Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

The Metaphysical and Epistemological Basis for a Genuinely Free Society

Advocating for a Genuinely Free Society goes beyond demanding individual freedom.  It’s somewhat more involved.

Most humans live in society, and contribute to that society, and in turn, benefit in some degree.  They depend on modern society to provide food, clothing, material needs, spiritual sustenance and the opportunity to earn a living. 

Relationships between individuals are myriad, and range between socially subtle signals between lovers to brutal confrontations with the violent.  A person’s status alters with age: sometimes they expand their social influence through gaining positions of power and authority.  They manage a complex web of relationships, and guide the behavior of others.  Some people gain expertise, and contribute to creating solutions that solve social problems, or establish alternatives.  The majority plays a modest role, one that rarely becomes well known or memorable, yet critical nonetheless to the proper functioning of any society.

The political and economic structure greatly impacts the complexity of various roles that people play, and the dynamic relationships that form the basis of modern society.  Some political systems enhance people’s lives, while others tend to oppress.  The difference along that continuum can be dramatic.

Most people treat political issues in isolation, apart from a systematic set of values or principles.  Someone might favor legal support for unions, say, while opposing the telephone monopoly, without considering the contradiction.  Education is ‘good’, and therefore local funding initiatives must be passed.  Drugs are ‘bad’ and must be outlawed.

The two party system in the US exacerbates this ignorance as the Democrats and Republicans lack any unifying principles within their party platforms.  In general, liberal Democrats favor cultural freedom, while pushing for increasing government intervention to near socialistic levels.  The Republicans tend to preach free market economics while legislating legal limits to personal behavior.  Neither of them advocates genuine freedom in any form.

The electorate hasn’t the means to weigh the costs and benefits of any particular policy, and remain unaware of genuine alternatives.  The only way this can change is by exploring the philosophical foundations of political economy.

To understand why any political philosophy is worthy of serious consideration, or to criticize a particular approach to structuring society, one should be grounded in the fundamentals: what is the nature of existence? what can humans know?  what really matters?

There are many ways to express the following perspective, none of them necessarily right or wrong.  Ultimately, the intent is to explore the ultimate boundaries of human thought and experience, and how those limitations impact political philosophy.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

The dictionary defines metaphysics as “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.”  I would add that metaphysics begins where science ends: what cannot be explained or demonstrated through rational thought.  Metaphysics also addresses the implications of what science teaches us.  And finally, how any of this relate to human existence.

Epistemology is “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope.  Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.”  In other words, what can humans know, and how can they know it.

Metaphysical Model

For the purposes of this work, the central metaphor relates the nature of the actual universe to individual human reality.  Actuality refers to the physical universe in total: every physical manifestation can ultimately be reduced to this fundamental actuality.   Reality pertains to what individual humans perceive and understand in the totality of their existence.  This reality is collectively known as the Human Universe.  

Philosophy and literature are speculative constructs of the commerce between word and world.

            George Steiner, No Passion Spent

This relationship between the world and the subject has a long philosophical history, as thinkers realized long ago that what humans perceive and think about things are not actually the ‘things’ they perceived and talked about.  Entire philosophies have been based on this insight (Berkeley’s Idealism, for example, where the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind and not necessarily the ‘things in themselves’.)  The intent here is not to break new ground, or insist that this is the only way to express the distinction between mind and the world, but simply to establish some basic philosophical context for what follows.

If we presented this model in terms of Plato’s parable of the cave, human reality is the multi-dimensional, fully-colored shadow that dances upon the cave wall, and all subsequent derivations, including:

  • Sensations
  • Perceptions
  • Emotions
  • Sex
  • Pain
  • Dreams
  • Memories
  • Thoughts
  • Language
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Concepts
  • Ideas
  • Imagination
  • Work
  • Entertainment
  • Culture
  • Games
  • Society
  • Religion
  • Ideology
  • History
  • Dogma
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Philosophy
  • Art
  • Literature

In short, the Human Universe. 

Actuality is that which casts the shadow.

Once this shadow is cast, humans process the input in countless ways.  Specific human notions such as ‘quality’, ‘trust’, ‘justice’, ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘compromise’, and ‘greatness’ emerge from the physical, mental and cultural state in which we live. 

…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

, Hamlet

Such things as ‘honor’ and ‘love’ don’t exist independently of human minds and human discourse.  They can’t be found or discovered in the actual universe, yet reside in infinite ways within an individual mind: 

For an experienced event is finite—at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it.

            Walter Benjamin
, Illuminations

Heidegger believes he plumbs the deepest philosophical abyss with his analysis of Being, but I believe he pulls up a bit short:

Whether another “foundation” is to be laid under metaphysics as if under a building already standing, or whether other decisions about “metaphysics” are to result from meditation on the “ontological difference,” need not be discussed here…
     The differentiation of Being and beings—although taken for granted everywhere—is the unknown and ungrounded ground of all metaphysics.

          Martin Heidegger
, Nietzsche, Vol. 4

If ‘Being’ can be taken as the totality of existence, total actuality (as opposed to the Human Universe), then such ‘Being’ might be considered the ‘ungrounded ground’ of all metaphysics, and we would stand in agreement, as:

...nothing exists besides the whole—

, The Will to Power

On the other hand, if Heidegger means that ‘Being’ is less inclusive then All, then another foundation exists at least one level lower, one that his notion of ‘Being’ rests upon.  Based on my reading of Heidegger, he doesn’t consider Being meaningful outside of human experience and understanding.  If I am correct, he fails to consider the actual nature of existence independent of human perspective.  And in some ways he is right to do so, as it seems that anything outside of a human perspective would be meaningless to humans, and of no use, philosophically or otherwise.  Even if that were the case, however, we might project a view of existence that in principle lies outside of human knowledge and can therefore never be absolutely confirmed.

That you, who were Existence
Yourself forgot to live—

            Emily Dickinson

As for ‘beings’, these are clearly human constructs, and only stand as independent entities from a strictly human perspective (and potentially the perspective of reasonably intelligent animals).  Humans, however, are the only animals (as far as we know) that can name, describe, and distinguish between different sorts of beings. 

The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists.

, Essays and Aphorisms

Nothing exists in the way humans perceive it to exist.  Every rock, tree, animal and planet is something that humans bound off from everything else in order to distinguish that particular thing.  It’s both arbitrary and necessary, in that making these distinctions are critical to navigate the actual world, and to remain alive within it.

Science and Rationality

The most sophisticated human approach to the world is through science and rational thinking.  Science is the king of Western society, credited with creating the technology that dominates modern human existence.  Beginning with Thales in 6th century Greece, and proceeding through Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Einstein and Hawking, the systematic examination, contemplation and experimentation that characterizes the scientific method has transformed human civilization in ways beyond reckoning.  And yet, what non-scientists often don’t realize is the multitude of limitations encountered and illuminated over the history of science.

Thus: a man wants to arrange all events as events accessible to sight and touch, consequently as motions: he wants to find formulas so as to simplify the tremendous quantity of his experiences.  Reduction of all events to the level of the man of the senses and the mathematician.  It is a question of an inventory of human experiences—under the supposition that man, or rather the human eye and ability to form concepts, are the eternal witness of all things.

, The Will to Power

In other words:

Everything which is knowable is illusion.

Philosophy and Truth

Science has made plain that humans do not directly perceive the actual world.  Take vision, for instance.  Light reflects off an object and the photons strike receptor cells in the cornea.  These cells send signals to the brain, where they are interpreted and provide a person with a three-dimensional model derived from two-dimensional input.  This image is mitigated by too many factors to list, in that it doesn’t present what is actually there, in total or even in part. 

For everything we perceive…is merely phenomenon; we do not know what things are like in themselves, i.e. independently of our perception of them. 

, Essays and Aphorisms

Even so, vision allows a human to navigate within the actual world, while providing a less than comprehensive reflection of what actually takes place within the field of vision. 

Are there not vast areas of the cosmos, both macroscopic and microscopic, as yet unseen and, most likely, never to be seen by us, yet undoubtedly extant?

         George Steiner
, Grammars of Creation

Radio waves, particles in the air, radiation of several types, and magnetic fields, all go unnoticed and unperceived.  Humans don’t actually see anything actual, in that the objects within the field of vision are mere reflections that the human brain must interpret to make the images meaningful.  It requires a mental buildup of relevant context to make any particular image meaningful, something that a person can use to assess and act.

Using only the eye, we should never have arrived at the notion of time; using only the ear, we should never have arrived at the notion of space…
         From the very beginning, we see the visual images only within ourselves; we hear the sound only within ourselves.  It is a big step from this to the postulation of an external world.

Philosophy and Truth

The same goes for any other sense, be it hearing, touch, taste or smell.  All of them provide sensory input to the brain, requiring context and interpretation to become useful. 

The world seems logical to us because we have made it logical.

, The Will to Power

Objects do not ‘exist’ outside a human perspective.  From a non-human perspective, everything in the universe is made of particles (or ‘strings’) and/or forces.  From this non-human perspective, where one ‘object’ (from a human perspective) begins and ends or behaves is irrelevant.  A rock sitting on the ground is just a bunch of molecules/particles fundamentally no different than the dirt and air that surrounds it.  What we call a ‘cat’ is a conglomeration of organisms and cells and atoms that exist temporarily within a specific time and place, the word ‘cat’ an arbitrary unit invented by humans. 

Time, space, and causality are only metaphors of knowledge, with which we explain things to ourselves…This most universal of all feelings is already a metaphor.

, Philosophy and Truth

In a word, Kant’s ‘thing in itself’ doesn’t actually exist, either by definition or in fact, anywhere.  Plato’s ideal forms are a human fiction, found only in minds and books. 

Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency: only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty of human imagination like a fiery liquid, only in the invincible faith that this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in short, only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creating subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.  If but for an instant he could escape from the prison walls of this faith, his “self consciousness” would be immediately destroyed.  It is even a difficult thing for him to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does, and that the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless, for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available.

, Philosophy and Truth

Without modern science, humans would still be wandering aimlessly in an intellectually dark wood on a superstition-filled starless night.  Even so, science discovers quarks, gravity, neutrinos, photons and electrons, yet the genuine nature of these things remains elusive. 

It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is.  Physics concerns what we can say about nature.

          Niels Bohr, quoted by Robert Nadeay in
The Non-Logical Universe

Mathematics can be used to describe certain aspects of the physical behavior, but offers only a distant approximation of the things themselves.  Limits remain, some of them fundamental to human existence.  Nietzsche…

…attacks this mechanistic worldview, with its elevation of physics, its claim to certitude, and its claim to social benefit—and he does so as a friend of science. 

            Laurence Lampert
, Nietzsche and Modern Times

As a friend of science, we applaud every effort to peel away the hidden barriers that obscure how things function.  The continuing pursuit of scientific discovery is noble and necessary, and only falters when people project some form of absolute truth from the results.

Opportunities for further discovery abound.  We don’t know how life originated, or where.  Science has never created life from non-life.  There are some processes within the simplest living cell that can’t be explained.  Science has expanded the scope of human ignorance beyond reckoning, by opening doors that lead to multitudes of passageways that seem to go on indefinitely.  We have yet to discover the fundamental nature of anything:

After all, what is a law of nature as such for us?  We are not acquainted with it in itself, but only with its effects, which means in its relation to other laws of nature—which, in turn, are known to us only as sums of relations.  Therefore all these relations always refer again to others and are thoroughly incomprehensible to us in their essence. 

, Philosophy and Truth

In all the history of science, basic human questions remain unanswered: is there a purpose to life?  if so, what is it?  What is the ultimate meaning of humankind?  Why are we here?  What is most important to humans?  Do universal human values exist, and if so, what are they?  Science can only go so far, only address that which is. 

We are the precious custodians of meaning, since we are all that stands between reality and utter chaos.  It is we who give tongue to the dumb things around us.

          Terry Eagleton
, After Theory

Scientists, as scientists, stand helpless before such questions, as nothing of ultimate meaning has been discovered scientifically, nor is there little prospect that new discoveries will significantly change that. 

When science contemplates the world, what it knows is an impersonal space of causes and processes quite independent of the subject, and so alarmingly indifferent to value.

            Terry Eagleton
, Ideology of the Aesthetic

That is because, by full intention, science is ‘valueless’.  Human judgments stand outside scientific consideration.  What is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, scientifically irrelevant.  ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’ as well.  Beauty, holiness, imagination and kindness – all exist beyond the realm of science.  And without access to fundamental human interests, science fails to identify any form of purpose.  As a prominent physicist wrote:

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.

            Steven Weinberg
, Dreams of a Final Theory

It’s unlikely that further discoveries will change this sentiment, as the very nature of the scientific approach precludes value judgments or subjective aspects of anything.

Science—this has been hitherto a way of putting an end to the complete confusion in which things exist, by hypotheses that “explain” everything—so it has come from the intellect’s dislike of chaos.

, The Will to Power

Modern science has made clear, however, how much left there is still to discover, to understand.  While it’s possible that human’s possess certain intellectual limits, finite existential capacities perhaps, necessary to proceed past a certain limit, we can be confident that humans currently understand a fraction of what really takes place in the universe, and in the world that surrounds us. 

That in the case of procreation we lack a couple more stages in the causal connection makes no essential difference, for even if we had them we should still stand at last before the incomprehensible, because appearance remains appearance and does not become thing in itself.

, Essays and Aphorisms

Perhaps a Newtonian/Copernican/Einstein-type breakthrough is imminent.  Unless this involves the origin of life, or how evolution takes place, it’s unlikely to render new meaning to humanity. 

Perhaps there is a final theory, a simple set of principles from which flow all arrows of explanation, but we shall never learn what it is.  For instance, it may be that humans are simply not intelligent enough to discover or to understand the final theory.

          Steven Weinberg
, Dreams of a Final Theory

Alternatively, it’s possible that new discoveries will reveal aspects of the physical universe that completely alter our view of humanity, and existence itself.  Perhaps a Christian God does exist, and becomes manifest.  Or unseen forces work on behalf of biological life, assisting in creating ever more complex and intelligent beings.  Or we encounter phenomenon simply too strange to assimilate within our limited capacity.

The real question is whether certain major lines of inquiry ought to be pursued at all, whether society and the human intellect at their present level of evolution, can survive the next truths.  It may be—and the mere possibility presents dilemmas beyond any which have arisen in history—that the coming door opens on to realities ontologically opposed to our sanity and limited moral reserves.

            George Steiner
, A Reader

Human Evolution

While the detailed mechanisms of biological evolution remain murky, we can be rationally certain that evolution has occurred.  Every living thing today descended from living things in the past, and many life forms in the past differ from those that exist today, indicating that changes have taken place.  As far as we know, every life form that exists is related, in that they share the same genetic building blocks, and the same left-handed amino acids.  As for the significance of the latter, amino acids exist in two major forms – left handed orientations, and right-handed.  Life could have evolved using either, but only left-handed amino acids have been found in living organisms.  If a creature with right-handed amino acids were to be discovered, that would indicate the possibility of multiple origins of life, and a line of life previously unknown.

The other thing we know about animals is that they behave in a species-specific manner, and that they possess instincts that are genetically determined.  They are programmed from the time they are born (or hatched) to seek food, hide their feces, fight for territory, stay with the herd, dig in the ground, find a mate, or run away from danger. 

Humans are clearly part of evolutionary history, and only differ by a small percentage of genes from their closest relative in the animal world, chimpanzees.  But it has only been in recent decades that human behavior has been subject to scientific study from an evolutionary perspective.  Edward O. Wilson is one of the scientific pioneers in sociobiology, the study of social animal behavior.  While turning his scientific lens on humans, he writes:

But to the extent that the new naturalism is true, its pursuit seems certain to generate two great spiritual dilemmas.  The first is that no species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.  Species may have vast potential for material and mental progress but they lack any immanent purpose or guidance from agents beyond their immediate environment or even an evolutionary goal toward which their molecular architecture automatically steers them.  I believe that the human mind is constructed in a way that locks it inside this fundamental constraint and forces it to make choices with a purely biological instrument. 

          Edward O. Wilson
, On Human Nature

Wilson helped create the bridge between science and philosophy, as the evolutionary context of the human condition is essential in understanding both the limits and the opportunities for humans now, and in the future.  He goes on to touch on one of those limitations:

The essence of the argument, then, is that the brain exists because it promotes the survival and multiplication of the genes that direct its assembly.  The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its various techniques.  Steven Weinberg has pointed out that physical reality remains so mysterious even to physicists because of the extreme improbability that it was constructed to be understood by the human mind.  We can reverse that insight to note with still greater force that the intellect was not constructed to understand atoms or even to understand itself but to promote the survival of human genes.

          Edward O. Wilson
, On Human Nature

Wilson goes on to relate the extreme nihilism that a purely reductive biological view of humanity represents:

The first dilemma, in a word, is that we have no particular place to go.  The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature.  It could be that in the next hundred years humankind will thread the needles of technology and politics, solve the energy and materials crisis, avert nuclear war, and control reproduction [typical long-term concerns in the late 70’s when this was written.  We now have a new list, but the point stands].  The world can at least hope for a stable ecosystem and a well-nourished population.  But what then?  Educated people everywhere like to believe that beyond material needs lie fulfillment and the realization of individual potential.  But what is fulfillment, and to what ends may potential be realized?...Marxism and other secular religions offer little more than promises of material welfare and legislated escape from the consequences of human nature.

          Edward O. Wilson
, On Human Nature

It’s impossible to escape Wilson’s conclusion.  Everything we know about nature supports the fact that humans are evolved creatures that possess a specific nature, one subject to scientific inquiry.  Nowhere in human nature will purpose beyond survival and reproduction be found.  This was Nietzsche’s radical discovery, when he asserted the death of god, and proclaimed himself a prophet. 

Thus the nihilist denies God, the good and even truth—all the forms of the supersensible.  Nothing is true, nothing is good, God is dead.

            Gilles Deleuze
, Nietzsche and Philosophy

But Nietzsche didn’t have to stop there, and neither do we.  Once we recognize the biological truth, it’s possible, if not imperative, to create our own purpose, to build a fate worthy of living a life, and not regress into a nihilistic morass.

Wilson takes a step in a different direction with the second dilemma when he posits that human values and ethical behavior can be derived from the science of the human mind.  While this may be true to a certain extent, it would be foolish to limit ourselves to what evolution developed when our circumstances were entirely different.  For example, it may be discovered that the instinct for rape is a perfectly normal reproduction strategy for males, and yet we are under no compunction to allow such behavior among the civilized.  We may also discover that tribal instincts make us instinctively disdainful of those who are different from us, in terms of race or ethnicity.  This wouldn’t make it appropriate to enact racist policy in our pluralist society.

Another consideration that Wilson doesn’t fully acknowledge is the emergence of properties that cannot be derived from reduction.  For example, a human memory emerges from countless neurons, and the neurons themselves emerge from the chemical and physical substrate.  Even so, it would be impossible to determine the nature of a particular memory, let alone its significance, by simply examining the activity of the cells when recalling such a memory.  The challenge to relate emerged properties from studying the human brain gets multiplied by several orders of magnitude when considering complexities like music and culture, and concepts such as justice and freedom.  Yes, everything ultimately can be reduced to human minds, and yet the potential meaning and significance for human life will never there be discovered.  This is where the human spirit can soar, whether it be on the wings of revealed religion, or spiritual enlightenment, or artistic achievement.  Life can be whatever a creative person can make it.  Yes, humans are animals.  But they don’t have to live like one.


For most people most of the time, the ultimate unreality of our perceptions and the imprecise nature of language remains irrelevant.  We are all pragmatists in our daily lives, and routinely communicate with each other effectively enough to get through the day.  Yet physics is to engineering what metaphysics is to pragmatism: the one attempts to understand the actual nature of existence, and the place of humans within it, regardless of any potential application or implication, while the other takes and uses whatever works. 

What is it that the common people take for knowledge?…Nothing more than this: Something strange is to be reduced to something familiar….Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable something that no longer disturbs us?  Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know?  And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security?

, Gay Science

It may seem useless to invoke a metaphysical model that deliberately bypasses human perspective, one that explicitly ignores what a person can see, think or say, in ways that fundamental discoveries in particle physics appear completely useless in contributing to human society.  Yet such esoteric elements may prove impactful.  At one time, E=mc2 was only a theory, and yet the practical implications of that theory now casts an evil world-ending shadow.

Scientists and philosophers seek the truth, the former within the natural world and the latter within the Human Universe, regardless of potential application or disturbing implication.  Any truth attained is always partial, and context dependent, yet of value nonetheless, as these partial truths may lead like stepping stones to something truly significant.

So we must dip outside the realm of human understanding and consider that which is by definition, unknowable, in order for us to return with the critical implications that will be postulated at the end of this section.


There is nothing more unnerving in the human condition than the fact that we can mean and/or say anything.

          George Steiner
, Errata

The nature of language, and the centrality of language to human understanding, is critically important to our epistemology.  Language comes in several forms, including ‘literary’ language (what we speak and read, i.e. English, Chinese, French, etc.); mathematics; music; and images/symbols.  Everything experienced over and above basic human urges, everything deeply felt, thought, imagined or expressed relies on the use of language.  Every cultural advance, historical understanding, philosophical speculation, spiritual belief, artistic achievement, or scientific advance gets passed from one generation to the next via language.  Anything newly discovered or originally imagined gets disseminated via language.  The media doesn’t matter: books, internet, TV news, town meetings – all utilize language to transfer meaning and understanding from one group to another.

We disagree with Jurgen Habermas, when he asserts in The Theory of Communicative Action:

Whatever language system we choose, we always start intuitively from the presupposition that truth is a universal validity claim. 

This is not necessarily so.  Language has limits.  The word and the thing aren’t identical.  The word ‘car’ is not the same as any actual ‘car’.  Even when we point and say, “That car,” the words and the things are not the same.  Thus with all nouns, let alone completely conceptual words such as ‘justice,’ ‘harmony,’ ‘good,’ or ‘evil,’ things that simply don’t exist in any physical sense.

Language is the main instrument of man’s refusal to accept the world as it is.  Without that refusal, without the unceasing generation by the mind of ‘counter-worlds’—a generation which cannot be divorced from the grammar of counter-factual and optative forms—we would turn forever on the treadmill of the present.  Reality would be (to use Wittgenstein’s phrase in an illicit sense) ‘all that is the case’ and nothing more.  Ours is the ability, the need, to gainsay or ‘unsay’ the world, to image and speak it otherwise.  In that capacity in its biological and social evolution, may lie some of the clues to the question of the origins of human speech and the multiplicity of tongues.  It is not, perhaps, ‘a theory of information’ that will serve us best in trying to clarify the nature of language, but a ‘theory of misinformation’.

          George Steiner
, Errata

The intersession between human reality and the actuality of the physical universe extends, as Peter Sloterdijk indicates, to all aspects of a human’s ability to apprehend the basic nature of existence:

What is taste, anyway?  How can such an unfathomable quantity take on meaning in intellectual terms?  And what if this is not the proper way to phrase the question?  What if all systems of signification have always been merely systems of taste—different ways and means of translating the aroma of the world into linguistic articulations?  Could it not be that all metaphysical doctrines have only served to coat the bitter pill of life in the sweet confection of an assigned meaning?

            Peter Sloterdijk
, The Critique of Cynical Reason

Adorno relates his perspective: “The separation of what is true in itself from the merely adequate expression of false consciousness is not to be maintained, for correct consciousness has not existed to this day, and no consciousness has the lofty vantage point from which this separation would be self-evident.”   George Steiner agrees: “Metaphysics, religion, ethics, knowledge—all derive from man’s will to art, to lies, from his flight before truth, from his negation of truth.”  And this:

It is this break of the covenant between word and world which constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history and which defines modernity itself.

            George Steiner
, Real Presences

Giambattista Vico, an extraordinary early 18th century thinker, wrote that, “The human mind, while it can indeed think about things, cannot understand them.  It therefore participates in reason, but lacks mastery of it.”   Mark Lilla further explains:

If, as Vico contends, all knowledge is a post facto collection of the elements used in creation, then clearly man is permanently barred from complete knowledge of anything he encounters in the natural world.

          Mark Lilla
, G. B. Vico

While Vico went on to build a Christian structure from this metaphysical foundation, his unique and prescient insight remains valid today.  

Man invents from within himself the fictions of point and unit, and from them derives a world of shapes and numbers.  In this world he is the cause.  But it is a fictive world; he can know it, but what he knows will bear no necessary relation to anything corporeal.

          Mark Lilla
, G. B. Vico

“Which,” according to Umberto Eco, “leaves only one solution:”

By reflecting upon the data from the sensible intuition, by comparing them, assessing them, by using an innate and secret art hidden in the deepest profundities of the human soul…we do not abstract but construct the schemata.

          Umberto Eco
, Kant and the Platypus

In order to survive, individual humans, embedded deep within their cultural jungles and surrounded by the fronds of commercial and social engagements, necessarily avoid all sense of actuality, and instead, embrace the fictions they create:

At the central level the enemy is not the other drinker at the water-hole, the torturer seeking your name, the negotiator across the table, or the social bore.  Language is centrally fictive because the enemy is [actuality], because unlike the Houyhnhnm, man is not prepared to abide with ‘the Thing which is’.

          George Steiner
, A Reader

Humans minimize the significance of actuality, ignore the implications of mathematical physics and organic chemistry, in the same manner that religion averts the eyes of the faithful from the prosaic and points instead to an afterworld, one both above and below them:

Creators and connoisseurs, all those for whom art exists (in other words, who are as responsive to the forms it creates as to the most emotive mortal forms) share a faith in an immanent power peculiar to man.  They devalorize [actuality], just as the Christian faith—and indeed every religious system—devalorizes it.  Also, like the Christians, they devalorize it by their faith in a privileged estate, and a hope that man (and not chaos) contains within him the source of his eternity.

          Andre Malraux
, Voices of Silence

So humans write stories, both on paper and with their individual lives:

Nietzsche’s main thrust is that it’s errors (as well as lies) that have been thus functional.  Our cognitive practices are crucially built out of dispositions designed to get things wrong—i.e., out of drives to simplify and otherwise distort reality.  Nietzsche interprets Kant’s categories as precisely such requisite mistakes: we all instinctively structure our experiences into substances and causes, because these fictions helped our ancestors to cope quickly and roughly with their surroundings.

          John Richardson, Nietzsche’s New Darwinism

So while this created fictional life perpetuates itself in a semblance of harmony and meaning for some people, for others it reveals the instability of loss certainties:

Today, when we all know that television lies and that the media do not in the least supply disinterested and objective representations of the world, and when even what we call “nature” is only accessible to us through scientific paradigms fraught with historicity and loaded with theory, hence with “prejudice” (lacking which, for that matter, we would be unable to know anything), we can no longer tranquilize ourselves by pretending to stand with our feet on the ground observing things as they are and dismissing the rest as nonsense.  The end of ideology is also the triumph of ideologies, of the multiple interpretations of the world seen for what they are, that make individual choice and decision ineluctable.

          Gianni Vattimo
, Dialogue with Nietzsche

And when it becomes apparent that all this bourgeois and idealistic effort proves ultimately unrewarding, we become disillusioned, angry, rebellious, full of ‘nausea’, and ‘Fear and Trembling’.

We secrete from within ourselves the grammar, the mythologies of hope, of fantasy, of self-deception without which we would have been arrested at some rung of primate behavior or would, long since, have destroyed ourselves.  It is our syntax, not the physiology of the body or the thermodynamics of the planetary system, which is full of tomorrows.  Indeed, this may be the only area of 'free will', of assertion outside direct neurochemical causation or programming.  We speak, we dream ourselves free of the organic trap.

          George Steiner
, A Reader

Thus language, and all that flows from it (art, science, history, culture) stand at the center of the Human Universe, an inescapable palace of meaning and significance that rules over every state of consciousness, social interaction and remembered experience.


Truth is hard to come by.

          Karl Popper
, Conjectures and Refutations

‘Truth’ has been defined as, “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.”  Yet we have already established how nebulous language can be when relating simple ‘facts’, or how distant ‘reality’ resides from the actual universe.  This leads to the conclusion that the value, rightness and meaning of every truth statement depends upon a particular perspective within a specific context.  Without exception.   No truth statement stands alone, apart from the surround, independent of a mind.  In other words, universal truth statements don’t exist, rendering Habermas’s presupposition ‘that truth is a universal validity claim’ invalid. 

…it is more comfortable to obey than to examine; it is more flattering to think “I possess the truth” than to see only darkness around one…

, The Will to Power

Ayn Rand uses Aristotle’s assertion that “A is A” to refute the lack of universal truth statements, insisting that universal truth does exist, and this a plain example of it.  Yet consider the following:

  • if “A is A” is intended to mean something like, “Any particular thing is itself,” then we are considering a meaningless tautology, no different then saying something like, “that goat is that goat”. 

  • in the statement “A is A”, it is clear that the first “A” is not the second “A”, as they both reside in a distinct and differing spatial relationship to each other.  This pertains in any rendering of the statement, in a text, or on a chalkboard, say.  The “A’s” will always differ in some manner.

  • if we consider the ‘A’ in “A is A” as symbolic, then we can disprove the statement by speculating that the first “A” is the first letter in the alphabet, whereas the second “A” is the article, “A”, as in, “A cat ate a mouse.”  One a letter, the other a word.

  • if we think of “A” as the first letter in the alphabet, then we might interpret the statement “A is A” by changing it to “A is alpha.”  In other words, the meaning of “A” can change based on interpretation or context.

Another professed statement of universal truth is the equation 2+2=4.  In fact, 2+2=11 in base 3.  Any mathematical statement requires system context.  Mathematics largely resides in a self-referential world anyway, insulating it from the actual universe.

The final paradox which defines our humanity prevails: there is always, there always will be, a sense in which we do not know what it is we are experiencing and talking about when we experience and talk about that which is.  There is a sense in which no human discourse, however analytic, can make final sense of sense itself.

          George Steiner
, Real Presences

Finally, for any statement in any language to render meaning, let alone truth, that language must be understood.  In other words, context includes the language itself, and how that language renders meaning.  This pertains to everyday linguistic transactions between two people within the same language; to statements made that require translation from one language to another; to examples of complex mathematics used to predict the outcome of particles in high-speed accelerators.  Without a thorough understanding of the language (context), meaning will fail to be rendered.

Robert Wright lays out the physiological challenge in determining truth:

If Freud stressed people’s difficulty in seeing the truth about themselves, the new Darwinians stress the difficulty of seeing truth, period.  Indeed, Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth.  For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth—moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse—are, by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles.  A winner will emerge, but there’s often no reason to expect that winner to be truth.  A cynicism deeper than Freudian cynicism may have once seemed hard to imagine, but here it is.
            This Darwinian brand of cynicism doesn’t exactly fill a gaping cultural void.  Already, various avant-garde academics—“deconstructionist” literary theorists and anthropologists, adherents of “critical legal studies”—are viewing human communication as “discourse of power.”  Already many people believe what the new Darwinism underscores: that in human affairs, all (or least much) is artifice, a self-serving manipulation of image.  And already this belief helps nourish a central strand of the postmodern condition: a powerful inability to take things seriously.

          Robert Wright
, The Moral Animal

From a human perspective, universal truth doesn’t exist.  All we can do is speculate on the actual nature of the universe, and this, according to Nietzsche, requires, “...the strength of [a] spirit,” that “might be measured according to how much of the ‘truth’ he would be able to stand—more clearly, to what degree it would need to be watered down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, and falsified.”

Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.

            Umberto Eco
, The Name of the Rose

Scientifically informed speculation suggests that the universe consists of particles and forces, the fundamental natures of which elude human understanding.  The most fundamental construct of physical actuality remains a complete mystery.  As physicists increasingly unravel this mystery, it’s conceivable that something truly remarkable comes to light.  More likely, however, as in times past, as scientists make new discoveries, the realm of ignorance increases by another magnitude.  With every question answered, several more become extant, leading to deeper mysteries.

Humans perceive emerged elements from the physical substrate that ultimately manifest into biological life.  Human consciousness emerges from this biological substrate allowing us to ponder our nature. 

On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

          Milan Kundera
, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

At the macro level, we discover new galaxies and planets every year in a universe too vast to properly conceptualize.  It seems our planet and our species a very small thing, on this galactic scale, making any form of inter galactic truth problematic:

Plato accused Gorgias of holding that “there is no truth, if there were it could not be comprehended—and if comprehended, it could not be communicated.”

            Jacob Bronowski
, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination

Many astrophysicists anticipate the ultimate discovery of extraterrestrial life, yet despite decades of searching, they have yet to discover evidence indicating the existence of it.  Unfounded (that is, unscientific) speculation ponders a universe full of life, but until any evidence is discovered, the possibility of extraterrestrial life remains unknown, a total scientific blank. 

Men are very prone to believe what they do not understand.

             Dr. Johnson

Unlike the discovery of planets—a predictable outcome given our understanding of how solar systems form—nobody knows how life began, and scientists possess only an elemental understanding of how it evolves.  Until that changes, it remains impossible to properly hypothesize the existence of extraterrestrial life.  For instance, if we determine that biological forms emerge naturally and routinely from the physical and chemical substrate, then we can expect to find life forms on any planet or moon that possess the basics for life: proper temperature range, protection from destructive radiation, etc.  Whether these basic life forms evolve would depend on additional variables, all of them theoretically calculable.  On the other hand, let’s say that scientists finally discover how life originated on Earth, and in doing so determine that the event was incredibly unlikely, given the uniqueness of Earth’s history. 

Scientists now believe that the Earth collided with a Mars-sized object shortly after it formed, ultimately creating Earth’s moon.  I also believe (although I haven’t been able to get confirmation from an Astro-biologist in our private correspondence) that this early collision resulted in Earth’s broken crust, resulting in plate tectonics.  The two rocky planets that most resemble Earth—Mars and Venus—do not experience plate tectonics, and they are lifeless.  On Earth, the moving plates create the ocean basins, and the volcanism that provides the raw material for the oceans and Earth’s atmosphere.  As far as we know today, these elements are essential for life on Earth, particularly the more complex forms that evolved into humans.

If, or when, scientists determine the origin of biological life, they can project the possibilities into space.  Until that time, we simply don’t know, and that level of ignorance shouldn’t be underestimated.

Knowledge is not of things but of their traces.

            Hugh Kenner
, The Counterfeiters

Given the micro view and the macro, nothing we know indicates there is any particular meaning to nature, or to human existence.  All evidence points to an indifferent universe, one devoid of purpose or meaning.  This is likely the hard cold ugly truth.

For a philosopher to say, “the good and the beautiful are one,” is infamy; if he goes on to add, “also the true,” one ought to thrash him.  Truth is ugly.
          We possess
art lest we perish from the truth

, Will to Power

So language is humanity’s sole means of conceptualizing anything and everything, and expressing one’s gathered understanding to another; unlimited in some respects, yet superficial in the face of the whole:

Of course, not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth.

           Eugene Ionesco
, Fragments of a Journal

Every statement, thought, vision or image that purports to represent truth requires full context and a specific perspective to be valid and/or useful to humans.  To unwrap the truth requires a person to reproduce the context in which it was given, and recreate the perspective from which it originated. 

No truth statement stands alone, and retains its meaning.  Because a universal perspective does not exist this side of God, neither does universal truth.


Humans crave meaning and purpose, and fill this void in countless ways, from religion to art to family to community to ideologies.  They develop sophisticated constructs with many-layered levels, such as Orthodox Judaism.  Certainties arise from the mouths of prophets, such as Mohammed.  Commitments are made to Holy Trinities, to nation states, to national pastimes.  And none of these are strictly wrong, or necessarily harmful or invalid.  

While we possess no particular reason to believe that supernatural entities exist, it’s impossible to be certain.  It’s possible—though unlikely in any particular case—that the Christians, or Jews, or Moslems, or Buddhists, or Hindus, or Artists, or Baptists, or Rastafarians have it just right. 

Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good ground for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.

            Bertrand Russell
, Basic Writings

But then, for believers, it makes little difference if any particular belief is based on empirical fact, or whether their belief system rests on firm rational grounds.  The spiritual value remains, regardless of proof.  In many cases, the appeal to such spiritual beliefs lies in the completely uncertain nature of the details.  Clarity would destroy.

One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.

          Robert Heinlein
, Time Enough for Love

Outside the realm of science, speculative religion abounds.  While nothing proves the validity of one religion over another, proof that would demonstrate without rational doubt the actual existence of a particular god, it’s also technically impossible to disprove them as well.  The statement, “God exists,” is unscientific in that it cannot be falsified, because it is impossible to prove that god doesn’t exist.  On the other hand, the statement, “God doesn’t exist,” can be falsified by discovering the existence of a being that fits a particular description.  If God came to earth, and revealed his presence, and behaved in an omniscient and omnipotent manner, and met the criteria for existence that most of us would accept, then we could rationally agree that such a god exists.  At that point, various sects could argue about whom the god most resembled: is he a Christian god? Or Allah? or the stern old god from the Torah?  Perhaps he looked more like Thor, or acted more like Zeus.  Regardless, we’d have a real god on Earth, and that would certainly change a few minds.

…the various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.

            Edward Gibbon
, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Believers come in many forms, many of them embracing revealed religion as if it were unmitigated truth.  Others take a conscious leap of faith, accepting the difference between a rational demonstrated world, and one blessed with spiritual value.  The human need for meaning, community, value and moral guidance can be found in these systems of faith, just the thing that many find generally lacking in modern technical civilization.

Within the realms of a particular faith, the context for spiritual truth is created, and serves as absolute truth for the believers.  Given the value that many people find in their faith, and the general good that can abound from communities of faith, all forms of spiritual belief and practice would be welcomed and encouraged within a Genuinely Free Society, as long as they adhere to the basic legal structure, and don’t conduct violent harm against anyone.  So human sacrifice and genital mutilation would be outlawed, for instance, as would the enslavement of women.  People couldn’t be stoned to death for adultery, or have their hands severed for stealing.  That kind of thing.  But every other form of peaceful worship would be respected and supported within a Genuinely Free Society.  The Rastafarians could smoke all the weed they want.

The Individual Human

Humans require a sense of certainty in order to act.  For instance, they must be sure the light is green before they go; understand that if they jump off a tall building they will likely fall and die; plan on the sun rising the next day so they can go to work; that electing one person over another will improve the country.  This is all to the good.

…no individual considers himself as one of the mass.  Each person, in his own estimate, is the pivot on which all the rest of the world spins round.

            Edgar Allan Poe
, Literary Theory and Criticism

Beyond the day-to-day, many people develop a system of beliefs that, over time, seem infallible.  They are certain their god exists, that their country is sacred, that certain acts are immoral and should never take place, that certain forms of change are disruptive and harmful, that particular peoples are bad.  That selfishness is wrong:

Or a man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realization of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development.  But this is the way in which everyone should live.  Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.  And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.  Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type.  Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it.  It is not selfish to think for oneself.  A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.

          Oscar Wilde
, The Artist as Critic

Human nature puts the individual at the center of their own universe, and provides internal guidance to behave in ways beneficial to that self.  While some people argue that this aspect of human nature – a concern primarily for the self – damages society, a prominent biologist argues just the opposite:

Human beings appear to be sufficiently selfish and calculating to be capable of indefinitely greater harmony and social homeostasis.  This statement is not self-contradictory.  True selfishness, if obedient to the other constraints of mammalian biology, is the key to a more nearly perfect social contract.

            E. O. Wilson
, On Human Nature

Wilson’s argument is interesting and subtle:

My optimism is based on evidence concerning the nature of tribalism and ethnicity.  If altruism were rigidly unilateral, kin and ethnic ties would be maintained with commensurate tenacity.  The lines of allegiance, being difficult or impossible to break, would become progressively tangled until cultural change was halted in their snarl.

            E. O. Wilson
, On Human Nature

In other words, if we cared exclusively about ourselves and our immediate kin, social structures larger than a tribe would be impossible.  Cities, let alone nation states, would never materialize, as people in various tribes or kin groups would refuse to trust each other, or respect others as socially equal.  Cooperation among different tribes would be rare and suspenseful.  Perhaps something like the various peoples in the highlands of New Guinea, a place discovered in the 1930’s, where hundreds of different stone-aged tribes existed at that time, many of them continuously at war:

[The Highlands of New Guinea] is unusually fragmented, by terrain, history, culture and language. About 840 distinct languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, around a quarter of the world's stock, reflecting enormous regional and local cultural divisions.


As it stands, modern society continues to struggle with racism, nationalism, and religious war.  Despite these challenges, humans have demonstrated the ability to overcome these tribal differences and build lasting civilizations.  If Wilson is correct, a decent balance of altruism and selfishness has been the key to the development of modern, cooperative, and relatively peaceful society.  Wilson argues that a better understanding of genuine human nature will provide necessary insight when making political and social decisions:

Rousseau, unlike older moralists, does not blame or struggle against this egotism.  That is nature; to complain about man’s selfishness would be like complaining about his not having been born with wings.

            Allan Bloom
, Love and Friendship

In addition to the challenges that kinship and tribalism bring to a cohesive society, to expect people to consistently act on behalf of others, or to maintain an awareness of what others genuinely need, is simply too much to ask: 

Yours is the harder course, I can see.  On the other hand, mine is happening to me.

            Philip Larkin, quoted by Martin Amis in
The War Against Cliché

It is common for political theorists to envision a society where people behave exclusively with others in mind.  They expect people to become equal, in some manner, and live together in untested harmony.  George Orwell provides an example of such expectations, when he writes:

The good society is one in which human beings are equal and in which they cooperate with one another willingly and not because of fear or economic compulsion.
            This is what Socialists, Communists and Anarchists, in their different ways, are aiming at.

            George Orwell
, Essays

In point of fact, humans are not equal, in any way, and it would require brutal coercion to make them even partially so.  As for cooperating willingly, only a Genuinely Free Society ensures willing cooperation, absent fear and compulsion: 

Neither love nor charity nor any other sympathetic sentiments but rightly understood selfishness is what originally impelled man to adjust himself to the requirements of society, to respect the rights and freedoms of his fellow men and to substitute peaceful collaboration for enmity and conflict.

            Ludwig von Mises,
Human Action

As for Socialists, Communists and Anarchists, the first two require high levels of coercion, and the third promises nothing but continuous fear, given the lawlessness of an anarchic society. 

It is natural for people to care about their society, and wish it well.  For some reason, despite the obvious concern many people exhibit for their fellows (clearly a majority, based on the magnitude of legislation democratically enacted that targets the unfortunate) that so many people feel it necessary to apply political coercion to address the limitations of society, instead of allowing freely acting individuals to make the necessary difference. 

When social engineers apply the power of the state to change society, they do so without understanding what specific individuals want or need.  All we truly know is ourselves, and that within severe limits, leaving the wisest person ignorant of their neighbor’s soul, let alone the vast multitude impacted by the invasive policies.

Individual humans live within a specific cultural surround, one that provides their ultimate frame of reference.  They learn language, how to interpret social behavior, what to do in order to live.  As they age, they gain more knowledge of their environment, and develop more sophisticated ways to navigate the world. 

Culture aims at producing a free spirit; in the deepest sense: free, that is to say, from the fanaticisms of religion, from the fanaticisms of science, and from the fanaticisms of the mob.

          John Cowper Powys
, The Meaning of Culture

The range of possible developmental paths is almost as large as the number of humans on earth, given the uniqueness of each person’s DNA, and the contingent circumstances of their birth and later life. 

Two human beings are like globes which can touch only in one point.

          Ralph Waldo Emerson
, Experience

It is a constant challenge for each person to establish commonalities with other people, to find a shared perspective that allows for basic communication and peaceful coexistence.  Even among families misunderstanding occurs on a regular basis.  We simply don’t see the world as our children do.  Let alone two people born in different cultures, and raised with different language and customs. 

Knowing better is also a mighty fortress, but the knower has the privilege of inhabiting it alone.

            Walter Benjamin
, Privileged Thinking

Basic goodwill and intellectual effort is required for any two people to engage in a meaningful and mutually understandable way.  This becomes magnitudes more difficult when the topic becomes complex.  Nietzsche summarizes by saying, “Consciousness is actually only a network to connect one person to another.”  Ensuring our collective consciousness remain compatible presents a constant challenge.  We are often wired and raised with differing protocols, requiring frequent, and sometimes intense, mitigation.  This becomes more difficult when we realize that we don’t even understand our own selves:

     Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
     Of what we say we feel—below the stream
     As light, of what we think we feel—there flows
     With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
     The central stream of what we feel indeed…

                        Matthew Arnold

Everybody rules as the master and serves as the slave within their own universe, one based indirectly on the world: a big plastic opaque bubble of sorts, a complex and phase-shifting realm that no one else can enter.  In order to share meaning with another human, a gesture of some kind (a touch, a word) must be extended with sufficient power to penetrate another’s bubble.  Due to the various obstacles encountered during the extension, anything that penetrates necessarily differs from the original gesture – sometimes differs so much that it wouldn’t be recognized by the originator.  Even so, it’s possible that the gesture generates some form of understanding within the new bubble.  If that understanding resembles what was originally intended, meaning has successfully passed from one person to another.  All too often, however, the gesture gets mistranslated, and misunderstanding ensues, or the gesture arrives in a completely incomprehensible state, causing confusion.  Often enough, the original gesture goes entirely unnoticed, never having negotiated the other person’s boundary, having bounced off the rim, so to say, and lost in the swirling myriad of unperceived action that surrounds a person every moment.

If you take any group of people randomly selected from around the world and compared their certainties, differences would be pronounced.  As a specific example, I have read and re-read just about everything published by Ernest Hemingway, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Terry Eagleton, Ayn Rand, Walter Kaufmann, and Marcel Proust, along with their journals, biographies and letters, and there is nothing controversial that they would agree.  Their political philosophies hardly overlap, and their view of culture profoundly distinct.  The only thing they share in common is my intellectual interest.  And even then, I could criticize every one of them, in terms of their art, or their philosophy or lifestyle.  In other words, I don’t agree with everything they believe, and they wouldn’t agree with me.

Consensus about the most important things will never be realized; reconciliation between starkly opposing views may never occur.  Differences between people may be mitigated but never resolved.  Given these manifests differences between individuals, attempting to fit everyone within a predefined cultural matrix that allows only certain types would require violent coercion. 

Universal Value?

The value for life is ultimately decisive. 

The Will to Power

Humans exist in many different forms.  We differ in almost every way.  Infinite futures stand before us, countless possible paths.  To limit the possibilities seems unkind.  To assert one path over the infinitude totalitarian.  Universals simply don’t exist…with one possible exception.

Some people prefer pursuing pleasure, others acquiring wealth, another physical health, or a wholesome family, perhaps numerous friends, advanced scholarship, public renown, ready comfort, spiritual enlightenment, daily excitement, or redemption.  More likely, individuals seek a balance of values, a perpetual striving for the elusive optimum.  Identifying every possible combination, in every personal situation, would be a daunting task for anyone.  We struggle sometimes doing it just for ourselves.

But there is something that everyone could do without: needless, unjustified and unwanted pain, suffering or death. 

Most people would agree that a world without polio and smallpox is a better place.  Every victim of the holocaust would have been better off without having suffered through it.  Anyone raped, tortured or killed by a brutal regime would rather have avoided that particular fate.  Hurricanes kill or injure fewer people than ever, thanks to improved forecasting, universally considered a good thing.  Most civilized places no longer fear wild animals, or ruthless warlords. 

Sometimes nature inflicts unavoidable mortal damage to humanity: volcanoes erupt, earthquakes topple buildings, rivers flood.  Much is done to mitigate the damage, to prepare communities for disaster, yet sometimes not enough is done, not always in time.  Ultimately we do what we can to minimize the risk, to provide relief when all else fails.  The world will probably never be perfectly safe for humans, given its geological nature.

The intention is not to eliminate all pain and suffering from the human experience.  When a person suffers pain getting their teeth fixed, or a sexual sadist delivers pain to their willing masochistic partner, that constitutes wanted and acceptable pain and suffering.  When someone breaks their leg playing football, climbing a mountain, or skiing down a hill, we consider that a necessary risk for those who engage in such activities.  When a man assaults my wife and I break his face defending her, I count myself completely justified.

But far too many humans suffer pain and death through deliberate evil acts of unmitigated violence: the killing fields in Cambodia; the Hutus slaughtering Tutsi in Rwanda; the Dirty War in Argentina; terror bombing in WWII; the abduction and murder of Emmett Till; femicides in Ciudad Juarez.  The list goes on endlessly.

And then, I distrust the incommunicable; it is the source of all violence.  When it seems impossible to get others to share the certainties which we enjoy, the only thing left is to fight, to burn, or to hang.

, What is Literature?

In this view of evil, humans are entirely responsible, as an evil act is one committed deliberately by a person that knowingly results directly in unwanted, unnecessary, and unjustified pain, suffering and/or death to another human.  The greater the pain, suffering and death caused by the deliberate unwanted, unnecessary, and unjustified act, the greater the evil.

So if we could assert one simple moral imperative, it would be: Do no evil.  And the corollary:  All else is permitted.


If right were really right, it would differ so clearly from not right that there would be no need for argument.

          Chuang Tzu
, Basic Writings

While humans have learned a great deal, and created wonderful technologies that have made lives safer, more interesting and comfortable, science cannot tell us the ultimate nature of the actual universe, or anything in it.  We can describe the effects of something we call ‘gravity’, for instance, and make excellent predictions about how various masses will behave under its influence, without understanding its fundamental nature. 

The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths.  That, more than anything else, is what science is all about.  But historically science has done exactly the opposite.  Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypothesis, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones.  The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself.

          Robert M. Persig
, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

While we know that matter is made of molecules, and molecules atoms, and atoms protons and electrons, and protons made of quarks and various other mysterious particles held together with strong and weak nuclear forces, we don’t know what these things actually are, or what they fundamentally represent.  We know these things from a distance, our understanding mitigated by the limitations of human perception and peripheral access to actual nature.

Our apparatus for acquiring knowledge is not designed for “knowledge.”

, The Will to Power

Once we reach the limits of human science, and begin to explore fundamental human questions, a vast plain of possibilities spreads out before us, with viable paths twisting and winding in every possible direction.  What do we value?  How should we live?  What should we do for a living?  Who should we marry?  Should we have children, and if so, how should we educate them?  What is right, and what is wrong?  And sometimes people even ponder the ultimate meaning of humanity.

Choosing determines all human decisions.  In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services.  All human values are offered for option.  All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another.

          Ludwig von Mises
, Human Action

Every human makes tens of hundreds of decisions every day.  They do so based on a belief system developed over a lifetime.  Given the necessarily different belief systems that exist in humans across the globe, the differences of those within the same nation or the same race or ethnic group, even the differences within a particular household, it’s impossible to render absolute judgment about them.

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless.  The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man.  Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions.

          Ludwig von Mises
, Human Action

Human judgment is fallible.  All of us have been wrong about something important at some point, and are probably wrong about something even now. 

Only the self that is certain of its existence, of its identity, can do without the armor of systematic certainties.

          Lionel Trilling
, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

Our certainties evolve over time, earlier ones replaced by more sophisticated certainties, or sometimes crumbling into healthy skepticism. 

It is true that economics is a theoretical science and as such abstains from any judgment of value.  It is not its task to tell people what ends they should aim at.  It is a science of the means to be applied for the attainment of ends chosen, not, to be sure, a science of the choosing of ends….Science never tells a man how he should act; it merely shows how a man must act if he wants to attain definite ends.

          Ludwig von Mises
, Human Action

Our knowledge, as individuals and societies, remains provisional.  As such, no person, or society, or electorate, or congress, or bureaucracy, can assert with confidence what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: how to live, what to do, what to believe, how to spend. 

We are not sure of many things and those are not so.

          Oliver Wendell Holmes

Given the overwhelming uncertainty of our shared certainties, let alone our manifest differences, the only morally consistent option when designing social and political relationships would be to allow people to decide for themselves:

Living apart and at peace with myself, I came to realize more vividly the meaning of the doctrine of acceptance.  To refrain from giving advice, to refrain from meddling in the affairs of others, to refrain, even thought the motives be the highest, from tampering with another’s way of life—so simple, yet so difficult for an active spirit!…It is not even necessary…to go about doing good….Before it is possible to love one another, as we are so often enjoined, it is necessary to respect one another, respect the privacy of the soul.

          Henry Miller
, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird

Allow individuals to live as they desire, without exerting the power of the state to violently interfere. 

…the knowledge that a thing is false is a piece of truth…Therefore, deceive no one, but rather confess ignorance of what you do not know, and leave each man to devise his own articles of faith for himself.

, Essays and Aphorisms

Minimize the taxes extorted; eliminate restrictions on trade; legalize drugs, prostitution and gambling; remove all civil unions (marriage, for instance) from government oversight; divest and/or privatize all government commercial entities (USPS, social security, healthcare). 

To suggest that someone ought to adopt a particular political position may sound peculiarly patronizing, dictatorial and elitist.  Who am I to presume that I know what is in someone else’s interests?  Isn’t this just the style in which ruling groups and classes have spoken for centuries? 

            Terry Eagleton
, Ideology

Ultimate meaning cannot be discovered within the natural universe.  Science will never reveal a reason to live.  Stark actuality favors no one.  But this is no reason to despair.

If the world for Nietzsche is valueless, meaningless chaos, then the point would seem to be to create one’s own values in defiance of its blank indifference.

            Terry Eagleton
, Ideology of the Aesthetic

Focus the violent power of government primarily on protecting citizens and their property from criminals; manage the courts and industrial externalities; keep the nation safe from other nations.  Allow each person to seek their own destiny, on their own terms.  Minimize limits.  Maximize freedom.  

It clearly seems that the chief thing in heaven and on earth is to obey at length and in a single direction: in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine.
, Beyond Good and Evil

This, of course, within the limits provided by the political and legal structure supporting a Genuinely Free Society.  Doing so would effectively provide genuine freedom while serving the only universal moral imperative: Do no evil.