Fri | Jan 19, 2018

Martin Henry | New Year philosophical reflections

Published:Sunday | January 15, 2017 | 12:11 AM

I'm back after a holiday break.

And I've been thinking, which reflective holiday breaks allow one to do better. Famed Gleaner columnist Morris Cargill wrote from his deathbed 17 years ago: "Martin Henry thinks too damn much". To honour Cargill, I have to keep up the thinking. And I've been reading and doing philosophy. Maybe not as much as a fellow columnist nicknamed 'Booklist' by another writer.

We quickly discover, and we're all philosophers as rational beings and thinkers however badly we do it, and especially through our end of year and new year reflections, that we are on a 'road of life'.

In fact, language is rich with the road metaphor. We travel through life. We come to cross roads in life. We take detours in life. And life's 'journey' comes to an end.

As soon as we discover that we are on the road of life, an epistemological dilemma confronts us. I understand there are also trilemma's like Munchhaussen's trilemma.

On a quick detour, epistemology is about what we think we know, how we come to know what we know, and why we can trust what we think we know to be real knowledge, i.e., reflecting reality, assuming that a fixed reality exists outside ourselves and our own minds.

The little girl philosopher in The Family Circus cartoon last Sunday antagonised her mother by pitching at her the truly profound philosophical question: "But how do you know that you never know what's going to happen?" At one extreme of futurecasting, prophets have risen among us, like those crowding the papers at New Year's with their vague and loose predictions which can swing any way like those of the Delphic Oracle.

The Munchhaussen's trilemma is based on the impossibility of proving any truth, even in the fields of logic and mathematics. If it is asked how any knowledge is known to be true, proof may be provided. Yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The trilemma, is having to make a proof decision among three equally unsatisfying options as the only known possible options.

The epistemological dilemma we each face is that we find ourselves along the road of life, up or down, not at its beginning, or even at its end.

Where did the road start? Where is it going? And why are we in the human collective and why am I in the singular on it?

We need an explainer and guide if life is to make sense as our mind consciousness desperately wants it to.

However we got started and wherever we are going on this road of life, we want it all to make sense. We sense the necessity of a Final Cause. But, in the search for, if the 'blind' leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.

Humankind, from hard experience, is quite familiar with ditches!

The professional philosopher has often taken on the task of sense maker and guide. But, disappointingly, one of the greatest of the lot, Socrates of ancient Athens, could only tell humankind, "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing".

We really haven't got very far beyond Socrates' declaration of ignorance. The one philosophy book I am reading keeps saying this philosopher or that philosopher "believes". At the end of the day, we all have to believe, being quite unable to get back on our own to the start of the road of life for the human race in general and for our self in particular.

But our epistemological dilemma deepens. Who should we believe about what? How do we know that they know what they say they know? How do we check upon the 'seers'?

One of the greatest inventions of the human race is science, a knowledge-generating, knowledge-correcting machine which uses empirical methods to verify and validate what we think we know.




Empirical means based on, concerned with, or verifiable by testing, observation or concrete experience rather than through applying abstract theory or pure logic.

The problem is, despite the audacious claims of earlier generations of scientists before reality set in, scientific empiricism can only deliver technical answers to questions about nature (natural sciences) and, with less accuracy, about some aspects of human society (social sciences). The really big questions confronting us on the road of life, questions about meaning and purpose, direction and destiny, good and evil, rightness and wrongness, and oughtness are untouchable by scientific empiricism. As is becoming more and more obvious as science matures and sheds its youthful exuberance and optimism.

Humankind has long looked to religion for answers to these fundamentals. And religion has long claimed 'faith' as the basis for its answers. Especially more recently under pressure from science boasting in its 'superior' method of knowing and viciously attacking religion. But as the philosophy book intimates, all knowledge is ultimately rooted in belief. We can't go back to the beginning of the road of life when unique events must have taken place; and we can't see its end when other unique events must take place. Scientific empiricism can only work with repetitive, observable and testable phenomena.

And the fundamental existential question is, 'Why is there something instead of nothing?' And where did something come from? We could go on to ask if something will progress to nothing, given enough time. Or is the universe eternal? Young children, before their undisciplined, inquisitive minds have been trained to shut up, something at which 'education' is exceptionally good, instinctively ask these kinds of questions. And expect answers from those they trust to know!

Religion must not be exempt from empiricism, as so many of its priests and purveyors are begging as a bly. Beyond any concern with the supernatural and the out of this world, religion makes various kinds of quite worldly claims which can and should be tested for verification.

Rational faith cannot be blind, although, in both religion and science, it extends beyond what can be seen.

The young founder of Christianity, for instance, upon His resurrection, grounded his claim to messiahship for his disciples, "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself."

The thundering God of the Old Testament, through his prophets often called 'seers' for good reason, reminded people of what He had done in verifiable history as the grounding for the call to faith.

More than anything else, prophecy constitutes the best empirical grounding for testing religion. With the usual 'scientific' controls and checks and balances applied for verification and validation. The rash of flim-flam Delphic Oracle type prophecies is an embarrassment to religion and a further cause for scorn by the rationalists empiricists.




The results of religious guidance playing out in society constitute another solid basis for empirical testing. Religion excels in the ethics branch of philosophy which is concerned with the oughtness, the rightness and wrongness of human action. Which way to go at behavioural cross roads on the road of life. The outcomes in human society of the ethical prescriptions of religion can be tested, with the usual caveats and controls of the social sciences applied.

C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man asserted that there are certain core values that are shared by all the major religions of the world. Lewis labelled this common trunk the 'Tao'.

"The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed, they would find that they had destroyed themselves," he concluded.

There are some mysterious, technically inexplicable quirks among us humans trudging to somewhere on the road of life. For one thing, we have consciousness and can reflect on our own lives and on the world around us. Where did consciousness come from? Even if we buy the weak hypothesis of material evolution, how could consciousness possibly spring up out of mere matter?

We discuss these things in language. But where did language come from? A moment's unbiased reflection, the evolutionary linguists notwithstanding, should make clear that language, an extraordinarily complex symbolic code for the encoding and transmission of meaning, could not be negotiated between two or more social beings without 'language' as a pre-existing code of symbols being available for that complex negotiation. The neuropsychologists are telling us that we are hardwired for language.

The mass of mankind, with only a few exceptions among primitive isolated groups, use a week of seven days. A cycle which has absolutely no astronomical marker. The day is a diurnal cycle of dark and light. The month is roughly equivalent to the 28 -day lunar cycle. The year is the solar cycle of 365 1/4 days.

Outside of the Creation story, particularly well developed in Hebrew thought, thought which has been seriously sidelined in formal Philosophy, the week makes no sense whatsoever.

There's not much point in looking to the Babylonians for the invention of the week as so many do. The Babylonians counted and measured on a base of six and 60. Particularly for time, as reflected in our seconds, minutes and hours. Why switch and make up a seven-day week which has absolutely no astronomical marker?

The week mystery deepens. Virtually all major languages, English being a notable exception, in their names for days of the week call Day 7 the equivalent of the Hebrew 'Shabbat'. How come?

Food for thought in the new year.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and