Lecture 1: Explanations

Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke


These lectures are a sequel to my earlier series on the philosophy of liberty. That series took as its point of departure the interior freedom of the human will. Out of that principle the lectures developed a general theory of human nature, morality and the state. But to many people in our society the interior freedom of the human will is no longer believable. A chief reason for this is that it appears incompatible with science. The picture of the world that physics and chemistry seem to suggest to us is one governed by the iron law of cause and effect. The purpose of the present lectures is to explore the true implications of science and the study of nature for the freedom of the will, and by that token also for the other aspects of human existence that go with that: the reality of mind, subjectivity, consciousness, morality and the distinctiveness of the phenomenon of life itself.


Modern science has been arguably the most successful of all human enterprises. In the short space of 400 years since its inception, it has given us more knowledge of the world we live in than all the previous centuries combined. From the largest things down to the smallest, from the galaxies and dark matter to atoms and quarks, and going back to the earliest moments of time in the Big Bang, science has expanded and transformed our understanding of the universe beyond measure. Consequently science in our society has immense authority. It sets the standard for knowledge. Claims to knowledge, no matter how important the field in which they are made, that do not conform to the standard of scientific knowledge lack the prestige that accompanies even the slightest scientific discovery.

Yet there is in this understanding a gaping hole. There is one thing science has not been able to discover anywhere in this immense universe, even though we all know it exists. That thing is man. The qualities that most distinguish human beings from other beings — our mind, our consciousness, our beliefs, our faith, our will and the freedom of our will, moral principle and moral virtue, justice and kindness, as also the phenomenon of life itself, with its spontaneity and vitality — are interior and invisible and remain concealed from it. And since science does not see these things, and in fact does not even possess the means to see them, its verdict is that they do not exist.

The reason for this is that the methods of science are applicable only to the realm of the empirical. Modern science aims to arrive at knowledge, but just for that reason it begins from a position of skepticism. It will not accept any proposition unless the proposition can be proven, or at least strongly supported by empirical evidence. But proof can be achieved only in two realms: the purely conceptual realm of the relationship between ideas, as in mathematics and logic, and the realm of empirical fact. An “empirical” fact is one that can be experienced by the five senses.  (Or can be linked causally to such experience; we do not experience radio waves by means of our five senses, but we can see their effects on measuring devices as well as hear them on our radios.) Science aims to achieve knowledge of the real world, not merely of relationships between ideas.  Knowledge of the real world is acquired through experience. We know that a thing exists when we can see it, hear it, touch it, taste it or smell it. But none of the qualities that are most distinctive of human beings can be seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled. They are unempirical and not available for sense experience.  You know by your own direct internal experience that you have a mind. But I can only deduce that from seeing your external actions. You know what you are thinking at this moment but I don’t know it unless you tell me. Your mind and your will are hidden from me. What makes human beings human, then, cannot be reached by science.  Science is not in a position to tell the difference between a human being and a rock, except that human beings are more complicated.  The same thing applies to other living beings, plants and animals. Science has no theory of life. We observe outward signs that a thing is alive: we can measure its temperature or hear its heart-beat. As Plato observed, living things move themselves. But that is not a scientific theory: it does not explain what life is. Science has no place for the concept of something that moves itself. We do not know what life is in itself. As far as science is concerned, there is no qualitative difference between what is alive and what is dead.  If science knew what life was, it would know what we would have to do to bring something that has died back to life. But of course it does not know this.

This does not stop science from trying. Nor should it. It is natural that science should attempt to apply its methods to everything and expand the realm of knowledge as far as it can. This has produced what are called the “social sciences.”  These alleged sciences have given rise to many interesting ideas and made many insightful suggestions. But viewed as sciences they are failures. Whereas physics and chemistry, genuine sciences, are filled with theories that have been proven and give us genuine knowledge, the “social sciences” have scarcely been able to achieve even one such theory in a hundred years of labor.

The tension between these two aspects of genuine science — its immense and justifiable success, and its equally immense and, as we shall see, potentially fatal limitations — has placed our civilization in an extremely critical situation where in a certain sense we deny our own existence. Our most successful intellectual enterprise believes that we and all living things are machines.  This is not the entire explanation, but it is a large part of the explanation, of what Nietzsche called the death of God.  The way was paved for the death of God by the death of man.

In order to understand this situation properly we must trace the dramatic and fascinating story of how it arose. This I plan to attempt in the next few lectures. From that story I believe it will be possible to see at least the direction we must take to find a remedy.  If we can bring man back to life, we may find we can perform a similar service for God.

The story began some two thousand years ago with Socrates, as depicted in the writings of Plato. I plan to read with you the initial episode of the story as Plato tells it in his dialogue, Phaedo. Specifically the story begins with Socrates sitting on a bench.  The question to be discussed is:  what is the explanation of the fact that Socrates is sitting on the bench?  The answer to this apparently simple question will lead us into the heart of the intellectual crisis of the modern world. There are three stages. The first is to examine Socrates’s own answer to the question. The second, in our next lecture, will be to see what Aristotle and his followers made of Socrates’s answer. The third will be to grasp how, many centuries later, the founders of modern science, such as Sir Francis Bacon, Galileo and Descartes, responded to Aristotle. Each of these stages transformed our world.

The story begins in the prison of Athens in 399 BC. For this was where Socrates and the bench were located. He had been put on trial for corrupting the Athenian youth; he was found guilty and condemned to death.  His execution had been delayed, but now the appointed day has come, and his friends are paying him a last visit.  It would have been possible for him to escape during this time, and there are reasons for believing that the authorities even wanted him to escape, but he refused to do that. The right thing for Athens to do was to declare him innocent and free him. If they were not willing to do that, they should take responsibility for their actions, he felt.

The group of friends in the prison cell have been discussing the question whether the soul lives on after death. Socrates has been trying to convince his visitors that there is good reason to believe both that the soul existed before it entered this body, and that it continues to live on after the body’s death.  But one, Cebes, still has doubts. Socrates begins now by saying that when he was young he wanted to become a scientist.  Please note the words I have printed in bold type.

Socrates paused awhile, and seemed to be absorbed in reflection. At length he said: You are raising a tremendous question, Cebes, involving the whole nature of generation and corruption, about which, if you like, I will give you my own experience; and if anything which I say is likely to avail towards the solution of your difficulty you may make use of it.

I should very much like, said Cebes, to hear what you have to say.

Then I will tell you, said Socrates. When I was young, Cebes, I had a prodigious desire to know that department of philosophy which is called the investigation of nature; to know the causes of things, and why a thing is and is created or destroyed appeared to me to be a lofty profession; and I was always agitating myself with the consideration of questions such as these:—Is the growth of animals the result of some decay which the hot and cold principle contracts, as some have said? Is the blood the element with which we think, or the air, or the fire? or perhaps nothing of the kind—but the brain may be the originating power of the perceptions of hearing and sight and smell, and memory and opinion may come from them, and science may be based on memory and opinion when they have attained fixity. And then I went on to examine the corruption of them, and then to the things of heaven and earth, and at last I concluded myself to be utterly and absolutely incapable of these enquiries, as I will satisfactorily prove to you. For I was fascinated by them to such a degree that my eyes grew blind to things which I had seemed to myself, and also to others, to know quite well; I forgot what I had before thought self-evident truths; e.g. such a fact as that the growth of man is the result of eating and drinking; for when by the digestion of food flesh is added to flesh and bone to bone, and whenever there is an aggregation of congenial elements, the lesser bulk becomes larger and the small man great. Was not that a reasonable notion?

Yes, said Cebes, I think so.

Well; but let me tell you something more. There was a time when I thought that I understood the meaning of greater and less pretty well; and when I saw a great man standing by a little one, I fancied that one was taller than the other by a head; or one horse would appear to be greater than another horse: and still more clearly did I seem to perceive that ten is two more than eight, and that two cubits are more than one, because two is the double of one.

And what is now your notion of such matters? said Cebes.
(Socrates says he has difficulty understanding the basic concepts of mathematics.)

I should be far enough from imagining, he replied, that I knew the cause of any of them, by heaven I should; for I cannot satisfy myself that, when one is added to one, the one to which the addition is made becomes two, or that the two units added together make two by reason of the addition. I cannot understand how, when separated from the other, each of them was one and not two, and now, when they are brought together, the mere juxtaposition or meeting of them should be the cause of their becoming two: neither can I understand how the division of one is the way to make two; for then a different cause would produce the same effect,—as in the former instance the addition and juxtaposition of one to one was the cause of two, in this the separation and subtraction of one from the other would be the cause. Nor am I any longer satisfied that I understand the reason why one or anything else is either generated or destroyed or is at all, but I have in my mind some confused notion of a new method, and can never admit the other.

Then I heard some one reading, as he said, from a book of Anaxagoras, that mind was the disposer and cause of all, and I was delighted at this notion, which appeared quite admirable, and I said to myself: If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular thing in the best place; and I argued that if any one desired to find out the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being or doing or suffering was best for that thing, and therefore a man had only to consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worse, since the same science comprehended both. And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and whichever was true, he would proceed to explain the cause and the necessity of this being so, and then he would teach me the nature of the best and show that this was best; and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would further explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied with the explanation given, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go on and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, active and passive, and how all of them were for the best. For I could not imagine that when he spoke of mind as the disposer of them, he would give any other account of their being as they are, except that this was best; and I thought that when he had explained to me in detail the cause of each and the cause of all, he would go on to explain to me what was best for each and what was good for all. These hopes I would not have sold for a large sum of money, and I seized the books and read them as fast as I could in my eagerness to know the better and the worse.

What expectations I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavoured to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the museles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say; and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking. I wonder that they cannot distinguish the cause from the condition,which the many, feeling about in the dark, are always mistaking and misnaming. And thus one man makes a vortex all round and steadies the earth by the heaven; another gives the air as a support to the earth, which is a sort of broad trough. Any power which in arranging them as they are arranges them for the best never enters into their minds; and instead of finding any superior strength in it, they rather expect to discover another Atlas of the world who is stronger and more everlasting and more containing than the good;—of the obligatory and containing power of the good they think nothing; and yet this is the principle which I would fain learn if any one would teach me. But as I have failed either to discover myself, or to learn of any one else, the nature of the best, I will exhibit to you, if you like, what I have found to be the second best mode of enquiring into the cause.

I should very much like to hear, he replied.

(This “second best mode” of enquiry does not need to detain us for the moment: it was Plato’s doctrine of participation, which leads Socrates to argue that the soul is by its nature the bringer of life and therefore cannot die.)

Socrates has distinguished between two very different conceptions of explanation. The explanation that he depicts Anaxagoras as offering him in terms of bones and muscles was a mechanistic explanation, one that explains things by means of mechanistic causality. A mechanistic cause is one that produces its effect by physical necessity, like a machine, according to the law of cause and effect. When an earthquake occurs, it causes buildings to topple.  If we put the kettle of water on the fire,  it will cause the water to boil. When we turn on the electric light switch, we get electric light.  In modern times a scientific explanation of any phenomenon is always a mechanistic explanation.  (This proposition is true even of quantum mechanics, as its name implies.) Isaac Newton’s explanation of the movement of the moon around the earth in terms of the law of gravitation was a mechanistic explanation.  The equations of both inorganic and organic chemistry are mechanistic. Darwin’s explanation of evolution as occuring through the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest is a mechanistic explanation.

There are two reasons why scientific explanation now is always mechanistic.  One is the basic principle of science, attributed popularly to the mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham and known as Ockham’s Razor, though it was clear already to Aristotle (Physics Bk 8).  Ockham’s Razor lays it down that “explanatory factors should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary”  (entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate.) Or, all things else being equal, a simpler explanation is always to be preferred to a more complex one. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of parsimony in explanation.  If you can explain something mysterious by using two explanatory factors, do not use three. This is a rational principle. But the simplest explanation of any phenomenon is always a mechanistic one. So the scientific explanation of Socrates’s sitting on the bench is that it is the product of his muscles, his weight and his bones.

A second reason why scientific explanation is always mechanistic is that mechanistic causation is predictable, and therefore can be tested. Given the necessary and sufficient cause, the effect follows by necessity. The consequence is that all accepted scientific theories make possible valid and reliable predictions about what is going to happen in the universe. The law of gravitation makes it possible to predict accurately where the moon will be on any given date you choose.

Mechanistic causation has three qualities we should take notice of.  One is that it works only in one direction. If I hit a billiard ball with a cue, it goes off in the direction that the cue is pointing in. The ball does not come back and move the cue. Second, mechanistic causation is predetermined. If I succeed in hitting the billiard ball, the ball does not have any choice about where to go. It must go in the direction in which the cue pushed it. The water in the kettle does not have a choice whether to boil or not. Third, mechanistic causality of itself is neither good nor bad: it does not involve any evaluation. In itself it is neither a good thing nor a bad thing that water on a fire boils or that electricity causes light.  These are just facts.

But what Socrates was looking for was not a mechanistic explanation, but something else.  He was looking, he said, for a “new method.”  Overall, he was looking for an explanation of why the world is the way it is.  Ancient peoples generally did not have the concept of creation-out-of-nothing. They took it for granted that a material world of some kind had always existed. The work of the gods or God was only to give form or shape or order to the world, to make it a cosmos. (Genesis) The question then was not so much, why is there a world at all? but why is the world the way it is?  Socrates wants to know that the shape of the world is justified, that it is the way it is for a good reason. He would consider it was explained satisfactorily if it was the work of a mind, because a mind would see to it that everything was as it should be. “If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular thing in the best place.”  A good philosopher would be able to show and explain why each particular thing was as it should be. Is the earth flat or round? Socrates doesn’t particularly care which it is, but whichever it was, he wanted to know why that was necessary, why it had to be so. It would have to be so because that was the best way for it to be, and the philosopher would be able to show why that arrangement was best.

(Thanks to Broadway, we are all familiar with Voltaire’s Candide. It was written to attack Leibniz, who had argued that everything is for the best and this is the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz believed this because he believed in God. God, being the perfect and most excellent being, as Plato and Christian tradition had taught, could not make anything imperfect. Voltaire ridicules this. Now you see that Socrates agrees with Leibniz. If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all things for the best. We can be sure that God has a very good reason for making the world the way it is—so far as it comes from his hands. What comes from our hands may—or may not—be  a different question.

Socrates and Leibniz were right. But why then is there so much suffering in the world? it is asked. The best answer to this has been given by Kant, in my view, who asks in effect whether you would want a world that had no suffering, that was nothing but pure happiness? The answer of the Utilitarians and the Socialists is yes. But Kant’s answer is that the highest values are moral values, and the highest moral values or virtues only come into existence in the struggle to overcome evil. A life without suffering will remain forever immature and childish. It is only through the encounter with suffering and evil that we grow up. But to discuss this properly requires another conversation. For the moment we will go back to Socrates and the question of what it means to explain something.)

To explain anything adequately for Socrates is to show that it is good. As an example of this general principle he gives his own decision not to escape but to stay in the prison. The true explanation of the fact that he was sitting on the bench was not the mechanistic one pointing to his bones and muscles, but the fact that it was good for him to do so. He made this decision because in his view it was the right thing for him to do. The moral goodness of obeying the law is the ultimate explanation of the fact that he is sitting on the bench in prison.

This kind of causation is what we all normally use to explain human actions. When a person is acting consciously and deliberately, if we wish to explain his action we invariably do so in terms of his motive or purpose or intention. So it was natural for Socrates to explain his own action in the same way. He was right: that was the true explanation of his action, not the bones and muscles of Anaxagoras, though of course they played a role.  In English the purpose for which an action is done or a thing is made is referred to as a final (from the Latin, finis, an end or purpose or intention) or teleological (from the Greek, telos) cause.

Now, however, Socrates takes a step that was to have far-reaching consequences. He not only explains his own human actions in this way, teleologically, by reference to purposes, but wishes to apply this teleological kind of explanation to the shape of the earth, to the sun and moon and stars: in short, to everything in the universe. He suggests this is the kind of explanation that scientists should use in attempting to understand the world of nature. The suggestion will be plausible, he thinks, no doubt, because, having been arranged or designed by mind, everything will be good, and this will be plain to us, if we understand things rightly. We will know in advance that in point of fact everything will be good, if we believe in God,  but it will still be up to us to discover in each particular case concretely why that is so.

There is, in fact, a whole branch of nature where something analogous to this kind of explanation by purposes seems right and appropriate: the realm of living things. It is true that, unlike human actions, the bodies of plants and animals are not in our experience the product of a mind. Yet we see that, as Plato observed, they move and change themselves, and the changes they undergo as they grow and develop are governed by inherent natural purposes. A rosebush aims by its nature to produce roses. A seed aims to grow into a tree. And the tree to produce more trees. If a living thing is wounded, it will aim to heal the wound. Mysteriously, even a being that does not have a mind can nevertheless embody—or at least appear to embody—a purpose or goal.

The causation that is distinctive of living things lacks the three characteristics of mechanistic causation we saw above. Instead it has three different features. Instead of functioning in only in one direction, like the billiard cue and ball, it is reciprocal. The roots of the tree cause the leaves, and the leaves in turn cause the roots; in an animal the heart and the lungs cause one another.  Instead of being predetermined and predictable, living things have the quality of being surprising and often unpredictable. Instead of being merely factual and devoid of value in themselves, as soon as a living thing appears on the scene values arise immediately: the question of what is good for the thing and what is bad for it presents itself straight away.  In modern terminology, Socrates’s suggestion is that all explanation of facts should ultimately be in terms of values.

The modern scientific community assumes that the teleological causality characteristic of living things will ultimately prove to be explainable in terms of mechanistic causation. But this is only an assumption. Although living things typically incorporate many mechanistic elements, it is possible they merely use them as tools to accomplish their ends. The decisive consideration is that they have ends!  Which inanimate objects do not.

Yet there is now a problem. The foundation on which science rests will henceforth be belief in God. How will science fare in the hands of scientists who do not believe in God?  There does not seem to have been a shortage of such thinkers even in Socrates’s day.

There is a second problem. No doubt it is true that as soon as you have something alive, the question arises immediately of what is good and bad for it. But for an inanimate thing nothing can be either good or bad.  Nothing can either benefit or harm a rock. What can it possibly mean, to attempt to explain the natures of inanimate things by showing they are good?

There is a third problem. While mechanistic explanations can be tested and proven, teleological ones cannot. I do not know what your intentions are: they are hidden from me. Nor do you know mine. We can do no more than guess, based on our experience. Something very similar applies to the biology of rosebushes and dogs. This was of course a main reason why Anaxagoras and his fellow scientists fastened on bones and muscles.

 If Socrates had limited his teleological explanations to living beings, and had been willing to accept mechanistic explanations for inanimate beings, he would have been entirely right, and the great adventure of science would have gotten off to a balanced and brilliant start. But he did not do this. He made no exception for the inanimate world, but allowed only one kind of explanation for everything. The error would not be corrected till Galileo and Bacon, 2,000 years later. And when it was corrected, that would be only at the price of a comparable error in the opposite direction. They would reject teleological explanation for anything whatsoever, including the actions of human beings.