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Beating a Dead Horse: The Elimination of Philosophy of History

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding §IV, pt I)


Whether there is meaning in history used to represent a significant question for a number of philosophers. This inquiry was regarded as meaningful in times prior to technologies capable of capturing history in the making, such as internet, YouTube, Skype, iPads, cell-phones, and the like. Although it seems obvious that increasing technological advancements had—and continue to have—a tremendous impact upon the way we think of history, the relationship between technology and history has seldom been considered by philosophers of history. Among other things, in this paper, I want to call attention to why it is that certain philosophers think of history as an object of knowledge and thus a process capable of having a meaning, and why some contemporary philosophers are still interested in history.

Philosophy of history, in the beginning, was the business of theology interpreting history in terms of ethical significance of the Eschaton. Its first secular appearances, although sporadic, can be found in the works of Vico, and Augustine. But we may say that its putative father was Hegel. Starting with Hegel and continuing with Marx, many other philosophers began theorizing that history has a beginning, that it is directed toward a goal or an end, by a director, or even that it is a cyclical process. But if we grant that there is meaning in history, how would philosophers understand it? That is, it would appear elusive to try to determine the meaning of the whole of history when the philosophers seeking such a determination can operate only within the limitations of their own time—they may know certain aspects about the past, some aspects of the present, but nothing about the future. In such a case, the finiteness of being seems to prevent one from grasping the meaning of the whole of history. In hindsight, past interpretations of history all seem limited by a narrowness that reflects the technological developments of their respective era of origin.

It too has to be noted that the term “history” is itself problematic, to begin with. In fact, history may have at least two different connotations: a) all past events in time—whether they be important or unimportant—or a selective collection of relevant past events (though “relevant to whom?” represents a further critical question). But it may also refer to b): the academic discipline that we all know, the one performed by historians and teachers and students of history; such a discipline purports to look at, to study, and to narrate important events that occurred in the past from diverse points of view. Another contention I want to present is that history is a practical discipline—and indeed that the term “history” is meaningful—to the extent that it is intended as defined in b). Thus my concerns here are to determine what role, if any, the enterprise of philosophy of history has, whether the type of investigations performed by philosophers of history afford us further advancement of human knowledge than the investigations performed by historians, whether philosophy of history sheds any light on the study of history, or whether philosophy of history constitutes an idle intellectual endeavor. My view, to be clear, is that philosophy of history has been a fruitless pursuit because it rests either upon metaphysical speculation or upon pseudo-scientific or linguistic speculation.

We philosophers of today are advantaged in a sense in our outlook toward the practice of philosophy of history because we have the privilege of living in an era of tremendous technological (scientific) advances, which have enabled us to record history more accurately, to contemplate questions pertaining to history, which lets us understand more accurately our own nature and position in the world with respect to the past. At the same time, we are too late in the history of philosophy to write about these issues. We are not even beating the proverbial dead horse anymore because the cadaver of the horse has long since turned to dust. Thus, it is necessary to emphasize that by looking at the alleged branch of philosophy of history in 2012, in my view, it allows us to indicate the problems that arise when philosophers attempt to philosophize about history. Nowadays, I believe that many would agree with the words expressed by Eelco Runia in his essay “Presence” where he writes that “the story of how philosophers of history have read meaning into history ends somewhere in the 1960s.” (1) But I wonder: is it true that philosophers stopped reading meaning into history? When modern philosophers, like Runia, Ricour, Carr, et. al., for example, advance ideas such as that of “presence”, i.e., that what philosophers search for in history is presence, or whether they look at the relationship between language and history, or memory, or what not, are they not in fact falling into the trap of reading meaning into history all over again, and, moreover, are they not falling into the trap of reifying history?

Runia does not take the trouble to ask why it is that the quest for meaning ended in the 1960s, nor whether that is true. The answer could not have been given at that time. Today, in retrospect, we ought to see that the search for meaning reflected the philosophical paradigm of the time, and that philosophical paradigm, in its turn, depended upon contemporary technological achievements.  Philosophers who concern themselves with questions about history have looked in the wrong place and have used the wrong tools. They have conducted metaphysical research that has yielded nothing more than speculations incapable of attaining any ontological certainties. But modern philosophers are no different. In my opinion, they still try to read meaning into history and still produce metaphysical accounts to explain history. The nature of reality, which is given to us as empirical experience, must consequently be contemplated through technology. The philosophers who want to explain history should be looking firstly at the development of technology; for, the nature of reality is not spirit or class, or narrative, but rather the relationship between humanity and technology.

Granted, many contemporary philosophers have turned their attention away from history. However, some philosophers, Eelco Runia for example, seek to revive the subject by proposing a “need for a new philosophy of history,”[1]  while I suggest the need for the elimination of philosophy of history. A philosophy’s task is to try to resolve questions that arise in a given field of inquiry until the point at which it is no longer practical to continue asking certain questions. Unfortunately this has not been the case in philosophy of history, which continues to exist and to confuse us moderns. And the reason for this confusion is the practice’s journey from purely religious-metaphysical speculations to pseudo-empirical speculations, then to the relationship of historical language and scientific language, and in recent years to the relation between narrative and history and to the notions of memory and presence. Therefore, if we want to get to the bottom of philosophy of history, the surest way to end it is to show beyond question that philosophers have been misled into believing that history is an intelligible process that affords knowledge of the world through metaphysical speculations in the past, and pseudo-scientific questions in the present, thus the reason for the confusion among philosophers of history.

In the following paragraphs, I would like to illustrate the way philosophy of history became a concern for philosophers and how it evolved from a theological-metaphysical form into a modern pseudo-scientific-psychological one. Finally, I will conclude that any attempt at interpreting history will automatically fail because interpretations of history are reflections of the way technology develops. That is, we are immersed in technology, and through technology’s advancements we define ourselves and decide what history is and which events are or are not important enough to become history. Thus I will conclude by proposing the elimination of philosophy of history as metaphysical speculation generated by the reification of history. And ultimately, this speculation affords no advancement of human knowledge.

At this point, a legitimate objection may be raised: what is wrong with metaphysics?  So, before I proceed further, I must say a few words about metaphysical speculations. The type of metaphysics upon which philosophy of history relies is that warranted by Kant. To be sure, Kant condemned transcendent metaphysics by arguing that human understanding is made in such a way that it always tries to venture beyond the realm of possible experience and to grasp the nature of things in themselves—but our minds do not have the “power” to go beyond the empirical world. But while Kant admitted that our defective apparatuses constantly attempt to go beyond the limits of possible experience resulting in us getting lost in philosophical contradictions, he did not follow his own dictum and fell back into speculative metaphysics, instead.

The problem is, I believe, that Kant sought to prove that certain concepts are necessary and known a priori; these a priori concepts are according to Kant a bridge between thought and perception. Causality, for example, is for Kant a necessary a priori condition for the possibility of experience. But the way Kant tried to prove this was by means of the unwarranted notion that synthetic a priori judgments are possible. Kant created a sophisticated philosophical architecture but neglected to account for the way language refers to the world. The circularity of Kant’s argument is adroitly expressed by Nietzsche’s words:

Kant asked himself: How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?—And what really did he answer? By means of a faculty. ‘By means of a means (faculty)’—he had said, or at least meant to say. But, is that—an answer? An explanation? Or is it not rather merely a repetition of the question?” [2]

Kant showed us that we begin our investigations with an apparatus that is already defective, and yet he attempted to find rational foundation upon which to base metaphysics, by using the same defective apparatus. A common assumption among philosophers is that Kant’s failure is due to his faith in the validity of Euclidean geometry, Aristotelian logic, and Newtonian physics. But I think these mistakes are pardonable given the era in which he wrote. One aspect of his philosophy for which we might not forgive Kant is that he was, as Alfred J. Ayer once put it, that Kant was “duped by grammar”, into thinking that certain propositions that were tautological could also tell us something about the structure of the mind and the world. Kant’s transcendental idealism, which purported to rescue metaphysics, I shall submit, was due to linguistic confusion.

Religion to Secular: theology of history: Löwith

The enterprise of philosophy of history, no doubt, begins in metaphysics and later tries to move in other directions. In antiquity, theology and metaphysics dominated the intellectual world. It appears obvious then that civilizations that were not yet blessed by modern technology and modern scientific knowledge would see meaning and pattern in nature and in history as well. So, the earliest incarnation of philosophy of history was advanced by religious philosophers. They thought that history was a medium through which humanity develops morally and prepares to unite with God, in the end of history. Löwith’s contribution to the study of philosophy of history, Meaning in History, is a remarkable exposition of the evolution of philosophy of history from theology of history to secular philosophy of history. Löwith’s account, however,  is itself, a particular philosophical view on the nature of history proposed in the year 1949, showing certain limitations that are characteristic of the technological development of the time.  According to Löwith, philosophy of history is a “systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which historical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning.” (p. 1) Löwith ultimately argues that philosophers of history were either religious figures who posited theological views of history or philosophers who unwittingly secularized the same religious interpretations of history. He says that the Western view of history is a confused combination of Christian faith and secular view, which is neither Christian nor pagan.

The modern historical consciousness is, according to Löwith, derived from Christianity. Christians are historical people to the extent that they view the world as a temporary state where humans fulfill the Imago Dei in order to eventually be saved and become one with God. This view, according to Löwith, explains the tendency in history (and philosophy) to an eschatological view of human progress. Before Christianity and Judaism, ancient Greeks also had a sense of history as a process, though they interpreted history as a cyclical process, perhaps directed by a god or gods. Therefore, theology of history had two interpretations, cyclical and eschatological.

When we consider modern interpretations of history, we find that some historians and philosophers still think of history as a succession of events leading toward a final purpose, though moderns may not believe that events are directed by a god. These two views create confusion. According to Löwith, modern thinkers have unwittingly secularized theology of history; they have unknowingly retained the Christian, Hebrew, and Greek ways of interpretation. The way Löwith puts it is that “We of today, concerned with unity of universal history and its progress toward an ultimate goal or at least a ‘better world,’ are still in the line of prophetic and messianic monotheism; we are still Jews and Christians, however little we may think of ourselves in those terms.” (p. 19) For Löwith, our modern view of history is an inconsistent compound of ancient and modern, i.e., of religious and secular. I do not think that Löwith is mistaken, but I do think that he paints only half of the picture, namely, I think that those philosophers he describes in his monograph, particularly Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, were not necessarily “confused” or unaware of applying theological principles to their theories of history; rather they were metaphysicians applying metaphysical principles to their philosophies of history claiming to be doing scientific work.

Marx, according to Löwith, who inherited his view of history from Hegel, was a victim of the deception created by the application of ancient religious notions to modern pseudo-scientific theories. Löwith says that philosophers like Marx propose systems that are “perverted into secular prognostication” (p. 44). Löwith argues that Marx unwittingly uses a religious interpretation, which he appliesto make pseudo-scientific and prophetic predictions about the economic future of Europe. Accordingly, Marx was a secular prophet who “[elaborated] a philosophy of history by secularizing theological principles.” (19) It seems that Löwith tells us that moderns cannot escape the patterns of interpretation of history established by Hebrew prophecy and Christian eschatology, cyclical motion and eschatological direction. But I wonder whether modern philosophies are derived from Hebrew prophecy and Christian eschatology, or are they simply the result of metaphysical speculation adopted and incorporated even by Jewish and Christian philosophers. At any rate, Löwith is right—but partially right. Löwith’s own view is incomplete.  He shows one particular aspect of certain philosophers’ interpretations of history, namely, the idea that modern, secular philosophers maintained certain views that were typical of theological interpretations of history.

With regard to Hegel and Marx, they both regarded history as an intelligible process that moves toward the realization of human freedom. Both thinkers believed in an “end of history”: for Hegel this was the liberal state, while for Marx it was a communist society. At the end of history, according to them, there would be no further progress in the development of humanity.

For Hegel the central task for philosophy is to comprehend what drives humanity, or Spirit, in the unfolding of history. Hegel thought that history is the expression of and the means by which a spirit develops through historical events toward freedom. He also believes that history began in the East and ended in the West, as western society formed. For Marx the point of philosophy is to change the world by eliminating class antagonism. Marx retains most of Hegel’s metaphysics, but instead of invoking a spirit, he argues that the process of history is such that the proletariat is bound to prevail against the bourgeoisie—this is for Marx, roughly, the end of history. Both thinkers were convinced that they had produced scientific theories of history.

Now, both Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophies of history appear unwittingly theological. Specifically, they are reminiscent of Christian eschatology. But what I think Hegel’s and Marx’s mistake was it is not so much that they were using theological concepts to express what they thought to be scientific theories, but rather overlooked the development of technology and they produced metaphysical speculations. That is, Hegel did not see the potential of technology to continue history beyond Europe. Nor did he see that, contrary to his theory, technology would turn humanity toward enslavement rather than to freedom. Marx, who was experiencing technological changes while writing during the industrial revolution and the rise of automation in industrial production, also failed to see that technology would allowed capitalism to flourish eve stronger and to create even more polarization. Contrary to Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophies, history is not the movement of spirit or the proletariat toward freedom, but a movement to self destruction aided by the advancements of technology. Thus, their philosophies are products of their respective times; their theories reflect the philosophical trends of their times and the lack of technological awareness.

As for Löwith, what we see today from our standpoint is a clear evolution of the philosophy of history. Philosophy of history is not, as Löwith puts it “entirely dependent on theology of history.” (1) Rather, philosophy of history arose out of metaphysical speculation during a time when metaphysics was a legitimate philosophical method. It briefly disappeared during the triumph of empiricism, but resurged and continued to exist after Kant assured philosophers that metaphysics was a proper science. Obviously Löwith, writing in the 50s, could not see that his rendition of the history of philosophy of history was incomplete. He could not envision other ways of doing philosophy of history that had nothing to do with theology of history.

Language, Narrativity and Science: Reduction of History

In the 20Th century, philosophy benefited from a new and more accurate logic. The likes of Whitehead and Russell revolutionized mathematical and logical systems. And the works of Wittgenstein and Quine drew attention to a new philosophical branch, that of language. This revolution naturally brought philosophers novel ways to speculate about history. In the first place, language became essential in philosophy and linguistic analysis clearly had something to say about theories of history. Narrative was the next trend through which philosophers proposed to interpret history. At the same time, the logical positivism movement tried to undermine and eliminate metaphysics by linguistic and scientific analyses. We see thinkers like Hempel, Danto, and Mink proposing that philosophical questions about history look at the relationship between language/narration and reality/history. What Hempel had to say about history is that when we look at the way historical language and sentences are uttered, we see a parallel with the way in which scientific sentences work, namely, he suggested a reductionist interpretations of historical language whereby the statements of history can be reduced to scientific statements.

In the 80s, Hayden White wrote an important essay, “Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, where he advanced the idea that narrativity imposes moral meaning upon the reality of past events. The discipline of history for White has long established itself on the narrative form as its mode of representation of the past. To narrate history, according to White, is to give historical events a particular meaning, as he puts it “the absence of narrative capacity or a refusal of narrative indicates an absence or refusal of meaning itself” (2). So at the time White is writing, he and other philosophers, Mink for example, begin looking at history in terms of the relationship between the structure of narrative and the structure of historical events.  He writes, “What I have sought to suggest is that this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” (24).

For White, philosophers of history have, by far, neglected narrativity, and “… there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences” (16). Historians, White says, like to make a sharp distinction between history and myth, but according to White history and myth are very akin. In fact, the form of particular historical events is ultimately determined by the historian who is narrating them, depending upon the historian’s ideological or aesthetic tastes. So in this period, history is understood as perhaps a series of events in the past that do not possess a sense until they are made sense of by narrating them in pre-established forms.  The conclusion of Whites’ argument is that the discipline of history suffers because historians fail to realize that they merely “fictionalize” history.

Mind, Psychology, Memory:

One may think that philosophy of history, at the present time, has been fully explored, but it is not so. The reason is that philosophers of history continue to neglect to see that the philosophical theories of history they try to posit are the expressions of technological advancements. Today, philosophers who concern themselves with interpreting history are, in a sense, still looking for a meaning. If one takes the time to learn today’s philosophical trends, one will learn what philosophers of history think about history. In times when logical positivists were a breath of fresh philosophical air, the focus was on linguistic analysis of historical language.  But at one point, positivism was no longer the trend. With philosophers like Danto, for example, the interest shifted to the aesthetic of history and the narrativity thereof. Also, the narrativity trend faded and for a while philosophers lost interest in history.

Later on, we see sporadic contributions by, to name a few, Ricour, Carr, and Runia. These thinkers, somehow adherents of the Continental tradition, advance metaphysical ideas of history. At the same time, as we move down to the 21st century, and we look at contemporary analytic trends in philosophy, i.e., cognitive science, eliminativism, etc., we see that interpretations of history are now turning toward psychological-philosophical considerations. Runia, for example seems to invoke a concept of presence by arguing that what is pursued by humans in memorials, celebrations, monuments, and the like, is presence. Other philosophers point to the relationship between human memory and historical events, and others still are interested in the continuity in the relation between historical events and narrativity.

Philosophy of history, I believe, is a cognitive mechanism generated by our human uncomfortable compulsion to interpret and understand past reality. Philosophers interested in this subject have been grasping at straws to find meaning or to explain the concept of “history”.  But one difficulty in looking at history in sense a), i.e., all past events in time—whether they be important or unimportant—or a selective collection of relevant past events, is the problem of objectivity. Past events are selected and interpreted only in the future by different philosophers in disparate ways. The problem of objectivity, of course, is directly related to the constant evolving of information and communication technologies, which permeate every aspect of our contemporary life. These technologies are so closely intertwined with human practices that we cannot objectively talk about history in sense a).

History, in this sense, neither has meaning or explanation; thus intended, history is reified by both metaphysicians who see it as an intelligible process and empiricists who unwittingly treat history it as if it were a single material thing in order to show its relationship with language, memory, presence, and so on. What many philosophers do not realize is that our dependence upon technology will dictate new ways to conceive history. History in a near future will perhaps be understood as the collection of video recordings by means of personal cameras, by private blogs and fora, or by microchips inserted in the human brain or whatever new technology will afford us. But history in sense b), the academic discipline performed by historians and teachers and students of history, which purports to look at, to study, and to narrate important events that occurred in the past from diverse points of view, in my view, is a separate logical sphere. It is a practice learned and performed by historians—and not by philosophers—who have the final decision about the nature of the practice and its theories.

I already envision the kinds of criticisms that readers may advance against my arguments. Especially, some may be dissatisfied with my idea of technology as it sheds light on theories of history and to my contention that historians should certainly not be worried about what philosophers say about history in sense a); nor should historians be concerned with what philosophers’ speculations about history in sense b). Moreover, one may find fault in my positing that philosophers should realize that the enterprise of philosophy of history is illusory and thus needs to be eliminated. If that is the case I can only say that I am sorry. What I hope to have achieved in my discussion is to have shown several points: First that philosophy of history is a cul-de-sac. It is an inconclusive enterprise because it is based on the reification of history, and thus consists of a series of metaphysical speculations about something that cannot be tested or experienced because it is in constant motion and in constant making, and that is, history. So, philosophy of history is a pseudo-philosophy. Second, I hope to have called attention to why there is such a thing as philosophy of history. Namely, by looking back at the history of philosophy of history we can see with clarity that each era has a particular theory of history; and each theory is not the result of deductive argumentation, but rather the reflection of the particular philosophical paradigm that is in fashion in each particular era, i.e., in antiquity it is theology of history, then with Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche we see a process of secularization of the same theological principles with an eye toward  the science of the time; later in the 20Th century as science and mathematical logic advance, philosophers become interested in the relationship between logic and language and the  world, thus we see philosophers theorizing, for example, that there is a parallel between historical language and scientific language or that the way we tell ourselves about history is nonetheless that the way we narrate ourselves fictional stories.

In the 21St century yet another trend developed. Today philosophers no longer look up to reductionism and logical empiricism. And though language is still a vivid topic in philosophy, most philosophers find refuge under the umbrella of cognitive science and philosophy of mind. Therefore, at present, the few philosophers who are still concerned about history posit psychological theories that propose to look at the relation between memory, or presence, and history; finally, that the way history is perceived and understood ultimately depends upon technology. Because of the peculiar nature of today’s technology, our way of thinking of history is going to be enormously different in the future. It is possible that in the future, history will return to the models of the annals. People will, perhaps, neglect narration or memory because history will be available in the form of videos and pictures etc. and perhaps what once were important events of the past to become elected to history, in the future, the life and events of single individuals will be important history. In other words, it is not possible to even begin thinking about history because we cannot predict how the present and future nature of technology will transform humanity and its concept of history;

My way of looking at knowledge is to recognize that, as Quine puts it, it is a “man-made fabric” that we constantly stretch and modify based on our experience and our scientific tools. Similarly, history is like a man-made fabric that historians—and once philosophers—constantly adjust to fit the epistemological fashion of the time in which it is considered. As circular as this may sound, we have no alternative but to find consolation in certain conceptual frames or in one or the other philosophical tradition. At the very least, I hope, the problems with interpretations of history, which I point out in my discussion,  serve to show the futility of any kind of metaphysical speculation and the need to direct our philosophical efforts to pragmatism and a special attention to the usage of language and its relation to the world.

[1] Title of the first section in his essay, “Presence”.

[2] Beyond Good and Evil, section 11, Hollingdale translation, p. 23.



Apologist William Lane Craig Answers My Question

I asked a question to the (in)famous Dr. William Lane Craig, one of the world’s foremost apologists. He wowed my question and posted it in the Weekly Question and Answer section of his blog, The title, Coming to Love God, is his.

Coming to Love God

ME: Here is my problem, Dr. Craig: I am as atheist as one can be. Never believed even for 1 minute in my life. However, when I think about it, as a philosopher, I have to admit that I have no good argument to disprove the existence of God. And what’s more, watching online debates and reading papers, I find theistic arguments very compelling. The arguments you present, with which I am very acquainted, are sound arguments. Yet, and here is my problem, I am still not convinced. Moreover, I think this: what if I met God today? Surely I will believe in his existence. But why worship? Even if arguments convince me that God exists, why should I care? Either I worship because if I fail to do so God will torture me for ever, or I accept his friendship voluntarily. But what if I don’t want to be his friend?


United States

CRAIG: Wow, what an interesting question, Carl! I really appreciate your honesty. Your question underlines the difference between merely believing that God exists and believing in God. One could give a sort of disinterested, even apathetic, acknowledgment of the fact that God exists without really loving and trusting God.

Jesus taught that he who has been forgiven much loves much, whereas he who has been forgiven little loves little (Luke 7:40-50). I suspect that therein lies the key to your question. Worship of God is kindled by a deep gratitude to God for His forgiveness of one’s wrongdoing. People who do not have a deep sense of their own sinfulness will probably not feel much of a need to come to God. But to know that, unworthy as you are, you have been forgiven of even your worst sins and cleansed of your guilt forever issues spontaneously in thanksgiving and praise to God for such unmerited favor.

I was forcefully struck when, at the end of our debate on the existence of God, Louise Anthony confessed that one of the drawbacks of the atheism she had come to embrace is that under atheism there is no redemption. Think of that! One’s sin and guilt are truly indelible. Nothing can undo what has been done and restore your innocence. But the Christian message is a message of redemption. That’s why the hymnist exclaims, “Redeemed! How I love to proclaim it!”

So in order to come to God, I think you probably need to reflect upon your own sinfulness. C. S. Lewis once remarked, “No one knows how bad he is until he has truly tried to be good.” The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard made the same point. Kierkegaard thought of life as lived on three levels. The most basic level is the aesthetic stage, in which life is lived selfishly for the pleasure it affords. Life so lived ultimately issues in boredom and ennui. The next higher plane is the ethical stage, in which one lives according to strict moral standards. But this life results ultimately in despair because one cannot live up to the standard of the moral good. Only on the highest plane, the religious stage, is authentic existence truly to be found. Kierkegaard rightly saw that it is the failure of the ethical life that propels one to the religious plane.

I recall that when I was a non-Christian and first heard the Gospel message, even though I was living an externally moral life, I was acutely aware of the darkness and twistedness within. Until you come to have an awareness of your own fallenness, selfishness, and need of forgiveness, you probably won’t be inclined to worship and love God. But I’d encourage you to read a little Kierkegaard or perhaps Pascal’s Pensées and to try to live faithfully according to the Golden Rule. That may help to arouse in you an acute sense of how truly needy you are.


William Lane Craig is a Christian apologist, an author, and a public debater. During the last 10 years or so, he’s quickly become a popular phenomenon on the merits of his exceptional rhetorical skills that he employs in debating atheist philosophers and scientists. However, I am afraid that he has become so (in)famous prevalently thanks to his exceptional oratorical skill rather than to his arguments. To be sure, he has no doctrines of his own, but rather recycles those of others. I do not mean this in a bad way, though. From his published works, speeches, and debates, (most of which are freely available on YouTube and from his website), most of his arguments are taken from Plantinga, Swinburne, C.S. Lewis, Copleston and other Christian philosophers.

In any event, in the above exchange, we get an important picture of the nature of apologetics and Christian doctrine. One curious aspect, at least to me, is that Christian philosophy at the academic level boils down to the same consommé as popular, layperson Christianity. Namely, in establishing the validity of Christianity, personal experience is, in the end, superior to arguments.

Craig’s attitude clearly shows his stubbornness and unwillingness to accept any arguments that may cast doubt on the veracity of Christian doctrine. What’s more, he—like all Christians—fails to see the important point raised by my question. For Christians, you’re either Christian or you do not yet realize you need to be one! Christians’ imagination is, well, so disciplined by their faith that as bright as they may be, as in the case of Craig, they cannot conceive that one may not be interested in this alleged being they refer to as God. What’s important here is to realize that in order for me to enter into a friendly relationship with another being, I ought to do so freely and willingly. The friendship that Christianity claims existing between God and humans is of compulsory nature. If I do not want this relationship, according to Christian dogma, I will be punished for it and sent to hell. So, why call it friendship? If, in the alternative, I am not required to enter into this relationship with God, if God really exists, and no consequences result from my decision, then, what do we need God for?

This is an aspect of religion that seldom gets discussed. People—even many atheists—typically assume that if God’s existence could be proved, one ought to believe in him. Surely if God’s existence could be proved beyond reasonable doubt, it would be irrational not to believe that God exists. But then, many people make an unwarranted philosophical jump: they assume that the default position is that if God exists one should automatically worship God. To me that position is intellectual bankrupt. Unless I am brainwashed, I could never accept this shady metaphysical predicament. If I cannot do anything about it, that is, if my opposing is useless because in the end if God exists and he is the boss and I have no choice, well, then I have no choice.

Craig says “Worship of God is kindled by a deep gratitude to God for His forgiveness of one’s wrongdoing.” Forgiveness? Wrongdoing? Gratitude? Is he referring to the original sin? Why would an intelligent person regard that story as true? Why would anybody see the virtue in that story? I do not need to be forgiven for my sin because I have no sins. How great is a religion that tells you that you “need to reflect upon your own sinfulness”? This is a religion that tells you that you are born defective, with sin, and to get rid of it you must enter into compulsory friendship with a metaphysical entity, the existence of which is dubiously claimed in some ancient book? This is completely a fraud!

My position is what I call Agnostic Anti-Theism.

And I am glad to conclude with Bakunin’s dictum “If God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”

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Is the Foundation of Morality Supernatural?

Is the foundation of morality natural or supernatural? Among many others, this is an ongoing problem in ethics. The problem as I see from one of the possible viewpoints is whether objective morality can be justified on a naturalistic account or whether objective morality requires a supernatural paradigm.

To say, for example, that there is a clear dichotomy between good and evil and to say that certain acts performed by human beings are good or evil would suggest that morality is objective (of course, it is essential to unpack this enigmatic term—“objective”). But if I commit myself to the view that objective moral values exist, do I, by default, accept that the foundation of morality is supernatural, or divine for that matter? Or, to put it in reverse order, if I do not believe that the ground of morality is supernatural, to be consistent, do I have to accept that there are no objective moral values? To be clear, I am not defending moral relativism or nihilism; my view is that objective moral values do exist and yet that their foundation is natural.

One important premise is to emphasize that the foregoing question is concerned about the ontological foundation of morality rather than the epistemology of morality. That is to say, in my discussion I am interested in the question of what, if any, is the basis of morality. What I am not discussing here is how we come to know morality. One can come to know what is moral from many sources, religious or secular entities, for example. But the question here is rather where morality comes from. The way some might put this problem is this: if morality is a baby, people come to know this baby from many different sources. But “Who is the mother of that baby?” is the question.

To start with the term objective, when the term “objective” is contemplated in ethics, it is taken to mean that if morality is in fact objective, it is so at a cosmic level; or that moral values are valid independently of human opinion. For example, to say that the Holocaust is objectively immoral, it means that what the Nazis did was immoral independently of whether they thought it was good. And it would still have been evil even if they had succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everyone into believing that Nazi doctrines were good. In the view of those who believe that morality requires a supernatural foundation, (which I will henceforth refer to as supernaturalists) God, or perhaps some other metaphysical entity, is required as the absolute standard against which all moral actions are measured and deemed moral or immoral. Objective morality would accordingly mean that something moral is moral independently of the existence of rational minds. Conversely, many philosophers believe that morality is merely a social construct and therefore no moral values exist—much less objective moral values. Those who believe that morality’s foundation is supernatural assert that if one denies this view (that the foundation of morality is supernatural), he commits himself to saying that morality is subjective. I believe that this is false, and that objective morality does not require supernatural foundation; objective morality is justifiable in naturalistic terms. The view is that moral values are objective and grounded in the nature of human beings; thus, the foundation of moral values is natural.

When morality is discussed, one way that helps flesh out the issue of the ground of morality is to consider the problem of evil. What is moral or immoral is also what is good or evil. And if the paradigm and the locus of morality is a good God, many raise an objection in the form of what’s known as the problem of evil. Evil constitutes a problem due to the apparent inconsistency or contradiction arising out two propositions: one is the fact that many instances of evil and suffering exist in the world; and the other is the alleged existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient deity, God. By evils it is typically meant inflicting harm upon other humans and animals, i.e., Holocaust, genocide, torture, and so on. Other types of evils are natural disasters, diseases, birth defects, genetic disorders, etc. The contradiction or inconsistency between the existence of God, as described above, and the presence of evil in the world is not explicit. Namely, it is argued that since God is omnipotent, all-knowing, and all-powerful, he can and ought to prevent or eliminate evil, but he does not. Over the centuries, many atheist philosophers have used this argument to disprove the existence of God. On the other side, theologians have offered many arguments to show that the existence of evil is in fact compatible with the existence of God.

At any rate, some atheistic philosophers may argue that the problem of evil is a problem for the theologian, who holds a belief in a certain kind of god. Atheist philosophers usually take a naturalistic approach when faced with the fact of the existence of evil; they note that evil in the world arises out of the world’s complexity. The nature of the world is such that there are many states of affairs which generate numerous evils. Thus, from a non-theist perspective, it may be said that evil is an unfortunate and inevitable aspect of existence. But then, how can an atheist speak of something being evil in the first place? How can he be in a position to say that something like the Holocaust is objectively evil and, say, tearing up a sheet of paper is not? At face value, the Holocaust, one may say, is objectively evil, while tearing up a sheet of paper involves no evil act whatsoever. Yet, on a naturalistic account, it would seem that the two events have no moral difference. Theologians slap the hand of the atheist when he declares something to be objectively right or wrong. They say that on a naturalistic account, human beings have no intrinsic moral worth. On naturalism, morality is merely a socio-biologic by-product of evolution.

At this point we have to ask why the supernaturalist insists in saying that morality requires a metaphysical ground. Supernaturalists argue that on naturalism, there is no reason to believe that the morality evolved by Homo sapiens is objective. On naturalism, it would seem that some actions may become socially right or wrong, but they are not objective. Typically, the naturalist argues that the foundation of morality is simply human well-being; but the supernaturalist retorts that that there is no reason to assume that human well-being is enough to ground sound objective morality. In fact, why can morality be based on rodents’ well-being or other animals’ well-being? It would seem arbitrary to say that human animals are the locus of morality. The supernaturalist argues that without a supernatural paradigm morality is just a behavioral by-product of biological evolution, reinforced by social and parental conditioning. Furthermore, the supernaturalist says, naturalism teaches that humans are determined biological machines. As such, moral actions are in reality nothing more than electro-chemical reactions in the nervous system. And this would imply the lack of free will, which is essential to morality. Hence, on naturalism, morality is illusory.

Much of the work of Richard Dawkins, for example, argues that evolution is a deterministic process by which organisms’ sole aim is the propagation of DNA. To be sure, though this discussion is not about Richard Dawkins or his works, Dawkins’ position exemplifies the issue at hand. If human beings are nothing other than machines determined to spread their genes, and if the theory of evolution too teaches us that the principle of evolution is surviving of the fittest, then there would seem to be no reason at all for humans to be moral. On these grounds, why prefer to be moral over being immoral. In fact, if all boils down to passing one’s genes onto the next generation, what is right is to survive at any cost, and thus what may be deemed immoral is actually advantageous to a species’survival. This issue is raised by Glaucon’s definition of justice in Plato’s Republic. Glaucon says that morality seems not to be intrinsically good, but merely instrumentally good in that it is practiced for prudential reasons rather than for its own sake. In other words, it is contended by the supernaturalist, naturalism cannot provide the foundation of objective sound moral values.

The foregoing is a sketch of the position held by supernaturalism, that is, the position that argues that the foundation of morality is supernatural. It is not a complete account, but at least, I hope, it presented the general position held by supernaturalism, as well as the main reason why according to that position morality is best explained in supernatural terms. Now, I believe that one error made by supernaturalism is to look for a “mother” of morality. There isn’t any mother of morality. The error is the same one made by Plato, namely, to regard objective morality as a Form. The details of Plato’s grand theory are too well known to merit discussion here. And its criticisms are even better known. In brief, Plato believed this: I see many beautiful things in the world, but I do not see beauty. Beautiful things are numerous and differ from one another, while beauty is one. Beautiful things age, change, and get destroyed. But my idea of beauty remains. Hence, objective beauty must exist, or, there is a paradigm for beauty. Now this paradigm, by virtue of which many physical things are beautiful, cannot itself be physical, otherwise it would be subject to change. And after all, which physical object could be the paradigm of beauty, a dog, a Picasso? Therefore, there exists a perfect, eternal, unchanging Form of beauty. Similarly, there must be an unchanging perfect Form of morality, by virtue of which moral actions in the world acquire objectivity.

Now, other than linguistic vicissitude, there is no reason to believe that there is a metaphysical realm of perfect Forms. But I want to consider this idea from a different angle by looking at Plato’s famous dialogue, the Euthyphro. This dialogue is the embodiment of this problem of the foundation of morality. In truth, I must say, over the centuries, the argument presented by Socrates has erroneously been pronounced victorious as to refuting the notion that morality has divine origins. But to me it is a false dilemma. The dialogue is set outside the king-archon’s court, where Euthyphro runs into Socrates and tells him that he is pressing manslaughter charges against his father. This is the pretext to start a conversation about the nature of piety. Piety, Euthyphro asserts, is what is dear to the gods. Impious is what is not dear to the gods. If that is so, Socrates rebuts consider this: Is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious, or it is pious because it is loved by the gods? Socrates asks this tongue-twister because Euthyphro’s definition is ambiguous: Let’s think about that. What does it mean that “The pious is that which is loved by the gods?” One reading is that the pious is what the gods love—nothing more to it. There is no aspect in common to all pious acts. Certain acts are, well, just preferred over others by the gods. The gods can change their minds as they often did, so we’re told. The second reading suggests that there is some property that all the pious acts share, which explains why all the gods love the pious. But piety cannot be both! Namely, either the gods love what is already pious, or they make something like an act pious by their act of loving that thing or action.

Translated into modern terms, what Euthyphro says is that what is moral is what the gods deem as moral. But how do the gods, or God, make something moral? Either morality is God’s whim or God sees something in common to all moral actions. But if morality is merely God’s whim, then morality is not objective or at least, there would not be anything in common to all moral actions. Hence, in order for morality to be objective, God must acknowledge what is moral, i.e., he sees something in common to all moral actions—and that’s the Euthyphro Dilemma. The dialogue ends without suggesting a solution to the apparent dilemma of whether morality has divine origin or independent of God. We are left with certain problems: If morality is the same in every action, how can we find the element common to all actions? This would imply that we already know what morality is. But how can we know what morality is if we do not know the element common to all moral acts? On the other hand, if what is moral is moral because God loves it, then morality has not objective basis. Morality would be then something like a blind obedience to God’s whim. But how can we be moral if we simply have to obey God’s whim? So we are in a circle or reasoning. As I said earlier, many atheistic philosophers see the Euthyphro dilemma as a powerful argument against the moral argument. Although I do not believe that morality is independent of gods (nor do I believe in gods or God), I see the Euthyphro as a false dilemma. The simple solution is to say that God is the paradigm of morality; namely, God is the locus of morality and his nature is what morality is. Yet, even if the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma, where does it lead us to? To say that God and morality are one just begs the question.

Still, we can press the issue. Provided that we can prove the existence of God, it would not follow that morality is objective. If God is a moral agent, objective moral values would not exist and make sense until the advent of human consciousness. A question might be raised: “Can God create a world with different objective moral values from the values he created in this world?” Presumably, God could have done that. But the important question is this: “Could he create a world where, say, it is objectively moral to slaughter children for fun?” Intuitively, it seems that the answer is “No.” For, if God is the paradigm of goodness and morality, its nature, so to speak, allows him only to be good. But if this is so, what this argument proves is that there can be an intrinsically good entity in the universe. Man could just as well be intrinsically good. In any event, it is only after the advent of consciousness that humans acquire moral worth. But to say that God is the paradigm of morality independently of rational minds is utterly meaningless. If there is a God, and he is somehow responsible for morality, the objectivity of morality acquires objectivity, if any, by virtue of there being rational minds, in which case morality would seem to be based on humans’ reason. That is to say, even if we grant the existence of God, it would not explain how God confers objectivity upon humans. One answer is that he does it whether we like it or not, in which case human beings are accidentally the recipients of God’s nature. This view is similar to the one proposed in the discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma. It seems that morality is the nature of God imposed upon us by God himself. So, the only way in which this represents objectivity is from God’s point of view. If the nature of God is forced upon humans by God, morality boils down to God’s order. On the other hand, if morality is to have a value for humans, objective moral values must be based on human nature, in which case, again as in the Euthyphro, morality can be objective and independent of God’s nature.

In other words, God alone cannot be the origin of morality because humans cannot experience objective morality unless there are certain aspects in their nature—and those aspects are reason and human well-being. These features dictate, as it were, objectivity. And thus the opposite, irrationality and human suffering constitute objective evil. Postulating a supernatural foundation of morality would beg the question; for, there are beings that are not moral agents, most animals for example. It is clear that what differentiates animals from human animals is a certain level of consciousness or self-consciousness, with the ability to reflect upon morality. If a lion is not bound by an objective moral duty not to kill a gazelle it is because a lion lacks the intellect necessary to contemplate moral systems. So the assertion that there is an alleged paradigm of morality does not do any good to prove the existence of one.

It seems clear to me that it is when certain kinds of sentient organisms with a certain kind of consciousness arise in the evolutionary process, that those organisms have the capacity to determine what favors their flourishing and what thwarts it; only then can they experience objective moral values. But these values are objective insofar as they are attained and acknowledged by all members of that certain special kind of organisms, i.e., human animals. Furthermore, if there is a paradigm or metaphysical foundation of morality that paradigm is not itself morality in the form in which humans experience moral actions. How is it possible that the alleged paradigm of morality make certain acts moral? How can a metaphysical paradigm beyond space and time make the act of, say, loving one’s neighbor moral, unless there is a physical neighbor with the ability to feel pleasure and pain and, consequently, the act of loving him proves to be a sound moral action? It would seem that for objective moral values to be objective, this alleged paradigm must deal with certain truths about the nature of humans, instead of humans conforming to the nature of the paradigm. At the very least, in light of these points, it would seem to me that the supernaturalists’ position is less likely to be true.

Another mistake is generated by the ambiguity of the term “objective.” The term “objective” is abused by philosophers. What “objective” means is that objective morality exists independently of and even prior to the existence of humans because God exists and he’s the locus of morality. But moral values cannot be objective in that sense. Otherwise, it would mean that prior to the existence of human beings in the universe, murder is immoral. But this is simply absurd. Murder becomes objectively wrong when evolution has produced sentient beings capable of reasoning and appreciating the wrongness of it. The alleged existence of a deity does not make morality objective; rather, the existence of human beings, having evolved a consciousness to such a degree that they can step back and reflect upon themselves and their actions, discover that certain actions promote their well-being and others thwart it.

My position here is that objective morality exists and yet, in order to be objective, it does not require a supernatural foundation. The fundamental error is generated by the misleading means of terms such as “objective.” I do not mean that the term is meaningless, but rather that what is objective is, in the end, a subjective matter (no pun intended). A supernaturalist uses the term because he may be committed to a religious belief or to metaphysical belief. Thus he finds it consistent (and convenient) to say that objective morality exists insofar as there is a metaphysical paradigm of morality. This error, as I pointed out, arises out of semantic deception similar to that made by Plato, who postulates metaphysical forms. So I am not skeptical of the term “objective” per se, but rather of the way in which supernaturalists take it to mean. I believe that sound moral values can be objective in the sense that they are grounded in human nature. The special features inherent in the nature of human beings constitute the ground of objectivity, that is, rationality, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, and the ability to devise complex moral systems that favor a better life.

The problem with the position that the foundation of morality is supernatural is that it rests on dubious premises. Namely, to grant the position of supernaturalism requires the admission of the possibility of metaphysics, not to mention the possibility for disembodied minds or disembodied reason. On the possibility of metaphysics, Kant dedicated his life work. What he was able to show is that the only viable clue we have into metaphysics is the possibility of synthetic a priori propositions. Kant’s final achievement was consequently that certain features and reflections of reality point to the necessary logical conclusion that metaphysics is possible and thus there is a metaphysical realm beside the physical world. (His endeavor shows—purportedly—that if the world makes sense is because of synthetic a priori knowledge. Ultimately, however, Kant shows our limits to our access to the metaphysical world. Namely, we cannot step into the world of metaphysics by using reason, but it is by virtue of metaphysics that we possess reason!

His project failed. For one thing, his division of synthetic vs. analytic was vague enough to attract many thinkers who belonged in the romantic tradition of philosophy. Kant condemned transcendent metaphysics arguing that human understanding is made in such a way that it always tries to venture beyond the realm of possible experience to grasp the nature of things in themselves—but our minds do not have the “power” to go beyond the empirical world. And it is for this reason that Kant saw an endless intellectual battle among philosophers. But while Kant admitted that our defective apparatuses constantly attempt to go beyond the limits of possible experience so we get lost in philosophical contradictions (antinomies), he did not take his own recommendation and fell back into speculative metaphysics, instead. The problem is, I believe, that Kant wanted to prove that certain concepts are necessary and known a priori; these a priori concepts are according to Kant a bridge between thought and perception. As Alfred J. Ayer once put it, Kant was “duped by grammar”, into thinking that certain propositions that were tautological could also tell us something about the structure of the mind and the world.

But where he failed in showing the possibility of metaphysics, he succeeded, in my opinion, in showing that sound objective moral values need not be founded on supernatural ground. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a viable system that is independent of a supernatural paradigm. He argues that the foundation of morality is reason. To be moral, he proposes, is to act according to certain axioms determined by the universalization of moral laws; these laws must be tested and adopted only when they can be held without contradiction. Kant believed that it is possible to objectively assert that certain acts, such as lying or stealing or killing are never morally sound, because lying or stealing or killing cannot possibly be a universal maxim; this means that the basis of morality are our nature of sentient, logical beings. On logical grounds, we can declare that we have “perfect duties” not to act in certain ways. When confronted by an ethical dilemma, Kant argues, we must ask ourselves whether we would want all people in all places, at all times to do what we are about to do. Kant’s first formulation requires that the maxims be chosen as though they should hold as universal laws of nature. This is a test to determine whether a maxim can be universalized, and it has 5 steps:
1. Take a moral statement, for example the declaration “I will cheat for personal benefit.”
2. Imagine a possible world in which everyone followed that maxim.
3. Decide whether any contradictions or irrationalities arise in such a world as a result of following the maxim.
4. If a contradiction or irrationality arises, acting on that maxim is not allowed in the real world.
5. If there is no contradiction, that maxim is morally sound; but if there is, well, then it is not morally sound.

His second formulation is grounded in the rationality of human being such that the basis of all maxims provides that humans be treated never as a mere means but as ends. What this means is that all rational beings should never be exploited for personal gain. And the third formulation tells us that all maxims must harmonize with a Kingdom of Ends. This means that we should act in such a way that we may think of ourselves as members in the universal realm of ends.

What Kant’s ethical system shows, in my opinion, is the cogency of a philosophical position known as non-reductive physicalism. That is, while mental states (and in fact in this case everything that is good or evil) are caused by physical states they are not reducible to physical properties. In other words, although humans on naturalism can be regarded as bio-mechanical machines, humans’ biological properties are such that they dictate what is objectively good or objectively evil. And what makes humans choose to be moral is that to be moral is to be rational, and therefore sound moral values are determinable by logically sound propositions. Objective sound moral values are established with respect to the biological properties that render humans different from a piece of paper or an animal. Now, a typical objection is that the foregoing still begs the question, that is, human well-being and reason are insufficient to ground objective morality. However, the objection rests on the assumption that if morality is objective, it can be only in virtue of a transcendental paradigm. But to say that objective morality is grounded in a supernatural paradigm is tantamount to saying that an unknown, alleged metaphysical entity X exists; and that this entity X is such that its mere existence confers objective moral values upon the physical world. This, however, is not an explanation. The problem with the supernaturalism’s position is that their argument is based on dubious premises, i.e., that a supernatural paradigm exists and that without it there cannot be objective morality. But there is no reason to assume that that explanation is a total explanation. For, what good is to say that an intelligence, or God, or what not, is the uncaused cause which is the paradigm for morality? If I ask who or what created that entity, the natural answer is that entity is eternal and logically necessary. But this in my view is explanatory deficient.

The issue of whether objective morality is founded on natural or supernatural ground may never be settled. It is an issue that can hardly be concluded here. I think that there are so many possibilities to be contemplated as to what grounds objective morality, that I find it too facile to declare that objective morality requires a supernatural foundation. If we ask whether the naturalist account offers a superior explanation than the supernaturalist, I believe that the answer is that naturalism offers a more compelling argument toward the foundation of objective moral values than supernaturalism. The naturalist account in my view has the upper hand on this issue. The case for the natural foundation of objective moral values is a cumulative one. Namely, in my discussion, I proposed that there are viable grounds for the foundation of objective moral values without appealing to supernatural explanations. First, if naturalism does not prove to be sufficient as a total explanation for the foundation of objective morality, at least it is the more plausible one when compared against supernaturalism. That is to say, naturalism makes claims that can be verified, unlike the claims of supernaturalism, which rely upon ethereal and unscientific concepts. For example, biological evolution gives a viable account of how human animals’ characteristics give them intrinsic moral value and the possibility to determine, with respect to those characteristics, a set of objective moral values.

Secondly, naturalism has the upper hand on this issue because it offers sophisticated ethical systems that need not be supported by a deity or supernatural entity. Moreover, naturalism offers a rich philosophical framework for objective morality in that it can resort to a pluralistic applied ethics. Systems such as Kantianism, veil of ignorance, the social contract, utilitarianism, consequentialism, and so on, all have merit and are viable sources of morality based upon objective values shared among rational beings. Thirdly, the quest for a “total explanation” is a chimera. Science is full of such examples. Take the famous double-slit experiment. What it shows is that at the sub-atomic level, matter seems to behave counter-intuitively. From our perspective, to say that something is both a wave and a particle is rather mystifying. Or to say that a particle is simultaneously present in 2 different places makes no sense at all. These puzzling examples require total explanations. But the explanation may or may not come to us. In the meantime, on another level, we do not cease to function or stop following rules. We still have an explanation for many phenomena that surround us, though we do not yet know why sub-atomic particles behave like they do.

But what about supernaturalism? I think it is the least plausible position for several reasons. First of all, it rests on an error that arises out of the abuse of grammar. It seeks an objective paradigm of morality. But when we look into the meaning of objective, we discover that a) objective can mean many things, that is, that the meaning of “objective” is rather subjective; and b) that if it is intended to mean “mind-independent,” it fails to make sense. For, to say that murder, lying, cheating and what not are objectively evil regardless of whether humans exist, or that they are objectively wrong on Saturn, is utterly meaningless. If murder lying, cheating etc. are wrong, they are wrong insofar as certain organisms with certain apparatuses and qualities exist and are able to determine what is good or evil with respect to those characteristics.

Secondly, the argument that the foundation of morality is supernatural is based on premises that are themselves dubious. One is the existence of God or a god or a metaphysical entity. But it seems that what is typical in theology is to use the notion of objective morality to prove the existence of God, and at the same time to use the existence of God to prove objective morality. At any rate, if the paradigm of morality is not God, supernaturalism still needs to prove the existence of a disembodied mind, which has not been a very successful endeavor in the history of philosophy. Furthermore, even if we grant the possibility of disembodies consciousness, it would still be unclear how a disembodied entity that exists beyond the physical world, outside space and time, is responsible for the objectivity of moral values in our spatio-temporal, physical world. Many questions arise: namely, how is an entity removed from reality makes morality objective? Since there allegedly is an entity that is intrinsically moral, isn’t it possible that other entities that are intrinsically moral—namely, human beings—can exist in the universe?

Thirdly, the position of supernaturalism rests upon other dubious premises, a) that there must be a paradigm of objective moral values, and b) that without a paradigm of morality, moral values cannot be objective. These premises are dubious because they imply that supernaturalism has surveyed all naturalistic accounts for morality. But this cannot be true. On naturalism, there is a plurality of ethical systems that work without the assumption of a metaphysical paradigm of objective moral values. These systems offer viable naturalistic accounts as to how morality can be objective by showing that certain features of our nature dictate objective moral obligations. Furthermore, these above mentioned systems show that to adopt morality is not only a sound prudential decision, but also logically consistent.

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No One is One Like the One

The aim of my discussion is to show three notable accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy: The first is what I refer to as the completeness of Plotinus’ ontological system. Earlier attempts were in-complete because they failed to realize that the ultimate cause of the universe must be a perfect unity. One popular theory, for example, is that a deity is the ultimate explanation for the universe. But according to Plotinus, a deity is not a simple entity (as I shall illustrate later). A deity is a composite entity and, being composite, despite it may be all-powerful, cannot be the ultimate cause for the universe. Plotinus argues that the first cause is a total unity. This unity is an uncaused entity that transcends Being, which Plotinus calls the One. The One is ineffable because it transcends Being, is timeless, immaterial, space-less, and unchanging; hence, it is even incorrect to try to define it. Nonetheless, its existence is a logically inescapable conclusion as well as an ontological necessity. In this regard, I will illustrate this necessity of a complete unity as the final cause and originator of the universe in greater detail in the course of my discussion; I will discuss the exceptional effulgence of the One from which Intellect, Soul, and matter are generated, and what the One’s relation to matter is. This I take it to be the first of the three main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy.

The second accomplishment of Plotinus’ philosophy is that it offers a viable solution to the problems that Plato’s theory of Forms faced. One problem is that since the Forms are immaterial and unchanging metaphysical entities, it would seem difficult to explain how they interact with physical objects. For one thing, interacting implies an exchange of certain properties between different entities. But exchanging obviously implies that one entity, in this case a Form, changes or divides itself up or gives off some of its properties to physical objects. However, Forms, by definition, never change. Plotinus shows that the foregoing criticism arises out of category mistake or false dilemma. His solution is such an elegant and simple one that it makes one wonder how Plato’s successors failed to contemplate it. Plotinus introduced a concept central to his metaphysics, that is, the process of ceaseless production through emanation and outflowing from the One.  Plotinus gives metaphors to illustrate the One’s generative power, such as the radiation of heat from fire or light from the sun. The One’s emanation is a sort of indirect process that generates Intellect, Soul, and matter. It is indirect because the One does not intend or need to produce anything, since it is self-sufficient. The point is to show that the Forms interact with physical objects indirectly through their emanation, without dividing up or changing. This will therefore require an articulation of Plotinus’ system, as well as of Plato’s theory. This is the second of the three main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy.

And the third accomplishment is Plotinus’s theodicy. Theodicy is the part of theology concerned about the problem of evil; it is the theological defense that attempts to reconcile the apparent inconsistency between the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God and the presence of evil in the world. Plotinus’ theodicy addresses the issue of evil with respect to the originator of the universe, the One, which is the Good. The One or Good hence represents Plotinus’ idea of God, though Plotinus’ God is not a personal being like the God of Christianity. The question prompted by the notion of the One as the Good is “How is it possible that evil exists in the world if the originator of the world is infinitely good?” Or, to phrase the question differently, “How is it possible that the One, which is perfectly good, produces anything evil?” Plotinus offers a solution to show that a) metaphysical evil is not—and cannot—be produced by the Good. Plotinus makes an important distinction between metaphysical evil and moral evil. Metaphysical evil exists as a result of the total privation of Good, and the locus of it is matter; hence, it is not the Good that produces metaphysical evil because the Good does not produce matter. Matter is produced by Soul, not as an evil act, but rather as ontological necessity. And b) moral evil is not evil itself, but rather evil in the second degree, i.e., human’ experience of many instances of evil and the infliction of evils by humans upon others. Moral evils occur because the soul is, as it were, crippled by matter. Matter is the paradigm of evil in that it is absolute non-being, formless, and unexposed to the radiance of the Good. And when Soul descends and enters into body—which is made of matter—often becomes trapped into it. Soul becomes corrupted, and that is the origin of moral evil. This is the third of the 3 main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophy. Finally, I will propose some possible criticisms (perhaps the hardest task of all) of Plotinus’ arguments.

My first task, as I indicated in my introduction, is to illustrate how Plotinus’ ontological system is complete; to give an account of how it is complete, first it is helpful to consider why all philosophers who preceded Plotinus offered incomplete metaphysical accounts. First, let us discuss why they were incomplete by considering the problem of existence. One of the oldest and most essential philosophical questions is existence. To put it in the form of a question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Various answers had been offered before Plotinus. Some of the early philosophers offered naturalistic accounts of existence. But these accounts were deficient in explaining the ultimate cause of existence. The question of causation is central to the question of existence. Physical objects in the world are all caused by some entity. A baby is caused by his mother and a tree by a seed. But what caused existence itself? There is an old tradition in metaphysics that goes back to the pre-Socratic philosophers to find a universal element. The very first Western philosopher, Thales, for example, believed that water was the ultimate principle of everything. Anaximander thought the ultimate principle was what he termed the boundless. Anaximenes believed air to be the ultimate principle. And Parmenides saw reality as one fixed entity, Being. Other pre-Socratic philosophers speculated that the four elements were the basis of everything. Pythagoras thought that the world consisted of numbers. Leucippus and Democritus famously proposed that the universe was a vacuum in which there were an infinite number of atoms bashing against each other and producing everything. Unlike the earlier pre-Socratic philosophers, although these latter two believed in a multitude of atoms, they saw the ontological necessity to stop at a fundamental or universal element, the atom.

These early attempts provided possible answers to the question of what was the original substance out of which all others are formed. However, they all failed to answer the question of why there exists anything in the first place. One of the reasons for their failure is that water, air, or atoms are physical entities, subject to change, that exist in space and time. Presumably, they combine with other entities to produce matter. And their interaction implies an exchange of properties and a change into a different entity. For Thales, for example, a piece of metal is a highly concentrated form of water. But a piece of metal, at any rate, insofar as it is concentrated water, is in no way similar to water. Therefore, water must change, so to speak, from its original state into something else. This, among other things, shows that water does not possess ultimate unity. Water, or boundless stuff, or atoms or what not, is not self-sufficient, but rather contingent upon another entity that has a greater level of unity. By contingent is also meant that physical objects do not have the power to cause their own existence, but rather are caused to exist in space and time. Furthermore, physical elements simply lack the intelligence and power to create the universe. Hence, the ultimate cause must be a non-contingent, non-corporeal entity that is not subject to interaction or change.

This led Plato to postulate an eternal and powerful demiurge creating the universe from pre-existing matter using the Forms as templates. Aristotle also postulated that the ultimate cause was a god, which Aristotle referred to as the unmoved mover. A deity as the ultimate cause and creator of the world is certainly a superior explanation than the various theories provided by the pre-Socratics. A deity possesses unlimited intelligence and power that allows it to create the universe. Also, a deity is not a physical entity, but an immaterial one; it transcends the physical world and has no spatial or temporal constraints. And most importantly a deity is an uncaused cause or self-caused cause, and is independent of external agents. Specifically, Aristotle’s unmoved mover is an entity that contains the reason for his existence. However, Plotinus objected that neither Plato’s Demiurge nor Aristotle’s unmoved mover is a good candidate for the title of ultimate cause of everything. Let us see why. According to Aristotle, the unmoved mover is the most divine of things. Divine thought, therefore, must be at the highest degree. It follows that God’s thought must have some content. Consequently, God, the unmoved mover, is by definition a composite entity. Accordingly, the unmoved mover thinks either about itself or about objects other than itself. Since God is by definition unmoved or uncaused by anything external, it follows that he perpetually thinks itself. To think of something other than itself would mean that God is moved or changed/affected by an external entity, but it cannot be so. Thus, the content of God’s thought must be the most excellent of things, i.e., God himself.

Many philosophers were content to say that the Aristotelian unmoved mover or divine intellect represented the ultimate cause for the universe. Plotinus, however, pointed out that the very fact that God thinks of himself implies absolute lack of unity. Namely, if God thinks of himself there is an element that thinks and an element that is intelligible. The very act of thinking implies the necessity of there being one entity that thinks and another that is the object of thought. A divine intellect thus described, therefore, according to Plotinus, cannot be the ultimate unity and therefore not the ultimate cause for the universe. With regard to Plato, his demiurge faces similar problems. The demiurge is an intelligent entity that looks at the Forms to model the universe. Thus, because of the complexity of the demiurge’s activity of thinking, the demiurge is not the simplest unity possible.

The necessity to postulate absolute unity as the ultimate cause is best exemplified by such arguments as the cosmological argument or the argument from contingency. The idea is that there must be an explanation for the existence of the universe as a spatiotemporal entity. Since the universe could conceivably not exist, its existence must have a cause, i.e., the universe must be contingent. If its cause is another spatiotemporal entity, then that entity requires itself another cause that explains its existence.  However, this causal connection cannot proceed ad infinitum without generating a logical paradox. If we allow this process to an infinite regress, it would take an infinite number of entities and an infinite amount of time to create anything at all and therefore there would never be a beginning. The necessary conclusion is to postulate a first cause, which stands outside of the causal chain, which cannot fail to exist. This first cause cannot be merely another contingent thing, but rather something that exists by necessity. Also, this cause cannot be a simple object in space and time. It follows that the first cause is a simple, space-less, timeless, immaterial, and self-caused entity. In other words, the cause of the universe must be uncaused because there cannot be an infinite regress of causes, it must be timeless because it created time, and because it created space, it must also transcend space. This argument leads to the necessary conclusion a transcendent cause of the universe.

There is, however, according to Plotinus, an even more important reason why all previous metaphysical accounts cannot provide a complete ontological system. The reason is that atoms, air, gods, water or what not are not perfect unities. Unity is according to Plotinus necessary for existence. The argument above shows the necessity of a transcendent cause of the universe. But Plotinus insists that what previous philosophers had overlooked is that such a cause must also be an absolutely simple one. A physical object cannot be the principal cause, nor can a deity. According to Plotinus an absolutely transcendent unity must be the first cause, which he calls the One. The reason Plotinus believed the One to be the first cause of the universe, I think, can be illustrated as follows: if we consider any objects in the world, an army, a house, a flower, a dog, etc., we notice that they all have something special in common—that is, unity. They are all one, they partake in unity. Without unity, an army would be just a bunch of people. A house, without unity, would be just disparate parts and pieces. And a plant or an animal, to qualify as such, must each be one unity. Unity is a condition of being. However, not all the aforementioned objects possess the same degree of unity. An army has less unity than a plant. An army is a unity by virtue of an external force conferring unity upon it. A house is unity only so far as the unity is imposed upon it by its builder. Differently, plants and animal have intrinsic or internal unity. A human being has even more unity than a plant or a house. And a soul has yet more unity than all physical objects just mentioned. Moreover, as the degree of unity of an entity increases, its degree of reality increases, too.

What follows from this argument is the inescapable logical conclusion that the degree of unity in the world must be warranted by something that is itself the maximal expression of unity or the paradigm of unity. That is, since there is a degree of unity, there must be a principle of unity. The final cause for the universe is therefore eternal, unchanging, part-less, space-less, time-less, and it is the standard of unity—and that is the One. A way to put this is that existence is unity. Namely, the existence of the world is possible by the existence of unity. All objects in the world and the world itself are unities. An army acquires its existence and its meaning in virtue of the fact that it is one. But that very army is in fact composed of several parts, individuals, who are in their turn unities. The army has a lesser degree of unity than an individual for obvious reasons. However, an individual is made of different parts, organs, soul, and so on. An individual’s soul has yet a higher degree of unity. Soul has many faculties, and is still a composed entity with a very high degree of unity, but it is not the highest unity. Intellect is, according to Plotinus, an even higher unity than Soul. Now, this hierarchy of unity must logically end, so to speak, at the point of absolute unity. In other words, what follows from this is that there must be a paradigm of unity, and it cannot be physical, but metaphysical. As hard as it may be to grasp, this conclusion follows by logical necessity—the origin of being is beyond the realm of being, and is absolute unity. Plotinus named this entity “the One.”

In the Republic[1], most notably, Plato shows this necessity by what is known as the theory of Forms. Plato proposes the division between an intelligible and a sensible world. If reality is in constant flux, as Heraclitus suggested, there is no basis for anything in the world. But if there were no basis for anything we would not be able to grasp such concepts as numbers, beauty, justice, and so on. However, such concepts are meaningful. For Plato, there is a metaphysical realm of perfect forms, perfect numbers, and a source of everything, which he calls the Good. The Good is the most important of all the Forms because it is by virtue of the existence of the Good that all other Forms acquire their existence. The Platonic Good was translated by Plotinus into the One. But Plotinus, as noted, arrived at that conclusion by contemplating the fact that everything that exists must partake in unity. But if an ultimate and absolute paradigm of unity does not exist then any physical or metaphysical entity could not have unity, and therefore would not exist. Taken to its logical conclusion, the explanatory path must finally lead to that which is unique and absolutely un-complex: there must be a single unity by virtue of which all physical, as well as nonphysical, entities acquire unity and thus existence. This ultimate unity has no properties, does not think or will, it is part-less, it is neither in motion nor at rest; it “exists” outside time and space, and does not partake in being. Yet, its exuberant power is such that its emanation produces plurality. The model Plotinus suggests is a ceaseless, downward process of Emanation or “outflowing” from the One, and a corresponding turning upward process through Contemplation. The diagram below represents this process:




             The Absolute unity and Source

Otherness/Inchoative stuff


By turning back and contemplating the One, Intellect

constitutes itself as Intellect. Intellect contains the Forms.




By contemplating Intellect, Soul constitutes itself as Soul
both cosmic “World-Soul” and
individual souls. Contains the Logoi.

Soul descends by ontological necessity

The effect is nature

Sensible World


Matter = Evil

(The end of the unfolding

of the One’s emanation.)

The theory of Forms brings us to the second accomplishment of Plotinus’ philosophy:  the solution to the problem of the relation between the Forms and physical objects. Specifically, Plotinus’ philosophy provides a viable solution to problems that arise out of Plato’s division of reality into two worlds, the physical world of images (i.e., the sensible world), and the real world of Forms (i.e., the intelligible world). One of the problems that this theory faced is to account for the relation between the intelligible and the sensible worlds. To show how Plotinus solved this problem, it will be necessary to discuss of Plato’s theory of Forms and its origin. Its origins can be traced back to Pythagoras’ philosophy. Pythagoras believed that the ultimate reality of the world is numbers. Numbers are present in the world through and through. Even music, for example relies on numeric proportion. We perceive the world in terms of numbers. For instance, we, humans, have a concept of the number 2, although the number 2 is nowhere to be found in nature. So, we are able to divide physical objects into numbers by virtue of the fact that perfect proportions or numbers exist as unchanging metaphysical paradigms.

Plato expanded this view proposing his theory of Forms. For one thing, Plato wanted to address the issue raised by certain pre-Socratic philosophers regarding reality’s objectivity. One of these early philosophers, Heraclitus, famously noted that it was impossible to step into the same river twice. Heraclitus noted an indisputable fact about the world, that nothing is ever the same for more than one instant. Everything constantly changes or is in constant flux. A river, for example is a stream of water that constantly flows toward an ocean. But if we ask what constitutes a river, the answer is rather unclear. The watercourse is constantly flowing, the water is always different, and the river banks are constantly changing due to erosion and other factors. But if this is so, what constitutes the river? A further implication, besides rivers not being the same, was that any and all physical objects are subject to constant change. This would naturally imply that there is no objective basis for reality. But if this is true, then, all concepts and sensible objects are merely subjective. Parmenides also exemplified this issue by also famously stating, “man is the measure of all things.”  Parmenides implies that no concepts or argument can be objectively true or false because they depend upon man’s judgment. Plato recognized the validity of such arguments. But at the same time, he realized that reality is not merely subjective; nor is it a random flux. Rather, we have such ideas of beauty, of friendship, of love, of shapes, of mathematical concepts, etc. So the way Plato solved this problem was by dividing the sensible world, which is in constant flux, and the intelligible world, the eternally unchanging world that confers meaning upon the sensible world.

The intelligible world, of course, is grasped through intellect, while the sensible world comes to us through the senses. Reality is for Plato such that the visible world, which appears concrete, is but a mere copy or shadow of the real world, which is intangible and invisible. The intelligible world is a metaphysical realm where perfect Forms exist. The Forms are necessary because without them nothing would have a form or would be objectively true. The Forms are therefore the grounds and the paradigms of physical objects, as well as the paradigms of all the concepts and aspects of the physical world.  One important feature of the Forms is that they are not changing, they are perfect. They are, as it were, metaphysical templates from which the physical world is designed. To use an example, think of numbers. The number 2, for example, is an abstract concept that does not exist in reality. However, we experience 2 in reality when we count, say, 2 apples. But those apples are in fact 2 individual unities, 1 and 1. And in their turn, each apple is not, but it can be divided into many parts. Then how is it possible that perfect 2 does not exist in the world and yet we experience or have a notion of the same? The answer is that what we experience in reality is a copy, a less perfect model, of a perfect Form that exists in a metaphysical realm of Forms. Thus, there exists a perfect 2, which cannot be divided or changed. And since in the physical world there are beautiful objects, friends, horses, cows, trees, and so on, there obviously are corresponding Forms of beauty, of friendship, of horse-ness, of cow-ness, of tree-ness, etc, all timeless and eternally unchanging.

Plato’s solution, at first, appears satisfactory. Yet it certainly makes one wonder how these ethereal Forms can be responsible for conferring upon physical objects many different features. Plato was certainly not clear as to the nature of Forms and the way they divided and made themselves available to many disparate physical objects. A Form is by definition unchanging. The apparent problem, then, is how a particular Form is present in many different sensible objects without losing its essence. For example, how can the Form of dog be present in all the dogs in the world without being divided up and distributed among them? In his Plotinus, an Introduction to the Enneads[2], Dominic O’Meara points out that this kind of criticism listed above stems from a category mistake fallacy. Namely, critics, in considering the Forms, treated them as physical entities with physical properties. I believe O’Meara is correct. In fact, I would add that those criticisms do not constitute a serious challenge to Plato’s theory of Forms, but rather amount to a false dilemma. Plotinus’ solution is so simple that how Platonists overlooked it is baffling. Since the Forms are not physical entities, there is no reason to expect them to behave as such. They are not temporal entities that confer certain properties upon matter by separating and distributing their unity. They do not cause physical forms, since they are not bound by causality. Rather, they constantly emanate their properties and affect physical objects. This is compared to the sun whose emanation gives off heat to the world. This explains how a certain Form is “present” as a whole in many separate physical bodies, i.e., it is not “physically” present. Rather, the emanation deriving from a Form actualizes matter into a copy of that Form, without any actual exchange or division.

This brings us to the third accomplishment of Plotinus’ philosophy, that is, his theodicy. Christian apologists have proposed many different theodicies to address the foregoing problem. Typically, theodicies employ two main stances with regard to the existence of evil in a world created by God. One is to argue that God creates evil to allow humans to build a certain moral character that enables their souls to eventually ascend and unite with God. In this sense, evil is instrumentally good. God allows evil because it serves a purpose, i.e., to build the moral character required to ascend to God. Conversely, another view is that evil is neither allowed nor created by God (Augustine, for example, is a champion of this view). The only thing that God allows is freedom, through which humans can accept the goodness of God or decide to turn away from it. Regrettably, some people, in exercising their freedom, choose to do evil. Thus in this sense, evil is not purposively created by God; nor does it exist as an entity per se. Rather, evil is simply the absence of goodness or the turning away from goodness.

Plotinus is immune to the problem of evil, and the criticisms thereof, as illustrated above. For one thing, although Plotinus regards the One as God, the One is not a personal being like the God of Christianity. The One has no purpose or eschatological agenda as God does. The One does not think or will to create anything. Intellect, Soul, and matter are constantly created out of ontological necessity by the emanation of the One. But the One neither intends nor needs to create them. In Christianity, for example, God creates the world out of love, whereas for Plotinus the world results as a necessary consequence of the One’s emanation. Thus, Plotinus would deny that evil is purposively allowed or created by the One. Neither would he argue that evil does not exist. According to Plotinus evil arises because evil is ontologically necessary. But what and where is evil created? After all, one might note, if all comes from the One, and evil is necessarily created, the One must be responsible for evil. However, how can the One—which is the Good—generate evil? To illustrate Plotinus’ theodicy it may be helpful to first exemplify his ontological system.

As we noted, the One is the ultimate cause of the universe, and the highest unity of the ontological hierarchy. As such, the One is uncaused and is not itself a being, but exists beyond being. Furthermore, the One is the Good and the embodiment of perfection. In order for Plotinus’ system to be complete, there must be an end at the opposite side of the ontological hierarchy—and that is matter. Matter is the lowest, and the last, product of the One’s emanation. Matter is thus caused and is absolute disunity. It is a non-being because it does not participate in Being. And furthermore, matter is the embodiment of absolute imperfection—and that is evil. In other words, given that the Good is not the only existent thing, it is logically and ontologically necessary that the continuous down-going from the Good inevitably completes its unfolding; this will be evil. Evil, the last thing produced, has no residue of Good in it, and it is matter. Matter is thus generated by Soul and not by the Good. To use the same analogy I used earlier, if the Good is the sun, matter is so far away from it that light no longer reaches it. It is with the production of matter that the One’s power is actualized in its totality. The Good reaches the last stage, matter.

Plotinus’s theodicy justifies evil by showing that evil is matter, and matter is the absolute lack of the Good. So, just by the same rationale that the degree of unity must culminate in an absolute form of unity, the One, on the opposite side there must be a locus of absolute lack of unity and Good, matter. The One’s emanation generates Intellect. Intellect by ontological necessity has a lower level of unity than the One, otherwise it would be the One, and that would be a paradox—the One cannot produce another One. Intellect in its turn produces Soul, which has yet a lower level of unity and Good than Intellect. Consequently, the farther away from the One an entity is the lesser degree of unity and Good that entity possesses.

Now the foregoing shows how metaphysical evil is not directly caused by the Good. The Good, in fact, as noted, is not the direct cause of anything. It is its emanation that produces Intellect and Soul. The latter two, according to Plotinus, are by no means evil. They partake in the Good, and yet evil exists. It would seem at this point that we are back to square one with the question of why Soul’s emanation produces evil. Namely, if Soul is an expression of the Good, how is it possible that evil comes out of Soul? For Plotinus this does not seem to be the real issue since the problem of metaphysical evil for Plotinus is not the same problem later faced by Christianity. In Christianity, theodicy attempts to justify why God allows human suffering.  Plotinus, rather, wants to justify how imperfection and total absence of Good can be generated by a maximally perfect and maximally good entity, the One. I believe that he manages to do that. In fact, if matter/evil is the logical outcome of the end of the Good’s emanation, evil is just a necessary aspect of the universe. And since the ultimate truth of the universe is the Good, in a sense evil is part of the Good. Plotinus seems to take such a positive attitude with regard to evil. At any rate, Plotinus’ solution to the problem of metaphysical evil is absolutely brilliant. He shows that when we think of evil we do so the wrong way. While, we think of it as a dismal entity, in reality, Plotinus shows that evil is not an entity as such, but the total lack of perfection and Being. Evil is a non-being, not in the sense that it does not exist, but in that it does not partake in Being. Evil is matter, and matter is devoid of measure, form, and good—it is completely deficient of unity and goodness. The real issue for Plotinus is two-fold: first, there is the question of why Soul produces evil, i.e., matter. The second, and central question, is why moral evils exist, that is, why do human beings sin?

With regard to Soul producing evil, Plotinus shows that Soul cannot be blamed for producing evil. To be sure, Soul is not committing an evil act in producing matter—nor is Soul committing an act in the first place. Soul does not intend to produce matter, but rather matter is produced via emanation from Soul. Soul, so to speak, finds itself at the end of the derivation of Being[3] and its emanation necessarily produces matter. It seems as though the Good of the One’s emanation must culminate in the production of Soul (Soul seems to be the last spawn of the Good). Therefore, either Soul has no more of the Good left within itself to pass on to matter or perhaps Soul’s nature is such that its emanation must produce matter. Consequently, its emanation produces something that lacks goodness and perfection, and thus it is in this sense that matter is evil. I believe that Plotinus must maintain this because his ontological system must come to an end. So, Plotinus resolves the problem of the existence of metaphysical evil by re-defining what evil is. His approach tells us that in contemplating evil, we should regard it from a divine viewpoint and realize it is an ontological necessity. This realization should help us realize that Soul does not intend to generate evil. The fact that human beings experience many instances of moral evil is quite another matter.

With regard to moral evil, Plotinus says that it occurs when Soul descends and associates with matter, and thus becomes corrupted by the very nature of matter, which is completely devoid of the Good and perfection. When Soul enters into bodies (which are composed of matter), its divine nature is obscured and its goodness consumed by the negative nature of matter, which lacks good, just as food changes when is digested and assimilated by the body. So, matter is metaphysical evil, or the possibility of evils, and body is the cause of moral evils. When Soul enters body, it is turned to evil until it finds strength to free itself and rise again. Thus, Soul is a divine being and a dweller in the divine realm. But when it enters into body to acquire the knowledge of evil and sin it often becomes trapped into body, hence the cause of moral evil. It is clear that Plotinus is a sheer optimist. His philosophical view of the world seems to suggest that to worry about evil is tantamount to regarding the proverbial glass as half empty. Plotinus is optimistic about moral evil. He sees the glass half full, that is, he sees the world being full of beauty and order since it is a world that is encompassed by the supreme Good, the One.

In closing, I would like to draw attention to the aim of my discussion, three main accomplishments of Plotinus’ philosophical system. First, Plotinus’ innovation was to offer a coherent ontological system, which I referred to as complete. He pointed out that all physical and metaphysical entities acquire existence through unity. A house, for example, is one although it is made of disparate parts. Its “being one” is conferred upon it because it partakes in one-ness or unity. Plato saw this necessity in the Forms. He posited that we have concepts of beauty, of friendship, of perfection, of goodness, of justice etc. But when we look at the physical world, we fail to find perfection, beauty, justice and so on. A statue, for example, may be said to be beautiful. But its beauty is not everlasting. Moreover, the statue may be beautiful, but it is not the same as Beauty. Consequently, Plato believed that there must be transcendental paradigms that give physical objects their meaning and properties. Hence, Plotinus brought Plato’s theory to its logical conclusion. That is, without an ultimate paradigm of unity, the One, the world would not exist, and that paradigm. Or if something existed, perhaps it would be absolute chaos. And what follows from this line of reasoning is that this paradigm of unity must be the first cause of everything. Plotinus predecessors had failed to recognize this necessity, and erroneously believed that the world’s principal cause was water, or the boundless, or a demiurge, and so on, all of which are composed entities.

The doctrine of absolute unity (as well as others) is not easy to criticize. Its conclusion seem picturesque and, for us nowadays, quite implausible. From modern perspective, the question is at what stage we would want to stop agreeing with the train of arguments that leads us to that conclusion. Yet, I think it is important to remind us that we are dealing with arguments, which proceed from premises or starting intuitions that are plausible—e.g. his point that something has more being if it has more unity and, if there is a degree of unity then there must be a paradigm of unity. There is a sense in which Plotinus’ One seems to fit the description of creation according to modern astronomy, through a singularity, the big bang. With regard to the question of whether there must be a paradigm of unity in order for unity to exist in the first place, one may feel unconvinced by it. Plotinus did not have the benefit of being informed by modern physics. Moreover, in his time, prior to modern linguistics and philosophy of language, it is understandable how claims about the existence and necessity of metaphysical entities were accepted by default. One objection that I, and others, may advance is the following: if intellect is produced as a “by-product”, as it were, of the emanation of the One, then the One is not free. And if the One is not free, the objection goes, the One is imperfect. Plotinus’ response to this criticism is that the critic here makes the mistake of anthropomorphism; that is, the concept of freedom and necessity that the critic has in mind is a legitimate criticism when it applies to human conditions. Thus, it need not apply to the One, which is immaterial and unaffected by external constrains.  Being free, Plotinus may rebut, is not the ability to choose among many options, like choosing a dish on a menu. Having options, conversely, indicates restriction. The One is free it transcends these sorts of issues of choosing, which is inherent of human beings.

Once again, Plotinus demonstrates to be very clever, perhaps a little bit slippery, I would say. In any case, I still think that this criticism is valid.  I am not convinced by this line of argument. Putting aside the vagueness or the ethereality of the subject, if the One is determined in some sense, well, it is determined nonetheless. That is to say, if the One is absolutely perfect and absolutely free but it is determined to only produce intellect as a by-product, this would appear as a limitation of the One. At any rate, my problem is not so much about the freedom of the One, but rather about its implications. One implication of the One being in some sense determined is this: if the One is determined, that is, by nature it emanates otherness, which becomes intellect through contemplation of the One, then it would follow that the One already contains within its own nature the potentiality such that inchoative intellect is produced off the One’s emanation.

Secondly, as far as Plato’s theory of Forms purports to show, Plotinus, in my opinion, managed to show that some criticisms thereof stemmed from a category mistake. That is to say, Plato’s theory, as I just mentioned above, argued that there are many paradigms that give form to physical objects. This theory was put forth by Plato to address an old problem raised by Heraclitus, who argued that the physical world is a flux, constantly changing every instant. And if nothing is ever the same for more than an instant, then objective truth is simply illusory. Plato explained this problem away by dividing reality into a sensible world and an intelligible world. So the everyday world that comes through our senses is a copy or a shadow of the true world that is grasped by intellect. However, while Plato apparently resolved a problem, his answer merely generated another problem. Many, including Plato himself, saw many difficulties with his theory. For one thing, since there aren’t any wires connecting the Forms to physical objects, many wondered how metaphysical Forms exactly conferred upon physical world their attributes. In other words, how can allegedly perfect metaphysical Forms that never change interact with physical objects? Accordingly, to interact is tantamount to exchanging or giving off certain properties. But if the Forms are eternal, this cannot be the case. That is to say, if many physical objects partake, say, in beauty, how can the Form of beauty which is one and indivisible divide itself and distribute beauty among all beautiful objects. Also, the Form of beauty is one, how can there be many different beautiful objects in the world? Plotinus’s answer shows how clever a philosopher he was. He pointed out that Forms need not—and in fact they do not—behave like physical objects. To think of a Form as splitting into many pieces or giving off its qualities is a category mistake. As he proposes in his explanation of how the One generate multiplicity, Plotinus resolves the question of how Forms are present in physical bodies. That is, they do not physically divide and enter into physical bodies; rather, their nature is such that they emanate their power like the sun emanates heat. The Form, like the sun does not will to emanate its power. Thus, the Form does divide itself but rather physical objects actualize themselves by the overflowing energy emanated by the Forms.

Now, while Plotinus’ solution appears felicitous on logical grounds, in my opinion, it still leaves us with the mystery of why an eternal and immutable Form of, say, dog, exists prior to there being physical dogs in the world. Namely, the implication is that all the dogs ever existed in the past and all of those that will ever exist in the future already exist within the Form of dog prior to the existence and creation of the world and of dogs in the world. And another question is that of what determine the Form of dog, to use the same example, to exist in the first place. If the physical world is merely a copy of the Forms, this leads to dubious conclusions, such as that there is a form of every single thing, including lap-tops, horse excrement, and what not. And this leads to the question of whether it is plausible to believe that the Form of dog produces via emanation many different physical dogs (not to mention their excrements) unless all these forms are already contained within the Form, in which case it would require the Form to be a very strange entity containing an infinite number of forms (along with all the implication related to postulating an infinity of things).

For example, if a particular Form is not the same as the object, how can the Form know the shape of a particular object? It would seem as though the paradigm needs another paradigm. That is to say, consider this example: according to Plato’s theory, physical dogs are imperfect copies of the unchanging Form of perfect Dog or another way to put it is that physical dogs partake in the Form of “Dog-ness.”  But the Form Dog-ness is not itself a dog; therefore, if a certain dog is a dog because it partakes in the Form of Dog, then, a third Form would be required as a model to the Form of Dog in order for it to confer upon physical dogs their shapes; but the problem seems to be that in its turn, the model from which the Form of Dog copies the various forms of dogs faces the same problem: it requires yet another model in order to assume the form of Dog, and so on ad infinitum. Unless, of course, the Form of Dog already contains within itself all the dogs that have existed in the world and all of those that will exist in the future—which sounds very implausible, to say the least. In other words, Plotinus offers a solution that seems right on logical grounds. But the very logic employed relies upon premises that have to be accepted on faith or on a linguistic trick. In order to accept the theory of Forms, we have to concede that our experience of beauty or friendship has to be enforced by the existence of corresponding paradigms. Moreover, we have to concede that because we have the ability to utter and contemplate unity, there must be a supreme One, which is the paradigm of unity—but this seems to me not to follow necessarily. When we consider Plotinus’ theory, we cannot fail to contemplate the obvious inadequacy of our language to represent the world.

Lastly, with regard to Plotinus’ theodicy, Plotinus offers a viable solution to the problem of metaphysical evil. His solution works insofar as we understand the nature of evil. When we, moderns, use that term, we associate it with what is immoral. We speak of evil in connection with murder, genocide, natural disasters, and all instances of human and animal suffering. But these evils, Plotinus shows, represent second degree evil, and have to be distinguished from metaphysical evil. Moral evils are the consequences of metaphysical evil, matter. Matter is the last entity produced by the downward unfolding of the Good’s emanation. Matter is evil in that it is the opposite of the Good: it lacks unity, measure perfection and goodness; it is like a black hole that sucks in Soul and renders it evil when it enters body. Insofar as it justifies the Good by indirectly producing metaphysical evil, his theodicy is successful. A typical objection, however, is the question of why there must be matter as a last by-product of the Good. I think it is fair to say that Plotinus would answer the following: if there is a first principle—and we proved that logically—the One, and that is by definition maximally good, to be complete the system, it is warranted by the same logic that a last principle completely devoid of the presence of the Good exists, and that is matter. Namely, Plotinus’ system postulates a plausible first principle that is a perfect unity, the One, by relying on the principle of prior simplicity. By the same token, the system has to be ontologically complete by ending with a principle that is diametrically opposed to the One. Thus, there must be an end point of the One’s production, and this end point is completely devoid of the Good, and that is matter. One may regard this as a shortcoming of the One. But in fact, it is by the very reason that the One’s power is limit-less that it achieves a complete ontological system. It would be a deficiency of the one, I believe, if the One’s power were unable to complete the ontological series and precisely stop at the point at which nothing further than matter were produced. Matter must be powerless so that it cannot produce anything else. If this process did not stop at matter and were able to continue, then it would generate the same problem as an infinite regress—i.e., nothing would ever exist—which I outlined in the discussion of the necessity of a total unity as origin of all.

Here a final criticism may be advanced. To regard matter as evil insofar as matter lacks the Good is a clever move, but not a compelling justification. Rather, Plotinus seems to circumvent the problem by re-defining the meaning of evil. What we get from his treatment of evil is that evil is not really evil. What this suggests is that there is a sense in which metaphysical evil, which is matter, is not evil in itself until it is entered into by Soul, but rather the source of evils. This is perhaps the most difficult argument to accept among all his doctrines. The One for Plotinus is pure good, and matter absolute absence of Good. This is tantamount to saying that a glass of water that is filled half way is not half empty, but rather half full. So Plotinus re-defines evil when it comes to matter. The way in which he re-defines it is by saying that matter is evil in that it is devoid of unity and measure and not evil intended as vicious or sadistic or cruel or brutal. Famously, Plotinus’ view of evil is subsumed by this beautiful line, “But evil is not just evil, due to the power and nature of good. Since if it has appeared of necessity, it is enclosed in beautiful bonds, like certain prisoners bound with gold…”[4] But one objection my go like this: if matter is simply deprived of all the qualities of Being, then, at best, it seems to follow that matter is neutral stuff; precisely, Plotinus regards it as not partaking in Being. But to say that for this reason matter manages to corrupt Soul when it enters body seems to me an unwarranted conclusion. Why is matter corrupting Soul into moral evils instead of Soul corrupting matter into good? Plotinus would certainly respond that Soul descends and enters into body for that very reason. However, it is not clear why matter, in Plotinus’ view, is like a black hole that sucks away and neutralizes all the good in Soul resulting in moral evils instead of the other way around, i.e., Soul neutralizing matter’s negativity and necessarily turning matter into goodness every time Soul enters into body.

[1] In the Republic, Plato discusses the forms in the following books: Book III (402–403): Education the pursuit of the Forms. Book V (472–483): Philosophy the love of the Forms.  Books VI–VII (500–517): Philosopher-guardians as students of the Beautiful and Just; Metaphor of the sun: The sun is to sight as Good is to understanding; Allegory of the cave: The struggle to understand forms like men in cave guessing at shadows in firelight.


[2] O’ Meara J. Dominic, Oxford Univ. Press, 1993, p.24-25.

[3] Plotinus’ metaphysics is a system whereby the origin of the universe is beyond Being, in the middle is Being (Intellect, Soul) and at the end is non-being.

[4] As quoted in O’ Meara J. Dominic, Oxford Univ. Press, 1993, p.87.