Archives for category: monism


In a philosophical dialog written by Plato around 400 B.C., casual acquaintances Socrates and Euthyphro meet by chance on the court-house steps. Euthyphro proudly announces that he has come to accuse his own father of manslaughter. Under Greek law, such a charge is considered improper, but Euthyphro intends to press his case anyway. He is confident that very few people understand what’s right and what’s wrong as clearly as he does. Furthermore, he is certain that the gods themselves agree with him.

Socrates cannot let such claims go unchallenged. He pretends to be clueless about the whole topic, and implores Euthyphro to enlighten him. And about halfway through their conversation, Socrates asks him (Woods and Pack translation):

Is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious, or it is pious because it is loved?

People have been discussing this question for 2,400 years. The weird thing about it is that when you think through them, neither of the choices it offers us makes a bit of sense. Let’s take a look. We’ll put the question into modern English, and look at its two halves in turn.

The two non-options

If someone tells us that, according to their religious beliefs, a certain activity – prayer, for example – is good, we can ask:

Is it good because God wants us to do it, or does God want us to do it because it’s good?

The first option – prayer is good because God likes it – implies that there are no external rules governing God’s judgement of right and wrong. If there were such rules, we would be talking about the second option, where God approves of good things because they’re good. In this, the first option, an action is good if and only if God approves.

It’s a troubling scenario. Take the rule, “Do unto others as you would be done by,” which most people regard as morally faultless. If God has perfect freedom to decide what’s right, then he could say that he does not want us to follow the Golden Rule, and that would mean that it is evil, and those who have occasionally tried to honor it would be morally obligated to desist. And if one day God said, “On the Sabbath day, I’d like to see a bit of torture and cannibalism in every living-room,” then torture and cannibalism would be right.

But if scenarios like this are possible, then God is speaking a language we can’t understand. We don’t know what it would mean to say that the Golden Rule is ‘evil’, or torture and cannibalism ‘right’. If God can have opinions like this, how can we even say with any confidence that God is good? We don’t know what the word means anymore. But, traditionally, God is the source and epitome of goodness. If we can’t be sure that he’s good, then we can’t be sure he’s God! So this first option can’t be correct.

The second option says: it’s not that praying is good because God likes it; rather, he wants us to do it because it’s good. This implies that there is a moral authority superior to, prior to, independent of God’s. What’s right and wrong was decided before God got involved. So there are rules that God has to follow, laws that he cannot break. But we’ve been told that God created the entire universe to his own specifications, and that there is nothing he can’t do. Seriously, if he’s not omnipotent, then he’s not God. So the second option is also wrong.

What’s going on here? Whichever way we answer, we reach an absurd conclusion: that the God we’ve been talking about is not the God we’ve been talking about. How does Plato’s question produce this result? – and what can we learn from the fact that it does?

The lesson

The Euthyphro’s topic is the relationship between religion and morality; about the fundamental source and justification of moral guidelines. Socrates says, in effect, “I take your word for it, Euthyphro, that God is intimately connected with what’s right and wrong. I just want to understand how that works in a little more detail. Is the action good because God wants it to be taken, or does he want it to be taken because it is good?”

Behind this question there are two assumptions about God. The catch is, they contradict each other. They cannot both be true.

To ask about what God wants (or likes, or prefers) is to assume that God prefers certain things (or events) over others. And in the background, as part of any mention of God, there is a definitional assumption that God is omnipotent. But these two assumptions are mutually exclusive, since an omnipotent being would not have desires.

For human beings, to want is the same thing as to get, if possible. If you desire something, you make it happen – if you can. But God, by definition, can do anything. So if he wants it, it happens. Period. But in that case, he doesn’t want things the way we do – not in the sense of trying to get something. An omnipotent being doesn’t try. Everything already is the way he wants it.

Someone will say: Maybe God doesn’t make all the things he wants to happen, happen. But he could – and if he doesn’t, then it’s not clear what it means to say that he wants them.

It gets worse. If everything that happens is exactly as God intends, then the question “What should I do?” has no meaning. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. There are no right or wrong choices, because no one ever gets to choose. But choice – “What should I do?” – is the very essence of morality. If an omnipotent being controls the universe, then our moral decision-making is an illusion, and our moral discussions are a waste of time, because there’s nothing we can decide or change.

All these strange, impotent thoughts have a single cause. The concept of omnipotence is incoherent. As soon as you say that he can do anything, you invite ridiculous questions like “Can God beat a full house with two pair?” and “Can God make a burrito so big he can’t eat it?” You have dug a pit of nonsense, and further discussion will only deepen the hole. This is why neither horn of the Euthyphro dilemma gets us anywhere; and this is what it was written to demonstrate. Propositions involving omnipotent beings are guaranteed not to make any sense.

More broadly, Plato’s ancient teaching-story serves to remind us that morality is essentially and exclusively a human concern. To introduce infinities and absolutes into moral thinking is to strip it of sense. Stories about superhuman beings cannot clarify what’s right or wrong for human beings to do, or explain why it’s right or wrong. There is no useful role, in either moral theory or moral decision-making, for theology.

I love this video by Phil Hellenes, Why don’t scientists fear hell? It’s embedded below.

Here is a transcript of the crucial point. (This is heavily edited, but no words were changed or added. I hope I’ve retained the gist that Phil intended.)

Fire is a chemical reaction. When wood, for example, is heated to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the cellulose material starts to break down and give off volatile gases. When these gases reach about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat energy overcomes some of the electromagnetic energy binding the atoms to the complex molecules found in wood. These briefly free atoms are then suddenly and violently drawn, by electromagnetism again, to combine with oxygen atoms. In the process, the atoms release energy – in the form of light. Fire is an electric phenomenon.

The heat you feel is the excited motions of the atoms in the air around you, and in your skin and flesh. Heat is simply the motion of atoms. In living tissue, when atoms jiggle too fast, they hit other atoms too hard, creating pressure that can damage cells, resulting in pain signals sent along nerves to your brain. If something hot burns you, some of your atoms simply jiggled too fast.

The actual understanding goes far, far deeper. But what does it all mean? It means that without atoms, and those subatomic particles and laws, there can be no flame. Rigid physical laws make fire possible. Anywhere there is fire, there will also be electricity, solid matter, and oxygen.

You’re not going to burn after you die. If we go anywhere after death, we go there without our atoms.

If someone tells you that you’re going to burn in Hell, and you demonstrate that you understand exactly what fire is, I guarantee that they will then tell you that fire in Hell is not like real fire. The flames need no fuel or oxygen or electrons or photons, but it burns just the same: jiggling atoms that aren’t there. In short, they’re telling you that the fire in Hell is magic fire.

But that doesn’t fly, does it? They can’t have it both ways. If it’s not real fire, why would it really burn you?

I’m not saying that a substitute can never have the same effect as the original. Fake sugar can be as sweet as real sugar, or even sweeter. But that’s because it tweaks the same tongue-molecules as sugar does. The experiential effect is the same because the physical cause is the same. In the Hell story we have no reason to believe that the cause is the same – in fact, we are specifically told that it is not the same. So there is no reason to believe that it would have the same effect.

Hellenes’ description here is compatible with my own view that most religious tenets are not just wrong but incoherent. This applies especially to the idea of miracles (and isn’t the pain of Hell-fire sort of a miracle in reverse?). A miracle is something that by definition, cannot happen, but we’re supposed to believe it anyway. I don’t think that such belief is even possible.

How does a “psychic reader” do what she does? Most of them tell us that they don’t know. This is a disarming admission, but if she doesn’t know how it works, then how does she know that the information she is relaying to us is based on reality, rather than a figment of her imagination?

If I don’t know where the information comes from, why should I take it seriously? It could be from an evil spirit who is trying to ruin my life. How does the reader know it’s good, if she doesn’t know how she obtained it? Say you find some pills in your pocket, and you didn’t know how they got there. Do you swallow them — figuring that, chances are, they’ll make you feel better? Would that not be unwise?

I just know, “sensitives” like to say. I can feel it. But any number of people have said this and been utterly mistaken, or lying. I hope you are not telling us, Ms. Reader, that it is your intuition that tells you that, in general, your intuition is reliable.

As Wittgenstein points out in On Certainty, to say that I know implies that there is a way to find out. If that verb means anything, it means that I can show you how you, too, can know. If you can’t do this, then you don’t know.

I think whenever you start talking about different “truths” for different people, you’re using the word incorrectly.


  1. The question is wrongly put. There is nothing philosophical about religion. It is pseudo-philosophy. It is marketing disguised as philosophy.
  2. “Are science and religion compatible?” — said the spider to the fly.
  3. Teams A and B are playing a game. Members of team A try to win by following the rules; people in team B try to win by cheating. Therefore team A and B dislike each other and rarely compete at the same table. Lately team B has begun, for unknown reasons, a campaign to discredit team A. Their challenge goes like this: “If you think your method is so superior, why don’t you play against us and prove it?”
  4. Science is compatible with religion in the same way that science is compatible with alcoholism. A single person can do both, but fact that this is possible is not particularly meaningful.

Discover magazine (a surprisingly good monthly, by the way — I recommend it) is having a contest. The idea is to make a video that explains evolution in under two minutes. So I made one. (Just in time; the deadline is tomorrow.) I would ask that you let me know what you think — but no one is watching. So forget I mentioned it.

There isn’t a choice between conservative and liberal philosophies. This is because conservatism is not a philosophy. Let me explain.

Liberalism is a philosophy. Liberalism defines the general welfare—Bentham’s “greatest happiness for the greatest number”—as the center and purpose of all decision-making; and proceeds from there to consider how best to organize and govern the society.

Conservatism is not a philosophy. It is a pattern of behavior. The conservative works toward wealth and power for himself and his friends. All decisions are made on this basis. But when speaking about his decisions, he describes them in liberal terms. He claims to be motivated by concern for the general public. He claims to be working for the general good. Asked to describe the difference between himself and a liberal, he will say that very broadly they have similar goals; their differences come down to how they propose to get there. But this is not true. Conservative decisions are not designed to benefit the general public, only the plutocrats and power-brokers. Conservatism is not a different technique for serving the public; it is a technique for fleecing the public.

Therefore, public servants cannot and do not choose to adopt either a liberal or a conservative philosophy. They choose either to care about their community or to only pretend to care. They choose to tell the truth, or to lie.

So-called “conservatives” are liars. They pretend that there is a conservative approach to solving community problems, which can be contrasted with the liberal approach. But the conservative approach to helping the community does not exist. Conservative methods do not help the community, because they are not intended to. The conservative approach is not to care about community problems. Therefore, as soon as a conservative starts telling you how he’s going to help you, he’s already lied to you twice. The second time was when he said that he thought his plan would help you—he doesn’t think so. The first time was just before that, when he said that he wants to help you. He doesn’t.

Roy Sablosky, 2008.
~2,000 words.

In April 2008, published an article by Stuart Kauffman, Breaking the Galilean Spell, adapted from his forthcoming book, Reinventing the Sacred. Not having read the book, I am not sure what Kauffman’s conclusions or recommendations are, but his assumptions are quite wrong.

This response is structured as a long string of quotes from Kauffman’s article, with a comment following each one. The quotes are in their original order.

… Laplace’s particles in motion allow only happenings. There are no meanings, no values, no doings. … [For the reductionist,] human choices, made by ourselves as human agents, are still, when the full science shall have been done, mere happenings, ultimately to be explained by physics.

Of course they are all mere happenings–and of course they also have whatever meanings any human beings care to assign them. The idea that everything is, in principle, “ultimately to be explained by physics,” is in no way incompatible with human meanings, values, choices, or actions. This is a common misunderstanding. It has been meticulously debunked by Daniel Dennett–see, for example, Freedom Evolves.

Biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right. Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe. With agency came values, meaning, and doing, all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. “Real” here has a particular meaning: while life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus, life, agency, value, and doing are real in the universe.

Of course they are real. Who ever said otherwise?

A couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine are, in real fact, a couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine, not mere particles in motion.

Well, they are made of particles. This is beyond dispute. On the other hand, it is fair to say that they are “not mere particles.” But I don’t see what the problem is, exactly.

Some billions of us believe in an Abrahamic supernatural God, and some in the ancient Hindu gods. … About a billion of us are secular but bereft of our spirituality and reduced to being materialist consumers in a secular society.

Maybe you feel “bereft” and “reduced”–I sure don’t.

But I see, now, where the controversy came from that you are positioning yourself as knowing how to resolve. It came from religion, and it’s imaginary.

Religion says that secular science deliberately strips life of its meaning. But this is slander. Religion is anti-science, not the other way around. Science studies the world, ignoring religious concepts because they are false and spiritual concepts because they are not applicable. It is not inherently anti-religious or anti-spiritual. This is a myth, invented by religious apologists to demonize scientific thinking and therefore make religion less vulnerable to questioning.

If we the secular hold to anything it is to “humanism.” But humanism, in a narrow sense, is too thin to nourish us as human agents in the vast universe we partially cocreate. I believe we need a domain for our lives as wide as reality.

If you define humanism narrowly enough, it becomes “too thin to nourish.” Define it more liberally, and it is indeed “as wide as reality.”

With Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Laplace, reductionism began and continued its 350-year reign. Over the ensuing centuries, science and the Enlightenment have given birth to secular society.

Did they?–or did secular society gave birth to science and the Enlightenment?

Reductionistic physics has emerged for many as the gold standard for learning about the world.

Well, reductionistic physics is certainly the gold standard for learning about how matter is put together. But you are implying much more than that when you use the phrase “learning about the world.” You are, in effect, quoting the often-heard claim that “science is one way of learning about the world, and religion is another.” But surely you know that this is absurd. Science is a way of learning about the world; religion is a way of not learning about the world.

In turn, the growth of science has driven a wedge between faith and reason.

No, it has not. Religion is responsible for this “wedge.” We are dealing with the same myth as before: the religious myth that science threatens to destroy our spirituality. Science is no more opposed to spirituality than it is to poetry, or love. Most scientific work does not touch on these topics simply because they are not the topics in question. If you are studying superconductivity, or RNA, or metabolic pathways, spirituality is not relevant to your work. On the other hand, it is not forbidden. You can be as spiritual as you want to be, as a person, in your heart. No one’s stopping you. Contrary to the claims of religious apologists, there is no conflict between science and spirituality at all.

You have also left unexamined the background assumption that if one attacks religion one is also attacking spirituality, because religion equals spirituality. The truth is, no one who understands these two can confuse the one with the other.

Today the schism between faith and reason finds voice in the sometimes vehement disagreements between Christian or Islamic fundamentalists, who believe in a transcendent Creator God, and agnostic and atheist “secular humanists” who do not believe in a transcendent God. These divergent beliefs are profoundly held.

No, this is wrong and misleading. Some people believe in gods; others do not. But these are not “divergent beliefs.” I do not believe in any gods–which is not the same as believing that there are no gods. I have no beliefs regarding any gods. To say that a religious fundamentalist and I have divergent, profoundly held beliefs implies a symmetry between our views that does not exist. He has profoundly held beliefs (or so it would appear); I do not.

Furthermore, when we have “vehement disagreements” they are not over religious or spiritual matters. My not believing in their god is nothing like an attack on them; nor is their belief harmful to me. What makes us vehement is our different opinions regarding practical matters: whether it is legitimate, for example, to kill people who do not share one’s religious belief.

Indeed, the most serious disputes between the religious and the secular are all of this type. They arise when the religious are performing or advocating some sort of injury or coercion which we humanists know to be inhumane. We object to harm, not to belief.

[Reductionism] has dominated Western science at least since Galileo and Newton but leaves us in a meaningless world of facts devoid of values … .

Nonsense. Reductionism is not some immense force, like the Gulf Stream or American Idol. It’s just a rule of thumb that sometimes comes in handy when you’re trying to figure out how stuff works. Reductionism has not cast us into a meaningless world. It doesn’t have that kind of power.

We often turn to a Creator God to explain the existence of life.

Speak for yourself.

My claim is not simply that we lack sufficient knowledge or wisdom to predict the future evolution of the biosphere, economy, or human culture. It is that these things are inherently beyond prediction. Not even the most powerful computer imaginable can make a compact description in advance of the regularities of these processes. There is no such description beforehand. Thus the very concept of a natural law is inadequate for much of reality.

No, that does not follow.

Of course everything unfolds under natural law. That’s what ‘natural law’ means. Whether, given what natural laws we do know, we can predict the future is a different question. Limitations in our predictive powers do not invalidate the laws. The laws are there, and we know what some of them are. That we cannot wind them forward to see where every particle goes next does not prove them false.

Is it, then, more amazing to think that an Abrahamic transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient God created everything around us, all that we participate in, in six days, or that it all arose with no transcendent Creator God, all on its own? I believe the latter is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe. It is this view that I hope can be shared across all our religious traditions, embracing those like myself, who do not believe in a Creator God, as well as those who do. This view of God can be a shared religious and spiritual space for us all.

You are conflating religion and spirituality, making both of them difficult to think about.

Here is the trick to thinking about religion: put your attention on the men at the top. Nothing happens in the religious sphere unless these men want it to happen. Without these men, there would be no religion, because it has no benefits for anyone but them.

Religious leaders will tell you that religion is a source of “awe, gratitude, and respect,” but this is an excuse. The overwhelming reason for the existence of religious organizations is that they provide a livelihood for their organizers. To recruit customers, the organization claims to possess a cornucopia of invaluable and irreplaceable products and services, but all they really have to sell is their beautiful bill of goods.

There are plenty of ways to find “awe, gratitude, and respect” in this world. Religion has no monopoly on such things–it does not even have special expertise. Religious leaders are not interested in insights, epiphanies, truth, people, or the world. They will implement the policies, and recite the words, that seem likely to foster the growth and profitability of their organization.

Your hope that the emergent-universe paradigm might appeal to religions the world over is based on a misunderstanding. Religions are not really concerned with ontological, metaphysical, spiritual, or cosmological issues–to say nothing of humanistic concerns. They talk all the time about such things, but this is a ruse. None of religion’s entrepreneurs will adopt your framework unless it looks like a good way to fill the collection plate.

[A]gnostic and atheist “secular humanists” have been quietly taught that spirituality is foolish or, at best, questionable. Some secular humanists are spiritual but most are not. We are thus cut off from a deep aspect of our humanity. Humans have led intricate and meaningful spiritual lives for thousands of years, and many secular humanists are bereft of it.

Define spiritual, and tell me what’s good about it. But do so without referring to religion. Until you separate the two you cannot speak meaningfully on this issue.

[A]ll of us, whether we are secular or of faith, lack a global ethic. In part this is a result of the split, fostered by reductionism, between the world of fact and the world of values.

Our lack of a global ethic–if indeed we do lack one–can more reasonably be linked to our just recently having emerged from the hunter-gatherer world wherein one would never meet anyone from the other side of the valley, to say nothing of the world.

We lack a shared worldwide framework of values that spans our traditions and our responsibilities to all of life, one another, and the planet. Secular humanists believe in fairness and the love of family and friends, and we place our faith in democracy.

Don’t you think fairness, love, and democracy is a pretty good framework? You bring in secular humanism, and then at religion’s insistence you toss it aside. But this is exactly the framework we need.

How strange this world would seem to medieval Europe. How alien it seems to fundamentalist Muslims.

Thank God for that!

[YASHWATA’s note: This is the 13th chapter of Bertrand Russell’s astonishing History of Western Philosophy, first published in 1945. A lark, a flying carpet, a bright stroke brushed with verve and wit across three millennia, this brief chapter wings us from a consideration of Plato’s cultural and ethical milieu to a simple explanation of the necessity of democracy. As always, Russell makes it look easy. There are more insights available in these 1,300 words than in most other whole books.]


The Sources of Plato’s Opinions

Plato and Aristotle were the most influential of all philosophers, ancient, medieval, or modern; and of the two, it was Plato who had the greater effect upon subsequent ages. I say this for two reasons: first, that Aristotle himself is an outcome of Plato; second, that Christian theology and philosophy, at any rate until the thirteenth century, was much more Platonic than Aristotelian. It is necessary, therefore, in a history of philosophic thought, to treat Plato, and to a lesser degree Aristotle, more fully than any of their predecessors or successors.

The most important matters in Plato’s philosophy are: first, his Utopia, which was the earliest of a long series; second, his theory of ideas, which was a pioneer attempt to deal with the still unsolved problem of universals; third, his arguments in favour of immortality; fourth, his cosmogony; fifth, his conception of knowledge as reminiscence rather than perception. But before dealing with any of these topics, I shall say a few words about the circumstances of his life and the influences which determined his political and philosophical opinions.

Plato was born in 428-7 B.C., in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. He was a well-to-do aristocrat, related to various people who were concerned in the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. He was a young man when Athens was defeated, and he could attribute the defeat to democracy, which his social position and his family connections were likely to make him despise. He was a pupil of Socrates, for whom he had a profound affection and respect; and Socrates was put to death by the democracy. It is not, therefore, surprising that he should turn to Sparta for an adumbration of his ideal commonwealth. Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

The purely philosophical influences on Plato were also such as to predispose him in favour of Sparta. These influences, speaking broadly, were: Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Socrates.

From Pythagoras (whether by way of Socrates or not) Plato derived the Orphic elements in his philosophy: the religious trend, the belief in immortality, the other-worldliness, the priestly tone, and all that is involved in the simile of the cave; also his respect for mathematics, and his intimate intermingling of intellect and mysticism.

From Parmenides he derived the belief that reality is eternal and timeless, and that, on logical grounds, all change must be illusory.

From Heraclitus he derived the negative doctrine that there is nothing permanent in the sensible world. This, combined with the doctrine of Parmenides, led to the conclusion that knowledge is not to be derived from the senses, but is only to be achieved by the intellect. This, in turn fitted in well with Pythagoreanism.

From Socrates he probably learnt his preoccupation with ethical problems, and his tendency to seek teleological rather than mechanical explanations of the world. “The Good” dominated his thought more than that of the pre-Socratics, and it is difficult not to attribute this fact to the influence of Socrates.

How is all this connected with authoritarianism in politics?

In the first place: Goodness and Reality being timeless, the best state will be the one which most nearly copies the heavenly model, by having a minimum of change and a maximum of static perfection, and its rulers should be those who best understand the eternal Good.

In the second place: Plato, like all mystics, has, in his beliefs, a core of certainty which is essentially incommunicable except by a way of life. The Pythagoreans had endeavoured to set up a rule of the initiate, and this is, at bottom, what Plato desires. If a man is to be a good statesman, he must know the Good; this he can only do by a combination of intellectual and moral discipline. If those who have not gone through this discipline are allowed a share in the government, they will inevitably corrupt it.

In the third place: much education is needed to make a good ruler on Plato’s principles. It seems to us unwise to have insisted on teaching geometry to the younger Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, in order to make him a good king, but from Plato’s point of view it was essential. He was sufficiently Pythagorean to think that without mathematics no true wisdom is possible. This view implies an oligarchy.

In the fourth place: Plato, in common with most Greek philosophers, took the view that leisure is essential to wisdom, which will therefore not be found among those who have to work for their living, but only among those who have independent means, or who are relieved by the state from anxieties as to their subsistence. This point of view is essentially aristocratic.

Two general questions arise in confronting Plato with modem ideas. The first is: Is there such a thing as “wisdom”? The second is: Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?

“Wisdom,” in the sense supposed, would not be any kind of specialized skill, such as is possessed by the shoemaker or the physician or the military tactician. It must be something more generalized than this, since its possession is supposed to make a man capable of governing wisely. I think Plato would have said that it consists in knowledge of the good, and would have supplemented this definition with the Socratic doctrine that no man sins wittingly, from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right. To us, such a view seems remote from reality. We should more naturally say that there are divergent interests, and that the statesman should arrive at the best available compromise. The members of a class or a nation may have a common interest, but it will usually conflict with the interests of other classes or other nations. There are, no doubt, some interests of mankind as a whole, but they do not suffice to determine political action. Perhaps they will do so at some future date, but certainly not so long as there are many sovereign States. And even then the most difficult part of the pursuit of the general interest would consist in arriving at compromises among mutually hostile special interests.

But even if we suppose that there is such a thing as “wisdom,” is there any form of constitution which will give the government to the wise? It is clear that majorities, like general councils, may err, and in fact have erred. Aristocracies are not always wise; kings are often foolish; Popes, in spite of infallibility, have committed grievous errors. Would anybody advocate entrusting the government to university graduates, or even to doctors of divinity? Or to men who, having been born poor, have made great fortunes? It is clear that no legally definable selection of citizens is likely to be wiser, in practice, than the whole body.

It might be suggested that men could be given political wisdom by a suitable training. But the question would arise: what is a suitable training? And this would turn out to be a party question.

The problem of finding a collection of “wise” men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one. That is the ultimate reason for democracy.

—Bertrand Russell. 1945. A history of Western philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 104-107.

Roy Sablosky, 2008.

~ 3,000 words.


So-called “religious” considerations have no place in any discussion of public policy. The reason is seldom mentioned but perfectly straightforward: there are no gods. Not even one. Therefore, no one’s “beliefs” regarding the opinions of their chosen deity are of any consequence. This much is obvious. Yet, we secularists are often remarkably tentative in our position that public policy in the United States must remain thoroughly secular.

Perhaps we hesitate because, though the gods are gone, people’s belief in them appears to be deep and sincere; and we are told that it is unseemly, or positively immoral, to challenge this special kind of belief.

In the crazy, mixed-up argument the American populace is having with itself over the role of religion in public life, from the Pledge of Allegiance to the teaching of biological evolution in public schools to the Plan B pill to the funding of “faith-based” organizations by the federal government, secularists have at least one serious disadvantage. We can be instantly stymied by talk of the “sincere and profound religious beliefs” on the other side. Even when we are certain that a given religiously-motivated proposal is morally debased, we are intimidated.

“You can’t withhold antibiotics from your child who is about to die from a simple infection like in the Dark Ages,” we say.

“But I have a profound conviction that X, Y and Z,” they say–and we wimp out.

“Oh, then maybe it’s OK… so hard to judge… political correctness… cultural identity… blah, blah, blah.”


In this paper I offer a possible corrective to this shameful timidity: the “sincere and profound beliefs” we keep hearing about are nothing of the sort.

Of course, even without such a finding we always were and still are justified in adopting a consequentialist stance, wherein it matters not at all what people believe in their minds, only how they behave in the world. But the Religious Right is ruthless and relentless. We need all the strength and will and intelligence we can gather. So this is the bit of intelligence I can bring today. It does not matter what religious apologists “believe,” because they don’t. I am hoping that this insight will provide an extra shot of courage or patience to secularists in their painful dealings with people who think that “religious beliefs” can justify the most appalling behavior.

In their recent, best-selling and delightful books Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris trounce every possible argument for the idea that religion is a good idea. Dawkins is both meticulous and funny; Dennett, a philosophical colossus, shines more light on the topic than it even deserves; and Harris provides a swift, no-nonsense defenestration. I really admire these guys, so it pains me to suggest that they are expertly solving the wrong problem. But if my hypothesis is correct, the whole program of disabusing believers of their belief is misconceived.

Here is the argument in a nutshell. First, ideas about deities are not incorrect but incoherent. That is, they are not ideas. And an idea cannot be refuted if it was never even proposed in the first place. Second, if an idea is without meaning–not really an idea–then no one can believe it. You cannot believe a concept that is not even a concept. I do not say you shouldn’t; I say you can’t.

The exposition that follows may seem abstract. But I would not have written it had I not believed that it might offer real help for real people. The “take-away” is that we should not bother trying to convince people to outgrow “religious beliefs” they don’t subscribe to in the first place. Let them have their so-called beliefs–but insist that in a public context such propositions become pseudo-rhetoric and will be ignored. People are free to express their “beliefs,” but cannot thereby justify any actions or policy, ever. In a public arena we want to know what people are doing or trying to do; religious considerations are simply and entirely irrelevant.

Epistemological considerations

Here is how the argument starts. Ideas about deities are not wrong, they are meaningless. All of them. Ayer said it this way:

Theism is so confused and the sentences in which “God” appears so incoherent and so incapable of verifiability or falsifiability that to speak of belief or unbelief, faith or unfaith, is logically impossible.

– Dennett, this way:

The proposition that God exists … is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds–or billions–of quite different possible theories, most of them disqualified as theories in any case, because they are systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation.

– and Wittgenstein, like this:

You cannot mean a senseless series of words.

For example. Someone comes into the room and asks us, “Europe artichoke?” Why can’t we answer this question? Well, because nothing has been asked. It is not actually a question. It is a random string of words with a decorative curlicue at the end.

The question, “Does God exist?” has the same meaning–that is, none. So the correct answer is neither Yes, nor No, nor even “I don’t know.” Actually, we do know!–because obviously, a statement with no meaning has no truth-value, and a question with no meaning has no answer.

I will devote no more space to the defense of this one point. (See the References for more support.) I take it as established that religious propositions are empty of meaning. But the implications of this fact have been inadequately explored.

Here is the one I want to pursue.

As Wittgenstein points out, a nonsensical phrase cannot be meant. I want to add: if it cannot be meant, neither can it be believed. After all, what would be the content of such a belief? You believe… what?–a senseless series of words? How would that work?

The idea of believing a meaningless idea is itself meaningless.

Someone says: “I strongly believe that Europe artichoke.” But if “Europe artichoke” has no meaning, then what meaning can “I believe that Europe artichoke” have? And just so, if “God is perfectly compassionate” is an empty proposition, then “I believe in a perfectly compassionate God” must be empty as well.

Someone might say, “But people don’t know that the items in which they believe are incoherent. They believe in them as if they are meaningful. They might be mistaken about the content, but the belief itself is real and sincere.” No. The question is still valid: You believe in what? You can believe that the Earth is a conscious being, because after all the Earth is a real thing and consciousness is a real thing. As a theory this would be hard to test, but it would still make sense to say that you are entertaining it. But a proposition containing the word ‘God’ cannot be a hypothesis, because the word and therefore the whole sentence has no meaning. You cannot meaningfully say it, and you cannot meaningfully believe it, no matter how much you want to, because there is no proposition there that can be the subject of your attention.

All ideas about gods are incoherent. They cannot be meaningfully transferred from one person to another (except as rote verbal formulas); they cannot be productively discussed; and they cannot be believed. Dawkins and Harris see religious belief as inadvisable. I see it as impossible. It cannot be done. It does not happen.

But, if, when people say they “believe,” that’s not what’s actually happening, then what is happening instead? What are these people doing, and why? What is the activity we call “religious belief”?

The saying of it

We do know that they are saying things. Meaningless things, as far as we can tell, but they are speaking–that, at least, everyone can agree on! Let’s follow another suggestion from Wittgenstein.

Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose do we say this? What kind of actions accompany these words? (Think of a greeting.) In what scenes will they be used; and what for?

For example. Here is a man saying, “I believe there’s a post office down the block from here.” We can picture him with his arm extended, pointing the way. Now, why did he say those words? Probably not to hail a cab, or to frighten away the pigeons. Almost certainly, someone asked him a question; his utterance is an attempt to answer the question.

Now here is a woman saying, “I believe God is good.” Why did she say that? We can easily imagine a plausible context: preaching, proselytizing, defending her faith to an atheist… and so on. And what would be the purpose of such a remark, in those contexts?

I hear words from someone’s mouth and I imagine that a thought is being transferred from her mind to mine. And so does she. But, in the case of “religious belief,” there is something very different going on.

Practical considerations

Is this too intellectual?–too much about thoughts? Let me cite a few supporting considerations of a more practical nature.

First, the more metaphysical sorts of religious claims, things like “God is One but also Three but also One,”–even if you can stretch your imagination to make them seem as if they mean something, have no practical implications. Almost by definition, they don’t inform or affect one’s behavior. If you are deciding whether to jump in the river to rescue a cat, whether God is Three or One or 42 does not matter. There is no point in thinking about it at that moment, or indeed at any moment except during Tuesday night Bible study.

Second, those few snippets of doctrine that might seem to be simple, understandable guidelines (“Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” for example) are generally ignored by everyone, including the people who constantly avow them.

Imagine that we ignored people’s words and tried to deduce the content of their beliefs from their behavior. Someone tells us: “These folks believe that adultery is punishable by an eternity of torture.” We watch for a while and say, “Jeez–it sure doesn’t look that way.”

Third, even when such guidelines seem to be obeyed, people can be following the rule because it agrees with them rather than the reverse. After all, other people might be “following” the same rule without even having heard about it. I believe that it’s wrong to kill other people. And that’s what it says in the holy books, but that’s not why I believe it. The book and the belief are independent–for me, and for everyone else.

You might still insist that belief is more a “feeling” than a “thought.” To this I would simply object that a feeling cannot be a belief. A belief is a thought, by definition. If you want to insist that the phenomenon in question is properly called belief, describing it as a feeling as well will not help you.

No, I don’t think any feeling or thought is or results in the avowal of “belief.” I think it’s the other way around. The avowal prompts thoughts and feelings, which become post hoc explanations for a speech-act whose true cause goes unnoticed by the speaker.

Phenomenological considerations

Sam Harris, speaking at the “Beyond Belief” conference in November 2006, brings up an interesting point but misses the big picture.

[T]he greatest problem with the rest of us–with secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists–is that we find it very difficult to believe that people actually believe this stuff. Secularists and religious moderates, almost by definition, don’t know what it’s like to be certain of God. To be certain of Paradise. To be certain that the book they keep by their bed is the perfect Word of the Creator of the Universe.

I’m not sure I know what it would be like to believe in an all-powerful deity. On the other hand, I’m not sure I see anyone doing it. Can you demonstrate, Mr. Harris, that people “actually believe this stuff”? Is there any evidence for this famous “belief,” besides their talking about it?

Maybe people don’t believe in deities, they just feel that they should say that they do. Maybe that’s what “being religious” is.

Maybe to be “religious” is to say certain words. The funny thing is, that when you say them everyone figures you mean them. Including you. As if the words are a report, a portrait, of your inner state. What if this assumption is wrong?

Wittgenstein again:

The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts … .

When secularists ask whether you “really” believe, the answer seems obvious, so you don’t check. You don’t meticulously introspect to try to improve your understanding of the phenomenology of your own belief. That’s certainly not what your pastor and your congregation want you to do! They simply want you to say the word ‘Yes’.

What really trips us up–we “secularists, and religious moderates, and scientists”–is not that we can’t imagine that people believe in gods but that we do imagine that people believe in gods. What we can’t imagine is that folks would make strong public statements without first checking that they’re true or at least mean something.

Well, they do mean something–but something entirely different from what we or the speaker would imagine. “I believe that Jesus was the son of God,” for instance, is not a philosophical position. It is not about Jesus, or God, or belief. Though made of words, its function is non-verbal. It is a social gesture, like a smile… a handshake… a badge to pin to your lapel.

“Believers” and “nonbelievers” alike have misunderstood the phenomenology of “religious belief.” It is not a thought, feeling, opinion, intuition, mood, or desire. It does not take place in anyone’s head, but in their circle of acquaintances. Church attendance, Bible study sessions, public confessions and exhortations–even private prayer–these things are not done because people believe; they are what constitute “belief.”

Avowals of “belief” are tokens of mutual affiliation. You say certain words to identify yourself as a member of a group of “believers.” One of the requirements for membership is precisely that you say those words–those special phrases called “beliefs.” The name is misleading, because as propositions they are incoherent and as beliefs they cannot be held. But that does not matter to the group. The requirement is that you pronounce certain special verbal formulas out loud, not that you actually believe them (whatever that would mean).

The whole fabric is woven of public behaviors, not private thoughts.

The unavoidable conclusion everyone is avoiding

In practical ethics it doesn’t matter what you believe in your mind, only what you do out in the world. And this applies with extra force when you don’t believe it, but only say it a lot! The fact that religious “beliefs” are not, as is always claimed, “sincere and profound convictions,” but something more like club-house badges, should change the way we deal with those who claim “religious beliefs” as their motivation.

So, here’s what we should do. When someone says, “I’m building a shelter for snowy owls, because Freyja says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “How nice of you.” And when someone says, “I beat my children because Wotan says I should,” we ignore the second clause and say, “Well, it happens that here in California beating your children is illegal and you have to stop immediately.” Georges Rey nicely articulates the consequentialist view:

If you think some particular war is right, or some sexual practice wrong, fine; then provide your reasons for why you think so. But don’t try to intimidate yourself and others with unsupportable, peculiarly medieval claims about how the “Lord of the Universe” approves or disapproves and will punish people accordingly.

To which we can add the observation (tentatively endorsed by Rey himself) that people don’t believe that there is a Lord of the Universe, but only feel obligated to say so.

No matter how many times the claim of divine permission is repeated, it should be ignored. It should be as if the batterer had said, “I beat my children because rivers flow into the sea.” The former does not follow from the latter.

Don’t argue about religion. Refuse to discuss it, not because people won’t pay attention to secularist arguments but because there’s nothing to discuss. Ignore any claims of religious motivation or justification. Pretend you didn’t hear! Bring the conversation back to actions, not beliefs. What are they doing, or planning to do? How much will it cost? Who will it benefit? This would be the real separation of church and state.

Imagine what it would be like if we started responding to religiously-motivated initiatives on a purely consequentialist basis, just totally ignoring the religious rhetoric, every single word of it! Wouldn’t that be great?



A.J. Ayer, Language, truth, and logic. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1936

“Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, November 5-7, 2006. Video available at

Richard Dawkins, The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006

Sam Harris, The end of faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

Georges Rey, “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in Martin, R. and Kolak, D., The experience of philosophy, 6th ed., Oxford UP, 2005

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 3rd. edition, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003