Monthly Archives: October 2014

Summary of Kant’s Theory of Human Nature

Kant gemaelde 3.jpg

(This ia my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

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.] 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.]

Diagnosis – Selfishness And Sociality – Kant contrasts non-human animals, who have desires but no sense of duty, and humans who do experience tension between their (self-interested) desires and the demands of the practical reason to do their duty. But how can the interests of others, motivate us to act? Why should we be moral?

Kant argues that reason demands that we be moral. It is our duty to act according to morality rather than our self-interested inclinations and passions. Rational persons should conform their (free) wills to the moral law, which is known to reason through general maxims like the categorical imperative. Being moral is a matter of having the right intention—to follow the moral law—and has nothing to do with the consequences of our actions. We follow the moral law—for example by telling the truth—and disregard whatever consequences may follow. But many people subordinate moral duty to their inclinations, to the desire for their own happiness. Such persons violate the moral law.

As for the source of this immorality, Kant believes on the one hand that we freely choose to disregard our duty, but on the other hand the propensity to evil is somehow innate. The extent to which our evil tendencies are exacerbated by society is open to debate. [What we can say is that something is amiss in human life. We have a duty to others, but we are naturally self-interested.]

Prescription: Pure Religion and Cultural Progress – How then do we overcome selfishness and act morally? Kant dismisses self-interested reasons to be moral—you will be punished if you don’t act appropriately—because such reasons are inconsistent with virtue. For Kant, the only thing that is completely good is a good will, the desire or intention to do good for the sake of goodness alone. [While Kant believes the moral law ultimately comes from God, he doesn’t emphasize this. Rather he appeals to human reason’s ability to know the moral law. Furthermore, Kant argued vehemently in the first critique that the traditional arguments for God’s existence were worthless. Yet he will not rely on fideism either. So where does he go?]

What Kant takes with one hand he gives back with another. While pure reason cannot support the existence of his god, the practical reason can justify beliefs in God, the immortality of the soul, and free will. When we act we presuppose that we are free and saying one ought to do something implies that they can. What then of God and immortality? Kant argues that the highest good, the end of all our striving, is a combination of moral virtue and happiness.

Yet morality is not always rewarded in this life and the evildoers often flourish while the good do not. Thus we need god to rectify the situation. God’s perfect justice will reward and punish. [This is basically the moral argument for God’s existence. 1) There is a moral law, thus 2) there must be a moral lawgiver.] It is important that we have hope that moral virtue will be rewarded, although we are moral not because of these possible rewards, but because being moral is our duty. While Kant did not take a lot of religious imagery literally, but he did hope that justice somehow prevailed. He also thought that practical reason justifiably invokes

Kant also “envisaged continued progress in human culture through education, economic development, and political reform, gradually emancipating people from poverty, war, ignorance, and subjection to traditional authorities … he was a supporter of egalitarian and democratic ideals … [and] he sketched a world order of peaceful cooperation between nations with democratic constitutions.” And Kant expressed hope that human potential could be gradually fulfilled. He was a consummate Enlightenment thinker.

ADDENDUM: BASIC IDEAS IN KANT’S PHILOSOPHY (not from the book we are discussing)

WHAT CAN WE KNOW? (addressed in The Critique of Pure Reason)

  1. Mathematics? Yes, it is legitimate knowledge
  2. Natural science? Yes, it too is legitimate knowledge
  3. Metaphysics? No, we can’t know “things-in-themselves,” we can’t know the nature of ultimate reality, reason isn’t justified in making metaphysical claims.

Still, we want a complete picture of reality, despite the fact that theoretical reason can’t give it to us. This is in part because there exist “antimonies” of reason, the most important of which are the existence of: God; freedom; and immortality. Reason cannot resolve such questions. So what do we do when it comes to action? The realm where ethics applies?

WHAT SHOULD WE DO? (addressed in The Critique of Practical Reason)

First we must presuppose the existence of God and freedom for there to be ethics. Since we have reason and free will we can choose between actions, unlike non-human animals who are guided by instinct. For Kant moral actions are actions where reason leads, rather than follows, instincts. Put more simply we ought to conform our free will to the moral law; that is our duty. The moral law ultimately comes from God but Kant doesn’t stress. Instead, he emphasizes that reason can overcome our impulses, the non-rational, instinctive part of our nature, by exercising reason.

Thus Kant says that the only thing that is completely good is a good will, one that tries to conform itself to the moral law which is its duty. This presupposes that we are free to do this. But what do we do when we freely conform our will to the moral law when doing our duty? Kant, as an Enlightenment rationalist, assumes that there must be some rational representation of the moral law that we can all understand. And when he thinks about say a physical law, one of the key characteristics of true laws of nature are that they are universal. Thus, the moral law must be characterized by its universality. Just as an equation of the form a(b+c) = ab + ac is universally applicable and needs only to be filled in by numbers, the moral law must have an abstract formulation to be filled in by actions.

This leads to the 1st formulation of the categorical imperative (CI), which is the moral law as understood by reason. This law is binding on all rational being and is such that violation of the moral law also violates reason. He gives four examples of actions that demonstrate how the CI works: lying, suicide, helping others and developing your talents. These are all absolute duties, however, the first two are perfect duties while the second two are imperfect duties. This means that satisfying one’s duty in the first two cases can be specified exactly, whereas in the other two there are various ways of doing one’s duty. But the key idea is that one’s duty is the rational action, the one that reason demands. Rational actions are moral actions; irrational actions are immoral ones.

Of course, we can act contrary to reason because we are free, just like we can say that 2 + 2 = 6, or round squares exist, or that there are married bachelors. But we violate reason when we say these things just as the bank robber violates reason when he robs banks. Why? The reason is the same as it is for suicide or lying. One cannot consistently universalize the maxim of one’s actions when one engages in such actions. For example, a bank robber wills a world where:

  1. banks exist as the necessary prerequisite of the bank robbery intended and
  2. banks don’t exist as the obvious consequence of bank robberies.

This is Kant’s essential idea. It violates both reason and ethics to say that I can have a drink of your beer but you can’t have a drink of mine.

To summarize, ethical conduct is that in which the will conforms to the moral law which it understands as the CI and this is its duty. Does this lead to happiness? Not necessarily. Kant says if you want to be happy follow your instincts; if you want to be moral follow the constraints of reason. In this way, you should see that Kant doesn’t care about the consequences of actions. Do your duty and whatever happens, happens. So the key is your intention which should be to follow the moral law. Note that this intention is internal to the moral agent, not external like consequences are. You should give someone the correct change—in Kant’s example—because it’s the right thing to do, not because its good for business.

Kant’s criticisms of utilitarianism warrant a separate discussion. Utilitarian moral theories evaluate the moral worth of action on the basis of happiness that is produced by an action. Whatever produces the most happiness in the most people is the moral course of action. Kant has an insightful objection to moral evaluations of this sort. The essence of the objection is that utilitarian theories actually devalue the individuals it is supposed to benefit. If we allow utilitarian calculations to motivate our actions, we are allowing the valuation of one person’s welfare and interests in terms of what good they can be used for. It would be possible, for instance, to justify sacrificing one individual for the benefits of others if the utilitarian calculations promise more benefit. Doing so would be the worst example of treating someone utterly as a means and not as an end in themselves.

Another way to consider his objection is to note that utilitarian theories are driven by contingent inclinations in humans for pleasure and happiness, not by the universal moral law dictated by reason. To act in pursuit of happiness is arbitrary and subjective, and is no more moral than acting on the basis of greed, or selfishness. All three emanate from subjective, non-rational grounds. The danger of utilitarianism lies in its embracing of baser instincts while rejecting the indispensable role of reason and freedom in our actions.

WHAT CAN I HOPE FOR? – I’ll leave this question for another day. But what I hope is that life is meaningful, that it all somehow works out for the best, that a better reality comes to be. Here is my own poem to describe the situation:

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

4 More Memorable Books

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. I reiterate that I’m not saying these are the best or most important books I’ve ever read, but they are ones that stand out as profoundly affecting me.

On Human Nature

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 that was assigned for a class. My 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 behavior, 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’t they accept the truth? Because, as Wilson says, most people “would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”2

Still, Wilson’s lessons weren’t depressing. Science liberates 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 must choose our future path. As Wilson says, the evolutionary idea is the greatest and truest one 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 to appreciate it. Sagan’s basic message is that unreason and superstition are dangerous, while science and reason light the world. But it’s 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 you 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 truth. He 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 won’t deceive himself; he had a passion for the truth.

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 live in darkness. But if we dispassionately reason, we will increasingly bring light to 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 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 it 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—its power lies in its narrative.

So let me describe a single scene in the book to give you a sense of the power of Frankl’s prose. Being marched off to work one dark morning, cold and hungry, while being hit with the butt of 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:

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.

Afterword – In 1942, Frankl, his wife, and his parents were deported to the 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 killed 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

I will respond to the above with a few lines of my own original poetry:

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

No book can be profound in the way that Frankl’s book is, but a book can change you for other reasons. 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 to me. Moreover, 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, etc.—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. Perhaps most importantly, he also showed me how universal death is avoidable.

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 a 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 reading this book on a screened-in front porch in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. 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

Peoria Riverfront Park Dan Fogelberg Memorial Site

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. Below you’ll find its sublime lyrics.

   River of Souls (Original Recording Remastered)

I take my place along the shore
And I wait for the tide
It seems I’ve passed this way before
In an earlier time
I hear a voice like mystery
Blowing warm through the night
The silent moon embraces me
And I’m drawn to her light

I follow footprints in the sand
To a circle of stone
Find a fire burning bright
Though I came here alone
And in the play of shadows cast
I can dimly discern
The shapes of all who’ve gone before
Calling me to return

There are no names
That fit these faces
There are no lines that can define
These ancient spaces
The spirits dance across the ages
And melt into a river of souls

Lo que es de mio ~~ what is mine ~~
Lo que es de dios ~~ what is god’s ~~
Lo que es del rio ~~ what is the river’s ~~
Melt into a river of souls

I take my place along the shore
And I wait for the tide
It seems I’ve passed this way before
In an earlier time
To every man the mystery
Sings a different song
He fills his page of history
Dreams his dreams and is gone

There are no names
That fit these faces
There are no lines that can define
These ancient spaces
The spirits dance across the ages
And melt into a river of souls

Lo que es de mio ~~ what is mine ~~
Lo que es de dios ~~ what is god’s ~~
Lo que es del rio ~~ what is the river’s ~~
Melt into a river of souls

(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 artistic contributions. 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.

The Greek Island of Naxos

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, Orwell’s 1984, can be found here.) Reading the statistics on the back of baseball cards and the facts and figures in The World Almanac were virtual obsessions when I was a kid. Even then my affinity for data was greater than for 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 I’ve read, or that other books might have had a greater influence on me if I had read them. But these are the ones that most affected me when I was young, and their message resonates within me still.

As a college freshman in 1973, 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. (An updated version of the book was retitled: The Pleasures of Philosophy.) The book did bear the imprint of a 1920s American male 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 about substantive topics in plain, clear language. 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.

Shortly thereafter I happened upon Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. I have noted my affinity for the depth and breadth of Russell’s philosophy 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 or his famous work in 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 stands on the wrong side of history and will be, as I have argued often, ultimately relegated to the dustbin of history. For, as Russell knew, rational persons could never believe religion’s fantastic claims unless they were indoctrinated, immature, irrational, fearful, feeble-minded or misled. Of course, more sophisticated believers don’t accept the supernatural elements of their religions literally but hide their nonsense behind esoteric language and obscurantism. And 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. 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 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 have not successfully put its message into practice, but I have never forgotten 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 that say something new and profound about a topic that everybody talks about, but this book did.

During breaks in the dealer’s room in Las Vegas in 1985, preparing 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, and 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 philosophers 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 signed by Will Durant himself on December 12, 1933. (Thanks to my son-in-law for the gift.) The book also contains the most beautiful dedication I’ve ever read. It is from Will to his beloved wife Ariel. 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.

I thank Durant, Russell, and Fromm for leaving a part of themselves in their books, where I found them and was enriched by the encounter.