Relationship as a Spiritual Practice: Terry Real in Conversation with Thomas Hübl

Thomas Hübl To find out more about Terry and Thomas’ work on mystical relationships, visit In this deep and uplifting dialogue, Thomas interviews therapist and author Terry Real about how relationship can be approached as a spiritual practice. Terry describes in detail how we can apply loving self-discipline to contain our inner child, heal old wounds, act with compassion, and move towards greater intimacy even during the most trying moments in our intimate relationships. Recorded at the Celebrate Life Festival in August, 2018. —– More Info about Thomas Hübl:

Debunking Stephen Hawking on God

When prejudice beats I.Q.

Michele Ramarini · Apr 14 ·

Stars in a galaxy.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Prof. Stephen Hawking needs no introduction. As a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, he significantly contributed to our knowledge of the universe. Besides being a huge bestseller, his A Brief History of Time was my first acquaintance with cosmology many years ago.

The God Hypothesis

And yet, the late professor had a blind spot when it came to the “God Hypothesis”. I am calling it that way on purpose because I am not going to talk about religion, spirituality, or any man-made image of the “Heavenly Father”. his piece is about philosophy, with the meaning of rational thinking and argumentation.

Hawking’s Atheism

Prof. Hawking’s atheism is well-known. He never shied away from stating his disbelief in the existence of a creator of the universe. Sadly, he did not stop at expressing a personal belief, to which we are all entitled in one way or the other:

“We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God.”

He added seemingly apodictic assertions (affirmations that are considered beyond dispute, being self-evident or necessary), which cannot be disproven but cannot be proven true either:

“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

And fell in a trap of his own making by uttering a platitude accompanied by a misrepresentation:

“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.”

Sorry, Prof. Hawking. Not so fast.

The Grand Design

My rejection of Prof. Hawking’s views about God is based on one of his later works, The Grand Design, a book entirely dedicated to demonstrating that the laws of physics alone explain the origins of the universe, making the “God Hypothesis” superfluous.

Referring to questions such as: “What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?”, Hawking writes:

Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. (p. 13)

Already in the second paragraph of the book, Prof. Hawking shows us how little appreciation he has for a field of knowledge that happens to be outside of his professional expertise.

Claiming that “philosophy is dead” is not only offensive to legions of philosophers and Philosophy students, who could all explain to him that philosophy is alive and well. It is also false. Philosophy is so well, in fact, that any freshman in the discipline should be able to identify no less than two blunders in that segment alone.

Is Philosophy Dead?

First, Prof. Hawking declares philosophy dead, not realizing that his endeavor is eminently philosophical by nature. Trying to prove that the laws of physics explain the existence of the universe is philosophy (dare I say metaphysics?), even when some very famous and very respected physicist believes it is science. Any scientific investigation back in time can only go as far as the Big Bang, never beyond it — note how I wrote beyond, and not before, a term that would instantly trigger physicists and materialists to overreact — where there is no natural world to research.

Second, he makes a serious mistake of epistemology: Prof. Hawking seems to imply that there is only one form of knowledge, the one he masters. That is not the case. We must establish a critical distinction: Physics (as well as all science) does not deal with the same kind of knowledge that is the realm of philosophy. Physics deals with facts, physical objects,and natural laws; philosophy deals with meanings and actions. Science studies the natural world as it presents itself to us and tries to identify the laws that govern it; philosophy studies something different entirely. One definition I like, by the Department of Philosophy of a U.S. university, is as follows:

“Philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other.”

Philosophy or Science?

Let me expound on this a little. One of the keenest minds of all time, the 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, thus articulated the three questions philosophy was called to answerWhat can I know? What must I do? What may I hope? None of those questions can be answered by physics, nor by science as a whole. Not even the first of the three, despite it seemingly having to do with knowing the phenomenal (physical) world.

Kant himself explained why in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Our knowledge’s boundaries are not those imagined by Hawking (telescopes, microscopes, mathematical calculations, bright minds like his own, etc.), but those constitutive of what we are as humans. For example, any knowledge of the world we may ever achieve will always be mediated by our senses; there is no way around it. Hence, we cannot know a world beyond the sensible one and have no way of knowing if such a world — a supersensible world — does indeed exist. Can science refute the existence of such a world? No, and religious beliefs have nothing to do with it. Pure reason is all it takes.

There is another point to clarify that is often misunderstood by laymen. Science is not a doctrine, let alone a collection of truths. If it were, it would be awkwardly similar to a religious cult, wouldn’t it? Science is a method of investigation of the natural world, where natural is the defining word; it is called the scientific method for a reason.


It would be impossible to summarize the content of Hawking’s book in the space of a post. Luckily, it won’t be necessary. To achieve this piece’s aim, it will suffice to reject the authors’ conclusions, which I shall do shortly.

The body of the book consists of citations from ancient philosophers, creation myths, historical anecdotes, and, above all, Hawking’s introduction to the M-theory, a “network of theories” (p. 77) which he considers “the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe” (p. 228)

“According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science. (p. 18)”

Unfortunately, what seems to escape the authors of this book is that anything they describe is not creation. It is something that follows creation, whatever meaning you want to give that loaded word. That’s not a scientific observation but a logical inference. And it is decisive.

Conclusion and Refutation

This is the authors’ conclusion, as expressed towards the end of the book:

Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going. (p. 227)

The whole paragraph is highly problematic from a philosophical standpoint. It is based on two colossal logical fallacies, and it leaves no doubt about how flawed the authors’ reasoning is.

  1. The authors would like us to believe that the “universe can and will create itself from nothing”. If we use Aristotle’s model of the four causes, we are supposed to believe that the universe is the efficient cause of itself. It is literally the same as asking us to believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Did that ever work?
  2. The authors aren’t really advocating for a universe that created itself from nothing, either. First, “there is a law like gravity”. How clever. Yet, a natural law is not nothing; it is something. May I also point out that there cannot be any natural law in the absence of a universe? What we call nature emerges with the Big Bang. Talking about laws of nature in the absence of nature — i.e. the universe — does not make any sense. Put another way: The word gravity comes from the Latin word gravitas, which substantivizes the adjective gravis, which means heavy. Referring to gravity in the absence of objects with mass, on which the force of gravity would act, is patently absurd.

Gravity as the Creator

To sum it up: In Hawking’s magical world, the universe is the efficient cause of itself, and gravity works in the void — possibly a quantum vacuum state, which is still something, not nothing — without any objects on which to exercise its force. How this bizarre explanation, that is anything but scientific (for starters, it is not falsifiable, like any other theory that tries to go beyond the so-called Big Bang), is in any way superior to the idea of a creator — which, of course, would need to be postulated as being eternal, existing outside of time and space, to avoid the contradictions of Hawking’s model — remains unsolved.

To be clear: I am not alone in finding fault in Hawking’s theory of “spontaneous creation”. Physicists and philosophers alike have criticized this approach, sometimes in harsh terms.

Paul Davies wrote: “The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained — eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect, the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.”

Final Thoughts

It is the lack of an agent operating outside the laws of nature to make every model of creation conceived by atheists so murky. In getting rid of the “God Hypothesis”, Prof. Hawking is left with a “Gravity Hypothesis”. But a law has no agency, and it does not seem plausible that it might “create” anything. Furthermore, a natural law outside or before nature is a contradictory concept. But that’s philosophy, and Prof. Hawking shows little sign of understanding this discipline.

I don’t know if something that resembles the most common definitions of God exists, and neither did Stephen Hawking. What I do know is that Prof. Hawking’s attempt at explaining the coming into existence of our universe by way of “spontaneous creation” is at the very least unconvincing. Speaking of the origin of the universe and why and how the so-called Big Bang occurred, “we don’t know” is the only honest answer.

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What Renaissance?

Humanism did not replace Scholasticism, nor is it clear that ideas like the Renaissance help us understand history at all

Detail from Lippo Memmi’s Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas (1323, full image below) shows Averroes (Ibn Rushd), whom medieval philosophers saw as the commentator on Aristotle and who remained central to many different areas of philosophy until the end of the 16th century. Fresco from the Santa Caterina d’Alessandria church in Pisa, Italy. Courtesy Wikipedia

Henrik Lagerlund is professor of the history of philosophy at Stockholm University and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy in Canada. He is series editor of Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind (2002-); editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy (2010); and co-editor of Causal Powers in Science: Blending Historical and Conceptual Perspectives (2021). He is also the author of Skepticism in Philosophy: A Comprehensive, Historical Introduction (2020).

31 May 2021 (

Edited by Sam Dresser

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Renaissance philosophy started in the mid-14th century and saw the flowering of humanism, the rejection of scholasticism and Aristotelianism, the renewal of interest in the ancients, and created the prerequisites for modern philosophy and science. At least, this is the conventional story. But, in fact, there was no Renaissance. It is an invention by historians, a fiction made in order to tell a story – a compelling story about the development of philosophy, but nevertheless a story. In fact, all periodisation is ‘mere’ interpretation. This view is called historiographical nihilism.

Historiography was for a long time simply the writing of histories. Sweden, for example, had a royal historiographer, which was a formal appointment at the Royal Court. For a period in the late 17th century, the position was held by the philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94). He wrote several books in Latin on the history of Gustav II Adolf’s war efforts in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, as well as one about Queen Christina’s abdication. Recently, historiography has become more a study of how history is written. In the second sense, it is the works of the historians and their methods that are the object of study, and not history itself. A historiographer doesn’t write histories, but develops theories about how history is written.

Nihilism, of course, has been given many meanings and has been interpreted in many different ways by philosophers throughout history. In the context of historiography, it means the rejection of, or – in a slightly weaker form – the scepticism towards historiographical concepts such as periodisation, but also other concepts pertaining to the development of a ‘theory’ of history; consequently, it implies that there can’t be only one method of history but many.

Historiographical nihilism has nothing against using periodisation in history and philosophy as a heuristic tool or for pedagogic purposes, but it reminds us that, as such, they’re always false, and when we study the details of history, it will become obvious that such grand statements as the outline of a period such as the Renaissance are futile and empty. The arbitrariness of assigning the term ‘Renaissance philosophy’ to a period in time can be easily seen if we have a look at the historical development of the term itself.

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Renaissance philosophy is often presented as a conflict between humanism and scholasticism, or sometimes it’s simply described as the philosophy of humanism. This is a deeply problematic characterisation, partly based on the assumption of a conflict between two philosophical traditions – a conflict that never actually existed, and was in fact constructed by the introduction of two highly controversial terms: ‘humanism’ and ‘scholasticism’. A telling example of how problematic these terms are as a characterisation of philosophy in the 16th century can be found in Michel de Montaigne (1533-92). He was critical of a lot of philosophy that came before him, but he didn’t contrast what he rejected with some kind of humanism, and his sceptical essay An Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580) wasn’t directed at scholastic philosophy. In fact, both these terms were invented much later as a means to write about or introduce Renaissance philosophy. Persisting with this simplistic dichotomy only perverts any attempt at writing the history of 14th- to 16th-century philosophy.

One of the first attempts at writing a history of philosophy in a modern way was Johann Jacob Brucker’s five-volume Historia critica philosophiae (1742-44) published in Leipzig. He didn’t use the terms ‘Renaissance’ or ‘humanism’, but the term ‘scholastic’ was important for him. The narrative we still live with in philosophy, for the most part, was already laid down by him. It’s the familiar narrative that emphasises the ancient beginning of philosophy, followed by a collapse in the Middle Ages, and an eventual recovery of ancient wisdom in what much later became called ‘Renaissance philosophy’.

The US philosopher Brian Copenhaver, one of the foremost scholars of our time, develops this idea in his contribution to The Routledge Companion to Sixteenth-Century Philosophy (2017). In ‘Philosophy as Descartes Found It: Humanists v Scholastics?’, he explains how Brucker’s ideal was developed from Cicero and called by him ‘humanitatis litterae’ or ‘humanitatis studia’. For Brucker, these terms signified the works of the classical authors and the study of them. The Latin he used for the teaching of the classical authors was ‘humanior disciplina’. Brucker sees himself as completing a project he claims was started by Petrarch in the mid-14th century: a cultural renewal that would save philosophy from the darkness of scholasticism.

As we’ve come to know more about the period referred to by Brucker as the Middle Age, it has become clear that it’s simply wrong to call it a decline. It is instead extraordinarily rich philosophically, and should be celebrated as hugely innovative. It’s by no means a ‘dark age’. Quite the contrary. So the view that emerges in Brucker stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the philosophy of that time.

If it’s a period, then there has to be a reason for why it’s a period. It has to be united by something

The use of the term ‘humanism’ to signify a coherent movement was first introduced in the 19th century, around the same time as the advent of the term ‘Renaissance’. Crucially, neither were initially used in connection with philosophy. Rather, they were used by art historians, especially prominent among them Jacob Burckhardt in his great work, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860). Later, John Addington Symonds’s magnificent work in seven volumes, Renaissance in Italy (1875-86), also made use of ‘humanism’ and ‘Renaissance’ as a means to discuss a particular era in the history of art. Both terms were formed in the tradition of Brucker and were intended to capture something new – to make clear a clean break from the supposed darkness and ignorance of the Middle Ages. They were conceptions of certain perceived historical developments or movements in art, and not formed to fit philosophy. Indeed, they still don’t fit well.

One of the most prominent 20th-century scholars of Renaissance thought was the German American philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905-99). His writings make clear the difficulty of pinpointing what exactly the period of Renaissance philosophy is. In his book The Classics and Renaissance Thought (1955), he notes that Renaissance humanism is ‘a broad cultural and literary movement, which in its substance was not philosophical, but had important philosophical implications and consequences.’ He is also unable to find a philosophical core to this ‘movement’, but rather a shared belief in the value of humanity and humanistic learning, as well as the revival of ancient learning.

It’s questionable that there ever really was a ‘movement’ other than in the mind of 19th- and early 20th-century historians. After all, the shared beliefs that Kristeller identifies are not unique to ‘humanists’. Such beliefs were certainly prevalent during the 8th and 9th centuries when the English scholar Alcuin (c735-804) set about organising teaching in the empire of Charles the Great, as well as in the 12th century when Aristotle and Avicenna were being translated into Latin. The people of these times had an equal interest in reviving ancient learning. Similar beliefs were present. This way of thinking can also be found in the early Arabic philosophical tradition among the Syriac Christians who translated ancient philosophy into Arabic earlier in the history of philosophy.

Aware of the problem, Kristeller proposes in the same book that Renaissance philosophy is ‘that period of Western European history which extends approximately from 1300 to 1600, without any preconceptions as to the characteristics or merits of that period, or of those periods preceding and following it.’ It makes little sense, at least in my mind, to call this a period in the history of philosophy. If it’s a period, then there has to be a reason for why it’s a period. It has to be united by something – likely some core thought. But it is not. Hence Renaissance philosophy is only an arbitrary designation. It makes more sense to talk about ‘the long Middle Ages’, which began with the reintroduction of philosophy in the 8th century and continues into the Enlightenment. The French historian Jacques Le Goff suggested something similar in 1988, stretching the ‘Middle Ages’ even further, but it’s ultimately a recognition that periodisation itself is hopeless.

A more recent and also more nuanced view of what Renaissance philosophy might be is expressed by Copenhaver and Charles Schmitt in Renaissance Philosophy (1992). In their introduction, they write that:

The customary divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is particularly artificial for intellectual history, including the history of those ideas and thinkers called ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosophers’. Much of the most admired, most discussed, and most characteristic philosophy of the Renaissance was indeed ‘medieval’ philosophy, which flourished in the 16th century … The works of Thomas Bradwardine and William of Heytesbury and the logical writings of Paul of Venice were all printed, read, and discussed well into the 16th century. On a broader front, the writings of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), whom medieval philosophers called the commentator on Aristotle, remained central to many different areas of philosophy until the end of the 16th century.

They have largely dropped the division between ‘humanists’ and ‘scholastics’, at least in theory, if not in the thinkers they choose to cover. It’s not quite admitting that there’s nothing that is ‘Renaissance philosophy’, but it certainly leans in that direction.

Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas (1323) by Lippo Memmi. Courtesy Wikipedia

To illustrate how precarious it can be to construct or, for that matter, to compare historical concepts across time developed in different contexts, it might be useful to ponder an example from ‘scholastic’ philosophy. Medieval, or ‘scholastic’, philosophy is often shown to have interest for contemporary philosophers by reference to the problem of universals. A prominent position in this debate is nominalism. It was called that already at the time, and defended in slightly different versions by such prominent philosophers as Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and William Ockham (c1285-1347). It’s often assumed that their views are, if not the same, then at least very similar to contemporary nominalism. As such, it’s a view that holds, primarily, that all that exists are individuals, and that there are no abstract entities or universals outside the mind. As it stands, however, this isn’t quite sufficient as a characterisation of medieval nominalism since, on such a definition, a thinker we wouldn’t normally think of as a nominalist would become a nominalist – namely Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who also holds that everything that exists is individual, and that universals exist only in the mind.

To distinguish such different thinkers as Aquinas and Ockham from one another on this point, one has to become much more detailed and give a philosophically more sophisticated reading of their texts, which incorporates much more in the characterisation than the simple idea that nominalism means that only individuals exist. One has to specify what they mean by individuation, what cognition is and how it works, etc. It’s in the details of their respective philosophical views that one finds the difference between them, and only then can one see what it would mean to call Aquinas a realist and Ockham a medieval nominalist. The thought that one can simply compare concepts developed in different contexts and in different times leads to the wrong conclusion, and generates a false picture of these thinkers in which they suddenly look similar when, in fact, they’re not.

It seems also more valuable and interesting that there are differences between contemporary nominalism and medieval nominalism, rather than seeing them as exactly the same thing. The difference can teach us something about philosophy, while an identity cannot. We don’t need to remake the historically given philosophical position to make them relevant, since it’s exactly the difference, and our detailed understanding of the historical position, that makes them interesting philosophically.

Following up on this discussion of nominalism, a clearer statement about the metaphysics of history can further guide us towards a firmer understanding of historiographical nihilism. A similar metaphysics of the history of philosophy can be found in the Canadian philosopher Claude Panaccio’s book Récit et reconstruction: Les fondements de la méthode en histoire de la philosophie (2019), meaning ‘Story and Reconstruction: The Foundations of the Method in the History of Philosophy’. According to this metaphysics, concrete individuals such as Plato, Bertrand Russell, and the city of Stolkholm, and individual events, such as the death of René Descartes, are basic to the ontology. Meanwhile, philosophical views, doctrines, ideas and thoughts are not basic, and are instead construed as expressions of written or spoken utterances, which according to this metaphysics are events.

There are no meanings or universal concepts other than those formed by the historian

The basic elements of study for the historian are singular events of linguistic utterances. These come to the historian usually through manuscripts or books, which contain the expressions of ideas or thoughts of the individual philosophers. For the historian of philosophy, humans or places are referred to only in so far as they are connected to utterances. They can hence figure in explanations of these utterances.

On this view, then, history of philosophy becomes a domain of linguistic events given by space and time, and it’s in this way that it’s available to the historian of philosophy. It’s impossible, on such a view of history, to see a plausible singular development of history; instead, it contains breaks and discontinuities. Any order to this domain can be given to it only by the historian. In fact, I think one can say that it becomes the task of the historian to provide the domain of history of philosophy with an order and a structure: that is, a narrative or interpretation.

Obviously, the historical data, the concrete individual things and the individual events, mainly, the linguistic events, can’t be interpreted or understood any which way. The utterances are in a language, and as such they have meaning to the historian, a meaning that’s constructed from the language and the time and place of the utterance. There are, however, no meanings or universal concepts other than those formed by the historian, and each reader or historian will construct their own meaning from which he or she can build an interpretation.

In a certain sense, historiographical nihilism falls out of this metaphysics. Any narrative constructed by the historian will be just that, a construction. In the same way, any division of history into periods will be, to some extent, arbitrary and up to the historian, since there are no general concepts or universals in history that can be discovered by the historian; they are instead formed out of the singular events studied by him or her. The ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Renaissance philosophy’ is exactly such a formation.

Following this conception of the metaphysics of history, it seems plausible that history of philosophy can be done either from what might be called ‘the top down’ or ‘the bottom up’. A top-down approach gives us a powerful narrative and is quite common among historians, particularly in the history of ideas. It’s an approach that’s prone to divide history into periods. On such an approach, we assume and start off with general concepts that we fit together into a historical narrative, along with texts and historical events. An example of this approach can be found in the historian Arthur O Lovejoy’s book The Great Chain of Being (1936). The intellectual historian’s task, according to him, is to find so-called unit-ideas that explain the revolutions and the flow of intellectual history. The historian clears away the irrelevant circumstances, the idiosyncratic commitments and the beliefs of philosophers to properly identify the unit-idea.

In his book, Lovejoy exemplifies this with ‘the great chain of being’, which he identifies in Plato and traces into modern philosophy. It involves three principles, namely of plenitude, of continuity, and of linear gradation. The first principle says that the Universe is full, that is, that anything that’s really possible will at one point be actual. The second says that the Universe is a continuously connected series of events. The third says that it contains a hierarchy from the most basic existence all the way up to God.

Another take, which seems opposed, is the bottom-up approach to the history of philosophy. On such a view one has to look primarily at the historical data first, that is, the individual things, people or individual events (linguistic utterances) that make up history. This approach aims to build a narrative or a story from the ground up, based on these data, but it worries less about how to fit the data into a plausible narrative. It should, as much as possible, let the data suggest a narrative. The historian’s access to the data, however, comes to him or her through filters, which he or she will have to bracket or compensate for in various ways to be able to come as close to the data as possible. A filter can be a classical language or a text in manuscript or in several manuscripts where the actual text first has to be constructed, but a filter is also the historian’s own presuppositions, prejudices, education, etc, which he or she has to be aware of and which threaten to distort his or her interpretation of the data. Historiographical concepts and periodisation, which have become standard interpretations or tools of the trade, are other such filters. They’re part of a heritage that the historian needs to be sceptical towards. These filters will have an effect on the constructed interpretation of the linguistic utterances. The historian also needs imagination and experience to guide him or her in the construction of a plausible narrative.

Perhaps a bottom-up approach can be questioned, since we, and the historian too, take a lot of things for granted all the time. It’s impossible to do the history of philosophy without certain presuppositions, which simply can’t be bracketed, since we have to assume something. The idea isn’t to reject all that has been done by others, but to emphasise that it’s only from individual utterances, however these are available to the historian, that an interpretation can be plausibly built, and that any generalised characteristics about a period or age will have to be built from a detailed study of the text that makes these individual utterances available.

Historiographical nihilism urges us to reject or be extremely sceptical of historical generalisations and historiographical concepts. They can have their use in a pedagogic context or as heuristic tools, but they won’t help the scholar or historian him- or herself. The most obvious example of this is attempts at periodisation in the history of philosophy and any suggestion of a period called ‘Renaissance philosophy’. Obviously, a period can be arbitrarily designated ‘the 16th century’ or ‘these philosophers’ followed by an enumeration, but then one has emptied the word ‘Renaissance’ of its meaning, and this is exactly the point of historiographical nihilism.

History of ideasHistoryThinkers and theories

The fascinating science of pleasure goes way beyond dopamine

The fascinating science of pleasure goes way beyond dopamine | Psyche

Photo by Nyani Quarmyne/Panos Pictures

Dean Burnettis a neuroscientist and author. His books include The Idiot Brain (2016), The Happy Brain (2018) and Psycho-Logical: Why Mental Health Goes Wrong, and How to Make Sense of It (2021). He lives in Cardiff, Wales.

Edited by Christian Jarrett

May 31, 2021 (

If you’ve been a neuroscientist for two decades and counting, you take notice when your field begins popping up in the mainstream discourse. While this is usually a good thing (it’s mostly helpful when one’s field receives public attention), it can also go too far, introducing confusion and misunderstanding into an already complex matter.

Case in point: dopamine, one of the many, many chemicals (aka neurotransmitters) found in the human brain, where it has many functions. However, if you were to go solely by the context in which dopamine is mentioned in much of modern culture, you’d be forgiven for concluding that it has just one fundamental, very specific, function in the human brain – producing happiness and pleasure.

‘Here’s How To Boost Your Dopamine Levels’; ‘Simple Tips To Get Your Dopamine Flowing’; ‘The New Trend For Dopamine Fasting’; ‘This [Website/App/Device/Activity] Is Compelling Because It Manipulates Your Dopamine System’: these are just a few examples from online news stories and blogs, out of tens of thousands. The overall message from such articles is consistent and clear: the more dopamine there is in your brain, the more pleasure you experience, and the happier you will be.

To be fair, it’s by no means a bad thing if people are more aware of the biological workings of their brains, and dopamine is indeed an integral component in the neuroscience of how we experience happiness.

Our ability to experience pleasure, as in the fundamental sensation of something being enjoyable or ‘nice’, is a product of what’s known as the ‘reward pathway’, a small but crucial circuit found deep within the brain. As you might suspect, dopamine is the main neurotransmitter involved in the function of the reward pathway. Hence why it’s often called the dopamine reward pathway. So, if the activity of dopamine in the brain makes a vital contribution to the sensation of pleasure, and pleasure is a key aspect of happiness, then it stands to reason that boosting your dopamine levels will make you happier, right?

There’s a superficial logic to this way of looking at things. Unfortunately, the logic doesn’t hold given the daunting complexity and interconnectedness of our brains. There’s a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that simply ‘boosting your dopamine’ doesn’t automatically result in happiness. And it comes via research into Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that develops when the substantia nigra, a region of the midbrain involved in movement coordination (among other things), starts to die. Similar to the reward pathway, dopamine also plays a vital role in the function of the substantia nigra. The go-to therapy for Parkinson’s disease is the drug levodopa, which masks the symptoms of Parkinson’s by increasing the availability of dopamine in the brain, thus compensating for the loss of the substantia nigra.

Dopamine is to happiness what petrol is to a car: integral to making it work, but if you fill your car with petrol till it’s leaking out the windows, it wouldn’t help anyone

Basically, levodopa directly boosts dopamine levels. If increasing dopamine levels in the brain automatically led to pleasure and happiness, then levodopa should be one of the most popular recreational drugs in history. But that’s not the case at all. Taking levodopa is actually quite unpleasant, hence why you don’t see Parkinson’s patients in a constant state of euphoria.

Clearly, a blanket increase in dopamine doesn’t trigger a corresponding increase in happiness. It makes you feel worse, if anything. This isn’t to say that dopamine isn’t a key biological contributor to our ability to feel happy; it’s just that there’s so much more to it than that. You could say that dopamine is to happiness what petrol is to a car; it’s an integral part of making it work, but if you were to literally fill your car with petrol, to the point where it’s leaking out the windows, that wouldn’t help anyone.

The truth is that the action of the reward pathway, and therefore our experience of happiness and pleasure, is determined by so many more factors than just how much dopamine is sloshing around in our brains. Yes, dopamine is necessary for the reward pathway to function, but many other chemicals are involved in various ways.

Endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates, are an obvious example. The opiate class of drugs (heroin, morphine, etc) interact with the opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system that the endorphins lock on to. Both endorphins, and the associated drugs that mimic them, stimulate activity in the reward pathway, inducing a sense of euphoria. This is why drugs that mimic endorphins are such potent narcotics. Again, the story is complicated, though. Rather than inducing pleasure or ‘making us happy’, the primary biological role of endorphins (and opiate drugs) seems to be more to do with preventing or managing pain.

Oxytocin, a neuropeptide, is another brain chemical that’s often mentioned in the context of happiness. Regularly referred to as ‘the cuddle hormone’ or ‘the love hormone’, oxytocin receives attention for the potent roles it plays in interpersonal relationships and human bonding. It’s released in response to positive social experiences and acts directly on the reward pathway neurons, which contributes to us feeling good about interacting with others in beneficial ways. Oxytocin levels are especially high during sexual or reproductive activity, which helps to explain why our lovers and offspring can be such a potent source of happiness.

Saying that, oxytocin doesn’t just ramp up positive emotional encounters. It seems to amplify all emotional encounters, even the negative ones. So, once again nuance is required, and calling it a ‘happiness-producing chemical’ is clearly not the whole story.

Serotonin is yet another brain chemical involved in happiness. It’s the neurotransmitter that’s targeted by the most commonly prescribed modern-day antidepressants, so surely it has an important role in making us happier? Well, not quite. It’s more of a mood and emotion modulator. Its presence means the neurological systems that control mood are better able to do their job. It essentially makes it easier for our brains to experience happiness and pleasure. If achieving happiness was the goal of a video game, serotonin wouldn’t be the hero, it would be the wizened old man handing out healing potions and power-ups. Helpful, sure, but indirectly.

There are yet more brain chemicals, lesser-known in the mainstream (but technically more important in the brain), that also have important roles in our experience of happiness. For example, glutamate is seldom mentioned in the trendy articles about wellbeing, despite being the most abundant and major excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian brain. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t get much media attention – it does too much for any one particular function to be attributed to it. However, one of these functions is activating the reward pathway. Indeed, the drug ketamine stimulates parts of the glutamate system, which could explain why it’s so potent and yet another popular narcotic. Researchers are also investigating the potential of ketamine as an antidepressant, further pointing to the role of glutamate in happiness.

Reducing happiness to a matter of basic chemicals – especially just one – is inaccurate and overly reductionist

Last but not least, consider the important role in happiness of GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), the most common and potent inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain. While the majority of other neurotransmitters are excitatory, meaning they cause more activity in the neurons they interact with, GABA does the opposite – it suppresses or shuts down the activity in the neurons that it comes into contact with. GABA is like a red traffic light. If anything, this makes it more important; imagine a city traffic system that had only green lights.

Thus far I’ve suggested that pleasure, via activation of the reward pathway, is a core part of happiness, so it might seem odd for GABA, an inhibitory chemical, to play a role. But bear in mind that happiness can be caused by the absence of stress, or other negative emotions, leaving us happier by default. Indeed, among many of the neural areas that GABA ‘shuts down’ are those involved in stress and negative emotions. Moreover, a loss of GABA activity from brain regions involved in emotion, such as the amygdala, is thought to contribute to a number of anxiety disorders. Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (originally marketed as Valium), work primarily by inducing the activity of GABA. Same goes for their chemically very similar, but even more potent predecessors, barbiturates. The fact that both benzodiazepines and barbiturates cause us to experience pleasure and are highly addictive (especially the latter) strongly suggests that GABA, despite shutting things down, can readily turn up our happiness.

I’m not arguing that these various brain chemicals, particularly dopamine, don’t have important, even crucial, roles to play in our experience of happiness. They clearly do. And maybe it’s good that our cultural view of happiness and wellbeing is gradually becoming more scientific in nature, rather than spiritual or ideological or anything else less tangible, and thus far more open to interpretation (and beneficial manipulation).

But there’s also the old maxim of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. What concerns me isn’t so much the number of people insisting that dopamine is an important factor in how happiness works in our brains. I’m more troubled by the frequent implication, with varying degrees of extremity, that it’s the only factor at work; that dopamine is to happiness what the flow of hot water is to a shower.

As I’ve hopefully illustrated, this just isn’t the case. Insisting otherwise, whether intentionally or not, is unhelpful. And the thing is, even all that I’ve said here, as complex and as confusing as it might have seemed at times, is only one facet of a much bigger picture. It’s more helpful to look at the whole system, no matter how much we might want to break it down into individual components.

What I’m getting at is that the experience of happiness is an integral part of our mental health and wellbeing, and reducing it to a matter of basic chemicals – especially just one – is inaccurate and overly reductionist. It also risks the same logic being applied to other aspects of the human psyche. When complex conditions are viewed purely in terms of basic chemical interactions, we risk ignoring the complex psychological and sociological factors that determine a person’s wellbeing.

A lot of time and effort has gone into moving away from such a reductionist approach to mental health. If we go back to it, nobody’s going to be happy. Regardless of how much dopamine there is in their brain.

You are that in which Pure Awareness is held and enabled

At the threshold between Pure Awareness and that Absolute Indescribable Formlessness, you begin to realize—against (or in addition to) what many of the enlightenment teachings state—that you are in fact not (just) Awareness, but rather that you HAVE Pure Awareness.

You are that in which Pure Awareness is held and enabled. You are the source of Pure Awareness. Pure Awareness is a power inside of you. Without you, no Awareness.

When I say “you” I mean Absolute Reality You. When I say that you are beyond Awareness, don’t assume I’m just talking of your everyday observer-sense consciousness… and that what I mean by The Absolute You must be what most call Awareness. No.

I’m saying that even that divine, non-dual, pure, Brahman/Awareness is not you; you are prior even to that.

Even Pure Awareness (the subtlest “I Am” at its purest level without location, individuation or attributes—like pure, awake and empty space) is still ‘witnessed’ by the only absolutely real “YOU” automatically due to its contrast or ‘difference’ with your Absolute Indescribable Formless Self/NoSelf/Reality.

You begin to realize that all that appears is unreal, and that that which can never appear (you) is the only thing that’s real, out of which all that appears is hallucinated to be. That which appears to be is actually not, and that which appears not, is.

~ Bentinho Massaro

May be an image of nature