International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 144 17th June 2009


I. 'On the subjective nature of Reality, and its relationship to the objective
   reality of Nature' by James Coffman

II. 'In Praise of Open-Mindedness: A Defence of Agnosticism against Dawkins'
   criticisms' by Tim E. Taylor

III. 'Dr. Anthony Walton Harrison-Barbet: An Obituary' by Cliona Dando



I was sorry to hear of the death, on 29th May, of Anthony Harrison-Barbet  author of Philosophical Connections, the 900 page e-text which I am currently  converting into web pages (see Philosophy Pathways Issue number 140, 17th  December 2008). Dr Harrison-Barbet's daughter Cliona Dando has written his  obituary. A full 25 years before I came up with the idea of a Philosophy  correspondence school, Dr Harrison-Barbet was supervising the studies of  external students taking the University of London BA in Philosophy through his 'Verulam Institute' which he founded in 1970.

For this issue, Dr James Coffman, a marine biologist, has written a  thought-provoking essay challenging the dogmatic view that science defines what is, or is not 'real'. Scientific activity is no less objective for being the  product of human subjectivity, which enters at many levels: for example, in the decision over the relative importance of different lines of investigation, or  more generally in the complex interdependence between scientific activity and  human interests. Coffman's views will be welcomed by ecologists, as well as  philosophers of science looking for a model of science which avoids the  extremes of narrow scientism and easy-going relativism.

Tim Taylor takes on no less a quarry than Professor Richard Dawkins, arguing  for a more moderate view of the God debate. The focus of the current argument  is over the relative probability or improbability of a 'multiverse' versus the  hypothesis of an intelligent creator. Is it more, or less likely that the  universe supports intelligent life because billions of possible universes with  different laws of nature exist, one of which (namely ours) was bound to have  the required 'fine tuning', or simply because God designed it to be so? This  seems to be one of those cases where our grasp on the very concept of 'probability' (or 'simplicity') begins to crumble.

Geoffrey Klempner



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Geoffrey Klempner



A fundamental problem for philosophy -- perhaps the fundamental problem -- is  the mapping of epistemology (what we know) to ontology (what is real). Although conventional wisdom holds that this problem is solved by the scientific method,  I will argue that this position is founded on a questionable assumption. At  issue is the fundamental duality between the observer and the observed, which  renders uncertain the objectivity of reality. This problem is the crux of the  metaphysical dialectic between absolutism and relativism. The latter in turn is the source of incompatibility between science and religion, wherein an  absolutist stance of the one requires a relativistic stance of the other. Here  I construct a synthesis that resolves the problem by viewing it from a  developmental perspective.

The thesis of this essay is that sentient attention engenders intention, which  is a final cause of Reality. Antecedents for this perspective are found in the  philosophical discourses of Empiricism, Postmodernism, Internalism, and  Developmentalism.

My argument is constructed using the specification hierarchy, a formal system  of entailment that contextualizes (and thereby conceptualizes) information by  way of the set theoretic relationship {Generic{Specific}}, alternatively  expressed as {Vague{Definite}} or {Implicit{Explicit}}.

Since conceptual understanding and communication depend on semantics, we begin  with definitions. Nature is defined here as the totality of the Universe.  Reality is defined as the empirical part of Nature. This gives the  specification hierarchy {Nature{Reality}}.

A cause is a condition upon which the entailment of a given phenomenon depends. Such conditions can be parsed into the four Aristotelian causal categories:  material, efficient, formal, and final. Material cause is the physical  substance of which a phenomenon is composed. Efficient cause is the action that produces the phenomenon. Formal cause is the organizational constraint that  affords occurrence of the phenomenon. Final cause is the function that the  phenomenon fulfills. Each causal category is a necessary, but alone  insufficient, part of the explanation for any given phenomenon; a complete  explanation requires all four categories.

Development is defined as any trajectory of change that transforms relatively  indeterminate a priori probabilities (or possibilities) into more determinate a posteriori probabilities (or actualities). It is thus formally the same as  measurement, the subjective process through which information is obtained.  Development is modeled by the specification hierarchy {Implicit{Explicit}},  wherein indeterminate (implicit) lower levels engender higher levels via  material and formal causes, and determinate (explicit) higher levels entrain lower levels via formal and final causes (with formal causes mediating between  material and final causes). The corresponding specification hierarchy for  measurement is {Entropy{Information}}, where entropy is the information  theoretic metric for information capacity or uncertainty, and information is  the quantitative reduction of that uncertainty provided by measurement. Note  that both development and measurement entail selection or choice, defined here  as an active agency (efficient cause) that reduces the number of alternative  configurations or degrees of freedom.

Attention is the act of selectively focusing on one thing at the expense of  others; thus like development and measurement it manifests choice. Intention is purposeful attention, which can be either conscious or unconscious, with  consciousness defined as language-dependent sentience.

We can thus restate our thesis as {Attention{Intention}}. From this we see that the scope of intention is limited by that of attention. Note however that the  scope of action motivated by intention is not so limited: any given choice has  both intended and unintended consequences. We therefore extend our thesis by  saying that the latter are indicative of inattention (or ignorance).

We now ask: what is the nature of scientific knowledge, and how does this  affect human Reality?

Suppose that the existing cultural/ socio-economic/ political 'powers-that-be'  were to dissolve, providing an opportunity for a fresh outlook on the nature of Reality. We might use that opportunity to choose which assumptions we wish to  retain going forward. The specification hierarchy {Nature{Reality}} indicates  that a fundamental assumption of classical western science -- that Reality is  an objective or 'external' representation of Nature unbiased by perception --  rests on the presupposition that all of Nature is empirical. Given that animal  evolution involves sensory-dependent semiotic adaptation to specific ecological niches (the 'Umwelt' of Jakob von Uexkuell), this presupposition seems unlikely  to be true even with advanced technological augmentation of our nervous systems. Indeed, the formal similarity between {Nature{Reality}} and {Entropy{ Information}} suggests that Reality can be thought of as a specific signal  received amidst a wider background of 'noise' in Nature. Since reception of  that signal both depends on and varies with individual experience, it might be  better (or at least safer) to assume that Reality is a subjective and (to the  extent that it is shared) consensual model of Nature constructed  developmentally. This subjectivity is implicit in our definition of Reality as  that part of Nature that is empirical.

Let us examine the costs and benefits of adopting this alternate worldview,  which I will refer to as 'developmental internalism'.

The first thing to note is that we retain Science as a tool for construction,  verification and interpretation of Reality-based knowledge. All of our formally self-consistent, empirically verified theories remain valid as working models of Nature. In assuming the subjective nature of Reality we are not denying the  objective reality of Nature; we are simply acknowledging that our access  thereto is biased and limited; i.e., that many aspects of Nature are, and may  always be, empirically unknowable. Thus, the changes wrought by our new premise are actually more subtle than we might initially have feared. The main  difference is that from the perspective developmental internalism, we define,  through our experience (and hence our activity), that part of Nature which is  empirical; therefore the nature of Reality depends on us.

What we do lose is the overconfident sense of certainty regarding the literal  truth of our view through Reality's window on Nature. While this may be  somewhat unsettling, it should engender humility, an important counterbalance  for what we stand to gain:

For acknowledging that Reality depends on us engenders a sense of empowerment.  Unlike the externalist view, which fosters a bleak existentialism wherein life  is devoid of meaning, the internalist perspective views human intention  (purpose) as being a final cause in the ongoing construction of Reality, thus  providing a foundation for humanistic ethics that can inform the choices made  in that construction. Viewed internally, humanity is not an incidental extra on the stage of the Universe; we are front and center, the star of our own show.

Furthermore, by acknowledging the fact that Reality is subjective,  developmental internalism engenders empathetic understanding, the basis for  Christian forgiveness and the humanistic goodness epitomized by Atticus Finch,  who said: 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from  his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it' (from Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird).

Developmental internalism also engenders a closer sense of connection with and  responsibility for our ecological environment, which is as dependent on us as  we on it (the basis of agriculture). This mutual dependency stems from the fact that development of our environment is entrained by Reality, which establishes  final cause via the agency of human Intention. Recall however that this agency  also produces unintended consequences extending from ignorance or inattention;  for good or ill, we reap what we sow. The relationship {Attention{Intention}}  therefore behooves us to limit our actions to local scales commensurate with  our limited attention span, and to refrain from overextending ourselves  economically in time and space (as occurs in a global economy). From the  internalist perspective there are no economic 'externalities' that can be  ignored, and we are more likely to attend to the ecological impact of the  choices we make in developing our environment, thereby reducing the margin for  unintended consequences.

Finally, developmental internalism encourages us to consider the possibility  that vague, intangible and irrational aspects of Nature -- those aspects that  are generally eschewed by science but approached by art and mysticism -- are  just as 'real' as the tangible and rational aspects. Given the subjectivity of  Reality, we can no longer justify ignoring or downplaying these aspects simply  because they are resistant to objectification within the framework of our  current scientific models. Healthy skepticism approaches such matters with  agnosticism, not outright dismissiveness; commitment to the latter requires an  overconfident level of certainty (such as is engendered by externalism). So,  with developmental internalism we are more apt to pay closer attention to  experiences that we don't understand, or can't describe, much less control (e.g., emotions and anomalous empirical events or phenomena).

This lack of control does appear to present a conundrum for our thesis: what do we make of those aspects of Reality that, like gravity, appear to be beyond our  control? Unlike in lucid dreaming, we cannot fly simply by intending it.  Moreover, we have to eat and drink, and since we are animals this requires that we use our nervous systems to search out and procure food and water; and  meanwhile, if we don't pay attention to what is out there, it might eat us.  These empirical facts meet our definition of Reality; and do they not also  indicate that Reality is objective and external to us?

The answer is no -- they simply indicate that Reality is a reliable  representation of some aspects of Nature. This doesn't make Reality any less  subjective, nor does it require that it be external to us: there are many parts of my body that I am not aware of and can't control; and some of these parts  might even become cancerous and eat me. Yet there was never any question that  these are internal to 'me'. Thus, the internality of Reality is not  contradicted simply by lack of awareness or control. This becomes even more  apparent when we realize that our bodies are not static objects, but rather  dynamic systems (dissipative structures whose material components are  continually turning over) maintained only by a continuous flow of matter and  energy from our environment, and hence not in any way disconnected there from.

So the question is: where (or why) do we (choose to) draw the line between 'internal' and 'external'?

One obvious choice would be to draw the line at the limits of our individual 'self', which we might define as our body, mind, or ego. But on close  examination this line appears to be subjectively fuzzy, given that it is  entirely dependent on development. For, where would 'I' draw the line as a  zygote? Would 'I' draw it at the boundary of the inner cell mass that will  eventually become me (or me and my identical twin if that mass of cells happens to split in two), or at the expanding edge of the zygotic trophectoderm that  interpenetrates with the lining of my mother's womb to form my/ her placenta?  And even after I am born and the cord is cut, where would I draw the line as an infant? Clearly the ability, motivation, and choice of where to draw the line  are developed, and this is undoubtedly dependent upon development of individual ego. But the latter is a psychological phenomenon, not a strictly material one:  it is possible to have a fully developed body and an undeveloped ego (or even  multiple egos at different stages of development, as in 'dissociative identity  disorder'!). The perception of the line between self and non-self is thus  subjective and entirely dependent on psychological development.

Of course, some continue to argue that objective individuality originates at  conception with the unique combination of genes created by union of sperm and  egg. But here we have to note that the genetic 'individual' does not arise de  novo, but rather is assembled through the recombination of assorted bits of  information, DNA sequences that have been passed to us, in many ways unchanged, from distant ancestors that were very different from you and me. Moreover, the  individuality of an organism doesn't strictly correlate with genetic identity,  as shown by the empirical facts of genetically identical twins on the one hand  and genetic mosaics (single individuals developed from the fusion of two or  more genetically distinct zygotes) on the other. So why choose to draw the line at conception? We are all related and part of a continuous living lineage; life  on earth is in fact a single biological being, each creature a branch of the  genetic tree (or more accurately, intertwining bush) whose roots extend into  the primordial soup. Genomes are nothing more than records of biological  information, and since information requires development of an interpretive  frame of reference to convey meaning, I would argue that drawing the line at  individual genetic identity is subjectively dependent on a psychological frame  of reference, which continues developing throughout the course of one's  lifetime.

But what about our experience of spatiotemporal separation? What is this space  between you and me? The span of time between me and my ancestors? The gulf of  light years between our world and the next galaxy? What do these empirical  facts signify if not an external reality?

These questions are answered in part by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which shows that space and time, so clearly differentiated in subjective  experience, are really just different manifestations of the same thing. Their  differentiation depends on a subjective frame of reference and is scaled to the speed of light, upon which human perception largely depends.

Quantum entanglement provides additional evidence that 'objective Reality'  cannot be dissociated from subjective experience. In this, Schroedinger's Cat  recalls Berkeley's Tree. Even if we do not accept the Copenhagen Interpretation, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Bell's theorem establish that Nature  is quite unlike the objective Reality of classical science: either it is  fundamentally non-local, or objective reality doesn't truly exist (or at least, is empirically inaccessible, which for intents and purposes, is the same thing).

Every empirical phenomenon that can be modeled manifests information, upon  which construction of the model depends. The information used to construct the  model is obtained by measurement, which involves choices that generally (and  perhaps necessarily) disturb the phenomenon being measured. In science,  measurement of some aspect of a phenomenon typically requires that it be  isolated by artificially controlling other aspects (for example as is done in  genetics by inbreeding), usually within the confines of a laboratory. The  information manifested by the phenomenon itself is obtained by development. In  light of this, the fact that quantum phenomena (at least appear to) obtain  information through the act of measurement suggests that in quantum mechanics  at least, measurement and development are not only formally the same, but are  actually the same thing.

What then is the nature of the Reality? And how is Reality connected to Nature?

It appears to me that the connection exists within the vague universe of  possibilities (potentiality) that gave/ gives rise to everything (note that  modern cosmology holds that even the 'vacuum' is not truly empty).  Spatiotemporal separation and differentiation manifest development, which  occurs whenever formally possible via growth and evolution of thermodynamic  (flow-driven) processes. Growth is engendered by circuitous mutuality (positive  feedback) between processes, whereas evolution is entrained by {{intentional}}  interference (negative feedback) between processes. The latter occurs as  functional redundancy leads to competition for limited resources, a selective  agency that increases determinacy. Development produces the empirical  complexity of Nature, transforming generic potentiality into specific  actualities (e.g. as in {organic chemistry{biology}}). For any given  spatiotemporally differentiated (i.e. developed) frame of reference, a subset  of Nature's possibilities is closed out, providing limitations, while another  subset is made accessible, providing opportunities. For sentient frames of  reference, the existence of such limitations and opportunities is implied by  the specification hierarchy {Attention{Intention}}.

From this we can conclude that Nature creates a multitude of interdependent yet interfering Realities. Indeed, it doesn't even make sense to talk about a single human Reality, given the deep socio-economic, cultural, and psychological  differences that divide the many factions and individuals of our species.  Nevertheless, all of these variant human Realities are founded on a common set  of well-developed empirical facts (e.g., the facts of death, gravity,  combustion, electromagnetism, nuclear fission and fusion, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics), and development wrought by scientific elucidation and  technological use of some of these facts has (for good or ill) negotiated an  even broader consensus.

We can now extend the specification hierarchy with which we began, as follows:  {Nature{Reality{Scientific Knowledge}}. Scientific knowledge (and its  contemporary alter-ego, technology), being a specified sub-domain of Reality -- viz., that which can be modeled using empirical facts and formal systems of  entailment -- is limited not only by the subjective nature of Reality, but also by the fact that it deals only with those aspects of Reality that are logically  constructed. The only way around this is to assume that all of Nature is  empirical, which is unlikely on the grounds given above, and that science is  capable of modeling all empirical phenomena, which is even more unlikely given  the probable ubiquity of singular irreproducible events in Nature. Unless we go out on a limb to make these additional assumptions we can only surmise that  science constructs from Reality an explicit idealization of Nature that  sacrifices both its implicit vagueness and many of its explicit particulars.

I conclude that any scientific model developed from the classical assumption of objective Reality is at best an oversimplified caricature of Nature, and that  unregulated development of technological applications based on literal  (externalist) interpretations of such a model will invariably have unintended  consequences that are both ecologically deleterious and dehumanizing. The  modern world provides abundant empirical evidence supporting the veracity of  this conclusion. The internalist perspective advocated here offers a departure  from further unrestrained development in that direction.

I thank Stan Salthe and Ron Coffman for providing helpful comments on early  drafts of this manuscript.


Berry, W. Life is a Miracle: an Essay against Modern Superstition. 2000,  Counterpoint.

Buss, L.W. The Evolution of Individuality. 1988, Princeton University Press.

Jaynes, J. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  1976, Houghton-Mifflin.

Popper, K.R. A World of Propensities. 1997, Thoemmes Press.

Rosen, R. Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and  Fabrication of Life. 1991, Columbia University Press.

Salthe, S.N. Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology. 1993, MIT Press.

Ulanowicz, R.E. A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin. 2009,  Templeton Foundation Press.

(c) James A. Coffman 2009


Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory http:---



In The God Delusion[1] Richard Dawkins sets out to refute arguments for the  existence of God and to present a comprehensive case for atheism, rejecting not only theism but also agnosticism. This article seeks to defend agnosticism  against Dawkins' arguments.

Dawkins begins by discussing the potential spectrum of belief between theism  and atheism. He describes a seven point scale, reflecting the probability which subjects attribute to the existence of God[2]. Point 1 reflects strong theism:  being 100% certain that there is a God; and 7 represents strong atheism: 100%  confidence that there is no God. Point 4 is completely impartial agnosticism, 5 is 'technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism', and 6 is 'de facto  atheism' -- attributing to the existence of God a very low probability, but  short of zero (2 and 3 are mirror images of 5 and 6). Dawkins scores himself as a 6, but leaning towards 7: 'I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.' Dawkins' scale is helpful in showing that belief in God, and thus agnosticism and atheism also, can be a matter of  degree. It also supports his main argument against agnosticism.

Dawkins rejects the views of Steven Jay Gould[3] and others that science cannot comment on the existence of God. He argues that a universe with a creative  superintendent would be very different from one without, and therefore sees no  reason why the existence of God should not be treated as a scientific  hypothesis. Dawkins' case for rejecting that hypothesis and embracing atheism  breaks down into four main steps, which can be summarised as follows:

S1. The fact that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God does  not imply that the existence and non-existence of God are equally probable:  some non-disprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than others.  For example, Bertrand Russell[4] has pointed out that we could never disprove  the proposition that there is a teapot in an elliptical orbit around the sun  (too small to be seen by any telescope), but we would not be agnostic about such a proposition[5].

The remaining steps form part of a later chapter which argues against theism  and creationism[6], but in combination with S1 comprise an argument against  agnosticism also.

S2: 'The Argument from Improbability'. However improbable the entity one seeks  to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least  as improbable. On the other hand, natural selection provides a model for how  organised complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate  guidance.

S3: 'The Anthropic Principle: Planetary Version'. Since we exist on Earth, it  must be the kind of planet capable of generating and supporting us, however  unusual that might be. The combination of conditions which allow Earth to  support life, and the chemical events which led to the origin of life, may  collectively be very improbable. But there are estimated to be at least a  billion billion planets in the universe. So even if the conditions and events  which led to the origin of life on earth are so improbable as to occur on only  one in a billion planets, life will still have arisen on a billion planets in  the universe. Thus there is no need to postulate a God to explain how this  highly improbable event might have occurred.

S4: 'The Anthropic Principle: Cosmological Version'. Several fundamental  constants of physics, such as the magnitude of the strong nuclear force, appear to be finely-tuned, in that if they were slightly different the universe would  be comprehensively different and presumably unfriendly to life[7]. A universe  in which those constants are all favourable to the origin of life thus appears  highly improbable. However, any God capable of fixing the constants to make  them favourable for life would himself be highly improbable. A simpler, and  thus less improbable, solution is the hypothesis that there are many universes, ('the multiverse'), in which the values of the fundamental constants are  different. Just as we could only be discussing the problem on a planet capable  of generating and supporting us, we could only do so in a universe where the  constants were favourable to the emergence of life.

How far do these arguments go towards establishing Dawkins' position? Looking  first at S1, in conjunction with Dawkins' seven point scale of belief in God,  this makes the valid point that one does not have to be at the very end of the  scale, to be absolutely certain that there is no God, to be an atheist. It is  sufficient that one be satisfied that the existence of God is highly improbable. But how improbable? As a scientist, Dawkins would presumably agree that, in  the pursuit of truth, it is important to maintain an open mind between  competing hypotheses until one has good reason to commit oneself to one of them. There comes a point when one has to make that commitment, and Dawkins is  right that this point comes some way before the achievement of certainty, which is rarely, if ever, possible. The commitment is something more than merely  considering one hypothesis more likely than the other(s). It is a matter of  regarding the question as settled, of no longer entertaining rival hypotheses  at all. One might keep at the back of one's mind the thought that, short of  achieving absolute certainty, no question is ever irrevocably settled.  Nevertheless there is an important difference between recognising that a belief one has committed oneself to could conceivably be overturned, and not making  that commitment at all. The key issue, then, is at what point it is reasonable  to relinquish open mindedness between different possibilities and commit  oneself to one particular view.

The answer may perhaps vary according to circumstances. But it seems to me that in any scenario the point should fall some way beyond that at which one merely  favours one hypothesis over another. A good rule of thumb might be, borrowing a famous legal phrase, to make one's commitment when the matter is settled beyond  reasonable doubt. Returning to Dawkins' preferred language of probability, this would imply that one should not reject alternative hypotheses until one regards  them as having a very low probability. Not zero, and perhaps not quite as low  as Russell's teapot. But very low, none the less. So the bar is set quite high  for S2-S4. They must give us reason to believe that the existence of God is  very improbable indeed, and this is what Dawkins aims to do.

S2 can be taken on more than one level. At the most basic level is the point  that positing God as an explanation of some observed phenomenon immediately  raises another question: how did God himself come to exist? Here I take Dawkins' side against the views of some theists that we can simply avoid the question  by supposing that God has always existed: a God who has always existed calls  for explanation no less than a God who has come into existence. Thus  hypothesizing the intervention of God can never, on its own, be a complete  explanation of observed phenomena. In considering divine intervention against  other candidate explanations of observed reality, we need to consider not only  how well the hypothesis of divine intervention fits the case, but also the  plausibility of the hypothesised deity itself.

So far, so good. However, Dawkins claims, and his argument requires, rather  more than this. He regards S2 as a trump card: however improbable the observed  complex phenomenon, a being capable of having designed it must be even more  complex and more improbable. This is a very strong and contentious claim.  Dawkins himself points out that in nature complexity can be generated from  simple beginnings. This supports his position insofar as it shows that we do  not need to invoke divine intervention to explain the complexity we see in the  world. But it seems to tell against S2's claim that a being capable of  designing a complex system must be even more complex. If complexity can emerge  from simpler origins in one context, what basis do we have to assume that it  cannot do so in another?

Before looking at S3 and S4 individually, it may be helpful to consider the  force of the anthropic principle invoked by both arguments. This principle  deals with the apparent improbability that conditions favourable to life  occurred in the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Any beings in a position to consider the problem, it says, must necessarily have emerged in circumstances conducive to that emergence. If it was not improbable that life  should have emerged at all, the anthropic principle offers an explanation of  why it occurred here. However, if it was improbable that life should have  emerged at all, it is important to note that the anthropic principle does not  deal with that improbability.

Seen against that background, S3 is a powerful application of the anthropic  principle. Dawkins is conservative in his estimate of the number of planets in  the universe and generous in his assessment of the improbability of life  occurring on any particular planet. Nevertheless, the universe is so vast that  the odds of life occurring somewhere seem very high. Since the emergence of  life on at least some planets in the universe does not appear improbable, the  anthropic principle kicks in to show why we should not be surprised that we  live on one of them, and need not invoke divine intervention to explain why  Earth is so well-suited to the emergence of life.

As Dawkins recognises, we live not only on a planet, but in a universe that  seems tailor-made for the emergence of life, and he needs a further argument,  S4, to deal with this. But where S3 is strong S4 is much weaker. There is ample evidence on which to base an estimate of the total number of planets in the  universe, and we know enough about biochemistry to make informed judgements  about how difficult it was for life to get started. So S3's claim that it was  highly probable that life would emerge somewhere is based on firm foundations.  There are no comparable foundations for the analogous claim in S4. It has been  argued that there is evidence for the existence of other universes in, for  example, work on quantum computing[8], but as yet there is nothing on a par  with the uncontroversial evidence that supports S3. Moreover, if there are  other universes, there is no evidence that any of these have different  fundamental constants from our own, as S4 requires: indeed, it appears that the main reason for positing other universes with different fundamental constants is precisely the existence of the 'fine tuning' problem itself. Such reasoning can  hardly carry much weight in a debate between competing solutions to that same  problem!

So in considering the fine-tuning of our universe for the emergence of life, we cannot have the same level of confidence that we did regarding the fine-tuning  of our planet that it was highly probable that somewhere or other conditions  would turn out to be favourable, thus allowing the anthropic principle to come  into play. The existence of other universes with different fundamental  constants is conceivable, and in conjunction with the anthropic principle would solve the fine-tuning problem. But that is not, I submit, enough to settle the  question.

Dawkins would reply: 'Yes, but compare it to the alternative. Whatever you say  about the multiverse, it is less improbable than the God hypothesis as an  answer to the fine tuning problem.' Which brings us back to S2. As was  discussed above, S2 is reasonable up to a point: invoking divine intervention  as a solution to a problem requires us to consider how the deity might have  come to be there in the first place. However, I do not believe that Dawkins has a sound basis for his 'trump card' claim: that however improbable the phenomenon requiring explanation, divine intervention must be more improbable. Agnostics do not have to accept the baggage associated with any particular version of the God hypothesis. Perhaps an omniscient, omnipotent personal God who designs every  detail of the observed world would indeed be more improbable than any  phenomenon he might be invoked to explain, but we do not have to be agnostic  about that, or about natural selection versus creationism (a question which I  regard as settled beyond reasonable doubt in favour of the former).
An argument analogous to S2 applies to any hypothesis invoked in explanation,  including the multiverse. If we wish to posit the multiverse as a solution to  the fine tuning problem, then we are also obliged to consider the issues  associated with the putative existence of the multiverse itself: not merely the idea of multiple universes simpliciter, but more specifically (for the purposes  of S4), a multiplicity of universes in which:

-- the fundamental constants have different values in different universes;

-- there are a sufficient number of different universes, each with different  fundamental constants, to make it probable that there is at least one in which  the constants are favourable for the emergence of life.

This raises a number of questions. Where do the other universes exist[9]? By  what mechanism are their fundamental constants set, and what is the reason why  they differ from one universe to another?

So are these more or less difficult questions than those which face the God  hypothesis? Which is more probable? Personally, I tend towards the view that  the hypothesis of divine intervention as a solution to the fine tuning problem  is more unlikely than the alternatives. On Dawkins' seven point scale, I place  myself at 5: 'agnostic but leaning towards atheism.' I suspect that the  apparent fine-tuning of our universe for the emergence of life has an  explanation (whether the multiverse or something else) which does not involve  divine intervention, and that if we ever arrive at a complete picture of the  universe(s), it will turn out not to have God in it.

Why, then, do I 'sit on the fence', as critics of agnosticism like to sneer,  rather than embracing atheism? The important point is that I do not regard the  question as settled. I do not believe there is sufficient basis to turn my  suspicion that there is no God into a firm conviction. Dawkins' argument rests  upon probabilities. But since I reject his claim that a God must be more  improbable than anything one might invoke it to explain, it is not clear to me  that we have any basis on which to make firm attributions of probabilities to  either the God hypothesis or its alternatives.

Just as one does not require absolute certainty to be an atheist, one need not  be completely ambivalent to be an agnostic: one can favour theism or atheism  without regarding the issue as settled. Important things flow from committing  oneself to a particular hypothesis: one ceases to take the alternatives  seriously; and, whether consciously or not, one ceases to be impartial in  interpreting evidence. There is always a point at which one has to make such  commitments, but it is important to remember that there is also a cost.  Open-mindedness is a great virtue in pursuing truth, and is not to be abandoned lightly.

The debate about the existence or non-existence of God is fought out largely  between protagonists in entrenched positions on both sides. Dawkins is right to criticise those agnostics who stand on the sidelines and say that the question  can never be answered. It may be that it will never be settled, but it is not  immune to evidence and logical argument. Perhaps as our understanding of the  universe grows it will give us better reasons to embrace theism or atheism. In  the meantime, this is a debate that desperately cries out for open-mindedness,  for a willingness to suspend final judgement and assess the implications of  each piece of emerging evidence in a neutral way. It is, in other words, a  debate that needs agnosticism.


1. Dawkins, R., (2006), The God Delusion, Bantam Press.

2. ibid., pp73-4.

3. See for example Gould, S.J. (1999), Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in  the fullness of life, Ballantine.

4. Russell, B., (1997). "Is There a God?". in Slater, J. & Kollner, P., The  collected papers of Bertrand Russell. Routledge. pp542-548.

5. Dawkins, pp72, 74-7.

6. Dawkins, pp137-80.

7. See Rees, M (1999), Just Six Numbers, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

8. See, for example, Deutsch, D (1997), The Fabric of Reality, Viking, Chapter 2.

9. There are various possibilities: for example that they exist  contemporaneously in space, but each universe moving away from the others at  more than the speed of light, so none is observable from any other (see Tegmark,
M, "Parallel Universes", in Barrow, J.D., Davies, P.C.W., and Harper, C.W.  (eds) (2003) Science and Ultimate Reality: From Quantum to Cosmos, Cambridge  University Press.

(c) Tim Taylor 2009




Dr. Anthony Walton (Tony) Harrison-Barbet M.A., D.Phil.; philosopher, writer,  teacher, lecturer; died peacefully on Friday, 29th May 2009, in the Bon Secours Hospital, Cork, Republic of Ireland, aged 70, having lived with prostate cancer  for eleven and a half years.

Tony was born on 12th March 1939 in the Royal Northern Hospital, Holloway,  North London, elder son of Rupert Harrison and Doris (nee Barbet), and brother  to Richard. His childhood was notable for the large number of schools he  attended -- eight in all. The frequent house moves of his parents necessitated  these changes, and he found this all to be disruptive and unsettling. Of all  the schools he attended (including The Collegiate School; Keble House;  Montpelier College; and Reigate Grammar School) it was at St Alban's School,  Hertfordshire that he was most happy and successful, and this school remained  important to him throughout his life.

After his A-levels in 1957, and a short time working for ICI paints division,  Slough, in his own words 'by one of those life-changing moments of serendipity' he found himself applying to, and accepted at, Trinity College Dublin to study  Natural Sciences. However, in 1959, in under a year of studying, he had come to a major decision -- he would become a philosopher instead, and it was a  philosopher he remained thereafter.

He switched courses at TCD, and to raise funds to support himself he worked for five months in the packing department at Harrods, and then taught English at the Berlitz School, Krefeld, West Germany. During his vacations he also worked at  the Berlitz School in Dublin, and at the Amusements on Brighton Pier as 'Dr  Love'! It was while in Brighton that he met the writer and mystic E.H. Visiak,  who proved to be hugely influential in the shaping of Tony's career.

During the summer holiday of 1964, just before his degree finals, he  hitch-hiked to the West of Ireland and on Achill Island he met Maeve Duggan.  They were engaged six weeks later, and married in Cork in August 1965.

He obtained his M.A. from TCD, gaining a 2:1, and now he needed to accrue some  funds to allow him to become a research student, and ultimately, his lifetime  aim, a university philosophy lecturer. Initially they moved to Essex, where  Tony taught at  a small private school in Woodham Mortimer. In 1966, on gaining a D.A.A.D. scholarship, they were able to move to Gottingen in West Germany,  where Tony embarked upon studying the works and notebooks of Georg Christoph  Lichtenberg (1742-99) a German scientist, satirist and aphorist, who in Tony's  words 'linked the mystical Neo-Platonism of the Renaissance to emergent  Romanticism' and who 'anticipated with striking originality ideas  characteristic of much 20th century philosophy.'

In 1967, with more funding established, and sufficient notes made at Gottingen  University, Tony continued his studies by moving to Magdalen College, Oxford,  under the excellent supervision of Isaiah Berlin.

With two small children now (Cliona, born in Gottingen, and Morwenna, born in  Headington) finances were tight, and Tony did a fair amount of private tuition  to make ends meet. He also worked for Wolsey hall, Oxford, teaching A-level  logic, and philosophy for external students studying the London University B.A.

By 1969, however, it was obvious that a full-time job was needed to support his family, and his Lichtenberg research had to be shelved for a few years. Tony  accepted a post at Westbourne House School for boys, a preparatory school near  Chichester, West Sussex, and remained here until 1988, teaching physics,  chemistry and biology, as well as athletics, directing/ producing plays, being  a house-master, and becoming Director of Studies. In 1970 his son, Tristan, was born.

In addition to his full-time teaching post, in 1970/ 1971 Tony set up three  establishments: 'Verulam Tutorials', a board of tutors, including himself,  providing private tuition for Common Entrance, O- and A-level students; 'The  Verulam Institute', providing summer schools for Wolsey Hall philosophy  students; 'The Verulam Society', an informal philosophy discussion group.

The name 'Verulam' came from the Latin name for St Alban's, 'Verulamium', and  Tony chose for his establishments the motto 'Multi Pertransibunt et Augebiter  Scientia' -- 'many will pass through and knowledge will be increased' -- from  the title page of Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Viscount of St Albans. And  many did pass through, and knowledge was increased!

The first president of the Institute was Christopher Chataway, and over the  years there were some very eminent visiting speakers:

1971 E.R. Emmet, author of 'Learning to Philosophise' 1972 Colin Wilson, who gave the 'E.H. Visiak Lecture' 1973 Michael Moran, Lecturer in Philosophy at Sussex University 1974 Dr Lubor Velecky, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Southampton University 1975 Alexander Thynne, Lord Weymouth of Longlete (later becoming the Marquess  of Bath); he superseded C. Chataway as the president of the Institute.

Some of these acquaintances proved to be very useful. It was Michael Moran who  encouraged Tony to return in 1974 to studying part-time for his D.Phil. at  Sussex University. Dr. Lubor Valecky was also the Chief examiner in Philosophy  for the International Baccalaureate. He invited Tony to become an examiner for  the IB, and this he became, marking exams and extended essays for many years,  and after a short while being promoted to Senior Examiner.

In 1972 an American liberal arts college, New England College, was set up, near Arundel, West Sussex, and Tony became a part-time Lecturer in Philosophy there  until 1975, when philosophy was removed form the syllabus. In 1973 he became a  Tutor in Humanities for the Open University, teaching for the 'Age of  Revolutions' course, running regular seminars in Worthing. And in 1976 he was  appointed a part-time Tutor in Philosophy at Sussex University. So while  studying for his D.Phil. he was also at last realising his ambition of teaching at a university.

In 1981, with Ronald Taylor (Professor of German at Sussex University) having  been his tutor, he was finally awarded his doctorate for his thesis Conflict  and Integration: a Study in the Philosophy of GC Lichtenberg, 1742-1799. He  proudly carried the title of Dr. for the rest of his life.

In the late seventies or early eighties Wolsey Hall B.A. programmes ceased, and all their philosophy course materials were handed gratis to Tony and he  continued to provide distance learning tuition for London University B.A.  through The Verulam Institute. He also took on work for the National Extension  College, Cambridge. A further opportunity arose in 1985 when he noticed,  probably in the Times Educational Supplement, that an A-level philosophy course was to be introduced. Following an enquiry by himself, he became an Assistant  Examiner.

As well as aspiring to become a university lecturer, it had long been an  ambition of Tony to become a writer. Having always held a strong interest in  family history, his first book was based on his great, great, great uncle, a  patent medicine manufacturer and founder of Royal Holloway College: Thomas  Holloway Victorian Philanthropist was completed in 86/87, and printed in 1990.

While researching for this book in 1985, a letter of his in the TES was noticed by Macmillan Publishers, and they approached him regarding the possibility of  his writing an Introduction to Philosophy for their 'Mastering' series. This  Tony duly accepted, and it too was published in 1990.

In 1988 Tony terminated his employment at Westbourne House, and he and Maeve  moved to Ireland, to allow Tony more time to do his own research and writing.  He had for many years been making notes for his magnum opus Culture and the  Human Condition, but unfortunately for financial reasons, he had to continue to take on further commitments.

He continued teaching for London external B.A., and working as an examiner for  IB and A-level. He set up his own private tutorial business, and became a  teacher at Bandon Grammar School, initially to set up their computer studies,  and then in 1989 as a Transition Year Teacher, covering a wide range of  subjects. Also in 1989 he was made Honorary Visiting Fellow in the Philosophy  Department at University College Cork, and he regularly attended (and  occasionally presented) graduate seminars.

In 1994 Tony left Bandon Grammar School for a new appointment at The National  Distance Education Centre ('Oscail') of Dublin City University, which proved to be extremely rewarding, both intellectually and financially. He was based at UCC, and held seminars, tutorials and lectures on the history of philosophy, on  Plato, Aquinas and Kant, on the philosophy of religion and also ran the 'Introduction to Humanities' program. He continued to work for DCU for ten years.

In 1998, Tony was diagnosed with prostate cancer, his son Tristan died in  tragic circumstances, and then Tony had a radical prostatectomy. Thankfully he  received some relief from these three horrors: he was contacted by Professor  David Berman of TCD, and was offered, and accepted, a part-time lectureship in  continental philosophy. This entailed, as always, a huge amount of work, but  Tony thoroughly enjoyed the experience -- to be back at his alma mater Trinity  again, and as a Philosophy Lecturer, was great.

Shortly after joining the 'Oscail' of DCU, he was approached by a Michael  Mooney of TCD. Having read Mastering Philosophy, he thought Tony might be able  to write a series of profiles of Western Philosophers, and trace connections  between their ideas -- a kind of intellectual history, to be entitled  Philosophical Connections. Michael Mooney and a group of TCD graduates had  plans to market and publish the work. After some thought Tony agreed. As the  work progressed, however, there were times when he wondered whether he had made the right decision. It took an enormous amount of work over about seven or eight years, compiling profiles of 126 philosophers, with colour coded connections.  This colour-coding system was constructively criticised by Trinity Philosophy  Department, and Tony came up with the idea of a CD format, with hyperlinks.

Unfortunately the marketing/ publishing plans came to nought, and in 2006 it  was all handed over to Tony. After several unsuccessful attempts at marketing  it himself, in 2008 Geoffrey Klempner took over the project. He was the Founder and Director of 'Pathways School of Philosophy' and not only would he provide  all of his new students with a copy of the CD-ROM, but he also embarked on  converting the entire text of 900 pages into HTML format, so as to put the  entire work on the world wide web. For Tony this was fantastic -- at last all  his hard work would be out in the world for all to see: to use, to learn from,  and to appreciate.

Towards the end of compiling Philosophical Connections, Tony was also writing a full-length study of E.H. Visiak's work, something Tony had promised Visiak in  the early 1970's a few years before he died. This was published in 2007.

But all of this work was at the expense of his own great masterpiece. Sadly  Tony died in May 2009, with only the first chapter of Culture and the Human  Condition completed.

Dr. Anthony Harrison-Barbet was a great and confident teacher and lecturer,  clear and eloquent and hugely patient. He was a man of great wit and sense of  humour, renowned by all for his daily use of puns and play on words. But on a  personal level he was also a shy, reserved and private gentleman, honest and  just and always respectful to anyone he met, and always grateful of any  friendship and interest shown to him.

Anything one wanted to know one could ask of him: if he did not instantly know  the answer he would drop whatever he was doing and look it up in a book. In  fact the most common image one would have of Tony would be of him reading: The  Times or Telegraph, poetry, periodicals, and a whole multitude of books to  further his knowledge. He was an avid reader, and books, along with his  computer and his beloved music (such a wide range of music) could keep him  happy for days on end.

But he liked his breaks from intellectual stimulation. His pride and joy was  his garden, which he tended to throughout the seasons for the 20 years that he  lived in Bandon. Whilst gardening and growing his own produce, he would take  great pleasure in observing and conversing with his feline and feathered  visitors, whom he welcomed warm-heartedly.

He turned his hand to anything, DIY, mending, building and creating, and his  holiday cottage at Ballinacarriga in the 1970's and 1980's was a much  looked-forward-to project for him every year, occupying him for a full six  weeks during the summer holidays. Tony was a very accomplished cook, in recent  years taking over from Maeve all responsibilities for shopping and culinary  duties (but not necessarily the washing up!). He produced with skill and  pleasure great three-course feasts for all who came to stay.  Stemming from his love for music he taught himself how to play the chromatic harmonica, treating  his family to a fine rendition on New Year's Eve 2008. And he loved languages,  learning through self instruction the rudiments of many. He took great  enjoyment while abroad in being able to speak to people in their native tongue.

Tony felt very strongly the importance of families, and was always supportive  and interested in everything and anything any of his children or grandchildren  might be doing. He spent a whole lifetime researching family history -- not  just his own lineages, but those of the Duggan branches too. He has left this  beautifully and clearly presented, both in written and CD-ROM formats; a  fantastic legacy for future generations.

At his 70th birthday party in March 2009, despite having been extremely unwell  for weeks beforehand, he surprised his family with an unforgettable speech  which he had prepared in his mind, unbeknownst to anyone, on the subject of  families. He assembled together 11 of his 14 grandchildren. Using the words of  Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach -- 'Ah my love, let us be true to one another' -- he told them that whatever different ways life takes them, they must  always look out for each other. As always, he spoke so eloquently; his serious  message, along with his good humour, holding his audience captive, listening to his every word.

Although Tony would describe himself as being of no particular religion (having partaken of the Church of England, Roman Catholicism, Agnosticism and Atheism  during his lifetime), he was in fact a very spiritual man.

He loved nature and wild places, and enjoyed the feeling of being at one with  and part of the 'great stupendous whole'. He was strongly influenced by the  Church of England choral and organ music of his youth, a love for which  remained with him throughout his life. In recent years Tony read widely on  Tibetan Buddhism, which he found to be of great benefit to himself. And indeed, along with his positive and happy outlook, it may well have helped him cope  through the last few years of his cancer.

Prostate cancer undoubtedly played a large part in his life, living with it for over 11 years. How he dealt with it was a complete inspiration to us all. As  with everything, he read widely on the subject, and knew all there was to know  about the disease. He would uncomplainingly suffer whatever it threw at him,  and then pick himself up and get on with his life, even right up until his  final weeks.

To all who ever knew Dr. Anthony Walton Harrison-Barbet, he was a very thorough man, who always gave of his absolute best. He will be sadly missed by his wife,  his daughters, his sons-in-law, his brother, his grandchildren and  great-granddaughter; his family, friends and colleagues. He has passed on the  torch to the next generation, and moved on to a new journey, as yet unknown to  the rest of us.

Tony once pondered that at the end of his life he would '...finally escape from Matthew Arnold's 'darkling plain' and follow Milton's 'uncouth swain' -- 'To  morrow to fresh Woods and Pastures new'...'

Let us hope that he finds himself there, and that the legacies that he has left behind for us remain here for future generations.

(c) Cliona Dando 2009

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