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    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/23/2009 Article Image:
    By Brian Morton (2009)

    2.1 Substance-Ontologies

    Probably the most familiar ontology in my typology, and the most natural to English speakers, is a substance-ontology. The idea is that being has a basic structural dichotomy, noun-like substances, and predicates - things said of substances. My coffee cup is a substance, and it has properties like being mostly empty of coffee, or being black and silver; locations - on my desk, in Indiana; states - not in motion relative to my desk, legally owned by me; relations - smaller than a breadbox, larger than a coffee bean, and so on. On this picture the world is basically divided into a variety of things, and ways for things to be. Aristotle, one of the great examples of a substance-ontologist, says it well:

    "Thus everything except primary substances is either predicated of primary substances, or is present in them, and if these last did not exist, it would be impossible for anything else to exist." (Categories 2b: 4-5, McKeon's translation)

    Substance-ontologies are divided into several kinds, thing-ontologies, stuff-ontologies, bundle-ontologies, lattice-ontologies, and maybe some others.

    In a thing-ontology, the world is primarily made up of things and ways for things to be. That is - substances are like count nouns: chairs, humans, coins, lizards, trees, and so on. Things carry individuation criteria with them in their own being. One lizard and another lizard are two separate things, and things are importantly countable, and individuatable.

    In a stuff-ontology, substance works more like mass-nouns: water, bronze, money, justice, thought, etc. Water is not countable or individuatable, it's just too liquid to be discrete. We can say "three cups of water" but "three waters" sounds like a grammar error. Its not that stuff can't be individuated or counted, its just that it doesn't come that way already, you need a measure or an individuation criteria to do it, because that isn't inherent to its own nature.

    A thing-ontologist might be very comfortable saying that my coffee cup is a substance; a stuff-ontologist might say that the metal and plastic in my cup are genuine substances and that my coffee cup is made out of them. Things are often called objects, stuff is often called material, or by Aristotle's term, hyle. In either case, properties are going to be ways for substances to be, rather than themselves beings (and it can get tricky to differentiate properties from relations, states, locations, and other ways for substances to be).

    Stuff-ontologies go back at least to Anaxagoras among the pre-Socratic Greek thinkers, and even earlier arche theorists like Thales look pretty stuff-like.Ancient Greek atomism, such as Democritus, is a great example of a thing-ontology and atomism was present in ancient India too, under both Carvakan and Vaisheshikan styles. It seems that Aristotle's own position on things vs. stuff is too nuanced to fall snugly in either camp, but there are certainly interpreters who read him as a thorough stuff-ontologist. Some later Aristotelians are basically thing-ontologists with only a few nods to stuff, though. The Stoics are basically thing-ontologists or Monists; the world is divided into things which exist, and other ways of being which subsist. By the 1600s the West had swung back mostly to thing-ontologies, and the rise of atomic theory certainly supported this trend. Descartes, Berkeley, and Fichte are all basically thing-ontologists.

    Bundle theory, which is well-developed in Hume, and (disputably) already present in Locke presents us with a somewhat tricky case, and my current temptation is to lump it as 3rd kind of substance-ontology distinct from both object based thing-ontologies, and material based stuff-ontologies. The idea here is that properties (or at least some primary properties) are genuine ontologically primary beings, but that substances only have a kind of derivative being as the locus of a collection of properties. As Locke says "... a philosopher ... whatever substantial forms he may talk of, has no other idea of those substances than what is framed by a collection of those simple ideas which are found in them ..." It is still the case for this picture that the world at its most basic levels is divided into things, and ways for things to be; but here the things are but placeholders for habitual patterns of collections of properties. Similarly, it is possible that what I will later describe as lattice-ontologies are really best thought of as a subvariety of substance-ontology similar to Bundle theory where substances are constituted by relations rather than by properties. Or perhaps both should be seen as distinct from substance ontologies, because they privilege properties or relations over substances.

    Patrick Suppes in Probabilistic Metaphysics argues that old Aristotelian stuff-ontology makes better sense of 20th century physics than many other pictures. But even fairly recently, thing-ontologies have been tempting to high-end philosophers in the West. Frege's logic assumes two kinds of beings, objects and functions, which fit the basic substance division, of things and ways for things to be. Substance-ontologies make a lot of sense for speakers of a subject-predicate language, and my guess is that most speakers of Western languages use common-sense substance-ontologies of some kind unless they get exposed to a lot of philosophy. It is still common to refer to substance/property ontologies as "traditional" metaphysics.

    2.2 Type-Ontologies

    The most famous of what I'm calling a type-ontology (in the West) is Plato's theory of the forms. The idea is that forms, or types, or categories are the most fundamental layer of being: human, red, just, circle. The goal is to efface the noun-like/predicate-like distinction, and imagine the important beings as able to stand on either side of it. A type or form is amphibiously noun-like and adjective-like. We can say of a rock that it is circular, or of a circle that it is red. The form circle can be said of other beings, or other beings can be said of it. This seems grammatically counter-intuitive in Germanic languages, but in Greek and in Romance languages it is common to have terms that are amphibiously adjectives or nouns. "Alba" can mean "white" the adjective or "white thing" with equal ease in Latin. In the Platonic theory of forms, what really ultimately exists, are the forms: the white, the circular, the red, the just, the good, and so on. Or perhaps we might name them whiteness, circularity, redness, justice, goodness, and so on. My coffee cup will then be a derivative being, dependent for its being on the many forms in which it participates, cupness, circularity, blackness, particularity, and so on.

    It would be tempting to think of a form or type, say the red or redness, as the set of all red things, as if types were built out of tokens, but that would be to use a thing-ontology instead of a type-ontology. In a thing-ontology there are things which have the property red, and then another thing, a set, which contains all red things. But, for a type-ontology, red things are only red because they participate in the form of the red; the form is fundamental and the things only derivative. Tokens are built out of types. The red is the being it is on its own, and causes red things to be red, or well if not "cause" then the form "constitutes" red things as red, or even better "red things depend in their being red on the being of the red."

    Thus, instead of a fundamental divide between beings and ways for beings to be - type-ontologies have every being also being a way for other beings to be, the cosmos is an array of combinations of beings.

    Type-ontologies also do a good job with category hierarchies, because types participate in other types. The human is a variety of the mammal, which is a variety of the vertebrate, which is a variety of the animal, the living, the physical and the existent. Type-ontology is a kind of anti-atomism, instead of the world being built up from tiny basic things, into larger and larger collections of things which are themselves things of a different kind, it imagines the whole of being being sub-divided into types, and sub-types, and sub-sub-types, until reaching the level of particularity.

    Properties exist in their own right on this picture, but there is no real dividing line between properties and things, things are just particular properties.

    In the West, Pythagoras develops a type-ontology by extending Anaximander's thought that the unlimited is the arche, by asserting that the unlimited and the limited are jointly the arche, and that number and ratio are the primary layer of being. Plato modifies the role of the limited, to get a less numerical picture of form. Type-ontologies of Pythagorean, Platonic, or Neo-Platonic styles are interacting with substance-ontologies in the West until modern philosophy when they fall out of favor.

    I can't think of any Indian type-ontologies off-hand. But normal Chinese thought is type-ontological at least until philosophers get involved. Confucius appears to think type-ontologically, without highlighting this fact. Logician Kung-sun Lung appears to have directly advocated this kind of picture in ancient China, perhaps even against the thought of logician Hui Shi.

    In much the same way that substance-ontologies just seem like normal common sense for languages that have rigid subject-predicate distinctions, type-ontologies just seem like common sense for languages that conflate nouns and adjectives, like Chinese. Even after philosophers start proposing other options in China, many Chinese philosophers retain allegiance to type-ontologies until the 20th century, (and probably do unconsciously still when they aren't being careful).

    2.3 Monist-Ontologies

    Another thoroughly ancient approach to ontology, is to insist that being is united and singular, that there is really only one being, which might be called Being, or The One, or The All, or Nature, or the Cosmos, or Brahman, or God, or Prakriti, etc. If being is radically one, then it doesn't really matter "one what?" Monists can say that the one being is the only substance, or the over-type, of the total event, or the one great fact, or the field of all being, or whatever. Monism becomes a kind of end-point for all other ontologies. However, everything else, becomes a secondary existence, of non-ultimate existence of some kind. Everything else that is, is a way for the one being to be. As Spinoza puts it in Ethics, Prop 6:

    "the modes of any given attribute are caused by God, in so far as he is considered through the attribute of which they are modes, not so far as he is considered through any other attribute."

    Everything that is, is a part of God, and is caused by God, as a mode of the being of God. But this is so, of people, and circles, and redness, and events, and so on. One danger is that our categories of being will be swamped by the single distinction of ultimate being vs. everything else, and so any Monist that wants to do metaphysics (like Spinoza or Plotinus) will need to try to rescue differences within the "everything else" category to some extent. In this account, properties will be non-fundamental beings, modes of the being of the one true being at best, and there isn't much reason to hope for properties to be very distinguishable from relations, or events, or things, unless the particular Monist-ontologist does a lot of work.

    Monist-ontologies are very old in India. They go back at least to Parmenides in Greece. Both in the West and in India they received both religious and naturalist elaborations. Plotinus and some later Christians and Muslims, think of the one true being in God-like terms, as does Sankara (opening them to charges of pantheism). Thinkers like Parmenides or Sartre think of the one being in fairly naturalistic terms (opening them to the charge of atheism). Thinkers like Spinoza, the Stoics, Einstein, or the Samkhya-darsana are willing to admit that the one being is an appropriate target of both religious and naturalist impulses. It is worth mentioning, that four-dimensionalist pictures of the cosmos even from physicists often wind up sliding into Monism if they aren't trying hard to resist it. After all they make the whole of time look like what is, and all events, facts, things, properties, etc., look merely like modes of being of the whole of the cosmos. Monism has been popular in India in some times, but it is at least present if not popular, in almost all times and places, because it is a sort of end-point for any other ontology.

    2.4 Aporetic-Ontologies

    Another classic strategy on fundamental ontology is to give up, refuse to answer, or retreat to perplexity, what the Greeks call an aporia. As Plato says in the Sophist:

    "For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression 'being.' We, however, who used to think we understood it have now become perplexed." (The Sophist, 244a)

    The Skeptics suspended judgment on the question of the most fundamental being as they did on other topics. Skepticism of the fundamental nature of being was present in ancient India too. In ancient China, Zhuangzi argues that fundamental ontology is the wrong project to pursue throughout chapter two of the book named after him. Some ancient and medieval aporetic-ontologists were not skeptics, and were willing to make lots of claims on many topics, but as one approached the fundamental layer of being, they retreated into negative theologies, apophatic theologies, and other elaborate devices to avoid logizing the ontos. Pseudo-Dionysius and Maimonides are good examples. Kant develops elaborate metaphysics, but his price for doing so is giving up on the question of fundamental ontology, even claiming that "it is precisely in knowing its limits that philosophy exists."

    Even Heidegger is in this camp. His famous Being and Time, raises the question of the meaning of being, and seeks to once again tackle a question he feels has been covered over and forgotten by the philosophical tradition, the question of the most fundamental meaning of being. He argues that our being, which he calls da-sein, is the being to be interrogated to pursue the question of the meaning of being, and that "thus, fundamental ontology, from which alone all other ontologies can originate, must be sought in the existential analysis of da-sein" (Being and Time, p. 11).

    But Heidegger sees his task has having two parts each with three divisions. Part two would be "destructuring of the history of ontology on the guideline of the problem of temporality (p. 35)." He never wrote part two of Being and Time, but didn't really need to for his project to work. Part one was "The interpretation of Da-sein on the basis of temporality and the explication of time as the transcendental horizon of the question of being (p. 35)." And it was to have three divisions,

    1) the preparatory fundamental analysis of Da-sein,
    2) Da-sein and temporality, and
    3) Time and Being.

    So the idea was we try to understand our being in division 1, use that to understand temporality in division 2, and use this to understand the meaning of being (as opposed to just our being) in division 3 (and then argue against three rival pictures in Part 2). But Heidegger never wrote Division 3! Thus Heidegger's REAL answer to the question of the meaning of being, is to work diligently on the project for 400 pages, and then give up 2/3rds of the way to the answer! He just never found a way to make his mediations on the relation between our being and temporality shed any light on being in general. It is possible, but controversial, that even the later works of Wittgenstein are ultimately aporetic with regard to fundamental ontology.

    2.5 Factor-Ontologies or Dharma-Ontologies

    The Buddhist tradition develops a different picture of fundamental ontology early on, traditionally called dharma theory, or Abhidharma theory. Within a few centuries of Buddha's teaching a series of texts called the Abhidharmas (roughly, "advanced teachings") arises. In the words of Paul Williams, a scholar of Buddhism, they are "lists which enumerate with maximum possible exactitude what is actually occurring in a particular psychological or physical situation spoken of in the Sutras or in life generally. The lists are lists of what is seen to be the case by one who sees things the way they really are (Buddhist Thought, 2000, p. 88)."

    We have a reduction program in which normal and unusual "occasions" are to be analyzed into their components, the skandas or "heaps", which are in turn to be analyzed further until we reach the ultimate level of being. Those elements which remain even at the ultimate level are called dharmas, a Sanskrit word that elsewhere means everything from "thing" to "truth" to "teaching" to "factor" to "topic of discussion." So for example, "eating a strawberry" consists of some volitions or habits (samkhara), consciousnesses (samjna), sense-consciousnesses (vijnana), feelings (vedana), and physical forms (rupa).

    The vijnana will further divide into particular strawberry-taste-consciousnesses, strawberry-mouthfeel-consciousnesses, and so on. The material form of the strawberry will divide into solidity, fluidity, energy, and motion, and perhaps some other physical factors dependent on these. But the particular solidity of the strawberry cannot be analyzed any further. Solidity is simply one of the basic factors in physical occasions.

    Dharmas are primary existents (dravyasat) and are what all other existents are composed of. They have "own-being" (svabhava), which is how they differ from secondary existents, like chairs, or persons which do not have own-being. Each dharma has an "own-mark" (svalaksana), which is how it differs from every other dharma. A dharma is a genuine factor in the ultimate ontological analysis of complex occurrences. Later Buddhist schools disagree with each other over exactly how many kinds of dharma there are, how to categorize them, what the best way to analyze particular occurrences into dharmas is, and what dharmas themselves are like.

    In the Sautrantikan school, dharmas look a lot like short events, or even what Dretske calls event-aspects, and they exist only in the present. For them what it is to be is to exert activity, and only present factors do that. Whereas in the Sarvastivadin (literally "everything exists") school, dharmas in the past and future do not exist in quite the same way that present dharmas do, but they do nonetheless still exist. Sarvastivadins do, however, admit that present dharmas, and not past or future ones, have a sakaritra, or "characteristic activity," which is the present form of its own-mark, or characteristic feature. Many of these schools die out; only Theravada, retains this picture of Buddhism today.

    Where does this leave us for properties? Well some things that look like objects do wind up being dharmas: space, greed, pleasure, attention, and so on. But other dharmas look more like properties, red, for example, is a particular visual-sense-consciousness, or in most cases a particular visual-sense-contact, but it is a real factor in the ultimate analysis of occasions. Contrariwise, many properties will wind up being secondary existents, rather than dharmas; personhood is a real existent, but it is a secondary one, not a dharma at all (for most schools of Buddhism).

    What is ultimately real of beings on this picture, comes in many varieties, and these varieties combine to give us the complex occasions we encounter. Factor-ontology winds up being a kind of logical atomism, that isn't much like physical atomism, or any of the metaphysical pictures of the West, except perhaps the event-aspect metaphysics that is beginning to be explored now.

    2.6 Prajnaparamita-Ontologies

    Somewhere around 0 BCE, a newer form of Buddhism develops which calls itself Mahayana, or the great vehicle. One of its chief characteristics is to reject the dharma-ontology discussed above and replace it with something called prajnaparamita - "the perfection of wisdom." At least early on, the point does not seem to be that dharma-metaphysics is wholesale wrong, but rather that it, too, is not the most deep or fundamental truth of things; that it is a metaphysics but not really an ontology.

    Exactly what was supposed to replace the dharma picture as our understanding of the deepest reality of things, was taken even by the Mahayanists to be a mysterious, difficult picture to express. See my longer work "Logical Atoms and the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra," for a fuller discussion. But the basic story goes like this.

    Give up all talk of dharmas, or factors, or things, or properties or occasions, none of that is ultimate. Being is "empty" of all that. Things just are the way they are. "Thusness" or "suchness" is the main feature of genuine being. Being is "just like this." If we are to speak with precision (such as in a merit dedication formula) we say "let the merit, such as it is, generated donating this book, understood as the Buddhas understand it, to this monastery, understood as the Buddhas understand, be dedicated to the leading all beings, taken as they are seen by the Buddha, to ultimate enlightenment, as it is understood by the most holy ones."

    The danger is that we will falsely reify such concepts as merit, book, monastery, all beings, or enlightenment. Dharma metaphysics allows us to avoid reifying books, or selves, or monasteries, but at the cost of reifying the ultimate factors, space, sense-consciousness, etc.

    Prajnaparamita metaphysics says avoid reifying anything by your verbal expressions, let being be as it is. The solution is to repeat, "such as they are," or "such as they are understood by the Buddhas." The ontological picture is not intended to amount to Monism or nihilism, but to walk a middle path between falsely reifying what does not exist, and denying the existence of what does. It is almost as if the ancient Buddhists agreed with Wittgenstein's first claim, "the world is all that is the case" but disagreed with his second claim "the world is the totality of facts, not of things" instead thinking "the world is not the totality of facts, or things, or properties, or factors, or dharmas, or activities; it simply is as it is."

    Prajnaparamita-ontologies do not reject properties or things entirely, they are among those things that exist conventionally, but they are simply not present at the deepest level of reality. For these pictures, it is often appropriate to speak of properties or things or factors, when our goal is not to speak about ultimate reality, or not to speak with aching precision, but instead to converse with people on day to day matters or to introduce them gradually to the deeper aspects of reality.

    2.7 Lattice-Ontologies

    Tu Shun lived from 557-640 CE in China, and was the first Patriarch of the Hua-Yen or Flower Garland school of Chinese Buddhism, which focused on the interpretation of the Sanskrit Buddhist text the Avatamsaka Sutra (which existed by 420 CE and parts or all of it are probably earlier than that). Tu Shun thinks he is just interpreting the Avatamsaka Sutra, and that may be so, or perhaps his commentary is improving or systematizing the ideas of the Sutra. His school teaches that we come to understand reality in a series of stages.

    Tu Shun's succinct formulation is: 'First, one in one. Second, all in one. Third, one in all. Fourth, all in all.'" (Buddha Boogie, "The Tautological Paradigm", pg 305).

    Object/property metaphysics, Monism, and the prajnaparamita picture, are each correct stages of understanding, but none are the ultimate layer of being, which is the "all in all." The Avatamsaka Sutra uses the metaphor of the Jeweled Net of Indra (the king of the gods). Imagine a vast net (that is a lattice) with a jewel at each juncture. Each jewel reflects every other jewel in the net, so that every jewel stands in "relation" or "connection" with every other jewel, so that any change in any jewel is reflected in some way in every jewel. Now let each jewel represent an individual life form, cell, atom or unit of consciousness. For the Avatamsaka Sutra, and Tu Shun reality at its most basic is a vast array of inter-relationships. Individual objects are constituted by their pattern in the whole, and indeed their distinctness and independent existence is fairly suspect. They are at all only because of their network of interrelationships to all other beings.

    In Bundle theory, we saw a picture where substance is dependent in its being on primary properties which are ontologically fundamental. A lattice-ontology imagines relations, rather than properties or objects to be fundamental, and properties and objects to be derivative upon the relations.

    Interestingly, Leibniz in the West advances almost exactly the same picture in his Monadology. One of the principle features of monads is that each reflects the entire universe. In Leibniz, though, monads are thought of as "substantial forms of being." So probably it is best to think of him as a substance-ontologist, who is trying to resist both thing and stuff pictures. It is only if one goes one step further and says that interrelations are the fundamental beings, and substances are merely modes of interrelation that the ontology starts looking distinct from substance-ontology. My guess is that this kind of picture is going to become slowly more popular. Substance-ontologies work great for mechanical views of the world, but Vitalist and ecological views tend to fit better with process-ontologies or lattice-ontologies. Also from a modern mathematical perspective it is very natural to think of properties as unary relations, and to think of k-ary relations as interpretations of k-ary predicates, so it is fairly easy to think of properties and predicates as degenerate cases of relations.

    2.8 Adverbial-Ontologies

    If we think of substances and properties as nouns and adjectives, then it is natural to look for a metaphysical category for verbs or adverbs. Western traditional metaphysics has a lot of trouble with verbs and verbal phrases. It tends to assimilate, adjectival phrases, prepositional phrases, and verbal phrases all to the broader metaphysical category of predicates, and then have troubles distinguishing them again.

    In Aristotle, for example, action is categorically parallel to quantity, quality, relation, place, position, state, time, and even affection. How exactly verbs are supposed to work is a source of controversy and confusion in India, too. But you could, in theory, make verbs or adverbs the primary layer of being, and try to make noun or adjective-like modes of being look derivative. Modernly, this is the goal of Process-ontologies. It has been suggested that some parts of ancient Chinese thought look a lot like process-ontologies or precursors of them, especially reflection on the Yi Jing (the Classic on Changes), or Yin-Yangist reflection on the wu hsing (5 elemental processes).

    But even trickier is the thorny question of how to interpret early philosophical Taoist thought, such as the Daodejing (the Classic on the Way and the Power) attributed to Laozi. Here the fundamental ontological category is the Dao or Tao or "Way." It is the origin of heaven and earth, and the mother of all things, but is not itself very thing-like. The very first line of the text (in its modern versions) is "tao k'o tao fei ch'ang tao" or "The 'way' that 'can be' 'wayed/walked' 'cannot be' the 'unchanging' 'way.'" The word "dao" appears 3 times in 6 words: as a noun, a verb and a modified noun. It is a path and a walking of a path, a river's course and its coursing of its course. And changing is essential to it. Exactly what this text is trying to say is a subject of much contention and interpretation, but it is pretty clearly rejecting substance and type ontologies.

    Maybe it too is advancing a process-ontology of some kind. Maybe it is essentially a kind of verbal-monism, in which all things are modes of the way. But this can be interpreted as a kind of adverbialism where all things other than the way are at root adverbs, ways for the way to way. One of my old colleagues liked to put it like this: The world is appearing to me treely. The world is happening stop-the-war-in-Iraqly. The world is appearing to me confusedly. The world is happening driving-down-the-roadly.

    If adverbs are the fundament of being, then processes would merely be constituted by the more fundamental ways to process, and objects and properties would be merely odd ways of trying to express adverbial realities. A property like being red, winds up being a way of happening redly. I'm not entirely convinced that anyone, even the Taoists, have actually advanced an adverbial-ontology, and its not clear to me what you buy yourself ontologically by making adverbs fundamental, but its possible that this is what some Taoists are trying to do, and even if they aren't it's a logically possible form of ontology.

    2.9 Hybrid-Ontologies

    There is no real requirement to say that at the basic level reality is of one grammatical category. Even traditional western ontology usually acknowledges both substances and predicates as jointly fundamental. You could, in principle, hold that objects and factors are both fundamental, or that processes and types are, or that the one substance (Nature) and variety of ways for the subject to behave are jointly fundamental. You could even say that all these ontological categories are among the ways for being to be, and plenty more besides, and that forms of being are not typically built up out of more basic forms of being, but rather that there are lots of varieties of primitive or fundamental being. But this is not usually popular.

    There is some kind of powerful reductionist impulse in the history of world ontologies, whereby most ontologists seem to want to reduce other categories of being to some one or two fundamental ones. Perhaps this is because people are reductionists at heart, or because one's native language has a kind of trump, or maybe it is because Unificationists are right about how explanation works.

    Medieval Neo-Confucians in China, (Like Zhu Xi) interpret the Yi Jing as describing two distinct but inter-related layers of reality "the tao of every class of things" and "the tao of the transformation of all things." Maybe Zhu Xi is best thought of as hybrid-ontologists who admit the fundamental reality of both process and type. Maybe. Similarly, contemporary western thinkers Casati and Varzi grant that you could think of events and objects as equally ontologically fundamental (in their Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article "Events"), but they don't give any examples of thinkers who actually do. Hybrid-ontologies seem to be theoretically possible, but simply not very tempting, both anciently and contemporarily.

    2.10 Hamiltonian mechanics, Field-Ontologies, Group-Ontologies and Others

    By the 1800s Western mathematicians are inventing ontological categories left and right, but not generally arguing for them as being fundamental. In 1788, LeGrange had found a way to mathematically reformulate Newton's mechanics, so that the results were all the same, but the equations were (sometimes) much easier. Legrangian mechanics did not and does not seem to have altered anything important at the ontological level. William Rowan Hamilton invents quaternions in 1843, and then some of his allies such as Peter Tait argue for restating the claims of physics in terms of them. Maxwell's famous equations are stated in quaternion notation in 1865 in his own research, but the quaternion notation isn't really that far from our normal intuitions about objects as occupying space and time. Indeed, a big chunk of Hamilton's goal is to show why the one dimension of time seems to work so differently than the three dimensions of space.

    Hamilton's ontology leaves objects and properties intact, and merely tries to situate them in a 4-space in which three of the dimensions work differently than the fourth. In a Hamiltonian formulation of a classical mechanical system we have three basic ingredients, states (which in many ways are algebraic precursors of Wittgenstein's states of affairs), observables (which work just like properties), and dynamics (by which we can represent conjugate momenta, via only 1st order differential equations.) Hamilton is trying to re-understand space and time, and he doesn't think he is shaking object-property metaphysics at all. But in order to make equations for figuring out object-property physics easier, he is taking short-cuts through quite different ontological categories, such as "states" and "dynamics" which are probably setting the stage for later fact-ontologies and process-ontologies.

    But by the late 1800s other mathematical physicists are moving to a more radical position, that fields, especially vector-fields or later tensor-fields or spinor-fields, are fundamental. A vector-field is an assignment of a vector (a quantity + direction) to every point of an N-space of some kind. So, for example, the gravitational field of a single large mass (say the earth), would be a collection of force vectors pointing towards the center of the earth, with magnitudes depending on (roughly) the inverse square of the distance to the center of the mass. The gravitational field of a two mass system, (say the earth and moon) is more complex, but still quite mathematically tractable.

    Newton imagines gravitational attraction as a thing, namely a "force" with properties like magnitude and direction. You could think of a field as an infinite array of possible forces depending on one's location. But it is more natural to think of a field as a single entity, but one that isn't very thing like. It spreads over a whole space and can be fully co-spacious with other fields. It is natural to think of the two-body gravitational field as the product of two distinct one-body fields.

    During the 1800s fields are becoming more and more prominent in physics. Electricity, magnetism, gravitation, hydrodynamics, and meteorology all start using them. They begin as notational devices, but increasingly become ontological categories. Mathematical physicists like Gibbs, Heaviside, and Lord Kelvin, argued for physical theories to be expressed in field notations. Gibbs, for example, believed that mathematics IS a language, and thus that the job of the theoretical mathematical physicist is to improve the language in which we can express physical truths. Thus moving to vector-field notations amounted in Gibb's mind to linguistic-ontological reform in how we think and speak about the fundamental ontology of physical entities. The Gibb-Heaviside field picture of physics is powerful, flexible and extremely abstract, relying (intentionally) heavily on high end algebra and analysis. It is intended to be as general to matter as possible and to work well on many scales and contexts, rather than to focus on matter's structure at very-small scales, or very large ones. I'm inclined to think it is a departure from traditional object/property metaphysics (fields aren't really either) and from natural language (preferring the artificial language of algebraic analysis). The Gibb-Heaviside picture is still used a lot, especially for physics and engineering at super-atomic scales, but it's rare to find folk who think it is fundamental anymore. It is certainly also possible to use field notations in physics without particularly subscribing to a field-ontology. Einstein, for example, described his theories as "A true triumph of the methods of the general differential calculus founded by Gauss, Riemann, Christoffel, Ricci, ... p. 626." Thus, for him, the fields used in differential calculus were methodological innovations, not insight into how things are.

    Field-ontology isn't the only attempt to make 19th century mathematical entities fundamental constituents of being. My old differential equations teacher, Pimon Ajanapon, an ex-Buddhist monk and mathematician, was trying to build an ontology in which sets would be the only fundamental beings, but as far as I know he never got very far.

    More importantly, Max Klein began a project in algebra called the Erlangen Program which wanted to use group theory to look at invariants over transformations. After the success of the Lorenz transformations, this started looking like it might be the path to fundamental physical ontology, and motivated a lot of the work of the 1930s and 1940s.

    The Weyl-Fock-London gauge theory was popularized by Pauli in the 1940s. By 1947 Hungarian physicist Cornelius Lanczos is arguing that all physical laws are self-adjoint variational principles, in effect that gauge groups are the presence of physical laws at the level of fundamental ontology. Yang and Mills explored non-abelian gauge symmetry groups in the 1950s and later models, such as the Standard Model and string theory continue to have a hefty gauge group component today. If I am understanding correctly, and that's a big if, particles (that is objects with properties using the traditional ontology), fields (now often tensor or spinor fields, rather than the more basic vector fields), and gauge groups are all used in many formulations of physical theories. The Standard Model, for example, is expressed in gauge group notation, but can derive particle-notations and field-notations with a fair bit of ease.

    It seems that some physicists think of the particles as fundamental and the fields and gauge groups as notational schemes to make the math nice, whereas others think of the fields, or gauge-groups as fundamental. On the other hand, "the Standard Model" is probably not all the way to fundamental yet. The question is, if it could be extended to a model that included gravity as well as electromagnetism, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear interactions, would it rely on particles, fields, gauge-groups, all three or something else? Gauge groups are, or perhaps are close to being, sub-species of the forms that Plato was on about, they are invariants over local and global transformations. It is possible that gauge group ontologies are really best thought of as a contemporary sub-variety of type-ontology, but I'm suspending judgment on that at the moment.

    There is an active contemporary group called the IIFB, the International Institute of Field-Being, it was formed in 1996 and holds symposia and meetings in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association. Its goal is the study of non-substantialist ontologies in both the East and West, and has roots in American study of Chinese thought and Chinese study of American thought. While fields are part of Lik Kuen Tong's ontology, the IIFB are really pretty clearly what I'm calling process-ontologists. See They categorize all ontologies into two kinds, substantialist and non-substantialist, which seems to me to be running together a lot of alternatives, but gives a feel for where the current thinking on typologies of fundamental ontology is prior to this paper.

    Continued in "A Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 3"
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/10/2009 Article Image:
    By Brian Morton (2009)


    A colleague once asked if I could give him “a taxonomy of ‘forms of ontology’ and where properties fit within it.” This paper is a preliminary attempt at filling that tall order. Since the history of human thought about ontology is so greatly diverse, it is really beyond the scope of this paper to do anything more just sketch out the basics of over about a dozen forms of ontology in order to give a rough survey of philosophical reflection on ontology fundamentals. But, this is not just a history of ontologies paper, because, in some cases, I am trying to point to a way in which one could attempt to construct an ontology – especially when I am not entirely convinced that anyone has actually yet attempted to fully develop some particular form of ontology.

    The West’s traditional picture of the world imagines particular objects – things - to be the central reality of our world, and for these things to have properties - adjective-like modifiers of exactly how they are. Wittgenstein however disagrees. He begins his Tractatus:

    1. The world is all that is the case.
    1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
    For Wittgenstein, being at its most basic level is composed of facts not of things. He is advancing what I will call a fact-ontology, rather than a thing-ontology which itself, according to this preliminary taxonomy, is a sub-variety of a substance-ontology.

    According to some substance-ontologies, substances are all physical; according to others, substances are all mental; for still others, substances come in both kinds, or come in exactly four kinds, or an infinity of kinds, etc. But, for all substance-ontologies, being is noun-like at its most basic level, regardless of substances having properties of some kinds and perhaps other predicables, such as relations or locations or states. There are many good questions of ontology and metaphysics, besides the ones we are exploring here, but in this paper my goal is to explore the question “what grammatical categories is being most like at its most fundamental?”

    The thing-ontologist answers “nouns.” The fact-ontologist answers “complete sentences.” But what other answers have tempted people over the years? Not everyone is going to be happy with this analogy to grammar, but it will work well for many of the pictures. Personally, I suspect that much of ontology is merely unconscious following of the prejudices of the grammar of one’s native language, and much of the rest of ontology is conscious reflection on what the grammar of a more ideal language would be like.

    It currently looks to me like the rough history of fundamental ontology goes in three basic periods: classical development from ancient times to the 1800s; a period of transition in the late 19th and early 20th century; and a great rebirth of fundamental ontology in the 1920s leading to the contemporary situation.

    In the West, substance-ontologies of one variety or another have dominated from pre-Socratic days until now; so much so that Heidegger complained that the tradition covers over the very possibility of dispute on fundamental ontology. I disagree. It seems that Platonic form-theory, styles of Monism (especially Neo-Platonic ones), and aporetic approaches have been important competitors with the standard picture throughout Western history. The Islamic world seems to fit the European experience pretty closely on ontology.

    In India, both Monism and substance-ontologies have old roots, (as probably does the aporetic approach). The Buddhists also develop 3 newer positions, factor-ontology (circa 300 BCE), prajnaparamita-ontology (circa 0 BCE), and lattice-ontology (by circa 600 CE), all of which also find their way into China by the 700s.

    In ancient China, a type-ontology similar to Plato’s form theory seems to be the normal default position. However, it is arguable that the later Mohists advanced something quite like a substance-ontology, and Zhuangzi and Hui Shih advanced aporetic pictures. Sometimes Taoist philosophy is interpreted as advancing an adverbial picture and the Yin-Yang school is advancing either a process-ontology or the beginnings of one, or something like it. Medieval China perhaps sees hybrid fundamental ontologies trying to integrate type and process.

    In the West it is surprising that the revolutions of modern philosophy don’t shake up pictures of fundamental ontology much, but they don’t seem to. Descartes tries valiantly to doubt everything, but winds up importing medieval substance/property metaphysics pretty much wholesale, but fiddles with the boundaries of the mental and physical. Idealism, Empiricism, Romanticism and so on, challenge much of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, but leave the basic substance/property picture more or less untouched. Leibniz is trying to break out of the pattern here, and creates something much like Tu Shun’s picture (see section 2.7 in Part 2 of this essay). Maybe this is just a new wrinkle on substance-ontology, or maybe it is something more fundamental. Likewise, perhaps Hegel has something new to offer here too, maybe.

    But by the 1800s mathematicians are inventing all kinds of stunning new ontological entities: groups, fields, rings, functions, sets, non-standard geometries, matrices, etc. Of course, they aren’t (generally) claiming them to be fundamental constituents of being; that comes later. Hamiltonians in 1860s, argue that the discovery of quaternions are fundamental and that physics should be re-phrased in terms of them, and in the process of doing so give us early versions of modern notions of state and process. Likewise in the 1880s physicists rephrase everything again in terms of vectors and vector-fields. This seems to often be a shift in thinking about fundamental ontology rather than just a methodological issue to many of them. Discoveries about the behavior of electricity and magnetism have simply made fields more plausible as underlying beings, and shown how fields aren’t really that close to traditional substances. Neither Hamilton, nor the field and vector advocates are really setting out to alter fundamental ontology; they are setting out to try new mathematical formalisms. But they and later folk are slowly convinced of the deep reality of their formalisms.

    Things really heat up from 1887-1920s as the Michealson-Morley experiments, Einstein’s relativity theory and the quantum mechanics results start pouring in, making classical ontologies look inadequate. At the same time, more purely philosophical innovations from Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and Heidegger are re-opening the question of fundamental ontology directly, typically by explicitly disagreeing with the traditional ontology. In the 1920s it looks like ontology is a question that can be re-examined, and one that needs to be (although some conclude upon examination that the old ways are still best). Fact-ontologies, Process-ontologies, Trope-ontologies, and the Copenhagen ontology all emerge during the 1920s. These as well as many further variants of the “cope-with-quantum” strain have continued to develop over the 20th century, as (perhaps) have event-ontologies.

    Table of fundamental ontologies:

    Continued in "A Taxonomy of Fundamental Ontologies, Part 2"
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/29/2008 Article Image:
    John S. Wilkins is a sessional lecturer at the University of Queensland in philosophy. He runs a philosophy of biology blog, Evolving Thoughts, which is part of the Seed Magazine stable of science blogs. John worked in publishing and printing for 25 years while he eventually finished his philosophy studies with a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He used to boast that he had never learned anything of direct practical use, which is a bit of a stretch as he also has a computing diploma.

    - Interviewed by Paul Newall (2008)

    PN: On your blog you say that "philosophy of biology is at least as interesting as politics or sport and twice as important". How did you come to study the subject and why is it important?

    JSW: That’s a long story. The short version is that I was studying theology at an Anglican college in Melbourne, Australia, when, rather undramatically, I lost my faith. I found out shortly before that I was good at intellectual pursuits, getting my first 100% mark and coming first across the seven colleges of the examination, which came as a shock since I was kicked out of school for being an idiot. So I wanted to do something to continue this run of success, as I found it fascinating to relate broad ideas and social attitudes, history and philosophy. I went to a university aged 24 and asked if I could do a degree there. It happened to be one of the two best departments for philosophy in Australia, but I did a double major in history. Even now I think of myself as a philosopher-historian.

    At first I just did basic philosophy, focussing on philosophy of religion, social science and history. In my masters, though, I studied David L. Hull’s Science as a Process [1], which was an outworking of my studying philosophy of science. This topic fascinated me, and after doing the usual - Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and Laudan - I came up with what I thought was a killer solution to the problem of theory change: evolution by (theoretical) natural selection. Of course I soon learned I had been anticipated somewhat. T. H. Huxley came up with the first such account, and of course the evolutionary epistemology movement was still at that time in full swing. Hull’s book turned out to be the best account of science as an evolutionary process, and had just been published, so on a business trip to the US I visited Chicago and contacted David by phone. He was on sabbatical but was more than generous and we talked for quite a while (during a barbecue at his place). Since then he has been an active mentor to me, and I still think that his evolutionary philosophy of science is the best account, although on many other matters I have moved away from his views.

    Of course, this meant that I had to actually learn some biology; no small feat for a straight humanities student. David and the other philosophers of biology I have learned from, like Kim Sterelny and Paul Griffiths, make a special point that philosophy of science done without actual knowledge of the science concerned is mere armchair theorizing. So although I had no science education I took it seriously, and was very fortunate in my choice of PhD advisors. Neil Thomason, who was a student of Paul Feyerabend, and Gareth Nelson, formerly of the AMNH and a leading light of the cladistics revolution, were my advisors, so I was introduced to some careful thinking. Of course I managed to become independent in my own way; they are not to blame. It basically took me 25 years to complete my studies, while working full-time.

    Why do I think it’s important? Well I never found sport all that interesting (I am uncannily able to place my forehead in the path of any ball in play), politics basically bores me and the ideas in biology are the foundation for everything that we as humans do or are. Tell me that’s not at least twice as important as sport or politics. Aristotle knew it: “Man” is a zoon politikos, a political animal.

    PN: Do you think that coming to academia later in life has had an influence on your views and your approach to your research?

    JSW: Yes it has. While I often regret not taking the path less remunerative earlier in my life, coming to it now means I am a lot more measured, but at the same time a lot less inclined to agree with the prevailing views of things. I don’t take academic politics that seriously (except when it hurts people I respect) after 30 years in office politics outside academe. Moreover, my experience of popular debates about antievolutionism has actually led me to deal with some topics I might not otherwise have done, such as misunderstandings about information in biology.

    One thing I am extremely concerned with is guiding students to find their own voice and opinions. In particular I want my own students to come out feeling confident they can do this stuff.

    PN: Should biologists pay any attention to the philosophy of biology? How receptive are they to your work and that of other philosophers?

    JSW: Whether they should, many do. I think that biology as a broad discipline is perhaps one of the more philosophical of the sciences, and the scientists themselves engage in philosophy. Really, the philosophers sometimes have a hard time keeping up. Ernst Mayr is one example, and the species debate, which is my PhD topic, is rife with biologists doing philosophy, so they clearly think it is something worth talking about. There are a few biologists who treat philosophy with derision, but nearly every professional evolutionary biologist, ecologist or taxonomist I have discussed the matter with treats it seriously. Philosophers like Hull, Brandon, Sober, Sterelny and many others in fact collaborate with biologists on philosophical matters.

    That said, I often have to deal with incredulous stares from the occasional biologist, who says, in effect “You can’t mean that!” The role of a philosopher of any science is to raise issues in ways that often run counter to the established consensus or the ideas that the professionals were taught as undergraduates. For example, I was recently at a conference in Salt Lake City where I tried very hard to convince a biologist or two that species are not theoretical objects, and hence not units of evolution. To say jaws hit the floor is an understatement. But philosophers can also do some egregiously bad philosophy when dealing with biology. First off, they should never make prescriptions about how biology ought to be done, in my view. Philosophy doesn’t ascertain method, science does. Philosophy explains after the fact why it works or not (or at least tries to). Second, many times philosophers who do not specialize in the philosophy of biology can say some seriously stupid things without realizing how stupid they actually sound to biologists, especially when dealing with matters concerning my special interest, classification. Or maybe it just seems like that to me because I am sensitive to it. But I have cringed under the embarrassment of the ignorance of my profession at times.

    PN: Would you like to give some examples?

    JSW: Err, not really, although I did blog about it here. I don't want to single out that speaker, though. A good many philosophers of, say, language or metaphysics have over the years assumed that a popular understanding of biology gives them all they need to do philosophy about biological issues. An example is the view that species are natural kinds; this has never been the view of working biologists (except Louis Agassiz and his disciples, and they were an aberration, and Platonists). In the past thirty years or so, in large part due to the work of Hull and others, this has receded somewhat.

    PN: In your opinion, in what way would debates about science, and about biology in particular, be affected if participants had a better understanding of the philosophy of science?

    JSW: There are a lot of myths about science, and they get used, as myths do, to bolster various schools of thought in science itself, political agendas, and debates over the role of religion in society. So I think we had better ensure that we are actually talking about science and not some strawman designed to skew perceptions to serve a vested interest. Science is crucial to our social fabric and survival - we had better not mess it up for polemic reasons.

    One of the core myths is about the “scientific method”. As Feyerabend observed years ago, no such beast exists. But by the same token, science is not arbitrary. Sciences have a “family resemblance” in that while nothing is shared by all sciences, much is shared by most, and it is not impossible, as some who claim to be postmodern think, to tell the difference between real science and the ersatz, though there may be borderline cases. For example, homeopathic medicine has no scientific warrant at all. Nobody who understands science would think otherwise. But failing to recognize that science is about exemplars rather than rigid borders leads a lot of otherwise clever people to make silly mistakes. The best way to “define” science is to point at core examples of it, and not spend too much time debating what the inclusion criteria are. Science is very Wittgensteinian.

    PN: In what way is it Wittgensteinian?

    JSW: Well three reasons: one is that science is represented by a family resemblance predicate (FRP) set of techniques, methods, and protocols. Another is that in order to understand science one has to "look", as Ludwig said, at examples, not try to define it. The third is that science is a community with rules, in which the rules themselves change over time by the conventions of the scientists themselves. While Wittgenstein had a notorious antipathy to evolution, as many of the Cambridge circle at the time did, it has always seemed to me that his "language community" perspective isn't all that far from an evolutionary view of a taxon, had he but realized it.

    Many, maybe most, non-theoretical concepts in biology are like this: they do not have rigid definitions and denotations, but rather they are phenomenal objects identified by sharing most of some set of core properties. Massimo Pigliucci has proposed that species are FRP sets. I think it goes further: "species" (the concept) itself is an FRP set. Concepts derived from a theory have exact definitions to the extent that the theory is properly formalized, but many concepts, “species” included, are not derived from theory.

    PN: Your research has looked at species concepts, which you have written "everybody thinks they understand, but which nobody agrees upon". What is at issue and why is it important?

    JSW: In the literature since the evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s, over 25 distinct “concepts” of what species are have been published, nearly all by biologists, and they are not commensurable. Choice of concept radically changes the numbers of species in the world, which affects everything from horticulture to conservation. Given that the concept of a species was one of the first, and is one of the central, concepts of biology, this confusion is problematic and it interests me why this is so.

    Many things are believed by biologists and philosophers alike about species. One is that a species is a unit of biological diversity, without which we cannot determine how rich or poor a region or ecosystem is. Another is that it, like other taxonomic ranks, is a fact about the world and not a fact about how biologists like to talk about the world. These and many other issues are not as simple as it seems.

    So, like a great many other concepts in biology, it is beginning to look like species aren’t actually units. In fact, as Samir Okasha has argued, it may be that biology has no units that apply to all and every case. This would effect a major revolution in biological thinking.

    PN: How is it that the "[c]hoice of concept radically changes the number of species in the world, which affects everything from horticulture to conservation"?

    JSW: On the so-called "biological" species concept (actually one of a class of reproductive isolation conceptions of species) a species is an isolated (or sometimes a mostly isolated) gene pool. If routine introgression (trafficking in genes between species) occurs, on that conception there is only one species, not two. We know, for example, that wolves and coyotes occasionally interbreed - the red wolf is the result. If you take a reproductive isolation view, then the red wolf has no standing in conservation efforts. But if, as seems likely, many species are formed this way, and in botany it looks like *most* species are, at least for seed broadcasters like ferns, then you are dramatically underestimating the diversity out there in the world.

    According to a conception known (misleadingly) as a phylogenetic species concept (I prefer to call it the Diagnostic Conception), a species is any specifiable or diagnosable group. This would, depending on the group, increase the number of species three- to seven-fold. The implications for both studies of extinction and conservation are immense. In particular in the recently established field of agricultural biodiversity, this would affect the impact agriculture is thought to have on the local ecosystem, and the carrying capacity of a farmland. These things matter. If a concept is devised in a science, it very often will have practical consequences in policy and social contexts.

    PN: How would this "effect a major revolution in biological thinking"? What would change?

    JSW: We are so used to thinking, as in physics, that there are units of organization in a science. There has to be, for example, a class of objects that are genes, a class of objects that are organisms, a class of objects that are species and so on, in order for the science to even be possible. But each time we try to develop a definition or conception of these typical units they turn out to be distinct in many cases - not all heredity is done by nucleotides, not all organisms are individuals throughout their lifecycle, not all species are sexual, or stable, etc. If we abandon that assumption, that there must be units, we resolve all the problems of commensurability across the class the concepts are supposed to cover. I have argued that being a species is like being a vertebrate or an angiosperm or any other evolved class - something that is evolved uniquely in each lineage. Species are not commensurable, because they are each unique traits. A species of rabbit might be commensurate with another species of rabbit, and maybe relatively commensurate with a species of cow or ape, but the further away on the evolutionary tree, the less like each other species are.

    So, abandoning the notion that there must be units or grades or ranks in biology is going to make a difference to how biology is done. It will solve, I think, a number of conundrums biologists have had traditionally.

    PN: How has our understanding of species as a concept varied over the years and what does this tell us, if anything, about the development of scientific theories?

    JSW: That is the topic of my book, which I hope to have published next year. The term is, of course, just an ordinary Latin (and before that Greek) word press-ganged into service in philosophy, and then biology. There has been a story told by biologists and philosophers for over 50 years now, since around the centenary of the publication of the Origin in 1959, that before Darwin, species were held to be defined by essences, a view that we all inherited from Aristotle (the all-purpose evil demon in biology). In the course of my PhD I decided to summarize some of the thinking between Aristotle and Linnaeus. That has developed into two books and around 300 pages, and it turned out that nowhere that I looked were biologists (and natural historians before that term was invented) ever essentialists about species. Moreover, it also turned out that when people did their biology empirically, they tended to be good observers about species no matter what views on generation were currently in fashion.

    So I became aware that the usual view that theory determines observation held weakly if at all in natural history, and I began to have a more respectful appreciation for the empiricism of biology. There are certainly cases where theory drove observation in biology, but species are not one of those cases. Moreover, in discussing species and other taxonomic ranks it became obvious also that in the nineteenth century before and after Darwin the discussions about what was a natural classification were rather sophisticated, contrary to the impression one might get from the textbooks. For instance, the Linnean system, although sometimes called the Natural System, was understood to be conventional, and its ranks above species artificial, by its proponents. An excellent book by Peter Stevens [2] covers much of this.

    So my conclusion was that biologists were not fools in thrall to Aristotle before Darwin, and they didn’t suddenly become smart and good observers after him. I suspect some of this mythology is due to the influence of physics-centric philosophy of science in the latter half of the twentieth century being applied to biology. The essentialism story is basically, I think, a confusion of the term as used in logic and as used in biology. It’s a homonym for distinct matters, not helped by a 2500 year tradition of using biological examples to illustrate the logical relations.

    The major difference in thinking about taxonomy is, I think, the Mendelian and post-Mendelian revolution in genetics, not in evolution as such. Up until 1900 or so, people were mostly concerned with how species arose (the “species question”). After a famous talk by Poulton in 1904, it became the species problem [3]. The reason was, I think, that genetics made species potentially definable for the first time. An early view was the “pure line” concept of De Vries, for example. When genetics and evolution were synthesized, this meant that species became problematic in that field also. The debate rages today, and I have seen taxonomists in particular get very emotional in protecting their taxonomies.

    PN: You contributed a paper to the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography. What light can biology shed on history, and vice versa?

    JSW: That’s a very interesting question. Biology, like history and a number of other sciences that deal with contingent and particular matters, is a special science. What we learn about, say, DNA, will not translate into knowledge of heredity on another planet. It’s terrestrial biology, and a historical subject at that. We deal with the history of life on planet earth in biology. Hence, formally the issues are the same in each discipline. We take evidence and try to reconstruct the past, as Sober said in a famous book. In both cases that is not possible much of the time - history destroys information - but many people think they can reconstruct it wie es eigentlich gewesen as von Ranke had it.

    Being a special science, biology has had to deal with the use of imperfect information about the past and cladistics - the method of presenting the relationships of taxa as tree diagrams - has an elaborate set of techniques (some still highly contested) for doing this which are sometimes used in various kinds of history, such as manuscript reconstruction or linguistic evolution. It’s a set of techniques (and issues) that can be more widely applied in history, I think. While I tend not to like the post-structuralists, the idea that history is a kind of paleontology is a good one. Foucault should have used the metaphor of paleontology instead of archeology, I think.

    But these issues have been debated amongst historians for well over a century (and in biblical studies as well) and philosophers of biology should attend to these debates. Since the issues are the same, in my view, and only the subject investigated is different, solutions and problems in one domain will translate into the others relatively directly. For example, what is explanation in biology turns out also to illuminate explanation in history.

    While Darwin was not a historiographer, his ideas have focused the debate about the past in one well-elaborated discipline. That has to have implications for history. Hennig’s views and the cladistics revolution have made clear the relation between data and the paths of history, even if many biologists themselves are still confused about it. Although a cladogram merely indicates which taxa are more closely related to another than a third taxon, biologists routinely interpret cladograms as evolutionary trees. You can’t get historical trees without a host of possibly weak ancillary assumptions. This doesn’t mean you can’t get history, but that it is a matter of (Bayesian) likelihoods rather than warrantable statements read right off the tree. The whole matter of homologous “informative” characters (data points) versus convergent and “uninformative” characters maps right onto interpretation in history and diffusionism in social anthropology.

    PN: Can you briefly explain these terms for non-specialists?

    JSW: Cladistics is an attempt to classify organisms in terms of their evolutionary relatedness. It means that one must use homologies - shared traits that are the same no matter what changes they have undergone. Classification had previously been either by similarities, as measured in various ways, or by a mix of genealogy and similarities. But cladistic classification is an attempt to find the “natural” relationships between taxa without requiring the arbitrary application of measures like “similarity”. A cladogram represents relationships of the form “A is more closely related to B than either is to C” as a tree diagram.

    In the 1970s there was a considerable battle joined between those who wanted “theory free” similarity classifications (called “phenetics”), those who wanted a mix of genealogical and similarity, or “grade based” classifications (called “evolutionary systematics” and cladistics (originally and properly called “phylogenetic systematics”). This is described in Hull’s book, although many of the proponents disagree with the interpretation there, like different witnesses to a traffic accident. Cladistics won out, although there remain deep disagreements about what that consists of.

    PN: You have been strongly critical of so-called challenges to evolutionary theory such as creationism and Intelligent Design. What originally inspired you to get involved?

    JSW: There are a lot of proponents against evolution in the public forums these days, and have been since the conservative evangelicals decided, back in the 70s when I was a party to these discussions, to attack modernism and especially evolutionary biology. But there are very few proponents for science and evolution. A quick Google search on any scientific issue will confirm this - vaccination, psychiatry, and biology are only the most prominent cases of manufactured controversies to advance vested interests against science. Although I was not a scientist, I felt that I could use my philosophical training to counter some of the more egregious philosophical mistakes these opponents of modernism committed. In the process I was given something of a free education by various biologists and other scientists who were also concerned about this.

    Recently, in the Dover case, philosopher Steve Fuller argued for the intelligent design defense, and justified this in a chat group by saying “we aren’t philosophers for science”. I totally disagree with this, and the implicit relativism of knowledge Fuller expounds. Philosophy is about knowledge, and since science has been done, that is the locus of the exemplar of knowledge. If philosophy of science is not for science, who will be? This is not, of course, the same as being uncritical about science. Philosophy of science must critique the logic of science and explore the myriad ways in which it is done, but there’s no reason one cannot be “for knowledge” and against ignorance and obfuscation.

    So I began to write FAQs for the TalkOrigins archive (some of which show the limitations of an undergraduate) and debate the matter. However, I have only one peer reviewed paper on the topic, as philosophically Intelligent Design isn’t very deep or interesting, and creationism even less so.

    What is crucial here, however, is that we deal with the allergic reaction of society to modernism, whatever that may be. I don’t know what modernism is supposed to be, but whatever it is that postmodernism is post to, that is what I think worthwhile. I guess I’m a prepostmodernist, or as a friend relabelled it, a preposterist. The problem is not that modernism failed (at least, not in general society; architecture is another matter) but that it was never properly explored, and we are seeing the fruits of that reaction around us today with failing public health care, religious exceptionalism and over-influence, and so on. As Gandhi is reported to have said of western civilization, modernism would be a good idea. We only have to try it.

    So my involvement is for several reasons: one to defend what I think is the best hope for a reasonable and just society; two to understand how science is done and how it affects our social structures, and three to try to convince the intelligent but as yet underinformed that what their pastors and religious authorities are telling them about evolution, and by implication the wider society, is not true. The latter is because, for fully fifteen minutes in the late 70s, I was a creationist myself, and so I have some sympathy for their plight. Nobody can hope to learn everything even to a basic level; there isn’t time. So they have to rely on authorities for most of their opinions, and authorities that are lying, even for a good cause as they see it, or are just incompetent in the field they are dictating about, need to be cut down to size by those who have done the work. I have a paper in waiting in Synthese about this, in which I make the counterintuitive claim that creationists, most of them, are in fact rational (in the Herbert Simon sense of “bounded rationality”).

    PN: What happened in the 1970s?

    JSW: It's no secret. Evangelicals in the early 70s had decided they had lost control of the public debate over many things, including morals. Under the influence of various writers, including Francis J. Schaeffer, there was a movement to regain control by various means. This resulted in, among other things, the use of the tools of the media that had been previously used by the New Left, and the Contract With America of the Gingrich Republicans. I was a “party” to the discussions only in that I met a lot of the folk involved while working for a vocal evangelical magazine.

    PN: Has looking at the issues from the perspective of a philosopher of biology made a difference in any way? What is your view of philosophical critiques and contributions to the debates in general?

    JSW: If you mean the debates over creationism and evolution, not really. There is no debate amongst the scientific community, and the problem of design was long ago dealt with by Hume, and more recently by Kitcher and Ruse. Much more interesting is understanding the nature of evolution itself, whether biological or cultural.

    Dennett once wrote of the “white picket fence” we erect around human nature. All those other animals behave in this or that way, but we humans are lucky and can forecast the future, act rationally, and evade the costs of nature. Of course, this is pure bunkum. No matter how special humans may be, all species are special (in fact, “special” is just the adjectival form of “species”), and we no more evade selection and the laws of ecology than we do the laws of physics. So viewing the human species from a biological perspective, and trying to tease out the implications for our self image, not to mention our understanding of things like personal responsibility, rationality, and psychology, gives us a rather different view of humanity than the traditional assumptions that underlie, for example, analytic philosophical thinking on social behaviour, mind and ethics.

    Viewing humanity from the perspective of a biologist (I like to call it the perspective of an anthropologist from Mars) humans are an odd species, but not all that unusual. Sure, we can think, but we can’t see as well or move as fast as a mantis shrimp. All species are the best at being what they are. Treating humans as exceptions tends to overinflate our uniqueness, and consequently we tend to expect that we can solve problems by fiat, without unintended consequences. A biological, or more general naturalistic, view of human cognition and social structure has a lot yet to teach us.

    For example, a biological point of view, as Sober once titled a book, is being applied now to such topics of human behaviour as religion, and this will bear fruit both as an explanation of the human propensity for religions, and on human nature in general. Others are considering the concept of innateness, such as Griffiths. This affects such things as education theory and other social matters. Social biology, if not sociobiology, is an increasingly important aspect of biology and we need to understand how it affects some of our ruling beliefs about ourselves.

    PN: Given the lamenting from some commentators that people do not understand biology well enough today, why should we take time to learn more about the philosophy of biology? What relevance does it have to laymen?

    JSW: Biological assumptions and philosophies have in the past had a large effect, mostly malign, on laymen. Consider the false anthropology the Nazis relied upon. Failing to understand the actual biology and the philosophical issues it raises will lead to outcomes that are at best mistaken and at worst deleterious to a civil society. While the notion of what a species is in biology might seem recondite, consider its relevance when people start to call “races” different and less valuable species, as the Nazis did. More current is the role that species play in measures of biodiversity in conservation biology. A lot of money rests on the use of these concepts. We cannot predict exactly what the errors of the future will be. For that reason we must investigate the philosophy of biology as widely as we can. Notions like “genes” have played a crucial role in a lot of public discourse, not least the funding of medical research. Recent work on the ways the brain controls behaviour has led to a new subject: neuroethics. These are a class of topics with immediate implications for society, and as such they need to be resourced. But to someone like me, they are interesting in their own right, and are worth the knowing for that reason.

    PN: What role do you think online media have to play in both education and discussion about science, philosophy and other subjects? How do you see them evolving in future?

    JSW: The online media, in contrast to the “mainstream media” or MSM as they are called, are a source of much good information. Of course, 90% of the sources out there are rubbish, but as [Theodore] Sturgeon’s Law puts it, 90% of everything is crap. I maintain, for example, a list of “Basic Concepts in Science” blog posts, which is now up to around 200 entries, which links to chatty introductory essays on different aspects of science and the philosophy and ethics of science. These things exist as ways to learn without actually having to do a degree.

    These essays are used by educators. Both my entries here and on the archive are routinely used in university and high school lectures and projects - I know because the teachers contact me for approval (which is automatic: I have a Creative Commons License for them all which allows anyone to use them). Quite apart from the fact they are free, and can therefore be used by educators anywhere in the world, they also often present a non-textbook view of things by those who work in the field. Textbooks are by nature conservative, and they can miss the sense of ongoing debate within a science. The online media can add a lot to a science’s public profile.

    They can also serve to keep people honest. Several sites closely monitor work done in particular fields. One I especially like is NASA Watch, which has more than once caught out political and managerial interference in the actual science. And they can make sure that if people are deceived by what we like to call “woo” science, they at least can hear the dissenting voices from within the profession.

    The MSM have a limited set of pigeonholes into which they can place a science story, made worse by the general scientific illiteracy of editors and publishers. Someone once remarked that all science magazines ought to have a sticker on the cover reading “Danger! Scientific breakthroughs are further away than they appear!” The MSM loves drama, and knowledge isn’t always, or even often, dramatic except to a specialist. When specialists blog, for instance, they convey more of that drama than a phalanx of journalists and editors ever could. Science magazines often have a “Gee whiz!” breathlessness to their treatments of science, and at the end of it the reader has acquired an attitude but very little knowledge, in contrast to the magazines of my youth that expected you’d work to understand the material being presented. Now, working to understand is regarded as an indication of failure by the MSM journalist. Even such stalwarts as Scientific American seem to have dumbed down their presentations.

    PN: Who do you consider to be doing the most important and/or interesting work in the philosophy of biology today? How do you see the discipline developing in years to come?

    JSW: I’m perhaps not the right guy to ask that, as I have a very specific set of interests. But for what it’s worth, I think we will move away from gene-based philosophy of evolution, into protein and functional molecular philosophy, and from evolution in particular to other fields, especially, of late, development, epigenetic inheritance, and the philosophy of ecology, a relatively untouched domain. On ecology, Greg Cooper, Gregory Mikkelson, Sahotra Sarkar and Jay Odenbaugh are developing this subdiscipline almost from a standing start.

    Some traditional topics are getting a revival, such as the role of trees in classification and the epistemology of working from a statement of relations to a statement of history (there it is again!). And of course the rise of social biology - and yes, sociobiology - in actual research will generate a whole slew of novel philosophical issues, and revive a host of old ones. We didn’t necessarily sort it all out in the 70s.

    Microbial biology is a region of the taxonomic tree that has until recently been ignored, although by far the bulk, both in taxa and weight, of life is microbial. John Dupre and Maureen O’Malley have started working in this field, and I’ve published on it myself.

    PN: What projects are you currently working on?

    JSW: I have a number of burgeoning interests. One is information in genes. I want to say the notion of information either just means causal specificity, or it’s an illicit metaphor. Another is the role of theory in the delimitation of species. A third, and this looks to be my focus for some time, is the evolution of religion. I have a theory which I hope you will understand my not putting out there in detail just yet.

    PN: What would you say to someone considering a career in the philosophy of biology today?

    JSW: I would wish them the best of luck and tell them to find the very best graduate advisors they could. It’s a shrinking world of opportunities out there at the moment, and like me, they may find themselves living hand to mouth for many years. A good advisor, one with influence on selection committees, is worth a thousand papers on the CV. Or maybe I exaggerate a little here.

    Most of all I’d say: study what excites and inspires you. You are going to spend a long time on a topic; so you don’t want to find halfway through that it bores you. There’s lots of interesting things about biology - almost an infinite number. Don’t be pushed into a topic that interests your advisor more than you.



    1. Hull, David L., Science as a process: an evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

    2. Stevens, Peter F., The development of biological systematics: Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, nature, and the natural system (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

    3. This point was made in email to me by Jody Hey at Rutgers. I wish I could say I noticed it first.
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/25/2008 Article Image:
    Per Ahlberg is Professor of Evolutionary Organismal Biology at Uppsala University in Sweden and a prominent critic of so-called alternatives to evolutionary theory. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him about his work in paleontology and why he is so passionate about educating the public about evolution.

    - Interviewed by Paul Newall (2008).

    PN: How did you originally become interested in palaeontology?

    PA: In the first instance from being given a little book on life in the past, illustrated with the Zallinger murals from the Peabody Museum. I think it may have been a Swedish edition of the Time/Life book The World We Live In. Anyway, I was about five at the time - this was in the late '60s - and dinosaurs weren't the common cultural currency they are today, so I was blown away by these colourful and lifelike images of a world I never knew had existed. That initial fascination has never left me.

    PN: In what ways does palaeontology mesh with evolutionary biology? Is it possible to study one without the other?

    PA: Palaeontology provides the only direct information we have about the past history of life (as opposed to inferences drawn from comparisons between living forms), and the evolutionary events that generated present-day biological diversity occurred in the deep past that is illuminated by fossils, so the two are deeply intertwined. Of course, you can study one without the other. Biostratigraphers study fossils as age indicators for sedimentary rocks, something you can do without much thought to evolutionary relationships, and many aspects of evolutionary biology (molecular processes, natural selection etc.) can be studied perfectly satisfactorily in living organisms without reference to fossils. However, palaeontology without evolution tends to descend to mere stamp collecting, whereas evolutionary biology without fossils is sometimes led astray by the lack of this crucial data set.

    PN: Can you explain how vital evolutionary theory is to biology and just how little of the subject would make sense without it?

    PA: It's been said before: nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Literally nothing at all. Biological systems are, above all, evolving systems. Of course it is possible to study aspects of biology with no knowledge of evolution, just as it would be possible to study and even understand the structure of a car engine without knowing anything about the design and manufacturing process (or even the existence of such a process), but the understanding could never move beyond the merely descriptive.

    PN: You work in evolutionary organismal biology. How does this field differ from molecular and cellular biology and why did a split between them occur in the first place?

    PA: Evolutionary organismal biology represents not so much as split as a reconnection of branches of biology that became sundered long ago. The oldest branch of biology is whole-organism comparative biology, which has been around ever since the days of Aristotle. Comparative embryology and palaeontology also have lengthy pedigrees. Molecular biology, by contrast, is a young subject that only developed during the 20th century. For a long time it ploughed its own furrow, and there was a widespread perception that it had left "traditional" whole-organism biology behind. However, with the emergence of genomics (the study of how genes are activated and interact with each other to govern the construction and life processes of the organism) over the past two decades we suddenly find ourselves able to reintegrate molecular and whole-organism biology, to seek detailed molecular explanations for traits such as body form. This is what evolutionary organismal biology is about: we seek to understand particular evolutionary events (say, the origin of jawed vertebrates) on both whole-organism and molecular levels.

    PN: Palaeontology perhaps differs from some sciences insofar as it provides us with extraordinarily visual examples of what is being studied and what we can learn. Do you think the obvious contrast between museum displays of giant (and not-so-giant) dinosaurs and many traditional accounts of creation is one of the reasons why fossil discoveries have been so difficult to explain for critics of evolutionary theory? Do dinosaur finds have an impact that perhaps hominid finds cannot, at least for the general public?

    PA: I don't actually think there is a difficulty at all, or no more than with any other science. The problem lies entirely with the fact that some people have a strong vested interest in the scientific account of Earth history (ancient Earth, evolutionary origin of humans, and all) not being true – and are prepared to systematically mislead their followers/congregations about the evidence in order make them believe this. It’s another matter that evolution is not always presented well to the general public – popular versions tend to be subtly influenced by progressivist narrative structures that really have little or no basis in the evidence – but this is a marginal problem compared to the impact of the popular misinformation put out by the anti-evolution movement.

    PN: In philosophical terms, evolutionary theory is interesting because it is said to be (along with quantum theory in physics) probably the most highly-confirmed theory we have, but evolution is also often described as a fact. One of the main misunderstandings with regard to evolutionary theory concerns this distinction between evolution as a fact and evolution as a theory. Can you explain the difference and why it is important?

    PA: I don't really like the description of evolution as a "fact". A "fact" (to my mind, anyway) is an observation that can be securely verified without reference to an elaborate framework of theory and inference. It is a fact that there is a blue coffee cup on my desk; it is a fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising year on year. From this perspective, there are numerous facts that underpin evolution: the fact that organisms share hierarchically distributed non-overlapping sets of similarities (molecular as well as morphological); the fact that the fossil record shows a succession of forms, becoming more similar to those living today as you look at successively younger strata; the fact that variation is heritable; the fact that organisms produce supernumerary offspring; and so forth. The theory of evolution accommodates and explains these facts and many others: it is extremely well confirmed, and I have no doubt that it is true (though there are still aspects of it that we do not understand well), but it is not a "fact" in the strict sense.

    PN: What consequences would you envisage if support and funding were withdrawn from biology departments to help fund so-called alternatives to evolutionary biology?

    PA: The consequences would be disastrous. Firstly, because important biological research would not get done (so we would not learn things we need to know about how living organisms and ecosystems work), and secondly, because the "alternatives" are mere pseudoscience and would produce no usable results at all, no matter how much money you poured into them. The latter is an important point, which may not be well understood by people who do not actually work in science. Evolutionary biology is simply what you get when you apply the scientific method – i.e. the search for natural falsifiable explanations - to the study of living systems. "Alternatives" such as "Intelligent Design" are not alternative-but-valid versions of biological science but pseudosciences specifically designed to fail to find answers. The whole idea about ID is that it purports (falsely) to demonstrate that natural explanations are insufficient for the existence of living organisms, thus supposedly opening the door (again, falsely) for a magical non-falsifiable "explanation" involving an unknown and unexplained "Designer". Such a "programme of enquiry" cannot, by definition, produce explanations for anything at all.

    PN: Evolutionary theory does not claim to explain how life began (abiogenesis) but the question is still a pressing one and important to many people. Some critics say that the chances of life arising in a naturalistic context are so remote that we are justified in embracing a form of design inference for abiogenesis. What is your response and what do evolutionary biologists currently think about this difficult issue?

    PA: See above. There is no possible design inference that does not create more problems than it solves. Where did the designer come from? As for how life actually originated, there is a great diversity of opinion, and summarizing it would require an article in its own right. Interested readers can try web searches using terms such as "RNA world" and "autocatalytic systems". These should yield plenty of leads.

    PN: Some commentators and participants in the recent debates surrounding the status of creationism and intelligent design (ID) have argued that for biologists and the science community at large to even discuss either alongside evolutionary biology provides them with a false legitimacy, - in short, making it look as though there really is a controversy where actually the scientific consensus is very much otherwise. However, others have insisted that it is always better to engage with challenges or criticisms, even where the objections are misguided. Do you think biologists have a responsibility or even a duty to get involved in these kinds of debate? What motivated you to take part yourself?

    PA: I think mainstream science has a duty and a responsibility to expose creationism and ID for the pseudoscientific frauds that they are. This is something quite different from engaging them in debate, the way you would do with adherents of an opposing but conceptually sound scientific viewpoint. Scientists must expose them simply because they are frauds, and it won't do to have large parts of the population bamboozled by the lies and misrepresentations of charlatans. Apart from anything else, it creates a serious democratic deficit. We live in a world where questions that are ultimately scientific in nature (anything from global warming to wise resource management to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria) are impacting people's lives like never before: how are they supposed to make informed political decisions about them if they haven't the first idea how to assess the validity of a scientific claim? Note that there is an important point here: creationists and ID proponents by necessity attempt to befuddle their audience, not just about the evidence for evolution, but about the nature of scientific enquiry in general. They have to, because it is their only way of concealing the threadbare nature of their own claims.

    From this, it should be clear why I have chosen to take part; though you can add the fact that I enjoy talking to people and presenting my ideas to popular audiences. Money, fame and hot chicks would be welcome but have not been forthcoming so far…

    PN: Why do you think the debate became and remains so acrimonious? Could it have been otherwise?

    PA: No, it could not have been otherwise. It is acrimonious because one side has a prior commitment to a revealed "truth" that happens to be at variance with observable reality, and they are prepared to lie and obfuscate in order to conceal this conflicting information from their target audience.

    PN: Challenges to evolutionary theory have found their way into the courtrooms over the years. What is your view of the successes or otherwise of the several trials in the United States in recent times?

    PA: I was pleased with the outcome of the Dover trial. Can't really speak about the others, as I didn't follow them closely.

    PN: Some philosophers of science have argued that it was a mistake to take on creationism and ID via an insistence that neither are science, since this would put the debate on philosophical grounds (specifically problems of demarcation) rather than empirical. How do you think evolutionary biologists should argue in defence or in support of evolutionary theory? Have some approaches been counterproductive?

    PA: No I don't think it was a mistake. Any "explanation" that relies on positing an undefined, unexplained, unobservable, untestable, infinitely malleable supernatural designer with magical attributes is no explanation at all, and certainly isn't science. We should not be afraid to say so.

    PN: Although some scientists are interested in the philosophical aspects of their disciplines, many are openly hostile or consider philosophers of science useless at best and often unhelpful. Do you think the philosophy of science – and philosophy of biology in particular – have a role to play or should science be left to the scientists? Have you been interested in or benefited from philosophical considerations of your own work?

    PA: I'm generally positive. The work of Karl Popper in particular has been very valuable to the development of systematic biology, as it was a key influence on the development of rigorous methods of phylogenetic analysis (reconstruction of family trees of organisms) by the likes of Willi Hennig. Palaeontology and phylogenetics perhaps need a greater degree of philosophical sophistication than experimental branches of biology, because we often have to draw rather complex inferences from incomplete and non-reproducible data.

    PN: What role do you think online media have to play in educating people about evolutionary biology? Should teachers and academics be increasingly active online? Are there any Internet resources that are currently needed or lacking, in your view?

    PA: I think they're becoming increasingly important, and I certainly feel that academics should be active online. A key point is the lack of geographical and cultural barriers: this is the only medium I can think of where, for example, it is possible for a young person from a culturally homogeneous rural fundamentalist Christian environment to not only gain access to a wide range of top-quality written material by leading evolutionary biologists, but actually engage with them in discussion. The kid's hardly going to get that from the magazine rack of the local corner store! I'm not sure I can point to any particular resources that are currently lacking, but I follow the development of the medium with great interest.

    PN: Notwithstanding the possible perception of a controversy regarding the status of evolution, actually there are plenty of debates going on within biology itself that are perhaps at least as interesting if not considerably more so. Can you give some examples of the unresolved issues that biologists study? Do you think more should be done to focus attention on these internal questions, hence showing that biology is richer and deeper than its critics allow?

    PA: The internal debates are very interesting, but often so esoteric that they are difficult to present to a broad audience. One current problem that I find particularly interesting (not saying that it is any more important than a myriad others I could mention; it just happens to come from my particular sphere of interest) is the occasional calamitous clash between phylogenies (family trees) based on molecular data versus comparisons of whole organisms. By and large these corroborate each other remarkably well, but there are specific instances where they do not. The one that particularly interests me concerns the three main vertebrate groups: the jawed vertebrates and the jawless lampreys and hagfishes. Whole-organism data indicate unambiguously that lampreys are closer to jawed vertebrates than hagfishes. For example, unlike jawed vertebrates and lampreys, hagfish hearts are not controlled by nerve impulses, the retinas of their eyes lack bipolar cells, and their body fluids are as salty as the surrounding sea water (in jawed vertebrates and lampreys they are less salty). And yet, molecular phylogenies (based on comparisons of DNA sequences) almost invariably group lampreys and hagfishes together. Clearly, something is going wrong: either the whole-organism data are wildly misleading, or some systematic error in the analysis of the DNA sequences gives us the same error every time. Whatever the answer is (and I'm leaning towards the latter) the resolution of this will have profound implications for the reconstruction of early vertebrate evolution and relationships in general.

    PN: If you had to recommend palaeontology or biology in general to a prospective student or a layman in a few lines or paragraphs, what would you tell them?

    PA: Biology is the study of life, in all its myriad forms. Palaeontology is the study of the history of life, from its first beginning to the extraordinary diversity of today. Both have something to say about our place in the world. If those simple prospectuses do not tickle your desire to know more, then biology is obviously not for you; if they do, welcome aboard!

    PN: What are you currently working on and how do you see your research developing in years to come?

    PA: I'm currently working on the origin of land vertebrates (tetrapods) and jawed vertebrates. My own work is largely palaeontological, but increasingly I am integrating this with molecular developmental biology in order to understand the molecular basis for the morphological transitions we observe in the fossil record. This interdisciplinary research is likely to form an ever-larger component of my work in coming years.

    Radical Hope

    By AllBlue, in Book Reviews,

    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 07/31/2007 Article Image:
    By Kitty Corcoran (2007)

    In Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear, John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, looks at how the leader of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coups (born 1848, died 1932), guided his people through the cataclysmic loss of their traditional way of life to a new future.

    Lear uses this specific example to demonstrate how people may be able to find ways to survive this type of loss. A statement of Plenty Coups' to his biographer, Frank B. Linderman, was the catalyst for Lear in thinking about this: "But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened." Lear wondered if such a statement as, "after this, nothing happened", could possibly be true and what it could mean if it were. He expresses the idea that Plenty Coups could have meant that after the disappearance of the buffalo the collective life of the Crow as it had been was finished. (Note: Lear is careful throughout to qualify what he says in this way – he does not claim to know what Plenty Coups actually meant but rather what he might have meant.) This way of looking at the past and breaking with it helped Plenty Coups to move toward the future.

    Plenty Coups (a more exact translation of his Crow language name "Alaxchiiaahush" is Many Achievements) was born at the beginning of the end of the Crow Nation’s traditional tribal life. The Crow tradition of using dreams to help understand the world played a large part in how Plenty Coups was able to help the Crow people. When he was very young (nine years old), he had two dreams. The first helped him to understand how to go on after the death of his beloved older brother at the hands Sioux warriors. The second dream showed him an apocalyptic vision of the future and also suggested the tools that would help his people to navigate to an as yet unknown future harbor.

    Lear's investigation of these dreams, and how they were interpreted by the tribe and by Plenty Coups, provides the focus for his theory about how people can build the hope of a future in the midst of a devastating present. He acknowledges that in the Crow tradition dreams have a religious origin. He intends that this book will allow anyone who reads it, whether from a religious perspective or not, to be able to see how the dreams helped to give Plenty Coups the kind of hope that allowed him to encourage the Crow to believe in a future where it would again be possible to live a good life.

    According to Lear, Plenty Coups' response to this cultural devastation was one that positioned the Crow to succeed in any new circumstances that might arise. Plenty Coups worked out an ideal of personal courage that revolved around the Chickadee-person, a Crow icon that appeared in one of his dreams. The key attribute of the Chickadee-person is that s/he listens to others and learns from them. Incorporating this attribute allowed Plenty Coups and the Crow to be flexible in creating new definitions of courage and the good life that would suit any eventuality. While Lear concentrates mostly on Plenty Coups and the Crow, he does contrast their actions with the response of the Sioux Nation under Sitting Bull. The Sioux developed an idea of a messianic savior who would set things right by punishing the white people and allowing the Sioux to return to life as it had always been for them. By adopting this new religion, it is Lear's contention that the Sioux turned away from the future that would come in favor of a dream of the past that could never again be realized.

    Lear gives, in Radical Hope, a description of the Crow's specific situation and how they handled it. I think he also wants with this book to give humans as a group the same kind of hope in the face of our inevitable future catastrophes. There are a number of societies that have lost their cultural underpinnings in the past century and the current one. While this particular group was unique in its time, place and response to the tragedy it endured, some of the ideas the Crow and Plenty Coups developed may be useful or apply to other groups, or individuals.
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 07/18/2007 Article Image:
    By Robert P. Taylor (2007)

    It would not be amiss to compare the mystery of time with the mystery of the divine (should any such thing exist). On the one hand, it seems everyone is aware of it. The transition from morning to afternoon conveys a sense of time. The ongoing aging process conveys a sense of time. Change, or rather the perception of change, conveys a sense of time. Yet, in spite of all this, and when even the simplest and the most brilliant minds agree that there is at least an inference of what might be called ‘time’, it is not at all apparent what time is. More interestingly still, it is not at all obvious that time itself even exists.

    The Non-Existence of Time

    It is not uncommon for philosophers to use spatial analogies when describing issues relating to time, and I think one would be apt here. Consider that there is a room with no doors and a small window looking in. When you look through the window, you see a red cube; and yet, you later discover, the cube is not there at all. What is there is a trick of the light - a result of mirrors and infrared light-waves and a host of other things that create the illusion.

    From the experience, two things should be clear: first, it is obvious that there is no actual red cube; and second, if there is no red cube, then there must exist some sort of entity that is capable of producing the illusion of a red cube. At the macroscopic level, and by ordinary experience, the illusion of an object is bound to the same physical laws as an actual object. Hence, if there is nothing to determine the existence of the object (mass of particles formed in such a manner as to create a solid, liquid or gaseous form of certain size, shape and structure) then there is no object. Likewise, if there is nothing to create the illusion of an object (refracting or reflecting light-waves, distorted light-beams, hallucinations caused by psychological defects, et cetera) then there is no illusion. As it were, nothing comes from nothing.

    As to space itself, Solipsists contend that the world is illusionary: it does not exist, at least not as perceived. Taking this to the extreme level, one might assert that space is not real, and this would apply whether space is a substance or a relation between spatial objects. If space is a substance, then the laws of illusion apply to it as well as to spatial objects: something creates the illusion. It might be cognitive processes going on in a brain imprisoned in a vat, or it might be an elaborate computer code. On the other hand, if space is a relation, then the exposé of spatial objects as illusions themselves should be enough to deal with the apparent existence of space. Quite simply, there cannot be an existing relation between two non-existent objects. As with spatial objects, the illusion is there because it has a source. Either the thing that makes one perceive spatial objects is the thing that makes people perceive space, or space is a coincidental consequence of the perception of spatial objects.

    For example, in the room with the red cube, suppose that another object – also an illusion – exists. Anyone looking through the window will perceive a red cube and (say) a blue cube. One will also perceive a fixed distance between the two cubes. When the illusions end, the distance will no longer exist, because distance, being relational, requires spatial points to relate to. If there are no cubes, there cannot be distance between the cubes.

    What about time? Is the illusion of time possible even without a source for the illusion? If so, then one must ask what the illusion is. How do we differentiate between actual time and perceived time, if either of them exist? If we cannot differentiate, how can we say time is illusionary? On the other hand, if there is a source for the illusion of time, what is its nature? Is there a super-time so beyond human comprehension that a simpler form of time is required? Is time the consequence of a fallible perspective of reality? Is it necessary to posit entities or phenomena to explicate time?

    Already, just by asking if time exists, I have been forced to compare time with space and ask, if time does not exist, what gives us the perception of time? If time is real, what is it? If time is not real, what do we perceive, and is that thing externally located or internally located? If it is internally located, does it bear relation to external entities or phenomena, or internal brain states? If it is externally located, is it spatial, or does it stem from something altogether unfamiliar? These are the sorts of questions asked by philosophers interested in the subject of time.

    A- and B-Theories

    The A-theory, put in simple terms, states that time flows. The theory also states that there are tensed propositions relating to unfixed temporal points. That is, there is a past, there is a present, and there is a future.

    What exactly is meant by the proposition "time flows" is a complicated issue, and some philosophers would even reject the notion of the flow of time as ridiculous: if time does flow, then how fast does it flow? A second per second? A second per supersecond?

    With the A-theory, truth-apt statements such as "Hitler stole power in the past", "I am typing an essay about time now" and "There will be a seminar on Quantum Existentialism in the future", have their truth values determined by their position in the time-line. That is, the state of a proposition is determined by its referent being in the past, or in the present, or in the future.

    The B-theory states that time does not flow, and that time is tenseless. The implication of this is that there is no past, no present and no future. That is not to deny any of the events in time; rather, it is to claim that "past", "present" and "future" are indexicals. Points in time are more like "here" and "there" than fixed geographical locations like "Liverpool", "New York" or "Melbourne".

    According to B-theorists, the proposition "In the past, Hitler stole power" would actually mean "At some point in time prior to the one I presently occupy, Hitler stole power", and "I am typing an essay about time now" would actually mean "From my perspective I am now typing an essay about time". However, it would not be contradictory to say "Hitler is now stealing power and I am now typing an essay", given that the scope of "now" is not constrained to any one perspective. In other words, in relation to my position in the time-line, Hitler is not now stealing power, and in relation to his position, I am not now typing an essay. In a similar sense, a person in Manchester is "here" as much as a person in Liverpool is "here", but neither one of them could honestly say "We are both here", for the referent of "here" is not identical in both cases.

    The A-theory, and the B-theory, are often confused with related theories. Perhaps this confusion is down to a subconscious insistence that a theory needs to be complete, and that neither the A-theory nor the B-theory are complete. Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that many ideas relating to time potentially overlap, or are contrary to one another. Since, for example, Presentism makes claims contrary to claims of the B-theory, it is understandable that Presentism might be confounded with the A-theory. Likewise, since the B-theory is often explained with spatial analogies, and since Four-Dimensionalism goes some way in making such analogies less unclear, it is understandable that the B-theory might be confounded with Four-Dimensionalism. I will now look at each of these in turn.


    Four-Dimensionalism may refer either to the view that time consists of real parts, like spatial parts (this contrasts with such views as Presentism), or to the view that spatial objects have temporal parts (such that the objects are extended through time, as well as through space). For the purposes of this essay, the view that time consists of real parts will be referred to as Eternalism, while the view that objects have temporal parts will be called Perdurantism. One should note that Four-Dimensionalism is not identical with the B-theory, though the two are compatible.


    Eternalism states that, just as all spatial points are equally real, so too are all temporal points equally real. This view is compatible with both the A-theory and the B-theory.

    Under A-theoretic Eternalism, an event in the future will flow from future, to present to past. It exists in all three temporal states – what that means, exactly, is unclear – rather than coming into existence in the present. For example, consider that a sprinter is being observed running past a slit in a wall. The observer can only see a slice of the racing track. As the sprinter passes the slit, the observer sees the sprinter, but the sprinter exists on the track even when he is not being observed. Obviously this analogy does not distinguish between past and future events, but it is sufficient to differentiate Eternalism from the view that only present events exist.

    Under B-theoretic Eternalism, all moments are equally real, and have equal validity in terms of their status as a temporal frame of reference. This contrasts with A-theoretic Eternalism, which contends that past and future events are real, but have a less valid reference frame than present events. Often, Eternalism is simply equated with the B-theory, since both theories present a view of time that grants equal ontological status to all temporal points. Furthermore, it is not obvious what an Eternalist A-series would entail. What does it mean to grant equal ontological status to the past, the present, and to the future, but give ontological importance to the present? This question has been explored in philosophy, though not always (if at all) successfully.


    In brief, Presentism contrasts with Eternalism, in that where Eternalism posits existing temporal moments beyond the present (such that the past and/or future exist in addition to the present), Presentism posits that only the present exists.

    An A-theorist Presentist might state that time flows: a potential future moment t3 becomes an actual present moment t2, and then a conceptual moment t1. This t3 is potential: it has the potential to become an actual moment. For instance, a driver speeding towards a wall will either crash or will not crash. Both the crash and the aversion of the crash are potential moments in the future. The t2, being present, is an actual moment. For those who understand Modality, t2 exists in the actual world; it is real. Therefore, the driver may crash. The event of the driver crashing into the wall is an actual present moment. The t1 is, for lack of a better term, a conceptual moment; it does not actually exist (any more) but can be conceived through memories, historical documents, and the like. One may thus remember being in a car crash. This memory is a conceptual representation of a moment that did exist, but does not now. The flow of time, then, is the passing of temporal points in and out of actuality.

    It might be objected that the potential future and the conceptual past have no place in the ontology of a Presentist. However, Presentism does not need to abandon any of its premises to acknowledge the existence of potential/conceptual temporal moments. All that needs to be done is to establish that the past and the future do not have the same ontological status as the present. The future can, perhaps, be foreseen. The past can be remembered, but these are no more real than a notion of an object being as real as the object being thought of. That is, representations of the past, and of the future, can certainly exist without contradicting Presentism.

    I have distinguished between past and future moments as "potential" and "conceptual" moments. However, some cases suggest such terms cannot be so readily applied. Fatalism, in conjunction with the notion of accurate prediction (e.g. infallible foreknowledge), would make the future conceptual, rather than potential. Likewise, backward causation or backward counterfactual agency could make the past potential, rather than conceptual.

    [A brief note: counterfactual agency takes the logical form "If P had occurred, then Q would have occurred". The antecedent of a counterfactual conditional necessarily involves some event that did not occur, but could have. Therefore, "If Hitler had not invaded Russia, he would have taken Europe" would be a counterfactual.]

    It is apparent that no B-theorist can adhere to Presentism, since by its nature the B-theory denies the existence of the present. Certainly, denying the status of "present" to what we experience to be "now" would not work, because without some other time to reference, "now" would not be "now" indexically, and this is precisely what the B-series depends on. It makes no sense to deny status of present to a point in time that has ontological precedence over other points in time.


    Endurantists maintain that objects simply are three-dimensional entities extended through the three dimensions of space. Further, objects persist through time in that one is wholly located at some point in time (t1), and passes to other points in time as a whole entity.


    Perdurantism states that objects extend through the three spatial dimensions, as well as through a fourth dimension. Therefore, objects have both spatial and temporal parts. This means that while a temporal part of an object may exist at t1, a distinct temporal part exists at t2, and another temporal part exists at t3, which is distinct from the temporal parts that exist at t1 and t2.

    Perdurantists can be divided into two main subclasses; viz. Worm Theorists and Stage Theorists (Exdurantists). Worm Theory states that temporal parts are segments (analogous to segments of a worm). If one imagines the entirety of an entity as a worm extending from future to past, then each segment of the worm would be a temporal part, suspended in a temporal moment. Stage Theorists hold that each temporal part of an entity is, in fact, a temporal counterpart to the same entity. Consequently, an entity, under Exdurantism, exists only during a single moment. In the next moment, a different, but identical entity exists as a counterpart.

    Exdurantism is a relatively novel theory, which appears to be an attempt to reconcile Endurantism with Perdurantism, by positing temporal counterparts rather than temporal parts per se.


    With this section of the essay, I hope to have provided the reader with a basic overview of some of the ideas tackled by philosophers interested in the metaphysics of time. Consideration, and indeed, discussion of these ideas is to be encouraged, and suggestions for research are always welcome.
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/28/2007 Article Image:
    By Niven Kumar (2007)

    Where does one begin with Borges? What meanings, if there is any at all, do we glean from his work? Who is Borges? And how many? One? Three? Five? Is he Everyman? Or is he No Man? Where do his labyrinths take us?

    These are merely possibilities in Borges' body of work which imply yet more possibilities, forming a labyrinth of questions culminating in a vague intimation of substance. Borges' ideal and, for him, real world lies in the construction of fictional universes, in the practice of fiction making. His art has been labeled metaphysical, philosophical, sometimes even anti-philosophical. Consequently, studies focus on his style as a means of gaining access to his world of meanings. In other words, style is conceived as containing the meaning of a work of art, "with stylistic devices appearing as significant marks in a literary language that expresses certain intuitions" (Ja n, 1992, 10). The initial purpose of such an analysis is to underline the unique features of the particular work, but the ultimate goal is the prospecting of meaning in the text. Yet, Borges himself denies that there is any meaning to his work, and that his interest in religious, metaphysical and esoteric truths is purely aesthetic in nature (Borges, 1964; 37).

    What is the purpose of all his writing, if we assume that all writing is political once the pen has left its mark on paper? The key to this question lies in Borges' own interpretation of what literature or fiction making is, what is written and how it is read.

    For Borges, the writer is a "mobile mind in a stationary body" (Sturrock, 1977; 39). While this statement seems innocuous enough, it contains a virulent insistence that imagination is the only resource open to a writer, and that a truly realist fiction writer does not exist. The writer's first act is to isolate himself from everything, and his or her second act is to duplicate oneself in two places and be two people at one time (Sturrock, 1977; 39). Hence, in Borges' fiction, the reader encounters stories about doubles, or doppelgaengers, in pieces like Borges and I and The Shape of the Sword (although this second story is more to do with a perceptual sleight of hand than a problem of identity). Because the writer is essentially a fiction maker, imagination, that constellation of chimerical images, becomes the world he inhabits and lives within and breathes, and which for the maker of fictions is essentially the 'real' world. For the writer, the imagination, despite its interiority, is an entity in itself, an exterior interiority, so to speak, from which he or she has to step away in order to apprehend. In other words, and for our purposes, the maker of fictions creates his own universes and, therefore, is subjected to the laws and conditions imposed upon him by this existential commitment. To be divorced from 'reality' in the idealist world of words, then, is to be doubly alienated through isolation and immobility – these are the two conditions required if the imagination is to be preserved from the distractions or 'invasions' of reality (Sturrock, 1977; 41).

    Isolation alone, however, is insufficient for the maker of fictions to practice his craft. Confinement leads to inspiration. It lowers the number and variety of stimuli from the outside world and gives rise to a higher level of mental activity. He writes in the Preface to his Brodie's Report,

    Here, Borges is suggesting that intuition is not necessarily synonymous with the intellect. Isolation brings out in the maker of fictions an intuitive temperament. He argues that Poe is an intuitive masquerading as a mathematician (Sturrock, 1977; 49). He is a dissembler, Borges claims, but the Argentine himself is a dissembler, a mathematical spirit masquerading as an intuitive. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Borges believes that it is intuition that allows the mind to pass from the mundane world of the everyday, replete with specifics and the minutiae of daily routine, to the linguistic world of universals. Intuition, in other words, is the medium through which we pass from existences to essences.

    In the opposition between realism and idealism, then, Borges stands firmly in the camp of the latter. For Borges, the realist doctrine that all things exist independently of the mind offers nothing. He is a maker of fictions, and can only utilise mental phenomena as a means of understanding reality, and being part of it. He says:

    Borges' chief goal, then, is a linguistic one, and one that is very instructive for critics and writers alike. His stories divulge not only the conventions and procedures of his own art but of the art of narrative in general, and to that extent they rank among the criticism of literature at the same time as extending the possibilities of creative writing. Borges wants to demonstrate the true nature of fiction: the immateriality of fictional objects, the distinction between causation and succession, the juxtaposition of the possible and impossible on an equal footing. By doing so, however, he inadvertently develops a new way of seeing and apprehending the world, and sets new standards for not only making fiction, but also reading it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, says that he reads Borges for his "extraordinary ability at verbal artifice. [H]e's a man who teaches you how to write, teaches you to sharpen your instrument for stating things" (Bell-Villada, 1999;44). Julio Cortazar, an Argentine, and an oft-considered heir to Borges' legacy, believes they both coincide in their "search ... for a style" (Bell-Villada, 1999; 44). Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, argues that Borges "blurs all genres, rescues all traditions, kills all bad habits, creates a new order, rigorous and demanding, on which irony, humour, and play can be built..." (Bell-Villada, 1999; 45).

    The three writers mentioned above agree, however, that Borges' fictions are, as Marquez puts it, "escapist literature" (Bell-Villada, 1999; 44). To be sure, Borges' fantastical stories, at first glance, seem far divorced from the reality that we inhabit in our little everydays. His imaginary worlds, his non-existent novels and alien philosophies and landscapes are unimaginable and unreachable. They do not try to attempt any form of reflexivity, preferring instead to forever turning in on themselves, and referring to themselves, like a spiral staircase with no end.

    However, Borges' unrealities, his forever multiplying universes, are not anti-realities. His fictions do not merely speak of non-existent landscapes and worlds. Instead, his unrealities are at the core of his aesthetic, and this he argues in his The Secret Miracle, is "one of art's prerequisites". They are not akin to the fantasies of the surrealists. Nor are they in any way similar to the soothing escapist, though elegant, fantasies of Tolkien. Borges' landscapes are disconcertingly suggestive of this world; his characters may inhabit ancient worlds such as Babylon and ancient Rome, or haunt imaginary spaces, like the Library of Babel or the circular ruins, but the fictional scenarios still refer to our own, even if obliquely.

    Borges has, on many occasions, stated that his tales are essentially parables, veiled comments on real human problems. As such, they allude to reality indirectly even though they depict unrealities. Borges does not see the magical and fantastical elements as the luxuries of a bourgeois literary man. He sees magic as an essential and redeeming element in fiction making. The realist does not actually create worlds but merely expresses what already is. He suppresses artifice. He argues that the realist novel contains a contradiction. The central concern of the novel, according to E.M. Forster, an argument that Borges subscribes to, is causality. Having fashioned a plot based on character, the writer is obliged to look for reasons, be they obvious or implicit, for the events that take place. This succession of motives and occurrences claim to reflect the real world faithfully and objectively. The realist novel, by definition, represents the presumed working of natural laws. This assumption is untenable in Borges’ reckoning, since nature has an "infinite mesh of causes and effects" (Borges, 1970; 91). Nature has forces that are too numerous to pin down in a fiction. It follows, then, that nature is beyond formal control. Therein lies the contradiction. It is situated between the implicit philosophy of the novel and its intrinsic capabilities, its aims and material means (Villada, 1999; 54).

    Magic, then, is a means to clarity and vigour. It has the evocative advantages of the atavistic, but it is also formally lucid, and intellectually diverse; "it is governed by all natural laws, and by imaginary ones as well" (Borges, 1970; 80). In this, Borges anticipates by thirty-five years the Franco-Bulgarian structuralist, Todorov, who, in 1967, conceived of the idea of imaginary causality, a term denoting those events that, though seemingly the products of a random conference of disparate elements, are actually informed and impelled by a greater, more mysterious, transcendental order of things (Villada, 1999; 55).

    Imaginary causality, needless to say, runs through much of Borges stories. Not only is this employed by Borges as a stylistic device, it is a direct extension of his world view. Causality, be it divine or imaginary, has one basic characteristic – the loss of the Self. The individual is never in control of his or her own destiny when beneath the surface of all events and actions lies the spark of Chaos, that silent explosion of forces which orders and then re-orders our reality. Borges fiction, especially the more fantastical of his work, exemplifies this loss of the Self, and the struggle to come to terms with the revelation or discovery of our own unrealities. "Let us admit", he writes, "what all idealists admit: the hallucinatory nature of the world. Let us do what no idealist has done: seek unrealities which confirm that nature" (Borges, 1994; 207-8).

    My intention in this paper is to focus on the more fantastical of Borges' stories, three in particular, in order to discover the secret universes in which Borges is a contented inhabitant. My purpose is to show that despite their esoteric and obscurantist nature, his stories do hold some relevance to the modern condition and that he brings to literature not only a way of writing, but also a way of reading it.

    We have already seen that Borges' work falls well within the rubric of Idealism rather than realism. The fictions of Realism are recognisable by their concealment of artifice, by the normality or unobtrusiveness of their viewpoint on the world. In other words, they are characterised by their fidelity with which they seem to be transcribing a world and not making one up. Borges believes, however, that by employing language in the service of artifice he is exemplifying the real power, not the false promises, of words. For him, as a writer, words and books are reality, as they are for any writer. His acknowledgement that he will never, however many and various the tigers he imagines, accede to the real animal, is an acknowledgement that cuts deep into the pretensions of Realism. Instead of hiding his workings, as most realists do, Borges chooses to make these said workings the subject of his fictions. He vehemently argues that when writers purport to write about what they claim to be first-hand experience of the world, they are in fact using only a second-hand experience of it through the literature of their day. Roland Barthes, in his S/Z, demonstrates, to this effect, that the Realist depends heavily on the cultural stock of his time rather than any immediate confrontation with real people and places.

    Reality, for the Argentine, lies outside of literature and language. He is not interested in the mimesis of Reality, but instead is concerned with the mimesis of convention. How does one reconcile the word with the thing, abstraction with reality? You can't, says Borges, and so he uses abstractions as the reality proper to literature. Borges' mind, then, becomes his absolute reality. He walks through it, suffers in it, struggles with it, enjoys it, and exhausts it possibilities.

    The last of these is essential for our purpose here today. Borges' reality relies on presuppositions. Presuppositions are tacit. They are potential statements we are committed to accepting if we accept the statement which presupposes them. In his essay, Narrative Art and Magic (2001, 75-82), he argues that in order for William Morris's The Life and Death of Jason to work, the writer has to establish the possibility of the centaur's factual existence. Borges goes on to show here that through artifice and other linguistic and perceptual tricks, Morris achieves the impossible; that is, he uses lyrical verse to achieve a willing suspension of disbelief in order to establish the centaur and the adventures of Jason as factual truths.

    Similarly, Borges' fictions, too, are full of 'centaurs', often so cunningly introduced that they escape notice. These artifices suggest, without pretending to represent 'what is', that the reality we know is always more complex than any possible representation of it. It is up to language, therefore, to only hint at this complexity. Its task is to dream into existence the possibility of impossibilities. In this dreaming, then, the permutations for what can possibly be are endless. The dreamer is, at the same time, the dreamed.

    Nowhere in his fictions is this clearer than in the story entitled The Circular Ruins. A magician dreams another man to put him into reality. After many repeated attempts, he finally succeeds, but in order to bring him to life he requires the help of the God of Fire, previously worshiped at the temple which now lies in ruins and where he meditates on his project. In return for the help received he sends the newly dreamt man, essentially his son, down the way to another ruined temple to worship the Fire God. He is concerned, however, that his son might discover the fact that he has been dreamed (a humiliating discovery), because he learns of rumours of a man who can walk on fire without being burned.

    Years later, when his own temple is surrounded by a forest fire, he walks into the flames, and is relieved to find that he is unscathed. Then, he understands with terror that he, too, is an illusion, that someone else had been dreaming him. The story reminds us of Hume's belief that mankind is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity. The circular inversions of the dreamer and the dreamt, of dreaming and being dreamt, is firstly suggested by the epigraph Borges employs for the story, the incomplete thought implied when Tweedledee and Tweedledum explain to Alice that she is part of a dream the red King is dreaming at the moment: "And if he left off dreaming about you..." Here, Alice is confronted with the possible unreality of her self, since to be dreamed is to be nothing. This is a delightful infinite regress since the Red King is part of Alice's dream. The idea here is that while Reality is merely the product of one's real time dreaming, if you like, the possibility that our place in that reality has been dreamt by another makes it pointless to attempt to describe the universe through literature.

    The Universe, or reality, therefore, is a chaos of impressions upon which any semblance of order is imposed or arbitrary. He concludes that,

    Borges is attempting, then, to create a "through-the looking-glass" world through his art, juxtaposing it with the world of 'reality'. The world of reality is created by our presence, like the images in the mirrors: impermanent, unreal and of mysterious purpose. This, of course, is not Borges' discovery but has philosophical roots in Berkeley’s work and earlier.

    Borges considers Berkeley's negation of objective reality irrefutable and even easy to conceive and accept. He suggests the simile of the mirror:

    Berkeley denied matter. This does not mean that he denied things like colours, smells, tastes, and tactility. He denied that there were pains no one feels, colours no one sees, forms no one touches. He argued that to add matter to perceptions is to add to the world another inconceivable and superfluous world. Borges carries Berkeley's postulates and their logical conclusions and consequences to the field of literary creation to mould a literature that moves not within the world of everyday reality but in that of metaphysical reality. Whereas Berkeley wrote under the illusion that he was describing the real world, Borges' literary use of his ideas shows us that the world he projected may be just as unreal as the one he tried to undermine. These realities cancel each other out (Ja n, 1992; 53-54). In other words, like the magician who believes he is a Creator only to find out that he too has been created, we live in the terrifying grip of an infinite regress.

    At the root of this story, lies the theme of Creation, which is related to the cyclical repetition of the dream. A dream implies a dreamer, and Creation implies a Creator. The orthodox argument that god is the uncaused Caused is "a mere juggling of words, a violence done to language" (Jaen, 1992; 58). For him, a speech implies a speaker, and a dream a dreamer; this, of course, leads to an endless series of speakers and dreamers, an infinite regress. Since in the world of experience every effect has a cause, the idea of an uncaused Cause introduces a contradiction to this principle in order to avoid falling into an infinite regress. Similarly, in The Immortal, the narrator says,

    This possibility that the next river you stop at to drink may be the river that takes away one's immortality relegates reality to a game of chance, with no end to the nightmare of possibilities. That our world is "full of possibilities", as the clich goes, is an anathema, argues Borges, and that is why it is relegated to the level of a clich , sequestered in the world of language like a nun of the Cistercian order.

    Further along in the story, the narrator tell us,

    The never ending sequence suggested here represents the endless possibilities of language. After all, objects are irrecoverable and contingent by accident of language alone. All this contributes to Borges' essential purpose of undermining individual personality and Self, individual meaning, and individual destiny.

    This world view first appears in his essay entitled The Nothingness of Personality (2001, 3):

    His reference in the last line to the classics is important for it signifies an interest in literature as form, as creation, as opposed to the romantic conception of literature as expression of self or the personality. Because Borges does not believe in the solidity of a personality, he questions the idea of character development in literature. Form is, in itself, a universe, a constellation of being, and it is through its exposition that an artistic, or creative continuity is achieved. He argues:

    Here, Borges is alluding to both Berkeley and Hume. Berkeley denied matter; Hume denied spirit (Borges, 2001; 328). In essence, then, humanity is nothingness. Hence, in The Circular Ruins, the final revelation that the magician, too, has been dreamed suggests not only that the self is illusory, but also that the narrative that has led us to that revelation is illusory, or meaningless. It is the snake eating its own tail. This is his meaning when he stubbornly insists that there is no meaning to his stories.

    However, we can go much further. While in The Circular Ruins, Borges shows us that the Self is an illusion, he also believes that the entity, the being of the singular 'I' is not one thing alone, but all the things in the universe, and of none. He argues that "Man is not matter, form, impressions, ideas, instincts, or consciousness. He is not the combination of these parts, nor does he exist outside of them" (Personality and the Buddha, 2001; 348-9). Not only is the self negated, but all things are negated, including the negation of the negation. Borges is here attempting to equate pantheism with the negation of the personality, for pantheism represents the fragmentation and the dissolution of the Godhead.

    The central idea of pantheism is that the world is a projection of the divine or the transcendental realm. Therefore, the multifarious diversity of the world is imbued with unreality, and points to an underlying and essential unity. Borges employs the cabbalistic notions of the world as an intellectual or verbal emanation of the divine, Schopenhauer's vision of the world as representation of Will, and the Buddhist perception of the world as a dream of Buddha to suggest in his stories the "vacuity or banality of the differentiated world while affirming its fundamental unity and the equality of its parts" (Jaen, 1992; 79).

    In The God's Script (1964, 169-173), or sometimes translated as The Writing of God, Tzinacan, magician and high priest of the pyramid of Qaholom is imprisoned in a cell divided in two by a wall of long iron bars. On one side of this wall is Tzinacan, on the other, a jaguar. The conquering Spaniards have tortured him in order to force him to divulge the secret of the hidden treasure, but he refuses because his God has not forsaken him.

    In prison he begins to dream, recalling all that he knew, and in one of these mental sojourns, he recalls the tradition of God who, forseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, "wrote on the first day of creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils" (1964, 170). He meditates for months on end, then, remembers that the jaguar was one of the attributes of God. He sets about to decipher the secret word from the black patterns on the animal's coat.

    Finally, he cracks the code, but, he does not use the Word to wreak havoc on his enemies and save himself and his people because, he says, he no longer remembers Tzinacan.

    Tzinacan has seen the universe through the eyes of God. In the universe, all things are one and nothing. Like the magician in The Circular Ruins, Tzinacan finds himself unable to change the direction of his fate, even when imbued with the knowledge of Gods. The magician has the power to create a being into existence, but he cannot deny that he is both everything and nothing. Tzinacan has the power to obliterate the Spaniards and claim back his lands and his people, but he has seen the infinite processes “that formed one single felicity” and he becomes a personification of inertia.

    It is clear that despite being criticised or labeled as fantastical or irrelevant, Borges employs universal themes, the predominant one being the disempowerment of the individual in the face of universal forces, and the loss of the Self. To be sure, other writers before and after him have dealt with the same issues. Kafka, among these, is the best known and is often compared with Borges. Whereas Kafka writes from the outside looking in, Borges writes from the inside looking in. By juxtaposing the idealist principle that all matter and spirit is illusory with the world of language and fiction making, he allows himself the advantage of exhausting the possibilities of and limits to creative output.

    By using abstractions as the reality proper to literature, he extends the life of fiction making, and allows language to explore and describe areas of the human psyche. His literature of exhaustion is a silence that comes with the disruption of all connection between language and reality. Like Nabakov, Borges turns art into anti-art or silence, which proposes a "mood of ultimacy" (Stark, 1974; 3). Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.

    The 'silence' that Sontag argues exemplifies the work of Borges is a silence that results when a Literature tries to subvert itself, to exhaust its own possibilities. In this, the literature of exhaustion differs from fantastical fiction, since the latter seeks to transcend itself. This self-subverting tendency stems, in Borges' mind, from William Morris's belief that the essential stories of man's imagination had long since been told and that by now the storyteller’s craft lay in rethinking and retelling them.

    Borges' literature is about literature. Writers of this kind of literature build an artificial construct, rather than rendering in artistic form meaningful details from a meaning-laden world. They care not for character or plot. The most vivid exposition of the reason why he creates artificial literature can be found in the essayistic story, The Library of Babel:

    The world is inexhaustible, and no man can be completely understood, suggests Borges, and this reminds us of Edmund Husserl's notion of the self's ultimate unknowability, and that it, like the rest of everyday reality, is unreal. A couple of paragraphs down, Borges continues:

    The Universe, then, which Borges calls the Library of Babel, is infinite because all that can be written about it has already been written. The Library exists ab aeterno. Man is the imperfect librarian looking for the chance infamous Word, not realising that he, too, is the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi. Further, because the Library can only be the work of a god, as Borges claims in the story, those who try to dissemble or emulate the divine structure are reduced to pathetic figures "in latrines with some metal disks in a forbidden dice cup" who "feebly mimic the divine disorder" (1964, 56).

    In other words, while the universe may be infinite, what we can apprehend of it through language is finite. The Library, says Borges, "is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveller went to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)" (1964, 58).

    Borges' universes, then, are limitless entities, abounding in a multitude of forms, crossing over time and space, their boundaries determined only by the extent of Borges' imagination and language. Reality lies outside of this equation, carries no weight, save for the realities we create in our own minds when we read, for example, of a high priest called Tzinacan, who unravels the secret code of God from the invisible circular designs on the jaguar's coat. The Wheel that Tzinac n discovers and which he explains in his mind is, in fact, the wheel our own minds construct from the cultural stock at our disposal. We do not need to consciously learn that Borges has borrowed the idea of the Buddhist Wheel of Life; we know this from our own vague internal, muddled realities, which collect like moths to a light source, and through which we sift to retrieve what we need. Borges' games, then, include the readers. We are unwitting conspirators in his diabolical labyrinthine puzzles.

    Borges is not a magic realist, despite the magical elements. More accurately, he is a literary critic and theorist. He does not theorise the short story form. Rather, he theorises writing. Read in this manner, Borges' task becomes clear.

    Borges merely articulates in literary form what we articulate in the form of vaguely apprehended snippets of social and cultural reality. He gives voice to our inner urges, the chaotic order that characterises our dream state. Such reverie weaves soft bonds around the dreamer, and poetises the dreamer. Perhaps, this is Borges' ultimate goal – to attain a purity of form, both in apprehension and expression. This purity is meant to achieve a cognitive resonance within the experience of the reader, to emulate a dream sequence and to extend the limits of a linguistically engendered reality. He forces us, as both writers and readers to confront literature as a mirror (that negates) of the Universe.

    Ultimately, Borges is perhaps suggesting that literary creation is the same as the reading of it. Perhaps, he is saying that all our ideas are games of chance that point to one fundamental fact – the objects we dream have already dreamt us.


    Works Cited:

    Bell-Villada, Gene H., Borges and His Fiction: A guide to His Mind and Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).
    Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1964).
    _______________ Dreamtigers (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970).
    _______________ The Aleph (London: Penguin Classics, 2000).
    _______________ Brodie's Report (London: Penguin Classics, 2000a).
    _______________ The Total Library (London: Penguin Classics, 2001).
    Jaen, Didier T., Borges' esoteric library: metaphysics to metafiction (Lanham: University Press of America, 1992).
    Stark, John, The Literature of Exhaustion: Borges, Nabokov, and Barth (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1974).
    Sturrock, John, Paper tigers: the ideal fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/19/2007 Article Image:
    By Steve Nakoneshny (2007)

    In the most simplistic of terms, religion is an attempt to discuss the nature of the universe with thoughts of a Deity being central. Science is an attempt to describe the nature of the universe simply as the physical, expressed characteristics of brute matter. As different as these two belief structures may appear to be, they are both essentially nothing more than alternative assays at explaining the ‘true’ nature of the universe. The works of “so important a scientific luminary as [sir] Isaac Newton,”[1] which encompasses a diverse variety of topics such as science, theology, and alchemy, were all written with the same design in mind: to explain the ‘true’ nature of the universe as it was created by God.

    This viewpoint is challenging to the modern day skeptic scientist, to say the least, but it is a common thread that pervades all aspects of Newton’s work. In fact, he himself has stated that “the primary goal of scientific investigation is to reveal the ultimate cause of creation.”[2] Logically, the ultimate cause of anything can only be the First Cause. For Newton (and his contemporaries), the First Cause is equivalent to God. Therefore, all science is an attempt to better understand God. This is consistent with the Natural Philosophy view that the study of the Book of God’s works is as much an act of worship as the study of the Book of God’s word.[3] For these people, little distinction could be made between theology and science as one would frequently lead to the other and both would lead to God.

    Scholarly endeavors into this realm of late appear to have accepted this inter-relationship as fact, for in “having divided up the scholarly work of studying Newton into areas congruent with modern academic interests, we had inadvertently divided up Newton.”[4] Westfall understood that “the relationship within Newton’s own mind between his scientific work and his religious work was a complex network of mutual influence.”[5] Thus, it is necessary to study all aspects of Newton’s works in order to (hopefully) be able to best understand the underlying theme that pervades it all. This writer is of the firm opinion that the underlying theme is none other than God.

    The main problem when studying the body of Newton’s work is to mistakenly view it through a modern bias. He was a seventeenth century natural philosopher who was a deeply devout man to whom questions of religion and theology truly mattered in the most profound of ways. In as much as we are all products of our environment, it is necessary to recognize Newton’s indigenous environment lest we expect to understand his intentions. Very little mainstream knowledge of Newton’s theological works exists. “That he would not publish these writings in his own time, because they showed that his thoughts were sometimes different from those which are commonly received, which would engage him in dispute.”[6] In fact, when sent for posthumous publication, the vast majority of his manuscripts were deemed unfit for printing. Otherwise, we may have ended up with a distinctly different conception of the man that was Newton.

    Much of his theological investigations focused upon a search for the ‘true’ religion. His research in this endeavor lead him to read many ancient texts including alchemical manuscripts. The latter he read mainly “for the purpose of drawing out its religious content and thereby obtaining insights into ancient religion or into primitive Christianity.”[7] He sought out these ancient insights in order to be better able to comprehend man’s relationship to God, and by extension, his own relationship with God. Possibly, he even sought them out I order too determine if they held the key to a less corrupted version of the ‘true’ religion.

    Whether it was his research that led to his unorthodox views or if his unorthodox views fueled his need to search for the ‘true’ religion is not the purpose of this paper.[8] Suffice it to say that the conclusions that Newton reaches are the result of meticulous and arduous study of both scripture and texts of antiquity. In his manuscript entitled “A Short Scheme of the True Religion,”[9] Newton declares that the true religion is based upon the adherence to two basic tenets: (1) our duty to God; we must love him, fear him, honour him, trust in him, pray to him, give him thanks, praise him, hallow his name, obey his commandments, and set times apart for his service, as we are directed in the third and fourth commandments.[10] (2) our duty to man; “we must be righteous, and do to all men as we would that they should do to us.”[11] Of this religion, he suggests that it is corrupted by man over time, and that the prophets are sent to us from God in order to remove the corruption and restore us to the original, true faith. Influenced by this belief in the importance of prophets and prophecy (which is central to Christian theology), Newton penned a substantial (also unpublished) manuscript entitled “The First Book Concerning the Language of the Prophets.”[12] In it, he discusses the results of his study of prophetic writings, which is a more arduous task than I care to contemplate. Without delving into the minutiae of that manuscript, it is readily apparent that this subject was of great concern to Newton. This concern likely formed out of the standard Christian view that the first coming of Christ was actualized by the fulfillment of prophecy by Jesus and that the second coming of Christ has been prophesized as well. By studying prophecy, an adept may better be able to interpret the signs that foretell the second coming of Christ. Unfortunately, the second coming also heralds Armageddon, but I guess that you can’t have it all.

    In a line of thinking tangentially related to his interest in prophecy, is his interest in Christ and his denial of the Trinity. For in his manuscript entitled “Twelve Articles,” he states that there is “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.”[13] Implicit in this statement is the belief that Christ Jesus is distinct from both man and God. Jesus was “a true man born of a woman”[14] and “Christ [who] came not to diminish the worship of his Father.”[15] Newton felt that Jesus was an intermediary between man and God and that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy, and Jesus is the Word or prophet of God.”[16] This and his other anti-trinitarian views arise from his study of the works of church fathers. In the two manuscripts, “Queries regarding the Word Homoousios” and “Paradoxical Questions,”[17] Newton discusses the source of corruption to the true religion and the cause of its introduction. His argument is long and tedious, and I will content myself to say that he proved to himself (if no one else) that the corrupt doctrine was the doctrine of the Trinity. His argument is more forceful because of its thoroughness; the same attention to the slightest detail, and rigorous methodology that is so characteristic of his scientific endeavors is equally visible here. Thus, by no means can his theological works be dismissed as anything less than a serious scholarly body of work. They are integral (no pun intended) to an understanding of Newton beyond the scope of preeminent scientist.

    The crown jewel of Isaac Newton’s academic career was the publication of The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The Principia was a mechanistic philosophy of nature by which all objects within the universe are subject to certain immutable laws. This much is known to all whom have studied classical physics. For us, a self-perpetuating universe is acceptable, unfortunately, that was not Newton’s intention. His correspondence with Richard Bentley upon the subject begins with the sentence: "When I wrote my Treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering Men, for the belief of a Deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose."[18] It is this part of Newton’s science that is frequently overlooked; he had written it with one eye upon the earth and the other to the heavens. It should be noted that he admitted that he did not have the answers to all of the workings of the world. He attributes the cause of these phenomena to God: the idea of reducing the world to “meer natural Causes”[19] is clearly abhorrent to him.[20] According to Newton, planetary motion and the motion of comets through the universe can only have been derived by “the Effect of Counsel.”[21] His argument to this effect is not so much deriving the conclusion from the evidence presented, as it is deriving the evidence that supports the conclusion. For Newton though, the workings of God as creator of the universe is a fait accompli; he sees no need to debate about the verity of a subject that is, to him, patently obvious.

    Central to his theory of the universe is the concept of gravity. The inverse square law of gravity revolutionized the manner in which people perceived how the world operated. He waffles a bit on the subject though, for while he says that “the Cause of Gravity is what I do not pretend to know, and therefore would take more time to consider of it,”[22] he does not hesitate to speculate that the Cause is none other than God. He denies that gravity is an inherent property of matter. If it were an inherent quality, then there would be no need for an externally imposed Cause. It would self-regulate itself irrespective of a God. But since there necessarily needs be a God ordering the actions of the universe, He cannot do so with a universe populated with autonomous matter. Therefore, gravity is not inherent to matter, it has an external cause, and that cause can be none other than God. This is a perfect example of how Newton’s theological suppositions guide the direction and strength of his scientific inquiries.

    In the Scholium Generale of the Principia, Newton attempts to explain the interaction of God and the universe: "This Being rules all things not as the soul of the world (for he has no body). . . He is Eternal and infinite. He endures for ever and is everywhere present: for what is never and nowhere is nothing. Can God be nowhere when the moment of time is everywhere? Certainly. He is omnipresent not only virtually but substantially, for virtue cannot subsist without substance, the substance is already imagined. In him are all things contained and moved, yet God and matter do not interfere. God suffers nothing from the motions of bodies, and these suffer no resistance from the omnipresence of God."[23] For Newton, the existence of God does not interfere with the workings of the universe, and the existence of the universe in no way interferes with the workings of God. Certainly he believed that matter could be affected by God directly, if He so chose, but matter was not affected simply by the existence of God. In this manner, Newton allows for both the existence of a mechanically ordered universe and for the means by which Divine Providence can operate within the world (for who are we to tell God what He may or may not do?).

    With respect to miracles, Newton says that they "… are not so called because they are the works of God, but because they happen seldom, and for that reason create wonder. If they should happen constantly according to certain laws impressed upon the nature of things, they would be no longer wonders or miracles, but might be considered in philosophy as a part of the phenomena of nature notwithstanding that the cause of their causes might be unknown to us."[24] It appears as though Newton is hedging his bets. Miracles come not from God and aren’t natural in origin, but at the same time we know not their cause. It seems as though he is taking an intermediary position here. Miracles are infrequent, but may be affected by natural laws exclusive to themselves and it may also be possible that their occurrence is affected by the will of God (albeit indirectly). Certainly unorthodox, and somewhat cryptic, this statement nevertheless supports Newton’s desire to explain all things in the world with respect to either his natural philosophy or to God.

    Finally, there are the Queries with which Newton concludes the Opticks. For the most part, they deal with the physics associated with Newton’s discoveries in the field of optics. However, towards the end, they begin to show his interest in chemistry, and also contain some reflections upon God and the creation of the universe. He claims that "it is unphilosophical to seek for any other origin of the world or to pretend that it might arise out of a chaos by the mere laws of nature, though being once formed it may continue by those laws for many ages."[25] For Newton, the elegance with which the universe presents itself is argument enough for the existence of a Deity. For him, the formation of the universe must have been guided by the hand of an omnipotent God, else it would not have formed in the manner that it had. This argument derives its conclusions through circular reasoning, and is thereby flawed, but it is not so in Newton’s mind. He believed that by expanding the boundaries of natural philosophy, “the bounds of moral philosophy will be also enlarged.”[26] In so doing, mankind will be able to ascend to a greater religious truth than what has ever existed. This in turn will result in a more accurate representation of the ‘true’ religion, and therefore render our worship of God greater. Ultimately, all of Newton’s works aim to create a closer relationship between mankind and their God.

    - By Steve Nakoneshny (2007)


    [1] Lindberg, D.C. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. p.4
    [2] Westfall, R.S. science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England. David Horne, ed. Miscellany 67; New Haven: Yale University Press. 1968.,p.194
    [3] Brooke, J.H. Science and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. p.22
    [4] Dobbs, B.J.T. the Janus Face of Genius. Cambridge University Press.,1991. p.251
    [5] Westfall , p.194
    [6] McLaughlan, H. Sir Isaac Newton’s Theological Manuscripts. Liverpool: University Press, 1950. p. 2. The above quote is from Newton’s friend John Craig shortly after his death.
    [7] Dobbs, B.J.T. The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy, or “The Hunting of the Greene Lyon”. Cambridge University Press, 1975. The context of this full statement is an interpretation and refutation of the opinions of one Mary S. Churchill. A position which Dobbs repudiates in the Epilogue of “Janus Face of Genius.”
    [8] This particular line of questioning is further developed in the introduction of McLaughlan’s “Sir Isaac Newton’s Theological Manuscripts” and in McGuire and Tamny’s “Certain Philosophical Questions: Newton’s Trinity Notebook.”
    [9] McLaughlan, p.48-53. This same argument takes form in the “Irenicum”, p.28-35.
    [10] Ibid. p.51.
    [11] Ibid. p.52.
    [12] Ibid. p.119.
    [13] Ibid. p. 56.
    [14] Ibid. “our religion to Jesus Christ,” p.54.
    [15] Ibid. “Articles,” p.56.
    [16] Ibid. p.56.
    [17] Ibid. former, p.44-47; latter, p.61-118.
    [18] Cohen, I.B. Isaac Newton’s Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978. p.280. Also, for a ‘modern’ English translation of these same letters, see Thayer’s Newton’s Philosophy of Nature. p.46-58.
    [19] Ibid. p.282.
    [20] McLaughlan, “A Short Scheme of the True Religion,” p.48.
    [21] Cohen, p.282.
    [22] Ibid. p. 298.
    [23] Hall, A.R. & Hall, M.B., Eds. Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: University Press, 1962. p.359-360. This quote was taken from one of the unpublished manuscript versions of the Scholium (ms. C, to be precise).
    [24] McLaughlan, p. 17-18.
    [25] Thayer, p. 177.
    [26] Ibid. p. 179.


    Bibliography and Works Cited

    Brooke, J.H. Science and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
    Cohen, I.B. Isaac Newton’s Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
    Dobbs, B.J.T. The Foundation of Newton’s Alchemy, or The Hunting of the Greene Lyon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
    Dobbs, B.J.T. The Janus Face of Genius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
    Hall, A.R. & Hall, M.B., eds. Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
    Lindberg, D.C. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
    McGuire, J.E. & Tamny, M. Certain Philosophical Questions: Newton’s Trinity Notebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
    McLaughlan, H. Sir Isaac Newton’s Theological Manuscripts. Liverpool: University Press, 1950.
    Thayer, H. S. Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his Writings. New York: Hafner Press, 1953.
    Westfall, R.S. Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England. David Horne, ed. Miscellany 67; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/11/2007 Article Image:
    By Paul Newall (2007)

    In his famous work The Mechanization of the World Picture, E.J. Dijksterhuis described in great detail the development of the so-called mechanical philosophy from its origins in antiquity with the Greeks to Newton in more modern times. In its earlier incarnations there were convincing enough counter-arguments that it was not a serious concern to ideas about God. With the rise of experiment as a check on theory, however, mechanical philosophy began to seem more tenable and its possible clash with theological matters more pressing.

    Potential problems with the mechanical philosophy were quickly seen by Mersenne, who worried that it might run up against theology and imply that there was no room for miracles. University tutors also became concerned at the consequences that their students were drawing from Descartes' thinking. Nevertheless, the principle difficulty was with God's freedom to act in the world and that free will He had supposedly granted to his creation: if the universe was explicable in mechanical terms – that is, as a machine, running like clockwork, whether crafted by God as great artificer or not – then how could men avoid the inevitable result of the playing out of that design and how could God change it without ruining the structure?

    Mersenne had originally favoured mechanistic ideas because he had realised that some form of natural order would be necessary before there could be a miracle that is contrary to nature. For this reason, he advocated the study of nature and the determination of natural laws, but it was easy for critics to associate the supposedly atheistic atomism of the early Greeks with the mechanical philosophy and it was a small matter to move from mechanistic ideas being able to explain the workings of the universe to there being no place left for God, as Laplace would famously remark. Both Mersenne and Descartes believed that God was inscrutable, with the ultimate essence of things forever beyond our capacities; even so, if the mechanistic philosophy was proving valuable in understanding the natural world and the supernatural lies out of reach then it seemed to some that the mechanists were contributing, indirectly or otherwise, to the minimisation or death of God.

    How, then, could the mechanistic philosophy be accommodated with a God acting in the world? Descartes chose to ignore the problem, supposing instead that there was no intersection between the domains of faith and nature. This undermined the doctrine of the Eucharist, though, and hence was not considered an option. In an attempt to avoid the more unpalatable consequences of Descartes' work, Malebranche devised the notion of occasionalism, according to which God's direct intervention could be invoked whenever sense-perception was involved; that is, a God actively taking part in His creation at all times and sustaining it. Since it was believed that Descartes' philosophy could explain the workings of nature without any reference to God, his works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1663, followed by a Royal ban on the teaching of his ideas in French universities.

    Gassendi took a rather different approach, believing that he could rehabilitate the doctrine of atomism in a way that would render it compatible with Christian theology; in effect, trying to reduce the barriers between science and religion rather than hold them to be immovable like Descartes. In modern parlance, Gassendi was an instrumentalist, believing that empirical adequacy was the aim of science. Knowledge of causes would remain beyond us, so he defended atomism because it provided a plausible account of the phenomena that Aristotelianism could not; the question of whether God had no role to play in his mechanistic world therefore did not arise, and the issue of whether atomism was "true" or not would not concern him. Some philosophers of science have employed a similar understanding today.

    Pascal was deeply interested in experiment and the mechanical philosophy but nevertheless maintained a separation between his work and his theology, demarcating them clearly. Although he believed that the work of God was evident in nature, he held that God Himself was hidden therein rather than manifest. No amount of study of the natural world – on the basis of the mechanistic philosophy or otherwise - could prove the existence of God, then, but neither could it disprove or caution against faith. Pascal, much like Gassendi, was not concerned to show how God interacted with the world because – for both – their understanding of that world rendered the problematic aspects of mechanism moot.

    Steno was of a different persuasion: he felt that there was and could be no conflict at all between science and religion. The workings of nature – in his case, geology – could be studied to supplement the Scriptural account; where nature was silent we can appeal to the Bible and where neither tell us anything we can say nothing. He insisted that nature and Scripture could never be in disagreement.

    Looking at these five illustrative examples of French natural philosophers we thus find that none of them seem to have exhibited much concern about the compatibility of God with the mechanistic philosophy. Mersenne worried that it might find use in atheistic thinking but felt God to be beyond argument regardless. Descartes ignored the issue and Gassendi did not find there to be a problem at all, if the early atomists were understood correctly. For Pascal, God was hidden and thus under no threat from any implications of experiment or philosophy, and for Steno there was no incompatibility at all. What was never at issue was the belief in God of any of them or the possibility that mechanism might lead to a diminishing of God. They wanted to use the analogy of the clockwork universe to give greater glory to God by coming to know His work, and it is therefore something of an historical irony that those who did most to develop the mechanical philosophy did so in the belief that they were buttressing belief in God.

    The issue is subtler, though. Looking again at Mersenne, we find that he was actually concerned to delimit the natural in response to Protestant criticisms that the Catholic Church used miracles to convert people. Mersenne believed in both God and miracles and wanted to employ mechanistic philosophy to show how the former worked through the latter and hence answer the Protestants. To suppose that he found mechanism convincing and then worried that there might be no place left for God is to misunderstand his intent. The mechanistic world would not exclude God or miracles; instead, it would help understand when a true miracle occurred and when it had not. (Note that this is the same motivation that lay behind research into the praeternatural in demonology.)

    Descartes was also pursuing a different tack to that we might suppose on a cursory reading. He wanted to emphasise the uniqueness of man by showing him to differ from the rest of creation by the existence of his immortal soul. To do so, he used the mechanistic philosophy to demonstrate that all other regions of the universe, particularly animals, could be understood as machines, however complex. He employed mechanism to make theological points and support the activity of the divine in the world, so it is little wonder that he did not see the consequences that others found in his work. We have already seen that Gassendi felt the question to be one of correctly appreciating what the atomists meant and that Pascal and Steno had nothing to be worried about. For his part, Dijksterhuis saw no link between atomism and the mechanical philosophy, insisting that "a machine presupposes a conscious and intelligent maker who has constructed it and makes it operate to realize a particular object. It is hardly possible to maintain a conception that differs more widely from the worldview of Democritean atomism."

    In summary, the issue seems to be that concern at the mechanistic philosophy was on the part of others - those who had read the French natural philosophers considered here but not sufficiently understood their motives and purposes. Leaving these out and considering the thinkers above as examples of mechanistic philosophers is therefore a huge oversimplification; it would perhaps be more accurate to call them natural philosophers who employed mechanism to achieve ends that were their own and not forced upon them by it. Mechanism suited their theological ideas and what they hoped to achieve in their endeavour to bring glory to God.
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/04/2007 Article Image:
    Bradley Monton is a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specialises in the philosophy of science, particularly the philosophy of physics. He is the author of several papers looking at the intersection of the philosophy of science with public debates surrounding the issue of what should or should not be taught in science classrooms and has a keen interest in arguments for or against the existence of God that rely on science. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him some questions on these and other areas.

    - Interviewed by Paul Newall (2007)

    PN: In the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design was creationism and not science. This ruling greatly heartened scientists, but you were critical of it, in your paper Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision. Could you explain your objections?

    BM: I was disturbed by the fact that so many people seemed heartened by this decision. In general in life, one will get into trouble if one doesn’t distinguish good arguments for a conclusion one likes from bad arguments for a conclusion one likes. In the Dover case, most science-minded folks wanted the judge to reach the decision that ID isn’t science, and hence shouldn’t be taught in public school science classes, so they were happy that he did. The problem is that the argument he gave was flawed.

    It wasn’t completely the judge’s fault that he gave a flawed argument; he was relying on the testimony presented to him in the trial, and the anti-ID people had philosophers like Robert Pennock testifying, and Pennock has (in my opinion) confused ideas about demarcation issues. The law firm representing the Dover school board did a really bad job dealing with the philosophy of science issues – they should have had as one of their expert witnesses a reputable philosopher of science defending a view opposed to Pennock’s, but they didn’t. When they asked Pennock about the demarcation views of other philosophers of science (Larry Laudan in particular) Pennock gave what I think was a misleading answer, not adequately admitting that his view is a controversial one in the philosophy of science community.

    Pennock endorses methodological naturalism, and (in part as a result) Judge Jones did too, but I think methodological naturalism is a bad principle to endorse. Methodological naturalism is the principle that holds that when doing science one should follow the methodology that one can only postulate natural causes and explanations; one can’t consider supernatural causes or explanations. There are two main versions of the doctrine of methodological naturalism, and many people who endorse it aren’t clear on which version they are endorsing. The weak version holds that, since we don’t have evidence for supernatural things, we shouldn’t be allowed to postulate them when doing science. The strong version holds that it’s part of the very nature of science that we can’t postulate supernatural things. The difference between the two is that those who endorse the weak version would allow that, if we started to get empirical evidence for the existence of supernatural things, we should change the methodology of science, so that we are allowed to consider supernatural hypotheses. Those who endorse the strong version would say that, even in the face of this sort of evidence, when one is doing science one can’t consider supernatural hypotheses.

    While it wasn’t completely clear, I got the sense that Judge Jones was endorsing the strong version: he said that ID may be true, but it isn’t science. I think it’s unreasonable for these sorts of methodological considerations to have the consequence that science isn’t a pursuit of truth. That may well be the case – it’s controversial in the philosophy of science community as to whether the aim of science is truth – but I don’t think this methodology-based argument is the right way to get there. (Bas van Fraassen, in his The Scientific Image, gives what I think is a much better argument in favour of the doctrine that the aim of science isn’t truth.)

    PN: What are the problems in general with attempting to demarcate science from non-science or pseudo-science? Even though there are philosophical difficulties involved, should scientists continue to make a distinction in practice so that the business of science can proceed?

    BM: Before I offer my thoughts, I should point out that the best paper on this issue of how (and whether) we should demarcate science from non-science is Larry Laudan’s The Demise of the Demarcation Problem. It was originally published in what as far as I can tell is a rather obscure collection on Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis, back in 1983, but it’s still the most influential paper on the topic today. While I don’t agree with everything in the paper, I basically think that it’s on the right track.

    Laudan points out that every attempt to give general criteria that we can use to say what counts as science and what doesn’t hasn’t been successful. This isn’t the sort of argument that can be given quickly; each purported demarcation criteria has to be carefully analyzed, and shown to be unsuccessful. Laudan’s paper isn’t long enough to really do this successfully, but I think he shows how the argument would go.

    Now, just because extant demarcation criteria don’t work, that doesn’t mean that there are no demarcation criteria. Surely what goes on in a standard chemistry lab counts as science, and what goes on at a football game counts as non-science. So why can’t we give a successful demarcation criterion? To do so we’d have to do conceptual analysis – we’d have to give necessary and sufficient conditions for what it is for some practice to count as a scientific practice. The problem here is that conceptual analysis is notoriously difficult, even for seemingly simple concepts. An exercise I like to do with my students is to break them into groups and have them try to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for what it takes for some object to be a chair. I’ve never seen a successful analysis of the concept of a chair.

    PN: How have scientists - if they have at all - responded to your critique of the Dover decision? In your experience, do scientists appreciate philosophical critiques of their practices, methodologies and assumptions, or do they resist such philosophical inquiry?

    BM: I actually haven’t talked with any scientists about my Dover paper. In general, I find that scientists don’t concern themselves too much with philosophical issues, which is fine by me. When they do, the results are often not good. For example, in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, he gives a philosophical argument against the existence of God which is pretty bad. Al Plantinga rightly criticizes it in his review.

    On a more positive note, sometimes I think it’s good that scientists don’t concern themselves with philosophy because by avoiding philosophy they’ll do better science as a result. For example, I once had a physicist who was doing work on quantum gravity ask me: do philosophers have good arguments to show that space and time have to be aspects of fundamental reality? Researchers in quantum gravity were (and are) pursuing theories where space and time aren’t part of fundamental reality, and this physicist wanted to know if that was legitimate. My answer to him was “no”, and I would have given something like that answer even if I thought that there were good arguments for that view; I wouldn’t want philosophy to stifle scientific developments. I’ve tried a couple times to write a philosophy paper taking up this type of relationship between philosophy and physics in more detail, but so far I haven’t managed to produce anything solid.

    Also, a lot of my research is in philosophy of physics, specifically on the issue of how best to understand quantum mechanics. Here I think there is lots of room for fruitful interaction between physicists and philosophers. But here we're not stepping back and analyzing the nature of science; we’re actually engaging in a particular mode of inquiry which is on the border between physics and philosophy. Because philosophers of physics and physicists who work on foundations of physics issues share the same practices, methodologies, and assumptions, fruitful collaborative work gets done.

    PN: Given your argument that it is improper to demarcate evolution from ID on the ground of the difficulty (impossibility?) of demarcating science from non-science, and your argument that we cannot exclude supernatural explanations from scientific inquiry in advance, how should school districts respond to those who argue in favour of including intelligent design in school curricula?

    BM: There are two ways I can answer this question. One is as a political philosophy question, about how the ideal society’s educational system should be structured. Here I have libertarian sentiments – I support a system where all schools are private, where the government would only get involved in setting minimal standards for what students need to be taught, and perhaps in having some sort of voucher system to ensure that all children get an adequate education. The minimal government standards I would set would allow ID arguments to be taught in science classes, as long as the science was taught as well. Basically I think parents should be allowed to decide what their children learn, subject only to the sort of guidance that the children aren’t taught horribly wrong things.

    This is basically how our society works nowadays – parents can teach their children pretty much whatever they want. The main difference is that there is also a public school system, but for those parents who choose not to send their kids to public school there are (as in my ideal society) minimal government standards for what the kids should be taught.

    So this leads to the question – what should be taught in public school? Well, it’s legitimate to teach ID in public school, as long as it gets taught in a comparative religion class, or a current events class, or something along those lines. The controversy is over what should be taught in public school science classes. Here my basic opinion is that it doesn’t matter that much whether ID gets taught or not. There are all sorts of problems with how science is taught in public school, and whether ID is added as a component of the curriculum isn’t going to affect things that much (as long as it’s not made the focus of the class – but that clearly wasn’t the case in the Dover trial; the issue there was whether a brief (and rather silly) disclaimer would be read).

    We’d be much better off as a society if we focused on big-picture issues regarding how science is taught – right now there is too much focus on memorization of facts and mathematical problem-solving, and not enough on teaching methodologies for scientific research and conceptual understanding. I could see ID being incorporated really well into a discussion of the latter issues, regarding methodologies and conceptual issues in science. This might involve teaching the students a bit of philosophy of science, in addition to the science, but I don’t think this would be a bad thing.

    Of course, the people who worry about ID being taught in public school are really worried about the proselytizing teacher. Well, I agree, teachers shouldn’t be allowed to proselytize, whether it be about religious matters, or politics, or sex, or what have you. There’s nothing special about the ID debate here, in my opinion. There are ways of teaching without proselytizing – one puts the issues on the table, fairly presents the arguments on both sides, and lets the students critically think about the issues. If ID were taught that way in public school science classes, I don’t think it would be a big deal.

    The ID movement is going to run into trouble is they keep trying to get ID in the schools at the school board level, as they did at Dover. They’d be better off just trying to get it to be the case that individual teachers are allowed to teach ID as a topic if the teacher chooses to, as long as the teacher also covers all that’s required by the curriculum. I’d love to see a test case where a teacher was brought to court for doing that, when the teacher taught ID in a non-proselytizing way.

    PN: What is your opinion of how online media such as blogs and discussion forums have contribute to this debate, particularly arguments that involve the philosophy of science?

    BM: I like how they can easily bring people together who are interested in a topic to have a discussion. After the Dover trial, there was a lot of online debate, which was fun to read about. I posted my paper about Dover online just a week or so after the judge’s decision was issued, and my paper quickly got a lot of discussion. That couldn’t have happened in pre-internet days.

    I also like how search engines make it easy to find a discussion on some particular topic that one might not have ever found otherwise. Sometimes the quality of the discussion isn’t that good, but then again the quality of discussions one has in person sometimes isn’t that good either.

    PN: Why do you think this debate has been so acrimonious? Could it have been otherwise?

    BM: It’s clear that the debate need not be acrimonious – there are people like Del Ratzsch, Robin Collins, Neil Manson, and I who are engaging in the debate in a respectful, objection fashion.

    Some people think that the acrimony – the involvement of emotive rhetoric – is how minds are changed and decisions won. I don’t know whether that’s true or not – that’s a psychological question that would need to be addressed with empirical research. I do know that I don’t much care whether I change minds or win decisions in the public forum. What I care about is getting at the truth. I wouldn’t want to change minds with bad argumentation, and whether I give good arguments for the views I think are right is much more important to me than whether, say, ID gets taught in public school.

    Now, if the teaching of ID in public school will somehow cause our society to become an oppressive theocracy, I would be concerned, and might even be willing to sacrifice my quest for truth in favour of political expediency. But I really don’t think that’s going to happen, and absent such extreme possibilities, I’m going to pursue good arguments, without worrying about whether they are effective arguments.

    One thing to keep in mind here is that the focus on changing minds and winning decisions tends to be a short-term focus, while philosophy arguments are (hopefully, at least) around for the long term. This may be hopelessly Pollyannaish of me, but I envision my writings being read 200 or 300 years from now, in a political climate without the sort of heated rhetoric that we have now, and I picture those readers saying: “yes, Monton had it right”. Those people are my real audience, not the people who are just looking for the latest salvo to defend their side in a culture war.

    PN: In your paper Life is Evidence for an Infinite Universe, you wrote: "Richard Dawkins has said that one could not be an intellectually fulfilled atheist before Darwin; in my opinion one cannot be an intellectually fulfilled atheist until one recognizes that the universe is infinite." Could you explain what you mean by this, and why life is evidence for a spatially infinite universe?

    BM: Regarding the first question, here perhaps I let my desire for rhetorical flourish get the better of me. But here’s what I had in mind, which I still think is basically right. Dawkins’ point, I take it, is that before Darwin one could be a rational atheist, but there would be a gap in our understanding of the world – we wouldn’t understand how complex life came to be. Because of this gap, we can’t be intellectually fulfilled. My point was that, even understanding how complex life came to be, there is a further gap in our understanding, that of understanding how life came to exist in the first place. An appeal to the infinite universe helps account for how life came to exist in the first place, and hence fills that further gap in our understanding.

    Even now there are gaps in our understanding of the world. For example, I don’t think we understand the phenomenon of consciousness very well. So in that sense, I would say that, even now, we can’t be intellectually fulfilled atheists. Some theists might take the phenomenon of consciousness to provide some evidence for the existence of God, and I think they would be reasonable to do so. We atheists have to say: we don’t understand this, and in that sense we’re not intellectually fulfilled, but nevertheless we hold out hope that there is a naturalistic explanation of this phenomenon.

    Regarding the question of why life is evidence for a spatially infinite universe, here’s the basic idea. My argument appeals to what’s sometimes called “the likelihood principle”. This principle holds that, if some bit of evidence is more probable under the assumption that Hypothesis A is true than it is under the assumption that Hypothesis B is true, then that bit of evidence provides evidence for Hypothesis A over Hypothesis B. This principle is pretty uncontroversial – it follows from basic probability theory. Now, take the evidence that life exists, and consider two hypotheses: the hypothesis that life is infinite, and the hypothesis that life is finite. The existence of life is more probable under the assumption that the universe is infinite than it is under the assumption that the universe is finite, and hence the existence of life provides evidence for the hypothesis that the universe is infinite. It may not provide a lot of evidence, but my argument is that it provides at least some, and I think that’s interesting enough.

    PN: In several of your papers you have discussed William Dembski's design inference based on the concept of specified complexity, which roughly holds that certain patterns (such as life arising from non-life) are so unlikely in a naturalistic context that we should instead infer that a designer is responsible for life. In your analysis of a spatially infinite universe, you show why Dembski's reasoning is flawed; but if instead it turns out (against current evidence) that the universe really is finite and restricted to the observable universe, do you think that Dembski's specified complexity claim has force? Or should we instead think that life arising is not just a result of chance, but of other organizing factors?

    BM: This is a good question, and it’s not one I’ve addressed in my published writings. I think there are a number of good critiques of Dembski; the reason I’ve focussed on my particular critique is that (i) I think it’s a strong one, and (ii) no one had given it yet. So even if my critique is wrong, the other ones may well be right.

    One problem with Dembski’s model for design inferences is that he views the design inference as an all-or-nothing choice: either you infer design or you don’t. I’d like to view it instead as a probabilistic argument: the question is whether some bit of evidence provides evidence for design. If we learned that the whole universe is the observable universe, I would think that the existence of complex life would provide some evidence for design. It might not be a lot of evidence though, in the sense that one’s probability for design might go up very much. And in general when evaluating probabilities one has to take into account all the evidence one has. So the existence of life might provide evidence for the existence of God, but the existence of something else (like the plague) might provide evidence against.

    I don’t really have an opinion on how likely it is for life to arise from non-life, given the appropriate conditions, and I certainly don’t have an opinion on how often those conditions obtain in the universe. I’m generally sceptical of those people who talk of the universe being self-organizing, or having an built-in drive to produce intelligence, or what have you, but the claims would have to be made more precise than they generally are in order to be seriously evaluated.

    PN: Although an infinite universe would presumably have an infinite amount of resources, making us expect that any possible outcome, no matter how remote, should arise an infinite number of times, it also seems to be the case that regions of space will forever be disconnected by the speed-of-light limit, hence foreclosing them for any causal contact. Does this idea at all influence the probability calculations we should make about spatial infinity?

    BM: People sometimes try to say that there’s an important philosophical issue here, but I don’t think there is. I think that all that’s being pointed out is that there’s an epistemic limitation on what we can directly observe. I don’t think this influences any of the metaphysical lessons one should draw from the existence of these other regions. There are all sorts of things that we can’t directly observe, from the interior of the sun to the quarks in an atom, and yet we think we have good evidence for their existence, and we don’t treat them any differently in our reasoning about the world than we do the things that we can directly observe. Of course, we might be sceptical that quarks actually exist, just as we might be sceptical that these distant regions of the universe exist, but those questions have to be adjudicated by appealing to a combination of empirical evidence and theoretical considerations. We can’t be certain that quarks exist, just as we can’t be certain that the distant regions of the universe exist, just as – for that matter – we can’t be certain that other minds exist. (Perhaps you have consciousness, but everyone else is just a mindless hulk. Can you prove otherwise?)

    PN: You have said that in a spatially infinite universe, we should expect that there exists an infinite number of inhabited worlds, and even an infinite number of worlds with intelligent entities. This would be so no matter how unlikely life/intelligence is, because in a spatially infinite universe anything with a non-zero probability of happening would be expected to happen not just once but an infinite number of times. Could we go further and say, along with the physicist Max Tegmark, that in a spatially infinite universe, we should expect that there are an infinite number of exact duplicates of planet earth, and hence that we all have an infinite number of doppelgaengers?

    BM: I don’t think you can get the exact duplicates result, but this has to do with some technical issues associated with ergodic theory – Tegmark would know more about this that I do. The result I think you can get is arbitrarily close duplicates. So for any measure of closeness you pick (as long as it isn’t absolute match) we should expect that there are an infinite number of systems that at least that closely match planet earth.

    This is certainly surprising but I don’t think the fact that it’s surprising constitutes an argument against it.

    PN: Some philosophers have argued that if in fact the universe is infinite, and we all have an infinite number of doppelgangers playing out every possible variation of "our" lives, this implies ethical nihilism, because there is no way to add "good" to the total amount of good in the universe, since the total amount of "good" is already infinite (as is the total amount of "bad"; so we cannot add to or subtract from the total amount of "bad" either.) Should this sort of reasoning about ethics concern us?

    BM: I think this is an interesting line of reasoning and it’s important to consider, but ultimately I don’t think that it’s a good argument. By far the best paper on this is by Peter Vallentyne and Shelly Kagan, called Infinite Value and Finitely Additive Value Theory, published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1997. (A draft copy is available here.) Vallentyne and Kagan point out that we all clearly think that a universe with an infinite number of agents is better if each agent has two units of utility than if each agent has one, even though the total amount of utility in each scenario is the same. They then extend this line of reasoning in interesting ways, to try to establish principles that enable us to determine whether one scenario is better than another, even when both scenarios have an infinite amount of utility.

    Of course, it would be possible for someone to deny the initial intuition; they could say that a universe where each agent has one unit of utility is no better than if each agent has two units of utility. If someone is willing to say that, I would simply say that they are ethically confused, but there’s not much more I could say beyond that. (I guess if I had to I would start by asking them what universe they would prefer to live in.)

    PN: Presentism is the idea that only the present exits. The past used to exist but no longer does; the future does not yet exist, but will come into being. Eternalism is the idea that past, present and future events, people, objects and ideas are all ontologically "on par" with one another. Eternalism seems to be supported by special and general relativity, which relativises the concept of "Now" to reference frames and seems to suggest that in some important sense, past, present and future all "exist" in a kind of ontological block. Yet you reject this, describing yourself as a presentist and a Heraclitean (believing that change is a real aspect of reality) as opposed to an eternalist and a Parmenidean (believing that change is an illusion). Why are you a Heraclitean presentist?

    BM: The best way for me to answer this question is to just report a philosophical intuition I have. I can’t back up this intuition with any sort of solid argument, and that’s why I haven’t published a paper on this topic, but here’s the intuition. I think that consciousness couldn’t exist in a world without an objective flow of time. I think that if there’s just a static block universe, consciousness wouldn’t exist at all. I wish I had a good argument for that, and while I do have various ideas in my head for why this is the case, they aren’t the sort of ideas that I could express in words in a few pages and have them be convincing to other people.

    With regard to the question of presentism being in conflict with relativity theory, I think that there probably is such a conflict, but it doesn’t follow that presentism is false. It could be that relativity theory is false, and in fact we have good evidence that relativity theory is false – it conflicts with quantum theory. This is why physicists are trying to come up with a new theory, a theory of quantum gravity, that will supplant both relativity theory and quantum theory. This leads to the question: is presentism in conflict with quantum gravity? I have a paper addressing that question, Presentism and Quantum Gravity. In short, my answer to that question is a nuanced “no”.

    PN: If eternalism really is right, doesn't this imply fatalism? No matter what we do, would it not already be essentially foreordained?

    BM: Well, there may be a truth of that matter about what will happen, but it wouldn’t have to be essentially foreordained. Imagine that someone had a reliable crystal ball, so that they could see what would happen in the future. They can know what choices you’re going to make, but it’s still you making those choices.

    PN: What is wrong with the fine-tuning argument for the existence of a universal designer?

    BM: I have a paper, God, Fine-Tuning, and the Problem of Old Evidence, where I try to address this issue. (A draft copy is available here.) I think that the fine-tuning argument is a tricky argument, and I don’t think there are any knock-down objections to it. I also don’t think that the argument is completely flawed – I think that reasonable people can have starting opinions such that, when they hear the argument, it leads them to shift their probabilities in favour of the hypothesis that God exists. I also think that it’s reasonable to have opinions such that the argument doesn’t lead to that shift.

    PN: What are you working on now, and what are your future plans?

    BM: I’m finishing up a book, Godless Physics: A Defence, where I argue that physics does not provide evidence for the existence of God. The idea is to take up physics-based design arguments, and to explain why they don’t work, but also to explain why many of the extant objections to these arguments are flawed.

    As for future research, I’m really not sure. I’ve been thinking of working on some applied probability theory issues, such as how formal probabilistic reasoning should be used in the court of law. We’ll have to see!