VI.1.1: THE ABSOLUTE IMPORTANCE OF METAPHYSICS

There are thousands of universities out there ostensibly and sometimes actually seeking truth and an uncountable number of think-tanks advising governments and industry and anyone else who will pay their fees on how to run their affairs, and yet all those collective scholars and pundits, and humanity at large, rarely seem to get to the bottom of things. Worse, the ideas that have emerged, and largely dictate the way we live our lives, rarely if ever seem to cohere. So it is that leading agriculturalists worldwide stress the need for agroecology, in which farms are treated not simply as commercial ventures but as ecosystems – for unalloyed commerce is leading us pell-mell to ecological collapse. But at the same time the economists of whom governments take most notice are apostles of neoliberalism, which requires every human enterprise, including farms, to compete for maximum profit and market share. Farms conceived as ecosystems are not maximally profitable in the short term, so the principle of agroecology, vital though it is to the world’s survival, is sidelined. Or then again, governments like those of Britain talk of the need for social justice and compassion but at the same time, in neoliberal vein, they emphasize the need above all to maximize economic “growth”, which, we are told, requires welfare cuts. So it goes on. There is no coherence.

The fundamental problem, I suggest, is that all the conventional disciplines through which we seek to get to grips with the world – science, economics, sociology, moral philosophy – live in their own bubbles. They do not ask in any systematic way whether the big ideas on which each of them is founded are actually true, or how true they are. Still less do they ask why we think they are true. They simply take their own premisses for granted. Still less do the pundits and panjandrums in any one discipline seek consistency with other disciplines, except through occasional ad hoc “multi-disciplinary” exercises which often, in my experience, turn into mini towers of Babel.

For science, economics, sociology and all the rest, when you dig back to their roots and keep on digging, all end in unknowns. All in fact end in questions that cannot be addressed by the disciplines themselves but belong in the realms of metaphysics. It is within metaphysics that all the different lines of thought find common ground and where coherence lies. So if we want a coherent philosophy on which to base the world’s affairs then we must invoke metaphysics. The alternative is to stay in a mess until we hit the buffers which, so many of the world’s strongest thinkers now agree, is not far off.

But as Seyyed Hossein Nasr points out, he the Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, Washington DC, metaphysics has gone missing from the western world except perhaps within the context of the various religions, where it is entwined with particular theologies. Since the western world now sets the tone for all humanity, this means that metaphysics, as a formal discipline in its own right, has almost disappeared. This, says Professor Nasr, is at the root of all the world’s problems, and the more I think about it, the more I am sure he is right. So to begin at the beginning:

 What is metaphysics?

Metaphysics literally means “beyond physics” and it asks what Professor Nasr calls “the ultimate questions”. These I take to be:

1: What is the universe really like? 

2: How do we know what’s true?

3: What is good?

In truth, science lays claim to the first of these questions and various shades of philosopher have sought to commandeer the second and third but all have connotations that lie beyond the normal compass of the conventional disciplines. They all leave us needing something more; something “meta”.

There is also a fourth question, which belongs exclusively to metaphysics:

4: How come?

“How come” doesn’t quite mean “why”, which has all kinds of other connotations. “How come” is the ultimate conundrum. Scientists might in the fullness of time come up with a grand unified theory and a “theory of everything” and an even bigger theory that ties everything we know about together – quarks and leptons and bosons and gravitons and all the rest, and even explains what dark matter is, and dark energy – and show how all these different bits and pieces, through their interactions, apparently account for all there is, and how it all behaves. Job done. Except that we would still have to ask, How come these bits and pieces exist in the first place? How come they had and have the potential to give rise to mosses and oak trees, and mice and us? Do leptons and bosons contain the primordia of life and intelligence, just as seeds contain the primordia of plants? Such issues will leave us puzzling forever, just as our ancestors puzzled, because there can be no definitive answer. All our cogitations, including those of science even at its most insightful, end in mystery.

Many philosophers (including or especially those known as logical positivists, of whom more later) have declared that questions that cannot be definitely answered should not be asked at all, but why not? Asking is what human beings do. We are not so much Homo sapiens as Homo quaerens. If our inquiries lead us into mystery, so be it. In the end all our questions lead us to things that are unknown or indeed unknowable.

Yet we need not throw up our hands. For although there are things we cannot pin down for certain (in fact nothing that is not true by definition can really be pinned down for certain) we can at least throw intelligent ideas at them. Metaphysics, indeed, might at least whimsically be defined as the formal study of mystery. But that is because metaphysics attempts to answer the ultimate questions, and if we don’t ask them at all, then we are doomed to live our lives without ever asking the questions that matter most, and that is both sad and dangerous. So it is that in the present world the people with most influence seem simply to assume that whatever they are doing must be good, because, they argue, they wouldn’t be in positions of influence unless they had some special merit and some special insight. By the same token, it never seems to occur to many a politician that they do not have a God-given right to be in charge.  Neither does it seem to occur to some scientists, including some of the most influential, that they are not party to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and that by imposing their ideas on the world at large they are taking unconscionable risks both of a material and a moral nature. In all such cases, and many more, there is a fundamental failure to reflect on what the universe is really like, and what can truly be called good, and whether we really can trust our own beliefs.

In the history of the world, though, many great people, variously known as prophets, seers, sages, and the rest, have contemplated life’s “ultimate questions” and although those prophets and sages have come from many different backgrounds and cultures and from all the habitable continents, a great number of them including most of the ones we take most seriously arrived by their own particular routes at remarkably similar conclusions. In our search for truth, if that is our concern, it is hard to see how we can improve on what we feel are the very best insights of the world’s most dedicated inquirers. The sum total of all their contemplations has often been called The Perennial Wisdom (though Aldous Huxley preferred to speak of “the perennial philosophy”).

Metaphysics may reasonably be seen therefore as the search for perennial wisdom, or at least as the lead player in that search. Sages are commonly seen as special people and so they are, but they are also human beings, and all are the sons and daughters of their own societies. So we might suggest that the sum of all their thoughts, to a significant degree, reflects and distils the best insights of all humanity – the core, once we probe deeply enough, of Ordinary Joes. This thought – that actually, and collectively, human beings are a bright lot — vindicates once more the value of democracy. The sages are the leaders in these matters but the greatest of them never put themselves above the rest of us. The greatest always preached and practised humility. As Jesus said, according to St Mark (10:42–44), “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all”. But we will come to that.

The purpose of this College, stated portentously, is to define the perennial wisdom as best we can and to apply it to everyday life; and nothing is more pertinent to everyday life than food and agriculture.

I don’t think we can usefully say much more about the fourth question – “How come?” – just note that it is there, and does not go away. But let us look at the first three questions of metaphysics in slightly more detail.

1: What is the universe really like?

Some say that what we can see, and touch, and preferably measure, is all there is. What we can perceive is stuff, and various forms of energy and force-fields, and all of it acts according to the “laws” of nature. Those who hold such views may reasonably be called materialist (although, as is the fate of all big words, different people use the word materialist to mean different things). All other qualities of the universe that we may perceive emerge from the interactions of material stuff and the forces at work on it. Consciousness, for example, say the arch-materialists, is just the noise made by neurones as they fire and receive electrical signals.

Others suggest that there is, or may be, more to the universe than meets the eye: that there are things going on behind the scenes that are out of reach of our measuring instruments. Some indeed, like Plato, insist that what goes on behind the scenes is all that is really real – and that what the materialists call reality is just the surface of things. The things behind the scenes are commonly said to belong in the realms of transcendence (although this word too, inevitably, is used by different people in different ways). What those hidden things are is the subject of never-ending contemplation. A guiding hand? An agenda?  Who knows? Who can know? I will tell you what I think later (for what it’s worth) but for general purposes I am happy to define transcendence as the general view that there is, or may be, more to the universe than meets the eye, or ever can directly meet the eye.

So let us look at both these points of view in slightly more detail.

The materialist view: that the universe is just stuff

Surveys and common observation suggest that most people worldwide are not dyed-in-the-wool materialists. Most feel, deep down, in their bones, that there really is more to the universe than meets the eye. But the apparently no-nonsense notion that the visible, tangible, measurable world is all there is, is by far the more influential. In some societies in the recent past, including Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China, transcendental musings of all kinds, including all formal religions, were formally banned (although religions of various forms survived, robustly, both in the USSR and in China. In Latvia I was told that the day after the Russians loosened their grip, the Lutheran churches were packed). Modern countries like Britain and the USA allow transcendent musings a circumscribed airing on special occasions (weddings, funerals, Sundays, services of remembrance, morning prayers in the Oval Room and at the start of important conferences) but they do not allow them to interfere with day-to-day governance or day-to-day life. That, in a modern state, is considered “unrealistic”. Clerics are wheeled out for ceremonial purposes but otherwise are told in effect to focus their attention on the next world, which many are content to do. Instead, all modern countries put great store by science and science is by nature materialist – which is not a criticism of science; merely a fact. The modern market economy, which is increasingly global, is materialist through and through. Only stuff really counts. Governments like those of Britain and the USA, morning prayers notwithstanding, pride themselves on being no-nonsense, down-to-earth. They profess aspirations of an apparently non-material kind (social justice, fair play, level playing field, democracy, and I have even recently heard the word “compassion”) but the methods by which these goals are to be achieved (or not) are those of science and commerce: the astute manipulation of material stuff to accumulate material wealth. “Economic growth”, steady increase in GDP, is taken to be the measure of progress, the sine qua non, overriding or at least underpinning all other ambitions.

The material universe is formally and efficiently studied via the crafts and arts and techniques and various forms of mathematics that collectively are called science – so if material stuff and the forces that drive it are all there really is, it follows that if we want to understand the universe, then we just have to do more science. In fact, if the material world is all there is, then if we do enough science we should one day understand everything there is to know. In the words of Oxford professor of chemistry Peter Atkins:

Science, the system of belief founded securely on publicly shared reproducible knowledge, emerged from religion. As science discarded its chrysalis to become its present butterfly, it took over the heath. There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence. Only the religious – among whom I include not only the prejudiced but also the underinformed – hope there is a dark corner to the universe, or of the universe of experience, that science can never hope to illuminate. But science has never encountered a barrier, and the only grounds for supposing that reductionism will fail are pessimism on the part of scientists and fear in the minds of the religious. (Quoted by John Lennox in God’s Undertaker, Lion Hudson, Oxford, 2007, p. 8).

Others who have written at least in generically similar vein include the English zoologist Richard Dawkins and the American philosopher Dan Dennett. Views of the universe that are not strictly materialist, admitting at least the possibility of a transcendent dimension, are declared to be superfluous, anachronistic, or just plain loony: atavistic superstition; a fairy story perpetuated by grown-ups who should know better to protect them from dark fears of the unknown.

Yet many level-headed philosophers and a great many scientists, as well as people at large, remain unconvinced that the material, tangible world is all there is. After all, why should it be? As Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” But how can we be sure that we have indeed comprehended?

The idea of transcendence: that there is more to the universe than meets the eye

Transcendence, just to reiterate, I define broadly as the feeling (feeling is the right word!) that there is, or may be, more to the universe than meets the eye: specifically, some kind of guiding intelligence behind or within the material world that drives the whole thing along, raising the possibility of underlying meaning and purpose.

Opinions differ, however, very widely, on what exactly it is that lies behind the surface of things. It seems to me that the resulting discussions are illuminating and necessary – they form much of the corpus of metaphysics – but it is a pity that they so often become so acrimonious. In a field where there is bound to be such uncertainty and everyone is feeling their way it seems absurd for anyone to say “I know for sure what is the case and everyone else is an idiot (or an infidel, or a blasphemer, or a heretic)” and it is worse than absurd if they take it on themselves to slaughter or otherwise put a stop to anyone who disagrees. In truth, not all the claims made in the name of transcendence are worth taking seriously (some are obviously crude, or arbitrary, nursery tales with bells and whistles). But plenty of ideas of a transcendental nature certainly are worth taking seriously, including:

The general idea of “spirituality”

A great many people in the world, including a very large proportion of people who answer surveys to explore such matters, agree that there is “more to the universe than meets the eye”, and feel in their bones that whatever it is, is important, but they don’t care to speculate further on what that “something” is. Such people commonly claim to be spiritual, which surely seems fair enough. It implies a sense that there is a “spirit” at work in the universe, or running through the universe, albeit unspecified, that is part of the universe and that somehow unifies the whole endeavour. Indeed the word “spiritual” seems to me to have no meaning unless it implies some sense of a unifying spirit, underlying and/or pervading the material world that we can directly see and touch (albeit with the aid of radio receivers and tunnelling electron microscopes and all the rest). Those dyed-in-the-wool atheists who claim to be “spiritual” just because they feel good when they listen to Schubert, seem to me to be using the word in the wrong way. Their feelings may run deep and influence their attitude to life but they are not strictly speaking “spiritual”. Spiritual implies an additional or underlying feeling for transcendence.

Universal consciousness

Others, more specifically, speak of a universal intelligence or universal consciousness, or universal mind. Some argue (an idea that appeals to me) that we should not divide the world into material things plus mind (or consciousness) in the “dualistic” way that Rene Descartes proposed in the 17th century, but should think of the basic fabric of the universe as mind-matter, roughly analogous to Einstein’s concept of space-time. Mind and matter may seem like quite different things but in truth they are both aspects of a single entity, two sides of the same coin, and neither can exist without the other. The two together form the fabric of the universe. In the same way, said Einstein, the apparently separate entities of space and time are both aspects of space-time. We perceive the two aspects to be separate because that is the way it looks to us, and that is the way our brains work. But that’s not really how it is.

Various areas of science seem to reinforce the idea of universal consciousness. Thus, it seems, results of experiments in quantum physics are influenced by the mind of the observer – as if there is an interaction between the mind of the observer and the mind that pervades the whole universe. One implication of this is that we do not ourselves generate thoughts, mindfulness, within our own heads, as usually seems to us to be the case. Rather, we partake of a universal mind that is already out there. In the same kind of way, we do not generate the light that enables us to see. We (and many thousands of other creatures, including some bacteria) simply tune in to what is already out there. The fact that many different creatures, as diverse as pigs, hyenas, elephants, people, parrots, crows, octopuses, and (it seems) rays, relatives of sharks, have evolved high degrees of intelligence independently suggests that they are indeed just tuning in to an intelligence that already exists. It would be far harder – would it not? – for each of those diverse creatures to re-invent intelligence from scratch. (Although materialists could argue this the other way around: that as brains become more complex, intelligence and consciousness inevitably “emerge”.)

The notion of universal conscious also makes telepathy more plausible — and as Rupert Sheldrake in particular has emphasized, and shown, the evidence for telepathy is now very strong. Those who communicate telepathically, the hypothesis has it, are tuning in to a current of information that is around us all the time, if only we are alert to it. Many anthropologists in many contexts – Australian, New Zealand, African, North American – have reported a vast range of phenomena, including the sharing of dreams, that are telepathic in nature.  Telepathy seems rare to us westerners, living our cocooned lives, but to many of those who live closer to nature it seems normal. Actually I wonder if it is not more normal even in western, urbanized societies than we allow ourselves to believe. We tend to assume (it’s the standard logical–material way of looking at things) that when we converse it’s the power of our words that carries all the meaning, plus a few shrugs and shifts of the eye and other such “semiotic” cues. But perhaps it isn’t like that at all. Perhaps the main stream of communication between people who are truly sharing ideas and feelings is telepathic, the communicants riding the waves of the universal mind. Perhaps our words merely modify the pre-existent signal. It’s a distinct possibility. Perhaps that is the (usually) unintended meaning behind the casual observation that two people are “on the same wavelength”.

The idea of God

Many, though, combine and personify the idea that there are hidden forces and mindfulness at work behind the appearances of things, into the concept of God, or of the gods. The broad study of God or the gods is of course theology. Theology on the whole has of late not had an encouraging public face. Evangelists, fundamentalists, and general enthusiasts from all corners of religion have proclaimed the absolute veracity of their own favoured texts in ways that brook no discussion, while eminent atheists have at times been given hours of prime-time television to throw custard pies at religion in general and God in particular without having any apparent knowledge and certainly no special insights into the subject at all. This is all a great pity, for although theology is often obscure and riddled with pitfalls, it very definitely is a key contributor to the grand cause of Perennial Wisdom. The difficulties are of many kinds, including the one pointed out by the theological commentator Karen Armstrong — that a great deal of theology is poetic in nature, dealing in metaphors. After all, theology seeks to grapple with matters that are unknown, and in the end are unknowable, and may have no parallel on Earth. Muslims in particular are anxious to point out that Allah simply cannot be compared to anything in our day-to-day experience. How else can we refer to such entities, so far beyond our ken, except through the metaphors of poetry?

The idea of God and/or of spirit gives rise to the very important notion of divinity. The early 20th century German Christian theologian Rudolf Otto coined the term numinous, from the Latin numen, meaning “divine presence” – a word that is wonderfully evocative. Others since have devised the term “numinosity”. All this chimes with the feeling, found it seems almost universally in traditional societies, that some creatures at least, and some landmarks, or indeed all of wild nature, are sacred. As discussed later, the concepts of divinity, and the numinous, and the sacred, hugely influence our attitude to the rest of nature – and attitude in the end is what determines whether we can continue to live on this earth, and achieve harmony, or trash it.

Finally, a notion that is very definitely metaphysical in nature – that of oneness.  It is present in all the principal religions in some form or other, though in some far more than others, yet it seems to me at least to some extent to span the materialist–transcendent divide.

The idea of oneness

The idea of oneness can only properly be grasped intuitively (as is true in the end of most big ideas) and yet it is counter-intuitive. For common sense and common observation tell us that the various things in the world, living and non-living, are separate, one from another. Cats are cats and dogs are dogs. You are you and – more importantly from my point of view! – I am I. In fact as far as I am concerned, the world consists of me and the rest; and most people, I imagine, feel the same.

Science at least of a basic kind seems to reinforce this commonsense view. The laws of mechanics are largely concerned with the interactions between different, separate bodies – and how could there be any interaction if the bodies were not separate? Conflict drives living bodies further apart, while love and sex bring them together. But there could be no apartness or separateness unless the participants began as separate individuals. Surely?

But the idea of oneness seems to say the precise opposite: that all is one. Each thing that is, including each of us, is an aspect of God, or as some aficionados prefer to say, of “the source”; all part of the same grand thing. So there is really no such thing as “I”. “I” is an illusion. It seems to us as if we are separate but that is only because that’s how it feels to us, and our view of reality is limited.

Yet if we extend our consciousness, generally through some form of meditation, then our minds may become fused into the intelligence that pervades, or indeed is a component of, the whole universe. So we shake off the idea of “I” – and so we thereby abandon ego. Ego, as emphasized in particular in the Sufi tradition of Islam and in Buddhism, is the root of all evil. Even without accepting (or indeed fully grasping) the idea of oneness, we can see the truth of this. Most obviously, the world’s greatest tyrants have been the world’s greatest egotists. The prevailing neoliberal economy presumes an obsession with the ego – the idea that the self-important “I” should be rich, and has a right to be rich, and must compete to get ahead of all the other egos.

The idea of oneness definitely has the ring of transcendence yet in various ways it seems to be supported by modern science. Thus Darwin argued that all creatures now on earth descended from a common ancestor, and the universality of DNA in earthly life suggests the truth of this.  We might not all literally be one, but we are at least from the same stock. All earthly material things are compounded from permutations of the same 100 or so elements (there are less than 100 in nature, but another 20 or so have been synthesized in laboratories), and in the course of their lives, in various ways, different creatures of all kinds shuffle their component molecules between them. Atoms in the plant that is eaten by the rabbit become part of the rabbit that in turn is eaten by the eagle, which dies and decays and is recirculated. All the elements are compounded from the same shortlist of fundamental particles, and there are many others in the space around that do not become part of atoms, and so remain aloof from conventional everyday chemistry.

More intriguing than any of this, however – for the above, at least in outline, has been known for centuries – is the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, which shows that any one photon may interact instantly with a matching photon on the other side of the universe. Distance is not an issue, and Einstein’s insistence that nothing can move faster than light ceases to be of relevance.

A modern exposition on the theme of oneness as manifest in everyday life is Satish Kumar’s You Are, Therefore I Am; a Declaration of Dependence (2002). Surely related to the general idea of oneness, though not necessarily acknowledging the absolute need for rejection of ego in the Sufi or Buddhist mode, is the philosophy of the Scot John Macmurray (1891–1976). In his Gifford Lectures of 1952 and 1954 and in his books The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation he discusses the idea that human beings cannot truly be human except as part of a community. Each of us at any one time is only a part of a dialogue, and without others to create the dialogue we, individually, remain unformed. In his introduction to The Self as Agent Macmurray wrote: “All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship.” John Donne’s “No man is an island” partakes of the same idea (though again without necessarily embracing the idea that ego must be abandoned).

One last thought. Many scientists, including many that I have met, have abandoned all thought of transcendence either because they prefer to focus on their own concerns, including the origins of the universe, which they feel are quite highfalutin enough without adding more complications; or, they say, our explanations of the life and the universe are now so solid that all talk of transcendence is simply superfluous and therefore misleading and therefore, in effect, wrong. The first reason is fair enough. If people feel they are simply too busy, intellectually, to ponder matters of transcendence, so be it. The second argument – that scientific explanations kick all others off the park – is simply bad philosophy.

Evolutionary biologists have often fallen foul of this philosophical mistake. Thus, they say, the book of Genesis tells us that God created the heavens and the Earth and all the creatures within it, each adapted to its own niche; and when Genesis was first written, probably about 2500 years ago, and for most of the time since, there seemed to be no other plausible way to explain why it is that most of the world’s creatures seem so well adapted to the places where they live. But Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century provided a quite different explanation that is eminently plausible. Once life had appeared on Earth, he said, evolution by natural selection (though not necessarily by natural selection alone) will do the rest. The best-adapted creatures – the “fittest” – survive and those that are less well adapted go to the wall.  Science since has thrown at least some light on the ways in which life might have arisen on Earth, while the general idea of evolution has grown stronger and stronger, especially in recent years as more and more fossils have emerged from China, Greenland, and Antarctica, and other such places that could not be explored in the past, and with DNA studies that reflect – surely? – the relationships between the myriad of Earthly creatures.  I am among the many who feel that the modern story of evolution as kicked off in earnest by Darwin is in essence true, insofar as truth can be judged.

Still, though, it is a huge mistake to suppose that because any one story is plausible, or indeed true, it necessarily kicks all other explanations off the playing field. As the Hindus in particular are fond of pointing out, any one phenomenon lends itself to many different kinds of explanation. To be sure, some alternative explanations are mutually exclusive. Thus the idea that atoms are indivisible (that is what the word “atom” – “uncuttable” – literally means) is not compatible with the modern realization that they are assemblages of even smaller, “fundamental” particles.

But often, alternative explanations for the same phenomenon are complementary. The idea that life evolved is perfectly compatible with the idea that God created it, and indeed with the idea that God has guided it, and continues to. It simply is not true as a matter of history that Darwin’s idea prompted clerics in general either to give up in despair or to dig themselves in behind some fundamentalist rampart. Many took the obvious efficiency of natural selection as further proof of God’s beneficence. After all, natural selection really does ensure that each and every creature is finely tuned to its surroundings. Foxes in temperate zones have big ears but Arctic foxes have little ears, or else they would get frostbite. To argue as many do that because the story of evolution is so plausible and attractive, and seems as far as anything can to be true, that God and all religion are thereby blown out of the water. This argument, so widely bruited from so many ivory towers, is simply bad philosophy. Of course, God may not exist, and most of what is called religion may be junk, but evolutionary theory or indeed science in general, qua science, have nothing to say on the matter either way.

All in all, the common-sense view of the universe, including the standard materialist view which says that it is made of stuff, which is divided into separate entities, and those entities interact according to known physical laws, and a great deal more besides that we take for granted, just doesn’t seem to be sufficient, and cannot be taken as read. Some people may not want to admit ideas such as transcendence or oneness and that is their choice (and they might be right). But no-one can legitimately claim that the common-sense materialist view that is widely taken ipso facto to be “rational”, and therefore sound, and is all we need, is so solid and robust that there is no room for further discussion.

Which leads us to the second great theme of Metaphysics:

2: How do we know what’s true?

There are two big questions:

The first big question is: How does what we think we know get into our heads in the first place? Here there are three main ideas, each made manifest in a wide variety of forms. First, some philosophers, like the Scot David Hume and the Englishman John Locke, known as empiricists, argue that nothing gets into our heads except via the senses. When we are born, said Locke, our brains are a blank slate, a tabula rasa, to be written on forevermore by life’s experiences.

Others, known as idealists, say that we are born with a great stack of ideas already in our heads (or hearts and perhaps in our genes). Some have said indeed that we are born with all the ideas we will ever have and that as we go through life we simply unearth what is already installed. (Francis Bacon at the start of the 17th century, commonly seen as a godfather of modern science, argued that Adam was placed on this earth with all the knowledge there is, but he and Eve lost it at the time of the Fall, and that the task of science is to recover what once was given to us. Peter Harrison has written about all this in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007)). As mentioned above, extreme idealists like Bishop Berkeley argue that there is no external reality at all; that everything we think we see and know in truth originates in our own heads.

Thirdly, there are two ideas which I see as two sides of the same coin, which is why I am combining them into one.

On one side of the coin is the idea of revelation. Insights of huge import are revealed to privileged individuals – including the kind known as prophets – by some external, transcendent agency; by God indeed. Famous examples of revelation include St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, related in Acts 9, when Saul the persecutor of Christians became Paul the Apostle – a Christian advocate; and the whole of the Qur’an, said to have been revealed to Muhammad word for word.

On the other side of the coin is mysticism: mystical experience. Some individuals seek to gain insight into life’s mysteries just by putting themselves in a state in which, by whatever means, they experience something resembling revelation. Suddenly all is made clear, including things they did not know they were thinking about. Religious mystics commonly talk about encountering God. If we apply the idea of universal consciousness then we might suggest that the mystic seeks to bypass the normal processes of thinking, and tune in directly to that consciousness; a hot-line.

Many regard the whole idea of mystical experience with scepticism. But accounts of mystical insight run right through history and surely deserve at least to be taken seriously. Scepticism is fine and necessary but knee-jerk dismissal, in this case assuming that mystics must either be crazy or are lying, guilty until proven innocent, is never appropriate. That reduces scepticism to cynicism, which is not the same thing at all, although many people including some of high IQ do tend to confuse the two.

The second big question is: Once ideas are in our head, by whatever route they got there, how can we tell whether they are true or not?

Here there are two main ideas. First, some have argued – do argue – that we can arrive at truth by reason. Reason is often equated with rationality, though the two should be distinguished. Rationality as I see it really means calculation and logic – what Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn called “figgerin’”. Reason takes a broader view, combining mere calculation with intuition, of which more later. Lawyers, philosophers, and scientists all appeal to reason in formulating their theories and in judging what is true, although some scientists in particular do conflate reason with rationality and aspire, or so it seems, to make their point by figgerin’ alone. Can’t be done.

Lawyers above all are concerned with evidence. Striped jerseys and bags marked “swag”, smoking guns, lock-ups in South London stuffed with items featured on Police Five, may all be taken as indices of criminality, even if no-one saw the crimes in question being committed. Of course there could be a perfectly innocent explanation for any of these things, but judges and juries opt for whatever seems most likely, and faute de mieux, tend to conclude that the possessors of such riches must have been up to no good.

Lawyers know that such observations don’t really prove guilt, but they are obliged to go with what they’ve got – and traces of the allegedly guilty party’s DNA in appropriate places helps to clinch the deal. Scientists, though (at least when they are living up to their own high standards), would not generally be content with the kind of evidence that may send a person to jail. Ideally at least they would want to reconstruct the scene – do an experiment – and try out various scenarios to see which one stands up to scrutiny. But this is possible only when the conditions can be reconstructed – which is not possible with one-off crimes, or indeed for many aspects of nature. For example you can’t reconstruct some past extinction event, to see first-hand what really killed off the dinosaurs or the trilobites. Evidence alone, in law or in science, never really clinches the deal beyond all possible doubt. It may clinch the deal beyond all “reasonable” doubt, as demanded in courts of law, but those in search of bedrock truth, or indeed of Perennial Wisdom, must set the bar higher; and to demand absolute certainty, of the kind we would like, is to set the bar too high.

The logical positivists and the absolute importance of intuition

The philosophers known as logical positivists, who arose primarily in Vienna after World War I, insisted that all ideas should be subjected to the same rigorous investigation that scientists aspire to bring to bear on aspects of the material world. Philosophers of course deal with abstract concepts but, said the logical positivists, they should have no truck at all with concepts that cannot be strictly defined, and cannot be subjected to the kinds of scrutiny and logical deduction that scientists use to test their hypotheses. The idea of God, therefore, and indeed the broader idea of transcendence, went right out of the window. Professor A. J. “Freddie” Ayer, one of the best-known and persistent champions of logical positivism, declared that the word “God” is literally gibberish (his word) since the meaning of it cannot be pinned down precisely. Theology was seen as an exercise in wool-gathering; a nice way to flex the neurones perhaps, in a donnish sort of way, but no more relevant to the real world than The Times crossword.

But none of this quite works. In the end, no matter how strong the evidence, no matter how much smoke is coming from the smoking gun and how much loot is found in the lock-up, the verdict of guilt can only be an inference. The same is true in the end for any conclusion of science. No matter how rigorous the observations and the experiment, or how much maths is brought to bear, in the end the scientist (like the judge) must rely on what he or she feels in their bones to be the case. In fact, in deciding what’s true – or what they choose to believe – even the most rigorous thinkers and the most assiduous scholars rely in the end on their intuition. Ideas about past events or the nature of the universe, no matter how painstakingly arrived at, do not come with labels marked “I am true”. If they did, then we should at least ask who wrote the label. I think we can properly say, indeed, that rationality helps us to keep our ideas straight, which of course is a useful thing to do. But it does not tell us what is true. Our intuition tells us what is true, insofar as we are capable of judging truth.

Our intuition of truth seems linked to our feeling for beauty; indeed, said John Keats, “beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that is all you need to know”. This is as true for scientists as it is of everyone else. So it was that Paul Dirac, one of the greatest of 20th century physicists, advised his fellow theorists always to look for beauty in their equations. James Watson, an arch-materialist who said he was “embarrassed” by scientists who claimed to be religious, said he knew in his bones that his and Francis Crick’s double-helix model of DNA must be right because “something that beautiful could not be wrong”.  Scientists think with their heads, and no-one thinks more clearly than the best of them. But even the best of them, or perhaps especially the best of them, the ones who really push things ahead, intuit the truth in their bones, like all of us. The bones have it.

No-one can dispense with intuition, and neither should they even try. After all, an evolutionary biologist would say that the idealist philosophers, at least to an extent, are right. We are indeed born with a great many preconceptions about the world – and so it is for example that very young babies are scared by snarly faces and soothed by smiles, and tend to be frightened of heights and often of spiders, phenomena of which they have had no previous experience. These in-built preconceptions and prejudices are adaptations; heritable responses that helped our ancestors to survive and we have inherited.  The sum of all our intuitions, refined by our own experience of life, is what we call common sense.

The embryologist Lewis Wolpert argued in The Unnatural Nature of Science in 1994 that it is the job and the special quality of science to improve on intuition, and so it is, up to a point. The concepts of space-time, or as gravity as a dent in space-time, are not exactly intuitive (or not at least for most of us). Yet in life in general – and indeed in science – we abandon intuition at our peril. Most of the time our intuitions are right, they correspond to reality, for if they did not we would be dead, or indeed would never have been born. Many an intellectual (including many a scientist) has allowed their cerebrations, their rationality, to override common sense, including their own and other people’s intuitions. But then, as George Orwell and others have pointed out, no-one can be more stupid than intellectuals besotted by their own ideas, or more dangerous. Religious and political extremists of the kind often called “fanatical” are seen as emotional hotheads but many of them at least can properly be called intellectuals. They argue cogently and clearly, and with impeccable logic and a great deal of scholarship, albeit of a highly selective kind. The neoliberal, free-market zealots who see everything that is and everything that human beings do merely as potential objects of commerce, are prime examples of intellectuals who have lost sight of reality, yet they are not seen as fanatics and dangerous fundamentalists. They are now among the most influential members of the western world

– perhaps the most influential. Scientists have been showing for the past 200 years how dangerous they too can be when their ideas are given free rein and uncritical support, with more and more far-reaching consequences. It is a huge pity, because science is among our greatest triumphs and should be among our greatest assets.

We should look more at this.

What science is and isn’t, and the ludicrous idea of “science-led policy”

Politicians, seeking to seem to be intellectually alert and ahead of the game, though in truth unable to make statesmanlike decisions, are wont these days to speak of “science-led policy”. This is a very dangerous notion, revealing deep ignorance of the nature of science. It is also a kind of abdication – handing over responsibility for governance to what in effect is an algorithm; a putative one-size-fits-all abstract formula that will provide solutions to all problems without further thought.

In truth, many people, including both scientists and non-scientists, put far too much store by science, which isn’t the sure-fire, all-seeing repository of wisdom that so many like to suppose it is. Science is indeed wondrous, providing insights way beyond the dreams of our ancestors and growing more subtle and indeed revelatory by the week, but we should not exaggerate its powers. Some, including Lewis Wolpert, have presented science as an edifice of truth, built stone by stone, fact by fact, theory by theory; a giant and ever-growing ziggurat of pure and certain knowledge, to which we should all pay obeisance. The modern philosophy and sociology of science show that such a vision is far from reality.

To begin with, science is not entirely “rational”, as we have seen. Scientists like all of us in the end rely on their intuition to tell them what should be believed – and rely heavily on their intuition/imagination to suggest the hypotheses in the first place, that they later put to the test. As Isaac Newton observed, he the archetype of the “rational” scientist, “No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess.” As we have seen, too, science would not be the force it is if it was entirely rational. To see what’s true we need a sense of beauty.

It’s clear, too, that the account of the universe offered by science, brilliant and enticing though it obviously is, and vindicated in large part by a host of high technologies built on its theories, is far from the edifice that Wolpert suggests. It is, as scientists would say in many other contexts, “spotty”. Some things seem certain (but certain doesn’t mean true) and we fill in the gaps with our imagination, and our wondrous and insatiable capacity for telling stories. The mighty fabric of truth is, to put the matter at its worst, an exercise in joining the dots.

For our explanations can never be complete. Even if they could be, we could never know that that was the case because we could never know if there weren’t more things we just hadn’t thought of yet. J. S. Mill in the mid-19th century pointed out that we could never be sure that we have taken everything into account – or not, at least, unless we were already possessed of a truly God-like omniscience, which not only enabled us to know everything but also to know that we know everything. There are things we know we don’t know and things we don’t know we don’t know – what that great modern philosopher of life Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”. The history of science is full of examples of the greatest scientists thinking they had got their subject sewn up, only for the whole edifice to come tumbling down with the next big insight. Most famously, a whole bunch of great physicists including Lord Kelvin and A. A. Michelson declared at the end of the 19th century that apart from a few decimal points, physics was done and dusted. Everything important was already known. Then came Einstein and relativity, and Max Planck and quantum physics, and the whole thing was up for grabs as it still is, never more so. We can see in hindsight that Kelvin and Michelson et al. should have been more wary. James Clerk Maxwell’s insights into electromagnetism, a few decades earlier, should have been enough to ring alarm bells. Maxwell certainly rang bells with Einstein, who realized that some radical new thinking was needed.

In short: the great edifice of science is based, perforce, only on what scientists know, or think they know, and that is likely to be far from the whole, and they cannot know how far from the whole it is. I look back with amazement at the textbooks I was recommended in the 1960s which seemed to describe all that could be known about human physiology but made no mention, say, of nitric oxide or interferon or other such esoterica, and seemed to recognize only a couple of neurotransmitters, and offered only the haziest outline of the immune system, and had only just begun to acknowledge the possibilities for influencing metabolism and disease by engaging directly with DNA, and saw nutrition purely as a branch of chemistry and was in large part just plain wrong, and so on and so on. Yet the achievements of the sixties seemed wondrous, and were. Doctors of the 1960s cured a lot more people than doctors of the 1930s. Future medical biologists will surely look back on today’s efforts, breathtaking though they are when compared to a half-century ago, with a similar sense of bemusement.

For as the great British zoologist–immunologist Sir Peter Medawar pointed out in a famous book of the same title in 1969 (Pelican), science when you boil it down is, and ever can be, just “the art of the soluble”. Scientists who have got any sense tackle only those questions to which they think they have a reasonable chance of providing some kind of answer, in the time and with the resources available. They do not deal with the issue of transcendence, say, because most of them would not know where to start. Science deals wonderfully with the material world but its methods cannot be applied so readily to the hypothetical world that lies behind what can be seen and measured. Scientists then must put the issue of transcendence on hold as a matter of strategy, simply because they have no obvious way to get to grips with it. They have no right at all, in their capacity as scientists, to assert that therefore the hypothetical transcendent world does not exist. Of course that does not stop some of them doing just that. (I have never actually heard a scientist say, “I’m a scientist and I’m telling you that God does not exist”, but some come mighty close.)

Nowadays the position is worse than in Medawar’s day because science is expensive and, with government compliance, the purse strings increasingly are controlled by the corporates, who are interested only in those kinds of science that lead to high technologies that will swell the corporates’ profits and increase their power. Even without such corrupting, restrictive pressure, however, the obvious necessity to explore only what in practice is immediately explorable is not likely to lead to perfect knowledge (unless of course you redefine “perfect knowledge” as “that which science is able to find out”. This in truth is roughly what the logical positivists maintained and what some people, including some scientists, still evidently believe).

Then again, it is commonly taken to be self-evident that scientists prove their ideas, so that they cannot possibly be wrong. This notion is reflected in the logical positivists’ demand that the only ideas worth taking seriously are those that are “verifiable”. Serious doubt on this open-and-shut certainty was thrown from the 1930s onwards by the Viennese–British philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who said that in reality scientists cannot prove any idea about the material world, in the way that a mathematician can prove a theorem. It is possible only to show that a particular hypothesis is wrong.

For the method of science, said Popper, is “hypothetico-deductive”. The scientist begins with a puzzle in his or her head and then makes a guess (as Newton said) about the answer. The guess is the hypothesis. Then they make a prediction on the basis of that hypothesis – “if the hypothesis is true then such-and-such a thing should happen” – and then see if the prediction is borne out under experimental conditions, or by fresh observations of the real world. In short, the hypotheses that scientists allow themselves to take seriously are of the kind that are testable. A hypothesis, say, about the existence of God is not directly testable – or at least, the answers obtained from any one test can be interpreted every which way – so such an idea, whatever its perceived importance, is not a fit subject for science.

But, says Popper, even if the test bears out the prediction, it still does not prove, beyond all possible or reasonable doubt, that the underlying hypothesis is true. Different predictions, springing from the same hypothesis, may not be borne out by experiment. Or then again, there may be an alternative hypothesis that explains what is happening more accurately – or a bigger idea that subsumes the initial hypothesis within a broader generalization. In fact, said Popper, however many tests the scientist does, he or she can never be sure that their hypothesis is correct, and certainly not that it is the best. It may simply have led to the right prediction by chance, and there may always be a better way.

However, he said, it is possible to disprove a hypothesis by experiment. If the prediction that arises from it turns out to be wrong, then the hypothesis is wrong too. (It may not be. It may just have been a bad experiment. But the generalization holds.)

So Popper’s acid test of a scientifically respectable idea was refined – from “testable hypothesis” to theoretically disprovable hypothesis. An idea in science that is granted the status of “theory” is not one that has been proven beyond all doubt to be true but one that has withstood the very best attempts to knock it off its perch. Thus the body of science at any one time is not composed of rock-solid ideas that have been shown unequivocally to be true. All we can properly say of the ideas that form the body of science is that they have withstood attempts to refute them – and that is the best we can hope for. Science in reality, said Popper, is not an attempt to prove particular hypotheses, but to disprove them. The ones that are left standing after the best attempts to discredit them are granted the status of theories and become part of the canon, at least for the time being. But the process must never stop. Attempts to knock established theories off their perches must continue, or the subject dies. Every now and again the attempts succeed, or else more facts turn up that cannot easily be accommodated within the reigning idea, and then the theory must be changed. This means, though, that all ideas in science are provisional. The great impregnable edifice of science is constantly subject to erosion, mostly generated from within.

Others since have criticized Popper’s thesis, in many ways, but as far as I can see his central point stands. The essence of science, or at least the basic raw ingredient, is the testable and theoretically disprovable hypothesis.

All in all, the metaphor that compares science to a temple of truth is very misleading. In truth it is more like a landscape painting, worked on by a hundred thousand hands, and never finished. Every now and again the painting becomes so messy, with so many new observations (“facts”) clamouring to get in but finding nowhere to fit, that the metaphorical scientist–painters have to start again with a fresh canvas. This starting again is what, in the 1960s, the American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift, a complete change of perspective. The expression “paradigm shift” has crept into everyday use and so far by and large it seems to have kept its original meaning, which isn’t always the case when words escape into the wide world.

As with any landscape painting, too, what the scientist qua artist sees depends on where he or she places their easel; and, in reality, they always allow themselves a little artistic license, just as Turner did, or any of the greats – shifting the odd church-tower, adding the odd clump of trees, blocking in the odd peasant, just to improve the balance. Scientists may deny that they do this, and some doubtless are far too scrupulous, but the ideas that emerge from science and are taken on trust are generally far neater than the data really justify. The conclusions are said to be underdetermined by the data. This does not generally imply deliberate deception (though it sometimes does, especially when commerce is pulling the strings). It’s just that none of us can make sense of the world at all unless we use our imagination to fill in the gaps.

There is a further caveat. The ultimate tests of hypotheses, in science, are mathematical. Everything is quantified and subjected to mathematical analysis. Indeed the biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham defined science (in a conversation for radio with me) as “the ruthless mathematicization of ideas”. Even within science, ideas that are not so easily mathematicized are treated with suspicion. Darwin lamented the lack of mathematical input into his own idea of evolution by means of natural selection and his theory has often been criticized since as not being proper science because its mathematical base is not strong enough (although in various forms, these days, evolutionary ideas have been subject to a great many mathematical analyses). But is mathematics all it is often cracked up to be?

The power, the shortcomings, and the strangeness of maths

The world in general and scientists in particular place enormous store by maths. It’s a game we play in our heads, some better than others, yet it leads to insights about the real universe that may seem too recondite for words – where recondite means all the things that Google says it means: “obscure, abstruse, arcane, esoteric, recherché, abstract, cryptic”, and all the rest; and yet those insights may turn out to be true. Thus black holes were first mooted essentially on mathematical grounds in the 18th century and lo, about 250 years (and a lot more maths) later, astronomers showed that black holes do indeed exist. Furthermore, when scientists are trying to test a hypothesis they always turn as best they can to maths. Maths is taken as the gold standard. Ideas that are backed up by maths are taken, in practice, by and large, to be true, and those that are not remain suspect. Indeed as the mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and one-time archbishop Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290–1349) commented at the start of the 14th century, mathematics “is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters. Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.” (Quoted in God’s Philosophers by James Hannam, 2009, p. 176.)

But maths, it turns out, isn’t quite as sure-fire and cast-iron as has often been supposed; and it doesn’t open “the portals of wisdom” without considerable help from ordinary human cogitation, messy though ordinary cogitation is. Nowadays it seems the smart thing to replace ordinary, messy thinking with some algorithm, an all-purpose mathematical formula. This indeed seems largely what in practice is meant by “progress”: replacement of inevitably subjective human judgement with sure-fire maths. The solutions that are favoured are those that can be supplied by computers, which are purely mathematical, and look neither to right nor left. Yet this approach to life’s problems is very dangerous on many counts – not the least being that it puts more faith in maths than maths deserves. Here are just a few lines of difficulty:

First, the biological sciences in particular rely heavily on statistics to feel their way through their inevitable masses of data. Thus taxonomists wanting to know which creature is related to which and who is descended from whom build possible phylogenetic trees (in effect, family trees) and then seek to decide on statistical grounds which is the most likely. For example, in the threesome of lizards, birds, and mammals, are birds closer to mammals or to lizards? The taxonomist adds up the features they all have in common and so gets a quantified answer. All very neat.

Yet all is not straightforward. Birds are warm-blooded and so are mammals but lizards on the whole are not. So surely birds and mammals belong together? On the other hand lizards and most mammals habitually walk on four legs (apart from odd-ball humans) while birds walk on two, which seems to link lizards and mammals. But birds have feathers which seem very similar to reptilian scales, and they also have scaly legs. Mammals have hair, which does not seem very scale-like. So we have three possible family trees: one showing birds and mammals together; one linking birds with lizards; and one linking lizards with mammals. Statistical analysis applied to these three animals alone and with no additional input would suggest that all three possible relationships are equally likely.

In practice, though, taxonomists decided even before Darwin and long before anyone brought statistics to bear that birds are closer to lizards. Scales, in short, trump warm-bloodedness or four-leggedness. Taxonomists both ancient and modern have inferred that this is so because of all kinds of additional data including the detailed anatomy and the natural history of the different creatures. By the 19th century they had good fossil evidence too and by the late 20th they could compare the different creatures’ DNA. In short, statistics alone does not and cannot tell us that scales are a more important criterion of relatedness than is the ability to stay warm in cold weather. Only human judgement and expertise can tell us that.

There is more. The mammal–bird–lizard threesome is easy-peasy. The fun really begins when taxonomists try to sort out the relationships between, say, half a dozen fossil fish. With only three animals to deal with, there are only three possible phylogenetic trees. When there are half a dozen, the possible number of trees runs into millions. Then statistics really are needed to sort out which tree is the most likely.

But statistics does not come all of a lump. There are several different statistical algorithms that could be brought to bear on any one problem, and they may give different answers. So in addition to deciding which characters are most important when assessing relationships, the taxonomist also has to decide which statistical algorithm is the most appropriate. Human judgement is needed again – and as is the way with human judgement, experts may disagree.

In the same way, and of more day-to-day relevance, statisticians argue over the meaning or validity of various medical trials – attempts to show for example whether GM crops may predispose their consumers to cancer. Always, it seems, different statistical approaches give different answers. The resulting controversies are often public and tend in the end to be resolved in a battle of rhetoric, and are won (it often seems) by whoever has the most commercial and political clout. Yet the real argument rests on a technical choice between different algorithms, which (one feels) many or most of the contending advocates probably don’t understand, because only very good statisticians really understand statistics and only a small minority of scientists are truly competent statisticians. The rest rely on the services of statisticians, just as most of us rely on accountants to work out our income tax.

But I digress. I want only to point out that in things that really matter day-to-day, which you’d think science really ought to be able to resolve (like the possible ill effects of GM crops or the relationship between fat intake and heart disease) it may still be impossible to find sure-fire answers, and in some cases it probably always will be. In the end the best we can do is what judges do in courts of law, which is to weigh up the “balance of probabilities”. This involves all the contributions that science can make, of course, but also requires a great deal of common sense, which includes subjective judgement – judgement that should not be biased by, for example, commercial pressure. In short, to return to our main thread: maths, like rationality itself, helps us to keep our ideas straight, but it does not tell us what is true. The “precautionary principle”, which warns policy-makers not to introduce new technologies unless there is a real, felt need for them, and unless and until the possible dangers have been fully assessed, also invokes the balance of possibilities idea.

These first two points are to do with the fact that maths, wondrous though it is, does not always or usually provide all we need to make good judgements in the real world; and we always need human judgement to decide which maths is most appropriate in any one case. It also turns out, though, that there are internal problems with the maths itself.

For in 1931 the Austrian–American mathematician and philosopher Kurt Godel published a paper to show that no complex mathematical statement could be certain, consistent, and complete all at the same time. He also showed (which may be part of the same thesis though I am not a mathematician and must seek advice on this) that there are some problems of a mathematical nature that are non-computable, which means that maths alone cannot solve them – although human beings can often see the answer intuitively. Some, including the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose, have taken this as evidence that human thinking is qualitatively different from the “thought” processes of computers, though others have pointed out that if any particular computer fails to solve a problem then we could in principle envisage a bigger computer that could. But the bigger computer would also theoretically come up with problems that it could not solve which would require an even bigger computer to sort things out and so on ad infinitum.

I have not mastered all the ins and outs of this as you will discern (though neither has anybody else) and I will leave it there. But whatever the details, it is certain, there is no argument about it, that the smooth and impeccable fabric of mathematics, the royal road to certainty, in truth is full of loose ends. Short of revelation (perhaps), there is no royal road.

Philosophers at least 2000 years before Thomas Bradwardine shared his faith in mathematics. Pythagoras, in the 6th century BCE, besotted in particular by the elegance of geometry, felt that maths offered magical insight into the workings of the universe – and magical in his case seems an appropriate word. The Middle Ages saw the rise of numerology, a belief in the power of numbers to reveal all. Numerology plays a large part in the occult. It may seem fanciful to suggest that the modern dedication to mathematicization in all fields, not least among bureaucrats, partakes of the same faith, but there is more than a hint of this. In any case the question remains: how is it that maths, which in the end is just a mind-game, provides the remarkable insights that it does into the workings of the real universe? Is it the case, as some have only half whimsically suggested, that God is a mathematician? Or does maths fit the observable facts only where it touches? Maths may not be as true and certain as we have been brought up to believe, but why is it true at all?

The question seems unanswerable, but in a world that relies so heavily on maths it surely is worth asking. Beyond doubt, the question is metaphysical in nature.

So to pick up on an earlier thread – where does all this leave “science-led policy”? Well, even if science was as pure and sure-fire as its advocates claim, even when mathematicized up to the hilt, it should never be allowed to tell us what we ought to be doing. Political judgements should surely be rational but they should never be purely “rational”; and in any case, as we have seen, science is not the unalloyed exemplar of rationality that we have so often been told. Even more to the point, political judgements affect humanity and the biosphere and so must also be moral and aesthetic – which are matters of intuition at least as much as of cerebration. Science should always be consulted where this is possible, but it should never be seen as the prime arbiter. As Winston Churchill put the matter, “Scientists should be on tap but not on top.” Politicians who hand over their decisions to science (or rather, in practice, to some commercial manifestation of science) are in effect abdicating: abandoning their own duty to make statesmanlike judgements in favour of some algorithm, a putatively sure-fire off-the-shelf solution to all problems. Those who affect to make a virtue of “science-led policy” are either ignorant, and don’t know what science is (and isn’t), and/or they don’t understand their duties as a leader of society, or else they are deeply cynical, seeking short-term fame and a place on the corporate board; or they are both ignorant and cynical, which does seem rather often to be the case (see Part IV.1: Governance).

All this discussion of science and rationality and their limitations raises a key question:

What is truth?

I do believe, as most people evidently do although some do not, that there is something out there called “reality”, which does include tangible and measurable material elements and may also include a transcendent dimension; and a perfect description of that reality may properly be called “truth”. I believe too, that with lots of thought, and experiment, and flashes of insight and (probably) what might reasonably called mystical insight, we can get closer and closer to that hypothetical, ideal description. I absolutely do not believe, as some apparently do, that truth is what each and every one of us chooses to say is the case. I also believe that the attempt to get as close as possible to the best possible description is well worthwhile, a kind of personal and collective mission. It is indeed a part of the search for perennial wisdom.

But as Immanuel Kant pointed out in the 18th century, we can never, even in theory, know things as they are. One obvious reason for this is that everything we know or think we know about the universe is mediated through our brains, and our brains have only a very limited capacity. Charles Darwin made the same point, the better part of a century later. Our brains after all, as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, are “survival machines” and why should an organ that apparently completed the critical part of its evolution in Pliocene-Pleistocene Africa, as our ancestors hunted antelope, warded off hyenas, sought mates, and forged alliances, give us insight into anything more than the fundamental skills of living, as possessed, say, by wolves and chimps? (Some theologians of course have often bypassed this question by observing simply that God made human beings “in His image” so of course he made us intelligent. But most scientists and philosophers, and a great many theologians, do not feel that such explanations, on their own, really meet the case).

So for this and other reasons I absolutely do not believe that perfect knowledge, the perfect description of the reality that we presume to be out there, is possible even in theory, or not at least for mere mortals. Indeed from all that’s been said even in this brief essay it’s clear that what we call knowledge, or understanding, is in the end just a narrative – a story that we tell ourselves. In practice, then, shocking though it may seem, what we call “truth” is simply a story which, at any one time, we happen to find convincing.

For all its many and obvious virtues, this is as true of science as it is of everything else. Science gropes, like all our other attempts to get to grips with the world. Often even the best ideas of science, its very best stories, taken almost self-evidently to be true, turn out not to be, or the other way around. Thus for many centuries natural philosophers took it to be the case that space is not space at all but is filled with an “ether”. Then they decided it was empty after all – a vacuum. Now modern physicists feel that while some regions may be devoid of anything resembling an atom, all regions are nonetheless full of something, including forces and fields of many kinds, and “virtual matter”, waiting to become manifest as bona fide “stuff”. The absolute vacuum is an ideal, a human fantasy, like the perfect straight line or the perfect circle. Yet all of the entities that are thought to fill empty space – forces, fields, virtual matter, dark matter, dark energy, or indeed straightforward “matter” – are in the end just words by which we strive to get a handle on what they really are. The stories that we weave from those words are wondrous, and endlessly beguiling, and the fact that we can apply those stories to the world that we can see and touch, and use the ideas that emerge to make computers and send messages through space, strongly suggests that our stories are not mere fantasy. At least to some extent our stories, including our scientific theories, must – surely? — correspond to whatever reality is. If it were not so our inventions would not work. It stands to reason.

Yet however clever they become, our stories – including the stories told by science – can never tell us what the lawyers demand from any of us, if and when we are hauled before the beak: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

So where does that leave the very big idea that science has put on one side as a matter of strategy, and does not deal with — that of transcendence? Where does that idea stand? Is it truth, or a commendable attempt to discover truth? Or is it just fancy?

Is transcendence true?  Is it worth taking seriously?

Hard-headed materialist–atheists reject the idea of transcendence out of hand – but what are their reasons for doing so? And do the objectors really have a case? Is the idea of transcendence a respectable attempt to find out what really is the way of the world, or is it just a fairy-story for grown-ups (to paraphrase some critics)?

Here is a short-list of the detractors’ main arguments, at least as far as I am aware of them. Just to anticipate, I don’t think that any of them, alone or all together, make the materialist–atheist case. We are entitled to be sceptical of course of the idea of transcendence. But scepticism does not mean a priori rejection. At the very least, transcendence deserves to be taken seriously.

Objection 1: The idea of transcendence is not testable (and so is not within the purlieus of science).

In truth, science can test some of the ideas that do seem to me (and others) to belong in the realm of aspects of transcendence. Physicists, psychologists, and anthropologists can and do nibble at the idea of universal intelligence – as in the idea that the behaviour of fundamental particles is influenced by the observer, and at least some aspects of the broad idea of telepathy. But scientists cannot subject the general idea of transcendence, and still less the particular idea of God, to the kind of rigorous, quantifiable experiments that it has applied, say, to the idea that aspirin will cure a headache. One easy explanation of this is that science deals primarily with the material world (because that is what it is for, and what it is good at) while transcendence is the idea that there is a reality behind the material world (one which in truth is more real than the surface phenomena that we perceive as reality).

There is also a more down-to-earth reason why science cannot properly explore the particular idea of universal intelligence. Thus, if scientists want to find out whether any particular chemical is essential for plant growth, they compare what happens to plants when they know the chemical is present, with what happens when they know it is not. If any essential nutrient is missing then the plant sickens – and the particular signs of sickness depend on what nutrient is missing. Thus in broad beans that lack phosphorus the stems are thin and they lose their lower leaves, and if they lack calcium their pods are deformed and blackened, and so on. Add phosphorus, or calcium, or whatever it may be, and the plant recovers. QED.

But if something is universal – always present – then such an experiment cannot be done. We cannot compare what happens when factor X is present with what happens when it is not, if X is always present; if we can never create conditions from which we can be sure that X has been banished. We cannot directly test for the presence and influence of the hypothetical universal intelligence precisely because, so the hypothesis suggests, the universal intelligence can never be excluded. It is both universal and all-pervasive.  It is part of the fabric of the universe.

For this reason alone (and doubtless we could think of others) we cannot test, in ways that a scientist would find acceptable, the idea that there is a universal intelligence. Still less can we test by the methods of science the special idea that this hypothetical, universal intelligence should be equated with God. So the idea of universal intelligence, or of God, or of transcendence in general, as here conceived, must always – by the standards of science – be untestable.

But does that invalidate the idea? We know that science itself is far from omniscient, and always will be. Its insights are always partial because they are always, perforce, focused on particular aspects of the universe. Its theories are always provisional because there can be no absolute proof. So does anyone have a right to claim in the name of science that all ideas that fall outside the jurisdiction of science are ipso facto invalid? The logical positivists argued this and many, clearly, still agree with them. But the central assertion of logical positivism – that nothing should be taken seriously that cannot be “verified”, essentially by the methods of science – is itself just that: an assertion, or as Ayer himself said, when pressed, it is an “axiom”. The truth, the assertion or axiom does not qualify even as a dogma because a dogma, properly conceived, is a consensus statement reached over time by the best possible assemblage of the best experts, and even then should always be conceived as an interim statement. But an assertion is just an assertion. In effect, the logical positivists and their followers seek to redefine truth itself as “that which science can show to be the case” (although strictly speaking that should be: “that which cannot with all best efforts be shown not to be the case”).

Given the built-in limitations of science (which serious scientists fully accept and some, like Medawar, helped to delineate) it’s clear that no-one should argue in the name of science that the idea of transcendence is beneath consideration. Attempts in recent decades by various shades of intellectual including some scientists to throw custard pies at the transcendental claims of religions are simply unworthy. For the most part the detractors don’t know what religion is and do not seem truly to understand what science is (and isn’t).

Objection 2: The idea of transcendence is not rational.

Well actually it is. In the absence of conclusive demonstration to the contrary, transcendence is a perfectly rational, reasonable hypothesis, because it is a distinct possibility and cannot be shown to be impossible. The hypothesis is not testable by the methods of science as discussed above but then, science is not and cannot be rational all the way through,  and even if it was that would not be enough. Rationality tells us what arguments are logical and consistent but rationality alone cannot tell us what is true. For that we need intuition. So the “transcendence is not rational” argument is not true, and if it was, so what?

Objection 3: There is no evidence for the idea of transcendence.

I have heard Lewis Wolpert say this – or at least a variation of it: that there is “not a shred of evidence”, he likes to say, for the existence of God. But it seems to me that the people who say this, claiming to be hard-headed rationalists (and assuming that therefore they must hold the high ground), simply don’t know what evidence is. As outlined above, evidence does not mean proof, for if it did there would be no need for courts of law, or at least for learned advocates and even more learned judges with even longer wigs. Evidence in the end is merely an observation that seems to be consistent with a particular proposal. Is there nothing to be observed in the universe that is consistent with the idea that there is an intelligence, an agenda, a purpose behind the whole thing? Of course there is; so much so that belief in such a guiding force is and always has been the default position of humankind. Indeed there is no good reason to suppose that Charles Darwin himself, though he’s often presented as the nemesis of God and of all religion, ever shook off or consciously rejected such an intuition. Darwin was interred in Westminster Abbey and as Frederic Farrar, Dean of Canterbury, said at his funeral:

I do not see in all his writings one trace of materialism. I read in every line the healthy, noble, well-balanced wonder of a spirit profoundly reverent, kindled into deepest admiration for the works of God.

Many others who have read Darwin’s books must surely agree though many do not like to say so.

Objection 4: Occam’s razor

Some materialist–atheists including some scientists quote William Ockham, or Occam, who in the 14th century said: “Non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”, which literally means, “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” This means that when you are trying to explain things, you should not invent hypothetical forces or agencies on the hoof, as ’twere, to explain things you cannot otherwise explain. I think Ockham was arguing specifically against Aristotle’s idea of “essence”; for instance that there is an essence of dog-hood that is shared by all dogs, which Thomas Aquinas, a century before, had embraced. You don’t need the idea of dog-hood, said Ockham. You just need to acknowledge that there are a lot of dogs which are all similar even though they are all different. This principle – that arguments should be stripped of superfluities – is now called “Occam’s razor”, although Occam himself never used that expression.

 Occam was a Franciscan friar and of course believed in God. He did not suppose that God was surplus to requirements, although some modern atheists do use his razor to make precisely that point. Natural selection and chemistry explain the universe well enough (or soon will), they say, so who needs God? Many others have extended and twisted Occam’s argument to mean, “If there are alternative explanations for any one thing, then the simplest one is the most likely to be true.” But Occam did not say this, and if he had, he would not have been correct. (Or as Einstein said, “Explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”) In short, Occam’s eponymous razor doesn’t tell us what is true, any more than reason or rationality as a whole tells us what is true. It simply helps us to keep our ideas straight. Not the same thing at all.

 No doubt there are more such arguments, and perhaps noble souls will take time to let me know what they are. But I venture that none of them will be decisive, or anything like. When all the argument is done, the idea of transcendence continues to emerge as a perfectly reasonable hypothesis – and I stress reasonable. It’s not just a piece of gratuitous fancy to keep the bogeymen at bay or make us feel less alone. It is not within the bailiwick of science – not directly testable, to be sure – but it is perfectly reasonable; and there is plenty of evidence for it, when “evidence” is given its correct meaning.

 One final note: in Britain these past few years, various intellectuals including Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins have appeared on prime-time television to tell the rest of us what a load of rubbish religion is (I will come to what it really is later). Both Miller and Dawkins spent their time throwing custard pies, not very accurately, from great range, at religious texts of the odder kind and (in Miller’s case) at mediaeval paintings and (in Dawkins’ case) interviewing various shades of fundamentalist.

But I think of a comment by the arts critic Mark Kermode, who simply pointed out that all serious works of art are difficult. Nobody understands them at first, and often the most serious scholars feel they haven’t really got to grips even after a whole lifetime. Thus Alfred Brendel said when he decided finally to ease up on the concerts that he could now get down seriously to studying Mozart’s sonatas. Goodness me! Everyone who ever tries to learn the piano has a stab at Mozart sonatas. Compared to Chopin’s ballades, say, easy-peasy. Not, though, to Brendel, who knows enough to be able to see the subtleties.

So it is with religion, and religious texts, and all of metaphysics. It all looks weird at first and you can either decide that it is mere fancy, the rantings of primitives and mountebanks, or you may feel intrigued, and wonder what lies behind the obscurity, and lift the curtain, and start to get involved. Only then can you begin to understand.  In what seems to be in very similar vein St Augustine said around 400 AD, “Do not seek to understand in order to believe but believe that thou mayest understand.” A few hundred years’ later St Anselm echoed the point: “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

Faith, and/or belief, seem to me to be aspects of intuition; an intuitive feeling that such-and-such an idea is true, or at least is worth taking seriously, whatever the appearances. According to David C. Steinmetz in The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (2004), John Calvin held that “Human beings know by nature that there is a God. They do not need to have God’s existence demonstrated to them. In this sense atheism is a profoundly unnatural condition.” For my part, I certainly do not want to suggest that all the claims made in the name of Christianity, say, are literally true. Indeed my intuition tells me that this is most unlikely. But I do want to suggest that we cannot hope to come to grips with any religion, or any text, unless we first take it seriously, which many of the most vociferous critics clearly do not. I also suggest (a key theme of this essay) that we should take our own intuitions seriously, not least because, in the end, they are our final guide. It seems to me that many people allow themselves to be talked out of their intuitions by other people whom they perceive, for whatever reason, to be intellectuals, and therefore special; and that, on several counts, is very sad. We should trust our own selves more.

One very last note: the Welsh broadcaster John Humphreys, in a series about religious faith on BBC Radio 4, said that the crucial question for those who claim to be spiritually or religiously inclined is, “Do you believe in God?” But it isn’t. “Believe” and “God” are very loaded words. The simpler and much more revealing question is, “Do you take seriously – or are you prepared to take seriously – the idea of transcendence?” There seems to me to be no good reason not to. Transcendence is a very big idea, and it may be true. Peter Atkins said that “Only the prejudiced [and] underinformed hope there is a dark corner to the universe that science can never hope to illuminate.” I am inclined to suggest, rather (with respect to Professor Atkins) that only a bigot who hasn’t done enough thinking would dismiss transcendence (and God, and religion) out of hand. I can’t resist one last quote from Francis Bacon, who may be seen as one of the founders of modern science: “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

3: What is good?

Moral philosophy (often these days called “ethics”, though “moral philosophy” is surely better) is commonly taught autonomously, with little or no reference to metaphysics. But it is certainly metaphysical in nature and is best treated, I suggest, alongside the other “ultimate questions”. At the very least, moral philosophy and metaphysics, and theology, overlap each other as in a Venn diagram. There is a separate section in this website, however, to discuss moral (ethical) particularities (VI.2: Morality).

The wranglings of moral philosophy are of course endless but, as the philosopher/theologian Timothy Bartell pointed out to me, they can be divided into three main approaches: Deontology; Utilitarianism; and Virtue Ethics. Let’s look at them briefly one by one.

Deontology

Deontology implies in effect that good behaviour means obeying the rules. On the grandest scale the assumption is that the rules are laid down by God, and what God says cannot be wrong (more or less by definition) so that’s OK.

Still, there are various snags. One is that the God of the Old Testament seems rather too fond of smiting, for modern tastes. Some have argued that the OT God is rather a brute, and although theologians have often rallied to His side, that feeling remains. So we seem to have to ask – is even God always right? If not, is there somewhere some set of super-rules laid down, presumably by some Super-god? If so, where is this Super-god, and where is His book of rules? Then again, if we do feel uneasy about the rules from on high, where does our unease come from? Is it right to allow orders from on high (even from on highest) to override our own consciences?

To be sure, the New Testament God is far more merciful, and in the Qur’an Allah is constantly referred to as “the merciful one”. But as theologians have demonstrated these past 15 to 20 centuries, ancient texts can be very hard to interpret and have led different interpreters to very different conclusions and courses of action. Nothing is simple.

At a lesser, more secular level, the idea that it must be good to do what we are told has led to all kinds of horrors – as in the notorious defence of Nuremberg: “I was only obeying orders.” Roman Catholicism may seem to be deontological in tone but as Cardinal Newman urged in the mid-19th century, it is incumbent on all of us to think things out for ourselves. In the end, we must all be held responsible. In the modern world, politicians and middle-ranking executives make a virtue above all of their “loyalty”, placing responsibility for all that they do on their President or their party or their company. Ghastly things have been and are being done in the name of loyalty. Obeying orders is never enough.

The utilitarian approach

Utilitarianism (aka consequentialism) judges goodness or badness according to outcome. The founder of utilitarianism, or so he is commonly credited, was the Londoner Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) who summarized its essence as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.

This on the face of it sounds fair enough. It is very much in the tradition of the 18th century Enlightenment: logical; reassuringly down-to-earth – no need for theological wranglings. It even seems to provide a way of measuring morality – just weigh the happiness gained against the miseries incurred. And if we are not seeking to achieve happiness, then what are we looking for?

Still, though, there are snags of many kinds. Clearly we can’t just gauge moral worthiness by counting heads. If six Hooray Henries beat up one lonely old tramp who nobody seems to care about and leaves no grieving friends and relatives, there are six happy people against one who’s miserable, and whose passing nobody notices. A good bargain, it seems. Yet again we feel uneasy. It just doesn’t seem right. To find the roots of morality we surely should be seeking the source of our unease.

Nowadays too, in this neoliberal age, where money is the prime measure of worth, “greatest happiness of the greatest number” is commonly reduced to “cost-effectiveness”. Thus it is deemed to be OK to raise ducks in deep-litter units and milk cows to within an inch of their lives because this allegedly produces cheap food and is more profitable, and it’s the job of commercial companies to maximize profit (a touch of secularized deontology again: only obeying orders). Cheap food is of course a ghastly myth (to be discussed in Part IV.2: The economy) and an excuse for all kinds of horrors, but even if it were not, alarm bells would ring. Most people feel intuitively that it just isn’t right to keep ducks in dim-lit sheds for as little time as it takes to get them oven-ready. They are sentient creatures for goodness’ sake (also to be discussed). Again, surely, we should listen to our intuitions. This is the essence of virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics asks, in effect, what does it mean truly to be good? It’s an ancient line of inquiry, traceable at least to Aristotle. But the idea of virtue ethics went out of fashion – too vague; too “subjective”. Now it seems to be making a comeback. Thank goodness: it’s the only approach that really works.

Different sages in different traditions, East and West, have approached the issue of virtues, and although they may seem very diverse the same three moral principles emerge from all their contemplations. They are Compassion; Humility; and a Reverence for Nature. Again, a brief word about each.

Compassion

Compassion is the lead principle. If we wanted to reduce moral philosophy to one word, then surely, compassion would be it. It lies at the heart of all the moral codes of all the great religions. It is the key recommendation of the Dalai Lama. Islam speaks throughout the Qur’an and elsewhere of “the compassionate one”. Translators of the Bible tend to prefer the word “love” (which a Christian theologian tells me is distinct from “compassion” although the two are clearly in the same ball-park). The line “love your neighbour as yourself” emanates not from Jesus as is commonly supposed but from Leviticus (19:9–18), written in the 5th century BCE (more or less contemporary with, say, Plato). Jesus went one very significant step further, according to St Matthew (5:44). In the King James Version he says:

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

In truth, the simple notion of compassion seems to tell us almost all we really need to know. Thus at a meeting in Oxford which I was lucky enough to attend, a very eminent paediatrician asked the Dalai Lama if it was right to abort babies who had been shown in utero to have thalassaemia, an inherited form of anaemia with the certain prognosis of repeated transfusions, pain, and early death. “No of course it is not right, said the Dalai Lama. But sometimes we have to take the least of evils. Just ask yourself, ‘What is the most compassionate thing to do?’” There surely could have been no better answer.

Not everyone thinks so, though, apparently. I once was invited (goodness knows why) to take part in a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos to discuss the ethics of human cloning. One speaker said that human cloning must be taken seriously because there is a potential market for it – the ultimately neoliberal version of utilitarianism. I suggested, innocent-like, that we should ask if human cloning is truly compassionate, and truly expresses humility. Do we really know what we are doing? Do we have a right to do such things? On both counts, I said, human cloning, morally speaking, is a non-starter.

But I am not the Dalai Lama. The panel chairman saw me as a two-bit limey upstart with no right to be in such exalted company in the first place. This man Tudge is an idiot, he said (although I paraphrase. Slightly). He just wants to simplify everything. But then, simplification is the great no-no for ethical committees. Complexification, with endless talk of cost-effectiveness and the market and the need to give the customers what they want, the greatest moral imperative of all it seems, keeps them in a job for years and years and years.

Humility

All the great prophets and saints, ancient and modern, emphasize humility. The Buddha gave up his princedom. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. St Francis gave away his considerable worldly wealth to live the life of a mendicant monk. Gandhi wore a loincloth and spun cotton. None of them, great spiritual leaders that they were (and in Gandhi’s case, a de facto political leader too) wanted to be elevated above the people at large. Today, I love the way that young Pakistani and Afghan batsmen, fresh from scoring a dazzling hundred at Lords or the Gabba or wherever, tell the inevitable interviewer, “The praise belongs to Allah!” (So much better than the English, “Yeah, well I’m pleased for the lads, really. Obviously.”)

Humility is vital, too, at the national level. How can it be right for one nation simply to assume superiority over others, and take them over, often arguing that this is for their own good because they have brought with them the unquestionable benison of Christianity, or industrial farming, or access to the global market? South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, driven most notably by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was an exercise in applied humility. George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” was the precise opposite.

Intellectuals of all stripes could surely do with more humility, including all those clerics who did not seem to question their right to put others of different persuasion to death; and modern scientists who take it to be self-evident that the world ought to embrace GMOs, say, and soak the landscape in neonicotinoids, because they, the scientists, know what they are doing and have concluded that GMOs and the elimination of insects are a good thing. (Such issues will be discussed in Part V: Science and Technology, in the fullness of time.)  George Orwell’s comment that there is nothing so daft as an intellectual who gets carried away, should be inscribed on the lintels of all academic departments. Tolstoy said much the same thing.

For the Old Greeks, hubris was the greatest of all follies and indeed of blasphemies; seeking to usurp the power of the gods (the very opposite of the Afghan batsmen); or, more generally, the loss of humility. All the disasters of the modern world are, to a very great extent, exemplars of hubris. Truly, humility must be seen as a prime virtue.

Reverence for nature

The third of the great moral virtues –  a sense of reverence towards nature – again features in all the great religions (some more than others). It is also at the heart of all the traditional religions that I know about, including all those that are commonly called pagan. In Christianity there is an odd ambivalence. Notably, many Christians interpret the opening chapter of Genesis to mean that God created the world and all its non-human creatures expressly for the benefit of human beings. Genesis 1:26 has been particularly troublesome. In the King James version we read:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

What does “dominion” mean? Some say it means “stewardship”, meaning that we are required to look after our fellow creatures. Some say dominion means dominion – that we have a right to boss nature for our own benefit, as we see fit. But others – notably St Francis of Assisi, who many consider to be the most Christ-like of the Christian saints – very definitely had and have this sense of reverence for the living world, and a particular sense of oneness. The term “numinous”, coined by a Christian theologian, expresses the idea that the living world, and indeed the whole world, is imbued with divine presence. Yet pagans have commonly been thought to go a step too far, in effect equating nature itself with God and thus, evidently, excluding the need for God altogether; and this is thought to be a great heresy. Satish Kumar, however, a former Jain, happily proclaims: “Nature is my God.” Ibn Arabi, the Andalusian teacher of the 13th to early 14th centuries, who some see as the greatest of Islamic prophets, said that “God is essentially all things … The existence of all created things is His existence. Thou dost not see, in this world or the next, anything besides God.”

Clearly the idea that the natural world, and our fellow creatures, should be treated not merely with respect but with reverence is enhanced by the grand metaphysical concept of transcendence, for without it there could be no numen, no divine presence, demanding reverence. The central idea of oneness, too, is clearly highly pertinent.

This sense of reverence is not perhaps essential to the cause of wildlife conservation, but without it, the cause is surely weakened. If wild creatures, which may or may not be seen as God’s creatures, are seen to be touched with divinity and hence in some measure at least to be sacred, we don’t need to ask why they should be conserved. We don’t need to persuade politicians and captains of industry that trees are worthwhile because they help to stop erosion and are a source of valuable timber and are good for tourists. With a sense of reverence, we take it to be self-evident that they must be conserved because they are.

This attitude of course is the complete antithesis of what now, in practice, prevails. In the present economy, the biosphere like everything else must justify itself in financial terms. Nature, our fellow creatures, has been reconceived as a “natural resource”, waiting to be turned into commodities to be sold on the world market. Fish are fished and whales are hunted to within an inch of extinction and then, very often, a bit more. After all, despite what the market economists are wont to assure us, it can sometimes be more cost-effective to drive a prey species to extinction than it would be to mothball the fleet and pay the rent harbouring it. Sometimes we wipe out our fellow species simply through insouciance. The last Yangtze river dolphin was spotted in 2002 and is probably no longer with us. Yet the Yangtze river dolphin was no mere midge, buzzing around some obscure swamp. It was a bona-fide charismatic mega-vertebrate, as cute in its way as a panda. Yet we watched it disappear before our eyes. There are moves afoot worldwide to criminalize the wanton destruction of nature. But we should feel in our bones that it’s more than a crime. It’s a sin; and sin is a metaphysical concept. Our present ruthlessness (and our cruelty to animals) should not simply be illegal. It should be unthinkable.

Of course there is a conflict here, which cannot properly be resolved. We cannot ourselves exist, as individuals or as a species, without killing other creatures. As will be argued elsewhere on this website (Part II.5: Livestock) we need not be vegans, and it would not help the biosphere anything like as much as some people have argued if we were. Many traditional peoples, though, and more formally convened groups such as the Jains (who are in fact vegan) have found various ways to take what they need from nature without excess (at least in theory. In practice the sense of reverence needs to be matched by excellent husbandry and serious ecology, as will be discussed in Part I.4: The biosphere).  A sense of reverence, or at least of deep respect, must at least be the starting point for all our dealings with nature.

It is at least intriguing to explore the attitudes that lie behind “Romantic” art, and “nature poetry”. Some writers very obviously do have a sense of the numinous, and a corresponding sense of reverence – as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Aeolian Harp”:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each, and God of all?

John Clare (Part VI.3.1), Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, William Blake’s disciple the painter Samuel Palmer, or indeed Beatrix Potter (watch this space) are also among those who also, very clearly, have a sense of the numinous and a corresponding sense of reverence. Others, one feels, are content to use nature as a back-drop, in a sense for their own self-aggrandizement. That would obviously be true of the huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ ultra-macho Ernest Hemingway (and many others). I wonder about Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen – not a real, warble-plagued, over-stressed deer but a polo pony with antlers, a symbol of aristocratic rule (but I am happy to be corrected on this. I have no wish to libel Mr Landseer). The Romantic term “sublime” as applied to landscape also seems somewhat suspect. It is commonly taken to mean “awe-inspiring”. But do mountains inspire awe because they are indeed divine, and seen thereby to be sacred, or because they are big and powerful, and cry out to be “conquered” by feats of derring-do, like the North Face of the Eiger, or indeed like Brooklands? Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is wonderfully ambiguous. Is the wanderer – a frock-coated German gentleman at the top of some slippery peak – looking with truly reverent awe on the turbulent landscape all around? Or is he feeling as so many felt, that he and humanity in general are the lords of all they survey? Or is he just enjoying the fresh air?

It makes a big difference. We can and do enjoy landscapes just for the sensual pleasure. A poet may write and an artist may paint beautifully, and movingly, without really giving a damn, just as any of us on a package holiday might enjoy the sun and sea, and balmy breezes, and not care at all or even be aware that the local wildlife has been blitzed, and the palms that enclose the beach so alluringly are all imported.  In fact it may be more comfortable, more sensually pleasing, if the local wildlife has been blitzed. After all, it is likely to include flies and snakes.

Is virtue ethics too subjective? Can it really measure up to reality?

Many feel that virtue ethics is all very well but is nonetheless too flaky, too dependent on human whim, too individualistic to serve the needs of a modern society. We need more hard-headedness, more rationality, with the possibility of quantification, to serve our present needs. In practice, then, for all the highfalutin talk, we need to be utilitarian, and talk not least about cost-effectiveness. Well, perhaps such hard-headedness is necessary. But we can see from the state of the world, and its ever-accelerating degeneration, that it is certainly not sufficient.

Even more to the point: those who argue that ethical thinking should not be too “subjective”, too reliant on personal feeling, on intuition indeed, have misconstrued the nature of morality, just as those who talk about “science-led policy” have misconstrued the nature of science (and of policy). No-one has ever argued more reasonably, or more rationally, than David Hume (1711–76), pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment. But he, at least as much as anyone, stressed the limitations of reason. Not least, he pointed out that we cannot arrive at moral positions by reason alone. Reason tells us what is; but morality is about what ought to be; and, said Hume, we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. At least, there is no logical path that leads us with any degree of plausibility from one to the other. That at least is the common paraphrase of what he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Elsewhere in A Treatise of Human Nature he says:

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

The message is clear. Philosophize and rationalize (and quantify) how we will, morality is, inescapably, in the end, a matter of feelings – of intuition. Intuition must not be swept aside, blown out of the water by hard-headed talk of efficiency and the bottom line. Intuition must, rather, be cultivated. Feelings and reason should not be in combat but in dialogue. Clearly this notion is not a million miles removed from the ancient concept of “Faith and Reason” which runs through the Greek, Jewish, and Christian traditions. Incidentally too, Hume’s great friend Adam Smith, twin pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, was a moral philosopher before he was an economist, and in his Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759 he stressed above all the need for “sympathy”. It is a sad irony that Smith’s emphasis on the value of the free market in The Wealth of Nations of 1776 is now used to justify modern neoliberalism, from which anything resembling morality is systematically expunged and sympathy is strictly for wimps. The modern market is driven by brute-Darwinian competition. The Devil is invited to take the hindmost. As Milton Friedman himself commented, he being one of the founders of modern neoliberalism, “the free market does not deliver social justice”. The trouble is that in a world that allows itself to be controlled by the market, neither does anything else.

So to what some would regard as the $64,000 dollar question:

What difference does it make?

The key ideas that emerge from metaphysics, and from nowhere else, are those of transcendence and oneness; and an appreciation of either or both – indeed a proper sense of morality – cannot be reached by reason alone. We must engage and encourage our own intuitions – not allow them to be overridden by some algorithm, or high-sounding rhetoric, dinned down to us from those we are encouraged to believe are our superiors.

The key moral principles, so all the world’s sages have agreed, are those of compassion, humility, and a reverence for nature, also largely matters of intuition. It isn’t vital to have a sense of transcendence in order to be compassionate, or to be humble, or to have a deep respect for nature. Many good humanists are compassionate, and humble, and may even devote themselves to wildlife conservation, and yet declare themselves to be atheist. But an underlying sense of transcendence and oneness is powerful reinforcement; and since common observation and some social surveys suggest that most people have spiritual leanings, and few deep down are out-and-out materialists, it surely must be the case that the intuition of transcendence is already within most people already. It comes back to the point that we should take our intuitions seriously, for they are the source of the finer feelings that define us as human beings.

There is a nice point of philosophy here too. Suppose we do conclude that the real world does include a transcendent dimension, so what? David Hume pointed out that we cannot derive an ought from and is, so whatever the universe is really like, why should that affect the way we behave within it? Many arguments are possible (philosophy can always be spun out) but I am happy simply to invoke a notion from Cardinal Henry Newman, from the mid-19th century, which he made largely in answer to Hume. For, said Newman (though I paraphrase) Hume may well be right. There is no logical connection between how the universe is, transcendent or not, and how we ought to behave within it. There are, though, hundreds of little suggestive threads that seem to take us, intuitively, from what is to what ought to be. Put all such threads together and we produce a very strong connection indeed – just as a ship’s hawser, able to hold the mightiest vessel to the quayside, is composed not of a single powerful thread like a spider’s web but of thousands of individual threads, usually of hemp or manila. Each of the component threads is short. None runs all the way from quay to ship. None, taken individually, is particularly strong. But together, though they are bound to each other by nothing more than friction, they secure the mightiest ships.  So it is that a million hints, none convincing in itself, not bound by anything as grand as logic but pulling together nonetheless, form a powerful argument. In fact, Hume would surely have agreed with such thinking. He was keen after all to show the limits of mere reason. He emphasized that in reality, we must engage our intuition.

The overall point of all such musing is to arrive, as nearly as we are able, at Perennial Wisdom; and I would say that the main point of perennial wisdom is to make the world a better place, for how, if it does not, can it be wise? In truth, not everyone agrees that the main point of wisdom is to make the world a better place. Some are focused instead on personal goals – achieving Nirvana or getting to Heaven or meeting God. But the greatest of sages, it seems to me, say that whether we finish up in heaven or not, it is incumbent upon us to use such wisdom as we have for the benefit of our fellows and, we must add, of the biosphere. Thus in Plato’s parable of the cave, the man who achieves wisdom by venturing into the world at large, goes back into the cave to share his wisdom with those who stayed at home. On the moral front, and sometimes physically, Christ was decidedly interventionist. The point, in short, is to make the world a better place and to do this, we need to apply what we know of perennial wisdom to all life’s practicalities: to what we actually do (building, farming, medicine, teaching, playing the flute, and all the other essentials); and to our theories and methods of governance and the economy, for if the government and the economic theory and practice are out of tune with what’s needed, then nothing can work. Above all, too, we need coherence. We can devise excellent practices, and envisage forms of economy that are benign, and express the loftiest sentiments from the pulpit or the hustings, but none of it adds up to a hill of beans unless the different ingredients of a better life are in tune with each other, pulling together, like Cardinal Newman’s threads of hemp.

But as things stand, the overall strategy and modus operandi of most individual countries and of the world at large, is horribly incoherent. Thus in Britain (Britain is as all over the place as anywhere, and in many ways is worse than most) the recent prime minister David Cameron spoke of compassion but the neoliberal economy to which his government was committed seemed anything but compassionate. We are urged above all to compete, to get ahead, to grab a larger market share, to rise above our fellows; and the welfare budget is perceived to be a drain on economic growth, and is duly cut. The neoliberal free market claims above all to be morally neutral (which is of course a nonsense, since any activity that affects anyone else must have moral connotations). More to the point, it strives above all to be competitive. Competitiveness is perceived as the prime virtue. We hear the word “competition” in the rhetoric of modern government for every one time we hear “compassion”. Yet competitions by their nature create more losers than winners. Neoliberalism simply is not an appropriate underpinning for a society that truly aspires to be compassionate. The point is not that neoliberalism is capitalist, for the mechanisms of capitalism can be and sometimes have been deployed benignly. For despite its claim to moral neutrality, neoliberalism makes a virtue of ruthlessness. To come out on top we must be ruthless and coming out on top is the goal.

Metaphysics, I suggest, can provide the coherence that is so horribly lacking. Its musings in all directions inform our attitudes – to science, to religion, to life in general; and attitude is all. In particular, a sense of transcendence and of oneness at least reinforce compassion, and demand humility, and make it obvious that nature must be revered, and from that simple morality all else can follow. Indeed, the sense of transcendence may not be essential. But it is present in most of us, and there is no cause to deny it, so why not let it flow?

Where do we go from here?

Truly, to put the world to rights, we need to rethink everything, including or especially all that we take for granted and lies, largely unexamined, in the basement of our minds, pervading all that lies above. There is no end point – not this side of Perennial Wisdom, for that must always remain an ideal, always out of reach. Much of the musing that’s needed is metaphysical. In particular we need to revisit, and take very seriously, religion and science.

A new look at religion

Religion is not what we are often told it is. Certainly it is not, as the hard-headed if mostly uninformed dyed-in-the-wool atheists like to tell us, just an outmoded exercise in superstition. Neither is it simply a means by which ruling elites can keep the lower ranks in order, with warnings of divine wrath or, more subtly, as the opium of the people. Much has sometimes been made of the word itself: the ligio bit has the same Latin root as ligature, and refers to binding in a metaphorical sense – to obligation (the lig again). Hence (some critics say) religions bind us to particular sets of belief, an exercise in mind control. But this just isn’t so. The Latin religio does indeed imply obligation – but not to particular beliefs. Romans rather were obliged simply to perform particular rituals at particular times, primarily to show that they belonged to the grand cosmopolitan community that was centred on Rome.

As I see it, all religions worthy of the name are an attempt – a very serious attempt – to unite everything we know, or think is important, in one grand narrative. Thus all the grandest religions embrace all the “ultimate questions” of metaphysics, intertwined with history (insofar as it was known), biography, and mythology. Such attempts at the unifying narrative are noble and necessary.

Critics draw attention to the apparent differences between religions. They have (or seem to have) different gods, or different interpretations of the same god, although some have no identifiable god or gods at all. They have different customs. Richard Dawkins has been at pains to point out that while Jewish men are required to cover their heads when in the temple, Christian men must stay bare-headed (except for senior clerics). Since all the religions have different views, say the detractors, they can’t all be right; although some at least assert most emphatically that they are right and that all the rest are blasphemers, who (say the extremists) should be done away with.

But the wearing or not of hats is just a matter of convention, of manners. What matters far more is the metaphysical, including the moral, core that lies beneath; and the core of all the great religions, and probably of all or most traditional religions too, in all its essentials, is the same. All have a concept of transcendence (a Buddhist once told me that Buddhists don’t, but all the other ones I have encountered including the Dalai Lama certainly do). All at least acknowledge the concept of oneness, though emphasized more in some religions than in others. The morality of all the great religions, at least as proclaimed by their principal prophets, is rooted in the concepts of compassion, humility, and reverence for nature. It is largely in the similarities, or indeed the congruence of the world’s religions, and in what each can learn from the others, that Perennial Wisdom lies. I say “largely” because the insights of modern science must be incorporated too. The power of science has been overstated but its insights are of huge import nonetheless.

The idea that we should seek the common themes of religion and take it from there has ancient origins, and is widely acted upon. The internationally renowned Sufi teacher Pir Zia Inayat-Khan spent several years as a young man with the Dalai Lama, until the Dalai Lama said that he had learnt enough and should go back to being a good Sufi. Mahatma Gandhi said he was equally at home with Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or Jewish texts. In 1219 Francis of Assisi, the future St Francis, took part in the Fifth Crusade; met up with Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt; and came away with a deep respect for Islam, and sought to introduce some Muslim practices, including the call to prayer. At about that same time Ibn Arabi was living in Andalusia, which then included Christians, Muslims and Jews, who for a time at least all lived harmoniously. Ibn Arabi himself, although often seen specifically as a Sufi, declared, very beautifully:

My heart is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks; a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka’aba, the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran. I follow the religion of Love. Whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith. (From Tarjuman al-Ashwaq; quoted in a leaflet by the Chisholme Institute, on the Scottish borders.)

The overall message is clear enough. Many at least of the greatest thinkers and leaders in all the world’s leading faiths positively seek to engage in dialogue with other religions, knowing that all may learn from the others. In part at least the modern Interfaith movement seeks to continue this tradition. None of this need imply that the existing religions should fade away (Zia remains Sufi, and the Dalai Lama is very obviously Buddhist) although some within the individual religions feel that they should shake off their particular theological trappings and allow a new religion to emerge from the common ground. I would not presume to have an opinion on this. Clearly, though, we can build very fruitfully on the common ground, and if we feel that wisdom is a worthwhile goal, then we really should do so.

What should we do with science?

Science can at least make forays into the grand metaphysical idea of universal consciousness, and this is actively explored right now by physicists, psychologists, and anthropologists. I am particularly intrigued by the explorations of Rupert Sheldrake into his own particular idea of morphic resonance, and the more widely known idea of telepathy. Rupert seems to have shown beyond reasonable doubt that telepathy is a fact, worth serious exploration. Many other scientists will not even look seriously at the evidence. They say it is not “rational”, by which they mean it is outside their own particular paradigm, the world view that they happen to have finished up with, by whatever route. Rupert is himself an outstanding scientist, who studied and taught botany at Cambridge and among other things did some excellent research on cow-peas, a very important crop of the semi-arid tropics, at ICRISAT in Hyderabad. He is also a fine philosopher of science, which very few scientists are. Outright dismissal of his research, or indeed of telepathy in general, really is just bigotry. Above all, science should not be bigoted.

Even more to the point is that science, or at least many of the world’s most influential scientists, need to change their attitude. Science now is commonly seen simply as the means to produce new “high” technologies, so we can exploit “natural resources” more “efficiently”. It seems to be widely assumed too that science and high tech will enable us to “control” nature ostensibly for the benefit of humanity. When I was at school in the 1950s there was much talk of “conquering” nature.

But at that time too science was still seen above all as the dispassionate search for knowledge for its own sake. The highest form of science was “pure” science, an exercise in scholarship. Scholarship in turn was still perceived as the noblest of pursuits. In like vein the ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Jews accorded scholars of all kinds the highest rank in society, second only to royalty, while merchants, though sometimes richer than anyone, were of lowly status. Nowadays it’s hard for scientists to get a job at all unless they work for the modern equivalent of merchants, the corporates and banks. Of course some science can give rise to technologies (the kind known as “high” technologies) that can be useful to humankind and indeed to the rest of nature. Of course, too, the specific search for particular solutions to particular human problems has often led to far deeper insights – just as the practical need to navigate at sea encouraged the science of astronomy. In line with modern thinking, too, the word “vocation” has changed its meaning. It literally means “calling”, and when I was at school in the 1950s it was assumed that those who truly had vocations were being called to some “higher”, noble cause, above the mundanities and trappings of everyday life: to the church, or teaching, or medicine, or indeed to science, when science was conceived as scholarship. Nowadays “vocational” training (not “education”) means learning the specific “skill-set” that will get a person a job with Monsanto or HSBC.

The ancients surely had their priorities right. The last 50 years, in which money has become the measure of all things, have been a sad digression. Human values, including above all the moral principles of compassion, humility, and reverence for nature, must reign supreme, or humanity ceases to be human.

Our attitude to our own knowledge and the motive for acquiring it matter too. Thus I have often heard people complain that science reduces the mystery of nature, exposing God’s secrets, and is ipso facto hubristic and blasphemous. True, as the quote from Peter Atkins shows, some scientists see it as part of their task to annihilate all ideas of a religious mien; and many a modern still sees it as their role in life to beat nature into shape for our own convenience and enrichment. But the founders of recognizably modern science in the 17th century – Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Robert Boyle, John Ray – were all devout. All saw their research as a form of worship, seeking to understand the mind of God so as to appreciate his Creation more fully. The better part of a century later J. S. Bach said much the same about his music; that it was all for the glory of God. If we saw science as a route to appreciation and not as the means to conquer, the world surely would be a far better place.

One firm recommendation for the future, then, is never to teach science without discussing the philosophy of science, and the sociology and politics of science, and especially without metaphysics. If they are not to fall into the strictly utilitarian, commercial trap, courses in science should ask what science is and what it is not, and where it fits in the grand attempt to understand the world, and why it is that one of humanity’s greatest triumphs, which should be among our greatest assets, and should be helping to liberate us all, in practice often brings such harm and is so often an agent of oppression.

It is deeply regrettable, too, that many still see science and religion as implacable enemies – an idea promulgated in particular by some scientists. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould suggested by way of compromise that the two are “non-overlapping magisteria”, where a magisterium is an area of thought and of authority. In truth, as John Hedley Brooke discussed in Science and Religion in 1993, there has always been a rich, two-way flow of ideas between the two. This again should be explored further in the future.

In short: metaphysics takes many forms worldwide but the core ideas are those of transcendence and oneness; morality based on compassion, humility, and a reverence for nature; and the supreme importance of a perpetual dialogue between intuition and reason, each tempering the other. This I suggest is at least a rough and ready summary of Perennial Wisdom. In almost absolute contrast, the prevailing, western-inspired Zeitgeist is hard-nosed materialist, with emphasis on individuality; the prevailing economy is driven not by compassion but by competition, the more ruthless the better; and “reason” is equated with rationality and given pride of place, often overriding intuition and indeed conscience, with no apparent realization that rationality has its limits, and that intuition is involved willy-nilly in all serious thought. Thus we are now encouraged to behave in ways that are totally at odds with what the world’s collective sages, and humanity at large, these past 3000 years and more, have concluded is wise. No wonder the world is in a mess.

So that’s it. Metaphysics matters. It needs for all our sakes to be reinstated, right at the heart of our thinking and education. Its ideas affect all areas of everyday life – including, of course, food and farming.

So of course a College like this one, which aspires to rethink everything that matters in food and farming and to frame a coherent philosophy in the cause of Agrarian Renaissance, must discuss metaphysics.

Colin Tudge, May 2016. I hope to expand this introduction into a short book, which with luck will surface around 2018.

Some further reading

Here are some of the books that have helped to inform the above, with the authors in alphabetical order:

John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion, 1991.

C.J.S. Clarke, Reality Through the Looking-Glass, 1996.

Peter Coates, Ibn Arabi and Modern Thought,  2002.

Amit Goswami, The Self-aware Universe, 1993.

James Hannam, God’s Philosophers, 2009.

Stephan Hardy, Animate Earth, 2006.

Steven Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier, 1999.

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, 1945.

W.R. Inge, Mysticism in Religion, 1947.

Arthur Koestler, The Lotus and the Robot, 1960.

Satish Kumar, You Are, Therefore I Am, 2002.

John Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 2007.

David Luscombe, Medieval Thought, 1997.

Sir John MacMurray, Persons in Relation, 1961.

Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation, 1998.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature, 2007.

Peter Russell, From Science to God, 2000.

Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion, 2012.

Roger Trigg, Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, 2015.

I might as well plug my own book too: Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice, 2013.