International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 146 19th August 2009


I. 'Philosophy Study: The Perfect Response to Mid-life Crisis' by Frank McGowan

II. James Coffman 'On the Subjective Nature of Reality, and its Relationship to the Objective Reality of Nature': Commentary by Stuart Burns

III. 'Response to Stuart Burns' by James Coffman

IV. Review of S.C. Meyer Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design by Stanley Salthe



While Pathways students span an age-range from the mid-teens to the 90's, it is no secret that there is a significant bulge of applicants in their 40's. However, my erstwhile BA external student Frank McGowan who graduated from the University of London this summer, is the first to actually come out and say it: if you are undergoing, or feel that you may be about to undergo a mid-life crisis, then taking a course in philosophy could be the solution. Frank, an IT professional and father of four, offers some illuminating insights into his own philosophical itinerary, along with some very useful tips on how to make creative time-saving use of electronic study aids.

Also in this issue, another of my BA students Stuart Burns comments on James Coffman's article in issue 144 of Philosophy Pathways, to which James Coffman has kindly responded. The exchange sheds valuable light on Mr Coffman's purposefully revisionary definition of that troublesome word, 'Reality', and his attempt to steer a mid-course between the Scylla of metaphysical Realism and the Charybdis of metaphysical Idealism.

One of the issues at the heart of the debate over what is 'really real' concerns the tension between the apparent purposiveness of nature and the requirements for causal explanation which eschews any irreducible teleological component, an issue which lies at the heart of the evolutionist-creationist 'debate'. Stanley Salthe, a visiting scientist in the Department of Biological Sciences, Binghamton University, SUNY offers a sharply critical look at one recent contribution to that debate in the field of molecular biology. Fortunately, you don't need a degree in Biology to follow the main points in his clear exposition.

Geoffrey Klempner



The mid-life crisis -- that often vulnerable time in life when deep personal reflection takes front and center stage -- hits some folks at thirty-five, some at fifty, and most somewhere in between. It is often accompanied by big changes in our life: a new convertible, a new house, a new spouse, a new church or spiritual path. For me? I chose to study philosophy.

Why philosophy?

At forty-seven, I looked back on my years and discovered something curious. There was the time when, as a little boy, I would go on bike rides with my friend Ian. I was Catholic, he was Protestant. On sunny days, after cycling for a bit, we would take a break and fall to discussing life's mysteries. He was mystified by my pronouncement that he couldn't go to heaven because he was not Catholic; I was mystified that God would eventually prize us apart and deposit us in our respective, separate places after we died.

There was the time when as a late teen I gave up religion altogether and settled for agnosticism. Then, after twenty years checking out the 'new age' religion scene, I became a Protestant.

What I found curious was not that I ended up in the same camp as Ian (who by now might be Catholic for I all know), no, what I found curious was that on reflection it seemed to me that I had not lived one continuous life albeit with some different religious views along the way, but rather that I had lived several lives, stuck back to back. And it wasn't just in the arena of religion; Ian was my childhood friend in Scotland, but I moved off to Wales for a spell, then to the United States where I now reside. And it wasn't just location, there was the time when I was a kid, when I was a young single, and now married with four children.

Was this really the same Frank that lived through all of this? Was it one life or several mini-lives? Of course reason tells me that it was one continuous progression -- one life. But looking back, I found it was a sense of continuity that was missing. And that is why I was attracted to the study of philosophy. I wanted to find a world view that might pull together these separate parts, these mini-lives, and lace them into an understandable whole.


When I first read Descartes, I picked up immediately on his situation. He reached a certain age when he decided that everything that he had ever accepted as true, he had accepted without challenge. At that certain age, he decided to go back to the beginning, throw out everything he had believed, and slowly piece together a world view composed of only the things which he considered irrefutable truths. What certain age was that? Forty-seven! 'Ho, Ho!' I thought, 'Same as me. What a wonderful place to start my studies -- throw everything away and start afresh.'

Well I did not of course have Descartes' philosophical prowess, nor did I intend throwing everything out, but I was mightily inspired none the less.

Another attraction of studying for a philosophy degree stemmed from my experience of having grown up in Britain, then moving to the Unites States. I found that the educational systems differed between these two countries, as did the general impression that people have (especially employers) about whether or not one has a college degree. Another reason then that I decided to study philosophy was to gain a qualification that would close this gap, and a BA Philosophy seemed just the ticket.


But how to do it; how to endure a studious life when I had a full-time job, a wife, a life, and four kids! Some of the techniques I used are worth mentioning. Multi-tasking describes several of them. For example, I would do morning exercise in my attic on a reclining stationary bike. But instead of watching TV, I would study, either a book, or even sometimes with a laptop opened to an internet article. When I needed to make notes, I also had a PDA equipped with a voice recorder; I'd simply pick it up in the middle of the exercise, push a button, and dictate -- later I'd write up the notes in a spreadsheet.

Why a spreadsheet? I found that a good technique that worked for me was to have two columns, one with a bullet, the other with an explanation. The bullet was a concise description of the point, no more than a few words, easy to memorize. Later I could scan down the list of bullets and whenever I needed to revisit the flesh, I would just hit the right arrow key and read the description from the second column. In this manner, I could memorize lots of information, and have it all easily accessible at a glance.

Another good thing about this spreadsheet was that I could transfer it to my PDA. Then, when I was waiting in a queue for my KFC lunch, or sitting through an intermission at my kid's high school play, I could whip out my PDA and re-read my notes. Very convenient.

Another couple of multi-tasking tools I used was a good OCR program (optical character recognition -- a software program that can read scanned text and put it into a searchable word-processing document) and a good Natural Reading program. This is a software program that can read your computer screen to you, or alternatively, scan an entire document in minutes and generate a respectable MP3 audio file. So, at times in my car, I would either have the laptop open to a webpage and the reader program read the screens to me over my car radio as I drove, or listen to a previously generated MP3 all the way to work. Again I would dictate notes to my PDA voice recorder when I felt the urge.

How could I access a webpage while on the road? I have a cell phone equipped with high-speed internet.

After work, instead of tackling the rush-hour traffic, I would go to a nearby coffee shop, study for a while and let the traffic abate, then have a more relaxed drive home.

In addition to the Athens access to online philosophical journals that every University of London student has, a real money saver proved to be For $100 (60 GBP), I had a one year subscription to this online humanities library. There I could find The Collected Dialogues of Plato or Russell's History of Western Philosophy and many, many more sharply relevant texts right at my finger tips and all fully electronically searchable. I still bought a few books off the shelf, but no more than a few.


Of course, there is no getting around the time expended on writing essays. After a few weeks of reading, listening, dictating and writing up my material, I would cloister myself in my study and get down to serious essay-writing over a weekend. I would send my masterpiece off to Pathways to have it drawn, quartered, and slaughtered then returned to me with copious comments on how I could have done WAY better. I am joking somewhat; it's not as bad as that although I only have my own experience to judge.

This of course is an expected event and one not to be feared. In fact, it is very valuable. Sometimes I went the odd year without Pathways and boy did I do poorly by comparison. A response from a Pathways tutor was always informative, edifying and helped to give me confidence. It is important that you do not satisfy yourself by just letting your philosophical thought run around inside your head, or fill a journal with it that no one will ever read. Better get it out into the open. Throw it against some external standard; see if it sticks.


After studying for two years for the University of London Diploma in Philosophy and another four years for the BA, I now reflect on the results. Other than the formal result of a II.I, results fell into two categories: expected and unexpected.

The expected results were evident in my immersion in the thoughts of the ages, in modern philosophical thought and in contemporary ideas, all of which have helped shape today's culture, and to some extent, my own outlook.

Unexpected results came in the form of mental training. I learned how to think and how to articulate my thoughts. I remember, a year or so into my studies, I noticed that whenever I engaged in heated discussion with a friend, I would no longer walk away thinking, 'Oh, I wish I had remembered to say such and such, I wish it had occurred to me to tell him...' Instead, whatever I wished to say, more often than not, I actually managed to say during the conversation.

Now, at fifty-three years of age, as a systems analyst/ programmer, I find I have to learn new technologies at my workplace. I don't mean how to operate new machines or software programs, but how to develop computer systems using new languages. (Visual Basic .Net, Visual C# .Net, among others, for those who might be interested to contact me.) Because of the discipline I had practiced over the years of philosophy study, I was well up to the task. I have learned how to learn new things. Some of these technologies are concept busters compared to my decades of run-of-the-mill programming in legacy languages. And nothing prepares one for concept busting more than honest, sincere study of philosophy.

And now?

So what do I do now that I have my BA? First I should say that I have enjoyed this experience immensely. A lot of hard work in there, but very rewarding. I always felt that it was such a luxury to be able to study when already grown up. I have a couple of kids at college and they have the dual task of studying and growing up at the same time -- that's not easy.

Can I use the degree? Yes. It helps fill the gap in my education, good for my resume. Have I been able to knit together my mini-lives into a whole? Not completely there yet. It is an on-going effort, but one which is greatly aided by the mental training and knowledge I have acquired through the study of philosophy.

(c) Frank McGowan 2009




The 144th issue of Philosophy Pathways contained an article by James Coffman, wherein he presents a proposal that he positions as a means of resolving 'the source of incompatibility between science and religion'. He suggests that his proposal for the subjective nature of Reality is a way of reconciling the subjective nature of religious belief with the supposedly objective nature of science.

Mr. Coffman's reasoning is founded on the presumed difference between what 'really' (ontologically) exists, and what we think (or could potentially think) exists based on our experiences. The primary difficulty I have with Mr. Coffman's article is one of semantics -- the confusing label with which he chooses to refer to one of these two concepts, viz. 'reality'. The secondary difficulty I have is with the consequences that seem to have resulted from that engendered confusion.

Mr. Coffman may perhaps have a sound rationale for his confusing definition of the word 'reality', but that rationale is not obvious from his article. More significantly, it does certainly seem to create confusion both for his target audience, and (apparently) for himself as well. Mr Coffman confuses his audience into thinking that he is presenting some new perspective on what most people would consider 'reality'. And he appears to have fallen into his own trap by also confusing what he is calling 'reality' with the more common meaning of the word.

Mr. Coffman begins with what is an attention gathering, and surely non-problematic, assertion: 'A fundamental problem for philosophy -- perhaps the fundamental problem -- is the mapping of epistemology (what we know) to ontology (what is real).' This assertion, together with the wording of his article title (specifically the phrase 'the Objective Reality of Nature'), and the fact that the article appears in a Philosophy E-journal, would all tend to persuade readers that he is going to use the words 'real' and 'reality' in their usual philosophical/ ontological sense -- to refer to 'whatever is really real', 'what actually exists', 'the objective facts of the matter'. A quick reference to any dictionary of English/ American usage will confirm that this particular sense of the word 'reality' is the commonly expected usage.

Against that background, Mr. Coffman provides his own idiosyncratic definition: '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}}.' For Mr. Coffman, then, the label 'Nature' will be employed to refer to the concept that, according to the dictionaries, most people would associate with the word 'reality' -- everything that is 'really real', 'actually exists', 'the objective facts of the matter'. Whereas, idiosyncratically, the label 'Reality' will be employed to refer to whatever is to be understood as the 'empirical part of Nature'.

Unfortunately, Mr. Coffman does not provide any explicit description of what he intends by the phrase 'empirical part of Nature'. Referring once more to an English dictionary, it would appear that the proper interpretation is that the word 'Reality' is to be reserved for that part of Nature (viz. Everything that is 'really real', 'actually exists', 'the objective facts of the matter') that is (or possibly can be) observed or experienced. In simpler language, Mr. Coffman stipulates that what most people call 'objective reality', he is going to call 'Nature', and what most people might call 'subjective experience', he is going to call 'Reality'. Confusing, certainly, but as long as he keeps to his definitions, no further harm will ensue. [Hereinafter, I am going to use the symbol 'Reality*' to denote Mr. Coffman's definition in an attempt to minimize confusion.]

Before discussing the confusions that I believe have resulted from Mr. Coffman's definition, I think it worthwhile to explore whether his definition really is as idiosyncratic and confusing as I suggest. There are, I will readily admit, other senses than the standard dictionary one in which the word 'reality' appears in common English/ American usage. For example, consider the phrases 'reality is what you make it', 'we each create our own reality', and 'his reality is very different from mine'. When comparing the sense of 'reality' as it appears in such contexts with the ontological sense indicated by the dictionary, one might argue that these special or odd uses of the word could be classified as either (i) simply wrong; (ii) metaphorical; or (ii) Idealistic.

Employing words in a metaphorical sense is a common tactic as a dramatic means of drawing the audience's attention to an otherwise ill noticed similarity. 'All men are dogs!' Well, not literally, of course. The metaphor is employed to draw attention to some manner in which dogs and men are similar. One might, for example, assert in a metaphorical sense, that 'the hallucinations induced by schizophrenia are just as real as the ground under our feet.' By which one might mean that 'really unreal' hallucinations share some meaningful similarities with the 'really real' ground under our feet -- such as a common psychological pattern of reactions to what we think is real. But from my reading of Mr. Coffman, he does not seem to intend his Reality* to be understood this way. Which is well, I would think. His article is addressed to an audience of philosophers who are likely to be more confused than enlightened by a metaphorical employment of such a metaphysically significant word as 'reality'.

Alternatively, if one comes from a foundation of metaphysical Idealism, there are no external objective facts of the matter. Whatever we experience defines 'whatever is really real', and is 'what actually exists'. One either accepts that 'Reality' is evidence transcendent, or one does not. Clearly Reality* is, by Mr. Coffman's definition, not evidence transcendent. So it is quite clear that 'reality' (as usually understood to mean evidence transcendent) is larger in scope than Reality*. The only way they could be equivalent, is if Mr. Coffman adopts the Idealist stance that there is no such thing as evidence transcendent existence.

However, given the nature of the article's title (the reference to 'the Objective Reality of Nature'), and Mr. Coffman's stipulation that 'Reality is defined as the empirical part of Nature', the more reasonable initial assumption is that Mr. Coffman is not intending to understand the concept of 'reality' from the basis of metaphysical Idealism. And given my own personal preference for metaphysical Realism, it is natural that in the absence of a specific indication to the contrary, I would at least start with the assumption of metaphysical Realism. Although, as I will show below, this may be an incorrect assumption.

Barring some classification that I have overlooked, I am left with the conclusion that Mr. Coffman has simply set up an idiosyncratic definition for the word 'reality' that is quite at odds with the normally expected usage of that term. The confusions that I have discerned within the article would tend to support that interpretation.

Before proceeding, I think a bit of clarification is advisable, on the syntax of specification hierarchies. As Mr. Coffman explains, the specification hierarchy syntax provides 'a formal system of entailment that contextualizes (and thereby conceptualizes) information by way of the set theoretic relationship {Generic{Specific}}.'

A common textbook example is {Physics{Chemistry{Biology}}}. Going from the outer to the inner, the behaviour of the Generic constrains the behaviour of the Specific -- Biology can include nothing not permitted by Chemistry. Going from inner to outer, the behaviour of the Specific is entailed by the behaviour of the Generic -- the rules of Biology are entailed by the laws of Chemistry. Hence for Mr. Coffman's hierarchy {Nature{Reality*}} -- whatever is Reality* is necessarily within and part of Nature, and the behaviour of Reality* is entailed by the behaviour of Nature.

The first thing to clarify is that the syntax does not say anything about how much of Nature is covered by Reality*. There is a lot of Chemistry that is not Biology. Strictly according to syntax, therefore, there can be a lot of Nature that is not Reality* (and that is, in fact, the assumption of the metaphysical realist). Secondly, should be noted that the specification hierarchy {Nature {Reality*}} would stipulate that all experiences are 'really real' (have ontological existence as part of Nature). But such experiences can be real in the sense that they are real experiences. The syntax does not mean that my experience of a pink elephant dancing on the table entails that the elephant is 'really real'. I clarify these points because they will play a role in understanding the first of the confusions that I will describe below.

The first confusion comes from Mr. Coffman's statement:

     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.

This assertion is quite obviously false, and is made intelligible only because of an equivocation between the common understanding of 'reality' and Reality*. That the assertion is false can be more clearly seen if I replace Mr. Coffman's labels with ones more in keeping with the common usage of the words involved: 'The specification hierarchy {Reality{Experience}} indicates that a fundamental assumption of classical western science -- that Experience is an objective or 'external' representation of Reality unbiased by perception -- rests on the presupposition that all of Reality is empirical.'

Clearly, it is not a fundamental assumption of classical western science that 'the empirical part of Nature' (that part that is or can be observed or experienced) is either objective or external, nor that our understanding of that part of nature is unbiased by perception.

The bulk of Mr. Coffman's article consists of an exploration of his developmental perspective on the subjective nature of our experiences of Nature, and the subjective nature of the sciences (viz. The cognitive models that we construct out of our experiences to explain and predict that Nature). As long as one keeps clearly in mind that he is using Reality* to denote the concept of how we subjectively view Nature (rather than what objectively exists), there is nothing to complain about.

Unfortunately, on at least two occasions, Mr. Coffman seems to forget the distinction that he, himself, establishes:

(i)  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.

The problem here, of course, is that what Mr. Coffman calls 'the externalist view' is a strawman position that no one actually holds. Thinking that 'externalism' is a real position comes from thinking that the word 'reality' within this quote is intended to denote something objective and external. Which, of course, because of the definitions, it does not. No one disputes the fact that Reality* -- our experiential meeting with and understanding of the world around us -- is an internalist conception.

Even if one substitutes the notion of 'scientific view' for 'externalist view', it is highly debatable whether an objectivist, externalist, scientific orientation would foster 'a bleak existentialism wherein life is devoid of meaning'. The successes of Evolutionary Ethics would argue otherwise.

(ii) 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.

'The only way around this is to assume that all of Nature is empirical' -- The only way around what? And why does one need a way around whatever? It is common knowledge that 'scientific knowledge' is but a small part of all knowledge, which is a small part of all experience (Reality*), which is a small part of Nature. Scientific Knowledge is a small part of Knowledge generally, because Scientific Knowledge is restricted to that part of our experiences (Reality*) that is measurable, shareable, and repeatable. Knowledge generally is a small part of experiences (Reality*) because it is limited by the requirement for sufficient justification to separate knowledge from opinion, guess, and whimsy. And Reality* (experiences) is a small part of Nature because it is limited to the part of Nature that is (or can be) experienced.

That this hierarchy entails limitations to the (actual or possible) extent of Scientific Knowledge is neither unexpected, undesirable, nor problematic. I think it would be non-problematic to suggest it to be a common understanding that 'Scientific Knowledge' is but a subset of the subjective cognitive model of Nature that we each build out of Reality*. Moreover, I would suggest that few who ponder the issue truly expect that 'science is capable of modeling all empirical phenomena'. (There might be some discussion as to the difference between 'empirical phenomena' understood as 'phenomena experienced' versus 'phenomena measured'.) Although, of course, it is quite natural for most of us, most of the time, to pretend that it is. While acknowledging the existence of limits, there is no point in searching for (what passes for) 'scientific truth' if you don't expect to be successful.

Mr. Coffman's suggested 'solution' to this non-problem is to posit that Reality* encompasses all of Nature. If his hypothesis is correct, then my initial assumption of metaphysical Realism is false. Mr. Coffman here presents Nature as metaphysical Idealism would have it -- there is no fact of the matter beyond our experiences of it. If this is indeed the case, then the article's title is seriously misleading. On an Idealistic basis, there is no such thing as an 'Objective Reality of Nature' -- either because our experiences are not objective, or because Nature is not real (rather than Real*).

Mr. Coffman concludes his article with:

     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.

Except for the erroneous and entirely superfluous word 'objective' in his description of 'Reality' (viz. Reality*), I do not think that this claim is either controversial, or new. It might be easier to see the unexcitable nature of this claim, if I were to re-phrase Mr. Coffman's prose using more common wording: 'I conclude that any scientific model developed from the classical assumption of experiential modelling is at best an oversimplified caricature of everything that is 'really real', 'actually exists', 'the objective facts of the matter', and that unregulated development of technological applications based on literal interpretations of such a model will invariably have unintended consequences that are both ecologically deleterious and dehumanizing.'

In other words, if we expect our cognitive models of Nature to be all encompassing, completely true, and predictive of all consequences, then we are fooling ourselves. Our knowledge and understanding of Nature is indisputably incomplete at best. No matter how careful we are in our technological developments, we are almost certain to experience unintended consequences. I certainly cannot disagree with this conclusion. But it is also nothing new!

In the introductory paragraph of his article, Mr. Coffman states 'I will argue that this position [that the problem of mapping epistemology to ontology is solved by the scientific method] is founded on a questionable assumption.' Unfortunately, all he has showed is that the questionable assumptions are his own -- that the scientific method is expected to resolve the mapping problem; and that the only way to employ the indisputably subjective aspects of the scientific method to obtain knowledge of an objective Nature is to assume that all of Nature must be subjective.

'[T]he metaphysical dialectic between absolutism and relativism... [may be] the source of incompatibility between science and religion, wherein an absolutist stance of the one requires a relativistic stance of the other' but Mr. Coffman has not addressed either side of this dialectic. Either Nature ('the totality of the Universe') transcends Reality* (experience) in principle, or it does not. One cannot bring evidentiary based arguments to either side of the discussion. The very nature and meaning of any evidence is dependent on which side of the dichotomy one starts from. Therefore, allowing for the confusion over what is intended by the label 'Reality', there is nothing within this article that would address the disagreements between science and religion. Mr. Coffman's thesis is nothing that might resolve 'the source of incompatibility between science and religion'.

(c) Stuart Burns 2009




Stuart Burns' critique of my essay concerns semantics, which gets directly to the crux of the matter. At issue is the definition of Reality.

I think it important to reiterate that what we are dealing with here is the irreducible duality of the observer and the observed, or what Geoffrey Klempner has referred to as 'the unsurpassable gulf between the subjective and objective sides of practical knowledge'.

I submit that this duality, which is perceived by humans because we (unlike other animals) are conscious, makes the definition of reality nontrivial. Indeed, it engenders the two opposing philosophical positions mentioned by Mr. Burns. One of these (Realism) holds that reality consists of the objective world that exists external to and independently of our perception. Its antithesis (Idealism) holds that reality is limited to, and does not exist independently of, subjective experience. That both positions have merit is evinced by the fact that this age-old dialectic continues to attract philosophers to one pole or the other. What this suggests (to me at least) is that the truth paradoxically encompasses both poles: neither can exist without the other, any more than the yin can exist without the yang. My position of developmental internalism was offered as a synthesis, although it may be more accurate to call it my 'metaphysically naive' attempt to have it both ways; hence the title of my essay.

None the less, I admit that my position (like internalism in general) is a form of idealism, in that it stands on, and approaches the problem from, the subjective side of the dialectic. It appears to me that this is the only realistic approach that can be made, for the subjective side is where each of us lives: what actually exists on the other side will always be open to conjecture, and this can never transcend internal models. The subjective is likely all there is for (most if not all) non-human animals. We humans acquire objectivity through our unique consciousness. Perhaps the subjectivity of science is not news, as Mr. Burns asserts, in which case my perception of conventional wisdom is skewed by my own subjectivity (and I readily admit that I wrote the essay for myself as much as anyone). In any case, the developmental internalism that I advocate is a relatively soft form of idealism (a 'realistic idealism' as it were, perhaps akin to the transcendental idealism of Kant), because it accepts as given the independent ('evidence transcendent') existence of an apparently external world, which I have referred to as Nature.

The question then is whether ontology -- that which is real -- is strictly limited to that which exists externally to its perception (as does the ground under our feet), or whether it also includes that which is internally perceived but does not otherwise exist (e.g., schizophrenic hallucinations). Common sense holds that reality includes the former while excluding the latter, as reflected in the dictionary definition of 'reality'. By such definition, the phrases 'literal reality' and 'really real' are unnecessarily redundant.

However, as Mr. Burns also notes, the word 'reality' is often used in a meaningful way to connote subjectively circumstantial aspects of existence (as when we speak of the different realities that each of us live in or create for ourselves), so perhaps the word signifies more than common sense would admit. Although strict idealism seeks to explain the subjective connotations by positing that reality consists entirely of subjective experience, this fails owing to its exclusion of the opposite, which we know to be true. Alternatively, Mr. Burns suggests that the subjective connotations of the word 'reality' may simply be metaphorical, an explanation that he dismisses as confusingly vague for an audience of philosophers.

It seems to me that Mr. Burns does not give philosophers due credit. Metaphor is part and parcel of how we think, and arguably the best (and perhaps only) device we have for negotiating the 'unsurpassable gulf' between the subjective and objective aspects of reality (and possibly also the reason the gulf exists in the first place!). Although it is reasonable to distinguish between literal and metaphorical connotations of a word, the distinction is not always clear-cut. This certainly seems to be the case with the word 'reality'. Whereas the statement 'all men are dogs' is obviously a metaphor that is not literally true, the same cannot be said for the statement 'reality is what we make of it'.

My argument is predicated on the view that human consciousness (an emergent manifestation of our semiotic attention) is based on our metaphorical use of language. Words affect how we think, and semantic vagueness underlies changes in conscious perception wrought through poetry, prose, and rhetoric. The danger of course is that such word play often amounts to nothing more than sophistry, rhetorical slight-of-hand used to construct a compelling but false argument. Mr. Burns suggests that I have engaged in the latter, using an idiosyncratic definition of reality to confuse the audience (owing to the fact that my definition differs from 'what most people would consider' to be the definition) as well as myself (owing to inconsistent usage that conflates my definition with the more common definition). Although I will grant that my rhetoric led me to make a specifically false assertion regarding a fundamental assumption of western science (as discussed below), this error does not invalidate the gist of my essay. However, perhaps I could have stated the rationale for my semantic choices more clearly.

If one assigns idiosyncratic definitions to words that have well-worn common sense meanings one certainly ought to have good reason. I had two. The first is that the scientific method of establishing what is 'really' real involves empirical verification. Therefore science can never transcend experience. This gives {Experience{Science}}. At the same time, it is commonly accepted that science provides a description of reality, albeit a partial one. This gives {Reality{Science}}. This brings us back to the question: what is the relationship between experience and reality, the two generic realms that are more specifically defined by science? The notion that reality is 'evidence transcendent', together with the notion that we experience reality, suggest the relationship {Reality{Experience}} alluded to by Mr. Burns, and thus: {Reality {Experience{Science}}}. We will return to this hierarchy in a moment.

My second reason for defining reality as 'the empirical part of nature' is that the common sense notion of reality is based on a literalistic interpretation that fails to adequately capture the developmentally emergent nature of what we know to be real. Limiting our definition to 'the objective facts of the matter' fails to give credence to the fact that reality is continuously created. By virtue of our imagination we are intentional agents in that creation, a process that occurs, in our case via language and hence metaphor, from the inside-out. The reality we create is entrained by the stories we tell (ourselves and each other), whether or not these provide a true representation of the world. At the same time, reality transcends the easily defined externalist notion of 'what actually exists' because it is engendered, moment by moment within the realm of individuated experience, by that part of nature that is internally incipient and hence ineffably vague. For better or worse, this internal realm is a fundamental source of external change, so it behooves us to attend to it, as much as befits the term 'reality'. For reasons that I attempted to articulate in my essay, traditional western science is generally not well equipped for this, given its externalist orientation toward the well-defined (that is, already developed) 'objective facts of the matter'.

Since reality is continuously created, and since we are imaginative intentional agents that participate in that creation, it makes sense ask: what do I/ we desire reality to be? We might thus envision (i.e., metaphorically 'see' in our mind's 'eye') an ideal reality. Then, if the reality that we experience is different from that ideal (as is usually the case), we might ask: (how) can we create a reality that is more like the one we desire? In other words, can we intentionally change the reality we experience into one that conforms better to our ideal, and if so to what extent, and how? Attempts to answer the latter questions benefit from an objective understanding of many different scientifically defined realities: physical, chemical, biological, ecological, socio-economic, cultural, political, and psychological. They also benefit from an understanding of developmental phenomenology.

Consider that the ongoing creation of reality is a complex process that involves not one agent, but myriad different ones, at different levels of scale and developmental specification, both internally and externally. To the extent that each of those agents has a different {{intention}}, then whatever reality is actually created will differ from what each individual agent {{intends}}, instead manifesting many unintended consequences of interference between the different agencies. The nature and effect of such interference will vary depending on the developmental maturity of the system within which the agencies exist and operate.

Development begins with immaturity, a relatively unconstraining condition that affords many degrees of freedom, and ends in senescence, a highly constraining condition that affords few degrees of freedom. During these early and late stages of development, interference predominates, reducing the a priori probability that any one constituent agency will have a major influence on the creation of reality: in immaturity because of chaotic interference between many different self-interested agents; in senescence because of the overburdening structure of the system itself, an agency of interference in its own right devoted to self-maintenance and hence stasis. In between, maturation of a system involves the development of mutually beneficial consensus among agents that comprise the system. This circuitously entrains the {{intentions}} of those agencies toward a common goal, which is achieved in maturity. To the extent that this is so, maturity both affords and represents the creation of a specifically intended reality. But to the extent that mature systems are inattentive to the complexity of nature (as all real systems ultimately must be ), the reality that they experience will continue to manifest unintended consequences of interference. As long as a system retains a sufficient reservoir of immaturity, it can adapt to such interference. However, the latter will ultimately cause the system to fail after it develops into senescence.

Senescence is thus a terminal, metastable transition state signifying the imminence of catastrophic change in the reality experienced by the system and/ or its constituents. But as such it also represents an opportunity for the intentional creation of a new reality.

It appears to me that many of the very real problems that beset humanity (as epitomized by the ecological catastrophes caused by petroleum-based economic globalization) are the unintended consequences of a developmental consensus that is intentionally focused on those aspects of nature that can be modeled as mechanisms, which has obvious practical benefits. This externalist focus has developed at the expense of attention to internalist concerns. In the process, the 'externalized' civilization that we have created has developed past maturity into senescence, even as the internal realm of individuated experience (which must cope with the external world) remains, on the whole, in a relatively immature stage that fails to fully comprehend what it perceives. Hence, we live in a world of technological wonders ruled by superstition and fear. My idiosyncratic definition of reality is an attempt to call attention to the neglected internal realm (the subject of psychology, a discourse that appears to be widely ignored and quite often denigrated outside of limited academic, socio-economic and cultural circles), based on my thesis that 'sentient attention engenders intention, which is a final cause of reality'.

Mr. Burns' {Reality{Experience}} is a reasonable translation of my {Nature {Reality}} into common sense semantics, and I am compelled to agree with his assertion that 'it is not a fundamental assumption of classical western science that 'the empirical part of Nature' (that part that is observed or experienced) is either objective or external, nor that our understanding of that part of nature is unbiased by perception'; indeed, it can be argued that science was invented as a means of overcoming perceptual biases. Thus I will cede Mr. Burns' argument on this point. However, what I meant to convey here is that science is commonly assumed to provide an unbiased window on reality, despite the fact that the scientific method is founded on the principle of empirical verification. Thus, the scientific definition of reality depends entirely on experience, albeit of a specified type involving mathematical modeling, hypothesis formulation (typically by way of metaphor), measurement, and peer-review (a form of consensus).

Science seeks to overcome subjective bias by using its methodical approach to identify, categorize, and analyze those parts of experience that are both logically and reproducibly consistent, thereby developing an objective map. While Mr. Burns and other philosophers undoubtedly harbor no illusions in this regard, the inherent subjectivity of science is commonly ignored and seldom acknowledged by its practitioners and much of the lay public who look (up) to scientists for insight into nature. Rather, conventional wisdom appears to view science as inherently objective, providing a picture of nature that is both accurate and adequate. This contributes to the scientific hubris that helped create our current (less than ideal) reality.

By equating reality with the empirical part of nature, my definition collapses the specification hierarchy {Reality{Experience}} into a single concept, viz. Reality. This is reasonable, for as noted by Mr. Burns, all experience is real (although it might be argued that not all reality is experienced; to this I would counter that if it can never be experienced, then it should be called something other than reality). At issue then is not the reality of experience per se, but rather the ontological interpretation of different experiences, for example 'the ground under our feet' vs. Schizophrenic hallucinations. Realism (or externalism) interprets the former as being real, and the latter as illusions created by psychopathological processes. Idealism holds that schizophrenic hallucinations are just as real as the ground under our feet. Developmental internalism offers, if not a synthesis, at least a route toward balancing these polarized views: it accepts the hard reality of the external world, but does not privilege that reality over the internal reality known only to the subjective self.

I adopted the latter position after considering the following questions: what is the developmental basis for our designating some experiences as real and others not, and how do the choices made based on this distinction ultimately affect the reality that we create for ourselves (both individually and collectively), as well as our understanding thereof? I would posit that privileging scientifically-defined external reality over the internal reality of subjective experience is a socio-cultural interpretation that has developed via consensus from our conscious objectivity. Being a socio-cultural phenomenon, this interpretation is entrained by shared experience, and hence by the literal reality generated by percepts of external origin.

Julian Jaynes has argued that human consciousness is a linguistic phenomenon, based on metaphor, that emerged only recently in human evolution (about 3,000 years ago, around the time of Homer). Prior to this emergence human agency was motivated by a bicameral mind, wherein linguistic percepts originated in the hemisphere of the brain containing the vocalization apparatus, and subsequently perceived (actually 'heard') in the opposite hemisphere containing the auditory apparatus. A contemporary manifestation of this phenomenon is found in the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenics. During the pre-conscious bicameral era, such 'hallucinations' were the psycho-social norm and were interpreted literally, i.e., as 'external' reality. This interpretation was entrained by socio-cultural consensus, giving rise to religions whose modern descendents still rely on texts written by bicameral-minded authors. The irony of course is that the 'voice of God' described in those texts originated internally, not externally as religious literalists continue to believe.

Mr. Burns' asserts that my rendering of the 'externalist view' amounts to 'a strawman position that no one actually holds'. Presumably by 'no one' Mr. Burns means among the philosophically minded. I would counter that the view to which I was referring was not the philosophical ideal of externalism per se (whatever that may be), but rather the common sense worldview entrained by our specific reality (the modern world), which has developed via the ascendancy of an externalist orientation. And although it may indeed be 'highly debatable whether an objectivist, externalist, scientific orientation would foster 'a bleak existentialism wherein life is devoid of meaning'' I disagree with the assertion that '[t]he successes of Evolutionary Ethics would argue otherwise'. What exactly are those successes? As far as I can tell they are all academic: ivory-tower rationalizations of human behavior in terms of the Darwinian adaptationist paradigm. I don't see that paradigm offering anything that will alleviate the existential angst that fuels conflict between science and religion. To the contrary, by relegating all causality to external (historical) contingency the Darwinian paradigm reinforces the idea that human life is accidental, and thus essentially meaningless.

I am happy to admit that my conclusions are not new: they are lifted directly from the antecedent discourses that I acknowledge at the beginning of the essay (as well as others that I failed to acknowledge, such as existentialism), and have been expressed more eloquently in sources that I cite in my bibliography. Perhaps it is also true that I have not offered any solution to the perennial conflict between science and religion. However, it seems clear that the conflict stems from competition between two different conceptions of reality, a competition necessitated only by the common sense definition of reality as that which is objective and external, or as Mr. Burns would say, that which is 'really' real. This enforces a tendency (which I think is misguided) to seek the Divine outside of oneself, and thus to experience existential angst when the reality that is both described and created by science indicates that it is not there.

(c) James A. Coffman 2009


Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory http:---



Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design By S.C. Meyer New York: Harper One (2009)

This is a well-written text, for the most part clearly argued in an engaging, relaxed style. What there is to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis seems to me to be well presented in this book.

We must accept that there is currently no known spontaneous physico-chemical process that could explain the origin of the genetic apparatus in living systems. This -- the 'DNA enigma' -- might be said to be an outstanding challenge to science.

That is, if we consider that origins of anything are genuine scientific questions. Science typically works with existents -- with the world as it is now, or as the world was, given that it was earlier much as it is now. Change, including evolutionary change, can be accepted as a bona fide scientific problem, but I think origins inherently resist systematic investigation.

Much of this book is devoted to examining various attempts that have been made to understand the origin of life within the current physico-chemical framework, and the book is valuable for this critical exposition alone. A chapter on the popular 'RNA World' hypothesis is especially useful. Meyer shows that physico-chemical suggestions on the origin of life using chance or necessity, alone or together, have so far been unable to construct a convincing scenario for this supposed originary event.

Yet, even so, some scientists continue to wish to produce a plausible explanation using nothing more than known physico-chemical principles, abetted by chance. The latter involves historicism -- here it would be, a concatenation of physico-chemical events influenced by multiple contingencies (combining chance with law). Such a sequence of contingencies may be where the Intelligent Design program ought to be pitched. Since the origin would presumably be unrepeatable and so untestable as such, it might be useful to point to other unexplained sequences of events that would have been originary in a similar way. Meyer briefly mentions the 'anthropic principle' of cosmology. If one could find several more such enigmas, the collection together might seem to have more explanatory power than just one or two examples.

Meyer claims that the only agency known by us today to produce 'specified information' is the human (it should be 'Western technological') imagination, which he calls 'intelligent'.

He suggests that, since physico-chemical attempts at understanding a spontaneous origin of the specified information associated with life have so far failed, then the only remaining possibility would be an intelligent agency (left unspecified).

Meyer has little discussion of how this intelligent construction would have been carried out beyond suggesting supposed parallels with the creation of informational structures in computers. This seems a bit too glib. He does not attempt to give us a picture of the intelligence-mediated origin in anything like the detail presented in discussing various physico-chemical attempts (where he delights in pointing out how the intelligence of researchers intruded here and there as adjustments in the experiments). As Meyer says in another context, 'sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander'!

This leads one to suspect that in fact there is no imagined scenario for the intelligence-directed creation of life. Would it have been too ineffable to describe? It seems possible (likely?) that any clear description of that process would be as easily criticized as he shows the physico-chemical attempts to be. If the implication is that we do not have sufficient intelligence to imagine the originary process, then one suspects that there might be a deity 'waiting in the wings' (note that his Chapter 16 is entitled 'Another Road to Rome!).

In any case, pitting a non-testable one-sentence claim (e.g., 'Life was designed by an intelligent agent that existed before the advent of humans') about the origin against forty or more years of failed conceptual, laboratory and computational efforts seems a bit unbalanced.

Meyer's approach also begs the question of whether in fact the information embodied in, and carried by, the genetic apparatus is in fact 'specified' information -- that is, information meaningful to the cell. Or, more to the point, that it was 'specified' at its origin (to do or inform what? -- he does not tell us). Presumably early metabolism would have been simpler and vaguer than what we find in the cell today. Meyer is well aware of, and describes, the elaborate manipulations carried out by the cell in the process of using the information in DNA. In hardly any case is a DNA sequence used 'as is'. The specifications useful to the cell are generated de novo in an elaborate process of cutting, stitching, and chemical modification. In what sense, then, can the information DNA holds be said to be 'specified'?

Meyer insists upon the logical structure of the genetic apparatus without considering that it is we, Western scientists, who in our models work hard to try to impute logical organization to that inordinately complicated system.

Science is founded upon a simple logical foundation, and its models are all based in logic. But we have no assurance that the world is based in or informed by logic, allowing it to be intelligible. Scientists implicitly take that 'on faith', and so does Meyer. In this sense he conflates the 'map' with the 'territory'. In science this conflation has proven fruitful as a support for the construction of technology. That is, science 'works' in the short run as a basis for limited pragmatic activities. But questions of origins go far beyond the pragmatic.

Meyer handily knocks down various 'demarcation arguments' that were made by philosophers of science in order to show that ID is not a bona fide scientific enterprise. He spends a good many words on the historical sciences (his own is historical geology), and how they choose between various theories using abductive reasoning, on the basis of which one tries to choose the 'best' explanation of some current phenomenon. It is here that he claims that ID comes out best because the various physico-chemical proposals have not been able to explain the origin. But, unless I missed something, I did not see in these pages a proposed layout of the ID process of origination. ID seems at present to be just words.

Meyer attempts, with varying success, to show nevertheless that ID -- as a scientific theory should -- has inspired some testable models. But, insofar as ID remains at base an opinion or intuition about logical structure ('specified information'), it remains itself untestable, as such, and, perhaps, self-evident grammatically. Is the ID hypothesis for the origin of biological information a substantive hypothesis or merely a vacuous faut de mieux attending the deconstruction of some physico-chemical attempts that used chance and/ or lawfulness to understand the origin of life?

It might be worth pointing out here that there is no logical way to distinguish between a chance event and an arbitrary (creative) action -- that is, an act not assimilable to one or another of our theoretical expectations. Since physico-chemical approaches mediated by chance have failed to deliver a convincing story of the origin of 'specified information', that, it seems to me, impugns the design hypothesis as well. That is, if it were found that specified information could be mediated by chance, then that would be a good argument in favor of design!

So design is not 'beyond the reach of chance' -- for outside observers design could look like chance. An intelligent procedure which we view ignorantly from outside would look random to us upon doing a statistical analysis. External statistical analyses will show that ensembles of creative acts conform to various probability density functions. Creativity is an internalist mood, not accessible as such to external investigation. We might note that externalism and internalism require different grammatical constructions -- respectively, First Person, present progressive tense versus Third Person, universal present tense. These can never directly mix together. In Meyer's book the erstwhile physico-chemical attempts are in the Third Person, while ID, lacking definite description, is implicitly in First Person.

At one point Meyer raises the possibility of self-organization. But he does so in a very mechanistic, bottom-up manner that would better be labeled 'self-assembly', following various natural laws. At other points he refers to the evident hierarchical structure of the world. In that perspective, self-assembly takes place amid various constraints imposed top-down from higher, including larger scale, levels. That scenario would increase the degrees of freedom for self-assembly, given that this would depend locally upon, e.g., temperature, pH, density of various molecular species, and so on. The increased degrees of freedom in this context might suggest to some that self-assembly could get incorporated into a more flexible self-organization. But, to others it might suggest the possibility of a deity manipulating boundary conditions (given that this agent would be of larger scale or level of organization).

The hierarchy connection leads me to think about information as detected in scales much higher than the cellular. In particular, one might note that the widespread occurrence of convergent evolution has no neo-Darwinian interpretation, as it conflicts with their 'descent with modification' conceptual program. Evolutionary convergence is hardly mentioned by anyone any more. It has no doubt become unfashionable and old-fashioned, and that leads me to guess that there is conceptual gold to be mined there.

In truth, the opposition of most scientists to ID is at base ideological. They will have none of it simply because it doesn't play by their rules, which in the context of the origin of life would be to present an explicit scenario suggesting how it was done.

We may note that scientists have been trying to construct the cell, just as any other investigated system, as a machine. This metaphor, not surprisingly, invites the notion of design and thus implies designers. I think that scientists ought to take note that it is their own philosophical mechanicism that has conjured up the possibility of design. But what if the cell is not a machine? Then scientists would have no basis for fully apprehending it with logical methods, and -- to boot -- ID would no longer have even a fingerhold (as in this book) on the problem of its origin either. All scientists -- IDers or not -- implicitly credit the aphorism 'In the beginning was the word.'

It seems clear that Meyer is yearning for a re-enchantment of the world, something that has largely been destroyed by the hegemony of logic and science as deployed by various 'interests' in our culture. A quote on Page 450 from Bertrand Russell describes well our current spiritual malaise. But the likelihood of co-option of Meyer's proposed route to a renewed enchantment by ancient religious traditions is a major impediment to serious minds.

(c) Stanley Salthe 2009


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