relativity, with many things that follow in the wake of their discoveries, border on the acceptance of the Absolute as the only reality. The more metaphysical and spiritual approaches, both in the East and in the West, have held this premise as the very rock-foundation of the edifices of philosophy.

But there have been a multitude of misconstrued ideas which apparently seem to follow from this definition of God's Being, viz., that mankind or humanity is God and, as a corollary of this position, that service of man is service of God. But it is forgotten that the concept of humanity is a concept of limitation, while it has already been agreed that God has to be free from limitations. God is neither an individual among many others nor a sum-total of individuals, which is precisely the character of humanity. Hence the identification of humanity with God is an unreasoned result of emotional enthusiasm in relation, which easily takes hold of the mass-man, by dinning into the ears of people slogans, shibboleths and stock sayings on the theme that humanity is God, its worship is the worship of God, and the like. One's upbringing in family and social conditions from one's very childhood in the circumstance of an untiring repetition of such formulae and mass-propaganda carried on in such religion, to whose steady effects no ordinary human find can be immune, is responsible for the insinuation of the concept of a socialised God into the minds of mankind. This doctrine, no doubt, carries one to some extent and even appears to succeed for many years through history, as any repeatedly propagated cult can. But propaganda is not and has never been a weapon of final victory. For, it is a uniformly adopted medium of any theory or ideal, real or unreal. The nature of reality, however, springs up spontaneously, slowly blooming like a flower, in the hearts of gifted men who begin to see an indivisible limitlessness extending through and beyond the obvious and natural limitations of humanity and the world.

This urge of reality, when it rises in one's heart, becomes irresistible, for what is real can never be resisted. It is in the light of this urge, which certain Western philosophers have called the nisus for reality present in all Nature, which rare souls visualise the existence of a transcendence of spiritual immanence in the universe and recognise at once the impossibility of any identification of the finite with the Infinite. No man can be God, not even all men put together can be God – thus God transcends humanity – because humanity is the name of a particular species of individuals whose mathematical total is regarded as a unity only in the psychological sense of one individual thinking the other, but never being the other, but God is Supreme Being. Here is the unarticulated but ostensible difference between the nature of humanity and the nature of God. But this truth can never become patent in an uninitiated mind which is accustomed to think in terms of slogan and propaganda, cults and creeds, and thinks, also, only through the emotion.

Nevertheless, the mass-mind cannot at once be educated, because its main defects are dependence on sense-objects for the assessment of any value and a rather too heavy emphasis on the economic and biological existence of man than any deeper intrinsic worth or meaning in his existence as once having a non-dependent status of its own. It may be added here that much of the cult of humanity-worship and its deification is a cumulative outcome of the urges of hunger, wealth, self-glorification and power, which constitute the triple passion in an individual. When these urges become so dominant as the be regarded as necessities of life, they begin to rule mankind as its masters and what comes out of man begins to subordinate him to the level of a mere tool or puppet that is operated by strings. Psychology and psycho-analysis in modern times have done much research in this line and the nature of the consequences of these human urges, including the gregarious instinct, has been studied and analysed into its components. That man is under an illusion of the spell cast before him by the urges of wealth, sex and power is not something unknown to well-informed minds and the present-day crisis of humanity cannot but be traced to the working of a long rope that has been given by man to these urges that are trying to destroy him from the very roots. A careful study of advanced sociology, history and psychology will prove this fact to the hilt.

The spiritual seekers, mention of whom has been made above, are, however, an exception to the general mass thinking through the gregarious urge and they keep themselves alive to the urge for God, the Almighty, within themselves, as the nisus to perfection. When the urge for God rises within the soul of the seeker, the whole universe would appear to suck him into its bosom, from every atom and part of its extensive mass of creation, and in the initial stages this divine urge would seem to be the shooting of a luminous spark from within oneself and then gradually it increases its proportion into the surge of a rushing star, then the flash of a lightning, a flaming conflagration and, finally, an inundating flood of oceanic force and grandeur. A seeker caught up in any one of these divine manifestations would be able to see inwardly a super-mathematical unit of indivisible existence whose minutest manifestation exceeds the totality of mankind and the world, for the spirit is not magnitude, measurable in terms of the space-time extension. Ushered in by this current of the divine flood, the seeker can no more see meaning in the multitude of finites, and individualities and even the whole of humanity and the world, because all these which have so much significance to the mind that sees through the senses present themselves before the seeking soul as parts melting into the whole to which they organically belong and in which God becomes their very Soul, their very existence. To those souls that seek God in his essential Being, not merely as a transcendence but also as an immanence and absoluteness, the question of their relation to society, institutions and the world does not arise; it just does not exist. Truly, this is the ideal and the goal of anything, anywhere and no man on earth can hold an ideal superior or even equal to this grand consummation of one's enthronement in Universal Being. And this does not call for any proof or demonstration of its indubitably.


But it may be held that the question of one's relation to the world and humanity shall remain valid as long as knowledge comes through the senses and the world is visible before one's eyes. This situation of the sensibility of the world includes the perception of others outside oneself, especially other human beings. One's physical and psychological limitations manifesting themselves generally as hunger, thirst, heat, cold and fear of death and specially as the desire for wealth, sex and power, compel a person to depend upon other persons for the fulfilment or the mitigation of these instincts, and this results in the concept of humanity as a corporate body, an indispensable necessity and where utter selfishness of individuals or a group of individuals does not attempt to ruin other individuals even at its own peril, mankind exercises that understanding by which it recognises the need for a mutual co-operation among people, naturally involving some sacrifice of personal interest, and realises the impossibility of existing in the world without such co-operation. While the majesty of the Absolute in its superabundance and completeness referred to earlier in this section above is mainly the central content of the Upanishads, a divinely related humanitarian concept of mutual service is the preponderating doctrine of the Bhagavadgita. The sage of the Upanishad merges into the Absolute and enters the very fibre of all creation as its very soul and existence, and the Krishna of the Bhagavadgita, while he draws into his personality the dignity of the Universal God, at once becomes the paragon of humanity and exemplifies in his life the integrality of behaviour, conduct and action which sweeps over all mankind and unifies it as a social organism not only spiritually but also ethically and politically. We are here speaking of the position of man who is incapable of avoiding the sensing of a world outside him and Krishna's teaching is to such a man. It is also with due consideration to this situation of man in the world that the ancient seers ordained upon him the daily performance of the five great sacrifices known as Pancha Mahayajnas, viz., service to the celestial beings, service to the seers of learning, service to the ancestors, service to man and service to the sub-human creatures of the world. This is an all-comprehending system of ritual to accentuate service of others which is obligatory on the part of man as long as he enjoys personally the bounties of Nature and the charitableness of other human beings. This is the position impossible of avoidance so long as the universal flood of God-urge has not yet been stirred within oneself and man perforce hangs on the world and the other individuals for his subsistence in a variety of forms.

With this intention of the fulfilment of duty as mutual service and support, the organisation of people into the spiritual, political, economic and labour groups was formed in ancient times, particularly in India, under the Sanskrit names of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. These groups were especially classified as mutually inclusive powers and never exclusive elements as they later on got interpreted by habit, prejudice and selfishness of the part of the ego of man. Everywhere, it should be easy to see that fulfilment and complete success of the core cannot be achieved without the mutual collaboration of spiritual power, political power, economic power and man-power. This classification of human groups for the purpose of the constructive activity of society as a whole can never be gainsaid and substituted, much less avoided, by any other means of achieving human welfare. Spiritual idealism bereft of the other three brother forces in the world is likely to get degenerated into arm-chair philosophy and impractical suggestions for the improvement of man's condition in the process of evolution. Here we have to carefully distinguish between this class of spiritual ministry as a part of the social set-up and those rarer, master-minds who seek to merge and absorb all these four values of life in the universal divine flood about which we have made sufficient observation above. These are the higher classes of an almost super-human type who are a little different from the kind of spiritual teachers and guides who are referred to here as forming a group to minister to the spiritual needs of people. Where the political aspect is emphasised to the detriment of the other three aspects, it may land in tyranny, despotism and dictatorship. The history of the world has seen both these over-emphases through the churches of the religions and the rulers of states. A tendency to emphasise the economic aspects leads to materialism, atheism and hedonism, which is the marked trend of the present day world, especially in the second half of the 20th century. This aspect is, however, linked up with the emphasis of the labour group also, so that, today, we find the third and the fourth groups getting mixed up promiscuously and attempting to rule human destiny. It need not be reiterated that such illogical over-accentuation of any particular group is not only harmful to the growth and function of the other three essential aspects of the life of man but also defeats its own purpose in the end, due to its false isolation of the other necessary aspects of the life complete.

There is also another aspect of this question which has originated in the rising of several institutions in the world whose founders honestly felt a need to serve humanity. But the intention of the founders is with difficulty carried through by their alleged followers not only on account of inadequate spiritual inspiration and understanding but also the intrusion of practical interest of a personal nature that dilutes the original wish of the founder. This deficiency has another awful side and it is the fact that where the spiritual ideal is ignored, the material aspects of life automatically get bolstered up, even as strong winds begin to blow when the sun is covered with clouds. This is natural law and it does not spare anyone from the impact of its operation. Thus, religious churches and institutions may degenerate into centres of mere economic force which may exclusively attract the attention of their heads who may not be aware that they have totally missed the aim for which the organisations were originally formed. But the difficulty does not end here. It goes further head-long into the political field and the institutions may not only engage themselves in their own internal political administration but also take part in the outward politics of the State, far, far from the original ideal of the founders. Now, nothing can be a greater travesty than this, that the intention to do service gets side-tracked along the lanes of wealth and power.


Spiritual seekers, to clarify whose position is the intention of this article, thus get bifurcated into the purely God-inspired, whole-timed Sadhakas and the probationers on the path who aspire to seek perfection but cannot escape the shackles of the world and human society. There is little difficulty before the higher class of seekers, but the troubles of the second group are galore. The reason for this is that they are unable to strike a balance between God and the world, the technique of which the Bhagavadgita has endeavoured to explain in great detail. A harmony between the inner and the outer is difficult enough to maintain always because of the strength of sensory forces influencing the mind through out the waking life of the individual. A counter-force from within has to be generated to keep the balance of consciousness so that the outer forces of sense-perception may not overwhelm it and make it merely an instrument of sense-gratification and the physical urges. This art is called Yoga, the union of the inner and the outer of the higher and the lower. If God is indivisible existence in his pure absoluteness, unrelated to externality of any kind, he appears as harmony in the universe of manifestation. Hence we can safely conclude that wherever is this balance and harmony of forces, there is the presence of God in some proportion. The harmony has to be worked out in the body, mind and spirit, as well as in society and the world. Physical harmony is health. Mental harmony is sanity. Spiritual harmony is intuition. Social harmony is the peace of the world.

The consciousness of indivisibility originally receives the touch of the relative in self-consciousness which immediately implies the existence of space outside oneself, though, in this primordial state, the consciousness of space may look inseparable from self-consciousness. Almost simultaneously with this, there is the consciousness of time as a process in which the consciousness find itself. The fourth step is the consciousness of objects outside, which primarily may appear to be organically related to consciousness. Up to this stage, it may be said, consciousness has not been 'entangled', in the sense in which this situation is generally understood, But the difficulty commences with the further movement of consciousness when it assumes the mark of an individuality of its own and isolates itself from other such centres of consciousness as well as objects by regarding everyone of them as external. There are, however, certain implications of the consciousness of separated individuality, which are mainly the sense of heat and cold, hunger and thirst and the fear of death of oneself as a bodily entity. The metabolic process is set up into action and sleep then becomes a necessity to cause repair to the wear and tear of the body thereby, as well as due to continued object-consciousness in the 'wakeful' condition, one which is obviously unnatural to pure consciousness. The functions of breathing, thinking, feeling and understanding, with their concomitants, follow at once. Up to this stage, the individual may be said to have been externalised into the biological and the psychological make-up of personality. In the case of man, this is pure humanity.

But certain other processes which should be regarded as the abnormal functions of the individual's psychology now commence with the rise of the desire for material possessions – wealth and property – the desire for sexual contact and the sense of self-respect which materialises into the desire of self-glorification and the exercise of power over those outside oneself, which all come step by step, in succession. Here, the entanglement of consciousness is complete, and this is what is known as Samsara, or the painful earthly life. It is unfortunate that the mind of man does not rest even with this self-degeneration and, by process of time, getting itself accustomed to this condition, as if it is its natural state, forms its philosophy of 'it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven'. The result of this is the formulation of erroneous philosophies such as materialism, scepticism, agnosticism, pluralism, formalism, such as we find in the addiction to mere ritual, as well as the several arts and sciences which man regards as his highest achievements today but which are intended only to rationalise and perpetuate the condition of entanglement of consciousness with objects of various kinds, into which is has already descended. Even the so-called impersonal sciences of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and empirical psychology appear to be valid only so long as Nature is regarded as external consciousness. A philosophy based on this bifurcation of experience cannot therefore save consciousness from the pains it suffers in entanglement.

The technique of Yoga as a method of striking a balance between consciousness and objects is the first part of the individual's return to the universal. The second part of this attempt is the still higher stage of meditation by which the realisation comes that consciousness and its objects are not merely in a state of organised balance but form one unitary being. Philosophers like Kant, in the West, with all their acuteness of analysis, came to the conclusion that Reality cannot be known by consciousness, because of the difficulty in getting rid of the usual intellectual prejudice that the object of consciousness has always to be outside itself. This led Kant to the position of what he calls the paralogisms of conflict in philosophical position in regard to the truth of the mutual relation among God, the world and the individual. This difficulty is overcome in the philosophy of the Bhagavadgita and the Upanishads, a careful study of which every student of Yoga should make, going to the essential spirit of these teachings. It is outside the scope of this essay to go into details of the great gospels given by these scriptures to humanity, which constitute an independent subject by itself. It is hoped that seekers on the spiritual path will fare well if they take note of all these unavoidable aspects of their spiritual life, and where sincerity is the keynote, God is sure to shower his blessings.

by Paul Pardi

Grunge KnowledgeStudying knowledge is something philosophers have been doing for as long as philosophy has been around. It’s one of those perennial topics—like the nature of matter in the hard sciences--that philosophy has been refining since before the time of Plato. The discipline is known as epistemology which comes from two Greek words episteme (episthmh) which means knowledge and logos (logoV) which means a word or reason. Epistemology literally means to reason about knowledge. Epistemologists study what makes up knowledge, what kinds of things can we know, what are the limits to what we can know, and even if it’s possible to actually know anything at all.

At first this might seem like one of those topics that gives philosophy a bad name. After all, it seems kind of silly to ask whether we can know anything since is obvious we do. It's even more silly when you consider that to even ask the question, you must assume you know something! So why have some of the greatest minds the world has ever produced spent such a great deal of time on the subject? In this article I’ll consider this question.
Do We Know Stuff?

In order to answer that question, you probably have to have some idea what the term “know” means. If I asked, “Have you seen the flibbertijibbet at the fair today?” I’d guess  you wouldn’t know how to answer. You’d probably ask me what a flibbertijibbet is. But most adults tend not to ask what knowledge is before they can evaluate whether they have it or not. We just claim to know stuff and most of us, I suspect, are pretty comfortable with that. There are lots of reasons for this but the most likely is that we have picked up a definition over time and have a general sense of what the term means. Many of us would probably say knowledge that something is true involves:

    Certainty – it's hard if not impossible to deny
    Evidence – it has to based on something
    Practicality – it has to actually work in the real world
    Broad agreement – lots of people have to agree it's true

But if you think about it, each of these has problems. For example, what would you claim to know that you would also say you are certain of? Let’s suppose you’re not intoxicated, high, or in some other way in your “right” mind and conclude that you know there is a computer in front of you. You might go further and claim that denying it would be crazy. Isn’t it at least possible that you’re dreaming or that you’re in something like the Matrix and everything you see is an illusion? Before you say such a thing is absurd and only those who were unable to make the varsity football team would even consider such questions, can you be sure you’re not being tricked? After all, if you are in the Matrix, the robots that created the Matrix would making be making you believe you are not in the Matrix and that you’re certain you aren’t.

What about the “broad agreement” criterion? The problem with this one is that many things we might claim to know are not, and could not be, broadly agreed upon. Suppose you are experiencing a pain in your arm. The pain is very strong and intense. You might tell your doctor that you know you’re in pain. Unfortunately though, only you can claim to know that (and as an added problem, you don’t appear to have any evidence for it either—you just feel the pain). So at least on the surface, it seems you know things that don’t have broad agreement by others.

These problems and many others are what intrigue philosophers and are what make coming up with a definition of knowledge challenging. Since it’s hard to nail down a definition, it also makes it hard to answer the question that heads this section.
So, What is Knowledge?

Okay, a definition is tough to come by. But philosophers have been attempting to construct one for centuries. Over the years, a trend has developed in the philosophical literature and a definition has emerged that has such wide agreement it has come to be known as the “standard definition.” As with most things in philosophy, the definition is controversial and there are plenty who disagree with it. But as these things go, it serves as at least the starting point for studying knowledge.

The definition involves three conditions and philosophers say that when a person meets these three conditions, she can say she knows something to be true. Take a statement of fact: The Seattle Mariners have never won a world series.  On the standard definition, a person knows this fact if:

    The person believes the statement to be true cognitum text
    The statement is in fact true
    The person is justified in believing the statement to be true

The bolded terms earmark the three conditions that must be met and because of those terms, the definition is also called the “tripartite” (three part) definition or “JTB” for short. Many many books have been written on each of the three terms so I can only briefly summarize here what is going on in each. (I will say up front though that epistemologists spend most of their time on the third condition.)


First, beliefs are things people have. Beliefs aren’t like rocks or rowboats where you come across them while strolling along the beach. They’re in your head and generally are viewed as just the way you hold the world (or some aspect of the world) to be. If you believe that the Mariners never won a world series, you just think that the Mariners really never won a world series. If you read that last sentence carefully, you’ll notice I wrote “you just think.” For many philosophers, this is important. It implies that what you think could be wrong. In other words, it implies that what you think about the world may not match up with the way the world really is and so there is a distinction between belief and the next item in our list, truth (there are some philosophers--notably postmodernists and existentialists--who think such a distinction can’t be made but I’ll need to cover that in another article). Some philosophers argue that a good test for showing what you really believe is to look at how you behave. People will generally act, they argue, according to what they really believe rather than what they say they believe—despite what Dylan says.


Something is true if the world really is that way. Truth is not in your head but is “out there.” The statement, “The Mariners have never won a world series” is true if the Mariners have never won a world series. No, I didn’t just repeat myself. The first part of that sentence is in quotes on purpose. The phrase in quotes signifies a statement we might make about the world and the second, unquoted phrase is supposed to describe the way the world actually is. The reason philosophers write truth statements this way is to give sense to the idea that a statement about the world could be wrong or, more accurately, false (philosophers refer to the part in quotes as a statement or proposition). Perhaps you can now see why beliefs are different than truth statements. When you believe something, you hold that or accept that a statement or proposition is true. It could be false that’s why your belief may not “match up” with the way the world really is.


If the seed of knowledge is belief, what turns belief into knowledge? This is where justification comes in (some philosophers use the term “warrant” to refer to this element). A person knows something if they’re justified in believing it to be true (and, of course, it actually is true). There are dozens of competing theories of justification and there is little consensus about which is the right one. It’s sometimes easier to describe when a belief isn’t justified than when it is. In general, philosophers agree that a person isn’t justified if their belief is:

    a product of wishful thinking (e.g. I really wish you would love me so I believe you love me)
    a product of fear or guilt (e.g. you’re terrified of death and so form the belief in an afterlife)
    a product of guesswork
    formed in the wrong way (e.g. you travel to an area you know nothing about, see a white spot 500 yards away and conclude it’s a sheep)
    a product of dumb luck (e.g. you randomly form the belief that the next person you meet will have hazel eyes and it turns out that the next person you meet has hazel eyes)

Justification is hard to pin down because beliefs come in all shapes and sizes and it’s hard to find a single theory that can account for everything we would want to claim to know. You might be justified in believing that the sun is roughly 93 million miles from the earth much differently than you would be justified in believing God exists or that you have a minor back pain. Even so, justification is a critical element in any theory of knowledge and is the focus of many a philosophical thought.

Edmund-Gettier (photo from[Incidentally: while JTB is generally considered a starting point for a definition, it by no means is the final word. Many philosophers reject the JTB formulation altogether and others think that, at the very least, JTB needs to be “fixed up” somehow. Regarding this latter category, a small paper written by a philosopher named Edmund Gettier really kicked off a brouhaha that made philosophers doubt that JTB was sufficient for knowledge. Gettier’s paper was roughly two and a half pages long (almost unheard of in philosophy) but has become so important that the issues he raised are known as The Gettier Problem. I’m writing a series for Philosophy News in which I attempt to tackle some of Gettier’s challenges. You can read those articles here (these are not for the general reader but if you skim the first couple of articles, they may help frame some broader issues in epistemology).]

People at the Center

You might notice that the description above puts the focus of knowing on the individual. Philosophers talk of individual persons being justified and not the ideas or concepts themselves being justified. This means that what may count as knowledge for you may not count as knowledge for me. Suppose you study economics and you learn principles in the field to some depth. Based on what you learn, you come to believe that psychological attitudes have just as much of a role to play in economic flourishing or deprivation as the political environment that creates economic policy. Suppose also that I have not studied economics all that much but I do know that I’d like more money in my pocket. You and I may have very different beliefs about economics and our beliefs might be justified in very different ways. What you know may not be something I know even though we have the same evidence and arguments in front of us.

So the subjective nature of knowledge partly is based on the idea that beliefs are things that individuals have and those beliefs are justified or not justified. When you think about it, that makes sense. You may have more evidence or different experiences than I have and so you may believe things I don’t or may have evidence for something that I don’t have. The bottom line is that “universal knowledge” – something everybody knows—may be vary hard to come by. Truth, if it exists, isn’t like this. Truth is universal. It’s our access to it that may differ widely.

Rene Descartes and the Search for Universal Knowledge

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that there isn’t universal knowledge. Philosopher Rene Descartes (pronounced day-cart) was one of them. When he was a young man, he was taught a bunch of stuff by his parents, teachers, priests and other authorities. As he came of age, he, like many of us, started to discover that much of what he was taught either was false or was highly questionable. At the very least, he found he couldn’t have the certainty that many of his educators had. While many of us get that, deal with it, and move on, Descartes was deeply troubled by this.

One day, he decided to tackle the problem. He hid himself away in a cabin and decided to get to the bottom of it. He resolved to doubt everything of which he could not be certain. Since it wasn’t practical to doubt every belief he had, Descartes decided that it would be sufficient to subject the foundations of his belief system to doubt and the rest of the structure will "crumble of its own accord." He first considers the things he came to believe by way of the five senses. For most of us these are pretty stable items but Descartes found that it was rather easy to doubt their truth. The biggest problem is that sometimes the senses can be deceptive. And after all, could he be certain he wasn’t insane or dreaming when he saw that book or tasted that honey? So while they might be fairly reliable, the senses don’t provide us with certainty—which is what Descartes was after.

Rene DescartesNext he looked at mathematics. If certainly is to be found, it must be here. He reasoned that the outcome of mathematical formulas and theorems hold both in dreams and in waking so at the very least, it fares better than the senses. But he developed an argument from which he could not spare math. Suppose there is an evil genius, he thought, that is “supremely powerful and clever” and was bent upon deceiving Descartes and developed mathematics as a device to carry out his evil deceptions (the popular movie, The Matrix should be coming to mind about now). Descartes found there was no way to rule this possibility out. Whether it’s highly unlikely or not isn’t the point. Descartes was looking for certainty and if there is even a slim possibility that he’s being deceived, he had to throw out mathematics too.

Unfortunately, this left Descartes with no where to turn. He found that he could be skeptical about everything and was unable to find a certain foundation for knowledge. But then he hit upon something that changed modern epistemology. He discovered that there was one thing he couldn’t doubt: the fact that he was a thinking thing. In order to doubt it, he would have to think (he reasoned that it’s not possible to doubt something without thinking about the fact that you’re doubting). If he was thinking then he must be a thinking thing and so he found that it was impossible to doubt that he was a thinking being.

This seemingly small but significant truth led to his most famous contribution to Western thought: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Some mistakenly think that Descartes was implying with this idea that he thinks himself into existence. But that wasn’t his point at all. He was making a claim about knowledge. Really what Descartes was saying is: I think, therefore I know that I am.

The story doesn’t end here for Descartes but for the rest of it, I refer you to the reading list below to dig deeper. The story of Descartes is meant to illustrate the depth of the problems of epistemology and how difficult and rare certainty is, if certainty is possible—there are plenty of philosophers who think either that Descartes’ project failed or that he created a whole new set of problems that are even more intractable than the one he set out to solve.
So What, Who Cares?

Well most of us aren’t like Descartes. We actually have lives and don’t want to spend time trying to figure out if we’re the cruel joke of some clandestine mad scientist. We can get by just fine, thank you, without having to think about all this stuff. But we actually do actually care about this topic whether we “know” it or not. A bit of reflection exposes just how important having a solid view of knowledge actually is and spending some focused time thinking more deeply about knowledge can actually help us get better at knowing.

Really, knowledge is a the root of many (dare I say most) challenges we face in a given day. Once you get past basic survival (though even things as basic as finding enough food and shelter involves challenges related to knowledge), we’re confronted with knowledge issues on almost every front. Knowledge questions range from larger, more weighty questions like figuring out who our real friends are, what to do with our career, or how to spend our time, what politician to vote for, how to spend or invest our money, should we be religious or not, to more mundane ones like which gear to buy for our hobby, how to solve a dispute between the kids, where to go for dinner, or which book to read in your free time. We make knowledge decisions all day, every day and some of those decisions deeply impact our lives and the lives of those around us.

Next year (2012) in the United States voters will be asked to choose a president. Assuming you’re an American citizen and you’ll vote, you probably already have made a bunch of decisions that will influence your choice. Each of those decisions are based on conclusions you’ve drawn about certain facts related to the health of the country, the role of government in both domestic and foreign affairs, the role and extent of law, the honesty of politicians, the role and accuracy of the media, the impact of your vote and so on. Each of these involves a knowledge decision—actually a set of interrelated knowledge decisions (if you don’t trust the media, you may not trust the information you get about politicians and that will influence how you think about the candidates and the like). You draw the conclusions you do based on what you believe is true and false and your beliefs are formed by decisions you have made about how to get to the truth.

Many passionate voters not only believe they have arrived at the truth about these matters but also believe their choice is the right one. An implication of that belief is the cousin belief that a choice for any other candidate is the wrong one and that is most likely grounded on a belief that the voters who choose the other candidate(s) don’t know the truth. If they did, they would vote the way you have. The same dynamic exists in a great many other social scenarios like religion, science, economics, and even the arts.

So all these decisions we make about factors that effect the way we and others live are grounded in our view of knowledge—our epistemology. Unfortunately few spend enough time thinking about the root of their decisions and many make knowledge choices based on how they were raised (my mom always voted Republican so I will), what’s easiest (if I don’t believe in God, I’ll be shunned by my friends and family), or just good, old fashioned laziness. But of all the things to spend time on, it seems thinking about how we come to know things should be at the top of the list given the central role it plays in just about everything we do.
Fun with Knowledge

Here’s an exercise that may help you think more deeply about how you think about knowledge. I do this with my introductory philosophy students and it’s always an enlightening experience (and makes for some great discussion). On a piece of paper (or do it in your head if you feel funny about writing it out) make three columns. In the first, write “Faith,” in the second, write “Belief,” and in the third write “Knowledge.” Now spend a few minutes filling out the the columns. What are the things you have faith in but wouldn’t want to say you believe or know? What about the things you believe? What comes to mind when you hear that word? Use your intuition as you fill out each column. Don’t think too deeply about where you’re putting things just yet; you want to go with your initial thoughts on these.

When you’re done, slow down a bit and examine the columns and ask yourself why you placed items where you did. Here are some questions to get you started.

    Why did you put a certain item in the belief column and not in the knowledge column?
    What are your beliefs lacking (or what do they have) that makes them different from the items in your knowledge column?
    Why would you claim to know the things in your knowledge column?
    Do you have or have you ever had any doubts that you know them?
    What would cause you to doubt that those items belong in the knowledge column?
    Are the items in your faith column only religious items? Should they be?

Now look at the number of items in each column. Does your list imply that you know less or more than you originally thought?  Write all this stuff out and spend some time reflecting on it. If you spend enough time on this, soon, your definition of knowledge will emerge. You’ll start to see why you make the decisions you make when it comes to things you claim to know. Most importantly, what you’re jotting down may be having an influence on your behavior and that’s worth some time thinking about too.

If you did all this on a sheet of paper, I have another suggestion for you: keep the paper in a safe place and set a reminder on your phone or computer calendar to look at the list 12 or 24 months from now. You may find that some things moved around. You may find that your definition of knowledge has become more crisp based on life experiences or books you’ve read. You may find that you have become a skeptic and maybe your knowledge column needs to be emptied (or you may have become a dogmatist and everything should go in the knowledge column!). At the very least, you’ll think about knowledge again that alone will be a good thing.

I’d love to see your lists too so if you’re inclined, comment on this post and tell me what you came up with for each category.
In Sum

I’ve only been able to scratch the surface on this massive but immensely interesting discipline. Much of what I’ve written in this article just sets up the classical investigation into what knowledge is. I recommend that you pick up one or more of the books in the list below to dig deeper. Who knows, maybe you’ll come to know that what you thought you knew you didn’t really know and, perhaps, come to know some new things.

Free Will and Determinism

Michael Norwitz
examines the current state of play in this long-running debate, by comparing the views of Dennett and van Inwagen.

 Since the ancient Greeks, one of the most provocative and oft-discussed questions in philosophy has been whether we have free will in determining the course of our actions, or whether our actions are determined by forces beyond our control. Before the advent of secular thought, those forces might have been identified as the whims of the gods, though the tradition of naturalism in Western thought goes back at least as far as the Milesian School of Greek Philosophy, in the 6th century B.C. In more recent times as the cognitive sciences have developed, it has seemed increasingly likely that our brains work along deterministic lines (or, if quantum effects are non-negligible, at the very least along mechanical lines). So a new debate has arisen: are the concepts of determinism (or naturalism or mechanism) when applied to the brain sciences logically compatible with free will? So some of the attention has shifted from the debate between the “determinists” and the “anti-determinists”, to that between the “compatibilists” and the “anticompatibilists”.

Two declared opponents in this debate are Peter van Inwagen (author of An Essay on Free Will, Oxford University Press, 1983) and Daniel C. Dennett (author of several books including Elbow Room, MIT Press, 1984, which I will be referencing here). Each argues for his conclusion from premises he regards as antecedently plausible, with van Inwagen taking the anti-compatibilist line and Dennett the compatibilist. As van Inwagen is the more precise arguer of the two, I will use his work as the starting point for this discussion. Like Dennett, whose book is subtitled “The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting”, he is arguing that we do have free will.Where they differ is on the nature of its relationship to determinism. Van Inwagen presents three premises in his main argument : that free will is in fact incompatible with determinism, that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism, and that (since we have moral responsibility) determinism is false. Hence, he concludes, we have free will.

The argument for the first premise runs as follows [p.56]: “If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.”

The argument for the second premise [p. 181]: “If (i) no one is morally responsible for having failed to perform any act, and (ii) no one is morally responsible for any event, and (iii) no one is morally responsible for any state of affairs, then there is no such thing as moral responsibility.”

For the third premise van Inwagen does not present a concise summary of his line of argument. He takes it as being self-evident that we have moral responsibility, as we do, after all, continue to hold people morally responsible for their actions.

Dennett would not fault the validity of van Inwagen’s main argument; he does argue with the truth of its premises however. His approach is to reformulate the concepts of “up to us” (in the sense of the argument for the first premise) and “responsibility”. Before I expand on that, however, I want to discuss what I think is the difference in the philosophers’ starting points that causes the divergence of opinion.

Descartes viewed the mind as a pure ego: a permanent, spiritual substance untouched by physical processes. It could be influenced by them through the senses but there was no other manner in which it was influenced by the mechanistic events going on outside in the world. It could influence those events indirectly however through the manipulation of its host body (via the pineal gland).

As modern science advanced in its understanding of the way the brain works, this image of the mind was undermined. It began to look more and more as if the mind is a purely physical entity, as if there is no “person” or “pure ego” outside the realm of physical causation. Some philosophers (like the Churchlands) now go so far as to say that the mind does not exist at all.

In the face of this, the philosopher of metaphysics has two options: retrenchment and retreat.

Dennett’s strategy of retrenchment is to build a second line of defence for the concept of free will, by reformulating the concept so that it is not in conflict with current theories in the brain sciences. There is a sacrifice in that he loses track of our ordinary, common-sense views of what mind and free will are. Dennett claims he is doing ordinary language philosophy but I suspect he has been an academic so long he has forgotten what “ordinary people” are concerned with.

Van Inwagen’s strategy of retreat is to dismiss current trends in science and maintain belief in “agent causation”, that is, the view that people can cause things to happen in the world outside of the normal, mechanistic, physical causation. He complains that many philosophers are overawed by current science and make exaggerated assumptions about the degree to which it will eventually be able to explain how the brain (and the mind) works. However, for various reasons, chief among them being the empirical success of quantum physics, it is highly unlikely that such a complete explanation will ever come about. Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle, if it can be applied to the brain, would mean that even if we knew everything about the physical state of a brain at a given instant, we still could not predict its state in the next instant with absolute accuracy. This would imply that the brain was not deterministic in the strictest sense of the term. Nevertheless, as van Inwagen correctly points out, even were determinism false there would still be no guarantee that we have free will. First, if our hopes turned on quantum effects being able to affect brain chemistry, it is still conceivable that they might turn out to be too small to be significant. Second, even if they did have an effect which was non-negligible we could still turn out to be strictly mechanical, and that does not seem to be the type of free will that van Inwagen wants, if he wants a “person” making responsible decisions free from causal restraints (at least physical causal restraints, as he accepts psychological causation).

Ultimately, van Inwagen states that we know we have free will because free will is entailed by moral responsibility, and we know that people are morally responsible for their actions. The rationale for this entailment is van Inwagen’s conception of moral responsibility [p.162]: “a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise” (his final version of moral responsibility is more baroque to deal with various styles of counterexamples, but this much simpler version is sufficient for our purposes).

Dennett claims there are cases of responsible action when one could not have done otherwise. That is the purpose of a moral education, to make one incapable of, say, torturing an innocent person in exchange for a thousand pounds. We may have been trained since birth to consider such an offer unacceptable, yet most of us would not claim when we rejected the offer we were not doing so freely. Dennett asks, what is it we want to know of a person when we wonder, could he have done otherwise in a particular situation? Are we asking, given the exact brain states he had and the exact state of the universe as it was at the time of the act, could the person have done otherwise? Dennett rejects this formulation of the question as unanswerable, and even if answerable as unhelpful in determining responsibility. Unanswerable because it is impossible for us to duplicate a model of such complexity; unhelpful because even could we by some stretch of the imagination lay out such a model, we will never naturally find ourselves in such a state – even were the external condition the same the cognitive conditions would not be (at best we might experience some sense of déja vu). So we are left with the problem of how to interpret the question so that it does illuminate [p.142]:

    We ask [the question] because something has happened that we wish to interpret … we want to know what conclusions to draw from it about the future. Does it tell us anything about the agent’s character, for instance? Does it suggest a criticism of the agent that might, if presented properly, lead the agent to improve his ways in some regard? Can we learn from this incident that this is or is not an agent who can be trusted to behave similarly on similar occasions in the future? If one held his character constant, but changed the circumstances in minor – or even major – ways, would he almost always do the same lamentable sort of thing? Was what we have just observed a “fluke”, or was it a manifestation of a “robust”trend – a trend that persists, or is constant, over an increasingly wide variety of conditions?

Thus, Dennett argues, we would still hold people morally responsible whether we accepted van Inwagen’s concept of free will or not, because the considerations we have in mind when we ask whether someone “could have done otherwise” are irrelevant to issues of free will and determinism.

I doubt van Inwagen would be satisfied with Dennett’s approach. Despite its ingenuity it comes off like a verbal trick; it “solves the problem“ but at the cost of not really approaching what we worry about when we worry whether we have free will, or responsibility. Of course, Dennett would respond that these worries are bugbears.

That, I think, is a manifestation of the fundamental disagreement. Resolving this disagreement would help resolve the issue between them about free will, but I have my doubts over whether any such resolution is possible. Their disagreement is based on a fundamental judgment each of the two has made about how philosophy should respond to the other disciplines around it.

I agree with van Inwagen’s observation that, given the current state of science, it is premature to claim that determinism (neurologically if not cosmologically) is true; however,it is certainly premature to claim that it is false as well. I see no reason to be convinced by van Inwagen’s arguments unless he is able to give some vague picture of how he thinks agent causation might physically work. I don’t expect it to be exact, but he ought to at least be able to tell a convincing story. The compatibilists can tell a very interesting story, though we might not care so much for their conclusions. Without some kind of workable story, so far as I can tell, van Inwagen is tacitly accepting Cartesian egos as the source of our free will. He is well aware of this shortcoming but is not overly bothered by it. I think that falling back on the Cartesian model and trying to operate outside the realm of empirical science is not a sacrifice worth making. Dennett’s recommendations are worth taking seriously, despite his apparent lack of awareness of the sacrifice he makes in abandoning our ordinary concept of free will – I think this is a sacrifice worth making.

© Michael Norwitz 1991

The Universe in Pre-Philosophical Mesopotamia
By Claudia Miclaus
The Ancient people were also curious to discover the nature of the universe; how it came into existence and developed. They used different methods to find out so. Let's see what those methods were.
First of all the following question arises: what does Pre-philosophical thinking consist of? This thinking consists of old writings that contain profound thoughts about divinity, the world, man and society. However, these ideas are expressed in a religious language that combines reality with fiction. Therefore, an expert needs to approach this subject with much-needed caution. Once you overcome this obstacle you are exposed to a rich culture that was once a way of living.

So, how was the universe seen in Mesopotamia? From the poem entitled "Gilgamesh" we find out that in the beginning the earth and sky were united. It is not mentioned if these elements are eternal or have their origin in another more superior form. Neither does it say who eventually divided them. The clues are few and we need to search more written material. Other sources talk about some sort of "earth-sky mountain" or about a god named Enlil who was born in the union of earth-sky and was design to separate them. That is the reason why humans have earth under their feet and blue sky above them, with air in the middle. In a list of gods we find the goddess Nammu mentioned as the mother who gave birth to earth and sky and represented as an abyss of water. From all this we can come up with a probabilistic image of the Sumerian representation of the universe. It all started from an abyss of sweet water that gave birth to the earth and sky, united into a whole in the shape of a mountain. From their union came Enlil who latter separated them. However, this is how experts interpret nowadays the Sumerian cosmogony and therefore it may differ from what these ancient people really believed.

Similar ideas and images appear in the Babylonian cosmogonies. In one of these, the skies were created by Anu. Another mentions the separation of the skies and the earth. A third one refers to a time when everything was "a sea". This last one is probably a reinterpretation of the sweet water abyss found in the divine Sumerian lists. In the beginning there was fresh water and salt water (represented by the gods Apsu and Tiamat), both mixed in an indistinctive whole. From this liquid chaos the gods appear or were created. The first gods were the product of an act of creation. They "came up" from the initial "water couple" through a process similar to what we would call emanation. Only latter on, the relatively more developed gods were created by being born. There is almost no information regarding the two gods, named Lahmu and Lahamu. After them, we have Anshar who represents all the "superior elements" and Kishar who represents all the "inferior elements". A fight breaks out between the old and the new gods generated by the incapacity of the old gods to adapt to the evolving world. Tiamat threatens to kill her decedents. Freighted, the new gods put their hopes in Marduk who eventually kills Tiamat in combat. The body of Tiamat served as material for the formation of the universe. Marduk cuts her in two and takes one half to make the sky and the other to make the earth. Then, one of the allies of the defeated goddess has his wrists cut and from his blood mankind is created. What an illustrative image: man has divine blood in his body and at the same time it is the blood of a god that has been defeated. This reflects the duality of the human being, capable of the highest actions and the lowest behavior, keeper of truth and a deposit of incertitude and false ideas.
Therefore, the gods, the earth and the humans are all part of the cosmos. They have their origin in the same primitive matter and are involved in the cosmic evolution. Cosmogony combines with theogony. The profane is absorbed in the sacred.

The Sumerian and Babylonian people have their merit in the fact that they had constructive influences on the thinking of the first Greek philosophers. But not only that, they offer their version of insight regarding the way in which man builds a relationship with the universe.

Instead of conclusion, it is interesting to see the parallel (of course limited) between what the apostle Paul says in the Bible regarding the way the Universe was formed and the fact that we see here water having a decisive role. Paul says: "But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water" 2 Peter 3:5 It is our own responsibility to inform ourselves and find the truth!