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Aug 8 14

A Finely Tuned Universe

by Bill Meacham

One of the more superficially plausible arguments for the existence of a Creator God is that of the Finely Tuned Universe. It is a variant of the argument from design, that the contents of the universe are so intricately connected that an intelligent being must have designed them. That argument originally focused on biological complexity, but Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection trumped it by accounting for biological design by natural causes rather than an intelligent creator.(1) The argument that the universe is finely tuned to provide a home for human life extends the argument from design from biology to the cosmos as a whole.

The argument, in brief, is that the conditions that allow life in the universe can occur only when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range. If any of them were only slightly different, the universe would not be conducive to the establishment and development of not only life, but the diversity of physical elements, astronomical structures, and even matter itself. The probability of these values all being just so is so small that an intelligent Creator God is a better explanation than pure chance.

The list of such constants varies among adherents of this view; among them are the following:(2)

  • The ratio of the strength of gravity to that of electromagnetism;
  • The strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei;
  • The Density parameter, the relative values of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe;
  • The cosmological constant, which defines the energy density of the vacuum of space;
  • The ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass; and
  • The number of spatial dimensions in spacetime.

Recently it has been suggested that the mass of the Higgs Particle, which is 17 orders of magnitude smaller than physicists would expect it to be were it “natural” (a technical term in particle physics, not the opposite of supernatural), is also one of these finely tuned properties of the universe. If it were what physicists would expect given other characteristics of small particles, there would not even be mass as we know it, let alone life.(3)

The Finely Tuned Universe argument asserts that the fact that all these values are set just so is highly, highly improbable. They have a Vanishingly(4) small chance of occurring just as they do by pure chance; so instead, an Intelligent Designer must have set them up that way. As a friend put it, what if you flipped a coin 100 times and it came up heads every time? Wouldn’t that be so improbable that we would suspect something other than random chance?

I think not. In rebuttal, let’s consider some points about probability and the anthropic principle.


The concept of probability applies only to that which has not yet happened, i.e., events in the future. The probability of an event happening is equal to the number of ways it can happen divided by the total number of possible outcomes. For flipping a coin to get heads there is one way the desired event can happen (it comes up heads) and two possible outcomes (it comes up heads and it comes up tails), so the probability of getting heads is 1/2 (0.5) or 50%. To find the probability of independent events that occur in sequence such as 100 heads in a row, you find the probability of each event occurring separately and then multiply the probabilities. That would mean 0.5 to the 100th power, which is indeed minuscule (7.88861E-31, according to Excel).(5)

But, after the events have happened, the concept of probability no longer applies! If you did indeed get 100 heads in a row, the probability, if you can call it that, would be 100%. Before you started, the probability of that outcome was minuscule. After you are done, that outcome is a certainty. It is no longer probable; it is actual.

So to say that we live in a highly improbable universe is bogus. It is certain that we live in the universe as it is.

That answer is unlikely to persuade most people. Yes, the universe is as it is, but before it got that way wasn’t it improbable that it would? My answer: Yes, it was quite improbable. But so was every other way it could have been.

Imagine, not a Creator God, but a Universe Generator. The Universe Generator is like a random number generator (except it does not have to be random) that generates universes, either all at once (the “multiverse”) or one at a time. Before any particular universe is generated, the probability of it turning out in a certain way is minuscule. The probability of a universe with different cosmological constants from ours, but each having a particular value, would be as minuscule as the probability of our universe with the values we find in it. At some point in meta-time our particular universe is generated. Then it’s a done deal, and here we are. That it was improbable before it got generated is nothing remarkable; so was every other universe before it got created.

I’m not sure the concept of a Universe Generator in meta-time actually makes sense, but it is a way of suggesting that the alleged improbability of our universe turning out just as it has is a bogus consideration.

Here is another way of looking at it. For simplicity, imagine flipping a coin, not 100 but only eight times. The probability of getting heads all eight times (HHHHHHHH) would be 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2, or 0.5 to the 8th power, which comes out to 1/256, or 0.00390625. That’s not Vanishingly small, but small enough to seem awfully improbable. Now consider the probability of getting some other result, say HTTHHTHT. Its probability is equally 0.00390625! Now matter how it comes out in the end, before you flip the coins the probability of any particular outcome is the same as any other. Similarly, that our universe was improbable is nothing remarkable. So was every other possible universe.

Anthropic Principle

Yes, one might object, but how come we get to be here and observe our world and think about it? Isn’t that strange? Not really. Consider the Anthropic Principle, the idea that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. A variant called the Weak Anthropic Principle says that the universe’s ostensible fine tuning is the result of selection bias. Only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing and reflecting upon any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life would not be observed by anybody.(6) So it is entirely unremarkable that we are here to observe the universe. If the universe were such that it could not support life, we would not be there to observe and puzzle about it. There is no need to posit any sort of intelligent design to account for it. As physicist Stephen Hawking puts it, “Intelligent beings … should … not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence. It is a bit like a rich person living in a wealthy neighborhood not seeing any poverty.”(7)

So What?

You can readily find on the Internet numerous other objections to the Finely Tuned Universe argument for a Creator God as well as numerous theological arguments that purport to refute them. I have offered a few objections in the interest of clarity of thought, but I suspect that the whole debate is what the Buddha called “questions which tend not to edification.”(8) Who really bases their faith on such arguments? Both theists and atheists come to conclusions on emotional grounds and then find arguments to rationalize their positions, as do we all in many arenas of life.(9)

William James addressed the question over 150 years ago: “It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.”(10) In either case, the world is as it is. From a practical point of view, speculation about origins is futile.

But what does matter is our orientation to life in the future. James, a theist who struggled to find a way to reconcile his urge to believe with science and philosophy, asserted that theism is preferable to atheism because it gives us hope for the future. I have addressed this question before. When objective science fails to provide an answer, our subjective experiences of what we might call a Higher Power can be decisive, particularly if our relationship with that Higher Power provides us benefits. If, for instance, we are happier and function better with such belief than without it, then we are justified in believing.

In that vein, I offer a gentle speculation. Consider the unlikely result of flipping a coin mentioned above, HTTHHTHT. The same result can be written in binary code, the language of computers, as 01100101. That is the code (in ASCII, for those who know what that is) for the letter “e,” the most common letter in the English alphabet. If we examined a computer-encoded text, we would find that sequence, 01100101, far more often than we would expect if its genesis were purely random. Indeed, we would probably find it more often than any other sequence of eight bits. That finding would tell us that the text is not random, but has some other organizing principle.

We cannot inspect numerous universes to see if more of them are amenable to life than we would expect from sheer randomness. But, as a friend suggests, we can look around the world we do live in to see if we can discern evidence of a Higher Power that takes a benevolent interest in us, God’s fingerprints as it were.

And if we find such evidence, we try to formulate a coherent story of how it fits in with the rest of what we know. There are many such stories in the world’s religions. Here is another one. In the beginning, it is said, was the Word.(11) Perhaps the universe we live in is a story that God is telling, a story that isn’t over yet. We are characters in the story; and unlike characters on the printed page, whose actions are determined by the author, we get to co-create the story. We get to make decisions and exert our will to make things happen. Maybe our actions are only eight tiny bits in a sequence that is Vastly long, but those bits make a difference. And it is up to us what kind of difference we make.


(1) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.”

(2) Wikipedia, “Fine-tuned Universe.”

(3) Veith, “A Christian Physicist;” Barr, “On the Edge of Discovery;” Barr, “The Large Hadron Collider.”

(4) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 207.  “Vanishingly” (capitalized) means very, very small, but not infinitely so.  Its reciprocal is “Vast,” meaning very, very large, but not infinite.

(5) Aczel, Chance, pp. 5-12.

(6) Wikipedia, “Anthropic Principle.”

(7) Quoted in Iron Chariots, “Fine-tuning argument.”

(8) Buddhist Writings, Majjhima-Nikaya, Sutta 63.

(9) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 13-17.

(10) James, “Some Metaphysical Problems,” p. 71.

(11) Christian Bible, John 1:1.


Aczel, Amir D. Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market & Just About Everything Else. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.

Barr, Stephen M. “On the Edge of Discovery.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Barr, Stephen M. “The Large Hadron Collider, the Multiverse, and Me (and my friends).” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Buddhist Writings, Translated and Annotated by Henry Clarke Warren. Vol. XLV, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001. Online publication as of 15 November 2012.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Iron Chariots. “Fine-tuning argument.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

James, William. “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Veith, Gene. “A Christian physicist, the Higgs particle, and an anthropic multiverse.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Fine-tuned Universe.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Jul 17 14

Some Observations on C. S. Peirce

by Bill Meacham

Charles_Sanders_Peirce_100The topic today is a single paragraph from a paper by the American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce (pronounced “purse”) titled “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed For Man.” Peirce is considered a highly original and influential thinker, and by considering in detail Peirce’s assertions in this excerpt we’ll be able to see why. Here it is:

Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence. Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction; and it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act. We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts. Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment. This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness. If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.(1)

This passage appears in a paper in which Peirce debunks a number of ideas that much of philosophy has historically considered true but that Peirce considers false. The first sentence expresses one of them:

Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence.

In this sentence Peirce states what he will argue against. The rest of the paragraph is his refutation of the proposition that in order to have a belief we must know that we have it. By “conception” Peirce means an idea, a notion, a judgment or a thought, something we entertain mentally. What he means by “belief” is at the root of Peirce’s contribution to philosophy, and will be made clear shortly.

Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction ….

We can think of something without actually believing it. For instance, I can think “The cat is on the mat” without believing that the cat really is on the mat. The words are just a conception, an idea; perhaps the idea includes along with the words a mental picture of the cat residing on the mat or perhaps not. If I look and see that the cat is there, then a feeling of conviction is added to the conception. When I not only think but also believe that the cat is on the mat, then, Peirce says, a feeling of belief, a feeling of being convinced, is present in the experience as well.

This assertion should give us pause. Peirce is making a claim about one’s subjective experience of belief; and the claim is about all people, not just himself. How can we tell if he is right or not? To see if there is such a difference we would each have to examine our own experience of believing something and contrast it (in memory or in imagination) to our own experience of just thinking of something without believing it. I invite you, dear reader, to do just that. Let me know what you find out.

Peirce then says

… it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act.

[Note: Writing before the harmful effects of male-only language were recognized, Peirce means by "man" any human being.]

Peirce offers two definitions of the term “belief.” He does not mean to say that the two definitions are equivalent, as the phrase “mere question of words” might suggest. Peirce means to say that we can define the term “belief” however we like so long as the meaning is clear and we all agree on it. The first definition is what we have just discussed. The second is Peirce’s original and influential contribution to philosophy and the foundation on which Pragmatism as a philosophical movement is based. Belief, he says, is that upon which a person will act. In other papers he offers similar definitions:

If a man is made to believe in the premisses, in the sense that he will act from them and will say that they are true, under favorable conditions he will also be ready to act from the conclusion and to say that it is true.(2)

Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. … The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. … Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises.(3)

In contemporary terms, Peirce is a Dispositionalist, one who thinks that it is the pattern of actual and potential behavior that is fundamental in belief. Believing that something is the case is equivalent to being disposed to act as though it is the case.(4)

It is instructive to consider how Peirce comes to this view. He does so by observing how belief and its opposite, doubt, actually function in ourselves and in the world. In his influential paper “The Fixation of Belief” he says that doubt and belief differ in three ways:(5)

  1. They feel different. The sensation of doubting is a kind of irritation. The sensation of belief is calm and satisfactory.
  2. They have different ways of determining our actions in the world. Doubt is a state in which we do not act with surety; it gives us no guidance; we do not know what to do, so we act hesitantly if at all. Belief is a state in which we do act with surety. We have confidence in what we believe and act on our beliefs quite readily.
  3. They have different ways of determining our actions toward themselves. “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.”(6)

Peirce was trained as a scientist and a logician and made his living taking scientific measurements for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. His method in all things intellectual is scientific. Instead of reasoning from putatively self-evident first premises, he observes reality and learns from it. In the case of belief he observes the effects that it and its opposite, doubt, have on the believer, both internally, how doubt and belief feel, and externally, in what way they affect further efforts of inquiry.

Returning now to the passage at hand, Peirce says

We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts.

Sensational belief is that which is accompanied by a feeling of conviction. Active belief is that which determines how we are disposed to act. Peirce claims that either one can occur without the other, but unfortunately adduces no facts in support of his claim. Let’s see if he is right. By constructing a truth table we see that there are four possible cases concerning a conception (or, as we would say today, a proposition) that might or might not be a belief. Let S stand for Sensational and A for Active belief; here is the table:

1 S true A true
2 S true A false
3 S false A true
4 S false A false


Case 1: Sensational is true and Active is true; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and also disposes the person believing it to act. An example of case 1 is this: I am about to go out and want to know if it is raining. I am in a state of doubt. I look out the window and see that rain is falling. Now I am no longer in a state of doubt, but one of belief. I am quite confident that it is raining, and I take my umbrella with me to keep me dry. My belief is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and directs my action as well.

Case 2: Sensational is true and Active is false; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does not dispose the person believing it to act. An example of case 2 is this: I have a sudden feeling that there is a ghost in the next room, but I know that ghosts don’t exist, so I don’t do anything about it. The feeling is there, but not the impulse to action.

Case 3: Sensational is false and Active is true; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does dispose the person believing it to act. There are a great many examples of case 3. By far the majority of our beliefs are not things we think of or pay attention to, but do influence our behavior, beliefs such as that the floor is stable and will not suddenly give way; that one’s cup is where one last put it; that plants need sunlight and so forth.

Case 4: Sensational is false and Active is false; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction and neither does it dispose the person believing it to act. Case 4 includes two sub-cases, one in which we have no belief at all and the other in which we believe that a proposition is false. An example of the former (4a) would be the proposition that the flight from Austin to Chicago is delayed. I do not know whether that is so, and I don’t care, so I have neither a feeling of certainty nor a disposition to act. An example of the latter (4b) would be the proposition that the moon is made of green cheese. I believe the proposition false, so again I have neither a feeling of conviction in its truth nor a disposition to act. (I do, however, have a feeling of conviction in its contradiction, that the moon is not made of green cheese, so this case might properly be thought of as an example of case 1.)

An examination of cases shows that Peirce is correct in saying that sensational and active beliefs do not necessarily involve each other.

The next sentence is surprising: “Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.” It is unclear to me what reorganizing a belief would amount to, and to my knowledge Peirce nowhere else speaks of such reorganization. I suspect that this is a typographical error in the original, and the word should be “recognizing.” If so, the sentence would make more sense:

Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of recognizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.

On this reading the sentence would mean that the power of recognizing a conception as a belief consists in the capacity one has for the sensation, the “peculiar feeling of conviction,” to arise. The sentence is scarcely more than a tautology, but at least it makes sense.

What follows, however, is even more problematic.

This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness.

The sensation is certainly an object of consciousness in the sense that the person believing the proposition and paying attention to the sensation feels it. But it is also subjective in that only that person and nobody else feels it, so it would appear that Peirce is just wrong. The key to understanding this sentence is his use of the word “intuitive.” Peirce uses the term “intuition” in a special way. He means by it “a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, … [a] premiss not itself a conclusion.”(7) He thinks there are no such things, and the whole paper “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” attacks in various ways the assertion that there are. An example of such an alleged intuition is Descartes’ famous Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I exist.” From this alleged certain or self-evident proposition Descartes erects an account of reality that he claims to be indubitable because it rests on an indubitable foundation. Peirce scorns such a method. For Peirce, the way to find out about reality is to employ the scientific method: form a hypothesis; deduce from it some conclusions that can be verified experimentally; and then observe reality carefully in order to corroborate or disprove the hypothesis.

That said, I think his use of the word “intuitive” is unfortunate because it implies that we have no way of knowing the subjective elements of conscious experience other than by inference from publicly-observable facts. But, as Husserl has shown, conscious experience certainly does contain subjective elements; and one way we can know them is through introspective phenomenological observation, that is to say, from privately observable facts.

The final sentence in the passage at hand reiterates Peirce’s commitment to the scientific method:

If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.

We quite often discover belief by observing external facts. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” comes to mind: If someone says they think the ice is safe enough to walk on but refuses actually to walk on it, we infer that they don’t really think so. A less overt example is what cognitive psychologists call Theory of Mind and philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the Intentional Stance, which consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires.(8) If something seems to move on its own rather than being pushed by another object, and it moves toward something as if trying to reach a goal, and it changes direction flexibly in response to what is happening in its environment, then we quite automatically take it to be an agent, a being with beliefs about its surroundings as well as things it wants to acquire or accomplish.(9)

Peirce also says that we can infer from the sensation of conviction that we will be willing to act on what we are convinced of. I suppose that is true, but in practice we hardly ever if at all go through an explicit chain of such reasoning. We just act on what we believe without any thought of whether we believe it. If thought is needed, it is to decide what to believe, not to figure out what we believe by considering our sensations of conviction.

In summary, this short passage illustrates several key ideas of C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic thought:

  • Reliance on scientific method, of careful observation of reality, to determine what it is reasonable to believe.
  • Reliance on observations not only of third-person objective facts but also of first-person subjective facts.
  • Understanding what a concept means by what practical consequences it has, and in particular understanding belief as that upon which a person is disposed to act.
  • The importance of action in the world, not just contemplative thought from an armchair, to determine the meaning of concepts.

Peirce is the founder of Pragmatism. If you would like to study his ideas in more depth, I recommend two articles, which, taken together, are the foundational statements of that philosophical movement: “The Fixation of Belief” and “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”


(1) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” pp. 31-32.

(2) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” p. 42.

(3) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.

(4) Schwitzgebel, “Belief.”

(5) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.

(6) Ibid., p. 99.

(7) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” p. 18.

(8) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(9) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 313–322.


Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 286-302 (January 1878). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 113-136. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 103-114 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 13-38. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 140-157 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 39-72. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 1-15 (November 1877). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 91-112. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Spring 2014 Edition. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Online publication as of 16 June 2014.


Jun 27 14

Heidegger’s Phenomenology and Human Excellence

by Bill Meacham

Martin Heidegger is one of the most influential but also one of the most enigmatic philosophers of the 20th century. A few months ago I was invited to speak to a class of high school students about him, and recently the philosophy club has been studying the German philosopher. In preparation for all that I wrote an introduction to Heidegger’s thought. It is a bit too long to post here, so I have put it on my website as a separate paper. You can find the paper, “Heidegger’s Phenomenology and Human Excellence,” at

Jun 3 14

Daniel Dennett, Existentialist?

by Bill Meacham

It is curious, in a philosophical sort of way, to find Daniel Dennett sounding remarkably like an existentialist. Dennett is an important figure in contemporary philosophy of mind, having written extensively on the nature of consciousness, will, personal identity and related topics from the point of view of a thorough-going materialism. His materialism is long standing, stemming from his commitment to the scientific method. “I propose to see … just what the mind looks like from the third-person, materialistic perspective of contemporary science,” he wrote in 1987(1); and he has carried out that program quite assiduously throughout his whole career.

In contrast, existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir start from a first-person point of view. They are in a tradition that originates with the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and includes Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and many others, a tradition in the family called, not very accurately, “continental” as opposed to “analytical” philosophy (one wonders why the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle are not also deemed continental).

Phenomenology is the practice of examining one’s own experience reflectively and without bias. The investigator inspects experience directly instead of using intermediary channels such as, for instance, an electroencephalograph to measure brain waves or psychological surveys to assess mental attitudes. The practice is called “reflective” because it is like seeing yourself in a mirror. The image you see is, in a sense, you yourself. Just so, the experience the phenomenologist examines is his or her own.

The bias to be avoided is the naive belief that the objects of our experience actually exist independently of us. One suspends judgment regarding the naive belief in the existence of objects in the world and examines phenomena only as they are given in experience.(2) The phenomenologist does not deny the objects’ existence, but neither does he or she affirm it. The phenomenologist merely attempts to avoid letting that naive believe influence the investigation. By putting aside, or “bracketing,”(3) our instinctive belief in a real world, we can perceive things that have been in our experience all along but to which we paid little attention, things such as perceptual judgments (is what I see a snake or a rope?), emotional colorings (is that dog a threat or merely exuberant?) and the like. The phenomenological investigator just pays attention to what is present in experience, without interpreting it as anything else.

The existentialists apply this attitude to the human condition, which they view from a similarly first-person point of view, the point of view of a free agent. As phenomenologists do, the existentialists try to avoid all preconceptions and presuppositions. De Beauvoir says “… let man put his will ‘in parentheses’ and he will thereby be brought to the consciousness of his true condition.”(4) By “in parentheses” she means that we set aside all theories from psychology, history, sociology, biology and similar sciences. We also set aside, as much as we can, all our taken-for-granted assumptions about who we are. Instead we describe our life purely as we experience it.

From that first-person point of view one finds a great many things, two of which are of particular interest: (a) that we can take ourselves as objects of consciousness and thought, we can pay attention to ourselves; and (b) that in so doing we transcend ourselves and can deliberately create ourselves. Existentialists such as Sartre and de Beauvoir have made a great deal of these abilities, asserting that we human beings are radically free to reinvent ourselves at every instant and that the failure to recognize and act on that freedom is a kind of inauthenticity: if we don’t act on our inherent freedom, we are not living up to what we could be.

Dennett has a very dim view of Phenomenology, calling it “dubious” and “solipsistic.”(5) No doubt he would say the same of existentialism. It is strange, then, to find him making claims similar to those of the existentialists.

Consider the following passages regarding self-awareness. Which ones are from a French first-person existentialist, and which from an American third-person materialist?

A. [A human being] is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so.

B. [A human being is] a being who … questions himself in his being, a being who is at a distance from himself ….

C. Reflective … investigation of everything is going to change everything. [W]e look closely at looking closely, … we increase our investment in techniques for increasing our investment in techniques ….

And what of these, regarding our ability to create ourselves?

D. [A human being] … is what he wills …. [He] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.

E. There may be no constants of human nature left at all.

Probably you can tell by the language alone that C and E are from Dennett(6) and the others from French existentialists. A and D are from Sartre(7); and B, from de Beauvoir(8).

We normally think of self-awareness or self-knowledge as a subjective phenomenon, something in our own experience. Certainly we can talk to others about it, but what we talk about is our private business, how we perceive ourselves. How can a materialist talk about it from the third-person point of view?

Dennett begins by observing that we ascribe to others an interiority (my word, not his) much like our own; we all make use of what psychologists call Theory of Mind. The term “Theory of Mind” refers to the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intentions, desires, pretense, knowledge, etc. – to ourselves and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from our own.(9) What psychologists call Theory of Mind, Dennett calls the Intentional Stance:

[The intentional stance] consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires and other mental states exhibiting what Brentano and others call intentionality.(10)

“Intentionality” is a technical term meaning, roughly, “aboutness.”(11) It does not mean what it normally does outside of philosophy, doing something deliberately or on purpose. In a philosophy it means that when we are conscious we are conscious of something, and that when we make statements or have beliefs, they are about something other than the statements or beliefs themselves. Since “intentional” has a perfectly good everyday usage, it is unfortunate that Dennett used it to describe the stance we generally take toward other people, toward many animals and, figuratively at least, toward some non-living things such as computers. I prefer to call it an agential stance: we interpret others as agents. Dennett himself notes that he could have called it the “rational agent” stance.(12)

Dennett writes in the context of philosophical debates about what sorts of things beliefs are. Are they real states of a person’s mind, ultimately describable in terms of states of the person’s brain? Are they merely interpretations we make of a person’s behavior or speech? Dennett does not want to talk about states of mind that are perceivable only introspectively, not (I think) because he believes they don’t exist, but because he believes we can’t get any useful knowledge out of such talk. But he does want to say that beliefs and desires and the like really do exist in some sense out there in the world. They are reasonable explanations of observable phenomena which are usefully described as the actions and behaviors of agents.

In other words, his intentional stance is a way of describing reality that has predictive power in certain circumstances. Other ways of describing reality are the physical stance, in which we use our knowledge of the laws of physics (i.e., the discerned regularities of how physical things interact) to describe and predict events, and the design stance, in which we predict that a system will behave as it is designed to behave, ignoring the details of how that design is implemented.(13) The intentional stance is objective, revealing “patterns in human behavior that are describable from the intentional stance, and only from that stance, and that support generalizations and predictions.”(14) From that stance, beliefs and desires are quite as real as physical objects:

There are patterns in human affairs that impose themselves, not quite inexorably but with great vigor, absorbing physical perturbations and variations that might as well be considered random; these are the patterns we characterize in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions [in the everyday sense] of rational agents.(15)

The intentional stance, like the others, is a “tactic of interpretation.” If Dennett can sound like an existentialist, he can also sound a bit like a pragmatist: “The intentional stance works remarkably well as a prediction method ….”(16)

That is about as far as Dennett will go regarding the reality of mental states, beliefs, desires and subjectivity in general. Of course each of us knows from our own experience that mental states are real; we know how it feels to be a conscious being. And we know that we are conscious. In other words we have the ability to investigate ourselves reflectively, as Dennett says, to be aware of and at a distance from ourselves, as Sartre and de Beauvoir say. That ability, which I call the capacity for second-order thinking, is the peculiarly human virtue, what we humans can do that other beings can’t.

And, as both Dennett and the existentialists recognize, self-awareness enables us to transcend ourselves. By noticing who we are and contrasting that with an idea of who we could be, we can change our thinking, our attitudes and our habits. Sartre and de Beauvoir take this idea to an extreme, claiming that we can decide at any moment to do something, and thus be someone, completely different from our past. I think that claim is exaggerated, but there is a grain of truth in it. After all the original goal of philosophy, the love of wisdom, was to find out how to live well; and that goal implies the ability to change the way we live. Otherwise, what would be the point of the inquiry?



(1) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 7.

(2) This is the famous phenomenological epoché or bracketing. See Wikipedia, “Epoché.”

(3) Wikipedia, “Bracketing.”

(4) De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity.

(5) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, pp. 157-158.

(6) Dennett, “Introduction,” pp. xxii – xxiii.

(7) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”

(8) De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity.

(9) Wikipedia, “Theory of mind.” Dennett is known to dislike the term because in everyday life we do not actually make use of a psychological theory such as behaviorism, cognitivism and the like. Our use of the intentional stance is more like a talent or competence than an explicit theory. See Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 73.

(10) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(11) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 240.

(12) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 78, footnote.

(13) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, pp. 16-17.

(14) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 25, emphasis in original.

(15) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 27.

(16) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 79.


De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Tr. Bernard Frechtman. On-line publication, URL = as of 6 October 2011. Another version, not as well proof-read, is here: as of 6 October 2011.

Dennett, Daniel. “Introduction.” In This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape The Future. Ed. John Brockman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. The book is an entertaining collection of essays by noted contemporary thinkers and intellectual luminaries on what trends in their fields of interest are likely to cause profound changes in society.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Tr. Philip Mairet. Online publication as of 10 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Bracketing (phenomenology).” Online publication as of 14 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Epoché.” Online publicationé as of 14 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Theory of mind.” Online publication as of 14 May 2014.

May 7 14

Organisms Are Not Machines

by Bill Meacham

As I have discussed elsewhere the model of organism, of a living being, is a much more robust way of thinking about the whole of reality than the model of machine, of a device constructed from non-living parts. This is especially true when it comes to actual organisms. Steve Talbott, a researcher at the Nature Institute, has written an excellent screed condemning the tendency among biologists to think of organisms on the machine model.(1) Evidently, to do so is a common failing among biologists; and Talbott thinks that that way of thinking is just wrong, not in a moral sense, but in the sense of being incorrect, not the truth. To think of organisms as machines or as collections of machine-like parts rather than as integral wholes whose living form governs the parts fails to do justice to the plain facts, easily observable in nature.

Take the human heart. It is common to conceive of it as a pump, sending liquid through the numerous pipes – arteries, veins and capillaries – found in the body. But a mechanical pump could not possibly propel the quantity of liquid over the vast distances and through the tiny vessels that the human heart does. There are more than six thousand miles of blood vessels in the human body, most of them microscopically small, some so narrow that red blood cells must be deformed to squeeze through. And the system leaks; every day about eighty times the total volume of our blood plasma seeps out of the capillary system and into the surrounding tissues and then, via a circuitous route, back into the cardiovascular system. Talbott asks us to consider whether it is plausible that a mechanical pump could do the same:

Make a simple test for yourself. Try blowing, not even viscous blood, but just water, through a 100-foot-long rubber tube. Make it easy by choosing a tube with a one-millimeter, rather than a microscopically small, diameter. Or, for a yet easier test, simply try blowing a few lungfuls of air through the tube. You will realize soon enough that if your heart could suddenly exert enough mechanical force to move blood on a complete circuit involving those several thousand miles of invisibly small and leaky channels, your body would explode.

So it can’t be the heart alone that moves blood through the body. In addition, the arteries expand and contract in a wave-like fashion to move the liquid along, and other parts of the body do something similar to handle the blood plasma that is outside the capillary system. It’s true that the heart’s left ventricle gives impetus to the blood leaving the heart for the high-pressure arterial portion of the cardiovascular system, but that is only about 15% of the whole. The rest, including the capillaries, veins, right side of the heart, circulation through the lungs, and left atrium of the heart is governed by something else; but what? Talbott’s answer: the body as a whole organism.

A crucial fact is that … the heart’s output volume is … proportional to the oxygen consumed in all the body’s tissues. This suggests that the body’s metabolism is a primary driver of the blood. While muscular exertion, lung movement, and suction from the right side of the heart definitely play roles, the tissues themselves must continually replenish the volume of blood. In doing so they perform a major service in driving the blood back to the heart. The heart then acts as a subtle regulator of this flow — even restraining or damming it up to a degree. It thereby lends rhythm … while at the same time warming the blood and, in general, sensing and responding to overall conditions in a harmonizing way. Only in sick hearts does this “musical” performance tend to degenerate into a mechanically regular, metronome-like heartbeat.

The heart is not a mechanical pump. It is, rather, an element in a whole system that plays numerous roles. It pumps liquid to be sure, but it also regulates the flow of liquid pumped by other parts of the system and produces heat as well. Crucially, it senses overall conditions and responds in a way that produces harmony. You can understand how a a mechanical pump works apart from any particular installation, but you can’t understand the human heart without taking into account the whole organism of which it is an element. Says Talbott, “the one thing abundantly clear is that the picture of the heart as a pumping machine is hopelessly inadequate.”

Talbott makes a number of similarly trenchant observations:

  • Designs that are imposed from without, such as, for instance, the design of a stereo sound system, are quite different from those that grow organically from within a developing organism.
  • Organisms are so complex that what is a cause on some occasions can be an effect on others.
  • The molecules of life, being affected by quantum interactions that are inherently non-deterministic, are not well described as if they were static things like those found in our everyday experience and of which machines are made.
  • Nor are organisms computing machines. DNA is not digital; its four chemical bases are discrete entities like the binary bits of computer code only when they are dead, removed from their animated context. Embedded in a living cell they change their function depending on the chemical characteristics of their surroundings, how tightly the double helix is twisted, its distance from the cell nucleus and many other conditions.

I cannot do justice to Talbott’s article in this short summary. I urge you to read it yourself. The upshot is that organisms are not machines and it is a mistake to think of them as if they were. But if they are not machine-like, what are they? How do they function?

Talbott’s account of organisms contains themes remarkably similar to the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, which asserts that (a) process is better taken than substance as the most fundamental concept pertaining to all of reality and (b) everything has an aspect of mind as well as matter.(2)

Organisms as they develop, grow and mature are processes first, says Talbott, and only later discrete physical forms: “Structures result first of all from movement and flows.” Quoting Wolfgang Schad, Talbott says “The body does not behave like a plumber, first connecting the water pipes in a house and then turning the water on. … The first blood-like liquid … simply trickles through gaps in the tissues. … Preferred channels develop only very gradually as blood cells are deposited along the edges and eventually merge into the beginnings of vessel walls.” Thus, “in the organism stable form precipitates out of movement, and so long as a structure remains living, it is never absolutely fixed.”

This is the fundamental premise of process metaphysics. In that view, not just living organisms but all things are composed of processes, out of which stable form precipitates. What we see as fixed form, as substance, is a persisting pattern amid change, much like the flame of a candle.

Organisms have mind, awareness of their surroundings, and intention, says Talbott. Life has “intrinsic inwardness.” All material phenomena have an “inner nature.” The “idea of the arrangement [of the parts is] actively at work in the parts themselves.”

We can certainly understand how an organism can have a mind, because we ourselves are organisms and we are each directly acquainted with our own mind. But what does it mean to say that the idea of the arrangement of the whole is at work in each of the parts? For this to be true, each of the parts must have the ability to entertain an idea, i.e., mind. And that is just what process metaphysics asserts. Whitehead, a panpsychist, says that each elementary unit of reality is an “occasion of experience”(3), a momentary coming into being, becoming complete and passing away, that takes its surroundings into account in a manner analogous to how we humans experience our surroundings, albeit in a much more primitive fashion. The primordial experiences of the actual occasions comprising living organisms bind together and reinforce each other, giving birth to a higher-level experience. Talbott asserts that the binding together goes both ways, not just from part to whole, but from whole to part as well. The higher-level mental unity of the whole informs the mentality of each of the parts and gives direction to their growth and development.

The part cannot be fully understood in isolation from the whole. What is primary is the whole: “It is the whole that governs the parts,” says Talbott. An organism’s parts “interpenetrate each other” and “bear within themselves the imprint of the whole.”

If this is true of organisms, and the whole of reality is to be understood on the model of organism, then we ourselves are not only organisms in our own right but elements in a larger organic whole. We interpenetrate each other psychically; none of us is an island; what happens to one of us affects us all. Hence, it behooves us to try to alleviate suffering and promote health and well-being for everyone. Each of us bears within him- or herself the imprint of the whole of which he or she is a part. Hence, it behooves us to learn about the nature of that whole so that we can more consciously embody and enact it. We need, in other words, what the wisdom traditions of the world have long taught: compassion and insight.


(1) Talbott, “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism.” All quoted passages without footnotes are from this paper.

(2) See my “Tao Te Ching Ontology” for a fuller discussion of Whitehead’s philosophy.

(3) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 221.


Genetics Home Reference. “What is DNA?” Online publication as of 4 May 2014.

Meacham, Bill. “Tao Te Ching Ontology.” Online publication and

Talbott, Stephen L. “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism.” Online publication as of 1 May 2014. Archived at

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Wikipedia. “Atrium (heart).” Online publication as of 4 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Double circulatory system.” Online publication as of 4 May 2014.

Mar 31 14

Objects and Agents: A World Alive (Video)

by Bill Meacham

A couple of weeks ago I was the guest speaker at Celebration Circle in San Antonio, self-described as “an inclusive, multi-faith community with a creative approach to spirituality. We honor and nurture the Sacred in ourselves, each other and all Creation.” My talk provided a philosophical framework for understanding the metaphysical principle of Oneness in a pluralistic world.  Click her to watch it. I had a lot of fun at Celebration Circle. They are a nice bunch of folks. If you are ever in San Antonio, check them out.

Mar 3 14

Arguing For God

by Bill Meacham

Committed believers should be embarrassed by the various arguments philosophers make for the existence of God, as most are fallacious sophistries. A recent article in Philosophy Now magazine by William Lane Craig helpfully summarizes eight of them for us.(1) (In what follows I summarize Craig’s summary, so if you want to pursue any of them further, more research is advised.)

First we need to know what these arguments mean by the term “God.” An excellent definition is given by Richard Swinburne:

By a ‘God’ [a theist] understands something like a ‘person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.’(2)

['God' means] a person without a body (i.e., a spirit), present everywhere, the creator and sustainer of the universe, a free agent, able to do everything (i.e. omnipotent), knowing all things, perfectly good, a source of moral obligation, immutable, eternal, a necessary being, holy, and worthy of worship.(3)

Such a being is sometimes called the Personal OmniGod, as He (the OmniGod is most often referred to as male) is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (present everywhere) and omni-benevolent (all-good).(4) For Craig, who writes approvingly of a renaissance of Christian philosophy, this is what the term “God” means.

In the first of his eight arguments Craig says that God is the best explanation of why anything at all exists. The existence of the universe, the totality of spacetime reality, he says, is analogous to a ball, a human-made object, in the woods. As one wants to know how the ball came to be there, so one wonders how the universe came to be. But the two are not analogous. We recognize the human-made object against the background, the surrounding context, of a natural environment that is not human made. The universe does not have a surrounding context, as it is by definition all that exists. Hence, the analogy fails.

In argument 2 Craig asserts that God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe. The universe must have had a beginning, he says, and he wants to know what brought the universe into being. He argues for a cause “outside the universe itself.” But (a) there can be nothing outside the universe itself because by definition the universe is all that exists; and (b) there can be no cause before the beginning of the universe, because the concept before the beginning is self-contradictory. The beginning is “a spacetime boundary,” as Craig says, meaning that it is the beginning of time itself. There can be no before, because if there were it would mean that what we took to be the beginning was not in fact the beginning. It is meaningless to assert a cause prior to time itself.

Argument 3 asserts that the uncanny applicability of mathematics to the physical world requires us to assume a divine creator. Perhaps so; I do not have an explanation. But even if mathematics is a reflection of ideas in the mind of God, we have no warrant to assume that such a God has any personal interest in our lives. Indeed, mathematics is the epitome of impersonality, being the same for every competent practitioner.

In argument 4 Craig contends that the fine-tuning for life of the various constants and arbitrary quantities found in the universe is so highly improbable that they must have been put into place by intelligent design. This contention is a variant of the Anthropic Principle, that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it.(5) Some, Craig included, think that the improbability of the universe being just so indicates that something other than mere chance is at work. The idea seems plausible, but there are several objections.

First, the probability of the universe being exactly as we find it to exist is 100%. The concept of probability applies only to the future, which has not yet taken place. It is fallacious to apply it to the present.

Second, we can certainly imagine ourselves at some point in the past considering the probability of the present being what it is, and its probability would indeed be quite tiny. But if what is now present had become something else, the probability of that alternate present from the point of view of the past would be equally tiny, and its probability from the point of view of the alternate present itself would be equally 100%. The odds against each of the many possible universes are equally astronomical, yet one of them must be the actual universe. No matter how the present turns out we have no need to posit a supernatural intelligent designer to account for it.

Third, that we are alive and able to observe the universe shows merely that we are the result of a sort of selection bias: only in a universe capable of supporting life will there be living beings who can observe any such fine tuning. As such, it is entirely unremarkable that we find the universe’s fundamental constants to be within the narrow range compatible with life.

In argument 5 Craig asserts the God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness, that is of mind. “Intentionality” is a philosophical term for the “aboutness” of being conscious, that when we are conscious we are always conscious of something, and when we think we always think about something. There is no need to posit God as an explanation for this state of affairs. Craig’s argument merely rehashes the mind-body problem. He assumes that mind and body are two separate categories of existence, and hence he needs a theistic assumption to unite them. A different metaphysical assumption, panpsychism, assumes that everything has both an aspect of objectivity and an aspect of subjectivity; hence it is not at all surprising that intentional states of consciousness exist. The relevant argument is between dualism and panpsychism, not between theism and atheism.

In argument 6 Craig asserts that God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties. But there is reason to believe that moral values and duties do not exist objectively in the way physical objects and perhaps mathematical objects do but are instead socially constructed. If they don’t exist independently of us, there is no need to posit a theistic explanation for them. The relevant discussion is about the nature of morality, not about theism and atheism.

In argument 7 Craig restates Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, that we must conceive of God as existing because (a) God is the greatest conceivable being and (b) an existent being is greater than a non-existent being, so (c) we must conceive of God as existing. The ontological argument fails to consider, however, that what we can conceive does not determine what actually exists. To say that we must conceive of God as existing is to assert something about our conception, not about what exists apart from our conception. (There is much more to be said about Anselm’s argument. See Wallace, “The Ontological Argument,” for a good summary.)

Six of the eight arguments are totally fallacious, and one, argument 3, implies at best an impersonal deity, not a Personal OmniGod. That leaves argument 8.

Argument 8 is the only one that makes any sense for the existence of the OmniGod as traditionally conceived: a being who is all-powerful, omniscient, all-good and external to us but intimate enough to care about us. If you have an experience of such a God, says Craig, then you are justified in believing in God. For the person who has had a personal experience of God, arguments such as one through seven are at best intriguing intellectual puzzles. But for one who has not had a personal experience of God, even argument 8, as Craig himself notes, is no argument at all.

Please note that the fact that you can’t prove the existence of a Personal OmniGod does not prove that such a being does not exist. Absence of proof for something is not proof of its absence.(6) The arguments against the existence of God also fail, but that is a topic for another time. So a Personal OmniGod might indeed exist.

But the idea seems chimerical. There are numerous objections, and even though theologians have concocted answers to them they seem to have intuitive force. If God is all-powerful, can He make an object too heavy for Him to lift? If God is all-benevolent, why does He allow such evils as genocide and mass starvation in His world? And so on.(7) To the believer, these objections are as useless as the alleged proofs are to the unbeliever.

We all, believers and unbelievers alike, want intellectual coherence. If you have had experiences that lead you to believe that a Higher Power exists, manifests itself in a person-like way, and has some benevolent interest in you, then you have some right to believe these things. But that Higher Power need not be conceived as a Personal OmniGod; it could be conceived as the organic will of an animated universe.

Craig says “For those who listen, God becomes a personal reality in their lives.” A more useful question than these intellectual puzzles would be how to tell, when you hear a voice that seems to come from God, whether it really does so or is merely a delusion.


(1) Craig, “Does God Exist?”

(2) Swinburne, page 1.

(3) Swinburne, page 2.

(4) See, for instance, Wikipedia, “Omnibenevolence;” Kulikovsky; and Sutherland.

(5) Wikipedia, “Anthropic principle.”

(6) Wikipedia, “Argument from ignorance.”

(7) Harrison, “Arguments for and against the Existence of God.”


Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” In Philosophy Now magazine, Issue 99, November/December 2013, pp. 6-9. Online publication as of 27 February 2014. Archived at

Harrison, Paul. “Arguments for and against the Existence of God.” In F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels). Online publication as of 3 March 2014.

Kulikovsky, Andrew S. “God’s ‘omni’ Attributes.” Online publication as of 28 February 2014.

Sutherland, Mike. “The ‘omnis’ of god.” Online publication as of 28 February 2014.

Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, 1993.

Wallace, Meg. “The Ontological Argument.” Online publication as of 28 February 2014.

Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication as of 3 March 2014.

Wikipedia. “Argument from ignorance.” Online publication as of 3 March 2014.

Wikipedia. “Omnibenevolence.” Online publication as of 28 February 2014.

Jan 23 14

Farewell to Dell: Reflections on Corporate Excellence

by Bill Meacham

Dell Logo

For the past nine years I have been employed by Dell, a large American corporation best known for building and selling a variety of computer products. (Dell also provides information technology services and consulting to others, but I was not involved in that part of the business.) I am now leaving Dell’s employ. I am quitting my day job, as it were, the better to pursue my interest in philosophy.

Working in a large enterprise in which the efforts of many people have to be coordinated in order to get things done has given me the opportunity to see the unique human virtue, our capacity for second-order thinking, in action.

By “virtue” I do not mean obedience to moral rules, as in “The Sunday school teacher is quite virtuous.” Instead I mean what the Classical Greeks called arete, translated as “virtue,” but also as “effectiveness” or “excellence,” excellence in performing one’s function. For instance, the excellence of a computer manufacturer is to build computers that are themselves excellent, that work smoothly, process data rapidly, are easy to use and last a long time without needing repairs. An excellent basketball player runs fast, shoots baskets accurately and works with his or her teammates to achieve victory. An excellent teacher imparts knowledge skillfully, and an excellent student learns quickly. These are all examples – and there are many more – of people and things fulfilling their functions and doing so well. To be an excellent human being, then, means to do well what humans do.

So what is it that humans do well? One thing is to think. We have bigger brains relative to body size than other animals and a greater capacity to envisage possible futures and make plans to achieve our goals. Certainly our skills at strategizing long-term goals and planning and executing projects are crucial for success in business, and Dell’s success over the years is a result of good thinking.

But our capacity to think is not unique to humans. Other animals also think, though none (as far as we can tell) so well as we do. What really distinguishes us from other living beings is a further skill: second-order thinking.

By “second order,” I mean the ability to take ourselves as objects of thought. The first order is to think about things in the world external to us, to plan and execute our plans “out there,” as it were. We can think of where the animals are and go hunt them. We can devise complicated computing machines and figure out how to manufacture them in great quantities quickly and efficiently. When we turn that capacity for foresight and analysis to ourselves we engage in second-order thinking. We have the ability to reflect on ourselves, to be conscious of and think about ourselves as well as the world we live in. It’s what the Delphic oracle recommended: Know Thyself.

I saw this ability in action at Dell. I was struck by something that Rhonda Gass, our IT Director at the time, once said in an all-hands meeting:

  • We see what needs to be done.
  • We get after it.
  • We get it done.
  • We see the results.

Seeing what needs to be done and accomplishing it are things that many kinds of animals do, although humans do them far more elaborately. It is the last step that sets us apart. I take seeing the results to mean not only enjoying the fruits of our labors and having a pleasant sense of accomplishment, but also seeing what went well and what didn’t and using that knowledge to do our task better the next time. The results we see include information that allows us to reflect on what we have done with an eye toward improvement.

The methodology for process improvement has been formalized in industrial settings, most famously in W. Edwards Deming’s “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle.(1) Plan means to establish what you want to accomplish and how. Do means to carry out the plan, and collect measurements on what happened. Check means to study the results and compare what actually happened to what you wanted. Act (some people now call this step Adjust) means to implement corrective actions to reduce the gap between what happens and what is desired.

My interest in this process is philosophical, in the sense of philosophy as love of wisdom. What if you applied this type of thinking to your life? On a personal, or idiosyncratic, level, you would first find out what you are good at, such as getting along with people, perhaps, or analyzing numbers or building things or any number of talents that people have. On a generic level, the level of you as a member of the human species rather than you as an individual, you would investigate topics such as how your cognition works and what causes it to go awry, how your emotions work and what they tell you about yourself and your world, how second-order thinking works and so forth. On both levels, the idiosyncratic and the generic, you would follow a similar process: Observe what you do and how it is working out. Think of ways to do it better. Try out the new approach. Observe how that works. Repeat these steps until you are satisfied enough to go on to something else.

Not that this is always an easy task. Sometimes it requires a lot of introspective work and the aid of trusted friends and counselors. But the capacity for self-reflection and self-improvement is what distinguishes humans from other animals. When we do them well, we exhibit excellence at being human. Philosophy at its best is about what it is to be an excellent human being and thereby live a fulfilling life; and that is what I discuss in my book, How To Be An Excellent Human.

I have seen Dell exhibit corporate excellence, and the company encourages personal excellence as well. Where else would you find a Vedika (knowledge-sharing) session on “Leading The Self”? The company certainly provided a venue for me to exercise my talents. For instance, I like writing, and I got to do a lot of it in my job. I would often get absorbed in writing and lose track of time, which was always gratifying.

My work would go in phases. Recently I had a bit of a lull, which often happens around the holidays at mid-winter (northern hemisphere). The devil makes work for idle hands, they say, so to avoid that fate I convened an ad-hoc “skunk works” committee to standardize a process that was being done differently by different teams. (A standard process makes for better metrics, which in turn make for easier process improvement.) It was fun. We accomplished a lot in a short time, I got to exercise leadership, the results very rapidly got up to the Director level, and we got a lot of praise for our work. It was a great opportunity to exert human excellence. And it felt good, even exhilarating. That is a characteristic of functioning well, by the way, that it feels good to do so, which is why the Greek word eudaimonia, the outcome of functioning well, is sometimes translated as “happiness.”

There are other things I enjoyed at Dell. Dell is a great place for someone like me, who enjoys accomplishing things. The company has a well-deserved reputation for demanding a lot of its employees, but the upside is that a lot is achieved. I liked the sense of camaraderie, of belonging to a team and working toward a common goal. We humans developed our big brains and our shared culture in tribal groups whose members cooperated with each other while competing with other groups. We have an ingrained need to pull for the common good, and a large enterprise is a good place to fulfill that need. Dell is proudly inclusive of many different kinds of people, people of different religions, races, nationalities, gender preferences and more; and its diversity makes it an endlessly interesting place to work. Dell has a strong sense of ethics, and I was happy that I did not have to compromise or submerge my own principles.

I also liked working for a company whose overarching goal is benign. We can apply self-reflective second-order thinking to evaluate not only our immediate goal but also the context in which the immediate goal is being pursued, and I was happy with Dell’s overall goal. My immediate goal was to collect information, write a Software Requirements Specification document and get it approved. That document served a larger goal of building or enhancing some software. That software serves a larger goal of getting more efficient at building computers and shipping them to customers. And the goal of providing computers is to improve people’s lives by enabling them to accomplish their own goals. Computers empower us to do all sorts of things we were not able to do before. (We can write blogs, for instance.) Indeed, Dell’s marketing slogan is “The power to do more.”

Of course, the overall goal is also to make a profit. What is at issue here is what the enterprise does in order to earn its revenue. Dell’s overall goal is fairly benign. Were I to work for a company whose goal or whose methods for achieving it were not so benign – Monsanto, for instance, whose corporate image is quite admirable, but which does brutal things to small farmers in its pursuit of market domination – I would have to spend some psychic energy to ignore the overall goal and immerse myself in the immediate one. I was happy that I did not have to do that at Dell. (Note to my political friends of all persuasions: I am deliberately not addressing the even larger economic and political context – global capitalism, regulations or lack thereof by nation-states, etc. – within which Dell operates. That topic is a bit too much for now.)

I don’t want to present too rosy a picture. Dell has its share of inefficiencies, troubled projects, management confusion, people who are less than optimally competent and the like. And, no doubt, other companies promote excellence as well. It’s just that Dell is the one I know best. As I write this Dell is changing directions, and it remains to be seen whether it can maintain its success in the marketplace. But as long as it fosters human excellence, it stands a good chance. I wish my former colleagues all the best.



(1) Wikipedia, “PDCA.”


Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Wikipedia. “PDCA.” Online publication as of 30 December 2013.

Jan 13 14

A Phenomenological Description of the Self

by Bill Meacham

I have argued for Panpsychism, the idea that the universe is alive or at least that each element of the universe is alive enough to have some minimal awareness of its surroundings. If so, then one way to understand the fundamental elements of the universe is on the model of our own experience. The tiniest actual occasion is structurally similar to a moment of rich human experience, albeit in a primitive, attenuated form. If that is the case, then it would be useful to find out just what is involved in human experience. To understand the subjectivity of the activities and processes that make up the world, we can start by examining our own subjectivity.

I did that several years ago. I conducted a research project on my own experience and wrote it up for my Ph.D. dissertation. I have now made the results of that investigation available on my website. It is way too long for a blog post, so I have posted the whole paper here:

The paper will be most useful if it encourages you to examine your own experience and your own life. Let me know what you find out.

Dec 2 13

Learning from Zarathustra

by Bill Meacham

The universe, as they say, gave me an opportunity recently to read a couple of books on Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism. (Why we seem to want to personalize such events and attribute agency to them is a topic for another time.) A few years ago I had traveled to Uzbekistan and seen for myself the land in which Zoroastrianism first arose, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn more. This essay is a summary and interpretation of what I found out. Don’t take it as an authoritative account of Zarathustra’s teachings; it’s just an account of some things that seemed noteworthy to me.

fravashiNobody knows for sure quite where Zarathustra lived or quite when he taught, but his origin may well have been in the Khorezm region of what is now Uzbekistan, near the western end of the great Eurasian steppe.(1) The region is dry and dusty. The once mighty Amu Darya river, known to the Greeks as the Oxus, is just a brown trickle. In Zarathustra’s time the region was no doubt wetter and more fertile, as the massive Soviet diversions of water for irrigation were far in the future.(2) Zarathustra’s culture was nomadic and pastoral, and his circumstances seem to have been modest. In one of his hymns, he prays that God will reward him with a mere ten mares, a stallion and a camel.(3)

Zarathustra is appropriately called the First Prophet. He spoke of themes later to be found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: a single universal God, the battle between good and evil, the devil, heaven and hell, and an eventual end to the world. He addressed a people who venerated fire and worshipped the ancestral deities of the Indo-Europeans, a host of gods, demons and spirits. In contrast, he proclaimed some radical ideas:(4)

  • There is only one God, not a host of them. God is named Ahura Mazda, roughly “Lord Who Is Wise,” and is a god of goodness.
  • All the other gods and deities that people worship are merely attributes, partial glimpses, of Ahura Mazda. Evil deities such as the spirits of war, destruction and greed are reflections of humanity’s baser tendencies. None of them are to be worshipped.
  • The source of goodness in the world is Asha, often rendered as “truth”, “reality” or “righteousness.”
  • The source of evil in the world is the Lie (Druj), untruth or deception. Later personified as a supernatural being, Angra Mainyu, the concept seems at first to have been of an abstract principle. Angra Mainyu means a mind or mentality (mainyu) that is destructive or malign (angra).(5)
  • Each individual has a free choice between good and evil. Following the path of goodness leads to happiness in this life, and following the path of the Lie leads to destruction. In addition, there will be a happy existence after death for those who follow goodness and an unhappy existence for those who do not.

Zarathustra denounced the practice of animal sacrifice as cruel, opposed the ritual use of the plant haoma (the soma of the Rig Veda in India), and did not preach the adoration of fire. In other words, he rejected the religion and rituals of his time, and he thereby earned the scorn and hostility of his priests and his ruling princes and warriors. He was denounced, expelled from his community, cut off from his family and clan and forced into exile. He traveled to Balkh, in today’s Afghanistan, where he found a warmer reception and became the court priest, living out his days in peace.(6)

After Zarathustra’s death, elements of the old religion came creeping back. Deities became more prominent and the use of haoma was reinstated, as was the ancient cult of fire, a tradition that continues to this day. By the sixth century B.C. the religion of Ahura Mazda had become the official state religion of Persia. Interrupted by the defeat of Persia by Alexander of Macedonia (one hesitates to call “Great” such a ruthless megalomaniac), the religion had a resurgence after Alexander’s empire broke apart, but became more and more ossified and rigid, with a proliferation of rules, a complicated set of purity laws and severe persecution of those who failed to obey.(7) After the Arabs took over in the seventh century and Islam became the official religion, the religion of Zarathustra gradually waned, living on today in communities of Parsees (Persians) in India and in scattered places throughout the rest of the world.

So why study it, if it is so obscure? Because some of its foundational concepts are still of great relevance.

Mausoleum detail - Zoroastrian influenceConsider Asha, variously translated as “reality” and “truth.”(8) According to Dr. Jenny Rose, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, “Asha can be translated as ‘order’ or ‘arranged in cosmic cohesion,’ and thus ‘right’ in the sense of ‘as it should be.’”(9) The ancients blurred the distinction between reality, truthful statements about what reality is, and normative statements about what reality ought to be, but the point is that according to this conception there is an order or cohesion to what is real. If we could discern that order and live in harmony with it, our lives would be good, that is, fulfilled and happy.

And we can indeed discern that order, because it is seen in the biological systems that surround us and in which we live. Zarathustra recognized and valued the ordered systems of nature, which promote growth and well-being. He says, “He who cherishes Thy Way with the Good Mind is himself a promoter of abundance and prosperity.”(10) Professor Rose comments,

The good thoughts, words and actions of the ashavan [one who adheres to Asha] lead to blessings, increase, peace, wholeness and continuity of life for the individual, the community, and the land. In pursuing this course, the ashavan is emulating the increase-producing activity of Ahura Mazda, who brings benefits to the highest degree, expressed in the epithet spento.toma, ‘most beneficial’.(11)

The language here is all in what I call the Goodness Paradigm, which evaluates courses of actions in terms of observable benefits and harms rather than adherence to moral rules.(12) Zarathustra embraced what we now call Permaculture: the observation and mimicry of natural systems to create abundance.(13) The ethically good choice, the choice that promotes human flourishing, is to live in harmony with how nature works. Care for the elements – later Zoroastrianism had rules for civic hygiene and against pollution of the waters – prefigures our modern concern with healthy ecology.(14)

The opposite, interestingly, is not disharmony but the Lie (Druj), a deception or misrepresentation of reality that renders one incapable of making good choices. Unlike the Vedic morality of India in which the opposite of order is merely its absence, and unlike the Classical Greek belief that it is just ignorance that causes us to make bad choices, the evil portrayed in the earliest Zoroastrian scriptures is a forceful expression of ill will. The dregvant (one who adheres to Druj) actively chooses evil thoughts, words and actions, perpetuating cruelty, violence, ill treatment and acts of wrath and oppression.(15) Lots of things cause harm – natural disasters, wild animals, disease and so forth – but what is truly evil is the deliberate human intention to cause harm. The Lie destroys trust and tears apart the fabric of community. What’s worse, the liar becomes incapable of perceiving and acting on what is truly good, good for him (or her) as well as everyone else.

Again, the basis of ethics is the observed consequences of one’s actions. The Zoroastrian religion soon enough became full of laws and prohibitions, but the earliest insights are just common sense, couched in the desire of Ahura Mazda for human welfare. Good thoughts, good words and good deeds (humata, hukhta and hvareshta) are what is good for human beings.(16) And, by the way, notice that it starts with good thoughts. “As you think, so shall you become” is nothing new.(17)

Towers of KhivaThe cosmology of Zoroastrianism is a standard dualist view of good versus evil. In the earliest writings, Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, is the source and creator of everything. Angra Mainyu, destructive mentality, is something like a deficiency or perversity that causes the good mentality, Spenta Mainyu, to be deceived. Later, Angra Mainyu is raised to the status of an independent being who is opposed to the Wise Lord; in other words, Satan as opposed to God. There are various theological interpretations of these two beings, disputes about which have unfortunately been the cause of wars and persecutions. Is the Devil an independent being, co-equal with God? Is God the supreme creator and the Devil one of the creatures, albeit a particularly powerful one? In either case, the world we live in is seen as a battleground in which one must choose sides.

But there is another conception, rooted in an ancient mysticism of the steppe: that both Good and Evil, God and the Devil, have their source in unity. According to researcher Tohir Karim of the Tashkent University in Uzbekistan, it is Time (Zrvana) that is the underlying or originating force that makes possible both good and evil. To be clear, this concept does not appear in the Zoroastrian scriptures; Karim cites instead the legends and traditions of Khorezm.(18) He says

At the basis of all … is the image of time, the powerful force which organizes the system of objects and events in the material world, provides for the sequence of events, and sets the whole universe in motion. Even the gods are believed to be powerless before time, as the gods, too, are seen as only a product of time as it proceeds. … [Time] was considered to exist before the material world, outside of nature, and to set nature in motion …. Zrvana (Time) in the course of its progress initially created two spirits. They were not the creators of the universe, but the results of the efforts of the powerful Zrvana.(19)

There are two ideas of note here: that all is change, and that all is one.

Time, the ongoing succession of events, is what makes everything possible. Everything changes from moment to moment. This notion of constant change echoes Heraclitus and prefigures the modern process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. What is ultimately real is not substance, but process. We, the living, are not anomalies in a fundamentally dead universe. We are elaborations of a life that extends down to the tiniest elements.

That Time generates all things also echoes the many strains of mysticism that assert a unity that underlies the plurality of manifestation that we live in every day: the Way of Taoism, the Brahman of Hinduism, the Original Mind of Buddhism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Oversoul, the Ein Sof of Jewish Kabbalah, the Godhood of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, the Gnostic All, the One Being of Sufism.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to explain mystical unity. Please refer to Chapters 11 through 13 of my book. I just want to examine one aspect of it. Typically the mystics say that both good and evil are aspects or manifestations of the One, and that the purpose of being human is to realize our unity with that One. It is a mistake, they say, to get caught up in dualistic struggle as if one side or the other were ultimately real. But if that is the case, why should we favor goodness over evil? If neither are the ultimate reality, why prefer one over the other?

Zarathustra suggests an answer: Because aligning yourself with the good gives you a better chance of experiencing oneness than not. You have to be alive to realize your mystical unity with the All, and it is the good that promotes life, not evil. Evil is ultimately self-destructive. (Of course I am extending Zoroastrian teachings here, which were religious and ethical, not mystical.)

What is good is analogous to light; and what is bad, or harmful, is analogous to darkness. If you live in darkness, you can’t see very well; your strategies are limited because of lack of information. They may be brutally effective for a while, but are ultimately self-defeating. It is more efficacious in the long run to live in the light, and it is much more pleasant as well. Light and dark endlessly alternate, it is true, and the alternation is all part of the whole. If you live in that knowledge, then you are enlightened. If you don’t, then turning toward the light will make it more likely that you will come to that realization.

If mysticism does not appeal to you, however, or even if you find the religious world view itself, mystical or not, distasteful or merely unlikely, the Zoroastrian ethic still makes abundant sense. Zarathustra espouses what I call the Goodness Ethic, which tells us how to live a happy, harmonious life: cultivate good thoughts, good words, and good actions.


(1) Karim, pp. 201-204.

(2) Wikipedia, “Amu Darya.”

(3) Kriwaczek, p. 212. The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra, 44:18.

(4) Ibid., p. 2013.

(5) Wikipedia, “Angra Mainyu.”

(6) Kriwaczek, pp. 213-214.

(7) Ibid., pp. 217-219.

(8) Wikipedia, “Asha.”

(9) Rose, p. 9.

(10) The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra, 49:5.

(11) Rose., p. 17.

(12) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(13) Michael, “What Is Permaculture?”

(14) Rose, p. 18.

(15) Idem.

(16) Ibid., p. 17.

(17) Bruce Lee. as of 22 November 2013.

(18) Karim, p. 185-186.

(19) Ibid., pp. 210-211.


Karim, Tohir. Traces of the Sacred Avesta. Tashkent: Gafur Guliam, 2007.

Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Michael, Patricia. “What Is Permaculture?” Online publication as of 22 November 2013.

Rose, Jenny. Zorastrianism, An Introduction. London. and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2011.

The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra. Tr. D.J. Irani. Online publication as of 20 November 2013.

Wikipedia. “Amu Darya.” Online publication as of 20 November 2013.

Wikipedia. “Angra Mainyu.” Online publication as of 20 November 2013.

Wikipedia. “Asha.” Online publication as of 21 November 2013.