Comment: Me vs It – A Human Delusion

One of the great challenges for intellectual thought is resolving the apparent dissonance between our rich inner lives in which we play starring roles, our first person view, and our relative insignificance in the external world, the third-person view.

Religions have attempted the resolution by positing real external analogues of our inner world. Separate non-physical personalities, with intentionality and purpose, like human-type god or gods, evil and good spirits, existent heaven and hell, and angels are comforting projections of our internal world onto an indifferent, largely inanimate world, thereby harmonising it with our internal lives. To be credible, though, these projections needed to be consistent with our every-day perceptions. So they had to be invisible and physically indetectable, essential qualities for any credibility. Religions then relied on human wish-fulfilment to take care of the rest.

Philosophy similarly has struggled with this first-person/third-person dichotomy with dualisms, idealism and realism/anti-realism, mind-body problems and conflicts between free-will and causal determinism to name a few. As an example, the mind-body problem seems to revolve around two questions. Firstly, how can a purely physical explanation of the brain, chemicals, electricity, neurons firing, truly reflect my rich inner life, and, secondly, how does a separate consciousness, sounding similar to religious-like projections, actually manipulate the physical body, without resorting to another higher-order projection like god?

The sciences, on the other hand, avoid the problem by simply taking a third-party view with humans being part, often small, of a much broader reality.  Look at cosmology to see our relative insignificance. So most sciences are not in the first-person business, though, perhaps, psychology sits part-way in the continuum. The success, credibility and consequent influence of science have created serious problems for human-centred explanations from religion and philosophy. Today most people live in a truly scientific-world view, at least in the countries of Western Europe as well as Australia, New Zealand and US to name a few.

The problem for religions and philosophy, in their 2500 to 4500 years of effort, is that they have been remarkably unsuccessful at solving the dilemma. At the same time science with its strictly third-party perspective has been devastatingly successful over the last 200 years at telling more about the world we inhabit. This assessment is based on science’s ability to generate reliable knowledge. Criticisms, often from religious and philosophical sources, about uses of the resulting technologies seem irreverent to this assessment. Human uses of the knowledge genuinely raise important issues to be addressed separately.

Therefore we need to change our reliance of the authenticity of our inner first person to meet new realities of the twenty-first century. We should question whether god or gods, consciousness, soul, free-will, morality, spirituality and the mind are simply constructs, rather than separate ontological realities, to make an indifferent physical reality seem more palatable to over-inflated senses of self-worth.

Alex McCullie

PS Try this thought experiment. What was God doing more than 150,000 years ago before any recognisable humans evolved on this planet? Did morality, angels, satan, the Word, after Earth’s formation? Or could they simply be our creations?

News: Philosophical Personality Test

Here’s a personality test and feedback run by experimental philosophers from Pittsburgh University and Shreiner University (website). Have fun!

Alex McCullie

Links: Pat Churchland and Brain-Mind Issues (YouTube videos)

Patricia Churchland is Professor of Philosophy University of California – webpage. Her research concentrates on the interface between philosophy and neuroscience covering areas as consciousness, free will and the self.

Philosophy in the Age of Neuroscience Presentation: part1 part2 part3 part4 part5 part6

Open questions in Neuroscience: part1 part2 part3

Beyond Belief conference: part1 part2 part3 part4

Decisions, Responsibility and the Brain: part1 part2 part3 part4 part5 part6

Interview: part1 part2 part3

Alex McCullie

Person: Epicurus – an early Greek humanist

pdf: Epicurus – an early Greek humanist (right-click to save)

Epicurus was a humanist and freethinker in the Hellenic period of Greece after the Alexander’s death. Many of his messages for the ancient Greeks are also relevant today – seeing the world as a physical occurrence; developing close friendships; dismissing beliefs in and fears of gods as irrational; and reducing unnecessary consumerism.

Born in Samos, an Athenian colony, in 341BCE, Epicurus formed one of the major philosophical movements of the Hellenic period of ancient Greece. In 307BCE Epicurus moved to Athens and bought a property close to Plato’s academy – Garden of Epicurus – ‘the Garden’. Unlike most Athenians he welcomed all comers including women and slaves equally. Something we also didn’t see with Christians many years later.

His name is still with us today as epicurean typically defined as “Devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, especially to the enjoyment of good food and comfort.” ( Similarly, The Age newspaper in Melbourne offers an Epicure supplement ( promoting fine dining and eating. Seeking 21st Century-style pleasure wrongly characterises Epicurus. He promoted the pursuit of pleasure through static pleasure – reduction of physical and psychological pain, freedom from disturbance – rather than kinetic pleasure, short-term physical pursuits. Epicurus went as far as avoiding civic participation as he saw it as a cause of distress.

Metaphysically Epicurus saw gods as tranquil and remote beings from human affairs. More importantly he believed they had no involvement in the natural world and in fact neither created the universe nor involved with it. So for all practical purposes Epicurus saw reality like today’s atheists. The gods played role models for humans only. Epicurus was an atomist – belief started by Democritus some 80 years previously – and as such believed the universe has always existed and matter is formed randomly by the combining and dissolving of indivisibly small particles, atoms.

Epicurus taught four principles to reduce mental distress, tetrapharmakon:

  • Do not fear gods – as gods have no involvement in human affairs so there is no benefit to supplication or fear
  • Do not fear death – there is no possibility of everlasting pleasure or pain after death based on the whims of gods. As existence ends with death, there is no distress after death similar to there is none before birth.
  • Good is easy to obtain.
  • Learning to enduring unavoidable pain – something that cannot be avoided any way.

Epicurus also promoted improving health by developing and maintaining close friendships. Epicureanism is often referred to as the ‘cult of friendship’.

Epicurus died in 270BCE a painful death that he appears to have faced gracefully.


Craig, E. 2005, The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, London.

Flynn, T. 2007, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, New York.

Meyer, S. 2008, Ancient Ethics: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London

Baltzly, D 2005, ‘Epicurus’, in P. F. O’Grady (ed), Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece, Ashgate, Hampshire, England, pp. 167-169.

Bakalis, N. 2005, Handbook of Greek Philosophy, Trafford Publishing, Canada

© 2008 Alex McCullie