The Bleak Philosophy


By Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2019 by Alan Carl Nicoll, all rights reserved.

Preface, or A Preliminary to the Preliminary Sketch

[Note to blog readers:  This is an update and replacement of the former document.  Undoubtedly some of the material from the earlier version has been repeated here, and be warned that this is very much a work-in-progress.  3/18/19]

A book, a sentence, a proposition, a position, a truth, anything is worthless to me unless I can understand it.  Sometimes it requires a great deal of time and effort to understand something, and sometimes it requires more time and effort than I am willing to expend.  For instance, I have read some things about quantum mechanics, enough to know that to fully understand it would require at least a year of study, including learning some probably very difficult mathematics.  Given my age and interests, learning quantum mechanics and related subjects simply isn’t worth my time, especially as I can see no practical results from the pursuit.  Thus my general approach to life is pragmatic.

[3/18/19:  A hasty update:  I have been told that space-time “curves” in the presence of matter (or a sufficient mass of matter).  Do I understand that?  Only in the sense that I can talk about it, and perhaps “apply” it in the sense of anticipating the presumably-correct results of certain experiments.  But when I try to understand it in the sense of “why this book in my hand exerts a downward force on my hand”—that I do not understand and cannot explain when starting from the metaphor of “curved space-time.”  The implications of this are still bubbling away in my mind, and I cannot address the larger question of the apparent muddle-headedness of current physics, nor am I ready to tackle, again, the ever-vexing problem of science versus religion.  In a sense, nothing has changed as a result of my again having contemplated the mystery or mysteries underlying the model that we call “current physics”; nothing, that is, that I can yet characterize.  That’s enough for now.]

The understanding I acquire from study is—as far as I can tell—always in the form of a model, which I may define as a simplified version of an underlying mystery.  As a map is a model of a territory.

In short, I am of the “simple-minded” school.  I came to this realization upon reading this quote from William Barrett:

“[Bertrand] Russell’s chagrin at the course which Wittgenstein’s development took is perfectly understandable as an opposition of two radically different types of mind.  The story is told that one day while Russell and [Alfred North] Whitehead were still collaborating on Principia Mathematica, Whitehead remarked to Russell, ‘You know, Bertie, there are two kinds of people in the world—the simple-minded and the muddle-headed.  I am muddle-headed; you, Bertie, are simple-minded.’

“The muddle-headed look at the complexities of things and write obscurely; the simple-minded cultivate clear and distinct ideas but miss the complex depths of sheer matters of fact.”[1]

This is a distinction that I find very useful, and as the first paragraph makes clear, I am very much of the simple-minded school.  Certainly I endeavor to see into the “complex depths”; but if I cannot see very far, or at all, still, I have to live in the world and I require guides to action.  To me, muddles are useless as guides to action.

In other words, to navigate in the world, I require a map; and as has been pointed out, “the map is not the territory.”[2]  My expression of this fundamental realization is “models and mysteries.”  A map is a model of a mystery, that is, the mystery of the territory that the map represents.  A scientific theory, such as Darwinian evolution, is a map to coping with the otherwise impenetrable mystery of the origin of species.  Models give us a guide for action and understanding; but it is our actions that provide us feedback on the adequacy of the map.

Here’s what I wrote in my diary of November 9, 2007 (later comments in brackets), my first expression of this “models and mysteries” idea:

What are atoms? This question occurred to me and I thought, “This is the ultimate mystery of the microcosm.” But then I wondered, what is anything? An apple, a rock, a shoe, we can point to these and we know something of their nature and history and so we think we know them. But although we know some few facts about them, that knowledge is superficial, a mere skin that blinds us to the great mystery that is the essence of each of them. When it comes to complete knowledge, we don’t know anything completely. We are in a Sahara of ignorance, trying to dig our way to the bottom, not knowing indeed whether there is a bottom. [9/9/18  I am uneasy with this formulation, but can’t tell what I would want to say in its place, or in addition.  Feynman says that physics, or science, is all about “What happens when I do this.”[3]  Manipulation of objects and energies in pursuit of our goals—surely this is the knowledge that’s important, and any talk of “essences” is either a metaphor for quantum mechanics (another level of manipulation) and the like, or metaphysical—shall I say—nonsense?]

The best we can do is remember well our ignorance and remain humble in the face of it, and do the best we can with what we have. We must reject what we know to be error, and withhold allegiance to what does not prove itself to us…if I even know what that means.

Our knowledge increases the predictability of life. Regardless of the depth of the sand beneath us, we know of many things which can kill us, and we avoid them. We have much of this kind of practical knowledge, that is, we know how to manipulate the unknowns around us in order to preserve and enhance our daily lives. We build on sand, it is true, but we do build.

I like this early expression very much, because it encompasses so many of my now-settled ideas:  avoidance of known error, models as a “skin” over underlying mysteries, rejection of the concept of essences, and the pragmatic approach.

The idea of models is a form of instrumentalism, the idea expressed in this quote:

“[William] James always insisted that conceptions were ‘teleological instruments’ by which we take a ‘partial aspect of a thing which for our purposes we regard as its essential aspect, as the representative of the entire thing.’”[4]

In other words, much sound and fury to arrive at a 120-year-old thought.


Beyond this basic “pragmatic, simple-minded” philosophical stance, and in part because of it, I am an atheist.  Jean-Paul Sartre said that existentialism is the result of taking atheism seriously[5].  As an extension of this, I like to say that the bleak philosophy is the result of taking neuroscience seriously.

Neuroscience and gestaltism

One of my early studies was the psychology of Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy.  From his books I derived a notion of the gestalt approach:  an approach to the reductionist idea of “carving nature at the joints,” that is, that nature has no “joints,” and a human being is—in the most general terms—a process inseparable from its environment.  The idea also owes a lot, maybe everything, to Alan Watts.

My own observations, plus a lot of reading[6], persuade me that the “mind” is merely a function of the body, and “free will” is essentially a fiction.  Influenced by General Semantics (“G.S.”) and the science fiction of A. E. van Vogt, and wanting to adopt a more “hygienic” approach to language, I added a thing or two to what I might call “G.S.-speak”[7] to develop “bleakspeak.”  For example, instead of saying “I,” one says, “this body right now” and adjusts verbs and such accordingly.


Trying to understand W. V. O. Quine:  “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” is a real challenge.  This puts me in mind of a “statement by Bart Simpson”:  “If it’s not easy, don’t do it.”  So, why do it?

The answer relates to the word “truth,” and my decades-old thought that it’s not a useful word.  I have often considered this thought, but have never really explored it in much detail.  Quine’s much-cited essay begins with:

Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas.  One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact, and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact.  The other dogma is reductionism:  the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.  Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill-founded.  One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science.  Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.[8]

Whether there is a “fundamental cleavage” between the kinds of truth of analytic and synthetic statements doesn’t much concern me; I just want to have firmly in my grasp the distinction and the words, which seem to me at least moderately useful and inoffensive.  Also, I am content that reductionism is the basic approach of science, while recognizing that it’s not the only useful approach.  (But I haven’t read Quine’s essay to the end yet.)

But back to “truth.”  In fact, I can’t argue with the truth of Quine’s paradigm analytic statement, “all unmarried men are bachelors”; I also cannot argue with the truth—in some sense—of my paradigm synthetic statement, “I am sitting in a chair.”  In the past I have believed that “true in some sense” is a useful concept, indeed, I don’t see how I could get along without it, except by replacing it with some vague synonym, like “useful.”  That is, it is “useful” to believe that “I am sitting in a chair” when I am, in fact, sitting in a chair.  This kind of “truth” is necessary vocabulary if I am to deal both with language and with the world, “as a guide to action” (which is a touchstone of pragmatism).  But the word “truth” continues to trouble me.

I suppose my real objection is to the expression “scientific truth,” because I am persuaded by Karl Popper to his view of science as “our best hypotheses at the moment,” in my words.  As a definition of “truth,” “best hypothesis at the moment” kinda sucks, because that’s not how people think of “truth” and not what they mean when they say “scientific truth.”  We don’t generally make a distinction between “truth” and “absolute truth” in conversation; but the common view seems to be, “If it’s true, it’s true forever,” and that’s never been an accurate description of “scientific truth.”

Bleak Ethics

My approach to ethics is largely underdeveloped at this point, but I take as a foundation the following thought:  if anything can be called “evil,” unnecessary suffering is evil; so if anything is good, prevention of unnecessary suffering is good.  I recently came across the same idea in Baggini:  “A sentimentalist might believe that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering.”[9]  Per The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (hereafter “OCP”), this amounts to personal preference, and would be a “moral sense” theory of ethics, which goes back to Hume and Kant.[10]

Beyond that, our natural inclination to empathy teaches us a kind of morality:  we are “good” because we are squeamish about doing “evil.”  So I think that empathy has an evolutionary basis, i.e., it has a “survival value for the species.”  This is an admission that I accept “group selection” as valid in evolutionary theory.

In addition, those actions are “right” which will give us lasting satisfaction; those actions are “wrong” which will give us lasting shame or regret.  But this is merely a restatement of the moral sense theory.

The above describes the main conclusions of the bleak philosophy; so it now is an amalgam of pragmatism, “simple-mindedness,” atheism, General Semantics, neuroscience, “moral sense” ethics, and half-baked ideas.


Perhaps it is worth taking a step back and considering, what is it I’m trying to do here?  Why do I care about Bleakspeak?

The goal is to improve my thinking by using and extending the verbal methods and approach to language originated in 1933 as “General Semantics” (“GS”) by Alfred Korzybski in Science and Sanity.

Philosophical refinements, even “discoveries,” generally have little impact beyond the small percentage of people who read and care about philosophy—that is, these refinements don’t become widespread memes.  One thought that has become a widespread meme is “The map is not the territory”; it was popularized during the heyday of GS and subsequently.  Bleakspeak is intended as a collection of philosophical memes, specifically, replacements for words in common parlance that embody some “philosophical flaws.”

I see “truth” as a flawed word, essentially because it conflates the “absolute truth” of analytic statements with the “true in some sense” of synthetic statements; replacing it with “twoof” is a reminder of this flaw.  And “true” can be replaced by “twoo.”  I am about half serious.

Likewise, saying “ee” (which means “this body right now”) in place of “I” is a reminder that “I” am not “my mind” but rather that I am the body existing in this place at the time that is speaking or writing.  This usage seems to me a more accurate reflection of current neuroscience than is the common practice of equating “I” and “conscious mind.”

Likewise, saying “et cetera” after some subject-predicate statement such as “Alan is a writer, etc.” is a reminder that Alan is oh-so-many things not expressed by the label “writer.”

Also, the GS concept of “indexing” is sometimes worth using.  Indexing is the practice of attaching a date to important nouns, to reflect the fact that what is twoo today may be false at another time.  Example:  “Alan2019 is a writer, etc.”

Likewise, speaking of such things as atoms and gravity and chemical elements as “models,” which represent certain data and results of experiments, is a reminder that each label functions to both refer to and to obscure the mystery that lies beneath, that is, it is a reminder to beware of reification.  I see “models and mysteries” as just another way of talking less metaphorically about maps and territories.  This use of “model” is much the same as how scientists use the word.  Michael Ruse in the article “Models” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy says, “There is a school of thought which argues that scientific theories are best understood semantically, in the sense of being families of theoretical models—interpreted according to specific empirical circumstances—rather than as general systems attempting to explain selected chunks of reality at one fell swoop.  Even if one protests that such families could never capture completely what one aims for in a theory, it is hard to deny that sets of interrelated models are what face scientists most of their working lives.” p. 583.

Except for “et cetera,” most of Bleakspeak goes beyond GS in reconstructing English.  And I use it, so far, only in talking to myself, and mostly not even then.  This is probably unnecessary; but the practice might eventually serve as a teaching tool and as shorthand for accepted arguments.

Future Directions

  • Understanding: Lakoff & Johnson:  Philosophy in the Flesh; Emerson:  “Self-Reliance”
  • Pragmatism: William James:  “The Will to Believe”; Richard Rorty:  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
  • Models and Mysteries: Life is predictable to us, to the extent that our models accurately reflect the mysteries all around us.  Education is useful to the extent that it adds to our stock of models and refines and corrects those that we already have.  We ordinarily think about the world by manipulating our models.
  • Karl Popper: Conjectures and Refutations
  • Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge
  • Pancritical Rationalism: W. Bartley, III:  The Retreat to Commitment
  • Population Thinking

Perhaps it’s important to avoid making this a collection of tools for thinking, like the last item?  Or not important to avoid?

From “100 Ideas”:  “I am not some abstract reasoning machine, I am a real person with a real life to lead, and this fact has consequences, even for philosophy.  At least, my philosophy.”

What I had in mind was something like Peirce’s idea:  “…the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action…”  (From “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.”)  The point is that I study philosophy at all because I am seeking guidance—another word for wisdom.  I could say that my quest began with self-help books, notably the Gestalt Therapy of Fritz Perls.  If anyone wants to call this a “spiritual quest,” I have no objection at present, but maybe I should.  The very word, “spirituality,” is a club that the muddle-heads use against the simple-minds.

From 1/11/19:  I wanted to look up William James’s famous distinction between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” psychological types and see how this compared to Whitehead’s “simple-minded” versus “muddle-headed” kinds of people.  It’s not as easy as I’d hoped.

William James[11] doesn’t so much define the psychological types as merely to enumerate respective traits, as follows:

The Tender-Minded The Tough-Minded
Rationalistic (going by ‘principles’) Empiricist (going by ‘facts’)
Intellectualistic Sensationalistic
Idealistic Materialistic
Optimistic Pessimistic
Religious Irreligious
Free-willist Fatalistic
Monistic Pluralistic
Dogmatical Sceptical

Without worrying too much about niceties of James’s definitions of the “traits,” I would describe myself as:  rationalistic, intellectualistic, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, fatalistic, and sceptical.  That amounts to two from column A and six from column B.

If this exercise is worth anything, perhaps some details are worth considering, though I don’t want to get involved in research at this point.  I don’t choose between monistic and pluralistic because I’m not entirely sure what the distinction is, aside from “one” versus “many” in the roots of the words.  I believe that they are general metaphysical views:  of existence, the universe, “universal substance,” the Absolute, and so on.  If I must go into a pigeonhole, I suppose I’d go with “monistic,” because it seems to me that all that exists in the universe is energy of one form or another.  As for “empty space,” maybe it doesn’t exist in a meaningful sense.  All this is too muddled to bother with now.

I call myself “rationalistic,” but probably not as James means it, since he contrasts this with “empiricist” where I would contrast it with “irrationalistic.”  When it comes to a disagreement between a principle and a fact, the principle must give way, so I must be (again, without having researched the terms) “empiricist.”  Alternatively, Bartley talks about “rationalism” as, in essence, being persuadable by argument, and willing to “go wherever the argument leads,” while I balk at such a commitment and require that the argument lead to a result that doesn’t “fail the smell test.”  But rather than quibble excessively, I’ll accept the label “empiricist,” with reservations.

The distinction between “intellectualistic” and “sensationalistic” escapes me, though I certainly consider myself an intellectual, that is, “inclined toward activities that involve the intellect,” as opposed to physical activities, but I doubt that this is what James means.

Which now puts me at one part tender- versus seven parts tough-minded, with one undecided.  So it seems that, overall, I am “tough-minded,” which suits me just fine.

Above I quoted Whitehead’s distinction.  By this distinction, I very much prefer SM writing, because I despise “obscurity.”  I am thinking of philosophy, of course, not poetry, which I am not considering now.  Above I start with a repudiation of whatever I can’t understand, and “obscure” equates with “impenetrable” which equates with “useless” as far as I’m concerned.  But, of course, I also hope to recognize and allow for complexities—not by writing obscurely, but by hedging things with qualifiers, like “seems” and “approximately.”

Barrett goes on to offer a “chorus of muddle-headedness from three major contemporary thinkers…:  Whitehead—‘Exactness is a fake’; Wittgenstein—‘All words are vague’; Heidegger—‘All formulae are dangerous.’”

I certainly agree with Wittgenstein here (as I put it, “words are the blunt instruments of thought”), and possibly with Whitehead’s claim; Heidegger I choose to ignore.  It seems to me that these are reactions of the SM to perceived complexity.

Whitehead’s claim that “exactness is a fake” reminds me of Einstein’s quote, “So far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain. And so far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”[12]

All of which leaves me somewhere between the poles of MH versus SM—Whitehead’s definition pulls me towards the SM, while Wittgenstein’s observation pulls me towards MH; but I much prefer the SM attitude.

When it comes to my own writing, I strive to be SM while avoiding the pitfall of missing “the complex depths of sheer matters of fact.”

I think that James’s “rationalistic” is a reasonably good fit with “simple-minded” because principles are easy to talk about while facts tend to be messy; and “empiricist” is “muddle-headed” because it insists on facts over principles.

Now, to consider my own “Bleak Philosophy”:  “Critical Rationalism” (hereafter CR), an important part of being bleak, seems to me essentially a principle of avoiding “known error.”  In other words, science proceeds by offering conjectures to solve current problems, conjectures which then are winnowed by refutations, refutations being current test cases or “data,” which results in the “current best guess” (my term).  Not coincidentally, the italicized words give the title of one of Karl Popper’s books:  Conjectures and Refutations.  A conjecture which has been refuted thus becomes a “known error”:  such as “phlogiston,” “the ether,” “Lamarckism,” and so on.  Avoiding known error and provisionally accepting the current best guess is then the “guide to action” that pragmatism looks for.

“Current best guess” is hardly a definition of “truth,” yet this is all that science gives us.  I can’t accept James’s definition of truth, as described in his early and rather MH “The Will to Believe”; it has been compressed into the formula, “It’s true if it works.”  So I tend to avoid using the word “truth” in considering scientific or philosophical matters.  Thinking in terms of “models and mysteries,” I balk at calling a map “true”; maps are “more or less accurate” and cannot avoid being selective.  Maps are simple-minded in a complex (MH) world.  However, in talking with the bulk of mankind, “truth” is an indispensable word; I use it ironically, or with a mental nod toward the unspoken complexities.  I have considered the word often in this diary, but not previously from this Popperian angle.

From 1/14/19:  I cannot think of myself as a philosopher; at best, I can try to be a popularizer of certain ideas that I find attractive and, one hopes, defensible—a kind of Alan Watts of western phil, without the charm.  I gather that Bryan Magee does (or did?) this.  But I might do better to think of myself in the mold of what’s his name, the homespun, rope-twirling wit, Will Rogers.

I’ve long thought of myself as a pragmatist, at least in part, but on checking some books, I’m beginning to think that the word no longer applies, if it ever did.  It relates to the quote, from Dewey, I think, about “the task of the philosopher [being] the dragging of the balloon of abstraction down to Earth.”  The pragmatic method is like that, defining meaning as the “practical consequences of a concept”—to understand a concept, examine its “real-world consequences.”  I’m not checking these quotes right now, it’s not important because I’m just talking to myself here, though of course I’ll post it on my blog, still without doing the checking, because it simply isn’t necessary.

Now I really use the pragmatic method to understand concepts, or perhaps as a way of cutting through muddle-headedness, but I look on it (the result) as a metaphor, where one presumably would want to avoid a metaphor in defining a concept.  So I gladly use the pragmatic method, but I am uncertain about what it would mean to call myself a pragmatist.


I need to consider my version of pragmatism, if any; that’s perhaps my first step.  It is a “step” likely to entail much wandering.  Perhaps I can show myself using “the method” in consideration of some

The OCP article on “pragmatism,” begins this way:  “The characteristic idea of philosophical pragmatism is that efficacy in practical application—the issue of ‘which works out most effectively’—somehow provides a standard for the determination of truth in the case of statements, rightness in the case of actions, and value in the case of appraisals.  However, it is the first of these contexts, the epistemic concern for meaning and truth, that has historically been the most prominent.”  (p. 710)

“Efficacy in practical application” has a strong appeal, and if there is an argument, hypothesis, or position that seems to have little practical application, I generally can’t work up much interest in it.  Consider ideas, in the sense of “Plato’s Ideas or Forms, which are non-physical but exist apart from any conscious beings” (OCP)—a famous thought for which I have no use, probably because I can’t get my head around the “existence” of non-physical things.  I have never understood the ability of this counterintuitive thought to gain adherents throughout virtually the entire history of Western philosophy.  Perhaps I cannot refute the theory—only a better theory can really do that—but I cannot advance a “better theory” until I have one, and that’s sort of what I’m working towards in this paper.  An idea, to me, can exist as a person’s thought, or as words in some form, but makes no sense to me as a disembodied object.

Plato’s Theory of Forms is the origin of “philosophical idealism,” about which the OCP says, in small part:  “It maintains in general that what is real is in some way confined to or at least related to the contents of our own minds.”  (p. 386).  I sometimes think this way myself, and carry it further to the thought, “When I die, a whole universe dies with me.”  But to persist in this kind of thinking is essentially the nearest step to solipsism:  “the only thing that exists is my mind.”  This is a fine philosophical thought which most people, even the least philosophical among us, may enjoy toying with for an hour or a day; but then we get back to business via the “efficacy in practical application.”  In other words, there is no guide to action, no help for “what shall I do now?” in solipsism.  But:  it is to answer such a question, and many others, that I have taken up philosophy in the first place.

“Metaphysics is the most abstract and in some views ‘high-falutin’ part of philosophy, having to do with the features of ultimate reality, what really exists and what it is that distinguishes that and makes it possible.  Nevertheless, the exact nature of the subject has been constantly disputed, as indeed has its validity and usefulness.”  (OCP, “metaphysics, history of,” p. 556).

If one accepts science as the most reliable basis for a worldview, as I do, one is likely to have little time for metaphysics; alternatively, one can say that “science is my metaphysics,” though that is surely incomplete because it says nothing about, for example, ethics.  There can hardly be an argument about the usefulness of science.  But it seems that science, especially physics, since the early twentieth century and the triumphs of quantum mechanics (“QM”) and Einstein’s theory of relativity, has become the province of experts (and amateurs in the grip of the Dunning-Kruger Effect).

I considered QM in the first paragraph of this paper, recognizing that I’ll never understand it.  Should I be content with that?  Must I accept the story of QM at face value?  Isn’t this just as much an “article of faith” as is the Protestant’s theory of transubstantiation?  I’ll consider these questions in the next section.

Truth:  Above I quoted regarding pragmatism that it provides “a standard for the determination of truth,” which raises the old chestnut, “What is truth?”  (Some of the following is adapted from my earlier “Getting Started in Philosophy.”)

“Truth” is a word that I dislike and rarely use because it raises many troubling questions.  Certainly, it is “absolutely true” in some sense that I am sitting in a chair as I write these words.  What is the nature of this sense?  For starters, it is necessary to have in mind some idea of what the individual words mean, most especially, “I,” “sitting,” and “chair.”  Trying to define each of these words can raise quibbling kinds of questions that are perhaps more tedious than enlightening, yet, let’s take a quick look:

  • “What am I?” is a question that needs to be answered; my answer [at least in this context] is that I am a process in an environment, and the word “I” refers to my body-mind at the present moment. I’ll return to this thought later.
  • “Sitting” would seem to be unambiguous, until one considers, “how much of my body weight must be supported by the chair, for the position to be called ‘sitting’?” If I am “halfway up,” is it accurate or inaccurate to say that I am “sitting”?
  • What is a chair? A Platonic Idea?  Is a tree stump a “chair”?  What if I cut a slice off the stump and attach legs, is that a “chair” or a “stool”?  If I attach “arms” to the stool, does it become a “chair,” or “a stool with arms”?  If I answer all these questions and a thousand more, have I covered everything?  How can I know?

Words are defined by their common use, and rarely by precise measurements, and that is a good thing, because words defined by precise measurements would multiply to an unbearable degree.  It would be like the proverbial “seven words for snow” of the Eskimos, except it would be seven hundred, or seven million, depending on the precision required.  Words may be the “blunt instruments of thought,” but there are limits to the precision that is desirable.  It is like, what scale of map do you want?  The finer the scale, the more—and less—useful the map is.  It is the goal that defines the optimal scale of the map.  Even Google Maps at its finest scale does not include the floor plans of buildings or the crosswalk markings on streets.

According to the pragmatic world view, the whole point of thinking is to guide our actions; what we think is “true” is what we use to guide our actions.  Science is our civilization’s systematic attempt to define what is true about the world.  The same might be said about any religion; but I personally would not say that.

We can hardly ignore our own experiences, and we are unwise to ignore science.  In either case, these generally are thought to constitute “good grounds for belief.”  Critical Rationalism rejects the idea of “good grounds for belief,” which is part of the basic process of “justificationism.”  Pull any thread in philosophy and soon the whole fabric is being pulled.  The basic quest of my philosophy is, not to act in accordance with “truth,” but to avoid known error, another concept to which I must return later.

Of course, experiences don’t come with instruction manuals; they can be “misinterpreted.”  People have “religious experiences” because they generally have been brought up to interpret unusual mental phenomena in that light.  I have had one or two myself, but I did not take them to provide any evidence of God.  If I had grown up in a family of practicing, devout religious believers, instead of my nominal Lutherans, I might well have come to a different conclusion.  As it was, I considered my experiences, and concluded that they weren’t important.  I see them as mere transitory moods.  If I were a true scientist, I might consider this fudging the data.  But I am not a true scientist; I’m simply trying to lead my life without stressing over unimportant details—a judgment call of the kind that we all are forced to make.

The “Faith” Question

Above, I raised these questions:  “Must I accept the story of QM at face value?  Isn’t this just as much an “article of faith” as is the Protestant’s theory of transubstantiation?”  It is time to provide answers.

Better thinkers than I am have wrestled with this question, “faith,” and the most common answer—which I find highly unsatisfactory—seems to be that there is no substantive difference:  “Both science and religion rest on a basic faith which cannot be rationally justified.  Faith in the scientific method, or faith in God, take your pick.”  Many such statements, using various synonyms, can be found, and Wittgenstein can be quoted as saying, “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing. At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not well founded.”[13]

I used to accept Wittgenstein’s quote at face value, and concluded, “Whatever works for you is okay by me.”  I no longer accept that, largely because of Bartley:  The Retreat to Commitment.  However, the conclusions of his book have not found wide acceptance; I consider this further in the next section, but it is not a dispute that I can be expected to settle to anyone’s satisfaction other than my own.

That controversy aside, since whole libraries of books have been written on both sides of the science versus religion question, it might be pointless to offer arguments in favor of my take on it.  To my mind, there is at least one sticking point that can’t be argued away:  science is self-correcting based on new data, while religion (at least the American versions of Christianity) generally offers dogmatic denial of “heresies” and contradictory data.  Other obvious arguments seem to me equally difficult for believers to answer rationally, but the question is irrelevant to my purposes here.  In this book I simply assume that religions other than basic Theravada Buddhism are not intellectually respectable, and I leave it to readers to make up their own minds (which they likely already have, anyway).

Critical Rationalism

I need to define CR, which means that I need to consider the foundation, and probably the disagreement between Bartley and Popper.

The short book by Artigas[14] is the only item I’ve been able to find that addresses the issues raised by Bartley; other resources ignore Bartley and his “pancritical rationalism” altogether, which is troubling, because I’ve been very impressed with Bartley’s book.

Popper and Bartley disagreed strongly, but subsequently reunited, with some remaining differences.  Artigas reviews the story.  The crux of their differences is that Popper says that rationalism begins with an ethical commitment; Bartley claims that this is “fideist” (faith-based) and thus a “retreat to commitment”—in other words, that Popper’s rationalism begins with an irrational commitment to rationality.  Bartley tries to avoid this commitment because it leaves rationalism and Protestantism on the same shaky foundation, and he does this by establishing the position of pancritical rationalism.

While the difference is not trivial, and is extremely important in Bartley’s attack on religion, it doesn’t matter much to me personally, and smarter people than me have disputed Bartley.  To Bartley’s credit, he includes in the second (1987) edition of his book important articles critical of his book, and responds to them.  Artigas sides rather thoroughly with Popper, and Popper also had the last word (published in Artigas for the first time).  Regarding Bleakphil, if I can’t support Bartley’s pancritical rationalism, I can support Popper’s widely-accepted critical rationalism, and “let Protestantism off the hook.”

Popper is quoted as saying, “Broadly speaking, the adoption of rationalism is a matter of moral decision.  We discard irrationalism, because we find it more dangerous than rationalism.”  [Artigas; see note 14 for the title.]

Perhaps I can compare this to a believer’s possible statement that “the adoption of Christianity is a matter of moral decision,” which invites the observation, “but your morals are based on Christianity.”  This is a clear case of begging the question.  Can Popper be charged with basing his morals on rationalism?  If not, then what are they based on?

I base my ethics on the claim that “if anything is evil, unnecessary suffering is evil.”  Is this rational, emotional, or what?

I think it is clear that a commitment to rationalism is necessary; perhaps the important question, then, is this:  is there a more important commitment than that?  And, what are the consequences of this commitment?

Excerpt (with Revisions) from “Getting Started in Philosophy”

“The foundation of bleak philosophy is to combine the best elements of existentialism and General Semantics, both rather technical subjects.  Sartre said that existentialism was the result of taking atheism seriously.  The bleak philosophy is the result of taking neuroscience seriously.”

“I want to read you a quote from Blaise Pascal, who lived in the seventeenth century.  He said, ‘I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given to me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me.  I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.  All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.’  Powerful words.”

“Pascal’s questions go to the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive.  He believed that he was a soul, an immortal soul temporarily housed in a body, and so he wonders, why this body?  Why now?  This is a thinker’s question, a question which occurs only to persons who have time to think, and perhaps only to those who question or reject the answers they grew up with—in my case it was a version of Christianity which I no longer respect, if I ever really did.”

“If Pascal had thought of himself not as a soul, but as a body, he would not have had these questions.  Now, to make troubling questions go away is not a good reason to change your religion, your beliefs.  But if you discover that your beliefs are unreasonable, irrational, not as good as other beliefs you might have, then you do have good reasons to change.”

“Science does not accept the existence of souls, as I see it—and everything I’m saying tonight is only my opinion—science does not accept the existence of souls for two reasons.  First, there is no good evidence that souls exist.  Some people believe in ghosts, and that ghosts are souls, but both science and most religions reject belief in ghosts.  The second reason that science rejects the existence of souls is that souls explain nothing.  These two points could be argued about for a long time, and perhaps one day I’ll go into those arguments in detail in a lecture.  Tonight my purpose is not so ambitious.  Tonight I want to concentrate on what it means to be Bleak.  Because Bleak is the name my religion has acquired, it’s a nickname that has stuck, for better or worse.”

“Modern science tells us that we are essentially just very smart animals.  We are not something very different from chimpanzees or dolphins or cats.  We have somewhat different brains, is the important difference.  And as Daniel Dennett said earlier this century, the more you know about brains, the more it looks like nobody is home.  What we call the mind is just the activity of mindless neurons housed in a complicated body.  The mind is brain-body activity, and there is no other thing like a soul that tells the brain what to do.”

“Again, I can’t expect you to be persuaded by the few words I’ll say to you tonight.  To understand and believe the bleak philosophy is not the work of an afternoon or even of a year.  Without a firm belief in the methods and results of science, there’s hardly any point in even talking about it.  But with a firm belief in the methods and results of science, you’re within spitting distance of being a bleak.  You’ll believe that the earth is a speck of dust among countless others, you’ll believe that we are all the descendants of apes, you’ll believe that when the brain is dead the person is dead, and there’s an end.  People call these facts ‘bleak,’ and in comparison to the fantasies of a heavenly afterlife in the lap of a loving god, they are.  But there are reasons not to turn your mind away from hard realities, reasons which I probably don’t need to spell out.  Given that Bertrand Russell did such a wonderful job of it in his A Free Man’s Worship a hundred years ago—we have a pamphlet of that essay available.”

“One of the hardest things for people to accept is that people are bodies, not minds.  We tend to believe, we grow up believing, that it is natural to believe as Descartes did:  ‘I think, therefore I am.’  We take this for granted.  Why question it?”

“However, another thing we take for granted is that changing the brain changes the mind.  A drink of alcohol or a dose of marijuana changes how a person feels and how she behaves.  These things don’t affect the mind directly—they change the actions of neurons, and neural activity is what we experience as the mind.  Another long argument for a rainy afternoon, perhaps.”

“The mind is a curious, mysterious, slippery thing, which is kind of what you should expect of the doings of a hundred billion little machines.  We tend to think that we know our own minds, but serious thought reveals how little we really understand, even today.”

“For example, consider free will.  I can, of course, choose to raise my left arm.  But when I try to see that choice being made in my mind—try this at home some time—I see that the choice comes from a dark place into which I cannot see.  In fact, all of our choices are made unconsciously.  The conscious mind cannot make choices, it is a generally helpless thing, it’s the chattering monkey riding on the back of  the elephant, thinking that it controls where the elephant goes, when it’s the elephant, the unconscious mind, that goes where it wants.  You’ve experienced this willful unconscious in action if you’ve ever tried to deny a craving of your body, such as in breaking an addiction.  You can’t stop thinking about the craved object, it seems.”

“The whole point of the bleak philosophy is to bring our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves in line with the best science of our time, because we need to cast off the shackles of error.”

“I’ve been studying science my whole life, but no one can know it all.  I think that, no, I know that every year I fall further behind.  And every science I look into seriously I find to be extremely complicated.  The dirty little secret of the bleak philosophy is that to do it right is impossible.  It’s impossible to become bleak in a fully rational way.  But perhaps all is not lost.  The whole world honors, respects, and uses science.  The overwhelming consensus of the human species is that science works and is reliable, and that there is only one science, the same for us all, except for a few areas of controversial new theories.  The exact opposite is true of religion.  Most of the big conclusions of science are not controversial.  No serious, educated person will argue that we are not made of atoms, that the universe is not vast, that we do not need oxygen to breathe.”

“My advice is to study all the science you can.  Learn the main conclusions, the big theories, to the best of your ability.  Learn what science says about you, about what a human being is, how our bodies work, and why we behave as we do.  We must follow the overwhelming consensus of trust in science, not as an act of faith, but for the same reason that you don’t put your head into the fire.  Nothing else makes sense.

What is the meaning of life?  The bleak answer is that meanings are human constructs that have no reality outside of a human context.  I think the psychological truth of the matter is that we should pursue those things that give us lasting satisfaction and avoid those that give us lasting regret.  When we do this we feel that life is meaningful.  This is also the bleak picture of an ethical life.  If you can’t write novels, carve statues, raise a family, or find true love, still you can plant trees, or seeds.  Make this a better world by your efforts and you will feel satisfaction now and later and know the meaning of life in proportion to your efforts and results.”

Those actions are “right” which will give us lasting satisfaction; those actions are “wrong” which will give us lasting shame or regret.  But these definitions assume that the person speaking is psychologically “normal,” opening another can of worms.  Does “normal” mean “having conventional thoughts, avoiding radical thinking”?  “Normal” for this society at this time? and so on.

Bleakspeak is not an essential part of the philosophy, but some of us find it helpful to remind ourselves frequently of some key points.  This has good psychological effects.  Usually, bleakspeak takes the form of saying ‘this body’ in place of ‘I,’ such as ‘this body likes spaghetti.’  Often, bleaks add ‘right now,’ indicating that preferences, desires, goals, and so on change with our mood.  So it is bleakspeak to say, ‘This body right now wants spaghetti.’  This part of bleakspeak is a modification of a practice advocated by some followers of General Semantics, a large subject that I can’t go into now.  Of course, saying ‘this body right now’ all the time may draw attention that might be awkward in certain situations, so, some of us will say ‘ee’ instead of ‘I.’  ‘Ee wants’ instead of ‘I want.’  The ‘right now’ part is understood as part of ‘ee.’  And, of course, most bleaks don’t even use bleakspeak.  It’s a personal choice and bleaks generally aren’t language snobs about this.”

“There are a few other linguistic practices advocated by many bleaks.  Probably the most important is avoidance of the use of labels for human beings, such as racial terms—black, Asian, white—terms for sexual preference, words like ‘drug addict’ and ‘alcoholic,’ ‘communist,’ and indeed, even the label ‘bleak.’  This usage is controversial but the thought behind it is important.  Stereotypes and pigeonholes, in other words, labels, are frequently more misleading than helpful, but avoiding labels sometimes just makes conversation about certain subjects difficult.  The important thing, the general principle, is to avoid thoughtlessly pushing people’s emotional buttons and thus making them and ourselves temporarily stupid.  It’s axiomatic that when you get emotional you get stupid.  Of course, ‘stupid’ itself is a label, or is often used that way, as is ‘emotional.’  But in this case I’m not talking about a particular human being, so the rule doesn’t apply.”

Let’s not forget “indexing,” adding a date to the use of names, such as “Alan Nicoll {1/16/19}” when referring to a person’s character or opinions, say, thus allowing that people change.  When this is done, it’s normal to use subscripts; a similar practice is often used when comparing various editions of a book.  I read one book where subscripting was used extensively for a few specific terms, and it was very annoying, and likely unnecessary.

Diary Entry, 5/29/18

Typing in quotes from Stanislas Dehaene:  Consciousness and the Brain, Viking/Penguin/Random House, NY, 2014, I include this selection:

“[The brain] is constantly traversed by global patterns of internal activity that originate not from the external world but from within, from the neurons’ peculiar capacity to self-activate in a partly random fashion….our global neuronal workspace does not operate in an input-output manner, waiting to be stimulated before producing its outputs.  On the contrary, even in full darkness, it ceaselessly broadcasts global patterns of neural activity, causing what William James called the ‘stream of consciousness’—an uninterrupted flow of loosely connected thoughts, primarily shaped by our current goals and only occasionally seeking information in the senses.  René Descartes could not have imagined a machine of this sort, where intentions, thoughts, and plans continually pop up to shape our behavior.  The outcome, I argue, is a ‘free-willing’ machine that resolves Descartes’s challenge and begins to look like a good model for consciousness.”  p. 14-15

If we accept this view, if we are to take neuroscience seriously, our “free will” is an unconscious process.  I considered this possibility before, when approaching the question of free will from a philosophical standpoint, and found it, essentially, as good as no free will at all.  That was before I began thinking of “me” as “this body.”  Now I think that way; and, as a corollary, I think of moods as “the influence of the body on the mind,” which I doubt is an adequate explanation or definition—at best, it’s a fairly crude metaphor, fully in the dualistic idiom, and useful only in speaking to those who remain dualist.  [Or can interpret the metaphor sensibly.]

So, “unconscious free will is the only free will we have” will be highly unsatisfactory to those who identify “me” as “my mind,” but might be satisfactory and convincing to those who identify “me” as “this body.”  I don’t know of anyone who identifies themself as their body, except me.  This identification came to me as a result of much study, and specifically arose when I contemplated this long quote from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées:

“205. When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?”

Pascal’s questions result from identifying “me” with “my mind” and are based in Cartesian dualism, the old theory of the mind-body problem.  That problem disappears when you realize that there is no “mind,” only a “body-mind” or, more simply, a body—born as a fact of biology, thinking as a fact of biology, here-now because one’s parents had sex and produced one’s body.

And the question of “free will of the body” wipes out, ignores, the distinction of conscious versus unconscious free will.  The body acts, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, each act as free or as unfree as the other.  Dehaene again:  “The popular Danish science writer Tor Nørretranders coined the term ‘user illusion’ to refer to our feeling of being in control, which may well be fallacious; every one of our decisions, he believes, stems from unconscious sources.”  (p. 91)

“Stems from” is ambiguous; I take it to mean that decisions are made unconsciously.  I don’t decide; I recognize that I have decided (where “I” means “my conscious mind”).

“Free will” becomes a useless concept, because it is mentalism:  “the theory that physical and psychological phenomena are ultimately explicable only in terms of a creative and interpretative mind,” according to the American English dictionary included in my MacBook.  “Mind” is just an ill-defined function of the body, and, as far as I can see, a thoroughly unnecessary and misleading concept.  If we dispense with “the mind” as an explanation of anything, and dispense with “I” as a useful pronoun, we arrive at what I call “the bleak philosophy,” and “bleakspeak,” the modified English proposed in my uncompleted novel of the dystopian future.

Dehaene:  “It is humbling to think that the ‘stream of consciousness,’ the words and images that constantly pop up in our mind and make up the texture of our mental life, finds its ultimate origin in random spikes sculpted by the trillions of synapses laid down during our lifelong maturation and education.”  p. 190

My Life as an Atheist

In response to an email I wrote the following (usual quotation marks omitted):

It is impossible to escape beliefs, every time we get out of bed we assume that there will be a floor under our feet.  This kind of belief isn’t interesting.

All I can talk about is what I personally believe, and why.  This is not “off the top of my head.”  I’ve been working on these questions and answers all my life, and I’m 71.

As you know, I’m an atheist.  I decided long ago that I cannot base my beliefs on the experiences of others, though perhaps that’s unrealistic in the abstract.  It’s more to the point in the matter of, let’s say, foundational beliefs, such as whether a god exists.  If I were to accept testimony of religious experiences as “good enough evidence” for the existence of God, I would, if I hoped to be consistent, be forced to accept an endless array of beliefs:  demons, palmistry, astrology, UFOs, “ancient aliens,” and so on.  And there are many people who accept all these things, and more, as you know.

I have heard arguments that “all religions are, at bottom, the same,” or “all roads lead to the one true God,” or whatever.  I have not found it to be so.  I have read more than enough to convince me that these arguments are faulty.  I have explored all the major religions, superficially, and found only two or three to be of much interest:  Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  These, in their basic form, profess no gods.

I can’t really do an adequate job here of explaining everything; that would require a book, which I might write someday, but not right now.  I have already written an extensive piece that covers much of this ground, and it’s on my blog and called The Bleak Philosophy.  It’s not entirely adequate even as it stands, but I hope you’ll read it and respond with questions if you want to know more.

But perhaps the real question isn’t answered there:  what is it like to live life as an atheist?  In fact, to me it’s not anything.  It’s just me leading my life.  I don’t “practice atheism,” I just do what I do.  I worry about ethical questions and try to find rational answers; I read philosophy and science in the hope of justifying, extending, and refining my own beliefs; I consider my moods and try to minimize my own suffering and increase my sense of meaning.  I find meaning in my life by pursuing my stated goal of making the world a better place through my writing.  I pursue that goal in whatever ways I can devise that are compatible with my other preferences, such as through my blog, the book I’m working on (a memoir), and on Twitter.  Since Trump was elected I have become politically active in a modest way.  I also read books that promise something of significance, and I consider that a “meaningful” activity.

What “meaningful” means in that context is something I have considered, and it’s an important question.  To me, meaningful acts are those that I expect will prove to be a continuing source of satisfaction, when they are looked back on.  Most day-to-day satisfactions do not have this quality; a remembered “good meal” rarely means anything more than remembered nourishment, and if it means more, it’s likely not because of the food.

Well, I’ve written more than I expected or intended, and I think it’s a valuable expression of some questions I haven’t written much about before.  So I’ll save it and eventually post it on my blog, if only as part of “The Bleak Philosophy” or as a diary entry.

Until next time,


After that, I wrote again to “N”:

N, despite my long answer, I didn’t really answer your questions, which were:  “what defines what is true about the world? Is it each individual’s experiences, what science can identify, something else?”

We can hardly ignore our own experiences, and we are unwise to ignore science.  In either case, these generally constitute “good grounds for belief.”  Of course, experiences don’t come with instruction manuals; they can be “misinterpreted.”  People have “religious experiences” because they generally have been brought up to interpret unusual mental phenomena in that light.  I have had one or two myself, but I did not take them to provide any evidence of God.  If I had grown up in a family of practicing, devout religious believers, instead of my nominal Lutherans, I might well have come to a different conclusion.  As it was, I considered my experiences, and concluded that they weren’t important.  They were transitory moods, is all.

Science is our civilization’s systematic attempt to “define what is true about the world.”  The same might be said about any religion; but I personally would not say that.

Hope this helps.


[1] “The Twentieth Century in Philosophy,” in William Barrett and Henry D. Aiken:  Philosophy in the Twentieth Century:  An Anthology, Random House, New York, 1962, Volume One, p. 32-33.

[2] Alfred Korzybski (Science and Sanity, 1933) popularized this expression, though the concept is older.

[3] I have been unable to verify the source of this quote; I had thought I’d read it in one of Richard Feynman’s autobiographical books, but my very limited research hasn’t confirmed this.  Subsequent reading suggests it’s from John Dewey.

[4] From Henry Jackman:  “William James,” p. 63 in The Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy, referenced to James:  The Sentiment of Rationality, original version, p. 62.

[5] Another quote I have been unable to verify.  It might be in William Barrett:  Irrational Man.

[6] Notably Dale Purves, et al.:  Neuroscience (3rd edition), Joaquin Fuster:  Cortex and Mind, and Daniel Dennett:  Elbow Room.

[7] “G.S.-speak” is my name for some rules of expression set out in van Vogt’s The Players of Null-A (after Korzybski).  These rules include “indexing,” which is to include the date of opinions and facts when those are expressed, and to add “etc.” to subject-predicate propositions, such as, “Alan2019 is a philosopher, etc.”  These are valuable reminders of the limitations of language, but this practice occurs almost exclusively in the writings of GS practitioners.

[8] From William Barrett and Henry D. Aiken, eds:  Philosophy in the Twentieth Century:  An Anthology, Random House, New York, 1962, Volume Three, p. 102, referenced to to W. V. Quine:  From a Logical Point of View, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1953, Chapter 2.

[9] Julian Baggini:  The Edge of Reason:  A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2016, p. 146.

[10] Baroness Warnock, “Moral Sense,” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy

[11] “Pragmatism:  A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking,” in William James:  Writings, 1902-1910, The Library of America, place and date of publication not given, p. 491

[12] Bart Kosko: Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, Hyperion, New York, 1993, p. 3, attributed to Albert Einstein:  Geometry and Experience.

[13] Quoted in Kai Nielsen:  Philosophy and Atheism: In Defense of Atheism, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1985, p. 221.

[14] Mariano Artigas:  The Ethical Nature of Karl Popper’s Theory of Knowledge:  Including Popper’s Unpublished Comments on Bartley and Critical Rationalism, Ivan Slade (ed), Peter Lang AG, European Academic Publishers, Bern and New York, 1999.


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