Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 24 November 2007

Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?

Most people reading this already have preconceived answers, but they would be pushed to defend them beyond: 150 years of scientific investigation can’t be wrong, or the Bible is the ‘Word of God’. At the heart of this, however, lies another question altogether: what constitutes truth? In fact, it was tempting to title this essay, What is truth? But I wished the topic to be more specific. Truth is often subjective, and objective truth only becomes apparent over time. Truth usually requires longevity in our cognitive world to gain validity. But truth can also be found in myth in the form of allegory. To give a biblical example, the story of the good Samaritan is a parable, but many would argue it contains a profound truth about human nature. Is the Genesis story also allegorical? I will return to this point later.

To bring the discussion back to the topic at hand, one needs to ask another question: are there any scientific facts? Many philosophers, perhaps most, would argue that the answer is no. They would say that all scientific ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ are contingent, meaning tomorrow (any tomorrow) we may find evidence to the contrary, no matter what we’ve observed in the past. For example, we all assume the sun will rise tomorrow, but it may not, and certainly one day it will not. This is an extreme example, but let’s look at the same example in another way. Does the earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the earth? One of these is true and the other false, which means, that as far as I’m concerned, the one that is true is a ‘fact’.

Now, 400 years ago, this very question was a huge issue: cost Galileo his job, almost his life. 400 years is not that long ago, if one considers that Western philosophy and science started with the Ancient Greeks about 2500 years ago, and astronomy had been practiced by a number of cultures well before then. But even 400 years ago, the answer to one of these questions was still a fact. Either the earth went around the sun, or it didn’t; there was nothing contingent about it. It didn’t go around the sun today and do something different tomorrow, or next year, or next millennium. It’s just that, at the time, it was still a disputable fact. It was a fact awaiting proof, if you like, which eventually came from Johannes Kepler using Tycho Brahe’s observations. Now, in case you think the Church was just being bloody-minded (which they were), the Vatican’s astronomer had a very good argument to counter Galileo. He said that if the earth went round the sun as Galileo claimed then why didn’t we observe a parallax shift against the distant stars over a one year period? The reason was that the stars were much further away than anyone could possibly imagine, and so the necessary parallax adjustment wasn't observable with the instruments of the day. It’s a bit like the argument Columbus had convincing people that if he sailed far enough west he would eventually encounter Asia. The boffins of their time knew his calculations were incorrect and he would only be half way there, which is why they were against his mission, not because they thought the earth was flat.

The reason I’ve spent so much time on this one topic is because it’s a similar situation of religion versus science, though, arguably, evolutionary theory is in a stronger position today than Galileo’s position was 400 years ago, because the arguments against Galileo were not as ignorant as people think, and Galileo was up against a 1400 year old theory (Ptolemy's). So are there any scientific truths? The only truth in science is that whatever we’ve discovered, there always remains some mystery still to be solved. In other words, science is an endeavour of endless depth and mystery, so there appears to be no ultimate truth as some would like to find it.

The best book I’ve read on science is Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind for a number of reasons, not least because it’s pitched at a level I can readily comprehend. Penrose provides the best exposition on entropy I’ve read, including its cosmological significance, as well as a philosophy of mathematics very similar to mine (see my post: Is mathematics invented or discovered?) But Penrose also provides an entire chapter on what constitutes a successful scientific theory. Penrose provides 3 categories for theories: TENTATIVE, USEFUL, and SUPERB (the capitalisation is his) which he then discusses in depth. I won’t repeat his discussion here, but it illustrates how theories evolve, with TENTATIVE and USEFUL being more contingent, and SUPERB being supremely successful over time. Interestingly, he includes Newton’s dynamics as a SUPERB theory even though it was overtaken by Einstein’s relativity theory. This is because many aspects of Newton’s theory, including the inverse square law for gravity, still apply under Einstein’s theory. Even if Einstein’s theory is overtaken, one would expect that many aspects, like the observed relativistic effects on time, would remain in any new theory. In effect, he is saying that a SUPERB theory, though it must satisfy the highest standards, does not explain everything. Outside of physics, Penrose argues that only Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of natural selection comes closest to his idea of a SUPERB theory. Note that the theory of natural selection does not encompass evolutionary theory totally – there are other biological components to the theory that neither Darwin nor Wallace could have known about.

Science is a dynamic enterprise – we have never known the answers to all the mysteries that it uncovers, but what we do know is that future generations unlock secrets we can only speculate about. This is what has made science the most successful enterprise undertaken by humankind: a continous dialectic between existing knowledge and future discoveries. And this dialectic is epitomised in the case of Darwin’s acclaimed theory of evolution. When he proposed the theory he had no idea how traits were passed on from one generation to another, let alone how they could change or ‘mutate’. Everything we have discovered since has only confirmed the theory. We have discovered not only the mechanism of passing on traits (genes) but the message itself (DNA). DNA has allowed us to place every organism on earth in its correct evolutionary relationship to every other organism. DNA is the most compelling evidence yet that all life forms on earth have a common ancestor. (We share over 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and 63% with mice.) It’s not just simply that everything we have found ‘fits’ the theory, but if the theory was false, then the evidence would have told us that as well. In other words, the evidence is far from neutral. And, going back to the analogy with Galileo’s defence of Copernicus’s theory, it’s either true or it’s false: you can’t say evolution works some of the time or only works with some species and not others. It’s either true or false – it’s either a fact or it’s not – just like, in Galileo’s time, the earth went round the sun or it didn’t.

Richard Feynman notably won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on QED (quantum electrodynamics), and worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb in WWII). Most famously, he demonstrated on television how the Challenger shuttle failed: using a clamp, a pair of pliers and a pitcher of iced water he showed how the shuttle's O-rings lost elasticity under freezing conditions. He was not only one of the truly great physicists of his generation, but also one of the great teachers of science. In a book of his lectures on relativity theory, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, he describes how the amino acid, L-alanine, is only found in life in a left-handed form, while it exists equally in right-handed and left-handed forms outside of life (the right-handed version is called D-alanine). Using a combination of irrefutable logic and brilliantly realised imagery, he explains how this could only come about if all existing life forms have a common origin. Paul Davies makes the same point, less eloquently perhaps, but no less persuasively, in his book, The Origin of Life.

This does not mean we understand everything we need to know about evolution. Quite the contrary: the biggest conundrum still to be resolved is how did the first DNA come about (refer Davies). Any ideas on this are very speculative – still very much in the TENTATIVE mode to use Penrose’s nomenclature. And this leads us to Intelligent Design (ID). When it comes to an exercise in complexity, DNA takes the cake, and according to the ID advocates, complexity stops evolution in its tracks. (For a brief discussion on complexity, including its role in DNA, see my later post: Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm?) Using the ID argument, DNA could have only been ‘designed’ by some ‘intelligent’ entity, a Creator or God, and evolution did the rest, or, evolution never happened. If we take the second argument first: evolution never happened; then genes, DNA and natural selection are irrelevant to nature, except for sexual reproduction. Speciation never occurred, which means everything was created all at once, or God came along every now and then, as was his whim, to create some new species. He manipulated the DNA so as to create new species whenever he wanted. Not only does this not ring true, it’s not accounted for in the Bible either (I'm leaving the biblical interpretation to last). Taking the first argument that God created DNA and let evolution do the rest, one is effectively saying that science can no longer answer any further questions on this: we have come to the end of science; only God can explain the origin of life.

Personally, I have no problem with admitting that we don’t know everything, but I would like to point out that history demonstrates continuously that only future generations can tell us how ignorant the current generation is. So I expect, that at some point in the future, the origin of DNA will be explained – in fact, I’m quite confident, even though I’ve no idea how.

The biblical interpretation, of course, does away with all of this nonsense: there is nothing to explain. And this brings me to Karl Popper, who instigated the proviso that a scientific theory needed to be able to generate falsifiable hypotheses. He did this to eliminate pseudo-scientific theories, which can explain everything no matter what we find, and his particular target at the time was Freud. In other words, a scientific theory needs to be put at risk. If you can’t prove it wrong then it’s purely speculative. Creationism is a pseudo-science in that it’s always right no matter what the evidence says. If we find something in nature then that’s the way God created it – all questions answered.

Now some people argue that evolution, on the basis of this criterion, is also a pseudo-science, because no one can observe it in progress. Well, natural selection is observed all the time, but no one can observe evolution en masse for even a fraction of the history of the planet. However, evolution can generate a number of hypotheses that can be proved false. The most obvious would be to find fossils of the same species in completely different geological time zones, or to find fossils out of sequence in the same line. With advances in DNA the most critical test is to find genetic relationships between species that contradict the fossil record. So the claim that evolution can’t be falsified is a nonsense.

The biblical interpretation is that all species were created everywhere in the world all at once. All the millions of species in the Amazon, all the weird and wonderful species that Darwin found on Galapagos, all the marsupials in Australia, all the dinosaurs, trilobites and millions of other species that have disappeared, but, strangely, only one race of humankind. All of these, of course, were also picked up in Noah’s ark and redistributed afterwards. At the same time, God created all the galaxies and all the light rays and all the quasars and all the neutrinos traveling through space – all within a 6 day period. The other interpretation is that all the scientific discoveries of the last century are completely fraudulent and none of these things exist, or not in the way we interpret them. Creationism not only does away with evolution but most of modern scientific knowledge, and certainly all of cosmology. I've argued with a number of creationists who claim they are not anti-science, only anti-evolution, but they seem unaware that their very claims of creationism make it impossible for them to be one without the other.

As recently witnessed in the 'Climate Change' debate, someone with a little knowledge can easily convince someone with no knowledge that they are right, even though a third person with a lot more knowledge can demonstrate that they are both wrong. I find it's the same with the Creationism/Evolution debate, even though it's really a debate about religion versus science, or, as I like to point out, myth versus science (see below). One of the favourite arguments of anti-evolutionists, is that evolution defies the second law of thermodynamics, also known as entropy. Both Roger Penrose (The Emperor's New Mind) and Paul Davies (The Origin of Life) provide excellent explanations of why this is a fallacy. But, without going into these arguments, I would like to give an everyday, millions of times repeatable, example of why the argument is false. Basically, the antagonists claim that entropy doesn't allow simple entities to develop into complex ones. A good example of entropy is breaking an egg and making an omelette (refer Penrose). It's impossible to take the omelette and get the egg back as it was before you started. In fact, Penrose points out that entropy is the only law in physics that really prohibits time from running backwards. Both quantum mechanics and relativity allow time reversal, mathematically speaking. Entropy says that everything goes from order to disorder, but there's a catch, which is energy. If you add nett energy you can go from disorder to order as we witness all the time. Now, the everyday example is every living organism on the planet, including each and every one of us. We all started out as simple cellular organisms (zygotes in the case of humans) and develop into extremely complex multi-cellular organisms without breaking the second law of thermodynamics. And it happens everyday, as it has done for millions of years, with swarms upon swarms of living entities all over the planet.

Ken Ham is an Australian, the same age as me as it turns out, who started www.answersingenesis.com and built the ‘Creation Museum’ in Kentucky. His entire premise is that humans are fallible but God is not, therefore the ‘Word of God’, the Bible, is the only criterion for validating a scientific theory. On his web site, I once submitted the following question: Since the time of Pythagoras (500 BC) to the present day, tell me one scientific discovery that arose from studying the scriptures? I never got a response, even though it was submitted over 2 years ago. The Bible tells us nothing about science: nothing about DNA, about the constant speed of light, about Euler’s famous equation or Einstein’s (E=mc2) or his theory of gravity; so why would it tell us anything about evolution or natural selection or genetics. The Bible was never written as a scientific text, even though people like Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes had already lived before the New Testament was written. So even the scientific knowledge of the day was not included.

Personally, I see the Bible as a book full of stories. A story, any story, can contain profound truths, but that doesn't mean the story itself is true, and that's how I see the Bible.

The Bible is full of mythical events: Jonah eaten by a whale, Moses parting the Red Sea, Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt and Jesus walking on water; are amongst the best known, and there are myriad others. But the Genesis story is arguably the most mythical story of them all. In Genesis you have a man being made out of dirt, a woman made from a man’s rib, a serpent who speaks and a piece of fruit, that, when ingested, makes people genetically inherently evil. Not to mention that, afterwards, God punishes the snake by making it forever legless. It’s a story full of mythical elements, so what does it all mean? Myths can be interpreted a number of ways, but my interpretation of the Genesis myth is that it contains a fundamental truth: that no one can go through life without having to deal with evil at some level. Evil is a part of our human nature but that doesn’t mean I believe we are born evil. Evil arises from a set of conditions, usually social, that turns human against human. Any one of us can become evil, given the circumstances, but it’s not because of our biblical origins, it’s because of our evolutionary heritage (I discuss this in detail in my posting on Evil).

Many people interpret the Genesis story as ‘original sin’, which is a fundamental concept in Christianity. Because we all have original sin, only Jesus can save us from eternal damnation. This requires an extension of the myth to include Satan and a place called hell in the afterlife. I have a serious problem with the concept of ‘original sin’, not only because of all these mythical extensions, but because it’s a most pessimistic view of humanity, and I strongly disagree with the idea of teaching children that they are born evil. But as a means of psychological control over large sections of a population, it’s brilliant, and the Church exploited it for centuries.

Coming back to the discussion at hand, I don’t believe you can credibly replace a valid scientific theory with a myth. I’ve said elsewhere that science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions (I discuss this in my posting: Does the Universe have a Purpose?). Many people, on both sides of the argument, disagree with this. They claim that they absolutely overlap, but I counter that they only overlap if you insist on it. Science is the study of natural phenomena in all its manifestations. Religion, on the other hand, is an internal experience, and this creates a fundamental epistemological divide that people seem to overlook in this debate.

One of the fundamental criterion for the success of a scientific experiment is that it has to be replicable – it can’t be a one off. This means that anyone doing the same experiment under the same conditions should get the same result. Without this predictability science would be useless, both as an enterprise for discovery and as a fount for new technology. Having said that, it’s the unpredictable events, and the inexplicable ones, that lead to new theories, often dramatically, as expounded upon by Thomas Kuhn in his treatise on 'scientific revolutions'.

In the case of religion, however, any experience is unique to the person who has it. And this includes God, because God is an experience. The only manifestation of God that we know of is an internal one, albeit, it may feel like an external connection. And that experience is unique to that person. This means there are no religious truths, except at a very individual and intimate level. This creates a contradiction between personal religious experience and institutionalised religions that insist that everyone’s religious experiences must be the same, or of the same type (see my post on Religion). It’s when we attempt to rationalise these experiences, usually in the context of our cultural background, that we claim they are an ultimate truth. I contend that there is only one objective religious truth: we don’t know. Anything else is a dishonesty to the self, ‘mauvaise foi’, to quote Sartre.

People have a habit of confounding what they believe with what they know. When I studied philosophy, I was told that there are things that you know and things that you believe, and what you believe is contingent on what you know, but not the converse. (The Dalai Lama makes a similar point in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom) When it comes to religion, I don’t expect anyone else to believe what I believe, because my experience is unique, and so is everyone else’s.

Footnote: The Dalai Lama was a good friend of, and heavily influenced by, the renowned physicist, David Bohm, who also worked on the Manhattan Project. David Bohm lived in exile in England following his refusal to testify in the McCarthy senate hearings. The Dalai Lama said it was something they had in common, ironically, by polar opposite political forces: one communist and one anti-communist. Late in his life, Bohm wrote a philosophical book called Wholeness and the Implicate Order. In it, he speculates (amongst other things) that quantum mechanics may be the manifestation of our universe being a 3 dimensional projection of a higher spacial dimensional world.

Addendum: I argue continuously that ignorance is the greatest enemy of the 21st Century. A view also shared by the Dalai Lama apparently, who said: 'ignorance is one of the 3 poisons of the mind.' Stephen J. Gould once made the point that this particular debate is very parochially American. The rest of the Western world appears to be less confused about the roles of religion and science, especially in education, and, for the most part, moved on from this debate generations ago. There is nothing wrong in admitting ignorance - in fact, it is to be commended - but passing on ignorance under the guise of education is inexcusable, and a serious backward step. At a very early stage in my education (adolescence), I realised that real knowledge comes from knowing how much one doesn't know.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Human Nature

This is an essay I wrote in April 2000, but I include it here because it follows on logically from my last posting. Also, it brings a lot of diverse ideas together, and provides complementary material to my posting on Existentialism: the unconscious philosophy, amongst others. The last paragraph iterates my 'epiphany' that I describe in The Universe's Interpreters. This was an attempt, at the time, to bring together as many of my philosophical views as I could under one thesis. There are some minor edits: a comment on Dawkins' 'memes', and a reference to Pan Nalin's film, Samsara. It originally had the heading: A Natural Law Philosophy based on Human Nature.

Philosophy is a dynamic and evolving process, and yet certain people and certain treatises have had an everlasting effect. Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, Confucius’ Annalects, Descartes’ Meditations, Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism and Sartre’s existentialism. This is not an exhaustive list but they all represent milestones in philosophical thought. Natural Law philosophy does not fall easily into a category of its own, and in fact it is not even mentioned in many good introductory texts on philosophy. But I introduce it because I believe it has a place, not only in the history of philosophy, but in the machinations of our society.

Natural Law arose in early Greek times as an attempt to replace conventional law with an ethics system based on natural laws. Conventional law was founded in tradition whereas natural law was purportedly based in nature. There are two inherent flaws in this premise. One is that someone’s interpretation of natural law is then prescribed as convention, so that one set of conventional laws are replaced by another; and secondly there are no natural laws for ethics in the same manner as there are natural laws for the physical universe. However there are some very basic laws of human nature that impact on society, and there are some ethical rules that are universal in their very expression. For example, Confucius’ basic creed of reciprocity: don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t want done to yourself; known as the ‘Golden Rule’ in Western cultures, and also attributed to Jesus some 400 years after Confucius.

It is not my intention to provide an exposition on Natural Law philosophy, but to use it as a springboard to develop a more contemporary philosophical viewpoint. Everyone who has attempted a metaethics has failed: Aristotle, Confucius and Mill come to mind. Both Aristotle and Confucius created a prescriptive ethical system, and Mill was forced to make qualifications and compromises to plug perceived gaps in his edifice. These were gaps perceived by himself, not by his critics. In brief, there are no set of laws that lead inevitably to the right decision in all circumstances. So this is not my approach to natural law philosophy; I am not attempting a metaethics or a set of rules. I’m more interested in studying the nature of humans to develop a philosophical viewpoint that is relevant to our existence in society - specifically our existence in relation to others. In so doing I will address other issues like the belief in God, and our intellectual capacity to comprehend the Universe, but these issues should be considered as detours from the main path or side dishes to the main course.

It is our very human nature that leads me to attempt a form of natural law philosophy for my own time. This inevitably involves psychological considerations, but if I discuss psychological issues it will be in the broadest terms and the broadest context. The basic premise for my treatise is that there are three aspects to our nature which I consider fundamental to our wellbeing, and which are also key to the structure of Western society, if not all societies. They are our essential need for social cohesion, the natural emergence of leaders in any group endeavour, and the individual’s desire to achieve their potential. It is possibly only in the last century that the last social requirement in my list has been recognised as a universal need. It has certainly been a major factor in shaping societies in Western cultures in the last half of the 20th Century. It is also, of course, a core feature in existentialist philosophy since Sartre.

But I need to start at the beginning: our desire for social cohesion is probably the most fundamental of all human needs psychologically, as both our survival and our sanity are dependent on it. Yes Robinson Crusoe could live on a deserted island for a limited period, but social isolation usually has devastating effects. In some indigenous cultures, ostracism from the tribe meant death. But it is even more fundamental than that - the learning of language, key to all things human, can only happen in a structured, complex, social environment. With social cohesion comes a need for social harmony, the resolution of conflicts, and inevitably, a set of ethics for any specific social group. In a society dependent on material goods and economic stability, the need, dependence and value of social cohesion is often underestimated. However if one places social values in their proper perspective, they have a profound effect on ethics. I will illustrate this point by examining one of Plato’s dialogues.

This particular dialogue considers the just and the unjust man. Plato addresses a generally held view, for his time and possibly for ours, that when purely material values are taken into account, the unethical person is the winner and the ethical person is invariably the loser. This is based on the assumption that the ‘winner’ is in a position of power and wealth and can therefore make his or her own rules. In this situation, it is perceived that the ethical person has no chance for success. So the conclusion is that being ethical has no reward or less reward than being unethical. Plato’s response was that the ethical person uses his or her intellect or rational nature to overcome his or her greed and base desires. While this addresses the virtue of ethical behaviour, it does not address the question of reward. In Plato’s philosophy, and indeed most subsequent philosophies, the social aspect of the individual is virtually ignored.

In almost unique contrast to this, Aristotle’s treatise, entitled Ethics, contains a remarkable essay on the moral value of friendship. I won’t elaborate on this in any detail, except to say that Aristotle valued friendship as a considerable virtue in its own right. So if one considers that rewards include such intangible qualities as friendship, loyalty and trustworthiness, then it can be argued that social attributes are just as significant to ethical behaviour as material benefits. While this alone is a significant argument in support of ethical behaviour, there is also a more subtle negative aspect to unethical behaviour which is rarely considered.

The unethical person must necessarily create a distorted perception of his or her world. The unjust man or woman suffers from a dishonesty to the self not unlike Sartre’s notion of ‘mauvaise foi’ or bad faith. The unjust person believes that his or her rewards are justifiably earned and the fate of those less fortunate are self-inflicted. Even Hitler believed that what he was doing was for the betterment of our world. The unjust person often believes, contrary to the perceptions of others, that his or her view of the world is completely just. This psychological component of unethical behaviour is often observed but rarely perceived as a qualitative negative component in the equation of rewards and risks. It is only a negative reward within a social context, and its consequences can be massive and severe for those who abuse their power.

At a more basic level there is a negative aspect to our desire for social cohesion itself, and this has impacted throughout human history. It is the perception of the outsider and it probably has its roots in our evolutionary development, because it is a perception of considerable force and tenacity. Predators in the animal kingdom are usually territorial, even those who exhibit tribal behaviour like wolves and lions. All these animals will shun an intruder of the same species, but never more so than when resources are scarce. Not surprisingly, humans exhibit the same behaviour and the consequences are often horrific. Also humans have so many factors by which they can discriminate an outsider: physical features, language, religion, dress, and culture are the most obvious. Humans are quick to form groups that alienate others and create conflict with alternate groups, even when they are suppose to co-operate. Anyone who has worked in a contractual situation has experienced this, even on a modest scale. This is a significant component of what I perceive as the natural law of our human nature. (For a more detailed discourse on this topic see my posting on Evil.) The other component missing from this discussion is hate, but I will talk about that later.

The natural emergence of leaders in any group endeavour is a social phenomenon that can easily be misconstrued. A leader can be seen as the one who achieves the greatest self promotion rather than the one who is best suited for the job, but there are other factors at work. The natural emergence of a leader is something that involves everyone, but most significantly those amongst us who seek to be led. In any group endeavour we automatically turn to the person whom we believe has the most experience or the most expertise in that endeavour. So a leader in one field is not necessarily a leader in another. James Barrie wrote a play on this theme, when he located a group of people on a deserted island and the butler emerged as the most resourceful and consequently became the leader for the group whilst they were shipwrecked. Barrie’s play, Admiral Crichton, was a satire on English class society, and was very controversial in its day, not least because it contained a great deal of truth. In reality, if a leader fails, people will quickly look elsewhere. This of course, is the basis of democratic government. In dictatorships people feel disassociated from their government and their passive acceptance either hides a frustration or a sense of lack of control over their own lives. There is a danger in these societies that people become dependent on others’ decision making, so that a move to a Western style democracy is both unfamiliar and unworkable in the short term. But this basic aspect of our nature has ramifications at almost every level of society. It shows that leadership only works when the people being led are actively involved in the process.

Confucius was one of the earliest philosophers of ethics to advocate that positions of authority should be given on merit and not on the basis of privilege. He understood that authority given to someone with inadequate expertise or experience had disastrous consequences for all those under his leadership, so the greater the responsibility the more critical the appointment. But even Confucius suffered from the prejudices of his day, including the status of women in society, and he was consistent with his milieu in his belief that women could not acquire leadership qualities outside the family home. This of course was considered a natural law by most, if not all societies up to the 20th Century. It is an indication of how subjective and transient so-called natural laws can be. But Confucius gave a lot of sage advice on leadership, including the aphorism that to rule is to truly serve, and that the most successful leaders were loved, not feared. Confucius understood that the value of loyalty lay in its reciprocity.

Our individual desire to achieve our potential, as I described earlier, has probably become the most salient feature in recent Western societies. Certain psychologists like Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and Carl Rogers created an alternative school of psychology based on this fundamental premise. But to appreciate this trait in a philosophical context, it is best to start with Sartre and his oxymoronic statement: ‘man is condemned to be free’. An entire essay could be written on this subject, but for the purposes of this discussion I will attempt to distil out the most salient points. It must be said, to avoid misrepresentation, that Sartre’s philosophy contains a number of ideas that one would consider pessimistic or even perverse. Specifically, he argued that our relationship with the ‘other’ was always as object: either we were perceived as an object to be possessed by the other or we perceive them as an object for possession. Whilst Sartre was probably making a psychological observation, I think it is a most perverse way to view human relationships. But such pathologies aside, Sartre provided enormous insight into the philosophy of the self. By this, I mean the way we create a self and our propensity for self-deception.

The basic premise of Sartre’s existential philosophy was that ‘man creates his own essence.’ In this we assume that Sartre is making reference to Descartes’ assertion that his ‘essence’ is his thinking self, as opposed to his corporeal self. Descartes of course believed that his essence was his soul, and this has resulted in the philosophical concept of dualism, which is another essay in itself. To quote Sartre: ‘Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.’ In other words, any individual is purely responsible for their own actions, their own morality and their own life. According to Sartre, we have no recourse to fate or God or circumstances. This is what Sartre is referring to when he says that ‘man is condemned to be free’. Each individual must take responsibility for their own morality and their own destiny. The other key feature of Sartre’s philosophy was his concept of ‘mauvaise foi’ or bad faith, which I mentioned earlier. This is a difficult concept to explain but basically Sartre is critical of people living inauthentic lives. Psychologists like Carl Rogers realised that a lot of neurotic behaviour and depression resulted from people not taking control of their own lives or from living inauthentic lives. By this he means people often live the life that has been thrust upon them by the expectations of their parents, their spouses or their society. I believe this is a common source of ills in our society and a serious impediment to people achieving their potential.

But it is a concept that has even deeper significance. I would argue that self-deception is the greatest impediment we have to growth of character and in realising self-fulfilment. In fact Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is rooted in the idea that much of our behaviour is caused by processes of which we are not conscious. Whilst I believe much of Freud’s theory is flawed, he unearthed a basic aspect of human nature - our ability for self-deception and its role in undermining our psychological health. Modern psychoanalysis is geared more towards exploring the self, and uncovering layers of self-deception, rather than treating psychotic and neurotic patients as it was in Freud’s time.

As I alluded to much earlier, philosophy has generally failed to take into account the social aspect of our existence. In hindsight this seems extraordinarily remiss, but perhaps it has more to do with our reductionist approach to the study of nature rather than a lack of appreciation of the psychology of relationships. The exception, some people would say, is Carl Marx, but Marx’s philosophy focused on the subordination of the self to the whole or the group, although this is only one component of a much more complex philosophy based on his premise of ‘class struggle’ . For all his good intentions of taking wealth from the privileged and giving it to the exploited, I find Marx’s notion of self-sublimation so contradictory to the existentialist philosophy of Sartre, that it borders on the pathological. Having said that, a number of existentialists flirted with Marxist communism, Sartre amongst them. Communism has long been seen as an intellectual ideal, but I simply believe Marx’s philosophy is flawed on two fronts, which is why it has never succeeded in practice. Not only is Marx’s philosophy flawed socially because the self is subsumed by the collective, but his revolutionary model is flawed. It is the State that has to control capitalist enterprises following the 'class' revolution and not the people as he theorises. So contrary to Marx’s intentions, the people have no more control over their lives than previously.

In my introduction, I made it my stated goal to develop a philosophical viewpoint that is relevant to our existence in society - specifically our existence in relation to others. Therefore I now turn to the specific issue of the significance of our relationship to others in regard to the self. In his introduction to Meditations, Descartes makes reference to a mad person as someone who might misconstrue who they are and their relationship to their surroundings, much as we do when we are dreaming, only they are awake. Another person may well ask how do you know who is mad and who is sane? Perhaps it is you who misconstrues their situation and it is the madman who is sane. But I have an answer to that. Basically we use other people as mirrors and when people appear to perceive us as we do ourselves then we consider both them and ourselves sane. The mad person on the other hand, lives in a world that is his or hers alone. No one that they interact with has the same vision of the world as theirs. I think this is the best way of illustrating how the self is at least partly dependent on others for its self-perception. In recent years there has developed the concept of narrative philosophy which has attempted to address this very issue. I think narrative philosophy falls short of its aim, and I will explain why, but also I think there are better means of achieving the same end.

Basically narrative philosophy takes into account that part of the self is contributed to by others. It takes the analogy of narrative because we all exist as a story in someone else’s life. In this respect we continue to exist after our death and in some cases we exist before our birth if the birth is planned. Whilst it attempts to address a problem or a perceived gap in philosophical thought, I think it merely creates an illusion of existence. It is true that others contribute to the self in a number of interesting ways, but being part of someone else’s story really doesn’t mean a lot to me, whether I’m alive or dead. My main opposition to narrative philosophy however, is that as a metaphor, it misses the target entirely. If one has ever written a story, one is conscious of the inner and outer journey, otherwise known as the interaction between plot and character. Of course this inner and outer journey is equally true of life itself, it’s just that in writing fiction, playing God so to speak, one becomes acutely aware of it. Sartre actually makes reference to it as the internal and external world in an interview with his long time companion, Simone de Beauvoir. He never elaborated on it, but I found it a complete departure from his espoused view of the other as object and therefore possession or possessor. In fact he puts it rather poetically: ‘It’s this binding together of without and within that constitutes man.’ To summarise, the inner and outer journey is the interaction between fate and free will: it is the nexus that constitutes the self; it is in fact the core element of an individual’s life.

I find it illuminating to compare the stoics’ view on free will and determinism with the Chinese Taoists. The stoics were in effect natural law philosophers and they had a few things in common with the Taoists. They both believed in attempting to live according to natural laws, in man’s special relationship to both God and nature, and the resolution of free will and determinism. But where the stoics saw determinism and free will as contradictory, the Taoists saw them as complementary. The Taoists deal with this much better in my view, because they assert that man must stand up to his fate, which implies that fate, or life in general, is a form of test against which man must avail. This leads to the view that adversity plays a role in creating character and providing growth. To quote the Chinese classic, the I Ching: ‘Times of adversity are the reverse of times of success, but they can lead to success if they befall the right man.’ It is no surprise that the overcoming of adversity is a universal theme, popular in all forms of storytelling, including biographies as well as fiction.

From my viewpoint, one can’t leave the discussion of relationships with others without including the Eastern concept of karma. Karma is a concept used in Hindu and Buddhist religions to explain or to give a causal essence to good and evil. In the West we have personalised good and evil into the characters of Christ and Satan so that it is seen as having transcendental origins. In the East, karma is associated with the transmigration of souls from one life to another through reincarnation. So karma in this life will affect our next life and karma in past lives affects this life. Now I’m not going to enter into a debate on reincarnation because that’s not the point of my discussion. On the other hand, if one considers karma simply as a concept of transference, then karma permeates the world and affects our lives irrespective of any transcendental connection. We know from watching the world news that acts of violence beget more acts of violence. Vindictiveness, jealousy and revenge all exact their toll, but positive acts are equally effective. Look at the effects of Princess Diana’s attempts at charity on the entire world consciousness and the Dalai Lama’s pacifist presence. But on a much more modest level, acts of kindness and charity produce positive effects beyond their immediate purpose. So I argue that karma works in the real world and we witness it every day. In fact, every encounter is an opportunity to create positive or negative karma, if one looks at it in this way. (Pan Nalin makes a similar point, almost as a footnote, in his award winning film on Buddhism, Samsara, when a Sage shows the protagonist a 'lesson': 'Every encounter is an opportunity to practice the Way'.)

My argument is that evil is uniquely a human condition and has nothing to do with God or the Devil; in fact it could be argued that it is purely a psychological condition. Evil does not exist in nature. A spider is not evil for eating a fly or for even eating its own mate. It does this because that is its nature. Both Aristotle and Seneca, a Roman stoic, argued that ‘man’s reason is the intended end of man’s nature.’ In other words it is in man’s nature to use his reason which is why we have morals. Humans, unlike animals, can use reason to decide whether to kill something or not, and from this we decide whether it is right or wrong. (Again, for a more elaborate argument, refer my posting on Evil). Of course, this makes morals very much a subjective matter, but morals are a social issue because they affect everyone, so we legislate laws and create a justice system. This leads logically to a discussion on utilitarianism, but firstly I would like to discuss the nature of hate which I raised much earlier.

Almost anyone can identify with the emotion of hate yet we all deplore its consequences. Hate is most often associated with revenge, but the problem with hate is that it doesn’t resolve one’s inner pain. The film, Dead Man Walking, illustrated this point very well. Whatever empathy we felt for the victims, we knew that their hate would never leave them in peace. Generally, hate does as much damage psychologically to the person hating as it does to the hated. The Christian religion promotes forgiveness and in fact the entire philosophy of Christianity is based on forgiveness when one considers that its central pillar of faith is Christ dying in order to forgive us all our sins. But forgiveness is only possible when one’s inner pain is resolved. Forgiveness is a letting go of something inside oneself, as much as reaching out to someone who performed some iniquity. It's just that leaving one’s self in peace requires leaving the other in peace as well.

Mill’s philosophy of Utilitarianism is often expressed as the ‘greatest happiness principle’, which is based on the simple premise of the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. Mill’s philosophy was developed in part as a challenge to natural law philosophy, because in his time natural law philosophy was espoused as the law of God by the Church, which Mill saw as an excuse for dogmatism. But Mill’s philosophy is more significant than that, because utilitarianism is probably what we practice in Western societies today, only we call it democracy. There is a lot of cynicism expressed about democracy in modern societies, even though by and large, it is a very robust system that weeds out oligarchies and provides political stability. The truth is that people will always complain and find fault with a system, even though, or especially when, they have never experienced anything worse. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, because nothing guarantees decline and failure with more certainty than complacency.

Mill, by his own admission, wanted to develop a social science which he called psychology, but he was born in the wrong century. The most frustrating aspect of reading Mill, is that a lot of his ideas, or at least the theories behind his ideas, have been overtaken by 20th Century social psychology. The term, social norm, had not been invented in Mill’s time, but he certainly understood the concept. In particular Mill understood that conscience is largely a product of social norms and not some inner voice provided by God. Mill realised that the means of changing and governing attitudes was through a process of creating social norms. This is a form of manipulation that is pervasive in modern society for good or for ill. Attitudes towards smoking, drink driving and feminism, are all recent examples of social norm interventions. Social norms almost totally determine who we are without our conscious awareness. They determine our behaviour and relationships in almost every situation from the family home to the office, to the board room, to the local restaurant to the beach. Social norms arise from our innate desire to conform and occur at the most basic levels of human existence. Social norms are almost unavoidable and have a strong relationship with another psychological concept called the schema.

As an aside, Richard Dawkins calls social norms ‘memes’, as an analogy to genes, because they are passed on from generation to generation and they ‘mutate’. Some people refer to memes as if they are just as ‘real’ as genes, yet I contend that the term is purely metaphorical in that context. There are no corresponding genotypes and phenotypes (genes and traits) with memes as there are with genes; in other words, no corresponding cause and effect elements.

Schemas are mental models that we have for situations, both specific and generic. Where a schema involves social protocols, like how to behave at a restaurant, for example, they are called scripts. In fact, in psychology, the term script is defined as a schema for an event. We use schemas to evaluate other people and we even have a schema for our self. Schemas are directly related to our expectations of other people, ourselves and the many roles that we play. Referring back to the mad person of Descartes, we judge whether someone is sane or not by comparing their behaviour with a schema, and specifically we often use our own self-schema as a reference. Schemas are important because they directly relate to Sartre’s concept of authenticity. Is our self-schema accurate or is it distorted? In any relationship, be it work or family or a team effort, our psychological health is dependent on our self-schema. Specifically, the closer our self-schema, and therefore our expectations of ourselves, is to the others’ perceptions in the group, the more psychologically healthy our relationship is.

Sartre’s philosophy of authenticity reminds me of the Taoist dictum to be true to one’s self, or true to one’s nature. But for Sartre this is a non sequitur because according to him we have no innate nature to be true to. However this is not an issue because the dictum clearly relates to being true to one’s principles. But what if one’s principles involves harm to others. Sartre himself addressed this very dilemma in an essay he wrote on the anti-semite. The anti-semite does have principles but they are not necessarily concordant with the wellbeing of others. Sartre attempted to resolve this dilemma with a call for moral universality: ‘... when we say that man is responsible for himself,... he is responsible for all men.’ But I find this both unsatisfactory and unconvincing.

The most fundamental element I find missing from all philosophies on ethics is empathy. If one considers Confucius’s creed of reciprocity, also acknowledged by Christ, then empathy is the key to putting such a creed into practice. It also provides the perfect response to the anti-semite’s principles. In the field of social psychology, it is generally recognised that empathy occurs in pre-language infants, and is even displayed by some animals. Empathy is often equated with compassion, but I would argue that empathy should be the starting point of any moral philosophy, because one: it stems from a purely emotive response; and two: it’s negation is necessary for all of the world’s inhumane atrocities. In other words, empathy doesn’t require any rational analysis to invoke, and in fact, needs to be ignored, overridden or rationalised to become ineffectual. Whilst I would agree with Mill that moral feelings, or moral attitudes and behaviour, are not innate but cultivated through social norms, empathy remains a wellspring for individual moral action, irrespective of social norms. To quote a journalist in The Age, Martin Flanagan, who in turn quoted a friend involved with Martin Bryant’s prison life: ‘...what makes us human is our ability to empathise. ...Bryant displays no empathy.’ (Martin Bryant was responsible for the Port Arthur massacre 28 April 1996). Empathy is the closest one can get to a first principle or natural law for moral behaviour.

So that is it. I’ve pretty well exhausted all my philosophical ideas concerning natural law, human nature and ethics. But I mentioned in my introduction our tendency to believe in a transcendental realm and in particular a propensity to believe in God. I’m not going to argue one way or the other for the existence of God, but I wish to make an observation that seems to escape most discussions on the subject. There are two aspects of God, which we tend to assume are synonymous, but which I would argue are not necessarily the same. Firstly, there is the concept of God as Creator of the Universe and everything in it - God as primal cause or first cause. Secondly, there is the psychological experience of God, which is the only experience of God that we have first hand. In other words, God occurs as a manifestation in the human mind. In some respects this relates back to my idea of the inner and outer world and their conjunction in the self. Certainly the Buddhists understand this better than we do in the West, yet Augustine also talked about God as an inner journey rather than something external. He said: ‘...to reach the good, which is the real, one must “return into” oneself; for it is the spirit at the heart of man’s inmost self that links him to the ultimate reality.’ Also: ‘Grace awakens the dormant power of the mind to see God’s image in itself, to see itself, that is, as God’s image.’ Karen Armstrong, in her book, The History of God, made constant reference to the apparent conflict between an intellectual concept of God and the mystical experience described by the many sages and mystics throughout history.

The prime cause, on the other hand, need be nothing more than a set of physical laws to put the whole dynamic of the universe into action. This is not an original idea and was espoused by Voltaire amongst others. God may well be a product of consciousness rather than the other way round. This is consistent with a belief in God as a process rather than as a static entity; an idea that coincides with Jung’s hypothesis of a collective unconscious. The truth is we don’t know, but I merely point out that there are many ways of perceiving a transcendental realm and its consequences.

Finally, I wish to expound on a perfectly natural phenomenon that places our unique position in the Universe in a most intriguing perspective. The human mind is unique because we have the faculty of language, and it is through language that we are able to express ideas, invent, synthesise and manipulate concepts. Without this unique trait we would be nothing special at all. But it is more than that. The human mind, through language, has a very special ability. We are able to create concepts within concepts ad infinitum. We do this in all our endeavours: music, mathematics, storytelling, design. It is best illustrated in writing. A single word is the most fundamental element that has meaning, but we place the word into a sentence and the sentence has a meaning of its own. The sentence then exists within a larger passage that again takes on a meaning beyond that of the single sentence, and so it goes on. But nature works exactly the same way. No matter at what scale we examine it, nature consists of worlds within worlds that extend both inwards and outwards, and takes on a completely different form and function depending on what level we look at it. The human body consists of individual cells which are self consistent but are another world altogether to the human world in which we live - this is just one very obvious example. The point I wish to make is that the reason we can comprehend the universe is that we are the only species (that we know of) which has a mind that works in exactly the same way that nature works. This, in my view, gives us a unique responsibility. We have the intellect and the power to understand, to cultivate and to destroy the world in which we live. Even if God, or a transcendental realm, exists, then clearly that responsibility has been empowered to us. Should we not then execute all our earthly endeavours with humility and caution?