Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 13 – Kant – Part 1

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is generally considered one of the three or four greatest philosophers in the Western tradition. He lived his entire life in Konigsberg, Prussia which is today the city of Kaliningrad in Russia. Kant’s philosophy is extraordinarily complex but perhaps he was most interested in reconciling Christianity with the science of the Enlightenment.

Kant was quite an accomplished scientist who “developed the nebular hypothesis, the first account of the origin of the solar system by accretion of the planets from clouds of dust.” His education in the humanities was equally impressive “embracing Greek and Latin philosophy and literature, European philosophy, theology, and political theory.” In his university education he was particularly influenced Leibniz, a rationalist who believed that pure reason could prove metaphysical claims, especially those about the existence of god and that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Thus both empiricism and rationalism influenced him, and he spent a lifetime trying to reconcile them.

Kant was the deepest thinker of the European Enlightenment who believed “in the free, democratic use of reason to examine everything, however traditional, authoritative, or sacred … He argued that the only limits on human reason are those that we discover when we scrutinize the pretensions and limitations of reason itself …” His emphasis on the inquiry into the nature and limits of human knowledge meant that epistemology became for him the heart of philosophy. He turned his critical analysis to science, metaphysics, ethics, judgments of beauty and to religion.

Metaphysics, Epistemology, and the Limits of Human Knowledge – A fundamental theme of Kant’s philosophy “was to explain how scientific knowledge is possible.” He argued that “science depends on certain fundamental propositions, for example, that every event has a cause and that something (substance) is conserved through mere change.” These principles cannot be proved empirically but they are not tautologies either. [In Kant's language they are synthetic a priori propositions---propositions whose predicate concept is not contained in its subject concept but related, and propositions whose justification does not rely upon experience. An example of a synthetic proposition is "all bachelors are unhappy." An example of an a priori proposition is "all bachelors are unmarried.] Many philosophers of the time including Leibniz and Hume, as well as many philosophers today deny the possibility of such propositions.] Kant believed that these synthetic a priori propositions “can be shown to be necessary conditions of any self-conscious, conceptualized perceptual experience of an objective world. [In other words we can't have experiences of the world without assuming these propositions are true.]

In the first part of his magisterial Critique of Pure Reason, Kant sets out his theory of how we perceive everything in space and time, and the twelve categories or forms of thought and associated concepts like substance and causality. This leads to the justification for Kant of empirical (a posteriori) knowledge derived from sense experience, and analytical (a priori) knowledge derived from pure reasoning. And, as we saw in the previous paragraph, he also argued that there exist synthetic a priori propositions. Kant famously argued that much of mathematics is in this 3rd box, although many philosophers would argue that mathematics is analytic. Most importantly Kant accepts the existence of an independently existing material world. [Kant is arguing, among other things, that mathematical and scientific knowledge are justified.]

Still Kant argued that how we perceive this external world depends on how the inputs of that world are processed by our cognitive faculties and sensory apparatus. This implies that our cognitive intuitions may “distort our representation of what exists.” And this means we know the world only as it appears to us, not as it really is. Furthermore things as they really are may not even be in space and time! [Thus Kant's Copernican revolution. We are at the center of our reality, structuring it with our minds; our minds are not passive receptors of the external world.]

In the second part of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that “reason tries to go beyond  … its legitimate use, when we claim illusory metaphysical knowledge … ( human souls, the universe as a whole, uncaused events, and God.) Such claims go beyond the bounds of human knowledge … we can neither prove nor disprove them; we cannot even acquire probable evidence for or against them.” Thus a decisive break with natural theology. [For Kant theology is not an intellectually justified discipline.] Of course many theologians have responded with fideism (religious belief is justified by faith) but, as we will see, Kant is not in this tradition.

Theory of Human Nature – As we have seen Kant was basically interested in reconciling morality and religion with science. How does human nature fit into this project? For Kant perceptual knowledge depends upon the interaction of “sensory states caused by physical objects and events outside the mind, and the mind’s activity in organizing these data under concepts …” Thus humans interact with the world with their senses and their understanding (reasoning and language.) Reason also plays a special role for human beings—they use it to integrate all their knowledge, in “the scientific search for a unified theory of all natural phenomena.”

In addition to abstract theorizing, reasoning also plays a practical role in Kant’s philosophy. We are agents who do things, who act in the world. But there are not merely causes for what we do, as there are for our non-human animal brethren, we also give reasons for what we do. Sometimes the reason we do thing involves our desires which Kant labels “hypothetical imperatives.” [If you want to be a lawyer, then you ought to go to law school.] But at other times, Kant argues, the reasons for our actions command us independent of our desires as in our moral obligations. We ought to tell the truth or help others even if lying or ignoring them would be in our self-interest. These are examples of what Kant calls “categorical imperatives.” [You ought not lie, even if lying would satisfy some desire you have.] Reason recognizes these categorical imperatives which are the basis of ethics [suicide and lying are bad; helping others and developing your talents are good.]

So what does all this mean for his conception of human nature? Are we dualistic or merely material? Kant leaves the question open, it is irresolvable. [Whether the soul is immortal or not; whether we are free or determined, whether the world in infinite or not, all of these Kant calls "antinomies of reason." That is we can use reason to support either view.] Kant is perhaps most interested in freedom. As for our biological bodies, we are just as determined as other things in the physical world, but because we are rational beings we can act for reasons. We can thus be free. [If we are entirely material beings, this solution probably doesn't work.] Of course while we can see that my reasons give me a reason to act, it is hard to see how rational propositions give me a reason to act. [The latter is what the categorical imperative claims.] Kant does not solve the problem of freedom—nobody else has either—but he does believe that we act “under the idea of freedom.” That is from a practical we necessarily presuppose that we are free. [And the ethical point of view presupposes freedom as well.]


4 More Books That Changed My Life

A few days ago I wrote about four books that changed my life before I became a professional philosopher. Today I would like to add four more, of the literally thousands that I’ve read, that transformed me after I became a professional philosopher.

On Human Nature: With a new Preface, Revised Edition

Late in my graduate school career, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature was assigned for a graduate seminar in evolutionary ethics. (I’ve written previous posts about Wilson’s thought  here and here.) It is the only one of the eight books I’ve selected as most affecting my thought that was assigned for a class. My young mind was startled and transformed by its first few pages.

 … if the brain is a machine of ten billion nerve cells and the mind can somehow be explained as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, boundaries limit the human prospect—we are biological and our souls cannot fly free. If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species … However much we embellish that stark conclusion with metaphor and imagery, it remains the philosophical legacy of the last century of scientific research … It is the essential first hypothesis for any serious consideration of the human condition.1

Yes, I knew all this before I read Wilson, but his prose cemented these ideas within me. Evolutionary biology is the key to understanding mind, and to understanding morality and religion as well. Life and culture are thoroughly and self-evidently biological. Yet most people reject these truths, choosing ignorance and self-deception instead. They mistakenly believe that they are fallen angels, not the modified monkeys they really are. But why can they not accept the truth? Because, as Wilson says, most “would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”2

Still Wilson’s lesson were not all depressing. Science can liberate us by giving us self-knowledge, while simultaneously placing within us the hope “that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.”3 Wilson’s book taught me who we are, the dilemmas we face, and how we can choose our future path. The evolutionary idea is the greatest and truest idea that humans have ever discovered.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

One cannot summarize Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, in a few brief paragraphs. One has to read it cover to cover to appreciate it. Sagan’s basic message is that unreason and superstition are dangerous, while science and reason light the world. But its one thing to state this message, it’s another to communicate it so that anyone can understand it. And that’s what Sagan does. If you read this book closely your will learn to despise ignorance and pseudo-science in all their forms.

In the first chapter Sagan quotes Edmund Way Teale “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care about how you got your money as long as you have got it.” Right away you know that Sagan cares about what’s true. Sagan continues ” … it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” You may disagree, believing instead that the masses need Platonic noble lies or the Grand Inquisitor’s deceptions, but it is clear from reading Sagan that he has a passion, a fetish is you will, for the truth. He will not deceive himself.

We can undermine our reason in a thousand ways, but Sagan will have none of it. For if we infuse our understanding with our prejudices and emotions, we will live in darkness. But if we dispassionately reason with our science, that candle will increasingly illuminate that darkness. This process is painstakingly slow, but illumination comes to those who persist. Let there be light.

   Man’s Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the most emotionally moving text that I have ever read. I have taught out of it on many occasions and have read it cover to cover at least five times. Anyone can read the first part of the book, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” or its second part, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” in a few hours. But the book is worth returning to over and over again to be reminded of its central lesson—that meaning can be found in our work, our relationships, and our suffering. Yet nothing that I write does justice to the experience of reading this book, because its power lies in its narrative.

So let me describe a single scene in the book. Being marched off to work one dark morning, cold and hungry, while being hit with the butt or rifles by the Nazi guards, a fellow prisoner says to Frankl “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” This exchange caused Frankl to think about his wife, her face, her smile, her look. Then he writes:

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which a man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of human is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for the brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way-an honorable way-in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

In 1942, Frankl, his wife, and his parents were deported to the Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto where his father died. In 1944 Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, but Tilly was later transferred from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she died in the gas chambers. Frankl’s mother Elsa was also killed by the Nazis in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, where his brother Walter also died. Other than Frankl, the only survivor of the Holocaust among his immediate relatives was his sister Stella. She had escaped from Austria by emigrating to Australia.4

And so the world goes on,
good gods perpetually sleeping,
good people perpetually weeping,
and waiting, for a new world to dawn.

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

There is no book that can be profound in the way that Frankl’s book is. But a book can change you in a different way. Before I read Kurzweil, I thought about prospects for improving humanity in terms of genetic engineering. But Kurzweil made me see another way to transform the species—through artificial intelligence and robotics—and with it a new vision of the future appeared. Yes, some of Kurzweil’s prediction may not come true, the future is hard to predict. But the broad outlines of his vision are already coming true.

With the caveat that many things can derail technological evolution—asteroids, viruses, climate change, nuclear war, a new dark ages—if scientific advance continues, the future will be unlike the past. Let me embellish that. The future is going to be really different than the past. Perhaps everyone knows that, but Kurzweil convinced me of it. He also showed me how universal death is avoidable. Nobody had ever done that before.

So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the Universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein’s so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.5

I have written an entire book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives, one of whose central themes is that life can only have full meaning if it persists indefinitely. Kurzweil was the first to suggest to me how this was scientifically possible.

I will never forget first reading this book. It bent my mind in a new direction. 


1. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 1-2.
2. Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-171.
3. Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.
5. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking Press, 1999) 260. 

Dan Fogelberg’s Most Profound Song About Death

Yesterday I mused on the occasion of my friend mother’s death. I concluded the post by rejecting metaphysics and appealing to the commonplace in our search for meaning,

 … we must always come back to the commonplace for meaning, to what surrounds us, to what we I call the ordinary extraordinary. No theory or abstract truths mitigate existential realities, only our complete engagement in our lives can temporarily do that. …

Still even the most rational have their mystical moments. Below is a music video of the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard about death, one that appeals to me in my occasional mystical moments. The words, music, and vocals are by the American musician Dan Fogelberg (1951 – 2007), who is best-known for his hit songs such as: “Longer,” “The Leader of the Band,” and “Same Old Lang Syne.” (The stories of each of these songs is itself fascinating, just follow the links.)

The song about death is titled “River of Souls” and is from an album of the same name.

   River of Souls (Original Recording Remastered)

It contains some sublime and tragic lines,

To every man the mystery
Sings a different song
He fills his page of history
Dreams his dreams and is gone

But its basic message is informed by a religious (especially Hindu) mysticism:

The spirits dance across the ages
And melt into a river of souls

Here is this most sublime song. (There are links to his other music below.)

I highly recommend the music of this wonderful singer, songwriter, and artist.

Very Best of Dan Fogelberg

Dan Fogelberg: Greatest Hits


Box Set Series

Thank you Dan for your contributions to the world. I hope you have melted into a river of souls.

My Friend’s Mother Has Died

Last week I wrote a post about the impending death of my good friend’s mother. Unfortunately she died on October 13, 2014. Here is an excerpt from my friend’s correspondence informing me of the event. (Remember this is a native French-speaker writing in English. How beautifully and movingly he writes.)

Hi John,

… Mum has passed away (oh what it is to write this!) last night. I was with her and I think she did not feel anything thanks to the morphine. Although how could we know exactly what a brain feels when breathing stops? I can’t believe there was no fear but the drugs probably make it softer.

It’s a huge loss. She was an exceptional lady, radiant with goodness and always trying to make others feel good. A humble and generous person and I can’t really imagine how the world is going to be like without her, without its pole, without gravity. I am going to miss her terribly. I am so lucky that I could have her and now I look at my kids who give me the call of the future.

On Thursday she was starting to feel very uncomfortable and dizzy and it was beginning to be complicated to keep her at home. It would have been necessary to arrange a full 24 hour nursing at home and most of all I knew that she didn’t want to appear to the kids in a pitiful condition. So the doctor arranged her transfer to a hospital of palliative care.

On Saturday driving back home from the hospital (where I was to stay overnight with mum the next night and again the next when she died), I heard on the radio, while I was driving along the dark lake, a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson in a French translation. I felt it was as if mum herself would have sent it to the radio for me to hear at the dusk of her life. Back home I looked on the internet and found the English original:

If I shouldn’t be alive
When the robins come
Give the one in red cravat
A memorial crumb.

If I couldn’t thank you,
Being fast asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my granite lip!

I am lucky I have Marina and the children who help me to look toward the future and give me peace, serenity and joy. I will keep my sweet mum with me in dear memories and pleasant remembrances all my life, as it was she who cared and nurtured me in my early life, and together with my father, taught me how to live. And why would parents do this if not for the day when they can no longer be with us, so that we can live well without them!

And here is my response.

Dear Louis:

I hope things are going as well as can be expected. I will admit that I often believe that life is basically tragedy and any meaning it has eludes us. But there are oceans and mountains and sky, and there are friends and family and food. The things that make life worth living. There is also the hope that somehow it all makes sense. I wish I could say something more profound but we are small minds in a vast, impenetrable universe (or multiverse!) Still I won’t resort to metaphysical fantasy which, while comforting to some, is nonetheless fantasy. Instead, as you know, I fervently believe that death is an evil that should be eradicated, and which our science and technology will do if left to proceed unabated.

In your hour of grief perhaps Camus might help. He saw that abstract ideas bring about a distance from the world; they draw us away from the actual. But we must always come back to the commonplace for meaning, to what surrounds us, to what we I call the ordinary extraordinary. No theory or abstract truths mitigate existential realities, only our complete engagement in our lives can temporarily do that.

Camus made these points clearly in his essay “Summer in Algiers.” (Your forthcoming vacation by the Aegean made me think of this.) There amidst sea, sun, sand, and sex he mused: “Between this sky and these faces turned toward it, nothing on which to hang a mythology, a literature, an ethic, or a religion, but stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch.”

Perhaps that is all we have, but perhaps also it is enough. Find peace on your island my friend. Find it in the sound and smell of the sea, in that vastness from whence we came.

4 Books That Changed My Life

I am a reader of non-fiction. (A post about the most influential work of fiction that I ever read can be found here.) Reading the statistics on the back of baseball cards and the facts and figures in world almanac were virtual obsessions when I was a kid. Even then my affinity for data was greater than to imaginative fiction.

Since a list of all the non-fiction books I’ve read would be quite long—literally thousands— I would like to briefly mention four books that changed my life before I was a professional philosopher. (In tomorrow’s post I will discuss four books that changed my life after I became a professional philosopher.) This doesn’t mean these are the best or most important books by some objective standard, or that other books might have had a greater influence on me if I had read them. But these are the ones I found that changed me. Their message resonates within me still.

As a college freshman the most memorable book I read was not one assigned for my classes, but one I stumbled upon in the college library— Will Durant’s The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny. The book did bear the imprint of a 1920s American view of women, much to my dismay, but the rest of the book has stood the test of time. Its prose is glorious and its philosophical insights still fresh today. I have reprinted parts of its beautiful introduction as well as its conclusion in previous posts. What most drew me to the book was that it was so unlike the foreboding philosophy I was reading in my classes. It seemed Professor Durant was speaking directly to me in plain, clear language about important topics with a wisdom that I had not previously encountered. On the first page he says of his book: “I send it forth … on the seas of ink to find here and there a kindred soul in the Country of the Mind.” I thank him for sending it to my kindred soul.

That same year in another library I happened upon Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. I have made my unending affinity for the depth and breadth of Russell’s philosophy obvious in a number of my essays, as well as my belief that he was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth-century. While professional philosophers will not rank this popular book with his classics in the philosophy of mathematics and logic—W.V.O Quine famously said that Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica was “one of the great intellectual monuments of all time”—this was the Russell book that affected me most. I can still remember exactly where I was sitting in a small public library in south St. Louis county in 1974 when I read it.

And while sophisticated defenders of religion may quibble with Russell’s arguments—as they do with any arguments that challenge their preconceived beliefs—the fact is that religion stand on the wrong side of history and will be, as I have argued consistently on this website, ultimately relegated to the dustbin of history. For as Russell knew, rational persons could never believe its fantastic claims unless they were indoctrinated, immature, irrational, fearful or feeble-minded. Of course more sophisticated believers don’t accept the supernatural elements of their religious literally, but hide their nonsense behind esoteric language and obscurantism. To this day I find it astonishing that any marginally intelligent person can take religion seriously, but then perhaps I just don’t get it. And I thank Russell for awakening me from my dogmatic slumber more than forty years ago.

Shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree, a friend gave me a copy of another book, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, whose very first lines I’ll never forget. “Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one “falls into” if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise … ” I have written previously about this small but powerful book and its effect on me. I cannot say that I have successfully put into practice the its message, but I have never forgotten this book or its fundamental lesson—that love is something you have to work at. Its insights have always remained in my subconscious, no matter how many times I may have unable to summon them to affect my behavior. There are very few books about which one can say—this book said something new and profound about  a topic that everybody talks about. This book did that.

While sitting in the dealer’s room in Las Vegas as I prepared to enter graduate school I read Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Already familiar with Durant, I was determined to read this classic, one of the best-selling philosophy books of all time. From the book I learned that the history of philosophy was a long, continual dialogue. Moreover I was excited to think that in graduate school I might learn enough to be part of that dialogue. It wasn’t so much the philosophies in the book that inspired me, but Durant’s love of them. Today this book is the single most prized possession in my library, for I have a copy of it signed by Will Durant himself on December 12, 1933. (Thanks to my son-in-law for the gift.) And this book contains the most beautiful dedication I have ever read. Thirteen years his junior, he expected her to outlive him:


“Grow strong, my comrade … that you may stand
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
The shattered fragments of my song will come
At last to finer melody in you;
That I may tell my heart that you begin
Where passing I leave off, and fathom more.”

Will and Ariel Durant were married almost 70 years and died a few days apart. You can read about their intellectual development, world travels and wondrous love story in Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 12 – Historical Interlude

Historical Interlude

Our discussion of theories of human nature will now move from the ancient worlds to the 18th century with Immanuel Kant. Needless to say a lot happened in the interim. In order to make the transition of almost 2000 years Stevenson provides us a brief description of a few of the major thinkers during this long period. He briefly discusses Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Rousseau. [This is a good representative sample. Notable omissions include: Bacon, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Montaigne, Voltaire, and Hegel.]

Augustine – St. Augustine was the most important link connecting the ancient world and the Christian medieval world. Augustine affected a philosophical synthesis of Plato, the neo-Platonists and Christianity. [Plato’s idea of the good became divine illumination; Platonic forms became ideas in god’s mind, the cave became the story of the soul’s journey to god, and more. Moreover the idea of the trinity owes much to a similar 3 fold distinction in the philosophy of the neo-Platonist Plotinus.] Despite the influence of Greek rationalism, Augustine said “I believe in order to understand.” In other words faith comes first and an exercise of will is necessary for belief, since reason by itself always fall short.

Augustine also believed that humans are sinful and that nothing we do can save us—our salvation depends on god’s grace. Thus we are predestined to be saved or not, we cannot merit salvation. This was the source of his dispute with Pelagius who argued we can save ourselves by our free acts. This is still a vexing issue in Christian theology. Augustine particularly identified sin as sexual, an idea which has had a profound influence on Christianity to this day. He also believed in a “city of god,” the ideal destiny where god’s will is fulfilled. The relationship between the church and this final destiny is ambiguous. [I think the idea is that the church helps bring about this final destiny, although if you are only saved by grace it is hard to see how this can be—which was Martin Luther’s point.]

 The Islamic Philosophers –  There were a number of prominent Islamic philosophers from the 9th through 13th centuries. They had discovered and preserved the work of Aristotle, which had been lost to the West, and their translators introduced Aristotle in Spain in the 12th century. [This would eventually make its way to Aquinas at the University of Paris.] Islam, like Christianity, assumes the authority of their religion is based on divine revelation, but this also suggests that issues of the relationship between faith and reason are prominent. The most important of these thinkers were Avicenna, who believed that god (Allah) spoke through both the intellect and imagination of Muhammad; Al-Ghazali, a Sufi mystic who emphasized mysticism rather than philosophical arguments; and Averroes, who reasserted the primacy of reason in interpreting the Koran. Each of these philosophers had considerable influence on the West.

Thomas Aquinas – While many in the Catholic Church tried to ban Aristotle, Aquinas embraced his thought and tried to synthesize it with Christianity. “Though controversial in its time, it has since become Roman Catholic orthodoxy, backed by papal authority.” Aquinas placed a greater emphasis on reason than had Augustine. Like Aristotle he believed that knowledge begins with the senses and that the intellect recognizes types or forms of things in order to categorize the world. This leads to a distinction between rational and revealed theology, the former using unaided reason to prove god’s existence, while the latter depends on the Bible and the Church.

Like Aristotle he believed we have a rational soul or structure which includes perception, intellect, reason and free will. He identifies the idea of eudaimonia with knowledge and love of god. [Is it better to know god or love him was a famous medieval dispute.] The most important virtues are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Aquinas believed that immortality would involve the resurrection of the body, but tried to also maintain that the disembodied soul somehow survived between death and resurrection. Still, despite his emphasis on reason, the authority of the Church was paramount and like Augustine he was prepared to use force against dissent, arguing that heretics should be killed.

The Reformation: Where Lies the Authority for Faith? – Christianity dominated the social, political, and religious life of Europe for more than a 1000 years, from the fall of Rome till at least the 17th century. The first major division of Christianity occurred with the schism of 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke from the western Catholic Church. But four successive cultural movements slowly unraveled the hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 17th century scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment.

The Renaissance refers to the flowering of reason and humanism, literally “the rebirth” or rediscovery of Greek and Roman thought. The next great cultural movement was the Reformation, begun when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five thesis of the door of his German church. There had been other reforming voices before Luther, such as John Wycliffe and John Hess, but Luther’s protest really sparked the Reformation. [Both Wycliffe, who was one of the first to translate the Bible into English, and Huss met terrible fates. Huss was burned at the stake, while Wycliffe was declared a heretic whose remains exhumed and burned. William Tyndale, another of the early translators of the Bible was also burned at the stake.]

Luther had many disagreements with the Church, especially with their selling of indulgences which allowed people to believe they could buy their way into heaven. Theologically Luther believed that one is save by faith and grace alone, thus there was no need for the Church to act as an intermediary between god and humans. He also rejected reason which he famously called a whore. [He rejects the Church, its scholasticism (using reason in theology) and the rise of reason associated with the Renaissance.] And he emphasized the scripture as a truer source of religious truth than the Church.

This religious reform—especially the emphasis on faith and the authority of the Bible—spread throughout northern Europe. The emphasis on scripture was particularly strong in the thought of John Calvin. He helped develop a theocratic state in Geneva, and his ideas spread with the puritans to England and then to America where the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible was developed. Of course this hardly settled matters as the issue of interpretation of the Bible arose. In response some sects like the Quakers placed more emphasis on religious experience. All of this led to centuries of violent conflict and genocide between various religious groups. [Today Europe is almost completely secular, while America is much more overtly religious.]

The Rise of Science: How Does Scientific Method Apply To Human Beings? – The 17th century scientific revolution changed the world. [Look around you anywhere and you see the overwhelming evidence of its influence.] The combination of an experimental method [most associated with Francis Bacon] and the mathematical reasoning utilized by Galileo and Newton showed that science could explain the heavens and earth. Consequently appeals to the Bible and the Church in matters of science began to seem futile. But how far can a scientific approach go in explaining human beings? Are humans material only or is there some immaterial component to them?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1659) – Hobbes was a materialist [one who believes only matter exists] who rejected dualism [the idea that both matter and mind/soul exist.] He argued that the idea of an immaterial soul made no sense, espousing instead a materialistic explanation for all states of body and brain—human nature is exclusively materialistic. Hobbes also argued that humans are selfish, desiring wealth, power, fame, food, clothing, shelter and more for themselves. But as all these things are in limited supply, humans are at war with each other in an effort to obtain them. To avoid this state of war humans accept a coercive political authority to adjudicate their disputes—they trade some of their freedom for the security of the state. This is ultimately in each individual’s interest, inasmuch as it helps them survive. Hobbes was also an atheist who wanted the churches subordinate to the state.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1659) – Descartes is probably the most famous exponent of the dualist view—human nature is composed of a material body and an immaterial mind/soul. The body occupies space and is studied by science; the mind/soul doesn’t occupy space and can’t be studied by science. This immaterial component can exist without the body. While one can doubt the existence of the body and the external world—perhaps you are dreaming the world or some evil demon is making you think there is one—you cannot doubt your own consciousness. [Even if you are deceived about the existence of your consciousness, you must be to be deceived. Thus “I think therefore I am.] In this way Descartes could remain a Catholic and a and scientist at the same time.

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) – Spinoza attempts to reconcile dualism and materialism. Spinoza is a pantheist—god and nature are identical. [This begins to reconcile the material and immaterial.] He also advocated the dual-aspect theory of mind or human nature. For Spinoza mind and matter are two aspects of one underlying reality. Mental events are the same as brain events but we can describe these events as either mental or physical. In other words mind is what the brain does. [This is a bit more materialistic than dualistic.]

The Enlightenment: Can Science Be Our Guide To Life? – As science became accepted as the only cognitive authority in the world [religion and science basically has switched places since the middle ages] the question of apply these insights to human nature arose. Could reason and science explain human beings and improve the human condition? [The evidence is in … the answer is YES.] Could scientific explanations replace religious, philosophical, poetic explanations of human beings? Gradually rational approaches, especially in politics, replaced religious explanations.

David Hume (1711 -1776) – Hume was an empiricist, one who believes that knowledge derives from sense experience. Reason tells us about the relationship between logical and mathematical ideas, but sense experience tells us how the world works. Our ideas are derived from impressions, either sense impressions or introspective reflection of one’s own mind. What we call matter is just a bundle of perceptions—and so are we. There is no soul or self, only a flow of consciousness, a succession of mental states. We are simply a bundle of perceptions, a continual flow of perceptions without any underlying substance. [This is similar to the doctrine of no self in Buddhism.] Needless to say there are no religious overtones to Hume’s thought, as he was a thorough going atheist and freethinker.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) – Rousseau is famous for his belief in the goodness of humans before the corrupting influence of civilization [the so-called “noble savage.”] He also believed that children have a good intrinsic nature that is corrupted by society. Like most romantics he believed that the natural was good. [This is quite dubious.] However he doesn’t allow for the innate selfishness so characteristic of the human race.

All these strains of thought will lead to Immanuel Kant, the crowing figure of the Enlightenment. It is to his views on human nature that we now turn.

George Orwell’s 1984

Books of My Youth

The first books I remember reading as a child were baseball biographies. Stories of baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. I also have a fond memory of reading a book about my favorite baseball player titled: Ken Boyer: Guardian of the Hot Corner. (Why do such trivial things makes such impressions?) The first novel I remember reading was entitled Across the Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. It was a short novel about the American civil war that I read when I was about ten years old. Amazingly, it is still on my bookshelf! In eighth grade I read John Knowles, A Separate Peace, but I was too young to get much out of it. In high school I read Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations Aldous Huxley’s Brave New WorldErnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. No doubt many others have vanished from memory.

In college I remember reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, and I was particularly moved by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which is not surprising as Buddhism is a profound philosophy. No doubt the memory of reading many other books has long since evaporated from my mind, and there are thousands upon thousands of wonderful books that I’ve never read.

Orwell’s Masterpiece

But the most influential novel I’ve ever read was Orwell’s 1984. ( It was the Boston Public Library’s choice as the most influential book of the twentieth-century.) It is the only novel that transformed me and the way I saw the world. The novel was prescient foretelling, to a large extent, the political reality of America in 2014. No one who truly understands the book ever sees the world the same way again. It is as if Orwell removes a curtain that hides reality behind it—a reality completely opposite the message promulgated by the voices and images that proceed daily in front of us. These voices and images are designed to mislead and control rather than inform, they make a mockery of truth. The Ministry of Truth lies; The Ministry of Peace wages war; The Ministry of Love tortures. (Think of a major geopolitical power today where: A few major corporate conglomerates control news; the Department of Defense wages war, the Department of Homeland Security tortures and incarceration of undesirables is rampant.)  What better slogan for the ruling elite:


It is as if, the philosopher in me would say, Orwell allows us to see past Kant’s phenomenal world to the neumonal world—to the way things really are. To a social and political reality so bleak and barren that even love cannot thrive. In the end Winston and Julia betray each other because, contrary to what I’ve written in previous posts, love is not stronger than death. Here is their conversation after both have been emptied of their most noble inclination—the inclination to love another consciousness.

“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something—something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”

If Orwell is right, life is bleaker than we usually let ourselves to imagine. Power and the desire for it remove color, beauty and love from the world. I hope he’s wrong.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 11 – The Bible

The Bible: Humanity in Relation to God

The Old Testament is recognized as the word of god by both Jews and Christians; the New Testament is only recognized as such by Christians. Islam also recognizes the patriarchs and prophets of these books, but asserts that Muhammad is “the last and greatest of the prophets, and that the Koran is the uniquely authoritative message of God.” Needless to say there are so many varieties of belief that there is no way to say “the Jews say this” or “the Christians say that.” We begin with a theory of the universe common to both Jews and Christians (and to Islam too.) The author begins by telling us that he is a Christian in case you want to know where he’s coming from.

Metaphysical Background: The Judaic-Christian Conception of God – It is not clear from the opening verses of the Bible whether god is one (monotheism) or god is many (polytheism.) [There are other well-known conundrums. For example there are two creation accounts corresponding to the first two chapters of the book. In the first multiple humans were created after the animals and man and woman were then created simultaneously; in the second humans were created before animals, with man created first, then the animals and then a woman from man’s rib.] But this god(s) creates evidently by commanding, gives things names after bringing them into existence, and all created is good. Soon the first two humans disobey god, then one of their children kills the other, and god resolves to kill all humans. Finally Noah is allowed to save his family and all the animals. There are also stories of sons of god having sex with woman and races of giants. [This is all in the first book of the Bible.] No doubt the text “is a compilation of several ancient stories containing different conceptions of the divine.”

This god speaks to people throughout the book, instructs them, and is represented variously as having a face and voice, being a shield, having nostrils, being a shepherd, and more. In later books he generally speaks through intermediaries and later on still there is less talk of god. All of this causes the author to ask “Where should we draw the line between symbolic or metaphorical talk of God and realistic, literal talk of Him?” He is not sure of the answer. But traditionally (classical theism) holds that god is non-spatial, non-temporal, immaterial and yet a personal being who creates, loves, guides, judges, and cares for us. He is endowed with intelligence, desires, knowledge and other traits of personality. He intervenes in the world, performs miracles, and tells us how to live. In short he is a disembodied person. But what does this mean if we cannot confirm or falsify it? The author suggests that we understand this talk of god as a metaphor. [But of what?]

The Hebrew Theory of Human Nature – Humans exists “primarily in a relation to God, who has created us to occupy a special position in the universe … The question immediately arises whether we should read this story literally as narrating historical events … or as mythology…” The author, as I did previously, notes the main problem with a literal account—there are multiple and contradictory creation stories. Another problem is the stories inconsistency with modern science, including but not limited to cosmology, geology, and biology. Science provides entirely different accounts of our past. Furthermore, these stories contradict common sense. How did Adam and Eve’s sons find wives if all humans were descended from the first couple? The author, a Christian, says “I propose that only symbolic readings of the creation stories can be taken seriously. It is now widely … accepted that they are myths …”

Humans are supposedly made in the image of God [if true then looking around the world one might conclude god is a monster]. Of course we can turn this around and say humans made god in their image. In other words we don’t partake in the perfect intelligence, moral perfection and personhood of the creator but imagine our own imperfections don’t exist in a godhead. [Both Nietzsche and Feuerbach said that God didn’t make us in his image but we made god in our image.] Humans are thus special yet also continuous with nature made from dust to which they return. And humans are not made up of body and soul. The Hebrew world ruach means wind or breath, it is not a separate soul. This idea is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.  [In all my years of teaching I think this is the most common misunderstanding of orthodox Christianity by Christians.] In fact there is no expectation of the afterlife in the Old Testament, the Jews developed the idea of the afterlife only slightly before the time of Jesus.

As for woman the one biblical account has them appearing second to man and a woman is represented as the temptress who brought about man’s fall and tempts him to sin, especially sexually. For their disobedience woman will suffer in childbirth and must accept men as their masters. And of course, god is a man! [I’m guessing all of this was written by men.]

Humans are supposed to be free [there is a tension here because woman are supposed to submit to men] to love and obey god or not. God commanded humans not to learn about good and evil, and humans must choose whether to know about good and evil (to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and their eternal salvation depends on it. But why is it bad to learn this? Is not the mark of the mature to put childhood behind and search for one’s own answers? Here we confront the emphasis on faith and the heart characteristic of the Hebraic mind in contrast to the emphasis on reason and intelligence characteristic of the Hellenistic (Greek) mind.

The emphasis on the heart implies a concern with human goodness, with the personal characteristics, and with good actions. But faith in the godhead is of primary importance, for god created us “so that we fulfill the purpose of our life only when we love and serve our Creator.” Thus the ultimate requirement is obedience to god “rather than the use of the intellect to reason things out and make one’s own judgments about truth and morality.” Thus god rewards Abraham because he is willing to kill his own son Isaac in order to submit to god.” [Kierkegaard famously called Abraham the “knight of faith” for doing this. Might we instead call Abraham … insane and god malicious?] As the author puts is “… such a command could not really come from a loving god … Even if it was only given as a “test of faith,” what sort of god would play such a trick?” Another example of the emphasis on faith vs. reason is in the story of Job. Satan persuades god to torment Job for no reason. God asserts his authority and Job submits. The point seems to be that one should be humble before god [or he will mess you up], rather than there being any intellectual insight as to why this has all happened to Job.

Diagnosis: Human DisobedienceWe misuse our freedom and choose evil over good and therefore mess up our relationship with god. God punishes our disobedience by sending pain, suffering, and death. [Did god know all this was going to happen beforehand?] There is thus a tension between our inclinations and our duties, but why do our (biological tendencies) imply moral failure?

God’s Covenants and Regeneration – God made us to be in a relationship with him, we broke that relationship, so god must fix it—hence the idea of salvation initiated by the mercy of god. In the Old Testament this is described as the idea of a covenant between god and his chosen people—the Jews, especially Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Still problems persisted, sin did not disappear from the earth, the Jews commit genocide that god orders, and more. God uses history to punish both friends and foes alike, but the idea arises that god’s mercy can also intervene in history to rectify all these problems. “Thus the hope arose among Judaism for the coming of a God-appointed savior, “the Messiah,” which Christians identify with Jesus.”

The New Testament – The Jewish rabbi Jesus didn’t leave any writing but the new religion of Christianity developed with the letters of St. Paul and the gospel narratives about his life written between 40 to 70 years after his death. [His existence as a historical figure has also been called into question.] Christians soon recognized god the father, god the son, and god the holy spirit who inspired Christian believers—thus 3 persons in 1 god. What is a Christian? This is a complex question, but at a minimum it requires believing that Jesus was at least a special, historical, revelation of god, and that god was uniquely present in Jesus. This is usually expressed as the doctrine of the incarnation—Jesus is both human and divine. What this doctrine means is a matter of theological dispute. [The issue was settled historically for Christians at the Council of Nicaea in 325 which settled the issue of the relationship between god the father and god the son in a debate among council members.]

The New Testament Theory of Human Nature – St. Paul talks of (the level of) spirit and (the level of old nature) flesh. This distinction is one “between regenerate and unregenerate humanity, redeemed and unredeemed human nature.” The idea, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, seems to be that the best of human nature rejects power, fame, wealth, and sex for moral righteousness. Sex is a particularly vexing issue, as both St. Paul and St. Augustine deride it. As for women, Jesus evidently didn’t choose any as disciples and St. Paul and Christianity ever since “… has found females theologically problematic  …” [Should woman cover their heads in church? Should women be ordained? etc.] Again none of this assumes an afterlife, although some have obviously interpreted the Kingdom of God in this way.

However, eternal life implies loving god and one’s neighbors certainly, and the New Testament does discuss on resurrection, the last judgment, and eternal punishment. The idea that Jesus was resurrected has traditionally been taken to imply that we can life forever too, at least if we are saved by god. The Christian expectation of resurrection of the saved appears in Corinthians.

The New Testament Diagnosis of Sin – We are all imperfect in god’s eyes, as is the entire creation after the Fall—since human beings rejected god by eating the forbidden fruit.

God’s Salvation in Christ – It is unclear what Jesus thought of himself, as it was Paul who first formalized the doctrines of salvation and the incarnation. Paul thought that God was uniquely present in Jesus and his life and death somehow restored our relationship with god. Paul believed that one misdeed condemned all humanity and one righteous act—Jesus dying—saves everyone. But it is counter-intuitive to believe that one bad act and one good act could do this. And how does Jesus atone for our sins anyway? Today most theologians don’t accept the idea that this was a blood sacrifice like in the Old Testament. So again, how does this supposed event 2000 years ago redeem the world of sin? How can one be saved by Jesus? Traditionally then we are saved by god’s grace, not our own works. On the other hand Christianity assumes we are free to choose to accept god’s salvation. This creates a tension.

Spiritual or Supernatural Versions of Christianity? – But how are we to rationally understand perplexing Christian doctrines, like the resurrection and virgin birth? Must we just accept them on faith? What of the outlandish material in the book of Revelation? How can resurrected bodies not exist in space and time? One might respond by partaking in the spiritual life of the church, regardless of the truth of its theological claims, but surely this can be achieved without accepting all the supernatural and metaphysical claims.

Transhumanism and Scientific Requirements to Hold Political Office

Recently I have written multiple articles about the scientific illiteracy of American politicians. [1] [2] [3] Even members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology display an ignorance of science that should make a high school student blush.

After reading my essays a perceptive reader posed the follow questions: 1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? 2) What about someone who denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? 3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? To these questions I would like to add my own: 5)How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant to transhumanism? Let me answer each of these questions in turn.

1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? In the simplest and most obvious case a person holds unscientific views if they deny a received view of modern science for non-scientific reasons. If someone denies atomic theory for an invisible gremlin theory of matter, or evolutionary theory for an invisible god theory, then that person holds an unscientific view. In the case of biological evolution this has been affirmed over and over by the courts after listening to experts testify as to the nature of science—creationism, creation science and intelligent design are not scientific hypotheses.

To illustrate this point, suppose I say that bread rises in an oven because of the oven’s color. This claim is clearly false, but it is a testable scientific hypothesis—one that could quickly be falsified by placing bread with yeast into different colored ovens. However if I say that bread rises because there are invisible gremlins inside the bread that cause the bread to rise by jumping when it is heated, then I have not advanced a scientific hypothesis because no experiment can falsify this belief—no matter the outcome of any experiment the believer can always claim that invisible gremlins did it. (I am relying on Popper’s theory of falsification here, fully cognizant of the fact that it is a complex issue in philosophy of science to show exactly what makes something a scientific hypothesis. But here falsification clearly shows why some hypothesis aren’t scientific.)

There are also more complicated cases, as when someone denies the received scientific wisdom for a scientific reason. What are we to make of such daring hypotheses? We treat them like any other scientific hypotheses. For what scientists do “is to try to answer fundamental questions by crafting comprehensive and reasonably explanatory hypothesis suggested by the data, and leave it to their own later work, or that of others, to try to verify or falsify it.”1 And who decides what is a scientific reason? Scientists do. It is their expertise that allows them to differentiate a scientific from a pseudo-scientific hypothesis, although there are issues on the fringes of science in which it is difficult to determine what is and is not a reasonable scientific hypothesis. There are many debatable ideas in science, countless unsettled areas which are for the moment unsettled. In such cases we must wait for further evidence.

2) What about someone that denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? Much rejection of the received scientific wisdom in our society today is a response to propaganda dispensed by those motivated by profit. It in the interest of tobacco and oil companies to deny the scientific consensus about the deadly consequences of their products. Other reasons for rejecting science include: cognitive errors, scientific illiteracy, fear of authority, and fear of government. In the specific cases of evolution or big bang theory such opposition is easy to understand. People reject ideas that seemingly contradict the preconceived world views. As William James so aptly put it: “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”

To better understand this consider the curious case of the intelligent design movement, which tries to make their opposition to evolutionary biology appear scientific even though the motivations are clearly religious. Intelligent design is pseudo-science masquerading as science, but that doesn’t stop blatantly immoral, theocratic organizations like the Discovery Institute from trying to have their religious views taught in American public school science classes! Clearly such opposition is ideologically motivated and has nothing to do with the science, about which there is a unanimous consensus. Should scientifically illiterate, anti-sciences ideologues sit in positions of on committees charged with setting public science policy or choosing public school science curriculums? Of course not! That would be like a religiously illiterate, atheist being Pope.

3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? and 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? To the first question we answer: YES, YES, YES. To the second question we answer, probably NO, NO, NO.

Not only should the members of this committee have to pass a basic scientific literacy test to be members of said committee, but so should anyone holding political office anywhere. The notion that scientifically illiterate political leaders should be in positions to make important decisions is abhorrent. The idea that holders of political power should be among the most intellectually excellent goes back to at least Plato in the west and Confucius in the East. That one must pass a test to practice law, medicine, nursing, education and many other professions yet anyone, regardless of their level of ignorance, can hold important political positions is a travesty. Plato believe that one could only have a good life in a good society, which itself depended on knowledgable rulers who had passed a long series of tests. The imperial exams in ancient China played a similar role, assuring that those who held political power were masters of Confucian political texts. (The result was one of the longest eras of peace and prosperity ever known on the planet.)

5) How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant for transhumanism? I recently wrote about my support for the newly formed Transhumanist Political Party. Clearly progress toward a transhumanist world depends on political action informed by an understanding of science and technology. Opposition to transhumanism is strong enough given the general human tendency toward stasis, but such opposition is multiplied if the more open-minded and dynamic among us are uniformed. Think of how opposition to stem cell research and therapeutic cloning is driven, not only by legitimate worries and rejection of the novel, but by scientific ignorance. (No there won’t be multiple copies of people running around.) Similarly opposition to robotics, artificial intelligence, intelligence augmentation, and nanotechnology is largely driven by irrational fears.

The transhumanist movement is stifled and compromised by an uninformed public, and the situation is exacerbated by scientifically ignorant policy makers. However, while it is self-evident that we would all live in a better society if government officials were more generally educated, such a political change is almost certainly not feasible. Perhaps then the best hope for transhumanism lies, not with governmental support, but with the efforts of privates corporations like Google and private organizations like the Singularity Institute and others.

In the end illiteracy of any kind, but especially scientific and technological, impedes a movement based on using science and technology to overcome all human limitations. The movement needs to be more cognizant of these impediments.

This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 23, 2014.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 10 – Aristotle – Part 2

Ideal and Diagnosis – Rather than diagnosing a flaw in human nature and proposing a remedy, Aristotle gives us an account of the end, purpose or meaning of life and how one might achieve it. Rather than offer an otherworldly account of salvation, he offers one for this world—one more akin to Confucianism or Buddhism.

Aristotle begins by asking if there is one thing at which all action aims; if there is one thing all action seeks for its own sake. Aristotle says that eudaimonia is that thing. This is variously translated as happiness, flourishing, well-being, living well, fulfillment, perfection, and more. In his own words “the human good turns out to be activity in the soul [mind] in accordance with excellence.” In other words the good life is activity that involves rationality and embodying excellence over an entire lifetime.

Anything, even inanimate things, can function excellently. A good pen or a good dog functions as they are supposed to. Humans have both excellences of intellect—theoretical and practical reason—and excellences of character—virtues (excellences) like practical wisdom, knowing what to do in real-life situations by having learned from experience, as well as temperance, courage, and justice. In general he presents these virtues as “the mean between the extremes.” A life of virtue (excellences of character) is the ideal for human life. [Like Plato he emphasizes moral and intellectual virtue.]

In contrast to the state of virtue [knowing, wanting, and doing the right thing] stand brutishness (vice) [which is to not know, want, or do the good]; badness (incontinence) [which is to not want or do the good, although one may know it] and lack of self-control (continence) [which it to not do the good, although one may want and know it. Unlike Socrates, who thought knowledge was sufficient for virtue (KSV) and Plato, who recognized inner conflict, Aristotle recognized how weakness of will implies that KSV is false. Knowing the good doesn’t mean one will do it.

Realization or Prescription: Political Expertise and Intellectual Contemplation – A key is that vice and virtue result from habits, which themselves are the result of past actions and environment, including the social and political environment. [Aristotle says that political science is the science which studies the good for humans.] This leads us to Aristotle’s conception of government and society. In brief Aristotle believed that societies can only survive and flourish if there is some basic agreement about issues of private morality. [It is hard to know his prescription for a pluralistic society like ours. The founders of the USA thought that individual moral and religious pluralism was allowable, as long as the public, secular good took precedence.]

As for his specific, ideal notion of the good life Aristotle contrasts lives of pleasure, honor, and intellectual reflection. Not surprisingly he felt the latter was superior. Intellectual contemplation he thought was the highest and best human activity. Needless to say the authors reject Aristotle’s belief that intellectual activity is higher than other worthwhile activities. [Plato argues that intellectual pleasures are better than physical ones. He says you can confirm this by asking someone who has experienced both types which they prefer. He argues they will always say intellectual pleasures are superior.] The authors also criticized Aristotle for not noting how much one’s station in life affects their ability to live well.