Beans Are the Perfect Food

No bread, no potatoes. Reduce rice, corn, and pasta. Beans are the perfect food.

We have been asking whether the proposition “Every event has its cause” really leads to determinism and thus pragmatically conflicts with the ordinary human presumption of free will. Thus far, 4 proposed answers – calling it a paradox, appealing to levels in the hierarchy of matter, chaos theory, and true randomness – have been found wanting. The last 3 answers addressed old and new scientific principles which don’t fully answer questions of will.

Let’s not make the mistake, however, of excluding science from the understanding of how we choose.

My medical practice in disorders of cholesterol and other fats, or lipids, often raises questions about the role of willpower. More than half of my patients would do well to lose weight in order to improve the lipoprotein profile and blood glucose readings.

Feeding behavior from Cell 2The highlighted text at right shows the surprising appearance of the term “free will” in a prestigious basic biological journal, taken from an article in Cell written by Jeffrey Flier and Bruce Spiegelman, paragons in the field of metabolic biochemistry and molecular physiology. I have never seen a reference to free will otherwise outside of philosophical writing. Here free will and physiology are described as working together to influence feeding behavior. 

In fighting obesity in my patients over the past 20 years, emphasis has shifted from recommending a low fat diet to recommending most commonly a low glycemic diet – that is, a diet low in starchy foods, except that beans are allowed and encouraged.

“No bread, no potatoes” has become our mantra. Reduce rice, corn, and pasta. Because of glycemic index and load, even whole wheat bread should be avoided, but sweet potatoes are okay. Beans are perfect with minimal fat, a reasonable amount of protein, and plenty of viscous fiber that greatly slows the absorption of glucose derived from starchy carbohydrate in the beans. Beans even provide a built-in warning system with bloating and gas when you eat too much.

Two leading nutrition researchers, George Bray and Frank Sacks, led a large weight loss study comparing 3 diets that varied markedly in the share of daily calories coming from carbohydrate versus fat versus protein.[1] Calorie distribution made no significant different for weight loss. However, a small detail appeared in the Methods section of the paper. Each of the 3 diets was designed to be low glycemic. That means each diet was designed to raise the subject’s blood glucose (sugar) level minimally, including the diet high in overall carbohydrate calories – beans!

We changed our counseling advice from traditional low-fat/reduce portion size recommendations to low glycemic recommendations in 2001. The result is illustrated in the figure below, based on an analysis led by Westly Bailey, an awesome medical student working with me:

Weight loss low glycemic

Among groups of people (N per year) with high triglyceride (blood fat) levels who needed to lose weight, weight change beyond the first year of clinic follow-up averaged +0.2% with traditional diet counseling (1998-2000), but dropped to -3.0% with low glycemic counseling. Although 3.0% weight loss on average may not seem so exciting, weight loss sufficient to provide major health benefits occurred in about 1 out of 4 patients. We continue to see similar results today.

What does this have to do with will or willpower? Hint: Glucose is the fuel that brain uses to enable thinking.

I begin to explain the low glycemic approach to patients by saying something like this:

“Your will is the decision you make whenever during the week you feel most relaxed and able to think clearly – maybe on Sunday afternoon. Take some time then to think about what and how much you want to eat during the week. Once you decide, then willpower is whether you are able to carry out the decision that you yourself have made.”

Then I add,

“I happen to believe in the will and the soul, but willpower is different. Willpower is about how this computer works [pointing to my head]. Right?”

The patient generally agrees. Willpower is about how the brain works.

Nobody has studied willpower better than social psychologist Roy Baumeister. He and science writer John Tierney published in 2011 a terrific book for lay readers entitled Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.[2] I learned a lot from the book and recommend it highly. Chapter 2 describes the powerful effect of food on willpower. Specifically this effect comes from glucose, derived from dietary sugar and starch.

What is so special about glucose? Most people know that glucose is one of 2 major fuel molecules in the body; the other is fatty acids derived from triglyceride and other fatty molecules ingested in the diet and stored in fat cells. Many are not aware that fatty acids are the preferred fuel for heart, muscle, and almost all other body tissues.

The brain is different. Fatty acid molecules can insert themselves into cell membranes and change membrane properties. Brain cell membranes must stay precisely tuned to enable the wonders of conscious thought; they cannot be subject to highly variable fatty acid levels. Fortunately fatty acids are almost entirely attached to blood proteins, and blood proteins are almost entirely kept away from brain cells by a special brain blood vessel adaptation called the blood-brain barrier. I sometimes tell patients,

“If we didn’t keep fatty acids away from our brain cells, we would think like worms instead of mammals.”

Because the blood-brain barrier blocks transfer of fatty acids to brain cells, our brains depend entirely on glucose for fuel.[3] Now let’s look at the fuel supply for the brain with a diet high in starchy foods.

Glucose energy for brain 1

The graph shows average blood glucose readings for 8 healthy research volunteers on a scale from 70 mg/dl to 120 mg/dl through the course of a 24-hour day, beginning just after 7:00 a.m. Four spikes in blood glucose reaching 106 to 111 mg/dl occur with 3 high starch meals and an evening snack.

Ask a computer engineer if she would ever want a computer to run with an energy supply as variable as the graph shows. What’s more, the brain is responsible for securing and maintaining its own energy supply – that is, the brain must perform all the functions of computer, user of the computer, and engineer who maintains the computer. It seems possible that alarm signals may prompt subconscious processes whenever the glucose level drops precipitously. This is illustrated by the red arrows in the graph below.

Glucose energy for brain 2

Baumeister and Tierney in their book on willpower show that decision-making capacity in humans drops to a low ebb in the late evening and nighttime hours as glucose levels are falling. Is it better, then, to keep munching cookies late into the night? Momentary impulses whisper “Grab a few!” over and over. But acceding to those impulses is just another example of weak decision-making, also known as diminished willpower.

We continue to get better results in weight loss counseling today than we did before 2001. I think this is due to high glycemic foods causing willpower to drain away faster through the day and into the evening. Low glycemic foods deliver a steadier energy supply to the brain, and as a result the brain works better especially into the evening.

The weight loss results that we’re getting cannot be denied. We are tracking weight change in the patients that we see in clinic. But is it really due to a steadier energy supply to the brain? Or does it come more from our enthusiasm about a novel, fun, and exciting hypothesis? At this point rigorous scientific investigation has not yet been done. In the meantime, patients are getting benefit from lower weight.

I’ve gone through this story in considerable detail to show how scientific reasoning can apply to willpower, which we may place, in the words of Flier and Spiegelman depicted above, “at the interface between physiology and free will.”

It’s not that hard to understand. Your will is about whether you want to make an effort to eat less, so that you can enjoy better health for years to come. It’s about goals for the week that you choose on Sunday afternoon. Willpower is about whether you can meet the goals that you yourself have chosen. Maintaining a stable energy supply for your brain by eating low glycemic foods may enhance willpower. That’s a testable hypothesis for future research.


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[1] POUNDS LOST trial. Sacks FM, Bray GA, et al. Comparison of weight-loss diet with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrate. New England Journal of Medicine 2009;360:859-73.

[2] Baumeister RF, Tierney J. Willpower. Penguin, New York, 2011.

[3] If you starve for a day, then the supply of glucose can run low and your liver will begin to make hydrobutyrate and acetoacetate, the so-called “ketone bodies,” from fatty acids to serve as an alternative to glucose as fuel for the brain. A diet extremely low in carbohydrate, like the Atkins diet, can also promote “ketosis.” Nevertheless, with a reasonably normal diet on a day-to-day basis, glucose is the only fuel the brain uses.

Chaos, Chance, and Will

If the flap of a butterfly’s wing can trigger a tornado months later and thousands of miles away, could a tiny force of will change a person’s life?

In the last blog we looked at the first 2 of 5 answers that attempt to reconcile free will with a firm theory of causation. The 1st answer, to name the problem as a paradox, does not work as an answer at all, but instead abdicates the search for an answer. The 2nd, an appeal to “levels in the hierarchy of matter” (physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology/sociology according to Paul Nunez), describes limits on calculable predictability that bar real-world reduction of human choosing down to the level of particle physics. However, this appeal does not remove human choosing from the realm of scientific explanation, because science still works within each hierarchical level.

Now we continue with a look at two more proposals that emerge from scientific investigation. Potential answer #3 to reconcile will and causation goes by the catchy name of chaos theory. It is a new explanatory paradigm for natural systems. On the surface chaos theory resembles the appeal to levels in the hierarchy of matter, but it’s actually quite different.

Chaos theory can be demonstrated with computers. It arose when computer simulations of natural phenomena became powerful enough to exhibit what Edward Lorenz in a pathbreaking 1963 paper called “deterministic nonperiodic” behavior. Think about computer simulations of atmospheric weather which often exhibit random-appearing (nonperiodic), but completely determined fluctuations. We know that the simulation results are completely determined because the rules built into the computer program are known, and running the program any number of times will always produce the same result.

The key to understanding chaos theory is to recognize that tiny changes in the initial startup conditions set for the computer simulation can produce widely different and unpredictable results as the program runs its course in virtual time. Not every computer program exhibits this kind of behavior, but some do. Examining how this happens and how it behavior applies to natural phenomena constitutes the essence of chaos theory.

Lorenz described chaos theory memorably and poetically with the well-known example:

A butterfly flaps its wings in the Brazilian rain forest, and months later the result is a tornado in Texas.[1]

It’s important to remember that this example is not derived from scientific experiment involving an intrepid team of jungle explorers measuring the movements of an actual butterfly’s wings and following the consequences in real time and space. That experiment is from every practical viewpoint impossible. Instead it’s an example based on analogy to a sufficiently powerful and cleverly designed computer program.

Chaos theory properly belongs to the field of mathematics, but it is applicable to descriptions not only of weather, but also of certain physiologic or pathologic responses, earthquakes, forest fires, epidemics, biological evolution, financial markets, social unrest, and many other kinds of phenomena.

One of clearest conclusions we can make about chaos theory is that mathematicians really enjoy it and perform useful service as well. Philosophers dealing with chaos theory get a chance to show that they, too, can think mathematically, before branching off to speculate on the consequences for scientific realism or the like.

As suggested above, one might think that philosophical application of chaos theory merely repeats with a spiffy title what we examined already as the hierarchy of matter (our 2nd answer examined in the prior blog). However, chaos theory, when it is turned around to look backward, say, at the causes of hurricanes and tornados, does not necessarily try to examine a class of phenomena beneath the level of atmospheric physics. It is not a question of differing layers of scientific knowledge. Instead, atmospheric physics itself is sufficiently complex to give rise to “deterministic nonperiodic” behavior, which complicates our usual notion of experimentally confirmable causation.

Thus chaos theory might seem to be a new kind of wormhole through which the human sense of free action might sneak into our consciousness, while not contradicting at all the dictum that all events are caused and determined by particle physics.

Unfortunately everything said previously about the attempt to define a pragmatic pair, using the concept of differing major levels in the hierarchy of matter, also applies to chaos theory. Chaos theory is completely within the sphere of science. It also fits within positivism, which asserts that nothing is known meaningfully unless it is known scientifically. I shall not repeat the argument about positivism, but refer the reader back to earlier blogs in this series.

The 4th proposed answer to explain the inward testimony of free will in a world based on causation is the concept of true randomness. Randomness has an origin at the interface between philosophy and mathematics. Mathematics (especially statistics) and natural science (especially quantum physics and evolutionary biology) incorporate and use randomness in essential ways. By definition, a random event is one that is not predetermined as a singular occurrence. However, a series of random events will exhibit a predetermined probability distribution. If neither the event nor the probability distribution is predetermined, then we do not use the term “random” but instead the term “arbitrary.” Arbitrary events have no place in science.

Randomness itself was a hard pill for science to swallow. Remember that science is built on reproducibility. And reproducibility requires at least some degree of determinism. Albert Einstein was famously resistant to the notion of randomness. He wrote in a letter to the physicist Max Born in 1926, “I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.”[2] This later took the form we are accustomed to remember, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Quantum physics, for reasons that I do not time or space to explore here, requires randomness. Stephen Hawking, the English physicist, explained it well in a lecture worth reading. Hawking’s lecture describes the acceptance of randomness into science in terms of the wave function of particles, which turns out to be a kind of probability distribution. Reproducibility is retained, as is necessary for science, but it is a probabilistic reproducibility. Randomness accentuates the wobble factor in a way at least superficially similar to chaos theory. The wobble factor in quantum physics has a noble heritage in the Uncertainty Principle discovered by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, based partly on Max Planck’s prior finding that energy and mass are not divisible without limit, but occur in discrete quanta.

Didn’t we already discuss randomness in terms of chaos theory? No. There is a critical difference philosophically between chaos theory and true randomness. Remember that a computer program which exhibits the wild gyrations of chaos theory will reproduce exactly the same wild gyrations if the computer program begins with exactly the same inputs as previously run. True randomness will never (beyond any stated degree of statistical certainty) produce exactly the same result.

What about “random number generators,” widely used in computer simulations and statistical science? That’s a fair question. A digital computer will not exhibit true randomness.[3] Nevertheless, a computer can produce a very satisfactory simulation of randomness in the following manner: (a) Start with a program that delivers chaotic behavior. (b) Keep track of the inputs for the program, and be sure that the inputs for each new run of the program differ from those of previous runs. This condition can satisfied if one of the inputs simply counts 1, 2, 3, …. (c) Check to see that the output of a very large number of computer re-runs produces the desired probability distribution. This could be defined, for example, as an equal likelihood of representing any real number, within some stated small interval without a lower limit, between zero and 1.

Ah. We seem to have a satisfying answer. True randomness, ultimately found in quantum physics, defeats determinism. Somehow in the interaction between quantum randomness and neuronal chemistry, consciousness arises and free will has space to maneuver.

Unfortunately, a leading investigator in the field does not endorse the idea that free will might emerge from quantum interactions in the brain.

In his remarkable book on the relations between mathematics, computers, minds and consciousness, and the laws of physics, titled The Emperor’s New Mind, Roger Penrose chiefly focuses on the questions of what is required to have a mind, how mathematics itself may be as real as moving particles and waves, and how consciousness might arise. He waits until the very end of book to broach the term “free will,” although previous chapters addressed something akin to it in terms of a “suggestion that there is an essential non-algorithmic aspect to the role of conscious action.” In discussing free will near the end of his book, he points toward quantum interactions in the brain as follows:

The R ‘quantum-jump’ is not deterministic, and it introduces a completely random element into the time-evolution. Early on, various people leapt at the possibility that here might be a role for free will, the action of consciousness perhaps having some direct effect on the way that an individual quantum system might jump. But if R is really random, then it is not a great deal of help either, if we wish to do something positive with our free wills.[4]

Penrose hits the nub of the difficulty with randomness. Randomness gives the conscious person no more a sense of ownership and responsibility for her actions than does fate. Randomness fails to solve the Free Will Problem.

Upcoming blogs will look at will and willpower as medical questions and then broach the phenomenon of consciousness, including cosmic consciousness or God as the 5th proposed answer to the Free Will Problem.


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Photo: Butterfly in Ecuadorean jungle. (c) Jrg Hackemann – Fotolia

[1] Lorenz E. Predictability: does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., 1972.

[2] Albert Einstein, letter to Max Born, 4 December 1926.

[3] It is theoretically possible to engineer a computer to make “mistakes” based on the inherent randomness of quantum physics, but actual computers today perform amazingly accurate and reproducible calculations.

[4] Penrose, R. The Emperor’s New Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989. Reprinted by Penguin, New York, 1991. P. 431.

Cause or Will?


Philosophy is sometimes said to begin with “self-evident” propositions. Here is one such proposition:

  1. Every event has its cause.

When something happens, we legitimately think that it does not just come out of the blue. We recognize that causation can be complex and multivariate. In practical terms the causes of many events, especially at the human or societal level, will never be ascertained fully. Yet it just makes sense that everything that happens has its cause. I want to believe and I do believe in the principle of causation.

But what does causation mean, except that the present and the future are completely determined by the past? Space, motion, forces, particles all unroll from time past to time future according to the rule – no, the rules of causation. Physics undergirds and explains everything.

Beyond material reality, believers in spiritual reality can still regard the principle of causation as inviolate. An example from the movies: The Jedi knights attributed supernatural powers, good and evil, to the Force, because the Force was viewed as an effective cause. In classical modern philosophy, Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, a self-expressed believer in God, emphasized the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which asserts that every thing must have a sufficient reason for being as it is, and not otherwise. Every event must have a sufficient reason for happening as it does, and not otherwise.

Therefore, many people, whether their belief system is materialist or spiritual, will affirm that every event is caused and thus that every event is determined by causes from the past or from a timeless perspective, usually God’s perspective, which includes past, present, and future. The principle of causation, they say, is self-evident, and it means that the future is determined.

I believe in causation, but I don’t want to believe in determinism.

Unless you have achieved a nirvana of stoic acceptance, I would guess that you share an unease with determinism. My desire is to think and act freely, and determinism implies a lack of choice and control, as everything is either already determined or driven by fate. Hence–

  1. I want to believe that the ideas I bring up and the habits of responsive action that I form can produce effects in the world.

This is a simple statement. It puts into positive terms the idea that I am not driven by fate. If some person appears to lack this core belief, we begin to wonder if that person is psychotic (or more charitably, close to nirvana).

Let’s call (2.) a proposition of free will. Is this too bold, assuming as it does that we have some coherent idea of free will? Perhaps (2.) should be viewed as a proposition that recognizes something connected with first person voice as an effective cause. Even so, it is at least the start of a program to build (or re-build) a notion of free will.

Let me take (2.) a little further. It means that I view myself as an effective agent, not as a spectator of events occurring in my brain as a result of physical or theological determination.

If this distinction is made, then does (2.) imply that determinism is wrong? That some event – an event specifically occurring within my self – is uncaused in the physical sense of causation and also uncaused in the sense of external spiritual force?

Yes, I think so. If my thoughts and actions are to be purposeful – a word closely bound to the first person voice – then my thoughts and actions must be less than totally caused by factors external to my self.

Hence (1.) and (2.) are in conflict. We can’t have it both ways. If I am an effective agent and if my actions are not totally determined by physical or spiritual forces acting upon me, then at least some small part of my decision-making must be uncaused.

Yet to say that anything can happen uncaused seems also to signal a lack of control – a world in which “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”[1]

Let’s call this the Free Will Problem.

Five answers have been given in the attempt to retain the human sense of choice, control, and purpose, while simultaneously insisting that no event happens uncaused. Hopefully the Free Will Problem might be clarified by reviewing these answers. We shall look briefly at the first two in the rest of this blog.

The first answer is simply to call it a paradox. But a paradox is just the statement of a problem, in other words, a question and a not an answer. Categorizing the Free Will Problem as a paradox, an insoluble question, does not gain much ground.

The second answer, which recognizes different “levels in the hierarchy of matter,” is the one most commonly proposed by materialists and natural realists. Varying levels of complexity and organization give rise to different kinds of phenomena. At each level, there are different rules of science to apply. Infinite computing power might allow one to trace all events in the universe down to the level of particle physics, but the fact must be recognized that infinite computing power does not exist.

Thus the science of chemistry is separate from that of physics. Likewise, the science of biology is separate from either of these. Psychology and sociology, among other fields, have their levels and paradigms. Paul Nunez, of whom I shall write more later, identifies these fields of knowledge – physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology/sociology – as major levels in the hierarchy of matter. He asked the question of whether it would ever be possible to “cross even one major level in the hierarchy of matter using ‘bottom-up’ brute force computer calculations.” He suggests that even an “ultimate computer composed of all the matter and energy in the universe” operating since the time of the Big Bang could not accomplish the feat.[2]

When dealing with higher orders of phenomena, the rules of causation are no longer exact, but consist of estimates of probability. We tend to say that these are not exact sciences, but they are sciences nonetheless. Probability can be ascertained scientifically, but it does not fully determine a particular outcome. A wobble factor comes into play when the psychological response of an individual person, for example, is to be predicted.

In this context, let’s pose the Free Will Problem again: How can we explain the (almost) universal affirmative response that people give to the question, “Do you feel that you have some degree of freedom to choose your path in life?”? How can people answer yes to that question, when in principle everything is determined by particle interactions? The way to wriggle out of the dilemma is to cite the practical incalculability of our human fate. Thank God for the wobble factor – I am free. This is only speaking metaphorically, of course, for some scientists and materialists.

At this point let’s try to identify a pragmatic pair.Pragmatic pears for text 3

A.  I shall act as if I have free will, but in principle I recognize that everything that happens is related to particle physics.

B.  I shall act as if I have free will, and in some way I do have free will, because not everything that happens is related to particle physics.

A. and B. certainly have the appearance of a pragmatic pair. The clauses following the conjunctions “but” and “and”, which I shall term the second clauses of A. and B., are neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Those clauses actually qualify as metaphysical statements. Importantly the second clause in A. is metaphysical despite the allegiance given to it by materialists who want to put metaphysics in the dustbin of philosophic history.

If pragmatism bears the connotation that truth belongs only to that which gives tangible, verifiable results, then A. and B. indeed form a pragmatic pair. However, if pragmatism is understood in the sense that Charles Peirce conceived it, that the whole of my belief about something forms around the habit of responsive action it invokes in me, then we have to consider the question further.

The issue becomes whether the deepest and most reliable beliefs that I have are also the most motivative beliefs that I have. The second clauses of A. and B. describe the deepest and most reliable beliefs that I have. In the case of A., scientific method must be applied at every “hierarchy of matter” – physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth – in order to produce reliable beliefs, but this goes along with other assumptions of natural realism.

What about the second clause of B.? If somehow “my will” describes the deepest and most reliable part of my beliefs, then the motivation inherent in the first clause corresponds to the belief system of the second. This has the virtue of consistency, but does it make a difference for my habits of responsive action? I think that the answer is yes. Motivation is stronger and likely will be directed toward different goals when it connects with an ideal of inner truth, and this kind of truth is what the second clause intimates. I recognize that not everyone may agree on this point.

My will, metaphysically speaking (that is, as described in the second clause of B.), does not necessarily arrive with all the trappings of theistic belief, afterlife, heaven and hell, and other religious accompaniments. Arthur Schopenhauer, whom we shall visit in some depth at a later time, argued firmly on this point. “Will” might be described minimally as a kind of restlessness in the physical world in which I participate, that produces in me dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and a drive to produce something new or different. Alternatively, “will” might be conceived as a dance of restlessness and rest, or of chaos and order.

But this is getting too deep! In any case, my vote says No! to the notion that free will as a shallow phenomenon rippling the surface of physical reality equates, even pragmatically, to free will as a fundamental condition of my life.


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Photo: David Ortiz makes solid contact in 2003 ACLS. (c) Wickedgood |

[1] From The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats, 1919.

[2] Nunez, P.L. Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 168.

Realism Versus Idealism

Arthur:      Look at the moon! I think it’s made of cheese. Don’t you think so?

Child:         No, Grandpa, I don’t think so.

Arthur:      Look carefully now. It’s yellow and round like cheese. If you look closely, you’ll even see some holes. I say Swiss cheese.

Child:         I see the holes. But I don’t think it’s made of cheese.

Arthur:      What do you think, then?

Child:         The astronauts brought back rocks from the moon. I saw one. So the moon is made of rocks.

Arthur:      They did? You’re sure? Well, I guess I’ll have to believe you.

What a reward! Facing her grandfather’s teasing, the child drew upon her own resources, used her mind and stated her beliefs and reasons as surely as possible. Then she was able to teach something to this imposing man. In the process she found delight in searching for truth and in confident discovery.

Arthur wanted the child to choose a stance of realism – to seek evidence and solid facts about the moon. I (son and father) watched in admiration as he acted the role of outlandish idealist, dreamer, and shallow thinker.

That youthful lesson contrasted realism with speculative thought…we might say, idealism. Philosophy and the search for GSOT are full of such contrasts.

Realism or idealism? It would seem that no distinction in philosophy could be more blatant or fundamental than this one. Let’s take a closer look.

First, a view from the realist camp may go something like this: Realism regards external objects as independently existing, durable, space-occupying, other-excluding things. They are not merely figments of anyone’s imagination.

On the other hand, idealism begins by noting similarity between our sensory perceptions of objects in nature and the responsive thoughts in our minds. Both are ideas. What about the natural objects themselves? Might they have something of the character of ideas? If they do, then thinking about them could become less complicated. Perhaps idealism is not as far-fetched as it looked at first glance. Usually the idealist proposes that objects in the world external to our human minds exist as ideas in the mind of God.

Many realists show scant respect for the idealist camp. To suggest that objects external to human minds exist as ideas in the mind of God, in the viewpoint of realism, is to supplant fact with speculation. They intuit that objects in God’s mind are not “real;” they are just “ideas.”

Our first inclination is to think that almost all people are realists, because almost everyone would say that trees, grass, rocks (even on the moon), etc. really exist and are not mere ideas. But in fact more than half the people in the world believe in a supreme God and also believe that “God is spirit.” Since trees, grass, and rocks may depend on God to think them into existence, in this view the philosophy of most people may be one of idealism, not realism.

If a person believes in God, what happens to the distinction between realism and idealism? Consider the possibility that God, who is supreme over us as well as the rest of the natural world, might so structure the interactions of divine ideas that these ideas produce a virtual reality for humans. God may arrange things so that human perception of trees and rocks is always just as if these objects exist independently, persist durably, occupy space, and exclude other objects. In this way God would never allow a human to perceive an external object as just an idea.

Pragmatic pears for text 2Now let’s ask: First, what are the essential differences between realism and idealism for someone who believes in God? Next, is there a difference for practice? Compare these 2 answers –

  1. God has created objects in the world that really and truly exist in themselves.
  2. God has created objects in the world that do not exist in themselves, but exist as ideas in the mind of God, forming a virtual reality that presents the ideas to humans as independently existing objects.

One might say that there is an essential difference (that is, a difference “in essence”), but these alternatives offer no difference in practice. In the context of theism, therefore, the answers to the question of realism versus idealism form a pragmatic pair. If we hold to Rule #3 declaring pragmatism, then the words “really and truly exist” and “exist as ideas in the mind of God” bear no distinction of meaning whatsoever.

Perhaps, then, the question gets back to whether one believes that God exists. However, “God” in the pragmatic pair shown above need only be conceived as the God of Mortimer Adler or Albert Einstein, whom we met in the last blog. It’s not asking much at all to postulate God in their terms.

If you can’t go that far, perhaps you could imagine that you are a character in a science fiction novel written in an alternative, superior universe…and enacted digitally on super-metacomputer there. Your world has been created by the author, who happens to be an amazing scientist, an innovative genius, and an unbelievably creative computer programmer. What difference for practice does it make if the author has created objects that really and truly exist, or if she has merely created those objects in the context of a virtual reality that exists only in the computer to enact the story? Again I suggest that it makes no difference at all.  I see no difference between the former “true reality” and the latter “completely effective virtual reality.”

Coming back down to earth, let’s look at physics and chemistry, and ask: Is true reality in the particles and wave functions themselves, or is true reality in the laws that govern the expression and interaction of those objects? In ancient times Plato answered that true reality pertained to the laws and not to the instances of laws manifested in the objects around us. Plato’s view added significance to the discovery of scientific laws. Today we make no such distinction. Without invoking God at all, we are quite comfortable that reality includes both the objects and the laws they obey. Moreover, the thoughts in our brains, according to a materialist viewpoint, have the same character as the particles and laws of physics and chemistry.

I am convinced that the distinction between realism and idealism fails the pragmatic criterion. Arguments on both sides of this question are fruitless – “much ado about nothing.” Others reached this conclusion long before I did. Half a century before Charles Peirce introduced pragmatism, Arthur Schopenhauer decried

the foolish controversy about the reality of the external world, a controversy in which dogmatism and skepticism oppose each other, and the former appears now as realism, now as idealism. Realism posits the object as cause, and places its effect in the subject. The idealism of Fichte makes the object the effect of the subject…. Neither of these two assertions could ever be proved, and skepticism made triumphant attacks on both.[1]

We could have reached the same conclusion simply by adhering to Rule #2: The overarching viewpoint is not allowed. How could a human being ever know if some object really and truly exists, or exists as an idea in the mind of God, except that she has a cosmic or Godlike understanding of reality? That kind of understanding is neither available to us nor useful for us.

Grandpa, the Moon can’t be made of cheese, ’cause I don’t see a big Cow anywhere.


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Photo (cc0, JG) of a moon rock taken at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina 6/28/2016.  

[1] Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Transl. by E.F.J. Payne, Dover, New York, 1969, p. 13.

Does God Exist?

In Santa Fe I found the rock below which half of Uncle Dick lies buried. Aunt Mary was glad when I found it – now the resting place too for half of her.

This blog centers on someone they knew, a scholar named Mortimer Adler who in 1980 answered the question, “Does God exist?”

Both Uncle Dick and I owe a great debt to Adler’s inspiring efforts. As a visiting lecturer in the 1930s, he helped establish the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s College in Annapolis, a curriculum continued by my uncle Dick Weigle and persisting to this day. Adler eventually compiled The Great Books of the Western World, 443 titles in 54 hard-bound volumes, published by the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1952.

My mother enjoyed books as much as her brother, but her fondness would not bring the Great Books into our home when I was young. They cost too much, actually more than I paid to go to college. Fortunately Juanita Hutcherson adopted Adler’s inspiration for the sophomore honors class that she led at Ole Miss. She had the university book store stock a set of 14 small books (shown above), mostly paperbacks, from the classics, and these were supplemented by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes in the Holy Bible which everyone had already. As I recall, we started with Greek tragedies and got as far as Machiavelli. It was best course I ever took, and it changed my life forever. Thank you, Ms. Hutcherson and Professor Adler.

A few years ago I went to visit a young man in his 20s who had shown interest in our church. His apartment newly framed from a downtown Durham warehouse was interesting to see, but his possession of greatest pride was a set of Adler’s Great Books. He was reading through them start to finish. We have become great friends.

In 1980 Adler published a book entitled How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan.[1] Adler’s own best writing has the goal of making philosophy available for the common person and especially for college students. He omits jargon and footnotes. He takes time to explain the foundation of each idea instead of simply referring to someone’s previous work.

Adler is recognized as a modern interpreter of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, not as a pathbreaking philosopher. But in How to Think About God, he fulfilled a lifelong quest. He proved the existence of God.

How did he do it? To begin to understand, let’s go back to the “ontological argument” for God first expressed by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the end of the 11th century. Suppose, said Anselm, that we think about God as a being-greater-than-which-none-can-be-thought. That is to say, a supreme being. Anselm then took the crucial next step of deciding that an actually existing being is greater than an imaginary being. So for God to be the greatest or supreme being, God must actually exist and not merely exist in the imagination. Well, imagine that.

Mortimer Adler did not regard the medieval ontological argument as definitive. Judging the degree of greatness of hypothetical beings, imaginary or not, so as to rank them one over another, is a vague exercise. It does not appear that one can get to God that way.

Adler seeks to prove the existence of God through careful philosophical consideration of the idea of causation. An efficient cause is one that supplies from itself all that is needed to bring about an effect, as opposed to a partial cause that may be only one of several conditions required for an effect. God is viewed as the efficient cause of the cosmos, and the cosmos is understood to be everything that exists in nature. Exnihilation (the opposite of annihilation) means to bring something (or everything, the cosmos) into being out of nothing. Exnihilation also means the activity of keeping something (or everything) in existence, when that something (or everything) could possibly pass out of existence at any moment. Something that could possibly pass out of existence at any moment is called radically contingent. God is conceptualized as the necessary, uncaused being who exnihilates the cosmos.

Having set the stage in this way, Adler directs our attention to the key remaining question: Is the cosmos is radically contingent or not?

The crucial step, in Adler’s opinion, is to recognize that the whole natural order does not have to be the way it is. We live in a universe that is just one of multiple possibly existing universes, perhaps even an infinite number of possible universes. A universe that could be some other universe than the universe it is, could also possibly not exist at all. This is true whether the natural universe had a starting point in time or whether the universe always existed as it is. In either case, the natural universe is radically contingent and cannot be the necessary, uncaused, efficient cause of itself. Also, because the natural universe could possibly not exist or could end at any moment, it needs an efficient cause just to stay in existence.

Ergo! God is that efficient cause. The fact that our universe continues to exist, plus the facts that we recognize the radical contingency of this our universe and we accept the principle of efficient causation, together demonstrate the existence of God.

Adler writes

If we are persuaded that it is a merely possible universe, then we are also persuaded that its existence is radically contingent and that it requires an exnihilating cause, either for its creation out of nothing (the actualization of its possibility) or for the preservation of its continuing existence and the prevention of its being reduced to nothing, or both.[2]


I have reasonable grounds for affirming God’s existence.[3]

The cosmos (Greek for “world”) is just another name for the natural universe. Thus I have presented Adler’s version of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. Adler might say it is the argument for God’s existence based specifically on the radical contingency of the cosmos.

I wonder if Anselm might sniff once or twice and say, “This is what I meant all along. You have ranked greatness in terms of causation. God is the being who ranks foremost in the chain of causation.” Or Karl might say, “This is what I mean by GSOT, the Grand Scheme Of Things.”

But Adler gives a word of caution about his “God of the philosophers” (that is, the God whose existence has been affirmed by his argument):

The God of the philosophers is not an object of worship, not a source of guidance and help to human beings in their trials, not the supreme being one prays to….

There is no rational necessity to think of [this] supreme being as morally good, as just and merciful, or as benevolently disposed toward the world of men.[4]

Now let me ask the question posed by the following pragmatic pair:Pragmatic pears for text 2

  1. This kind of God exists.
  2. This kind of God does not exist.

Does 1. versus 2. make any difference for somebody’s predisposition to act?

The answer is – almost no difference at all. This God is a conceptual necessity. Adler confides with us that this God is “exempt from the atheist’s attacks,”[5] because this God neither begs nor persuades any response from you or me.

How is this God anything more than the satisfaction of scratching a philosophical itch?

Let’s see if we can frame the question better. Let’s not ask, “Does God exist?” but rather this –

Does the universe understand me better than I understand it?

Huh? First of all, it’s a strange question. We tend to think of the universe as a collection of whirling gases and particles, condensed into stars and planets and an occasional black hole forming in galaxies separated by almost unimaginable distances. How can that have any understanding at all? So our initial answer to the question is no.

But the universe includes the laws of science as well as the specific boundary conditions leading the Big Bang and to all the wonders of biologic and social life as we know it. In consideration of these, Albert Einstein answered the question above with a resounding yes. Here is how he expressed it –

…whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain [of science] is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word.[6]

“…the rationality made manifest in existence….the grandeur of reason incarnate….” Einstein’s idea of God is more than just a creating or exnihilating force. Einstein conceives of God as a thinking being.

God, the supreme thinking being, however, is “inaccessible to man.” For Einstein, God is the source and repository of reason, but God is not a person. If by a person we mean one who makes choices that change the course of events, then Einstein actually denies personhood for both humans and God. This is how he puts it –

The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events.[7]

Einstein believed in and valued “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”[8], but he trusted neither the human will nor the (too human-like) divine will to keep these goals supreme. He sought assurance only in the “ordered regularity” of nature.

But for Charles Peirce the only way to know what-I-really-believe is to recognize that which changes my predisposition to act. And my predisposition to act is nothing more or less than what I recognize as human will.

God, as Einstein conceives God, never asks for a respPragmatic pears for text 2onse from human will, never presumes to have an impact on any person’s predisposition to act. Again we perceive a pragmatic pair –

  1. Einstein’s God exists.
  2. Einstein’s God does not exist.

Because all that matters is ordered regularity, the question of whether 1. or 2. is true makes no difference at all. And our question

Does the universe understand me better than I understand it?

has very little meaning as a part of  GSOT.

Let us try a third time.

Does the universe converse with me and likewise I with it?

This question has greater possibilities. Do I get a message from the cosmos or its exnihilator that may change the way I shall act? Then when I speak or act, will my word or deed change the world at all? Questions like these must be asked if we really want to address the existence of God in a meaningful way.

Uncle Dick gained immense joy in the founding of a second campus for St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1,873 miles distant from the continuing campus in Annapolis, Maryland. He and Aunt Mary loved the Southwest, especially the cultural pinnacle of Santa Fe, probably more than their eastern home. Both asked to be cremated when they died, and their ashes to be split between the 2 sites.


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[1] Adler, M. How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan. Macmillan, New York, 1980.

[2] Ibid., p. 149.

[3] Ibid., p. 150.

[4] Ibid., pp. 155-157.

[5] Ibid., p. 157.

[6] Einstein, A. Ideas and Opinions. Bonanza, New York, 1954, p. 49.

[7] Ibid., p. 48.

[8] Loc. cit.

Charles Peirce’s Pragmaticism

Rule #3 with fingers

The 3rd rule for GSOT and philosophy is – Unless it makes a difference in somebody’s disposition to act, then it makes no difference.

Every sentence, idea, or conception is in some respect a message. Rule #1 was concerned with the origin of the message. Rule #3 is concerned with its impact.

This rule derives from pragmatism as originally outlined in 1878 by Charles Peirce (pronounced “purse”). Today many consider Peirce to be the greatest American philosopher. He was a path-breaking logician who, in addition to founding pragmatism, made wide-ranging contributions from statistical sampling theory to evolutionary love, which he called “agapeism.” Though highly productive in logic and philosophy, he seldom held a university post due to lapses in his personal finances and departures from social mores. He earned his living not as a professor, but as a practicing scientist with the U.S. Coastal and Geodesic Survey. In his final years, he begged and received handouts from friends including the Harvard professor, William James.

John Dewey and William James, both closely influenced by Peirce, brought pragmatism into academic and even popular culture in the United States, but they also veered from the initial logical conception. By 1905 Peirce felt that his own version of pragmatism had been corrupted, and he curtly proposed renaming it “pragmaticism,” hence the title of this blog. Philosophers today mostly agree that Peirce hit the mark. They accept his original conception of pragmatism as arguably the greatest contribution of any American to philosophical thought. We’ll simply call it pragmatism henceforth.

Put aside, then, whatever offhand descriptions of pragmatism you may have heard, and let’s see how Charles Peirce defined it. Here is the most commonly quoted statement from his 1878 paper:

The rule for attaining…clearness of apprehension is as follows: consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.[1]

“Effects… [with] practical bearings” or more concisely practical effects are the words we tend to remember. Practical, instead of pointing toward Peirce’s initial concept of practice or habits of response, came to signify in the writings of James and Dewey “real-world” or “this-world” applicability. James almost equated pragmatism with empiricism. “Practical” evolved to mean almost the same thing as “objective” or even “testable,” and pragmatism morphed heedlessly into an on-the-street version of positivism. It became a kind of self-centered utilitarianism, focused on tangible goods and prone to crass compromise of principle.

But what exactly did Peirce mean by his use of the word “practical”? We can look back to another passage in his same 1878 article on “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”:

From all these sophisms we shall be perfectly safe so long as we reflect that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it. If there be a unity among our sensations which has no reference to how we shall act on a given occasion, as when we listen to a piece of music, why, we do not call that thinking. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtile it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.[2]

“Practical” in Peirce’s language is not to be conflated with “objective” or “testable.” Instead it derives its meaning from practice or the Greek praxis, signifying “how we shall act.” Pragmatism, therefore, means that a thought is known only through the impetus it provides to a person to form a habit of responsive action. Notice that the effects described in the passage are decidedly effects on a person, not effects on some set of natural objects.[3]

As an example, Peirce turned to the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is affirmed by Roman Catholics, but denied by Protestants. Catholics, he said, believe that the elements of the Eucharist taste like bread and wine, but their effects on the recipient are completely as if they are the body and blood of Christ, and furthermore, they are at that moment the body and blood of Christ. Protestants believe that the elements taste like bread and wine, but their effects on the recipient are completely as if they are the body and blood of Christ, and even so, actually they are just bread and wine.

By the pragmatic criterion, all that follows “and furthermore…” and “and even so, actually…” bears no distinction of meaning, because all of the effects on the participant have already been described.

Pragmatic pears 2
If it looks like a pear and tastes like a pear and nourishes like a pear, why then let’s call it a pear and eat!

It was hardly a momentous example, but it served to introduce the principle. The Catholic and Protestant views on transubstantiation are an example of what we might call a pragmatic pair. Let’s define a pragmatic pair as two answers to a question (“Are the elements really the body and blood of Christ?”) that seem to be distinct, but lead to no difference in practice – that is, no change in the way someone acts.

The Peircean notion of pragmatic pairs is a stunning contribution to philosophy, an extraordinarily powerful tool for putting useless arguments to rest. When you start to look around, pragmatic pairs begin to pop up everywhere. Here is a question, for which I think the answers compose a pragmatic pair:

Does God exist?

I’m referring here not to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, nor to the God of Christians, Muslims, or Bahá’is. Instead I’m referring to the God of Mortimer Adler. In the next blog we’ll look at Adler’s God, and you can decide for yourself whether the existence of such a God is meaningful.


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[1] How to Make Our Ideas Clear, first published in Popular Science Monthly (Jan. 1878), pp. 286-302, reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings ed. Wiener, P.P., Dover, New York, p. 124.

[2] Ibid. p 123.

[3] Notice also the Peirce uses first person language. This principle is not cast in the language of “publicly available,” third person, objective language.

Agreement is Not Required

The last blog presented our 2nd rule for GSOT and philosophy, as follows:

The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.

This rule has a corollary, almost as short as the rule itself:

Agreement may be good, but is not required.

To require agreement presupposes an overarching viewpoint. If the overarching viewpoint is not allowed, then the edifice by which agreement is required collapses.

Positivism is a philosophical method that carries us past the naiveté of the correspondence theory of truth (see previous blog). Truth, according to the positivist manifesto, depends upon reproducible testing of hypotheses – reproducible over time and reproducible from one observer to any other suitably disciplined observer.

Positivism goes astray, however, when it formalizes a requirement for agreement. In positivism, the understanding of reality is restricted to that which elicits agreement from all reasonable and trained observers.

A requirement for agreement means that we can regard as real only that which is reproducible and held in common. What does that leave out? Everything that is immediate, unique, or particular.

Immediate and particular – does this involve anything consequential? Yes. These terms apply to individual hopes, dreams, efforts. They apply to the enjoyment of barbecue or moo goo gai pan, Beethoven, rock ’n’ roll, or hip-hop. Most profoundly, they apply to the pronouns – I, you, me ­­– and to the pronouns – we, us – when they refer to a group that is less than all. Positivism has no place for these pronouns.

By canceling the requirement for agreement, we open up the possibility for individuals and groups of people to pronounce one thing or another good.

At the beginning of his Ethics, Aristotle declared,

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and every pursuit, is thought to aim at some good….

Here the notion of good relates to human decision or “aim.” Therefore it refers to human will. Yet with a magician’s sleight of hand, Aristotle completely shifts the focus from particular good to universal good, as he concludes the same sentence,

and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.[1]

“Some good” in the first clause is particular; “the good” in the second is universal, and this is affirmed by the term “all things.” But there is no logical connection between the first clause and the second, despite the author’s broader and incomparable contributions. The influence of Plato can be seen here. Aristotle and his mentor share a preoccupation with universals.

“Some good” is accessible to humans. “The good” is an overarching concept that exceeds human reach.

Positivist philosophers of science rightly disclaim any ability to describe something as good or bad. But they still yearn for universal truth by requiring agreement. This works well for the study of nature; it actually defines what is natural through understanding our capacity to test its response. Then the positivists declare their allegiance to truth, and their allegiance so stated undermines the lip service they give to ethical neutrality. It is an allegiance to a certain kind of truth, which is held in common and subject to a requirement for agreement.

We generally think that agreement is good. By saying “We generally think…” I mean, we usually think it is, but not always. If agreement is always good, then it would be required. Whatever is required, by definition, cannot be chosen. If not chosen, then how can it be good? For good is always consequent to choosing. So whatever is always good is not good at all. And whatever is required cannot be good, but is merely necessary.

If we think that agreement may be good, agreement cannot be required.


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Photo: Plato’s Academy depicted in a mosaic from Pompeii, Wikimedia Commons, public domains.

[1] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Transl. by Ross, W.D, in Kaplan, J.D. The Pocket Aristotle. Washington Square Press, New York, 1958, p. 160.