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Some Discussion Topics

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Which of these two working definitions of philosophy would you say is more current? Which do you prefer?

1. Philosophy is the search for truth in the reasonable expectation of finding some.

2. Philosophy exists to ask questions, not to answer them. The more unsolved problems philosophers have on their hands, the better they’re doing their job.


Some time ago we were wondering if Woody Allen’s deep pessimism was largely a pose. Here’s something he said that IMO suggests that it isn’t: “I think the only thing, or the best thing, that gives you a chance to triumph in life is religious faith.”

Can anyone imagine any hardcore naturalist or cheerful sceptic saying that?


Which of these two definitions of religion do you prefer?

Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakeable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.

Richard Dawkins

Religion in the broadest and most general terms possible...consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to it.

William James


According to Freud, ‘When a man is freed of religion, he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life.’ Would you say that statement is always true, usually true, sometimes true, or never true?


Men despise religion; they hate it, and fear it is true.


Religion has been humourously defined as insurance in this world against fire in the next. People hate paying insurance premiums, but they do it because they fear the possible consequences of not paying them even more. Does that go part way to explaining Pascal’s remark? Pascal, who died in 1662, undoubtedly had Christianity in mind when he made it.


In War and Peace one of Tolstoy’s characters, Prince Andrew, says, “One must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy.” As a prince he must have had easy access to the garden-variety kinds of happiness, such as enjoyment, satisfaction and contentment. So, presumably, he meant something that goes beyond them. If so, was Prince Andrew on to something?


To a happy soul, pleasures are no longer necessary; to a pleasure-seeking soul, happiness is not yet possible.

The above statement implies that happiness and pleasure are different in kind. Any thoughts?


When happiness is actually in possession, the thought of evil can no more acquire the feeling of reality than the thought of good can gain reality when melancholy rules. To the man actively happy, from whatever cause, evil simply cannot then and there be believed in. He must ignore it; and to the bystander he may then seem perversely to shut his eyes to it and hush it up.

William James

Pure and unadulterated happiness is a fact of experience. But just because it’s a very occasional experience for most people (and perhaps everyone) doesn’t make it any less of a fact. Moreover, IMO it’s a fact with colossal implications. Any thoughts?


In Western intellectual culture we are often given to believe that we should try to keep all emotion out of our intellectual processes, that you can’t think straight unless you’re cool. But maybe sometimes you can’t think deep either. Therefore, to be on the safe side, should we try every question in both states, an emotional state and an unemotional one?


All logic cares about is the inferential process; how you come up with the premises that logic works on is your business. Any thoughts?


In spite of knowing that logic can only work on premises supplied independently of logic, people frequently associate certainty with logic in the wrong way. There can never be more certainty at the end of a logical process than there was at the beginning, and yet the notion persists that it’s the logic that generates the certainty. But logic isn’t about certainty: it’s about consistency. The only certainty that logic can give us is hypothetical: if one thing is true, then another thing is true: if such and such is the case, then such and such follows. Any thoughts?


Where strictly logical arguments are concerned, true premises produce true conclusions and false premises (in general) produce false conclusions—there are special cases where by accident or design one or more false premises lead to a true conclusion. For example, First premise: fish are mammals (false); Second premise: whales are fish (false); Logical inference: whales are mammals (true).


Inference, argument, analysis all start with assumptions or first principles that one believes are true, or are probably true, or might be true. IMO one of the first duties of liberal education is to disabuse people of the widespread notion that argument and analysis can, by themselves with no help from outside, supply their own assumptions. Any thoughts?


Nobody will admit without a struggle that he is prejudiced against anything. Such an admission is distressing to one’s vanity. One likes to believe that one’s views on all subjects are the product of calm, dispassionate reasoning on the available evidence.

Arnold Lunn

Many people make the truth of their world view the criterion for what qualifies as evidence. But isn’t that a roundabout way of arguing in a circle?


We all believe there’s such a thing as ethical behaviour and enlightened attitudes. But different people, different generations, and especially different cultures disagree about what behaviour is ethical and what attitudes are enlightened. Is there a liberal humanist solution to this problem that doesn’t violate the core liberal principle of freedom of conscience?


We are all familiar with the solution that does violate freedom of conscience: a handful of people or a political party uses the power of the state to ram their values down everyone else’s throats. (Isn’t that what Kathleen Wynne’s government tried to do before they were kicked out?) The Marxist state did this on principle. The liberal democratic state, on the other hand, is doing it more and more because, being secular, it can’t appeal to a transcendental standard of values. IMO it boils down to this: A value is a value because ‘we’ (the people who have the power) say it is, not because it’s inherently good or inherently reasonable. What are your thoughts?


Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins used the example of suicide bombers who think that sacrificing themselves to kill their supposed enemies is a ticket to heaven. Could you not make a case that teaching that death is the end is even more dangerous? For you could point out that there are more people out there prepared to exploit their fellow man than people willing to blow themselves to smithereens for an idea. You could then argue that the former group will reason to themselves, “Hmm, it would seem that I can exploit my fellow man as much as I like and never have to answer for in the next life.”


Philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said of David Hume that “No man has influenced the history of philosophy to a deeper or more disturbing degree.”

Without being more specific this question may be difficult to answer: nevertheless, what causes more damage to civilization, irrational belief or irrational scepticism?


IMO, thanks to Western intellectual culture the mental habit of giving irrational scepticism a free pass while being very strict with irrational belief is deeply ingrained in the minds of most university-educated people. Assuming you agree that there is such an attitude among university-educated people, should we question the attitude that, by default, scepticism is intellectually admirable while belief is intellectually suspect?


I think that belief and scepticism are often just opposite sides of the same logical coin. Simple by restating a proposition you can turn scepticism into belief. Thus, the naturalist believes that God doesn’t exist, and not in the way he believes that unicorns don’t exist. Indeed, many atheists—Somerset Maugham, for example—have been disturbed by doubts about God’s non-existence. But I feel safe in saying that they are never disturbed by doubts about the non-existence of unicorns. Any thoughts?


At present we have no scientific explanation how mere matter can mean anything, know anything, feel anything, value anything. IMO we can’t even conceive of a scientific explanation for these things, and there are naturalists who agree with me on this point, such as Thomas Nagel and Scott Atran. In your opinion, would a scientific explanation for the experience of seeing blue have to be different in kind from every other scientific explanation that we have met so far?


In any case, to some people it seems likely that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to explain scientifically how it is that one piece of matter, assuming that it’s highly enough organized, can believe something about another piece of matter and like or dislike it, approve or disapprove of it as a result; to other people the possibility of such a scientific explanation seems very remote, if not impossible. Keeping in mind that there are intellectually sophisticated people on both sides, what do you think could be the reason for that difference of opinion?


When physicist Sean Carroll said, “We can argue that there’s little or no reason to look beyond the natural world for the right explanations”—[say, for how life began, or how consciousness occurs]—I’m sure we will all agree that he has a right to present arguments for his point of view. But if he says “There’s little or no reason to look beyond the natural world for the right explanations,” then he’s making the same mistake as Sam Harris when he said, “Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world.” Any thoughts?


IMO what Sam Harris should have said was, “If you’re a naturalist, science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world.” Then nobody could blame him for making a very bad blunder in deduction, namely, ‘I know that what I believe is true and since this proposition is consistent with what I believe, therefore this proposition is true.’ The corollary of that logical fallacy is: ‘I know that what I believe is true and since this proposition is not consistent with what I believe, therefore this proposition is false.’


Under ‘Levitation’ the Encyclopedia Britannica (1961 edn.) states, ‘The puzzling thing about levitation is that while it is intuitively rejected as impossible by the mind accustomed to scientific habits of thought, there is nevertheless a great weight of evidence in favour of its occurrence. This evidence would indeed be regarded as overwhelming if the phenomenon were intrinsically more likely.’

I think the author of the article on levitation would have expressed himself more accurately if he had written, ‘The puzzling thing about levitation is that while it is intuitively rejected as impossible by the mind accustomed to naturalistic habits of thought, there is nevertheless a great weight of evidence in favour of its occurrence, etc., etc.’ Of course the truth of his world view was an unconscious assumption that he brought to his subject, as commonly happens. Any thoughts?


Many years ago Stephen Hawking was a guest speaker at an American university. After his talk he took written questions from the audience and the first one he read out was: ‘Do you believe in God?’ “I am asked this question often,” he said. “Like Einstein, I do not believe in a personal God. But one has to ask the question, ‘Why does the universe bother to exist?’ If you like, you can make God the answer to that question.” Of course, one doesn’t have to ask that question, though most people think it’s natural enough. Some people, however, don’t even think it’s legitimate to ask the question why there is something rather than nothing. Any thoughts?


In the 1948 BBC debate between Fr. Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell, Russell denied that it was legitimate to ask the cause of the universe. “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all,” said Russell. Philosopher Adolf Grunbaum poured intellectual scorn on anyone who thought the question legitimate. He termed their reasoning “gross,” “crude,” “bizarre,” and “inane,” amounting to “mere farce”; He continued, it’s beyond “fatuous”: it’s “ludicrously fatuous.” However, unlike Russell and Grunbaum, Stephen Hawking, Derek Parfit, J. J. C. Smart, Paul Davies and many other naturalists think that it is a legitimate question. Is it a legitimate question?


IMO emotions are a subset of feelings. Every emotion is a feeling but not every feeling is an emotion—hunger for example. Feeling may or may not be emotional in some degree, but, either way, feeling is almost always part of reason in the fullest sense of that word.

Does that way of looking at things make sense?


One of the senses of “feeling” is a belief or an impression. That’s the way Queen Elizabeth used the word when she said, “I was giving a gallantry award to a soldier and I said that was a very brave thing to do and he said, ‘Ach, it was just the training.’ And I have a feeling [my italics] that in the end probably the training is the answer to a great many things. You can do a lot if you’re properly trained. And I hope I have been.” Is the Queen using the word “feeling” improperly?


In a 1948 BBC radio debate on the existence of God the two participants, Bertrand Russell and Fr. Frederick Copleston, S.J., grappled with the problem of good and evil in the part entitled “The Moral Argument.” What do you think of Russell’s use of the word “feelings” in the following exchange:

“You see,” said Russell, “I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. [But] I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.”

COPLESTON: “Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?”

“I don’t have any justification,” said Russell, “any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.”

COPLESTON: “Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?”

Russell answered in two words: “My feelings.”


Feeling can’t be directly conveyed by words at all.

Northrop Frye

Can the difference between feeling and not feeling sexual appetite be described in words?


For more than two centuries there has been a movement that attempts to press science into the service of a naturalist world view. Science, these people say, comes down on the side of naturalism. Since most of humanity, including many scientists, think otherwise, it seems to me that the inevitable consequence of this campaign has been to foment social disharmony and to increase social polarization, especially in American society. Could this be part of the reason that 58 percent of Protestants (80 percent of Evangelicals) and 52 percent of Catholics voted for Donald Trump—many, no doubt, holding their noses?


Anthony Flew was an atheist for most of his life, but six years before his death in 2010 he converted to deism. In an interview after his conversion, he said, “I don’t think [the fine tuning argument] proves anything, but it is entirely reasonable for people who already have a belief in a creating God to regard this as confirming evidence. It’s a point of argument which I think very important: to see that what is reasonable for people to do in the face of new evidence—[or, more simply, to regard as evidence]—depends on what they previously had good reason to believe.” Any thoughts?


Hamlet thought that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. I think there’s something rotten in the state of Western intellectual culture. What’s rotten about it, IMO, is that it dismisses on ostensibly intellectual grounds the possibility that Nature is not a closed system, the possibility that miraculous healings sometimes occur, and the possibility that part of us is immaterial and will survive bodily death. Though not necessarily true, such age-old beliefs must be rational by virtue of the fact that so many honest, intelligent, well-informed people throughout the centuries and up until the present day hold such beliefs on the basis of evidence and arguments that satisfy them. Any thoughts?


IMO, by trying to bring commonplace spiritual intuitions and otherworldly hopes into intellectual disrepute, and by resorting to what many people (and not only theists) see as propaganda and metaphysical bigotry, the propagators of Western intellectual culture do an immense amount of harm. What do you think?


By no means the least harm they do, IMO, is to contribute to the polarization of societies (e.g. American society), of nations (e.g. Russia and the EU) and of cultures (e.g. Islam and the West), thereby making a world full of nuclear weapons even more unstable.


Russell, though a philosopher, knew a lot about science and had the highest regard for scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, in an interview in 1960 he said: “Scientific knowledge covers a very small part of the things that interest mankind, and ought to interest them. There are a great many things of immense interest about which science, at present at any rate, has nothing to say.” More than half a century later many people would say that Russell’s statement is as true today as it was when he made it. What are your thoughts?


According to George Bernard Shaw, ‘We only see what we look at: our attention to our temperamental convictions produces complete oversight as to all the facts that tell against us.’ Paraphrasing part of that for philosophical purposes we have: ‘Our attention to our metaphysical convictions produces complete oversight as to all the legitimate meanings of words that don’t fit our intellectual needs.’ For example, how do these two sentences strike you?:

Not everything can be justified on the basis of reasoned argument. Some things have to be justified on the basis of instinct or intuition, which, in turn, depend on faith or that closely related thing, common sense.


I would guess that if you’re a hardcore naturalist you’re probably going to take a dim view of those two sentences. But suppose you choose “intuition” to mean primary or direct knowledge instead of a hunch or funny inner feeling which, if it pans out, is probably based on subconscious reasoning; and suppose you choose “faith” to mean complete or intense confidence in something instead of irrational belief; and suppose you choose “common sense” to mean ordinary good judgement instead of widely-held beliefs of the sort that have often turned out to be false. In such case, we now have:

Not everything can be justified on the basis of reasoned argument. Some things have to be justified on the basis of primary or direct knowledge, which, in turn, depend on complete confidence or that closely related thing, ordinary good judgement.

How do those two sentences strike you now?


To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.

Bertrand Russell


You cannot take the kingdom of pleasure, any more than you can take the kingdom of beauty, by storm.

C. E. M. Joad

Even though Joad was the Richard Dawkins of the 1940s, at least in Britain, Marvin thought his statement empty of meaning. Your thoughts?


Desire is the very essence of man.



All ‘meaning’ must be at bottom related to our primary desires, and when they are extinct no miracle can restore to the world the value which they reflected upon it.

Bertrand Russell

Russell says that meaning is related to desire. Since argument is related to meaning, does that mean that argument is also related to desire?


Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however timid or polite, are necessarily men of violence.

Does that statement sound paradoxical in the bad sense of nonsensical or contradictory?


Nothing is serious except passion. The intellect is an instrument on which one plays, that is all.

Oscar Wilde

G. K. Chesterton remarked, ‘Detached intellectualism is all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world.’ That statement suggests he thinks that Wilde has a point. Do they have a point?


The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand.


Can the heart be part of reason?


Love is a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else.

George Bernard Shaw

Can we accept that level of cynicism about the love between the sexes?


Love is what we call the situation which occurs when two people who are sexually compatible discover that they can also tolerate one another in various other circumstances.

Marc Maihueird

According to my online source, Marc Maihueird is a pen name for the source’s uncle. Apparently this person’s uncle won some quote of the week contest with the above aphorism. I’m sure it must be true some of the time, but I don’t know if it’s commonly true. Any thoughts?


True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.

de La Rochefoucauld

Schopenhaurer says he doesn’t know what he’s talking about: ‘For if it were foreign to and contradicted human nature—in other words, if it were merely an imaginary caricature, it would not have been depicted with such zeal by the poets of all ages, or accepted by mankind with an unaltered interest; for anything artistically beautiful cannot exist without truth.’ Who should we trust, Rochefoucauld or Schopenhauer?


I have every reason to love you. What I lack is the unreason.

Robert Mallet

What is this unreason he talks about?


A certain amount of excitement is wholesome, but, like almost everything else, the matter is quantitative. Too little may produce morbid cravings; too much will produce exhaustion [or jadedness]. A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Bertrand Russell

Would you go along with that last sentence?


LABOUR: one of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

Ambrose Bierce

Is that nothing more than the expression of envy or left-wing resentment?


The payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.

Albert Einstein

If Einstein’s right in saying the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product, what is it determined by?


All of modern biology, and indeed all of modern science, takes as its informing metaphor the clock mechanism described by René Descartes in part five of his Discourse on the Method. Modern science sees the world, both living and dead, as a large and complicated system of gears and levers.

Victor Reppert

Is he right about that?


All science requires faith in the inner harmony of the world.

Albert Einstein

What do you think of his use of the word “faith” in this context?


T. H. Huxley though it was an argument for unalterable natural law that we count on the ordinary course of things. I think most logicians would be eager to correct him on that point. We don’t count on it: we bet on it. Is that an important philosophical distinction?


True science is never philosophically partisan. It is open to any new knowledge or understanding whatever the metaphysical implications.

Does the Big Bang have metaphysical implications? What about the scientific investigation of well-documented miraculous cures?


The implications of realizing the limitations of logic have only become obvious gradually, and Russell himself took some time to realize them all. For instance, no logical argument can establish that something is good or bad, unless you start from some such proposition in your premises.

Alan Wood (biographer)

IMO the reverence for logic, which is so prevalent in Western intellectual culture, is the consequence of people revering something they don’t fully understand. Any thoughts?


Irrational scepticism is a virus, and like a virus once it gets into one’s system it’s next to impossible to dislodge it.


According to Hume, the arguments of the sceptic, such as his arguments, are valid. But only theoretically. Having conceded their validity as arguments he then drives home the point that it is impossible for anyone actually to live as a sceptic. He famously wrote, ‘Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.’ Any thoughts?


Perhaps the most fundamental principle in science is that a thing can’t be true in theory and yet false in practice because practice is the empirical check on theory. If practice confutes theory, theory must be revised. Should we discard this principle when we come to philosophy, or are there any special instances where the principle can be waived? According to Dave, whenever philosophy contradicts science, philosophy is wrong. On this point I think I would always agree with him.


To me, Hume’s attitude is a confirming instance of Chesterton’s generalization that, “All sceptics—[he means radical sceptics like Hume]—without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume in practice what it is not possible to believe in theory.” What do you think?


Logic can’t generate knowledge on its own: in order to generate knowledge it must start with some piece of knowledge.


A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.

David Hume

Is there hierarchy in scepticism as well as in belief?


What, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something—it doesn’t matter what—in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.

Richard Dawkins

IMO this is a flagrant example of the logical fallacy known as ‘Dicto Simpliciter’. Dicto Simpliciter is an unqualified generalization or a generalization which is treated as universally true regardless of all other circumstances. Any thoughts?


We are more certain that evolution is a fact than we are of any explanation of that fact. For instance, we’re much more certain of the truth of the fossil record than we are of the truth of either a designer-free or a designer-guided interpretation of Darwinian theory, or indeed of the truth of any evolutionary theory. What do you think?


Certain feelings are what makes life worth living. On the other hand we can all think of feelings that we would rather die than have to experience. Any thoughts?


Language is a poetic thing, not a scientific thing. If language were a scientific thing we would find it next to useless. Even scientists, when they speak of a magnetic field or an electric current, are using language poetically rather than scientifically.


‘The Lourdes Medical Cures Revisited’ is a study published online in 2012 and in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences in 2014. In the conclusion it states: ‘Numerous astounding cures have been attended by hundreds of honourable physicians and thousands of witnesses. These are facts that cannot be ignored.’

IMO you’re off to the races, theologically speaking, the moment you a) stop excluding the possibility of a supernatural cause for the astounding cures that serious naturalist investigators concede do occur at Lourdes, and b) start entertaining the possibility that God could be doing us a favour by allowing us to suffer (and suffer very unequally) during what may be no more than a passing phase of our existence. Any thoughts?


It seems obvious to me that if God is all-powerful then He could have arranged things so that human beings would never have to suffer. I think the Bible confirms this supposition in Genesis. It tells us that after creating Adam and Eve, God placed them in the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise where there was no suffering, only delight. But it also seems obvious that God intended that Adam and Eve should suffer, although the story doesn’t make this clear. After all, an omnipotent God, if He exists, could easily have kept the serpent out of the garden, and an omniscient God would certainly have seen what the result would be if it got in. Having allowed the serpent into the garden and having remained silent while it proceeded to give Eve some very bad advice, God could still have given her the insight to reject the serpent’s line of argument—“You will be like gods.” Or He could have given Adam the moral strength not to join his wife in disobeying the divine command. But He didn’t! In my opinion the only plausible conclusion that we can draw from this story, whether we take it literally or figuratively, is that God wills us to experience some measure of suffering in this life. And this is quite apart from any question of sin or the consequences of sin, as I think is strongly suggested by Jesus’s answer to his disciples when they asked him, Master, was this man guilty of sin, or was it his parents, that he should have been born blind? Neither he nor his parents were guilty, Jesus answered; he is blind so that God’s power might be seen at work in him. And then He healed the man who had been blind from birth. Any thoughts?


If we take it as axiomatic that the Christian God, if He exists, wills us to experience some measure of suffering in this life, does that mean that He’s not all-loving? That suffering is an evil and that good can sometimes come out of evil are two propositions that are rarely denied. According to the Spanish mystic St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), ‘In light of heaven the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.’ That could be true. It seems to me, therefore, that the answer to the question ‘Is God all-loving?’ has to be: YES, God is all-loving, provided that our suffering makes possible some benefit that far outweighs whatever evil we have to endure in the short term (i.e. our earthly existence), and, provided that the benefit can’t be achieved in any other way. However, the answer is clearly NO if the reverse is the case. What are your thoughts?


The Acts of the Apostles informs us that Paul and his companions, while passing through Pisidian Antioch, entered a synagogue on the Sabbath, and after the reading of the law and the prophets the synagogue official invited them to say “a word of exhortation to the people.” Paul stood up, and in the course of his homily he claimed that God had led the people of Israel out of Egypt and, for a period of about forty years, had put up with them in the wilderness, and “when He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land as an inheritance, all of which took about 450 years.” By the standards of his day (and perhaps ours too), Paul was a highly educated man. He also knew the Torah inside out. As with most people, highly educated or not, it didn’t occur to this saint, martyr, and heroic missionary to the Gentiles to question certain received beliefs, in Paul’s case, the truth of things written in the Torah. But if we do a thought experiment about a time-travelling Canaanite who has returned from the twentieth century after having picked up some of its attitudes, we can be pretty sure what he would have said in reply to Paul’s confident assertion. He would have said, “Only a moral simpleton could believe that God ‘destroyed seven nations’ to make way for Paul’s tribe. The Israelites put those words into God’s mouth to justify grabbing our land. It’s a rationalization, pure and simple—and one of the oldest in the book.” If we’re frank and honest, I think we would we have to admit that our hypothetical Canaanite is considerably more credible in his view of the matter than Paul. To be frank and honest, however, we first have to believe that intellectual plausibility takes precedence over loyalty to traditional habits of thought.

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