knowledge, perception and supposition

Perception and knowledge are different, of course, but which is the most real?
Knowledge seems the obvious answer, but perception is the raw material of existence, which is why knowledge tends to lag behind instinct and first impressions, and why its intrusions are often resented.

When we look at the night sky, we know that the stars we see are an almost unimaginably vast distance away, and their charming twinkle is fuelled by savagely violent nuclear fusion reactions. But that is not what we actually see. Our ancestors looked at the stars and saw tiny lights, almost touchably near, spread across a dark blanket in the sky. And so do we. We know differently, but we still perceive the same.
The theistic worldview comes under the same category; it is a perfectly reasonable first guess at the how and why of existence. But for largely incidental emotional and political reasons, it has endured while all other pre-scientific accounts and explanations have fallen away in the light of empirical data and reasoning. Despite its enormous simplicity, which makes its internal fallacies and inconsistencies incredibly easy to identify, an evermore sophisticated body of explication has built up around it, not to genuinely illustrate its accuracy, but to shore its defences against falsification, simply because of the writer's emotional attachment to it.

Historian Paul Johnson puts the case for it thus:

(Of) possible explanations of life-time-space-and-everything-else… only one in the end makes sense. First, there is simple materialism. This, as I say, provides a bleak and totally unattractive picture of what it is all about; notably by eliminating the moral content of life altogether. If it came to be generally accepted, which is highly unlikely, then the future of the human race would indeed be nasty, brutish and short. However, it cannot be accepted by intelligent people who trouble to work out its implications, not least because it doesn’t solve the time problem. It is possible work out how life on earth will end, and how our own portion of the universe will end or even how the universe as a whole will end. But then the inevitable question arises: what happens afterwards? To this, there is no possible answer, so as an explanation of existence the materialist theory is hopelessly incomplete.
To put the problem the other way round is equally baffling. How did the universe begin?… The Bang may be a neat explanation of how the universe came into being, but it immediately raises the question: who or what detonated the Bang? And what was there before the Bang? There are no present answers to these questions, and it is hard to see how there ever can be, so long as you rule out God… Moreover, this theory can only be demonstrated mathematically. I can no more be confirmed by observation than the story of the Old and New Testaments…
The only explanation which makes sense, it seems to me, is that time, and all that it embraces, including the universe, is a projection of God’s imagination… The only ‘fact’ is the imaginative deity and this fact is spiritual not material, existing outside space and time and therefore not definable by any words we can use.

This is a good, robust philosophical defence of the theistic position.
My first objection, however, is to Johnson's claim that a materialist position does not “make sense”, but only on the grounds that it is “bleak and totally unattractive”.
The latter may be true but it says nothing whatever about whether it makes sense, unless we are presupposing that the universe has our interests at heart: the very proposition we are testing.
Johnson then goes on to say that it is inadequate because it does not answer important questions about time, telling us that the Big Bang does not make an acceptable ultimate cause of existence because it cannot explain what happened ‘before’.
There are two objections to this. One is the obvious one: that exactly the same can be said of God: who or what created him, what was it like before he showed up, etc. Neither theory is knocked down by such questioning: it reveals only the current limits of our knowledge, or perhaps the permanent limits of our reasoning capabilities.
The same goes for the objection that the Big Bang cannot be proved by observation. This is axiomatic. But neither can the existence of God. Or rather, and more tellingly, it can be but hasn’t been. And the whole concept of time, even divorced from such ultimate questions, is simply far more strange and complicated than Johnson allows. (This is something I will discuss at length in forthcoming posts.)

Nothing here has been proved or disproved. We’ve merely said something pretty basic about the limits of obtaining definite knowledge of anything.
Neither is any theory invalidated by incompleteness, as Johnson proposes. Clearly, an incomplete theory is not necessarily a wrong one, and why should our brains be capable of explaining everything anyway?
An ant or a tiger or any other living thing has as much right as a human to seek these answers, yet their brains are not even up to formulating the question. If all humans were wiped out tomorrow and only creatures with uncomprehending brains left, would that make the question meaningless?
So why should the human brain, which evolved as all others did to meet the immediate survival needs of the bearer, be expected to go all the way into these areas of dense speculation?
These are deep, deep mysteries, and nothing on earth has ever come anywhere near as close to solving them as the human brain. We should neither be too hard on it for failing to penetrate all the way, nor too proud to grasp that its limits may not match those of reality.

Finally, Johnson makes the theist’s characteristic ‘great leap’.
After dismissing scientific theories because they do not quite provide an answer to everything, he posits the theory that he says ‘makes sense’.
And it is entirely unproved, unprovable and lacking in any empirical or evidential validation.
Why should mere familiarity and consensus make the notion that we and everything are the imagination of an undetectable supernatural being ‘make sense’ more than any other unproved explanation, let alone one which reams of empirical data support?
Even if these were truly equal theories as far as relative proof goes, Johnson’s is surely the less sensible.
I mentioned earlier that reasoned supposition, even without proof, is not to be despised, and we can still reasonably speculate as to the likeliness and unlikeliness of unproved or unprovable propositions, based upon the observed nature of other things, and the questions we have answered already.
And the history of science has been the history of discovering natural laws, some easily comprehensible, some wildly counter-intuitive, but all of which work of their own steam. Nothing, yet, has ever suggested supernatural intervention in natural laws. So however unsatisfying the Big Bang theory may be, we are entitled to say that it seems more likely than a thinking, deciding, active agent outside of time and space.
This seems even more so when we anthropomorphise still further, adding elements of personality and behaviour, and the idea that this cosmic intelligence decided to make other thinking agents, place them in a landscape, see how they fare, and then judge them.

This, then, is where the argument usually ends.
But there is one point that Johnson makes that is easy to overlook, but is of the utmost importance, albeit to a very different argument.
He wrote that the materialist view of the universe, and by extension any society that was organised according to materialist principles, would be “bleak and totally unattractive”. I replied, correctly, that this made no difference as to whether it was true or not.
But could not Johnson turn around and say, just as correctly, that whether it is true or not makes no difference as to whether he is right?

Perhaps it is its centrality to ethical theory that makes theism so hard to dislodge as an account of existence.

the meaning of life ~ 3.) the meaning of rocks and nothing

The concept of God was invented to account for the existence of complex sentient life, specifically human life.
So high is our opinion of ourselves that the only explanation for our existence many millions remain prepared to accept is that we are the privileged creation of a super-being, made in his immaculate image.
But if we are prepared to accept the truth about life, that it evolves mechanistically from the laws of physics and chemistry, life itself ceases to be mysterious. The mystery that remains is existence.

It's tempting to think of existence as a 'thing in the world', like life, demanding of its own explanation, and perhaps as an opening to slip God back in.
But, as in Anthony Flew's garden analogy outlined in my previous post, this is only because we have already invented him, for a need he no longer serves.
If we all knew about Darwinism from the moment of our inception, and were confronted only with the mystery of planets floating in space, would we then have created so implausible an entity as a personality outside of space and time, pulling the strings, to account for them?
With the great question - the meaning of life - reduced, basically, to the meaning of rocks, cannot we come up with a less extravagant hypothesis?

Instinctively, we might tend to say that the mystery of existence per se is at least as great as the mystery of life, and just as demanding of a big, splashy explanation.
Hence the most popular reformulation of the old question: not ‘what is the meaning of life?’ but ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’
This is a question that by its own lights remains permanently beyond logical conclusion, and thus feels mysterious in exactly the kind of way that the fact of life once felt mysterious, and therefore big enough to allow room for a God hypothesis.
Scientists tend to despair when they hear it because to them it is a kind of semantic magic trick with no meaning: it is a question that can only possibly make sense to a thinking organism, thus can only be asked in a world of something. Their answer, then, is: because if there were nothing, there would nothing to ask the question and nothing to ask it of. Existence is not a thing in the world; it cannot be contrasted with something else; it has no 'opposite'.
Certainly, non-existence is not a valid concept - it is simply nothing. So first we must be sure what we mean by nothing.

'Nothing' is not the absence of things, still less is it empty space, which is very much something. Neither is it a kind of blankness, or blackness - only material space is empty; only things have colour. It is literally and totally nothing; it is the absence of anything at all, even the possibility of anything, even the possibility of the idea of anything.
It is an impossible state of affairs, because it is not a state of affairs. It cannot be envisaged, or usefully talked of. It has no shape, no past or future, no purpose, surely no meaning. It is simply nothing at all.
And that’s a pretty big concept. It frustrates us by the effort of articulating it; as a concept it defies formulation; it seems to run away whenever we approach it; it is like water, constantly slipping through our fingers.

True nothingness brings us to the brink of human comprehension.
It is a paradox rather like the riddle of space. Since the concept of infinite space and the concept of bounded space seem equally absurd, the question ‘what lies outside of the universe, and outside of that, and of that?’ is one that leaves us with the feeling of having run into a mental wall, as if our thoughts were actually pushing at the outer membrane of our brains.
Logically, space that ends and space that does not are equally impossible. But one or the other must be the case, so it follows that the problem is one we have conjured ourselves, a fact about our brains rather than the world (and one that seems to provide ironic evidence of the existence of a world outside of human comprehension).

Schopenhauer wrote that every man mistakes the limits of his vision for the limits of the world; this is equally true of mankind collectively: Plato's cave is scientific fact. Our perception of just about everything runs contrary to scientific explication: we don't see the world accurately, we see it effectively. This in itself is proof of the Darwinian process, and strong evidence against any notions of humans occupying any kind of central or privileged position in what we might still wish ironically to call 'the universal scheme'.
We see the world the way we can see it, which is the way that it is most useful for us to see it, which is almost certainly not the way it is. (This suggests in fact that there is no single privileged 'way it is', only an infinite possibility of ways it might be perceived, and therefore comes very close to being a scientific proof of Kantian idealism.)

Similarly, it is virtually impossible to think of nothing as anything other than a lump of nothing, as nothing in something.
Actual, complete and total nothing is too outside of our experience to be fully accepted by brains that, after all, only evolved to comprehend a limited number of comparatively simple survival options.

At a first glance the fact that we see existence as an unanswerable mystery would seem to give succour to the atheist and the believer equally.
Mysteries are inevitable, just as almost everything is mysterious to a computer or a cow, and mysterious answers are not necessary, even if the actual answers lie forever outside our reach.
On the other hand, there are no grounds for ruling them out either: if the truth is as fundamentally unknowable as the choice between two concepts equally impossible to logic, then the God hypothesis is both no more reasonable than literally anything else you care to invent, and no less reasonable.
This, at least, is arguable here, at the very threshold of existence itself, in a way that it is not, really, at any other point where ultimate questions have been felt necessary, such as the long-ago concluded 'mystery (meaning) of life'.

But ultimately, it still runs aground on the falsely physical status we accord existence as a concept.
What the theist overlooks is that the question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' makes just as much – or little – sense in reverse. To the extent that it is valid, it would be equally valid for us to posit the non-existence of anything and ask then ‘why is there nothing rather than something?’
The absurdity - and impossibility - of any such question instantly reveals the flaw in the argument when presented as it is more usually - and instinctively - formulated.
The difference between something and nothing is so fundamental that there is really no logical or existential relationship between them at all. There is a close (and misleading) linguistic connection between the two words, but the concepts, though superficially opposite, are utterly different, and incomparable as states.
There just either is, or there isn’t.

So to say that if there is, then a special explanation involving a supernatural being is called for simply makes no sense.
God can exist within a concept of things existing, but even he can’t exist outside of a state of nothingness, because as soon as you put him there you have something. There either is – with God in it or not - or there isn’t. You can’t go outside of nothing, and you can’t go before it. It’s nothing.

Any speculation on the matter reduces ultimately either to speculation as to the idiosyncrasies of language, or the computing capabilities and limits of the human brain. And it wouldn’t be the first time that either was mistaken for external reality.
As for the God hypothesis, perhaps one of the best reasons for rejecting it, paradoxically, is precisely that it does not give us that feeling of butting the insides of our skulls that the thought of infinite space or absolute nothingness do. It makes for a suspiciously comprehensible kind of ultimate answer. It feels small, unimaginative, a fudging of the big questions - as a concept it seems to have human fingerprints on it.

the meaning of life ~ 2.) the meaning of existence

Via Darwinism, we can travel back in time through genetic variation and speciation, from the bewildering variety and complexity of life today all the way to the simplest self-replicating single-celled organisms from which all living things are derived.
Nothing in our reverse journey so far has demanded supernatural intervention to function, but obviously, we need some fundamentals, for which we have not yet accounted, for evolution to work with: a universe in the first place, certain chemicals and certain weather conditions.
So while we have explained life (and its meaning) we have not yet accounted for the existence of the universe itself. Is this a convenient place to fit God back into the equation?

It may seem so, and certainly it is a popular spot for sophisticated theologians who wish to have their primordial soup and eat it.
But I think this is to commit a logical error, compounded by the inability to accept that there must be a fundamental given for any speculation to be possible, and that given here is existence.
Without existence there can be no question of anything, so a question of existence is almost by definition one that is impossible to conceive. The trouble is that our brains are sophisticated enough to formulate such questions, which leads naturally to the delusion that we must therefore be able to answer them, or at least conceive of what kind of an answer we are looking for.

The reason why such an error occurs is best illustrated by the following analogy. This is a story that I may have modified considerably in the many years I have been pondering it, but which is borrowed in its essentials from the philosopher Anthony Flew.

Imagine there are two explorers, arduously hacking their way through unexplored jungle, every step requiring the slashing and chopping away of overgrown vegetation, teeming with wildlife.
But then, suddenly, they hack their way into a clearing. After miles of being unable to see more than a foot ahead of them, they suddenly stumble upon a wide-open space.
It is a garden, with ornamental shrubs, a neat lawn, and flowerbeds all around. So obvious does it seem that it cannot possibly have grown in such a fashion of its own accord, both explorers reasonably assume that there must be a gardener responsible for its upkeep, and, starved of human company, sit down to await his arrival.
After several days in which the gardener has failed to appear, one of the explorers decides to look for him. The other remains sitting, content to wait, certain he will come.
A week later, and still no gardener, the rift between the two men becomes deeper.
Now, the first is beginning to entertain the notion that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there may not be a gardener after all. The other is so adamant that this plainly cannot be the case that he tries to account for the garden with recourse to concepts of which he has no empirical experience.
What if the gardener were invisible? What if he were somehow omniscient, omnipresent? A force or entity, able to ‘control’ the garden remotely, in ways undetectable by us?
Satisfied with this explanation, he continues sitting.
But his colleague, now more restless than ever, sets off further to examine the situation and try to make rational sense of it.

After a year of observation and experiment, the first man returns to the garden, triumphant and exhilarated by what he has discovered, and eager to share it with his friend.
In a series of tests and observations, he has discovered the process by which the garden sustains and maintains itself.
He has worked out how it exists, by what mechanism, and he has even worked out the reason why it gives the illusion of deliberate design.
All of this he is able to demonstrate and prove.
His colleague, who by this time has a long, trailing beard and has been sitting so long he is literally unable to move, is curiously resentful of the information, and still refuses to accept its conclusion.
Yes, there may be no ultimate need for the gardener as such, but still he remains certain that he is nonetheless there, somewhere, in some sense and to some degree, if only to oversee the process and check that it all runs smoothly.

At this point, the first man realises that nothing he can ever say will be enough to convince his colleague, because they are viewing the garden in two separate and utterly incompatible ways.

But the more important point to me, though I’m not sure it was the central point of Flew’s version, is that the exact nature of the need to believe evinced by the more credulous explorer has shifted from its original more rational formulation – a need governed by the nature of the empirical evidence – to an emotional and internal one, that looks backwards from the stance of a pre-existing explanation rather than squarely at the fresh evidence.
In other words, he was clinging to the gardener belief purely because he wanted to, perhaps because he felt he had too much invested in it, long after the need to believe had been removed.

The garden as they discovered it demanded explanation, and at that point the gardener hypothesis seemed to fit.
But if a simple materialistic process had seemed equally reasonable at the outset, is there any question as to which they would have favoured?
The little bit of the puzzle that remained unknown to them – how such a process might have come about in the first place – would have needed explanation, but neither would have demanded recourse to so outrĂ© a solution as an actual thinking and acting gardener.

This is why there is no need to insert God into the story of existence before the process of Darwinian evolution begins, as a kind of supernatural powder-lighter or overseer, and further, it suggests that the fact we ever felt the need to do so afterwards says something interesting about us rather than about the material universe.

the meaning of life ~ 1.) ‘life’ is a red herring

'The meaning of life' - always assuming that by 'meaning' we mean 'explanation' rather than 'purpose' (which wrongly presupposes the necessity of purpose) or 'secret of happiness' (which is a question that belongs, if anywhere, in psychology) - is not a great philosophical mystery but a question that has been concluded for at least a hundred and fifty years.
It was answered by Darwin, much like that other great supposed imponderable, which came first, the chicken or the egg? (Since a chicken evolved from some earlier species of bird, the answer is the egg.)
The meaning of life is genetic propagation.

As meaning is no great mystery, neither is life itself.
The difference between living and non-living things is a slippery one, with little practical meaning. There is no actual scientific sense in which we and trees and elephants are ‘alive’ and the earliest replicators, or rocks, or water, are inanimate, mechanical, ‘dead’. This is vitalism – a totally outmoded concept. It does not so much define life as opine ‘I know it when I see it’.

But there is a deeper philosophical point here about our propensity to ask these questions in the first place.
A rock does not ponder the meaning of life because, we must assume, it cannot. But if it could, would it feel the need to? The answer is of course yes, because anything capable of formulating such an enquiry is therefore justified in doing so.
But a rock that could think is obviously a rock no longer. So there is a circular paradox here.
We assume the question is relevant for us, because we are able to ask it - but which is the chicken and which the egg: the validity of the enquiry or the ability to formulate it?
What we can see, very clearly, is that it is not much of a question as far as the rock is concerned.
On the rock's behalf, as it were, we can see that the meaning of life is not something it has any especial business being troubled by.
This should make us feel just a little bit uneasy.
If ultimate meaning is demanded by us because our greater complexity than the rock seems to justify the enquiry, then it suggests that we ask the question because we can, and then feel ourselves more entitled to do so than something that can't, purely because we have instinctively and arbitrarily selected 'ability to ask the question in the first place' as the defining differential.
But elephants cannot formulate it either, and yet are surely entitled to enquire if only they could? Why not the rock, then?

If we accept a mechanistic model for brain complexity we have no more or less innate need to ask the question than a rock does.
We are 'alive' and rocks are not?
Even if you cling to vitalist principles, surely the difference is not absolute but one of degrees, travelling in gradiating progression from rocks, through sponges, then trees, amaeoba, insects, elephants and us, with a million more intermediates each step of the way. Where on that ladder does life begin - and, more pertinently, end?

Life is a red herring. What is really concerning us here is existence, a state common to humans and rocks. 'Life' and existence are two very different things, and it may be sheer self-prioritisation to assume that sentience is by definition more important than mere presence - and thus demanding of a different answer.

rorty/scruton: a contrived dialogue


If we examine the gurus of the new university establishment, those whose works are most often cited in the endless stream of articles devoted to debunking Western culture, we discover that they are all opponents of objective truth.
Nietzsche is a favourite, since he made the point explicitly: "There are no truths," he wrote, "only interpretations." Now, either what Nietzsche said is true—in which case it is not true, since there are no truths—or it is false. Enough said, you might imagine. But no: the point can be stated less brusquely, and the paradox concealed.
This explains the appeal of those later thinkers… who owe their intellectual eminence not to their arguments (of which they have precious few) but to their role in giving authority to the rejection of authority, and to their absolute commitment to the impossibility of absolute commitments.


Some people don’t like it when I say that the Platonic search for universal truth is a mistake. They want to see philosophy as some grand struggle to reach a comprehensive view of life, but I argue that there are no transcendental answers. Each of us must reach our own conclusions about life, and try to respect the differences among us. It is the insistence on finding one theory of knowledge that causes so many problems. What happens when your theory isn’t my theory? When you think your answer must also be my answer?


The threat of vacuousness does not deter Rorty, who sees pragmatism as a weapon against the old idea of reason… In his words: "Pragmatists view truth as . . . what is good for us to believe. . . . They see the gap between truth and justification not as something to be bridged by isolating a natural and trans-cultural sort of rationality which can be used to criticize certain cultures and praise others, but simply as the gap between the actual good and the possible better. . . . For pragmatists, the desire for objectivity is not the desire to escape the limitations of one's community, but simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of `us' as far as we can." In other words, pragmatism enables us to dismiss the idea of a "trans-cultural . . . rationality." There is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth; all that matters is that we agree.
A true pragmatist will no doubt invent history just as he invents everything else, by persuading "us" to agree with him. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a glance at history, if only to see how paradoxical and dangerous is Rorty's view of the human intellect. The Islamic ummah—the society of all believers—was and remains the most extended consensus the world has ever known. It expressly recognizes consensus (ijma`) as a criterion of, and indeed a substitute for, truth, and it is engaged in a never-ceasing endeavor to include as many as possible in its comprehensive first-person plural. Moreover, whatever Rorty means by "good" or "better" beliefs, the pious Muslim must surely count as having some of the very best: beliefs that bring security, stability, happiness, a handle on the world, and a cheerful conscience as one blows up the kafirs who think otherwise.
Yet still, is there not a nagging feeling somewhere that those heartwarming beliefs might not be true, and that the enervated opinions of the postmodern atheist might just have the edge on them? On Rorty's account of pragmatism, this is not something a pragmatist can say. After all, postmodern atheists, unlike pious Muslims, don't compose a community—not even an imagined community. They have no credo or catechism, no sacred text, no established consensus. Yet Rorty is a postmodern atheist. Why? Not because he belongs to a community of unbelievers, but because he thinks that atheism is true. The pragmatism that puts consensus in the place of truth turns out to be a sham.

cautious complacency

Dogmatism and relativism, obscurantism and doubt fall short because they are incapable of acting on reasonable supposition; like a computer unable to read a programme in which one digit has been typed incorrectly they cannot infer the relative likelihood of alternatives, which in human affairs can result in both tyranny and a kind of proud apathy which invites the tyranny of others.
Logic does not always seem to go hand in hand with reason. From Descartes, from Berkeley, from Kant, Locke and Hume, come propositions that may seem superficially to push us further away from enlightenment rather than towards it.
It takes Darwin to bring us back to earth: survival cannot be effected via random and misleading sense impressions.
It is a fact that because our perception of reality and the world outside of our heads must be mediated by our own sensory equipment, and is thus entirely dependant upon them, we could never perceive reality as anything other than our own sense-impressions, opening the door to the possibility that it is entirely different from our perception of it or even illusory.
Likewise, it is a fact that no object can truly be said to have a colour, or a smell or a taste, since these properties are determined by us as agents of perception, and are meaningless without us. Yet an apple can still exist in a world without us, so whatever it truly is, independent of the means to perceive it in other things, it cannot logically be said to be smooth, or sour, or green. But in that case what is it? How do we define anything other than by properties such as shape, texture or colour?
Such observations are invaluable as starting points to logical analysis, clearing the decks of unwarranted assumptions and inaccurate first principles.
But to pretend they represent non-negotiable barriers to progression - as Hume or Berkeley or Descartes would never have claimed - and therefore represent the end of the argument is absurd - and unscientific.
Russell called common sense "the metaphysics of savages". It is nothing of the sort. It is a tried and tested evolved mechanism that enables us to negotiate and survive in a world in which all living things evolve in concert. So when Richard Rorty says things like “truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with” or “no period of history gets reality more right than any other” he is saying something that is true, misleading, obvious and meaningless all at once.
He posits an alternative to Kantian idealism that in its particulars sounds a lot like it, only without the basic assumption that reality can withstand such unreasonable extensions of logical argument.
In going so far as to question whether the mind is even attempting to hold a mirror to reality Rorty elevated the reductio ad absurdum to the status of fundamental truth.

More than a mere spiv like Derrida, he was nonetheless too in thrall to the same kind of impish nihilism that animates deconstruction, the refusal to see that informed supposition is not wild guesswork but probably the greatest advance in the history of mental life on earth, the single most significant factor separating human minds from those of every other living thing. Hume in fact talks of 'mitigated scepticism', essentially an informed compromise between what little we know with certainty and what we may reasonably assume, negotiated for the express purpose of getting through life sensibly and safely.

So while no meaning or meanings can ever be prioritised in logic, some can be, must be, in practice if we are to function as natural entities, and claiming otherwise is just an intellectual game; fundamentally unserious, and trivial.
Existence is enacted not in an abstract world but a concrete one, with perils and challenges around every corner of a sort through which relativism is simply incapable of negotiating a course. This world is shaped by and subservient to natural laws to which we, as products of Darwinian evolution, can be predicted to respond in finite ways. In other words, ultimate truth may be forever elusive, but compromise is not merely possible but imperative. Some courses of action work, others do not. We accept this without question in our physical lives - why should our mental lives be so different?

Can we ever be sure how I see, feel or otherwise experience a tree, or liquid, or the colour green is the same way that you experience those entities we both call a tree, or liquid, or the colour green?
In logic, no we can’t, but in practice, it is not evasion to conclude, cautiously, that we can. If there was ever a person who saw a hungry tiger as the colour green he would not be expected to produce many ancestors. So in a sense, our existence suggests the question was answered long before it was even asked: radical doubt tested in the arena of empirical reality, with empirical reality (represented by the one with the stripes, long teeth and full belly) emerging the winner.
We are the descendants of a long line of reproducing entities that stretches back through human history all the way to the first self-replicating single-celled organism. Not one of our ancestors died before producing another generation. It is reasonable to suppose then, that our version of reality is, if ultimately just that, still nonetheless consistent with the reality perceived by all other successful perceiving entitles on the planet: and what better definition of objective reality than that are you looking for exactly?

Rorty wrote that “no organism, human or non-human, is ever more or less in touch with reality than any other organism” as if he was saying something interesting, but to be equally in touch with reality is exactly what we should expect of successful organisms.
Reality can be discerned in the areas of consensus and interaction between discrete entities, be they species, cultures, individuals or whatever.
This consensus points to exactly that objectively verifiable reality which the Cartesian method, transcendental idealism and postmodernism all question (the first two soberly and wisely). That we are not able to reach ultimate certainty on such questions merely says something about the limitations of our minds, nothing at all about phenomenal reality. You may as well argue from the perspective of a pencil and say there is no good reason for believing in the existence of cows, because a pencil cannot perceive them.
Rorty knew this: he wrote that beliefs are merely ingrained habits, road tested in the Darwinian arena, but didn't seem to grasp that this points towards an independently discernible reality rather than away from one.

the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation

"The more specialised a vision, the sharper its focus; but also the more nearly total the blind spot toward all things that lie on the periphery of this focus. As a human being, functioning professionally within the Academy, the philosopher can hardly be expected to escape his own professional deformation, especially since it has become a law of modern society that man is assimilated more and more completely to his social function."

William Barrett, Irrational Man

if a lion could talk... we'd probably get the gist

The fact of difference - biologically, existentially - is not trivial, but difference ultimately reduces to similarity.

The human perspective is a subset of the mammalian perspective, shared with the lion.
Mammalian perspective is a subset of sentient perspective; sentient perspective is a subset of the (theoretical but readily conceivable) perspective of all living things, which is a small subset of (the proposed) 'true' cosmic perspective - but a subset so infinitesimally small, and specialised, as to be of no use as a pointer to the whole.

Cosmic perspective is by definition unknowable: it is, so to speak, 'the mind of God': another reason why the concept of an anthropomorphic deity is so unsound.

If nothing more, the lion and we could intelligibly swap ignorance stories.

the evolution of moral taboos

A piece in The Times of July 15th 2008 was headed "I used to have sex with my brother but I don't feel guilty about it."
"Incest is seen as bad," it opined, "but that isn't always the case."

Then on July 22nd, a follow-up article, "Sibling incest: what you think" canvassed the newspaper's readers. "Good on you!" said one. "This story highlights the absurd and arbitrary moralising taboos that our society likes to construct around sexual relations."

It is often thought that moral taboos, such as the incest taboo, are arbitrary social constructs with no adaptive significance, a form of social control that post-dates social organisation.
Example: Consensual homosexuality does no harm to anybody and its persecution is thus morally indefensible. The function of the taboo seems to be to enforce a particular conception of 'normal' sexual and social arrangements, often citing the approval /disapproval of a supernatural deity for its ultimate authority. But it is not a coincidence that homosexual sexual activity does not produce children.
Obviously, any ancestral society of homosexuals would have died out after one generation. So in any species that proliferates by sexual union between two genders, homosexuals must always be a mathematical minority. The inevitable way that ‘not being homosexual’ will manifest itself to the bearer of that trait is in a sense of physical recoil. Just as inevitably, this will be codified in brains that do not perceive themselves as machines but as thinking agents as a moral objection.

We can choose to dismantle some taboos, but we are mistaken if we think either that taboos are merely the random, deliberately nasty products of censorious religious minds, or that we can extrapolate from the case of homosexuality or any similar example the maxim that all taboos are worthless and should be consigned to the same fate.
The thing to realise is that moral taboos are metaphors for facts of evolutionary biology.
Many, many children would die without evolved instinct, if their parents had to tell them everything – don’t touch fire, don’t play with spiders, don’t kiss crocodiles. Phobias and instincts are instant, evolved parents.
Taboos work the same way. Some we have outgrown, and can lay down. But a lot of conditioning needs to be overridden, and we should perhaps be more generous to those of earlier generations who find this hard.

It should be obvious that to pre-Darwinian cultures with inherited evolutionary instincts but no scientifically accurate means of rationalising them, the obvious, perhaps only way of doing so was to make ‘sins’ of non-beneficial traits and practices.
The situation is clearer if we look again at the taboo of incest.

This is instructive in that it is still standing, which is to say the idea of it still provokes distaste and unease even in such sections of society for whom opposition to homosexuality is considered unacceptable in any degree. But viewed objectively, the two are identical: both minority sexual practices which, if pursued consensually, do no immediate harm to those who practice them or anyone else.
We may account for why some people are repulsed by both, and for why some people are repulsed by neither. But why should some be repulsed by one and not the other? This is the value to us of the incest taboo: we have caught it in a moment of transition, at a point where evolved, 'superstitious' objection is having to hold its ground against rational interrogation. In this collision we see the way in which morality and sociobiology have always worked in secret alliance.

Incest can produce children, but the genetic similarity of the parents vastly increases the risk of mutation, genetic defects and inherited abnormalities and diseases. Thus, since surviving members of species will come overwhelmingly from parents who chose their partners outside the family circle, so the desire to avoid incest will proliferate within a species, since the ‘non-incestuous gene’ proved the more advantageous and ‘won’ the competition between the two kinds of sexual desire.
But it is important to remember that while the result was determined by a mere impersonal quirk of biology (inbreeding reduces reproductive success), the actual ‘battle’ for reproductive success and therefore proliferation was between kinds of desire, not views on genetic evolution. So what is being handed down from generation to generation is the tendency for the organism to consciously reject incest, not an unconscious prohibition of it at the genetic level.

Thus, inevitably, we arrive at level two: the instinct by which this trait manifests itself to the bearer - as a physical, almost emotional recoil from the thought of incestuous sexual relations.
This instinct, divorced entirely from any awareness of its scientific raison d’etre, which the bearer at most stages of human history would in any case have been completely unable to grasp, thus becomes self-justifying, and is formalised as level three: the moral taboo: incest is wrong. (This has the additional effect of providing a strong social disadvantage – stigma – to prevent even those who do desire it from acting upon their desires.)
At this conscious, unscientific level, as usual, God is evoked. It is a sin to lie down with one’s mother or brother. What other way could a ‘sin’ be justified if not by appeal to external authority?

The second half of the twentieth century has seen war declared on both stigma and taboo. Interestingly, unlike homosexuality, the view that incest is morally wrong, even when strictly consensual and among adults, persists even in secular ethics. (This is what makes it so valuable as a demonstration model). But it is hard to see it standing for long against a sustained campaign that argues it is an unconscionable oppression to restrict the sexual freedoms of consensual adults who can now, of course, start families in one of numerous artificial ways. As with homosexuality, the old moral taboo is left, as it were, hanging in mid-air, no longer supported by biological necessity. 
What objection remains other than that nasty old free-floating taboo? If we are honest, we have to say nothing, and if that still leaves us feeling uneasy, we have to own to that, too.