Q and A
Geoffrey Klempner 2011, 2017
All rights reserved.
as the best explanation
two places at one time
and the poverty of desire
your own reality
on absolute presuppositions
of a solipsist
knowledge entail certainty?
meaning of 'philosophy'
Existentialism and advancing years
time to a 10 year old
Lectures Russell never gave
ethics and Euthyphro's dilemma
dreams can change us
prove your free will
and epistemic luck
Socrates the wisest man?
world created by our minds?
the limits of knowledge
Life in a
sense of the world
of the moral philosopher
If truth be a woman
is what it seems
identity and belonging
existence of holes
On the idea of international law
obligation to testify
possibility of comparison
ethics and moral values
as a process
being a philosopher
Possibility of non-existence
induction, and belief in God
and the cosmos
oneself before another
as a virtue
wisdom and wonder
work for a pessimistic misanthrope
benefits of war
elephant in the room
fierce urgency of now
philosopher as entertainer
of the self
a posteriori thought
philosopher might think about
god can do or know
What is a
the point of living if we're going to die?
ignorance is bliss
the sky blue?
on the Ship of Theseus
The book cover is ‘Socrates Teaching a Young Man’ by José Aparicio
Inglada (1811) housed in the Musée
Goya, Castres, France. Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia.
With gratitude to anyone who
has ever submitted a question
to ‘Ask a Philosopher’
Philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers
Philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy
About this collection
a Philosopher was launched in 1999. In the beginning, I was the only philosopher
answering questions. A year later, I had been joined by a panel of experts
helping me out with answers on every conceivable philosophical topic. Since
then we have seen numerous changes to the panel of Ask a Philosopher, but I
have continued my regular contributions right up to the present day. For this
collection, I have gathered together answers which were originally featured on
my blog Tentative Answers. The
questions have been re-arranged in alphabetical order. In the text, there are
references to my books The Metaphysics of
Meaning, Naēve Metaphysics and Ethical Dilemmas. All are available on
Amazon Kindle. There are also references to my blog The Glass House Philosopher, http://sophist.co.uk/glasshouse/ For
the latest questions and answers by members of the panel, go to the ‘Ask a
Philosopher’ page at https://askaphilosopher.org.
Andy asked this question:
spent my entire life feeling distant and lost among my peers. But it all seemed
to come clear in my freshman Intro to Philosophy class. I want to learn
philosophy. I want to find my true answers for my world and existence but I
disagree with today's academic approach towards philosophy. Philosophy for me
has never been sitting in a class room and reading out of a book. To me
philosophy is an examination of our true spirit we can take our minds anywhere
they want to go, answer any question that we are vexed by. The human mind is a
an amazing place to go and to see what we are really made of.
So I say
the true path to philosophical reasoning is to look inward. I am by no means a
genius I just do not want to study philosophy in the same old boring lame 20th
century academic system. If you could shed a little light on my predicament and
help me find my way to a more ethical and reasoning life.
I deserve this question. As someone who has in
the past criticized contemporary academic philosophy — and put no small
effort into laying out my alternative vision of how philosophy might be
practised and taught — it is only poetic justice that I should be
required to come to the defence of academic philosophers and 'Intro to Philosophy
When I was a Philosophy undergraduate at
Birkbeck College London in the early to mid-70's there was a group of students
who seemed to spend much of their time discussing 'what was wrong' with
academic philosophy. They called themselves 'radical philosophers'. Things
haven't changed much. Here's the blurb from the Radical Philosophy web site
which I looked up today:
Radical Philosophy is a
journal of socialist and feminist philosophy. It was founded in 1972 in
response to the widely felt discontent with the sterility of academic
philosophy at the time (in Britain completely dominated by the narrowest sort
of 'ordinary language' philosophy), with the purpose of providing a forum for
the theoretical work which was emerging in the wake of the radical movements of
the 1960s, in philosophy and other fields.
In the interests of historical accuracy, in 1972
(my first year at Birkbeck) the dominating interest in British philosophy was not ordinary language philosophy (J.L.
Austin, John Wisdom, the later Wittgenstein). That was already on the way out.
The new thing was W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson and truth conditional
Philosophers in the analytic tradition were once
again looking at the great work of Frege and Russell and the early Wittgenstein,
and showing an increasing preparedness to question the 'givens' of ordinary
language. (Again, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that
J.L. Austin did write a fine translation of Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic which fans of ordinary language
philosophy seemed to have largely ignored.)
I would argue that the new technical, semantic
approach had something of the spirit of radical philosophy in that it raised
the possibility that much of the time we don't really understand what we mean,
that accepted linguistic forms hold our minds captive — an idea not so
far away from the notion of 'false consciousness' which the Birkbeck radical
philosophy group talked incessantly about.
Of course, much of the new stuff was coming from
the USA, and this did get up the nose of many young British philosophers. But I
think it would be fairer to say that the emphasis on formal logic and semantics
seemed the epitome of the kind of thing Heidegger was warning against in his
strictures about technology. And I do agree with this to some extent. (But then
again, I'm not such a great fan of Heidegger either.)
I will accept that history is bunk. I've just
told a story which touches on how things were back then which seems true, based
on my own experience, and possibly is still true (or maybe more true) today.
Other philosophers will tell the story differently. It doesn't matter. To my
ear, one thing that grates more than boringly minute academic debates over the
analysis of Russellian definite descriptions or the Davidsonian truth
conditions for action statements, is boringly minute academic debates over
Marx, Althusser, Marcuse etc.
Ideology Marx set the standard for emotively hyperbolic diatribe which to
some radically minded philosophers seems to have provided the model of
'committed' philosophical discourse. Then again, some of the more convoluted
passages in Sartre's Being and
Nothingness possibly pip Marx for the prize for sheer muddy obscurity. Next
to these examples, the clean, austere writing of the likes of Quine and
Davidson seems like a model of how words ought to be used in the pursuit of
But I'm digressing.
The question isn't, 'Which style or tradition of
academic philosophy do you prefer?' (analytic philosophy, continental
philosophy, radical philosophy, process philosophy, eastern philosophy etc.)
but rather, 'Why does philosophy have to be academic?' (Or, as a variant, 'Why
does philosophy have to be so
The Pathways School of Philosophy which I run,
offers courses in academic philosophy. It's called 'academic' philosophy
because that's what you study if you enrol at an academic institution for a
course in philosophy, anywhere in the world and regardless of the dominating
tradition there. Philosophy has a history, or, rather, several alternative
histories depending on which version best fits your tradition. If you don't like studying other philosophers or
the history of philosophy remember, 'Those ignorant of the history of
philosophy are doomed to repeat it.'
The irony is that I am not academic. I've done
my share of sitting at lectures and poring over books. But books and lectures
bore me to tears. I like to talk. I talk with my students (admittedly, via
email mostly). In partnership, we create something that, as I once wrote, 'is
neither yours nor mine — something neither of us could have created by
our own unaided efforts — the dialogue itself as it takes on an
independent life of its own' (‘Can Philosophy be Taught?’ http://klempner.freeshell.org/articles/teach.html).
Does Intro to Philosophy 101 bore you? Do you
hate listening to professors droning on? Get over it. Don't mistake the style
for the substance. The style is clunky, because clunky is what academic
institutions do best. It doesn't have to be pretty so long as it works. Don't
look to others to provide you with inspiration. That's what you've got to find
within yourself. But don't think if you look into your own mind you will find
philosophy there. Everything that's in your mind right now came from somewhere.
And most of it is a cliché.
You want to follow Descartes' example and write
your own 'Meditations on First Philosophy'? Fine. Start off by sitting through
lecture after boring lecture by Jesuit priests. That's what Descartes did, and
what provided him with the tools to pursue his own original philosophical
investigations. That, and reading the great classics of philosophy that were
available in his day.
This isn't a sales pitch so don't expect me to
tell you how at Pathways we do things differently. Maybe we're a little less clunky, but that's just the
beauty of the internet. A laptop can be your professor and your library. And
when you've had enough of study, you can play games or DVDs on it too.
— Don't knock it, you academic
philosophers: it's the future.
Vernon asked this question:
this question has been asked at least once before yet people still seem to use
a term I think doesn't make sense.
term 'agree to disagree' make sense? To me there are two problems with the
term. The first is the structure of the phrase seems to be contradictory.
Secondly, how is it that two can agree to disagree? Wouldn't that in fact
remove the argument entirely?
Vernon's question has the air of a paradox:
there's nothing philosophers love better than getting their teeth into a good
paradox. The problem with viewing the question this way is that it tempts us to
think that what we are searching for is a solution,
something that would either tame the paradox or, better still, remove it
Bertrand Russell spent years trying to solve the
paradox of 'the class of classes which are not members of themselves'. His
solution was the Theory of Types. Various other solutions have been proposed to
Russell's Paradox, but each like Russell's has its 'cost'.
Let's see if we can work something similar with
A1. X and Y agree to
A2. X agrees with Y.
A3. X disagrees with Y.
I won't labour the point by offering a version
of the mini-analysis that shows that by agreeing to disagree X and Y have
'removed the argument entirely'.
Anyone with a grasp of elementary logic can see
the fallacy in the above 'proof'. The term 'X agrees with Y' is not a simple
relation like 'X is taller than Y' or 'X is the father of Y'. People don't
'agree' or 'disagree' simpliciter,
they agree about some question or topic. Therefore, the correct form of the
argument should be:
B1. X and Y agree to
B2. X and Y agree about P (where P is the statement 'X
disagrees with Y').
B3. X and Y disagree about Q (where Q is anything you like).
B4. No contradiction!
If only things could be that simple. Vernon
would no doubt be quick to point out that X and Y already know that they are in disagreement. This isn't something they need
to agree about because it is patently obvious. What they more or less
reluctantly agree to is to let the disagreement stand, or not make any further
attempt to resolve it.
Vernon finds difficulty with this idea, and I
agree. The difficulty isn't, as Vernon represents it as being, that the
statement 'X and Y agree to disagree' is blatantly self-contradictory or
meaningless. It's more subtle than that.
In order to take this further, we need to look
at some actual examples of 'agreeing to disagree':
'We're not going to resolve
our argument, so let's carry on because we've got work to do.'
'Let's call a truce;
otherwise, we'll only end up fighting.'
'I think you're wrong, but
I'm happy to wait until you discover that for yourself.'
'I don't see why you see
things so differently from me, but, frankly, I don't care.'
'I love you, and I value
the fact that we hold different beliefs.'
What is interesting here is that in each of
these cases there is an extra dimension which we have so far not considered:
the question of what is at stake in
1. We can't stand arguing all day if we need to
get the job done. That's a good reason for agreeing to disagree provided that
the disagreement isn't about how to do
the job because then we can't proceed another step until the disagreement
2. Other things being equal, human beings should
try their best to resolve their disagreements, in the interest of truth.
However, there is something worse
than failing to agree, and that is going to war over the disagreement.
3. It would take too much effort to persuade you
to change your mind. But I'm confident that in time you will anyway.
4a. It would take too much effort to persuade
you to change your mind. However, the issue on which we disagree is
unimportant, so I'll let it go.
4b. It would take too much effort to persuade
you to change your mind. I am not going to try because you are unimportant to me. I couldn't care less what you believe.
5. I care greatly what you believe because your
belief is important to you, and you are important to me.
— I'm certainly not claiming to have
exhausted the range of possibilities. But already one can see that there is no
simple logical structure common to all agreements to disagree.
Some beliefs have practical consequences;
amongst these, some are ethical while others are not. But not all beliefs have
practical consequences. For those that do not, there remains the 'interest of
truth'. If it matters to you that your beliefs are true, then, other things
being equal it should also matter to you whether what another person believes
is true or false.
Religious beliefs are a different case again,
especially when one of the disputants is religious and the other not. Atheists
rarely get so worked up about theists as theists get about atheists.
No doubt in many cases, we agree to disagree
when we shouldn't, where we should be doing our absolute utmost to reach an
agreement because the stakes are so high. Equally, there are cases where we
pursue disagreements needlessly, out of a belligerent desire to win the
argument at all costs, or intolerance, or plain bigotry.
However, we in danger of losing sight of the
problem now because you might well think that it is no big deal that we
sometimes have to agree to disagree. In which case it would follow that Vernon
is just wrong. But I don't think he is, at least not totally.
The real problem is about ethics. Surely, in
ethics the stakes are always too high
to allow disputants to agree to disagree. If we disagree about abortion, then
one of us is a would-be 'murderer'. Maybe there are things that one holds as
personal ethical belief — like vegetarianism — which one doesn't
necessarily insist in foisting on everyone else. But even here, there must
surely be some discomfort in the acknowledgement that you are prepared to let
others indulge in a practice, eating meat, which you do not permit yourself to
indulge in because you regard it as ethically wrong.
When I first considered this question, some
years ago, I came up with a solution which worked for me at the time, the
notion of an 'ethics of dialogue' (see my articles The ethics of dialogue and
Ethical dialogue and the limits of tolerance). The idea is that true respect for the other requires that we
are prepared to engage in earnest dialogue and debate, but also, for the very
same reason, that we are prepared to accept the fact that arguments are not
I still hold this: but I now see immense
problems. The more seriously you enter into dialogue, the harder it is to
accept failure to reach agreement. This looks like a real paradox: surely,
agreeing to disagree means you're not taking the argument seriously enough?
What is dialogue anyway, if it is not just two persons vehemently stating their
own case, i.e. talking past one another?
Or maybe this should be seen as not 'agreeing to disagree' but rather
the tragic acknowledgement of our human-all-too-human failings? — You
can't agree to something like this,
you can only sorrowfully accept.
as the best explanation
Kalyan asked this question:
and proclaim to be an atheist as well as a skeptic rationalist. But then, my
question, is it a contradiction in the sense that as a skeptic and a
rationalist, I don't have enough evidence to prove my arguments as an atheist?
The short answer to Kalyan is that you can be an
atheist while holding a reasoned skeptical stance ('reasoned' because your
skepticism isn't either pathological or mere blind obstinacy) without believing
yourself to be in a position to offer a proof
that God does not exist. It suffices that you can offer arguments in favour of
the view that atheism is the 'best explanation'.
'Best explanation for what?' is the question.
The existence of a world (rather than no world) is one possible explanans, or thing to be explained.
Another possible explanans is the existence of a Moral Law (if you believe in
such a thing). But there are many more, maybe as many as there are views on the
nature of the godhead.
I have never undergone the experience of a
religious revelation. But supposing I did, would I be in a position to consider theism and atheism as
alternative explanations and, moreover, choose atheism on the grounds that it
provided a better explanation for my experience than atheism? Well, yes, that
is what one has to say as an atheist.
But I admit it sounds rather odd to say it. I can see a case of arguing that an
experience wouldn't be the experience
of religious revelation if you regarded it as possibly illusory. But then
again, that problem doesn't arise if the explanans is another person's (alleged) religious revelation.
The idea that a scientific theory is an
'inference to the best explanation' goes back to the American philosopher of
science C.S. Peirce who distinguished what he termed abduction from the process
of Baconian induction. The idea was more recently revived by British
philosopher of science Peter Lipton, and has become part of the vocabulary of
contemporary analytic philosophy.
My University of London external students taking
the BA Philosophy of Science module have been sending me essays on this topic,
along the general theme, 'Is inference to the best explanation a distinctive
kind of explanation?' I find Lipton's idea somewhat hazy, and yet there seems
undoubtedly to be a core notion, which the God question illustrates nicely. You
wouldn't seriously claim to have inductive evidence for atheism. Yet it seems
to make perfect sense to say that atheism is a better explanation for any alleged
evidence that a theist might put forward than theism.
According to Occam's Razor, other things being
equal the better explanation is the one that posits fewer hypothetical
entities. God is an unnecessary posit. Any explanation that does any work, works
just as well without God directing things behind the scenes. That would be the
moderate atheist view.
Enter Dawkins. In 1976, in my first year taking
the Oxford B.Phil, there was a rumour going round that the redoubtable Gareth
Evans was offering his undergraduate tutees and graduate students a free
hardback copy of The Selfish Gene
(which had been published that year) provided they promised to read it. With
such a great testimonial, I could never bring myself to indulge in the
fashionable Dawkins-bashing, despite Dawkins' somewhat embarrassing reductive
views of the nature of philosophical inquiry, as a mere illustration of the
theory of 'memes'.
Apropos of the meme theory, the Presocratic
philosopher Xenophanes is the first recorded philosopher to employ a genetic
argument against a religious claim:
Ethiopians say that their
gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes
and red hair.
Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers §168, p.
As Xenophanes must surely have realized, this
isn't an argument that God cannot be
black and have a snub nose. What the observed 'coincidence' shows, in our
terms, is that the Ethiopians' reasoning to the best explanation is likely to
have been somewhat biased. Having said that, if you believe that man is 'made
in God's image' and your only experience of human beings is of people who are
black and have snub noses, then it is surely reasonable to infer that God is
black and has a snub nose.
However, by the same token, someone who had
travelled a bit and discovered that different races have different
physiognomies, would realize that this inference was not reasonable, and that
any claim of 'resemblance' between God, or the gods, and man must allow for
What this shows, if anything, is that you can
undermine a purported inference to
the best explanation by either pointing out grounds for possible suspicion of
bias, and/or showing that the explanation relies on an impoverished evidential
base. At any given time, however, the explanation remains in place until either
a better explanation comes along, or the grounds for putting forward that
explanation are undermined.
I would therefore be quite happy to accept that
the belief that atheism is the best
explanation for the existence of the world, or the phenomenon of religion
— or anything you like — is a 'meme', in Dawkins' sense, whose
evolutionary history goes back to the great historic clashes between
established religion and the emerging sciences. That doesn't decide the
question whether atheism is or isn't in fact 'the best explanation'.
But doesn't our very sense of what makes one explanation 'better' than
another depend on prior conditioning, on the memes that have been transmitted
to us? Is there a fact of the matter here? Couldn't we be completely wrong
about what is or is not a good explanation?
For Dawkins, the spectacular success of science
is a major consideration. The kinds of criticism that any scientific claim is
subjected to by other scientists do not vindicate themselves (because the same
argument can be run with 'the kinds of criticism that any theological claim is
subjected to by other theologians'). However, the advantage science has over
theology, is in its results. Religious belief has 'results' too, but the
results arise from the belief —
its psychological effect on the believer — rather than the truth of the belief: a vital
As I've said, it all depends on the explanans.
Here, there is a nice finesse in that the atheist isn't the one who has to
state what the explanation is intended to explain. Atheism is not a claim, but
rather the denial of a claim. The onus is clearly on the one who makes the
claim — the one who asserts that God exists — either to offer a
proof, or, failing that, to justify the view that God's existence is a better explanation for XYZ, whatever
'XYZ' may be, than any alternative.
two places at one time
Farnaz asked this question:
possible that a person can be in different places at the same time?
The ability to be (or, alternatively, 'appear'
— that's one of the questions we have to decide) at two different places
at the same time is known as bilocation. This cropped up in a story I once
The giant out door
auditorium was filled to capacity. Overhead, robot drinks and ice cream vendors
darted about amongst the hovering TV cameras. On the podium a man in a blue
tunic had just started to speak. Distorted images of his friendly features
loomed on scores of giant video screens.
'...Some of you might
remember me from the old television series, Star Trek. For the benefit of those
who haven't seen any of the episodes, my name is Captain Kirk. And yes, I am a
real Star Ship Captain. The series is substantially based on true events,
though of course we had to simplify things to fit each story into a fifty
minute slot. Followers of the series will be glad to hear that all your
favourite characters are here. You might even get the chance to meet some of
them. You will all have met Mr Spock of course...'
Captain Kirk's words were
almost drowned in wild cheering. He paused to salute his Science Officer, who
was seated behind the podium. Spock stood up briefly to take a stiff bow.
'...Like the rest of us
here today, Spock has para-psychic powers. In his case it is the relatively
rare but extremely useful gift of bilocation,
the ability to appear in several different places at one and the same time.
Some of the Catholic Saints were able to bilocate, I believe.
'Well that is by the way.
The main question that seems to be on everyone's lips is, 'Where is Heaven?'
That's a little difficult to explain. But if you give me a few minutes, I'll do
my best to fill you in. Mr Spock has written a useful little book for those of
you who've done a bit of maths and physics, complete with equations and flow
diagrams, but I shall just try to keep things simple.'
Kirk paused for a few
moments to collect his thoughts. The famous smile beamed down from scores of
video screens. One thing you knew for sure. The maths and physics weren't above
The Possible World Machine
Unit 12: Space Hopper
In the story, a group of persecuted telepaths
escape to an alternative universe existing in a different space from our actual
universe (but not in a different time). The idea was to test Kant's claim that
there necessarily can exist only one space using a thought experiment which
doesn't rely, as Anthony Quinton's does, on a subject falling asleep and
appearing to 'dream' of a life which is no less coherent than his 'waking'
experience (Anthony Quinton 'Spaces and Times' Philosophy 37, pp 130-147 1962).
In my tale, there is said to be a fully
scientific explanation of how there came to be two spaces. It's the 'simplest
explanation' of the data. (There was a 'cataclysmic explosion', and a fragment
of space 'split off' from the universe to form a space of its own.) There's no
reason, in principle, why experimental evidence couldn't lead us to conclude
that Kant was wrong about there being one space, just as Quantum Mechanics has
shown that he was wrong about the a priori truth of determinism.
I don't know if that's acceptable as a response
to Kant. It amounts to little more than stating the very thing that Kant
denies. Unlike the case of QM, we don't have the least bit of scientific
evidence for multiple spaces (ignoring things like the many-worlds
interpretation of QM which seems to be a different thing entirely). It is pure
speculation about what we would
conclude if such alleged evidence turned up. In this case, we really need to
consider the argument Kant gives (in the first part of Critique of Pure Reason), and whether the argument is in fact
logically sound. (Many commentators agree — e.g. P.F. Strawson in Bounds of Sense  — that
Kant's argument for the necessity of determinism is over-ambitious: the most he
can claim is that experience should exhibit sufficient
regularity to enable us to make reliable predictions.)
If there were overwhelming logical objections to
the very idea of a person being located at different places at the same time,
then no amount of empirical 'evidence' would be sufficient to persuade us
otherwise. We would have no choice but to offer an alternative explanation.
However, it is worth pointing out, that at least some of the things said about
the bilocating Catholic Saints can be understood in the weaker sense of the
individual in question appearing to
observers at a place (as a realistic apparition) as opposed to actually being there in the flesh.
But is genuine bilocation — actually being
in two different places at the same time — such a nonsensical idea?
Before we can even consider that question, we
have to address the prior question of what
it is to be located at a space. For trees and rocks, or planets and stars,
there is a simple and conclusive test. Spatial position is one of the criteria
(or, indeed, the main criterion) for identity. If an object, say, a paperweight
is seen at two places at the same time, then we have two exactly similar
paperweights, not one paperweight. If I scratch the paperweight on my desk, and
an identical scratch mark simultaneously appears on the matching paperweight on
my coffee table, or if smashing one paperweight with a hammer immediately
results in the destruction of the other, then the conclusion would be that some
kind of unknown causal influence has occurred, not that this is proof that the
'two' paperweights were in fact one and the same object or entity.
Of course we are free to call the matching
paperweights by a single name, describe it as an extended 'object'. This might
even be a useful thing to do. (We might want to distinguish superficially
matching paperweights from genuine pairs which exhibit this remarkable property.)
on the other hand, an entirely new factor is brought into play. Persons have a point of view. If I have a twin on Twin
Earth — or for that matter Doncaster — even if the same things
appear to happen to my twin as happen to me and at the very same time, we are
not the same person. I have my point of view and my twin has his point of view.
The problem with this intuition, as Daniel
Dennett entertainingly shows in his piece 'Where Am I?' (originally in Brainstorms 1978, reproduced in Dennett
and Hofstadter Eds. The Mind's I 1981
pp 217-229) is that if we assume the materialist hypothesis that the mind is a
kind of program which 'runs' on the
brain, then there are various science fiction scenarios where we simply don't
know how to answer the question, 'where I am'.
I'm not going to pursue Dennett's idea of brains
being simulated by computer programs. If the self is a program, and a program
is (as it necessarily must be) a kind
of thing, a set of instructions which can be written in any language, realized
on any suitable hardware (or 'wetware'), if that's all it is, then it's hardly surprising that you can't 'find' the
location of the self, or even decide whether you are dealing with one self or
more than one self. The 'GK program' would be like Windows XP.
So I'm going to assume we don't know whether or
not you could 'write' the program for GK. In other words, I'm assuming that you
can be a materialist without being committed to Dennett's version of
The US flying drone which destroyed the alleged
Al-Qaeda cell last Saturday was 'flown' by a GI operative sitting comfortably
at a laptop. In World War II, the Japanese kamikaze
gave their lives to achieve the same objective. But what exactly is the
difference between being there, at
the moment the high explosive detonates, and not being there?
Let's notch this up a bit. Instead of a metal
and plastic flying drone, let's have a fully functioning robot which reproduces
my bodily movements via a broadband radio connection. To make this really effective,
I need the ability to feel when my
robot is damaged. This is a very expensive piece of equipment, what better way
to protect it than to give the operator a suitable jab of pain? As my robot
engages in battle (presumably with other robots) I have the most vivid sense of
'being there'. Only, I am not there. It's just an illusion, isn't it?
Let's say that as a result of carelessness or
lack of sufficient fighting skill, my robot gets destroyed, and I feel the pain
of its destruction. After receiving a severe dressing down from my commanding
officer, I'm issued with another robot with the warning not to let this happen
again, or else. This time, I will not only feel the pain. I will receive the
same injuries, in the same body parts that my robot receives. If it dies, then
Remember that my robot doesn't have a brain, or
a computer simulating my thought processes. It is just a sophisticated drone.
And yet, in this extreme case, wouldn't it be correct to say that where my
robot is — where the action is happening — there I am also?
If I put my hand into a fire, then the fire
doesn't only burn my hand, it burns me.
Whereas a drone under my control is just like an extended artificial hand. What
puts me there, in the flames, is
nothing other than the fact that it is my life that is at stake. I am where my vulnerable parts are.
It helps to have 'eyes' and 'ears' where your
vulnerable parts are located otherwise you will injure yourself too easily. But
merely having eyes and ears at a
location (as in the case of the Al-Qaeda drone) isn't sufficient for being
If Dennett is right about the possibility of a
brain program, then human beings do not, in principle, have any vulnerable parts. As noted above,
the self program can be endlessly reproduced. On the other hand, if Dennett is
wrong, and brain function cannot be duplicated in a program (more precisely, by
a Turing Machine) then the living human body which I call 'mine', or at least
that part of me (say the brain) whose destruction would lead to my death, is
necessarily where I am.
I have noted that 'genuine' bilocation must be
more than just appearing in a place.
The appearance must correspond to reality. As we have also seen, it must be
more than my manipulating a robot or simulacrum of me at that place, because
the destruction of the robot or simulacrum does not entail my destruction. To be in a place is to risk death at that place. If I can do this in two or more places
simultaneously, then I can bilocate, but not otherwise.
and the poverty of desire
Kramer asked this question:
philosophy help in addressing a poverty of desire? Living in a capitalist
society leads to spending most of my time towards earning a living and caring
for my dependents. I feel I must try out different vocations to figure out the
job I would like best but then you would not know if you really like a job
unless you put in sufficient time. And I don't have much time and I don't know
what I like. I just live and this causes a poverty of desire.
The claim that human beings in capitalist
society work 'just to live' rather than to fulfil their 'human essence' was the
criticism famously levelled by Marx originally in his Economic and
Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. As a capitalist sympathetic to Marx's ideas about
the human essence and the need to fulfil it, I feel sorry that so many people
spend so much of their lives in dead-end jobs just working to make ends meet, I
really do. It's something of which I have hardly any experience, not because I
am capitalist living of the sweat of the working class, but because of my
innate laziness. I lack the Protestant work ethic. You won't get me to work by
threats or rewards. Only the prospect of fulfilling my human essence is
sufficient to motivate me.
As a result of this, I am poor. If I had been
more 'responsible', my family would be better provided for but at least we have
a roof over our heads and we don't starve. I have spent two thirds of my six
decades doing more or less what I do now. I reckon I'm pretty good at my job
— philosophizing on a point. I don't get a lot of praise, but then I
never needed other people's approval to motivate me either.
This morning, I knew that another answer was
overdue. I looked forward to the prospect with a mixture of apprehension, nervousness
and slight annoyance at myself for not having written my weekly answer last
week so that I could spend the rest of my day watching the clouds go by as I
love to do.
But then, part of being lazy is not doing a task
at the first opportunity, but rather on the deadline when you absolutely know
that you can't postpone it another day.
What advice can I give Kramer?
First, about Marx. It is absolutely wrong to
think that the need to work at a task you don't like is a criticism that Marx
laid at capitalism's door. Not at all. How much work is required and what kind
depends to a large extent on things out of our control. In the aftermath of a
nuclear holocaust the survivors will be working their guts out just to stay
alive. In a future super-technological age of plenty, perhaps very little work
will be needed at all, maybe just a couple of hours on a Friday.
But let's just tackle things as they are.
Regardless of how society is organized or what
political system human beings live under, work will be necessary. Marx understood this. Doing what is necessary, pulling
your weight, making your contribution to society is part of what is required to
fulfil one's human essence. There are some jobs that only a masochist would
enjoy, and there are not nearly enough masochists to go round. But the jobs
have to be done, nonetheless. Say, it's your turn to clean out the lavatories.
The point, however, is that provided everyone pulls their weight (and barring
the nuclear holocaust scenario) you have sufficient time time to do things that
you enjoy, which enhance you and express your individuality.
The young Marx's criticism of capitalist society
was that the very best of the worker is
used up in the daily grind. The worker's only pleasures the animal pleasures of
eating, sex and sleeping. Then the whole thing starts again. Marx believed that
to sell your labour rather than give
it freely out of the joyful desire to make a useful contribution (including
cleaning out lavatories) already condemns you. You're nothing better than a
prostitute. But then so are the all those talented people who choose wealth and
comfort over artistic integrity. In a world that runs on money, we sell our
souls because we lose our sense of value — regardless of whether the
general standard of living is high or low.
Criticism of materialism is nothing new. Gloomy
Diogenes was there before Marx (see http://follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_6.html).
Pissing and shitting in the street, begging coins of passers by in return for a
caustic philosophical discourse, that's not my idea of the good life. But
freedom to express your human essence has a value, and that's one way to be
free if you can accept the discomfort. Be a bum. — But I forgot, you have
(This reminds me of a beautiful short novel Knulp — actually three short
stories — written by Herman Hesse in 1915, which makes a good case that
the life of a tramp isn't that bad if you are one of those rare people who has
the right qualities.)
This isn't the place to launch into a criticism
of Marxist philosophy. I will just say that a society of brotherly and sisterly
love, where we are all just one happy family and everyone does the work
required without needing to be motivated by material reward isn't something
that anyone has ever believed possible, apart from maybe the early Christians.
That's what you would have to achieve in order to get rid once and for all of
the evil of money.
Kramer, your problem isn't about the evils of
capitalism, real though they may be. Accept that you may need to choose between
jobs you don't like, and that the best
choice you can possibly make is more likely than not a job you won't enjoy
doing — at least not too much. But still, there's the pleasure of social
contact, work mates, the various compensations that help you get through the
day. Be prepared to take a cut in pay, in order to work for someone human
rather than a bastard (as many bosses unfortunately are). You have obligations
to your family but those obligations don't include self-sacrifice. If you sell
yourself into miserable wage slavery, your value to them reduces to the money
(Which reminds me of another novel, or novella,
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis
coincidentally also written in 1915.)
Find an interest in life, outside work or
family. You can probably guess what I'm going to say. You found the Ask a
Philosopher web site searching for sites related to philosophy. Take a
philosophy course. Develop your mind. Don't do it because of the super-slim
chance of making philosophy your career. The chances are, you're not cut out
for it. Do it because it is one way — very satisfying, as I have
discovered — to realize your human essence.
other things. Don't forget your friends, keep yourself fit, engage in
something artistic, look after your garden. Whatever talents you have, exploit
them. Accept the necessity for work but have a life as well.
your own reality
Ruth asked this question:
apologise for asking such a basic question, but I have googled and googled
reading a discussion online the other day and one of the participants posited
that 'all experience essentially takes place in the mind'. My question is, if
there is no such thing as 'objective' reality, are people altered by the things
they experience and change because of outside stimulus, or do they 'change' the
things they experience to suit their own framework? Which choice is preferable?
At first glance, Ruth's question looks like a
question about idealism. But I don't think it is. The idealist doesn't say that
'there is no such thing as 'objective' reality'. On the contrary, Berkeley's
immaterialism, Kant's transcendental idealism, or Hegel's objective idealism
are all theories about the nature of
objective reality. In these theories, mind plays an important role, but it is
not your mind or my mind but Mind (with a capital 'M').
It is fair to say that the current philosophical
climate is predominantly realist rather than idealist. Yet even the staunchest
realist would agree that our point of
view is not the 'View from Nowhere' as Nagel terms it (Thomas Nagel The View From Nowhere 1986). The way we
gain knowledge about the world outside us, our ability to access the
'objective' facts, depends on many factors including our mental constitution,
sensory capacities, concepts and linguistic resources. Human beings differ from
one another in this respect, although there is a also sense in which there
exists a specifically 'human way' of perceiving and gaining knowledge of the
world, by contrast, e.g., with that of a whale or a bat.
So in response to the question, 'Do we change
because of outside stimulus, or do we 'change' the things we experience to suit
our own framework?' my answer is, both.
I am writing this answer today because when I
checked my 'Questions In' mailbox I found Ruth's question there. If there
hadn't been a question that interested me, I might have been doing something
else. When Ruth clicked the button at Ask a Philosopher to submit her query,
that action in a small way changed the course of my life.
Yet it is also true that the things I
experience, the way the world impresses itself on me and stimulates me to
action, depends on my desires, attitudes, moods. By working on myself, by reflecting
on the way I feel and think, I effectively change my world. The world is the world, the same world for all of us; but
I can choose where to live in that
world, my intellectual habitation — be it high or low, austere or lush.
In a very real sense, it is up to me to create my own reality.
Which choice is preferable? How do you choose
when to open yourself up and let the world impress itself on you, and when to
work on yourself in order to make the world — or your world —
different? That's a fair question. Each person, I would argue, differs in this
respect. It is a particularly tricky question for the philosopher.
As a seeker after truth, my aim is or ought to
be to make my subjective contribution as small as possible so that I can
accurately reflect the nature of objective reality. It isn't up to my free
choice whether to be a materialist, or a dualist, a realist or idealist. I have
to let the arguments impress themselves upon me, and then decide. I am nothing
and reality is everything. That attitude is often taken as definitive of the
And yet, truth seeking would be a pointless
exercise, if it were not part of a strenuous effort to make sense of things.
It's not as if any 'truths' will do. A philosopher is only concerned with ultimate
or universal truths, truths which would remain true even if the actual world as
we find it was different in so many different ways. But that's still too many.
My world is meaningful, or meaningless, depending on choices I make, for
example, choices about which truths to focus upon, which questions to live with.
As regards 'how to live' in a practical sense,
there don't seem to be many choices open to me, given my resources and ongoing
commitments, my place in society. And yet as regards making sense of things
intellectually, all the work is yet to be done. As I remarked last time, the
world seems to me like a puzzle that doesn't add up. That impression, that
feeling: is it an accurate reflection of reality, or is it rather the reality I
have merely chosen to inhabit?
It feels like a choice. I have chosen to be
gripped by a question which, if the reactions of students, colleagues, friends
are anything to go by, not many people nor even many academic philosophers find
puzzling. I don't have to spend all my time thinking about it. I don't have to
slip into this mood. But I do, because that is what I will.
I don't find much comfort in the thought that
the thoughts I am thinking now are merely the product of two and a half
thousand years of the history of philosophy. That somehow I am merely
'continuing a tradition'. The past is the past, water under the bridge. It's
true that 'those ignorant of the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it'
(as I often tell my students). After nearly 40 years doing this, I think I know
enough about the history of philosophy to get by. (Not nearly as much as the
late Anthony Harrison-Barbet, author of Philosophical Connections but I doubt
whether many working academic philosophers do.)
I said last time that 'to hold the entire
universe 'in question' seems liberating, in a strange sort of way'. Why do I
need to be liberated? liberated from what? The idea that philosophy has its
'consolations' is as old as Boethius, or older, but I'm not ashamed to admit
that I chose philosophy all those years ago because I needed it, because it seemed to be the only way I could stop my
world from falling apart. And it's done a pretty good job ever since.
Some will sense that the G-word is in the
background to all of this. The theist says, 'Of course the world has a purpose,
the purpose given to it by God.' My response: If it turned out that God did
exist (don't ask me how we would know), it would be our duty to kill him, or her (don't ask me how we
would achieve this). If it turned out that God didn't exist (don't ask etc.),
it would be our duty to create him,
or her (don't ask etc.).
This isn't some mad idea; better minds have been
here before me. But I'm not really interested in the God question, I see
through all these facile moves. This isn't where the answer is going to be
found. (Like philosophy, religion is a life choice. I just don't think that it
is a very good choice, but I'm here speaking for myself not for you.)
So, in my own mind, I have found something
better than religion. I've spent two thirds of a lifetime creating my world, and the job is not done yet.
When it is, I'll let you know.
on absolute presuppositions
Tim asked this question:
Collingwood saw history as a rational process but is it rational to ignore the
fact that our absolute presuppositions may be true or false? If we say no then
we are back to the problem of investigating absolute presuppositions without
any of our own absolute presuppositions to start the enquiry.
an answer to this problem? Can we investigate the truth of absolute
presuppositions without any of our own absolute presuppositions?
This is a great question which takes me back to
the time when I was writing my D.Phil thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning and reading everything I could lay my
hand on which had anything to do with metaphysics. My supervisor was John
McDowell. I was supposed to be
writing something on the philosophy of language, but all I could see was
theorists of meaning trying, and failing, to do metaphysics.
The only answer was to go to the source: Plato,
Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Whitehead, Heidegger.
The short answer to Tim's question — which
I will explain in a minute — is that Collingwood hasn't 'ignored' the
putative 'fact' that our absolute presuppositions may be true or false.
According to Collingwood, truth is not 'correspondence with fact' but rather an
answer to a question. Every question
has presuppositions. Some of these are 'relative' and can therefore be
questioned. But you can't question absolute presuppositions, because they are
in a very real sense the ground you are standing on. There is no vantage point
or place to stand from which one could regard one's absolute presuppositions as
a 'proposition' with a 'truth value'.
It is understandable why many philosophers have
regarded this as deeply unsatisfactory, and is the main reason why Collingwood
has been branded a 'historicist' about metaphysics. Collingwood appears
committed to the view that when we study the history of metaphysics, we are
merely describing the thoughts of metaphysicians in relation to their time.
There is no way to meaningfully raise the question whether these thoughts are
'true' or 'false' in a non-historically relative sense.
I first got onto Collingwood reading a book by
Leslie Armour The Concept of Truth
(Van Gorcum 1969), and Armour's follow-up book Logic and Reality (Van Gorcum 1972). I can highly recommend these
to any philosophy student with a sense of adventure who is looking for a walk
on the wild side, especially the second which attempts the (some would say)
impossible feat of doing what Hegel attempted in his Science of Logic, only doing it right. This is thrilling stuff,
speculative philosophy of the first order.
To get back to truth, Armour goes through all
the standard theories of truth — correspondence, coherence, pragmatist
— and finds each of them wanting, mainly for reasons which have been
discussed in the literature, although with a few clever dinks of his own. So
far, OK. But then he argues for a view which anyone who thought 'eclectic' was
a word for something bad would be appalled by. Each of the theories is kind-of true, but lacks something.
However, if you put all the theories
together, you get something which approaches a true account of truth.
Collingwood's theory of truth as 'an answer to a question' is the leavening in
I never got round to reading Collingwood's The Idea of History. I read and re-read An Essay on Metaphysics and An Autobiography. As with Armour, I can
recommend these to any student who has an interest in metaphysics as a
speculative, foundational inquiry.
One of McDowell's favourite quotes from
If I have exhausted the
justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am
inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do.'
Philosophical Investigations Para. 217
Wittgenstein is talking about explanations you
can give for why you follow a certain rule. But he could just as easily have
been talking about Collingwood's 'absolute presuppositions'. In philosophy,
there is a point below which you cannot
dig — a warning which according to McDowell philosophers like Dummett and
Quine fail to heed in their attempts to reductively analyze linguistic meaning
(see e.g. McDowell 'Truth Conditions, Bivalence and Verificationism' in Essays in Semantics Evans and McDowell
Eds. OUP 1976).
I wasn't altogether convinced by the Armour and
Collingwood line — minimalism about truth seemed, and still seems, more
attractive and a lot less effort to defend — but Collingwood's critique
of the traditional view of truth made me realize the key issue in any attempt
to construct a metaphysic. You have to
start somewhere. You need axioms from which to deduce your metaphysical
theorems. But how do you defend your axioms? How do you prove that your axioms are true?
Descartes' 'I exist' is an example of a famous
metaphysical axiom, which first-year philosophy students use as an introductory
exercise. If 'I exist' is true whenever I think it, how does it follow that I existed in the past, or that I will exist in the future? Does there
even have to be a 'subject' that 'thinks' in order for a thought to exist?
I'd studied Wittgenstein's private language
argument and I knew better (or so I thought at the time). The ego is just an
illusion generated by grammar. All first-person truths are necessarily
supervenient on third-person truths, that is to say, on what can be
communicated in language.
Then I had a brainwave. All the argument over
'realism' versus 'anti-realism' about truth and meaning can be dealt with in
exactly the same way, as a critique of the truth
illusion. There is no ego, there is no truth. Nothing 'in here', nothing
'out there'. There is no starting point for metaphysical inquiry. All there is,
is the power of logic which the philosopher can bring to bear on any alleged
metaphysical axiom or theory. Metaphysics is a dialectic of illusion. (See my
1982 D.Phil Abstract.)
For anyone looking for the great truths of
metaphysics, this is a bitter pill to swallow. A Pyrrhic victory. But I was
undismayed. I had discovered something, a negative
truth. I'd plumbed the depths. To plumb the depths and know that there's nothing down there is knowledge they don't have. I mean, all the
philosophers throughout history who have entertained the idea that there could
be a 'true' metaphysical theory.
So Collingwood was dead right. You can study
metaphysics. It's a fascinating logical exercise. But you know before you even set out that you are not going to find
anything true. At best, all you will
discover are the consequences of assumptions which, at the time, were thought
to be beyond question.
But I agreed with those who were uneasy with
historicism. To seems just too damned contingent
to view metaphysics as merely consequential on human history, or intellectual
history. I preferred Kant's idea that there are in some sense necessary illusions, which arise from
the very nature of the mind. But, contra Kant, there was no way you could prove that these particular illusions
had to arise. You just had to accept the illusions — the standing
temptations which set us on the road to metaphysical inquiry — as a
And so I was led to a rather weird conclusion:
[T]he propositions of a
system of metaphysics can serve only to refute
metaphysical illusion; once one departs from that negative function there is
nothing upon which to base the development of the system except the appeal to
an 'incorrigible metaphysical intuition'. But that is just what the task of
'identifying the source of the illusion' would require us to do. So long as the
dialectic is confined to its negative function it can yield only illuminating
redescriptions of the illusion; we may cast those descriptions in ever more
revealing forms, but the source of the illusion itself remains untouched.
G.Klempner D.Phil thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning, Ch. 33
Identifying the source of
the illusion is indeed a necessary task; but it is not a task for metaphysical
inquiry. For its necessity belongs, not to metaphysics but to psychology. It is that necessity which
differentiates the explanation of the source of metaphysical illusion from the
explanation of a mere error, rather than the discipline for which the
explanation is set as a necessary task. (Ibid.)
Or, in plain terms, if you want to know where
metaphysics ultimately comes from, get yourself psychoanalyzed. I really
thought that! (But that's another story.)
— One up on Collingwood, eh?
of a solipsist
Dave asked this question:
not studied philosophy but I seem to keep gravitating to it unwittingly.
I spend a
lot of time thinking and I recently discovered Solipsism and thought it fit
almost perfectly with my beliefs.
upon trying to find out more about it I just found people using it as a device
to make ironic jokes. I just seek clarification on what I am and whether I am a
type of Solipsist.
seem to think that Solipsists would not want to congregate because by
definition they are denying everyone but themselves and see little value in
in quite the opposite. If all other people are fabrications of my mind, I would
find great value in meeting with them especially those with similar ideas. This
is because I am not consciously creating them and the fact that they are
aspects of my mind's creation means that they are aspects of myself and I have
created them for a reason.
got Solipsism right or wrong? Or am I specific type of Solipsist?
I don't want to get into a boring taxonomy of
philosophical positions. And who cares about names and labels anyway? However,
it is necessary to make some preliminary cuts with the analytical knife in
order to address Dave's question.
The first cut — the first option which I
want to put on one side — is scepticism about other minds. Scepticism
about other minds, or more specifically the hypothesis that I am the only
conscious being in the universe, could be contingently
true if either of the following circumstances obtained:
(a) I live in a world populated by robots
disguised as human beings, each controlled by a pre-programmed tape. (This is
to rule out the possibility, which a materialist might argue for, that if the
'robots' are genuine examples of AI, then they have consciousness just as I
do.) The super-intelligent alien scientist who created the robots and tapes has
(b) Mind-body dualism, of the epiphenomenalist
variety, is true, but I am the only person with a mind as well as a body.
Everyone else that I meet is a zombie, which behaves in every respect just like
a human being except that it lacks a mind or consciousness. (I'm not asserting
that this is necessarily a coherent possibility, merely that it is initially
plausible. I actually think that it is incoherent, but I won't try to show that
The second cut I want to make relates to another
contingent possibility, related to the Matrix scenario. Imagine that the
Machine World is devastated by a massive power cut, leaving only myself alive
and my dreams of living in Sheffield in 2010 and answering questions for the
Ask a Philosopher web site. Apart from my personal life-support system, all the
machines have ground to a halt. It is possible that I am the only consciousness
in the universe (assuming the absence of any alien life forms).
Well, actually, I am answering those questions, and not just dreaming that I am
answering them, because we are assuming, by hypothesis, that I am in full
possession of my intellectual faculties. However, the questions originate, not
from named or anonymous surfers on the internet, but in the computer program my
brain is interacting with. Dave and his question are the invention of the
original Architect of the Matrix.
Why am I confident that none of these scenarios
fits Dave's description? He states that he 'recently discovered Solipsism and
thought it fit almost perfectly with my beliefs'. No plausible process of
scientific investigation or inference to the best explanation could lead to the
belief that I exist in a world populated by robots, or the other bizarre
possibilities outlined above. You don't believe
something just because it's possible, unless you are suffering from serious
So now we need to supply an argument —
which Dave does not give — which might plausibly have lead him to the
conclusion that he is a 'solipsist'. By understanding how that argument works,
we can diagnose exactly what kind of solipsist Dave is.
I suggest that the missing argument is along the
lines given by Descartes at the beginning of the Meditations. All I know for certain is my own existence, and the
fact that I have experiences. Descartes never actually goes this far: he
proposes, as a sceptical hypothesis, the idea that an evil demon is deliberately deceiving me into thinking that a
material world and other people exist, when in reality all there is, is myself
and the evil demon. (Note, that this goes way beyond the Matrix scenario which
assumes the existence of material objects in space.)
If all that exists is myself and the evil demon,
then my experience, e.g., of looking at my computer monitor has two sides. It is my experience, but it
is also produced by something
external to my conscious mind. Dave would say at this point, 'Exactly! I am not
consciously creating the computer monitor. But my mind is still the source of
my experience.' But there is a problem here. What makes this 'unconscious'
source of my conscious experience mine
or part of me? My experience would be
just as it is now if it was the evil demon who was responsible for it. Or,
rather, 'my unconscious mind' is the
evil demon for all intents and purposes.
This is still unsatisfactory, because one could
argue that Dave is assuming something he has no right to assume: that when
experience happens, it comes from somewhere, something is 'producing' it. Why?
A large part of the answer lies in our adherence
to a certain model of causal explanation. You don't have an effect without a
case. You can't have experience without something producing the experience. But
isn't this a merely contingent matter? Based purely on my experience, I cannot
say for certain whether it has an external cause or not.
I'm going to take a leap at this point — I
don't know whether Dave is willing to join me — and assume that my
experiences have no external cause. All that exists in the universe, all that I
have any certain knowledge of, consists
of my actual experiences. This isn't some crazy lunatic fantasy but a powerful
philosophical position. This is all I
know, and all that could ever be. Nothing that is not this could possibly have any impact on me, or have any meaning for
There are some subtle arguments that the
solipsist can deploy, along the lines of Kantian and Husserlian phenomenology,
to the effect that, in some sense, it is necessary
that my existence takes the form of perception of 'objects in space', and that
I identify myself as a 'person' in relation to other 'persons'. The details
aren't important. What is important is that they allow, or indeed justify, my
concept of 'other persons' as an essential part of my experience, characters in
the story of my world. If my experience was not like this, if it didn't take this logical form, there wouldn't be anything describable as 'me' or
A suitable name for this position (if you are
into naming philosophical positions) is transcendental
solipsism. The kind of solipsist that Dave is, is a transcendental
One very curious feature of transcendental
solipsism is that, prima facie, no practical
consequences follow from this theory. It's not as if you look at people in
a funny way. You deal with them exactly as you would do if you didn't believe
in solipsism. You can attend solipsist philosophical conventions, and argue the
toss with solipsists and anti-solipsists.
I said 'prima facie', because there is a problem
here. You can deal with other persons
in just the same way as you would if you weren't a solipsist (or Dave's kind of
solipsist). But you don't have to.
After all, they are just characters in the story of 'my world'. You can choose
to behave ethically, if this helps to keep up the illusion that you are
enjoying their 'company', but that's just your choice. On the other hand, it
might be more fun if you played games with some of these characters. After all,
they are just your barbie dolls and action men. Whatever you do with your human
toys can't be 'wrong'.
Personally, I wouldn't like to be stuck with
this view of ethics, which is why I think it is important to find an argument that
would be sufficient to refute solipsism. But that's another story.
Len asked this question:
question has to do with language and in that sense it could be a linguistics or
a philosophy of language question. Of the two, I'm not really sure into which
category it falls.
agree or disagree with a statement, it seems to me this is an absolute.
However, on many psych tests employers use these days for candidates seeking to
fill the open position, they give choices of 'agree,' 'strongly agree,'
'disagree' or 'strongly disagree. For example; if the the statement is 'The sky
is blue,' I can either agree or disagree with the statement. How could I
further agree or disagree about the state of the color of the sky or any other
statement for that matter. If you and I both disagree, how could either of us
disagree 'more' than the other? Herein lies my question:
How can you
assign an adverbial quantifier to something that I believe is an absolute? I'm
pretty sure I'm not the only person who thinks this way so could tell me the
difference between agree and strongly agree?
This is a fascinating question in the philosophy
of language. Somewhere (I can't remember where) Michael Dummett raises the
possibility of a speech act similar to assertion, where the speaker is less
than fully confident about what they are saying. I think the term he used was
'probabilistic assertion', an idea he associated with Michael Polanyi. I
remember long ago discussing this with my thesis supervisor John McDowell, who
was roundly dismissive of Dummett's proposal.
Consider weather forecasts. People complain when
the weather girl says, 'It will be fine tomorrow,' when she knows damn well
that there is only a 70-80 per cent probability that it will be fine tomorrow.
(I'm talking about BBC weather girls who've studied meteorology and actually
know what they're talking about, on other TV stations they just read a script.)
In the discussion I made the point that the context
(a TV weather report) makes it clear that when the weather girl makes an
assertion about tomorrow's weather, she isn't doing what we normally do when we
make assertions. It isn't necessary for her to quote the probability figure, or
express some degree of doubt about what she is telling us. It's understood.
But that's just the thin end of the wedge. (I
think that this was McDowell's objection.) We would have to admit a whole
family of speech acts, speculative assertion, tentative assertion, cautious
assertion, confident assertion, emphatic assertion. And that just seems wrong.
To make an assertion is to aim at truth. There are only two possibilities, you
aim at truth or you aim to miss (i.e. you tell your audience a deliberate lie).
It's understood that failure is a possibility. But you can't include a rider to
that effect without destroying the whole point of this language game. Or, if
not, then the rider adds nothing to what you've already said, the force and semantic content of your speech act.
However, my intuitions tell me that there is a point in the way these
questionnaires are constructed, and the options they give. To extract this
point, we need to do quite a bit of of work in a number of related areas: game
theory, probability theory, the analysis of knowledge from testimony, as well
as philosophy of language. Just to give a sense of the complexity involved,
here's a short parable:
I am having a pleasant stroll in the hills
around Athens with my three companions, Parmenides, Zeno and the young
Socrates. Somehow, we've managed to get lost. I'm sure we passed that broken
tree half an hour ago. We reach a point where the path forks three ways. 'Which
we should we go?' I ask. Zeno scratches his chin. After what seems like an
eternity he says, 'It's not right and it's not straight ahead, so I think it
must be left.' 'No, no!' shouts the young Socrates waving his pointing finger
enthusiastically, 'We have to go right, I'm sure of it!' Parmenides scowls. He
stares straight ahead and nods. 'That
is the way,' he says in a quiet tone.
Which way do you go?
I don't think that there's any doubt. I would
follow Parmenides, I'd go straight ahead. Zeno isn't completely sure, so we can
discount him. Socrates' wild gesticulations aren't convincing. Whereas
Parmenides impresses us with his authority. He doesn't need to make a fuss
about it. He knows.
There's a discussion of the connection between
knowledge and authority in my Answer to Demetreus. If you think about it, there
could not be a linguistic device
which qualified a statement in a way which reliably gave the hearer information
about the speaker's authority to make that statement, the credence one should
place on it. And yet, we make these kinds of judgements all the time. The
reason why we couldn't have such a device is that people aren't always the best
authority on how credible an
authority they are.
However, there is no objection in principle to
introducing new devices into the language game, provided they have a use.
Indeed, arguably, we already have such a device in the various ways and means
available for conveying the strength with which you hold a belief or opinion.
The finesse here is that the 'measure of strength' isn't like assertion, it doesn't
function in the same way as a speech act, nor does it function as a qualifier
of the speech act. It's information that you give out, more or less voluntary,
of the same order (or at least closer to) the information you give out when
your face blushes, or you tremble, or your features contort in anger. It is
almost impossible to imagine what human life would be like if these features
When you tick the boxes (and I fully accept,
sometimes it doesn't seem to make a
lot of sense when you are asked whether you 'agree' or 'strongly agree' to a
particular statement which is just plain true so far as you are concerned) you
are giving out information that will be processed to yield a result. A
numerical scheme is applied, somewhat like the various proposed preferential
voting schemes for proportional representation. In a similar way to
preferential voting, knowing this gives you some additional measure of control
over how your application will be assessed. And the people who designed the
form, know that you know this. In
other words, you are being invited to participate
in a game.
Here's just one example: Good psych tests (I
mean, ones that are actually researched empirically, and constructed so you
can't just 'cheat' your way to a better result) give you plenty of opportunity
to contradict yourself. If you strongly agree to X and also strongly agree to
Y, and the implicit assumptions behind X are inconsistent with the implicit
assumptions behind Y, you earn a higher demerit
than if one or other or both of your statements was less emphatic.
Your doubts justifiably reflect uncertainty
about exactly what game you are being invited to play. Who designed the test
and what is its real purpose? You are at a disadvantage because you don't know
the rules. You don't know what numerical scheme will be applied. Or maybe
— and this is potential source of criticism of this kind of exercise
— you don't agree to this game
at all. (That's what I feel about the new '0-5 star' system of appraisal
introduced by eBay. If you're happy with the transaction, there ought to be
only one choice, so far as I can see.)
However, if you are applying for a job, you
don't really have the option. Honesty is, or ought to be, the best policy. But
if it seems to you as if you are being required to be dishonest, give a false
account of yourself, then maybe you should consider how badly you want the job.
knowledge entail certainty?
Demetreus asked this question:
and Plato equate knowledge with complete certainty.
Do you agree
that knowledge requires this very high standard?
knowledge means being certain, is there anything we can truly know?
Methinks Demetreus would not have posted this
question, if it hadn't been on his philosophy class assignment sheet. Quite a
lot of these questions find their way to Ask a Philosopher. I'm not averse to
answering them because they show something revealing about the way philosophy
is taught in many colleges and universities.
The topic is Epistemology
or 'Theory of Knowledge'. The term comes from the Greek word episteme, which Plato in his Republic contrasts with doxa or mere belief. According to Plato,
you can't have episteme of things in
the empirical world — the world in space and time — because
empirical objects are shifting and uncertain. You can only have doxa. Whereas episteme is reserved for eternal things: the objects of
mathematics, and, ultimately, the Forms.
Descartes argued in his Meditations that empirical knowledge is possible, but only on the
basis of a proof of the existence of a benevolent God, who has so arranged
things in this world that provided that we use our capacity for judgement responsibly, we will not be led astray.
Even so, Descartes knew full well — as he explains in Meditation 6
— that even when you exercise exquisite care in making judgements, a
judgement can still turn out to be false. The acquisition of empirical
knowledge relies on mechanisms like perception, which for natural reasons — the laws of nature that God Himself decreed
— can sometimes fail to deliver the goods.
Why can we only know the Forms? Why is God
needed to make knowledge possible? These are deep and fascinating questions for
students of Plato and Descartes. Unfortunately, a style of lazy thinking seems
to have crept into Epistemology, which lays the blame on the requirement of
certainty. According to the lazy view, Plato and Descartes were wrong, because
they didn't realize that certainty isn't required for knowledge!
This is such a preposterous idea, no wonder
generations of tyro philosophy students are baffled by it.
The anonymous author of the question, an
instructor at some college somewhere, has obviously realized that there is a
lacuna here so he/ she has inserted the adjective 'complete'. This is like a
flashing red light. Why the need for a qualification? Certainty is certainty.
Does knowledge entail that you are certain, or does it not? If I tell you I'm
certain, and then you go on to ask me if I'm completely certain, you deserve a smack in the jaw.
Most persons who have not been subjected to
first-year Epistemology classes would say knowledge does imply certainty.
Suppose I remark, 'Sue knows that Bob is cheating on her.' I have made two
claims. First, Bob is cheating on Sue. That's bad. It's not the sort of thing
you'd want to make a mistake about. (I haven't said I know that Sue knows that Bob is cheating on her because that's
already implied by what I said.) The second claim is that Sue knows this. By
implying that I know, I have also implied that I am sure of my ground. I am
certain. By stating that Sue knows, I imply not only that Sue is sure of her
ground, but also that she in a position to be sure. If Sue told someone, 'Bob
is cheating on me', the hearer could take this information as authoritative,
not open to doubt.
That's how he concept of knowledge works. If you
are not sure, if there is any element of uncertainty, then you should say so
otherwise you are behaving irresponsibly. You are giving your audience grounds
for thinking that you are an authoritative source of the information in
question, when you are not. You are only guessing.
Do we really go through all this palaver in
daily life? Yes, we do. We just don't think about it in such explicit terms.
However, these are just the kinds of facts that
the sceptic exploits. Arguments for scepticism typically take the form of
pointing out the many ways in which it is conceivable
that you could be wrong. Descartes in Meditation 1 comes up with a real show stopper:
all my assumed 'knowledge' of the external world could just be a dream fed to
me by an evil demon. You might think the idea is spectacularly improbable, but
it is logically possible. In that
case, you can't rule it out completely. You don't have the right to be certain
However, it is not necessary to go to such
extremes in order to raise a question mark about ordinary claims to knowledge.
'Is Bob cheating on Sue?' 'Yes, I saw him together with Mary.' 'Does Bob have a
twin brother in Australia?' 'Search me if I know.' 'If Bob had a twin brother, wouldn't it be possible that it was his twin
brother on a visit from Australia you saw with Mary?' 'Yes, I suppose so.' 'In
that case, would you like to revise your statement?'
It doesn't require too much ingenuity to come up
with suitable defeating questions for just about any knowledge claim.
Philosophers have offered various solutions.
According to David Lewis, knowledge is a contextual notion. Assume that Bob is
cheating on Sue. The question is whether I know
this. Based on what I saw them do in the park, there's no question in my mind.
I know. I'm certain that he is. Then you hit me with the question about the
possible twin brother. Now I don't know. All you did was ask me a question! (As
it happens, Bob doesn't have a twin brother. But of course that's irrelevant because
I've never thought to investigate.)
Lewis’s solution grabs the horns of the dilemma
in both hands, but I don't like it because it leaves the whole notion of
'knowledge' seeming too damn paradoxical. I don't have a better solution. All I
know is saying 'knowledge doesn't
entail certainty' (or 'complete certainty' if you will) is a complete cop-out.
Derrick asked this question:
rapid implementation of advanced automation, robotics and soon nanotechnologies
will there still be a place for the human masses?
long since passed the point of sustainability, we pollute our ever shrinking
supply of fresh water, deforest at accelerating rates and erode our
agricultural land and every human disaster is serviced by emergency aid and the
result is further breeding to add to the rescue mission next time.
long will the have continue to support the have not, will there still be a
place for humanity's masses in the coming ages or are we in the process of
How much can I do without? Work is piling up on
my desk today, but I don't sense any strong ethical impulse to be getting on
with it. Diogenes' question — remember Diogenes, the dog philosopher who
lived in tub? — that question haunts me. I don't need any of this.
I've never had much money, but I could get by on
a lot less than what I have. I don't own a car, don't go on holidays, keep one
pair of shoes (whoever heard of a car, even the most expensive car, needing
more than one set of tyres?). Computers would be more difficult to give up, but
that wouldn't be too hard once I'd given up all that I need computers for.
Probably the hardest thing would be chocolate
biscuits to have with my coffee. Or coffee — whoah, that's a thought!
OK, that's enough about me. What about the human
race? What do we need? How much can
we do without? Why do we need the masses?
Obviously, the world economy still requires a
plentiful resource cheap labour but (as Marx allegedly foresaw) advances in
technology will eventually make manual labour redundant. Imagine workforce of
obedient robots who need nothing apart from a few drops of oil and a regular
recharge. Well, that's pretty obvious.
Who are the 'masses'? Jose Ortega Y Gasset gives
a pretty potent definition in his book Revolt of the Masses (1929). The main
point to note is that one shouldn't make the mistake of identifying the masses
with the 'have nots'. Ortega's typical 'mass man' is the self-satisfied bourgeois.
Get rid of them all, is the answer. Get rid of
the have nots, for sure. But also get rid of the bourgeoisie. Who else? Anyone
with an IQ under (hmm...) 135. That's a bit generous, I know; not enough to get
into Mensa, but that's OK because we're eliminating Mensa members anyway (too
smug and self-satisfied by half).
To be serious for one moment (as I'm trying to
be, because it's a serious question): Here's a useful thought experiment.
Imagine that human beings are the only intelligent life in the universe. I know
that we're repeatedly told that the probability of alien intelligence is
overwhelming — despite the complete lack of any concrete evidence —
but it isn't a fact, it isn't
something we know.
So, imagine we're all alone. Does that make you
feel more important? Does it make you any less willing to let a few billions
die? Not me. What about the survival of the human race. Surely, one would care
about that. But why? Survive, for what purpose?
I don't know. That's the honest truth. I just
I can't think in such general terms. When I try,
I lose all my bearings. There are persons whose survival, and happiness, I very
much care about apart from my own survival and well being. Instead of starting
at the 'big end' (the entire human race) and eliminating the ones whose
survival doesn't seem to matter,
maybe the thing to do is start at the other end, the small end, by writing a
list of all those I do care about, all those who I would allow into the Ark, so
As each human being comes into focus, looks me
in the eye, I feel as if I would have no choice but to let them in.
The solution to 'the world's problems' has been
a topic of debate for a long while, certainly since Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population.
Undoubtedly, technology must play an important part. But, as Derrick has so
clearly seen, if we rely only on science and technology then there may very
well come a time when human beings, or at any rate a large proportion of the
human race, become simply redundant.
This isn't the place for a mealy-mouthed lecture
on ethics. I parade my moral virtue for no man. So I will just say this. A heap
of sand is made of individual grains. The masses are made of individual
persons, and each person has a face.
Whatever your ethical or political views may be, that is one fact that you
should not allow yourself to forget.
Emmanuel asked this question:
Dr I am
Emmanuel a student at a university pursuing a Bachelors in Business
Administration. I need your assistance on some questions such as:
philosophical arguments to the ethical questions which arise when considering
modern advertising techniques:
responsibility, if any, does a company have for honestly educating the consumer
about its product?
advertisers be allowed to suggest that a product will make a person more sexy/
interesting/ beautiful/ successful etc?
3. Is it
ethical to use celebrities to sell products they probably don’t even use
4. Is it
the buyer’s responsibility to be aware of these strategies and not allow
adverts to manipulate their emotions?
This question was sent as a personal email
rather than submitted to Ask a Philosopher. I'm guessing that Emmanuel found my
article ‘Ethics and Advertising’ (http://klempner.freeshell.org/articles/advertising.html).
I don't give private advice because that's too close to helping students cheat
with their homework. All answers to questions submitted to Ask a Philosopher
are published on the internet.
These are very good questions, which you won't
find the answers to in my article. I was more concerned to set limits to what
ethics can reasonably demand from advertisers, rather than put forward specific
principles governing the ethics of advertising. However, it seems to me that
the questions Emmanuel raises don't require any special expertise in business
ethics. They are a matter of plain common sense.
responsibility, if any, does a company have for honestly educating the consumer
about its product? Let's imagine a case where
you are marketing a very nice product, which has some features not found in any
of the competing products in the marketplace. You go to an advertising agency,
who discuss your 'unique selling point' (USP), and possible ways of presenting
this in TV adverts, billboard advertising etc.
However, you know, and your advertising agency
knows that there is a better product available from a rival company. You've
done extensive secret testing and their product beats yours every time. Yes,
your product has features the rival product doesn't have, but that is more than
offset by the fact that these features are mostly eye candy and not very
useful. Is it unethical to tell consumers that yours is the best available?
I am told that in Germany it is actually against
the law to state in an advert that your product is the best unless you can prove that it is. Elsewhere, such as the
UK where the rules are a bit more relaxed, saying that a product is 'the best'
isn't considered as potentially misleading information. Whereas if you say that
your toilet cleaner kills 99% of germs when it only kills 75% then you are
breaking the Trade Descriptions Act.
'We think it's the best,' is a way of saying,
'We believe in our product, we stand behind it.' To me, that is a perfectly
Do you have an ethical obligation to tell your
potential customers that the rival product is better, according to your own
tests? Absolutely not. You are ethically (and in many cases legally) obliged to
ensure that your product is fit for purpose, not dangerous to use, and not
misleadingly described. On the other hand, a sufficiently resourceful and
creative advertising agency can make the most of the fact that you are not the
leading brand. 'We're Number Two But We Try Harder,' was the famous Avis advert
which won them an increased slice of the car hire market against their leading
I would love to see an advert which said,
'Product X is Better But Ours Has More Eye Candy!'
advertisers be allowed to suggest that a product will make a person more sexy/
interesting/ beautiful/ successful etc? My answer to this would be, Yes, if it's true. If the product in question really does make you more sexy,
for example, then you have every right to tell consumers that it does.
But how could this be measured? 'In a survey of
a randomly chosen sample of consumers, users of laptop A were considered more
sexy than users of laptop B.' Well, an advertiser would never say this, just
like that. But they would imply it. The finesse here (as I argue in ‘Ethics and
Advertising’) is to realize that the advertising campaign in itself can give the product the power to make you
more feel, or appear sexy. The money invested in the campaign adds to the value
of the product, not by making it more useful, but by making the users of the
product feel or appear more sexy, or cool, or whatever.
I suspect that behind this question is a
puritanical attitude that hates the glitz and the glamour of today's
marketplace. A car is just a useful machine from getting you from A to B. A
laptop is just a useful device for sending emails and browsing the internet. As
I know that there will be some who are
unsatisfied with my defence of the glitz and glamour. Do we really want to live
in a tinsel world far removed from reality? — How close to reality do you
want to be? I don't want my face rubbed in the dirt. Don't take away my dreams,
the world can be a hard place. But I understand that there's a happy medium.
Use value is an important consideration, of course it is. Just don't get
puritanical on me.
ethical to use celebrities to sell products they probably don’t even use
themselves? This is a sneaky question,
because of the use of the qualifier 'probably'. We have to look at two
The first case is where a celebrity states that
they use a product, and that they like it and they endorse it. If they are
lying, if they don't use the product, then that is unethical, because it is
unethical to lie. There's no argument here. However, in the real world things
are not quite so black and white. Consider the immensely lucrative field of
sports endorsements. A leading tennis player uses Wilson tennis rackets. But
this isn't a Wilson that they purchased in a local store. The racket has been
finely adjusted and tweaked. To buy something like that in a shop would cost
you thousands. But surely you'd have to be an idiot to think that you could win
Wimbledon with a racket you got from the local sports shop!
The second case is where celebrities appear in
adverts but don't explicitly endorse the product. Rather, the product gains
glamour through the association. Here, again, I think that most viewers of the
advert are not taken in. Having said that, you have to consider things from the
point of view of the celebrity. Would you, a famous film actor for example,
appear in an advert for a product that you considered junk, which had the
potential to harm your image? It is not unreasonable to infer some degree of
endorsement, even if this isn't explicitly stated.
Is it the
buyer’s responsibility to be aware of these strategies and not allow adverts to
manipulate their emotions? If you are able to prevent
anyone ever manipulating your emotions then you are a better man than me. Of
course our emotions get manipulated, and often we willingly allow this to
happen. I don't like it when an
advert makes me feel bad, yet if it is an advert, say, for the charity NSPCC
which campaigns against child abuse then, then I know that I ought to feel bad about the things the
adverts depict. On the other hand, if an advert makes me feel good that's a
gift for free, and I haven't even bought the product! Before buying it I will
consider the practicalities, of course, but in my eyes its value is already
enhanced. That's how human emotions work.
Consumers are not puppets, we do succeed in
resisting what we see as irresponsible or shameless manipulation of our
emotions. It is in the advertiser's own interest not to go too far in this
respect, but to remain within the bounds of good taste. Campaigns backfire
badly when advertising executives get this wrong.
Yes, emphatically, the buyer has
responsibilities. The responsibility doesn't all lie with the seller or
advertiser. But there are different cases to consider. If your marketing
campaign is aimed at younger persons, especially children, then different rules
apply than if it is aimed at adults. It's a matter of common sense.
Amalie asked this question:
question is about why Kant's imperative about not using mankind only as a means
rules out suicide.
I take a
course in practical philosophy where we are now reading Grundlegung by Kant (we
read it in Norwegian, so please excuse any strange translations). In class the
other day we couldn't seem to agree on a question that showed up:
talking about the second formulation of the categorical imperative, 'Act as if
you use mankind (including yourself) as ends in themselves and not as means to
an end' Kant presents some examples to illustrate it.
the first example hard to interpret.
testing the following maxim: is the action of committing suicide consistent
with the idea of mankind as ends in themselves? Kant says it is not, because if
one destroys oneself to escape a loathsome condition, one uses one person only
as a means to maintain a bearable condition until life ends.
problem appears: we think we do understand his imperative about not using
mankind only as a means, what we don't understand is the formulation above:
when Kant says 'one person' is that the person that thinks about committing
suicide, or is it persons around him that have to bear with him until he kills
himself? In other words, if Kant says that one uses oneself as a means, we find
a logical limitation: how can one use oneself only as a means? But if he says
that one uses someone else when thinking about committing suicide, we don't
understand why one necessary uses someone else as a means before one die.
I do hope
my question was clear, and I do hope someone finds it worth answering.
Alvin asked this question:
reading about Mill from a Philosophy Now magazine and I find that he champions
the desire for happiness too loosely. He said that the right moral action is
the action which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of
people; alright, it makes sense. But for example, suppose one day we humans
became crazy and violent due to an outbreak of a wrongly experimented
biological virus. But at the same time, we are sufficiently sane to be able to
talk normally. Presidents all over the world declare that mandatory suicide
becomes a law and everyone should do it immediately. Everyone agrees and they
are happy to oblige. And so a mass suicide took place and humans are wiped out
people are feeling happy when they decide to take out their lives, but it seems
obviously wrong isn't it? You might say that its coercion (i.e virus) and that
coercion doesn't lead to happiness, but they are still happy with twisted ideas
so does that count?
I am taking Amalie's and Alvin's questions
together, not just because they both mention suicide but because they
illustrate in the most dramatic way two diametrically opposed views of ethics
based on the idea that universalizability
is the essential defining characteristic of ethical judgement: Kant's
Categorical Imperative, and preference utilitarianism.
Perhaps this is not so obvious in Alvin's case,
as utilitarianism is known as a 'consequentialist' ethics by contrast with the
'deontological' ethics of Kant. However, in his book Utilitarianism Mill stated
that he regarded his 'Greatest Happiness' principle as equivalent to Kant's
Categorical Imperative. There is an element of truth in this rather odd claim,
borne out in the moral philosophy of R.M. Hare.
Both Hare and Kant start off from the same
point: how can there be such a thing as an ethical command? No factual claim is
sufficient to generate an ethical command: As David Hume argued, you can't
derive an 'ought' from an 'is'.
Kant's solution was to derive ethical commands
from the general formula giving the form of what would be an ethical command, supposing that such a thing were
possible. A hypothetical imperative, 'Do X if you want Y' can never be the form
of a moral command because the motivation for doing X depends on the contingent
assumption that you want Y. Kant is thus led by what seems a logically
compelling inference to the Categorical Imperative, 'Act only on that maxim
that you can at the same time will to be a universal law', and subsequent
formulations which he claims are in some sense equivalent to the original
What emerges is the key idea that human rationality is the only thing in
existence that is an end in itself, rather than a mere means to an end. The
value of human beings resides wholly in their being 'lawmaking members of the
Kingdom of Ends'. Everything else has merely instrumental value, as a means to
that singular end.
Hare is best known as the advocate of the
meta-ethical theory known as 'Prescriptivism'. Ethical statements, which on
surface appearance appear descriptive in form, are in reality commands. The
only constraint on what can be an ethical command is that it be
There is a way of understanding this, according
to which ethical beliefs and statements have no logical basis in reality.
Anything can be an ethical belief or 'command' provided that it satisfies the
formal requirements. If I believe that toothpaste tubes should always be
squeezed from the bottom, then this is an ethical belief provided that I regard
the statement as applying everyone in all circumstances. If you squeeze a
toothpaste tube from the top, you are doing something which in my view is
The obvious difficulty is, on this view,
everyone is is free to formulate his or her own 'ethical' rules. You always
brush your teeth before breakfast, but I don't agree with that. It depends on
whether or not I am in a hurry to get out. Whereas you don't agree with my
ethical rule regarding squeezing toothpaste tubes, because some tubes are hard
to squeeze from the bottom, especially if you have small hands.
Hare's solution is to apply a further crucial
stage of universalization: The universal rules which constitute genuinely
ethical laws are those, and only those which everyone can agree to. My belief that everyone should squeeze
toothpaste tubes from the bottom is what Hare would term fanatical, because I am, in effect, unreasonably insisting that
everyone share my values. But who am I to set myself up as a legislator for
values? Hare's solution is simple and very elegant: the only valid basis for
ethical commands — the only way to avoid fanaticism — is to hold
that each and every person's set of preferences
counts for the same, regardless of the content of those desires.
One important consequence of this view that the
ethically right action is one which
maximizes the total surplus of satisfaction of desires, over non-satisfaction
of desires, either for all intelligent beings or — in the case of Hare's
former pupil Peter Singer — all sentient beings.
This position is known as preference utilitarianism. This was not, in fact, what Mill held.
On the contrary, Mill is committed to the idea that what will make people truly
'happy' does not always consist in getting what they desire. Some pleasures
have a higher value than others. It is possible to be wrong about about what
will make you most happy. However, from Hare's perspective, this notion is
merely a form of fanaticism. Who am I to judge what kinds of activity or
satisfaction are the ingredients for happiness? It is up to each person to
decide for him or herself.
It should be clear by now that Alvin's scenario,
where the human race is infected by a viral plague which makes everyone want to
commit suicide, is a prima facie challenge to Hare's preference utilitarianism,
but not to Mill's utilitarianism. Mill would say that we must act on the
assumption that there is a possibility that a person can achieve happiness that
they thought was not possible, which may involve being forcibly prevented from
committing suicide. To simply allow everyone to commit suicide because that's
what they want is to accept that there is no possible future scenario where the
human race, despite their presently suicidal tendencies, achieves a positive
balance of happiness over unhappiness, or pleasure over pain.
The preference utilitarian has resources for
dealing with this objection, strong though it may be. He can point out that
no-one has just one desire. The desire for suicide, be it ever so strong and
incapable of being argued with, nevertheless has the potential to clash with
other things that a person desires. It is not fanatical, from Hare's point of
view, to engage people in dialogue in order to get them to see the
inconsistency in their desires, with the ultimate aim of changing their view of
what they really want. Maybe. At any
rate, there is sufficient unclarity in the idea of determining what a person
'really' desires, all things considered, to provide sufficient room for
All this, of course, has no bearing on the question
whether it is wrong on Hare's theory for an individual person to commit
suicide. It is consistent with Hare's view to hold that an individual who
sincerely wishes to do away with himself, who won't be terribly missed and is
meanwhile making everyone's lives a misery with his constant complaining, ought
to be permitted to have what he wants, the termination of his unhappy
existence. The rest of humanity, who do not desire to commit suicide, will be
better off, while the individual concerned will have his preference for
This could not be further away from Kant.
Suicide is wrong, in any circumstance whatsoever, because it contradicts the
Categorical Imperative. However, I can quite understand the difficulty Amalie
and her classmates are having with this idea.
First of all, Kant is not saying that by committing suicide I am using any other
particular person as a means. It is true that other persons may be affected by
action, but that is a contingent question. That would not suffice to show that
suicide is wrong in any circumstances whatsoever — for example, if
Robinson Crusoe committed suicide before he had the opportunity to meet Man
Friday. Kant means is what he says, that in committing suicide, I am making
'humanity in my person' a mere means to an end, namely the cessation of my
By 'humanity in my person' Kant is referring to
all of humanity, literally everyone who has ever or will ever exist. By taking
my own life, I effectively demonstrate that I view humanity as such, as a means
to my end. The value — as a member of the Kingdom of Ends — that I
deny to my own person through the maxim of my action, 'I will end my life if it
is not sufficiently pleasing,' I thereby deny to all. From a certain
perspective, this is contempt for humanity on a truly colossal scale.
In order to see how one could be led to this
conclusion, one needs to understand that Kant's view, by contrast with Mill and
Hare, is profoundly anti-hedonistic. Pleasures and pains are the things that
push and pull us in a deterministic universe, but they are not part of what
gives human beings their ultimate value. Only rationality — the one thing
that sets us apart from the rest of creation — is suitable for being an
end. Moreover, this rationality has to be understood not as a mere tool, or
'slave of the passions' as Hume calls it, but as something with intrinsic
value, in itself.
Happiness, misery, pleasure, pain — these
are all things that pass. F.H. Bradley in Ethical Studies calls them 'perishing
particulars'. The greatest sensual enjoyment, thrilling though it may be at the
time, passes and is gone. You can savour the memory, but that too is just
something that passes away in time. Value is permanent or it is nothing. A work
of art, for example. You and I have value, insofar as we exercise our capacity
for rationality for its own sake.
It is difficult to make coherent sense of this,
except in teleological terms: human
beings have a purpose, a teleology, which they do not give themselves but which
is given to them, namely, the capacity to form a community governed by the
principle of ethical respect for one another as ends, in which each rationally
legislates for the actions of all.
The idea is not thousand miles removed from
Plato's vision of the The Republic. Plato does not deny that human beings have
desires and emotions, in the absence of which we would not have any capacity
for a meaningful existence. However, it is only through the opportunity which
they give for the exercise of rationality that desires and emotions acquire
positive value, by fulfilling their assigned functions in the ordered soul: the law-respecting citizen
of the ideal Republic. On any other view, we are no better than brute animals.
I am no Kantian — or Platonist — but
I can appreciate the majesty of Kant's conception. We live in a very I-centered
world, where society is seen as the mere sum of individual units, each pursuing
its own agenda for consumption. Besides my likes and dislikes, I am nothing.
This view not only justifies suicide but taken to its logical conclusion
requires euthanasia — including non-voluntary euthanasia for those
infants judged at birth sufficiently incapable of leading a 'happy' life.
Is that the only choice? Is there no middle way
between a Brave New World and Kant's Kingdom of Ends? Possibly there is. Maybe
the question of suicide is the key. Is there any way in which one could defend
the view that suicide is wrong, but
nevertheless must sometimes be
permitted? Or is that mere double-think?
Douglas asked this question:
you think of the role of collecting monetary interest, on a societal level, in
Western culture? Is collecting interest positive? Is collecting interest moral?
Sixty per cent of Americans are in debt. It is pertinent. Credit cards are the
main culprit, given the high interest rates that credit card companies operate.
I want to take a fresh look at a very old
debate. Long before Marx wrote about the evils of capitalism and money, lending
money for profit was seen as something inherently evil. Christ drove the money
lenders out from the temple. It is written in the Quran that those who practice
usury are 'controlled by the devil'. Does that mean that Christ was against
money lending, or only when it was conducted within the holy confines of
temple? Is all taking of interest 'usury', or only when the interest charged is
Suppose we turned Douglas' question on its head:
'What do you think of the role of making
interest on savings on a societal level, in Western culture? Is making interest moral?'
Why should I save my hard earned money rather
than spend it all? One answer would be that I need cash for a rainy day. But
that isn't a very reliable incentive. If the rainy day never comes, then I get
no benefit at all, no reward for my financial prudence.
Here's an alternative: I join a savings
co-operative, where members agree to pay in a certain amount each month.
Members of the co-operative who want to buy a house can apply to the
co-operative for a loan at reasonable interest rates. The profit from the
interest rates finances a modest rate of interest for the regular savers. That,
in a nutshell, is how many of the well known 'building societies' or 'friendly
societies' were formed: today's mortgage companies.
Or let's say I have a friend who is a trained
chef and wants to open a restaurant. I offer to loan my friend a sum of money
to be paid back over five years, plus an amount of interest based on profits.
If the restaurant venture fails to make a profit, then all I get back is my
original stake. If it goes bust then we both lose. However, I have great
confidence in my friend's business sense as well as in his culinary abilities,
and I fully expect to receive back more than I originally gave.
Examples like these would be considered wholly
free from ethical opprobrium. However, I would go further and emphasize their
praiseworthy aspects. The impulse to help someone out is an altruistic impulse, even if at the very
same time doing so is in one's own interest. There is no contradiction in this.
The feeling of being part of a larger whole, making one's contribution to a
collective effort is rewarding in itself, leaving aside any financial
advantages. It is a genuine case of altruism, but without the element of
Along with this sense of fellow-feeling
necessarily comes an element of trust.
To put a fixed amount into the co-operative fund, month after month, year after
year, or to finance my friend's ambition to be a restauranteur, requires an act
of faith. It isn't blind faith. I know these people. They know me. Things have
come to a pretty pass if there's no-one you can trust and everyone you meet is
out for number one.
Of course, Douglas will say that he wasn't
thinking of these cases. He is concerned with the bad examples of monetary interest. But that changes the discussion
rather dramatically. We aren't concerned with whether making an interest is
morally right or wrong per se but
rather with the particular circumstances in which it is wrong.
Another factor comes into play here. My two
examples would be considered to lie on the fringes of capitalist economics
— if they belong to economics at all. Once we take into consideration the
impersonal phenomenon of the market place,
faith, trust and altruism play a relatively smaller, although I would argue
still not insignificant role. In place of the mutual desire to reach a fair
agreement for the sake of friendship, there is free competition between
potential lenders. Other things being equal, you go for the best deal.
But if this were really true, how is it that
credit card companies are able to charge so much for loans? How is it (if it is
true) that sixty per cent of Americans are in debt? I wonder if these two facts
could be connected.
It has become almost a knee-jerk reaction to
blame corporations and big business for all manner of financial woes. There
have been so many appalling stories in the news, that you can pick targets at
will. The case of the sub-prime mortgage market is merely the latest in a long
history of scandals — if that's what interests you.
In my role as business ethicist I am of course
professionally interested in what it is to practice good business. But that's not what we are talking about here.
Douglas raised the question of credit cards and debt. For once, I think the
ethical spotlight needs to be trained on consumers rather than on the financial
institutions who service their needs.
What do you call someone who borrows from a
friend, knowing that you can't repay the loan? Assuming that your friend does
not know this. Isn't it the worst case of using
someone else for your own ends? Yet when you apply to have the limit raised on
your credit card account far beyond what you know you can afford, that's just a
fair gamble. If you go bankrupt and can't pay your debt, there is no victim
apart from yourself. The credit card company takes a minuscule hit on its
I would like to see borrowing more than you can afford to be seen for what it is: a
form of potential theft. You wouldn't do it to a friend. Then why do you think
it's OK to do it with American Express?
In a free market, you would expect that prices
rise with higher demand. Credit card companies charge the interest that they do
because you are prepared to pay. We
are not talking about back street loan sharks who take advantage of people's
misfortune to charge an arm and a leg for a small loan. My average weekly
collection of junk mail usually contains several unsolicited offers from credit
card companies touting 'zero interest on balance transfers' and the 'lowest
I talked rather emotively of 'theft' but I think
it is closer to the truth to say that over time the idea that being in debt is
a bad thing has eroded to the point where we see the difference between having
savings and being in debt as of little significance. If a rainy day comes, it
is just as likely that the modest sum of money you've saved won't be enough
anyway. But you can always borrow.
Look on the bright side. If money is evil, or
the root of all evil as traditional religion preached, then surely it is a good thing that we care less about money
than we used to do. Isn't it?
meaning of 'philosophy'
Eric asked this question:
what does philosophy mean?
philosophical questions differ from other questions?
philosophers answer the questions they raise? (most important).
The short answer to Eric's first question is
that the word 'philosophy' (from the
Greek philo sophos, literally 'love
of wisdom') doesn't have any significant meaning. It is a gesture —
nebulous, vaguely pious — which intimates something profound but in
reality is little more than a magician's hocus pocus. Or as I once wrote:
The term has the appearance
of a label invented for political purposes, like 'social democrat'. The philosophers'
party wished to be known as the lovers of knowledge or wisdom: if you were
against them then you had to be an ignoramus or a philistine.
Pathways Program B
Searching for the Soul Unit 1
José Ortega y Gasset in his brilliant short book
The Origin of Philosophy (Tr. Tony
Talbot Norton 1967) wittily describes the term 'philosophy' as 'cross-eyed':
For no sooner were people
aware of the existence of 'inquirers', than they began assaulting them,
misinterpreting them, confusing them with other vague professions, whereupon
that marvelous, ingenuous name [aletheia
or 'inquiry'] had to be abandoned and another assumed, one born of spontaneous
generation, infinitely inferior but more 'practical' — that is, a more
inane, base, and cautious one.
José Ortega y Gasset The Origin of Philosophy
Still today, academic 'philosophers' have to
keep their eyes open on two fronts, to the world of politicians and university
grants committees, and to their own domain, where they can let their hair down
and inquire, alone or together with
fellow 'inquirers' in language which makes perfect sense to those initiated
into the circle, while remaining sufficiently abstruse to the non-initiated.
With rare exceptions, academic philosophers
don't get paid for thinking or dialoguing amongst themselves. They are paid to
teach. To the tyro student's questions, 'What is philosophy?', 'What do
philosophers do?' academic philosophers have their pat, ready-made answers.
Those who seek initiation into the inner circle learn soon enough that no mere
formulaic answer can be adequate.
The fact is, I don't really know 'exactly' what
question Eric is asking. He evidently thinks he does, and has stated the form
an answer should take: 'A philosophical question is one that blah blah blah,
and you answer a philosophical question by doing blah blah blah.' — Just
fill in the blanks, please.
Well, just what is it that I do? A first stab
would be this:
Philosophy is concerned with ultimate things, things that you can't
find out by performing experiments, sifting evidence or looking around the
world. I know that there are ultimate things to be inquired into, and I believe
that such inquiry is worth while; that is the faith of the philosopher.
When people talk of 'ultimate things' the first
thing one thinks of is God. As it happens, I am an atheist. I consider the God
question all but settled. There's no way forward, so don't waste your time
inquiring. You are perfectly entitled to say I'm wrong, and offer your reasons
if you have any. But I don't feel obliged to answer every possible
philosophical question. I pick the questions that grip me. The God question doesn't grip me, because I see through
I am gripped by many questions. For example, by
the problem of time or the nature of knowledge. St Augustine famously said
something about time which is relevant: 'When no-one asks me, I know. When
someone asks me, I don't know.' He means, 'understand'. You assume all sorts of
things — all sorts of ideas — that you don't really understand. You
are not even aware of that fact, until a question is posed.
Those ignorant of philosophy eventually reach a
point where all one can say is, in the words of the Lieber and Stoller song,
'Is that all there is?' I know that there is more. I don't know what it is; I only know that there is a
question, and where there is a question, there one can inquire. To inquire
— to seek aletheia — is
to be in touch with something 'ultimate'.
Philosophy's saving grace is that anything you can say that clarifies or
is relevant to the question counts as progress. Slowness, not speed, is of the
essence. The more slowly, the more painstakingly you proceed — the more
shades of meaning you see wrapped up in what you thought at first was a simple
question — the more you understand.
As a teenager ignorant of what philosophers do,
the only image that came to mind was 'old men in beards'. You can laugh at that
but the funny thing is, that is just what I have become. A human life isn't
long enough to pursue the questions of philosophy. Rush Rhees, one of
Wittgenstein's students at Cambridge once wrote an introduction to philosophy
entitled Without Answers (Routledge
1969). You can learn a lot from pondering the paradox which that title implies.
and advancing years
Wesley asked this question:
anyone written on the concept of a Post-Existential life?
entered the final years of my life. The life I am living now can be changed
only fractionally by decisions and actions I make now. That is, it is as if all
my previous decisions have painted me into this corner of this room in this
authentic acts/ decisions are those in accordance with one's freedom, my
Authenticism is absolutely limited by the limits of my freedom to act/ decide,
which have become limited by all previous decisions and by Existence itself. My
actions have brought me to where I am. I have decided on a course of moral and
social Being. I have made decisions that now limit my health. All these limit
my Freedoms and thus my Choices. I can no longer act in such ways that bring
further Freedoms of Decision. All my existential life has led to this painted
I have the wide freedom limited by health and financial circumstances to act in
opposition to all prior decisions, 'Out of Valid Character' so to speak. To be
wicked, criminal, to defile what I have held dear, to do the opposite of what I
have chosen as the correct response in previous choices presented by my
Freedom. But to do so seems Inauthentic in the extreme. And even so, my
opportunity to act Out of Character is highly limited.
life could be said to be Inauthentic in that I have little freedom to act, but
can this be? Does one live an Authentic Life only to face death necessarily in
see this as Authenticity leading to infinitely smaller and smaller Freedoms of
Action the closer I approach and enter death. Thus, Authenticism leads to lesser
and lesser, fading, then extinguished Freedom of Action. Neither Authenticism
nor Inauthenticism. But even this seems unacceptable.
appreciate comments. Thank you.
I understand, Wesley, where this is coming from.
However, I will argue that if you accept the truth in existentialism, then
there can be no such thing as a 'post-existential' life.
One needs to draw a distinction, however,
between 'being an existentialist' (which as it happens I am not) and 'accepting
the truth in existentialism' (which I do). You'll see the reason for this
distinction in a minute.
Last week, as an exercise, I gave myself a mock
interview. If one is being po-faced about this, one could say that it was part
of an ongoing project of seeking to 'know thyself' as Socrates advocated. The
serious point is that this is knowledge which one is perpetually on the way
towards and never finally achieves. Indeed, to think you had achieved it, and
that there was nothing more to know would be an act of bad faith.
Of course, the whole thing was rigged. This was
intended for an audience. Even so, it was surprising to me, some of the answers
that slipped out. (Maybe it had something with playing Hendrix's Electric Ladyland album in the
background as I was writing — which has a way, as great works of art do,
of getting under the skin, loosening and unravelling the congealed layers of
the psyche. Hendrix once said he wanted to write music that had the power to
heal; he came closer to this than most of his generation.)
One question which I posed myself is whether or
not I am a stoic. I said, somewhat cagily, 'I wouldn't describe myself' as a
stoic. What I meant was, I'm not of the breed of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius,
or those who follow in their footsteps. I don't believe that all that suffices
for a life of ethical virtue is 'knowledge of the Good' or some such Platonic
And yet, on reflection, I realize that I accept the truth in stoicism. That is to
say, I believe that there is something
to know, which provides an objective basis or rationale for ethical conduct;
only that 'something' falls short of what Socrates or Plato aimed for. (One of
my ex-students reminded me that I once actually told him I was a stoic, which
is interesting as I have no recollection of saying this.)
Iris Murdoch in her brilliant short monograph Sovereignty of Good (1970) makes a big
play of the shortcomings of existentialist ethics, and the need to rediscover a
Platonic notion of an objectively existing Good. I have no quarrel with that.
What I'm saying is that fully responsible or 'authentic' action requires that
we accept the heavy burden of responsibility for the values we choose to live by. You cannot distil
those values from knowledge of the Good. There is nothing to know other than what we can discover through
patient, factual investigation (here I am with Hume and the early
Wittgenstein). But to be willing to conduct such an investigation — when
faced with bewildering ethical choices and dilemmas — is a
responsibility, and to a large extent an ethical responsibility.
'If it doesn't impact on me then why should I
care,' is the ultimate question posed to ethics. A true existentialist would
say that I choose to care and take
responsibility for that choice. I don't think, realistically, that this is a
choice. (Hence, I am not an existentialist.) It is about being a person, or
being human: to look at the face of the other and never be moved, or
successfully resist any temptation to be moved, is to put oneself outside human
life altogether. I won't try to give a metaphysical spin on this. I am stating
this as if it were a plain fact.
Now to the question: what happens to this
'burden of responsibility for the values we choose to live by' as one
approaches death? All the big choices have been made, and one has accepted,
taken responsibility, for those choices. I sometimes wonder what my life would
have been like if I had not 'chosen relationship'. But I did, and I live with
the consequences of that choice. I do sometimes feel, as Wesley does, a keen
sense of being 'painted into a corner'. As a widower, with three daughters who
still need a parent's practical and moral support, I don't have the range of
choices I would have otherwise have had.
But this picture is completely wrong, if one
interprets it as implying that there are no 'big' choices left, only little or
insignificant ones. Of course, one can just walk over the wet paint and make a
mess of things. I fully appreciate why Wesley would not consider that as a
valid option. However, to stay in one's narrow corner is an existential choice. Maybe you've made some bad decisions in
your life and now you're living with the painful consequences. You can to stay
and face the music, or flee. And you have chosen to stay.
But I am going to assume that this is not the
case for you. By and large, you are reasonably happy about the decisions that
you have made.
The first point to make is a purely practical
one: we don't know, for sure, what lies ahead for us. Not everyone gets to
enjoy a tranquil old age. Tragedies and disasters have a way of disrupting
one's cosy retirement plans. I won't enumerate all the ways in which this can
happen. Imagine that this is 1936 and you are a Jew living in Vienna. Or it is
1945 and you and your family live in the vicinity of Hiroshima.
Or let's move things on a bit and take an
extreme case. You are close to death. Physically, you are incapable of any
movement apart from blinking in response to questions put to you. And someone
asks, 'Do you forgive X for what they did?' And let's suppose, for the sake of
this example, that what X did was really unforgivable, monstrous. But you still
have that choice. Is it a small choice, or is it possibly one of the biggest
choices you have ever made?
Or to strike an even more sombre note: Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) poses, as a
philosophical question, what reasons are there to not commit suicide. There is
no time in the length of a human life where that option no longer exists as a
potential life choice.
One of the points I make early on in the
Pathways Moral Philosophy program is that most of us, most of the time, never
face really big ethical decisions. Our courage, for example, may never be fully
tested. You might well ask whether one can be an existentialist when you live a
life of comfort and ease — regardless of your age — where there are
no scary or momentous choices, only pleasant ones.
In H.G. Wells' brilliant parable The Time Machine, the Eloi live like
this. We can only see the Eloi as irresponsible children, unwilling to face the
grim reality of their situation — easy meat for the Molochs. But how many
persons do, in fact, live such a life of irresponsibility? That is, after all,
the point about the self-satisfied bourgeoisie. 'You've never had it so good,'
as Prime Minister Macmillan said. — But that was to a generation who had
lived through the Second World War.
The biggest challenge for existentialists, or
for those who 'see the truth' in existentialism is how to live when no
important ethical choices ever seem to intrude on one's happy existence. I'm
not saying that it's necessarily a bad thing that one is happy and contented.
Ultimately, we can't choose the external circumstances in which we find
ourselves, the events which intrude on our lives. This lack of momentous
choices is a problem at any age, not just in old age.
Yet at the same time there is a part of me that
wants to rebel in fury at the idea that anyone has the right to be contented. I don't just mean that the world is in a
mess, in so many ways, and that you should be striving to the utmost and to the
end of your days to do something about it. That's just one way. Equally
strenuous and demanding would be the decision go back to college, study
philosophy, say. Or, for someone in my situation, to look for another life
partner. But to be a bit cynical about this — aren't these just so many
strategies against boredom? Why this great effort? what difference does it
make? You're going to die, anyway. — That's the question Camus asks.
Which brings me back to the one thing that I
cannot get past. The one indubitable nugget of metaphysical fact: my existence. This is what
existentialism is ultimately about. I am not 'some' person. I do not do what
'one' does. The choice — and there is always a choice — is here for
me, now. That is what it means to say that 'I exist', in the sense in which
this is an active verb rather than a
merely tautological statement.
time to a 10 year old
Jim asked this question:
the philosophical definition of 'time'? It may seem simple but try to give an
answer to a bright 10 year old boy.
read a clock. He wants a simple explanation of 'time' if there is one. I have
come to the belief there isn't.
us rounding the sun, is only a definition of the measure of time.
Jim, I will accept your challenge of explaining
time to a 10 year old. So there will be no discussion of theories of time from
Aristotle to the present day, no arguments for or against the reality of time,
no examination of fatalism and the problem of future contingents, or temporal
becoming and the myth of passage, or any of the other stock problems from the
academic philosopher's toolbag.
These are all gripping problems for me, but I
would be struggling to explain why they are gripping to a 10 year old.
Time is a problem that baffles and mystifies me,
and probably (though I can't be sure) was one of the first philosophical
questions which I ever thought about, long before I had ever heard of a subject
I have a memory fragment as a boy of being
driven by my father to the dentist. This was before they had high speed drills
and pain-killing injections. I would have been about 9 or 10. I know this
because I remember consoling myself with the thought that in an hour I would be
travelling home in the car and I would say out loud, 'Cool for Cats!' And sure
enough, on the way home I did remember to say it.
Cool for Cats was the title of a British popular
music TV programme for young people, which according to Wikipedia ran from 1956
to 1961. In 1961, I was 10 years old.
That little episode illustrates as well as
anything the mystery of time. I said 'Cool for Cats!' twice. The first time I
said it, the pain of the dentist's drill was in the future. The second time I
said it, the pain was in the past. What a difference an hour makes! Yet now,
both events are just things that happened a long time ago.
A clock measures the distance between events or
'things that happen' just as a ruler measures the distance between two points.
There's no mystery about that. The hands of a clock go round the dial at a
standard speed, which is the same for all clocks, measured in hours, minutes
and seconds. A ruler is a standard distance measured in inches or centimetres.
It would be a rather strange request if you
asked, 'Don't tell me about how you measure length, I just what to know what
length is!' Length just is what a
ruler measures, there's nothing more to it. (Well, that's not strictly true if
you really wanted to delve into the nature of space, but it will do for now. I would argue that there's no
mystery about length or distance, the way there is about the passage of time.)
A clock is an instrument that measures events,
and your entire life up to the present moment — or indeed the history of
the universe — is just a series of events. When I said 'Cool for Cats!'
twice, those were just two events in my life, two insignificant events in the
history of the universe. Yet at the time
there was a world of difference between them.
But how would you express that 'difference' in
the form of a definition? Consider: every second that the clock ticks is an
example of the ever-shifting difference between past, present and future.
Sometimes, an event (like a trip to the dentist) brings the difference to our
attention. But it was there all the time. It is here now, as I type these
letters on the screen, as I look away from the computer and look back again, as
I lift my finger to scratch my nose, or take a sip of lukewarm coffee I made
half an hour ago.
Maybe that's one way philosophers stand out from
other people: they learn to ponder
things — seemingly trivial things — you wouldn't normally think
about. You could describe it as a sense of 'childlike wonder', although not all
children are equally gifted with it.
I don't know if this is making any sense. Or
whether it would make sense to a 10 year old. I'm not talking about fancy
theories. I'm talking about an experience,
something that you just have to see.
And when you see it, see it for what it is, you realize that you don't
understand it at all. That's why I call time a mystery.
lectures Russell never gave
Andre asked this question:
used the Gifford Lectures as a source of interesting reading material in
philosophy. Why, therefore, was Bertrand Russell never invited to be a Gifford
On the face of it, this is a daft question.
Russell, famous atheist and author of one of the most powerful tracts ever
written against religion, 'A Free Mans Worship' (see my post Life in a
well-oiled machine) is the last person you would invite to be a Gifford
The Gifford Lectures were
established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford (died 1887). They were established
to 'promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of
the term — in other words, the knowledge of God.' [...] The lectures are
given at the Scottish universities: University of St Andrews, University of
Glasgow, University of Aberdeen and University of Edinburgh.
A Gifford lectures
appointment is one of the most prestigious honors in Scottish academia. They
are normally presented as a series over an academic year and given with the
intent that the edited content be published in book form. A number of these
works have become classics in the fields of theology or philosophy and their
relationship to science.
However, Andre's question got me thinking: if,
owing to some administrative cockup Russell had
been invited to give the Gifford Lectures, what would they have been about?
It's an intriguing question.
You don't need to be an old-fashioned (or even
new-fashioned) theist in order to be a Gifford Lecturer. It is sufficient that
you are able to put in a good word for religion. As a basic minimum, you must
assume that God-talk is neither meaningless or pointless, but has a worthwhile
purpose, even if there is no physical or metaphysical entity, as such, that we
refer to when we use the term 'God'. 'God' is a symbol that embodies a number
of different elements, not just the rational or conceptual, and it is the
function of philosophy to elucidate the use of that symbol.
As you may have guessed, I'm with Russell on
this (see my post The end of religion). I would like to see an end to religion.
That was Russell's view too.
Even Karl Marx was prepared to allow that
religion is the 'heart in a heartless world'. Marx was not being sentimental.
As he himself knew, the comforts of religion are false comforts, not merely
because they are based on false premisses but because the comforts are, all
things considered, worse for those who accept them, even if they offer
temporary relief from suffering.
Yet for Marx, as for Feuerbach before him, there
is something worthy of veneration, if not worship in the literal sense, in the
idea of the 'human essence':
Religion is the general
theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form,
its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn
complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the
fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not
acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore,
indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Karl Marx A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s
Philosophy of Right
At a stretch, Marx could have been a Gifford
Lecturer. It would have been a controversial appointment, no doubt. But
Feuerbach, author of The Essence of
Christianity definitely fits the criteria, and if Feuerbach, then surely
Marx is a utopian thinker, looking forward to
the time when the 'human essence' is finally realized. Russell was by no means
innocent of utopian thinking, but at least this is kept in check by a healthy
scepticism. Anyone who perceives the evils in society must have a view of how
things would be if the evils were removed. This is something on which Russell
expressed a view. But it is a long step from this to the idea of a 'final
realization' of human potential or an end of history when evil, as such, is
Utopian thinking is thinly disguised religious
thinking. Russell understood this. His vision of the universe, as expressed in
'A Free Mans Worship' is a tragic one, where the best human beings can ever
hope for is to celebrate our refusal to be crushed by forces so much greater
But let's get concrete. Why do human beings
Gifford Lecturers offer a wide range of
explanations and justifications for the activity of prayer. According to John
Macmurray (whose 1953–1954 Gifford lectures are published as The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation) prayer is the
'celebration of communion'. This communion is not with an entity called 'God'
but rather with our fellow human beings. It is something to celebrate that we
are 'persons in relation'.
To me, this just sounds like boy scouts round a
campfire singing songs. Or proud patriots, hands on hearts, singing out the
national anthem. — How much evil has been done in the name of patriotism?
On second thoughts, better that than the
alternative – like the Coca Cola ‘teaching the world to sing in perfect
What we're really talking about — and this
is an argument why Russell should
have been invited to give the Gifford Lectures — is what we are going to replace religion with. For many, of
course, religion has already been replaced — by bottles of brown fizzy
liquid, iPhones and Facebook.
How would Russell's 'free men and women' live?
What occasions would they celebrate? Here's a view from Nietzsche:
God is dead. God remains
dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console
ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has
yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off
us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement,
what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed
too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?
Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science
On the ‘Follydiddledah’ web site, to illustrate
the quote, I used a 1978 sketch by H.R. Giger depicting the Alien. I am not
critiquing Nietzsche, or even passing comment. The aim is to provoke: Why not?
The values Russell celebrated in 'A Free Mans
Worship', the values of duty, honour and sacrifice, were exploded finally in
the trenches and battlefields of the First World War. There's no turning the
clock back. We can no longer believe in these fine things. 'It's your duty' is
what you say to someone to persuade them to do what you want them to do,
against their better judgement.
'Honour' is for judges and lawcourts. I can't remember the last time I heard
the word 'sacrifice', outside a game of chess.
So Russell really does owe us an account of
where he thinks we are heading, now, in the 21st century, after Hitler, Stalin
and Pol Pot.
Not long ago, I attended the funeral of a friend
of a friend, whose family had asked for the proceedings to be administered by
the British Humanist Association. There were 'readings' and 'prayers'. It
occurred to me that if a non-English speaker had stumbled upon the small
gathering, they wouldn't even have been aware that this was not a 'religious'
service. It struck me as very odd. I wonder what Russell would have said.
ethics and Euthyphro's dilemma
Courtney asked this question:
the Euthyphro Dilemma Argument show about the relationship between morality and
Anyone who, like me, thinks they have a moral
case against God has to reckon with the moral case for God. I suspect, or worry, that the moral case for God is
stronger than many believe — which is why I have chosen Courtney's
Briefly, in Plato's Euthyphro Socrates poses a dilemma to the God fearing but not very
bright young man, Euthyphro, who is on his way to the law courts to prosecute
his father for impiety. We needn't go into the somewhat macabre circumstances
of the case (which today would be considered manslaughter). How sure is
Euthyphro that what his father did was sufficiently bad to be an offence
against the gods? 'What is piety?'
asks Socrates with a wink.
Euthyphro states confidently that pious actions
are 'what please the gods', and impious actions are those that displease them.
Socrates replies, Are pious actions so-called because they please the gods, or do they please the gods because they are pious?
That's Euthyphro's dilemma. Substitute your
favourite term of moral appraisal. Either an action is ethical because God
commands it, or God commands it because it is ethical. In the former case,
anything that God commanded would be ethical by definition, even if He commanded
the entire human race to commit suicide. In the latter case, the reason why an action is ethical must remain a
valid reason irrespective of whether God exists or not.
Hence, there is no moral argument for God's
existence. Belief in God is redundant, so far as ethics is concerned.
The case looks open and shut. However, when I
saw Courtney's question I recalled an essay on 'Plato's Euthyphro' I had seen
many years ago in a collection by Peter Geach, Logic Matters (Blackwell 1972), where Geach accuses Socrates of
tangling his hapless young victim in sophistical knots. Searching on the
internet, I found a chapter from Geach's book God and the Soul (Routledge 1969), ‘The Moral Law and the Law of
Students of the philosophy of religion are
probably familiar with Geach's forthright response to Socrates (or if they are
not, they should be).
Geach constructs his argument with meticulous
care. First, he concedes outright what many would think is the point at issue:
we do know that certain actions, like
lying, are wrong without qualification, independently of any belief that God
forbids us to tell a lie.
Why is lying wrong? As I argue in unit 5 of Ethical Dilemmas, the very attempt to
state that you sometimes tell lies, even if only very occasionally, is self-defeating.
If I tell you that I only lie 'when I am in a tight spot', then the next time
you find me in a tight spot my lies won't help me. Any attempt to articulate
one's policy on lying is similarly self-defeating. I conclude, 'An action which
we will never freely admit to and always condemn, is by definition always wrong.'
Now Geach states his case:
The knowledge of God is
thus not prerequisite to our having any moral knowledge. I shall argue however
that we do need it in order to see that we
must not do evil that good may come, and that this principle actually
follows from a certain conception of God. If I can make this out, the sophistry
from which I started will have been completely refuted; for accepting or
rejecting this principle makes an enormous difference to one's moral code.
Peter Geach God and the Soul ‘The Moral Law and the
Law of God’
If you do not believe that there are any moral
principles (not even the moral principle 'do not lie'), then Geach has nothing
to say to you. You are beyond the pale ethically. His case is directed at
someone (like me) who thinks that there are moral principles (however few of
those there may be, possibly lying is the only incontestable example), but
rejects the idea that God's command is required to make them work as principles.
Geach cleverly insinuates that many of those who
hold principles, only do so because of their implicit knowledge of what God
commands, even if they refuse to acknowledge this fact. God is the ultimate
source, whether they like it or not.
Perhaps you are a moral intuitionist who holds
that principles of duty are the ultimate ethical given, which cannot be further articulated. Geach's answer is that
without God such a view amounts to rule worship. 'If a young Nazi machine-guns
a column of refugees till he bleeds to death, instead of retiring for medical
treatment, is not his Sense of Duty something to fill us with awe?'
Geach also looks at attempts by moral
philosophers such as Philippa Foot, to explain moral principles in terms of the
idea of virtue. Such attempts fail to cover those cases — relatively rare
though they may be — where a man is forced to contemplate an action which
will 'damage his virtuous habits and perhaps irreparably wreck his hard-won
integrity of soul', in response to the agonized plea, 'Haven't you got a hand
to burn for your country (or mankind) and your friends?' When push comes to
shove, for the ungodly man principles must go.
One of the main themes of my Ethical Dilemmas is that we must,
simultaneously, recognize certain moral rules as principles while at the same time accepting that 'sometimes you
have to go against your principles'. I acknowledge that this is a paradox. In
ethics, as elsewhere in philosophy, paradoxes are not something that you
happily live with.
Even if I won't own up to telling lies,
shouldn't I be prepared, Geach would say, each time the choice presents itself,
to calculate whether in this
particular case lying would be the 'best' option (the option that leads to 'the
good')? But If I believe that, then how can I at the same time hold the
prohibition against lying as a principle?
It is just one more ethical consideration amongst others. Then I am beyond the
Why the fuss about lying? One could envisage a
language game where telling lies was accepted as a matter of course, in the
same spirit as bluffing in poker (cf. the notorious 1968 article by Albert Carr
in Harvard Business Review, 'Is
Business Bluffing Ethical?). Perhaps I don't want you to put me in a position
where I am held to moral account, now and for all future time, for the things I
say. 'Assume that I will always act in my self-interest,' I tell you candidly.
'It is in my self-interest, as we both know, to tell you the truth now, but I
refuse to commit myself for the future. You must judge me by my actions.'
That's a kind
of honesty, but not honesty from any ethical motive. I have chosen to abrogate
ethics so far as our conversation is concerned, and I present this to you as a fait accompli.
The effect is to reduce human beings to more or
less useful instruments for finding
things out about the world. A faulty thermometer doesn't 'lie'. But even though
it is not totally reliable it can still be useful (e.g. if I know that I need
to tap it hard to get a correct reading). If you suspect your partner in crime
of lying to you, there are ways to test a person's reliability.
But, then, why aren't people just 'useful instruments'? Why hold, with Kant, that
one ought to treat others as 'ends in themselves'? — The fact is, that is
what human beings do. We despise
'users', praise those who recognize the justified moral claims of others.
The strength of Geach's case is that one is not
required to decide whether God exists or not. That's not what the argument is
about. 'You deny God's existence,' Geach in effect says to the atheist, 'yet
your attitudes and behaviour belie that claim.'
Maybe the believer in God is still, despite his
belief, inclined to calculate advantages and disadvantages of telling a lie. As
Geach reminds the reader, defying God is not merely imprudence, it is
'insanity'. There is no place to hide. Whatever may be for 'the best' is
ultimately in God's hands, not ours. All He requires us to do is follow His
I have to own up at this point: there was a time
when I would have been prepared to argue for the necessity of ethical
principles, along the lines of Levinas' notion of the irresistible ethical
command of 'the Other'. In my book Naēve
Metaphysics I articulate the case for ethics as a presupposition of there
being such a thing as a 'shared world' or 'truth' for me — pretty hard
things to give up.
But needs must where the Devil drives.
Now, from my more sober perspective, Levinas,
like Geach just seems to me one more in a long line of apologists for religion,
even if Levinas is far more circumspect in introducing the God concept. And I
have set my face against religion in all its forms. It is time for the human
race to grow up, and recognize that we only have ourselves — as
terrifying as that prospect may seem. Ethics is in the dock, and, as they say,
'the jury is still out'.
dreams can change us
Amery asked this question:
I want to
know if dreams can change the sort of person we are through a sort of
I get the point of your question, Amery. Our
life experience can change the sort of person we are. If our dreams are part of
our life experience, then dreams can change us too. Why not?
I agree. Dreams give you ideas. They are like
thought experiments, things you could never try out in the real world. Or they
can shock you with the consequences of your beliefs or actions by painting the
resulting scenario in lurid colours. Above all, dreams are creative. They come from us, and yet they are at the same time
totally unexpected events that come out of the blue. We meet things in our dreams just as we meet things in the real world.
Our life experience includes contingencies or
things that happen to us over which we have only limited control. You apply for
a job. You give it your best shot at the interview. But, ultimately, it is out
of your hands whether your get the job or not. And getting that job could
conceivably change your life, and ultimately change you. Or you could meet that
special person, fall in love, and end up emigrating to South America.
Are dreams then 'part of life experience'? in
There is a powerful argument for saying that
they are not, which derives from Sigmund Freud's famous book The Interpretation of Dreams. To
understand Freud's position, it is necessary to appreciate his guiding
methodological assumption, which we may call psychic determinism. This is a stronger principle than determinism
understood merely as the rule that 'every event has a cause'. For Freud, events
in dreams have a particular kind of cause, which confers essential meaning on
According to psychic determinism, every detail
in your dream (that is to say, every detail that you write in your 'dream
book') has a meaning and an explanation. If I dreamed that I walked into a room
that had seven chairs, that is different from dreaming that I walked into a
room that had several chairs. The number seven must be significant, it cannot
be merely accidental. If the chairs were green, rather than just 'some colour'
then that colour is significant too.
Freud held that all the details in a dream
(apart from the factual content taken from real life) express wishes deriving
from the subconscious, in a disguised form which has been allowed past the
In other words, your dreams are statement about
you, written in code. There is nothing accidental. Everything has significance,
a large part of which is sexual in nature. Of course you can be changed by your
dreams in this sense, if you are able to decode that meaning with the help of a
psychoanalyst. You are changed because you discover something about yourself,
something that was hidden in your subconscious.
Notwithstanding the importance of dream
interpretation in analytic psychotherapy, I think Freud was wrong. Many details
in our dreams undoubtedly have significance, but the assumption of psychic
determinism is unwarranted, even as a merely methodological principle. It is
simply too strong.
My case is not merely that Freud fails to
justify this principle. What Freud fails to take account of is something that
is fundamental to human nature, our capacity for genuine creativity, not in the Freudian sense of 'making the subconscious
conscious' but rather in the sense of producing novelty through a process which has an irreducibly random element.
There's nothing necessarily mysterious about
creativity in this sense. Human behaviour would be very rigid and hidebound if
we couldn't come up with novel solutions to problems. Nor is it necessary to
posit some unique, indescribable 'creative faculty'. Daniel Dennett in his book
Brainstorms MIT 1981, pp.296-8
describes a simple process which he terms 'generate and test', whereby
candidates are randomly generated and then tested for relevance or suitability.
A scientific researcher looking for a solution to a problem does this. So does
a novelist. What does Katy do next? Let's try some random possibilities and see
where they lead.
In dreams we do this too. One situation leads to
another through a peculiar kind of 'dream logic' where the criterion of
'relevance' is applied in a very loose way. Almost anything can happen.
I talked earlier about 'contingencies or things
that happen to us over which we have only limited control'. We do not only meet
up with these in real life. We also meet up with them in our dreams. We create
our dreams, and yet, in an important sense our dreams are also something that happens to us, which might as well have
been made by the world as by our own selves.
prove your free will
Alan asked this question:
have free will?
before I typed this, I toyed with the idea of not submitting the question. Then
I decided to submit the question although it seems that I could effortlessly
have decided not to submit the question. This seems to be a process of me doing
the deciding. Is it not meaningless to say that it is just an illusion that I
have a voluntary choice of whether or not to submit this question when it feels
so real that I have this choice?
I have a similar story to Alan's. It being a
Friday afternoon, with the prospect of a weekend of relaxation and enjoyment
ahead of me, there are several items on my list of things that I had meant to
get done this week — which have still not been done — and my answer
is just one of them. And it's not necessarily the most urgent, either. However,
all things considered, having done enough this week to keep the good ship
Pathways afloat, having not disappointed too many people, I feel I'm justified
in doing what I would most enjoy from my task list and leave the rest until
Some people would hardly bother to go through
this rigmarole of deliberation. Others would not consider their feelings of
enjoyment to be a relevant consideration, but would just plough ahead do the
most important task whether they enjoyed it or not. I'm somewhere in the
middle. Anyone who knew me well enough would be able to predict my decision.
It's not that I always take the easiest or most enjoyable option; only
sometimes. But you can bet that if there's any time I'm likely to do this it will
be on a Friday afternoon.
Well, Alan's case on the face of it is slightly
different. He claims that his decision was made 'effortlessly' by which I take
it he means that there was no particular reason to submit the question or not
submit the question. He could just as easily have not submitted it. Problem is,
if he hadn't submitted it, we wouldn't be able to give him an answer. My
grandmother used to say, 'If you're lucky, you can win the lottery without
filling in the coupon.' But Ask a Philosopher doesn't work that way. We're not
I know what Alan means. What he means is
something that we find ourselves doing when we first consider the idea of free
will. We want to prove it to ourselves, by doing something — freely. But
what exactly does that entail?
This is familiar territory in philosophical
discussions of freedom of the will. The default view, which you will find
defended by many philosophers from David Hume onwards, is that an action is free provided that it is done from our
own choice, not under duress and in full possession of our mental faculties.
This view is known as 'compatibilism' — defined in this way, freedom of
the will is fully compatible with determinism.
This won't satisfy Alan (and it doesn't fully
satisfy me either) because this kind of 'freedom' hardly looks the kind of
thing that we would want or be
satisfied with. We want more. We don't want there to be a story about causes
and effects that ultimately explains every action that we do. We want the
action to come from us not from the
world grinding on, doing its thing.
Confusingly, however, we also want it to be the
case that when we do good, not only do we receive praise but also recognition
that the action in question was to be expected, given our character. If the
action is praiseworthy, it's an insult if someone says, 'I'm surprised you did
But aren't we all part of the world? If I have
the sort of character that would lead me to do something praiseworthy, or
blameworthy, is that not a fact about the world? In that case, where does my
'process of deciding' fit in, if not as a process taking place in an entity
situated at a place and time, following its nature or character?
There is something wrong with the statement I
have just made; and it's wrongness was pointed out by the philosopher Jean-Paul
Sartre. There is something that happens, at the moment of making a decision,
that cannot be fully accounted for in terms of any amount of knowledge of one's
character or predispositions. Every situation is unique. It doesn't matter if
you have been here a thousand times before. You still have the opportunity to
confound those who would predict your action. In this respect, it is wrong to
see human beings as merely 'part of nature'. There is something added to the
equation every time you decide, regardless of what other people expect, or even
what you expect from yourself.
But how to prove this?
thought a lot about our meeting, Mr. Hofman.
beginning, I felt the need to see you.
left the cafe,
I couldn't wait any longer.
said on television persuaded me.
gathered the courage you spoke of.
acknowledge your right to do so.
banking on your curiosity.
to know what happened to Miss Saskia.
was 16, I discovered something.
has those thoughts, but no one ever jumps.
myself: 'Imagine you're jumping.'
predestined that I won't jump?
it be predestined that I won't?
So, to go
against what is predestined, one must jump.
was a holy event.
my left arm and lost 2 fingers. Why did I jump?
abnormality in my personality,
to those around me.
find me listed in the medical encyclopedias
'Sociopath' in the new editions.
The Vanishing 1988 (Dutch:
What did Raymond Lemorne, Saskia's abductor,
think he had proved all those years ago by jumping off the wall? There was a
very good reason for not jumping off the wall — it's sheer height from
the ground, the consequent risk of injury — but he also had a very good
reason for jumping: to prove a point.
If Alan had wanted to 'prove' his free will,
wouldn't it have been better to choose something he had a strong reason not to
do, but do it nonetheless, in spite of his character and circumstances, in
spite of himself? Lemorne gives the lie to that conceit. He knows what he is: a sociopath. And it's
not as if you could just choose something trivial to prove the thesis. I could
go home now, leave this post unfinished, leave my computers on (much to the
annoyance of my office landlord) but I won't, because even if I did, it would
If you can't prove your free will by doing
something predictable, you can't prove it by doing something unpredictable
But do I have to prove it? Don't I just know? As Alan states, it's 'meaningless'
to assert that free will is an illusion when it 'feels so real'.
Isn't Alan just being a good empiricist here? How else do we find out
about the world and about reality but from our experience? And some things just
can't be meaningfully doubted. At the end of the day, you have to go along with
your best take on how things seem,
the best explanation. And how things seem, in the case of human action, is that
actions come from us, not from the world. It's called 'saving the phenomena.'
I'm not going to dispute the claim about
explanation. It could be argued that the whole purpose of seeking explanations
is that we dig below the surface. Sometimes explanations can be
counter-intuitive or paradoxical, yet we know them to be better than the explanations that seem easier to accept, because
they take more into consideration. However, in the case of free will it's a
moot point. As soon as you leave the perspective of the agent, in your attempt
to 'take more into consideration' you lose the very thing you were trying to
My objection is different. To call something an
'illusion' implies that you grasp the difference between how things appear in
respect of the entity in question, and how things are in reality. I know what
it means to say that it is an illusion that a straight stick partially immersed
in water appears bent, because I grasp the difference between what it is for a
stick to be straight and what it is for a stick to be bent. If is an 'illusion'
that I am freely deciding what to type next, then this is a claim about how
things appear to me, at this moment. But that implies the possibility of there
being some other way of seeing those
same events. You immerse the stick in water, or you remove it. But there is no
corresponding alternative in the case of human action.
Thomas Nagel in The View From Nowhere (1986) refers to this as the 'necessary
penumbra of ignorance' of the causes of those events we regard as our actions.
In short, I don't know what I would be denying
if I denied that free will is an illusion. I don't have any conception of 'how
things might be otherwise'. Therein lies a possible solution to the free will
problem. We think we know 'what we want', but the very attempt to state what we
'want' from freedom of the will falls into confusion.
Ronny asked this question:
website is anything to go by depression appears to influence a lot of people
into looking to philosophy to provide some answers to their issues with life.
It appears I am one of those people although I am not naive enough to expect a
definitive answer to any of my questions. I simply feel the need to express a
thought that has dogged me since being offered medication for my depression.
depression was explained to me, when initially diagnosed, as being due to low
levels of certain chemicals within my body and medication would go some way to
help correct this imbalance. Coming from a medical background up to graduate
level, I was well aware of the complexities of human physiology. However,
having had depression explained to me in such a manner I began to question whether
everything we are as human beings is not a result of a series of complex
chemical reactions? Light passes into my eye where a chemical reaction converts
this to a signal passed to my brain where further chemical reactions occur and
I am present with an image. Sometimes the images we perceive can produce what
we describe as an 'emotion'. Could emotions therefore be seen as the end point
of a chemical cascade? Are 'feelings' also end points of chemical processes? I
hear a sound which is converted, via a mechanism within the ear, to a chemical
reaction to produce electrical signals within the brain. Further chemical
reactions branch away from this and the end point can be a stimulation of
further physiology and a 'feeling' is produced. Does repetition reinforce a
certain chemical pathway so that we develop the same 'feeling' or 'emotion' to
the same stimulus? Is that how we come to 'like' or 'dislike' something?
questions made me wonder whether it is ever truly possible to therefore control
'feelings' or 'emotions'? Once that chemical cascade starts can we influence
it? Then again, while writing this I am having 'thoughts' that I feel I am
controlling and if I expand my premise to the process of 'thinking' as being a
chemical process occurring within the brain, am I not influencing these
again, I don't feel naive enough to think I am the only person ever to have
considered whether the body is not one large test tube full of complex chemical
reactions with mind numbing interactions that will never be truly understood.
what do we become if we view ourselves in this way? Is our feeling of self or
the belief that we make our own decisions in the way we interact with the world
the result of a series of chemical processes?
The first thing I want to say to Roy is that I
take the idea that depression and philosophy go together very seriously indeed.
I remember being told, many years ago, that if I
continued with philosophy I would end up 'looking for the shortest rope'. That
was by my uncle Jack. At the time, I thought Jack was probably wise enough to
know that his own mental constitution wasn't suited to pondering the meaning of
life. I can see his worried face even now. But I was different. I could handle
it. I'd peeked into the abyss and it hadn't fazed me.
Then I recall that two of the lecturers who
taught me when I was an undergraduate subsequently committed suicide. Maybe
they thought they could handle seeing into the abyss, but they were wrong.
— But that's just idle speculation, innit?
Actually, I rather like looking into the abyss. When I cast my eyes around this dingy
world, the tawdry sideshows that human beings call 'culture', the abyss is the
only thing with any real depth.
Anxiety is the only real human emotion. (I think Freud said that.) But
philosophy isn't just about plumbing the dizzy depths. It's about remembering and focusing. About being present.
It can sometimes be a pleasurable activity (especially if you have a taste for Schadenfreude) but it's not something
you do for pleasure.
So is Ronny right, that 'depression appears to
influence a lot of people into looking to philosophy to provide some answers to
their issues with life'? or did my Uncle Jack see deeper into the truth about
these things? — And what the hell has any of this got to do with taking pills?
My chemical of choice is alcohol. Problem is,
for medical reasons (chronic sarcoidosis, or maybe Sjogren's syndrome —
the doctors don't seem to know which) I can't drink a single drop. I get a
super-hangover that lasts for days. You know that feeling, when you just need a drink? I'm talking about someone
who isn't in any way addicted to alcohol. I'd settle for one bottle of beer a week. I can't even have that without
causing myself a lot more pain than pleasure.
At least I still have my coffee. I've been told
it's bad for my condition, but I'm not aware of any particularly adverse
effects. It helps me concentrate. (What do they know, anyway?)
They also say you shouldn't drink alcohol if you
have a tendency towards depression. At any rate, you shouldn't drink alone. But social drinking is the best
cure I can think of. If alcohol had never existed, the history of Western
Philosophy would have been entirely different. Or maybe it wouldn't have
happened at all. Read Plato's Symposium,
if you don't believe me.
Getting back to pills. Ever since the first
'magic bullet' (Salversan, Dr Ehrlich's 'miraculous' cure for syphilis), an
increasingly part of the chemicals industry has been dedicated to discovering
new ever more potent formulations to add to the human test tube (nice image).
Psychiatric disorders are exactly on a par with physical illnesses and
disorders from the empirical standpoint. If it works with sufficiently benign side effects, that's all you want to
From this perspective, it's really a red herring
to consider whether depressive people are that way because of a chemical
imbalance. Even if their depression wasn't caused
by a chemical imbalance (we'll get to what 'cause' means in a minute) a
chemical cure can still work just as well. To repeat: we're only concerned with
I'm a good materialist, that is to say, I accept
the minimal commitment for being a materialist, that mental events are
supervenient on physical events. Anything else is up for grabs (a huge topic in
the philosophy of mind which I don't what to get into now). Any thought, any
feeling, any emotion is reflected in chemical or electro-chemical changes in my
body. The direction of causation is the hard bit to figure out, but Ronny has
half-seen this ('if I expand my premise to the process of 'thinking' as being a
chemical process occurring within the brain, am I not influencing these
The bottom line is that you can interact with
someone as a person, that means
communicating, one person to another (Freud's 'talking cure'); or you can
interact with them as a test tube. And that works too, sometimes. Some would
argue, it works a lot better, certainly a lot faster.
This is all very circuitous (I'm sorry for that)
but you'll see where this is going in a minute.
The other week, one of my old Mac laptops (a
Powerbook 1400) died. Instead of starting up in the normal way with the 'happy
Mac' logo, I got a picture of a floppy disk with a flashing question mark, then
a black screen. I knew the hard drive was ancient and had probably had it. But
I wasn't giving up. So I gave the laptop a sharp slap just to the left of the
touchpad, where the hard drive is located. This time, the laptop started up,
and has been working fine ever since.
We do this with people too. Sometimes, a sharp
slap is just what a person needs. But doctors aren't allowed to do this, so
they give a chemical slap instead.
What I'm working up to say is that this whole
way of thinking about people and their mental trials and tribulations is totally wrong. To see that it is wrong,
you have to get away from boneheaded empiricism and the idea that all that
matters is that you 'feel OK' again. Freud understood. He saw his aim as
transforming distressing psychological illness into 'generalized unhappiness'.
When you do that, you have become free,
your actions are your own rather than merely effects of your neurosis.
Freud said that in order to write, he needed to
be in a mood of mild depression. The fact is, all genuinely creative work is
painful. Gaiety and joy are wonderful things, but they're not ultimately real.
At best, they are refreshing interludes that help strengthen our resolve, and
they come as gifts. There's nothing more shallow or annoying than permanently
So get away from the idea that all you need is
to 'feel better'. There are other things you need, perhaps need more. (Perhaps
philosophy is one of those things; or maybe psychotherapy — at least
you'd have one real human
relationship.) Accept the pain, adapt yourself to it, work with it. If you can
find some depth in your life, whether from philosophy or some other activity,
that is of far greater value.
and epistemic luck
Sydney asked this question:
I had my
first class in critical thinking earlier today and my professor was unable to
tell me if instinct was epistemic luck. I was wondering if you might be able to
help answer this question?
Reading Sydney's question, my first, somewhat
unkind thought was, 'No-one likes a smartass.' But then the question
immediately came to mind, Why wouldn't someone qualified to teach critical
thinking be able to answer Sydney's question? There is an answer: The term
'epistemic luck' is a piece of technical jargon, coined in the debate over epistemological
theories following Edmund Gettier's landmark 1963 article, 'Is Knowledge
Justified True Belief?' If you aren't trained as an academic philosopher (or
studying for a degree in philosophy) it is fairly unlikely that you would have
come across that term. Sydney has obviously been doing a lot of
The curious fact is, you don't need to be a
trained philosopher in order to teach critical thinking, at least the way this
subject is often taught at colleges and universities. I'm not offering comment
on whether that is a good or bad thing.
(Ignorance cuts both ways. My lack of knowledge
of the current state of debate in critical thinking leaves me totally unable to
answer the question what view critical thinking takes about instinctive
knowledge generally, knowing but not being able to explain how you know, etc. I
can live with that.)
If you want to get up to speed with the debate
over epistemic luck, you could start by Googling "Rocking Horse
Winner" or "chicken sexer", plus Epistemology. These are
standard examples of cases where we might be inclined to say that someone
'knows' even though they are unable to explain how they know (the little lad
who mysteriously predicts the winners of tomorrow's horse races, workers
trained to sort newborn chicks into male and female by subtle differences in
their look or feel — or is it?).
I am somewhat bemused by these debates, even
though I regularly mark essays sent to me by my students taking the University
of London BA module in Epistemology. Epistemology is one of those areas of
philosophy that has increasingly acquired the aspect of chess opening theory,
with every possible avenue of inquiry, every argument and counterargument
explored and elaborated on ad nauseam.
No better evidence could be put forward that current academic philosophy has
drifted into a new age of scholasticism, driven in part by the incessant need
to publish or lose tenure.
However, whenever I begin to feel sick, or
bored, I remind myself of things that
matter to me in relation to the question of knowledge. Then it all gets
real again. Knowledge matters, no more so than to the philosopher pursuing
I rely a lot on my instincts. I have hunches. I
will pursue an investigation, expending many days, weeks or even months on a
question because I have a feeling that it might
lead somewhere. What wasted effort, if that feeling could not be relied upon,
or did not at least promise some probability of success! Then there are issues
in philosophy which I take a strong position on, where I am sure that i am right, even though I know that are those
who take the completely opposite view who are just as sure that they are right
and I am wrong. How is that possible?
Human beings, like other members of the animal
kingdom, have instincts which we have acquired through the process of Darwinian
natural selection, although because we are language users and reasoners, the
instinctive side of human knowledge has been pushed very much to the sidelines.
Instincts are much less useful to us than they are, say, to a pair of nesting
birds or a pride of lions. I guess my direct answer to Sydney's question would
be that if you believe something 'on instinct', say, that beneath the false
smile of the person extending their arm and hand in greeting there lurk
aggressive intentions, and that instinct is
a genuine biological instinct, with an aetiology, an explanation of its
reliability, then that isn't a case of 'luck' epistemologically speaking. It is
not an accident when the person who roused your suspicions turns out to be a
thief or confidence trickster.
The problem is, there are many, perhaps many
more examples where one 'feels something on instinct' where there is no valid
explanation that a more knowledgeable observer could provide. Then is it just
mere guesswork? If you turn out to be right, was that just luck? I'm not sure
that it is, always. Maybe I've watched too many American TV detective shows,
but it seems to me that hunches can be valid, even if there is no explanation
of how you could possibly know, or what it was that gave you the hunch. There
is an art to judgement, which no amount of methodological analysis will ever
unravel. This applies, in different though related ways, to police work, sports
like golfing and archery, or the judgement of a scientific researcher or
Of course, one has to exercise caution here.
It's so easy to persuade oneself that one's hunch is valid (it wouldn't be a
hunch if it didn't feel that special
way). But how can you possibly know? More to the point, why should anyone else,
who doesn't feel the hunch that you feel, believe you? (How many TV detective
plots have followed that theme!)
I've alluded to the question of reliability in
Epistemology. One of the main contrasts in current debates is between
Epistemologists who consider 'acquiring a belief through a reliable means' as
sufficient for knowledge, provided that the belief is true, and those who
require something stronger, say, the ability to defend your belief with
persuasive reasons when challenged. The problem is, it's too easy to defeat a
knowledge claim just by asking an innocent question (see my Answer to
Demetreus). My own tentative view would be that we need to shift the focus away
from the question of defining
knowledge and onto the question why we are interested in identifying the 'one
who knows' the answer to a particular question.
To make a factual statement, any statement,
implies that one has the authority to speak. At any time, you can be
legitimately challenged. But the inability to meet that challenge doesn't
necessarily undermine your right to state your view. 'I just know,' can be a
sufficient answer. Say, for example, when one is a very experienced golf caddy
who just 'sees' that the number 5 iron would be too heavy for that shot, even
though according to the book that's the correct iron to use. Trust your caddy,
he does know.
At Oxford, I was lucky to have a term of
supervision by P.F. Strawson for my B.Phil paper on Kant. In our conversations,
it very quickly became clear that when Strawson told me, 'no, you are wrong',
it was no use arguing. I was wrong. It wasn't arrogance on Strawson's part,
just the voice of experience.
Strawson wasn't claiming to be right about
everything. Just about some things. I don't do this too often (my students
wouldn't let me). But the philosophical point is about authority. Authority is established, granted, defended, or
challenged and defeated. Our interest in knowledge, as a concept, hinges on the
question of authority: Whose authority do you trust on a particular topic? when
do you accept a piece of advice or testimony and when do you reject it? This
isn't about a definition of knowledge in terms of necessary and sufficient
conditions, but rather about the place of the concept of knowledge in the
social matrix. The simplest example: 'How do you know?' 'I saw it with my own
eyes.' End of discussion. This is how language (to use Michael Dummett's happy
phrase) 'extends the range of human perception'. Your eyes become my eyes,
through the authority which being a witness of the event in question grants
I'm coming up to my 60th birthday (next Monday,
as it happens). Having been in philosophy for the best part of four decades
there are one or two things that I know. In saying this, I hope you will believe
me but the decision is yours. Judge me on my work. Right now, I am pursuing a
line of where feelings and hunches are playing a somewhat larger role than I
would like. I know there's 'something there' which I can't articulate. In the
past when I've had that feeling, it turned out to have substance, but not
always. Down the years, I've been down many blind alleys, took many wrong turns
and there's no saying for sure that I haven't taken a wrong turn this time.
But, in the end, it is a matter of judgement and one has to trust one's
Good luck with your course, Sydney. Don't
blindly accept authority, but don't become a boring sceptic either. Strive to
find a balance, that way you will grow.
Socrates the wisest man?
Scott asked this question:
person who knows everything. is A (impossible?) Doesn't it depend on your
environment? Student asked this question, I don't have a response for this
HELP!! Right and wrong?
person who knows he doesn't know everything.
teaching world history and my students attained this question from a Socrates
quote: "I am the wisest man in the world, for I know one thing, and that
is I know Nothing."
your opinion? and Do you mind if I share it with my students?
Socrates doesn't just say, 'I know that I don't
know everything.' He says, 'I know that I know nothing.' And that should make us pause, don't you think?
It goes without saying that it is impossible to
know literally everything. No-one
knows, or arguably ever could know regardless of how long they spent
investigating, how many grains of sand there are on all the beaches in the
world, or how many planets in the universe have intelligent life. On the other
hand, you can know everything about a sufficiently restricted subject matter:
for example, you might be a British soccer fan who knows the names of every
winner of the FA Cup since 1872.
It's good to be modest in the evaluation of
one's knowledge. It may not be the whole of wisdom but undoubtedly it is an
essential part of becoming wise to recognize our all-too human failings and the
ease with which we gather misinformation without even realizing it. Any good
teacher recognizes that they are not infallible, and that it is far better to
admit to your students that you don't know than pretend to knowledge that you
do not have.
On the other hand, if you ask me what I think of
President Obama, and I reply that I have no knowledge of politics and never
listen to the news so I can't answer you, you are hardly likely to be impressed
by my great 'wisdom'. If one is aware of important gaps in one's knowledge, one
should do one's best to remedy them, and not rest content with being an
But this is largely irrelevant, so far as
Socrates is concerned.
Consider the following argument: If Socrates
knows nothing then it follows (e.g.)
that he doesn't know whether or not he's wearing his toga. For all he knows
(namely, nothing) he might be out in the market place stark naked. If he gets
arrested for indecent exposure, the judge and jury are unlikely to be
sympathetic to his plea that he was unaware he was committing any offence.
— How do you think Socrates would reply to that argument?
'My dear fellow, you must realize there is no knowledge of the things of this world.
All we have are more or less useful beliefs.
I believe that I am wearing my toga and am confident in this belief. For
practical purposes, confident belief is all we need. Knowledge, supposing that
any person had it, can only be of ultimate things, the answers to the deep
questions of philosophy. Nobody knows that, although many think they do.'
This is rather poignant for me, because I have
to ask myself what I have been doing for the last 37 years; what decades of
pondering the great questions has achieved since I first started along the road
to philosophy. It is a charge not infrequently laid at philosophers, that they
never make any real progress, and the best they can offer is endless
disagreement and scepticism.
But there is another side of the coin.
Philosophers see things for what they are. They are not easily fooled by
bullshit and propaganda. They understand what is important, and what are merely
the trivial concerns of passing fad and fashion. The world (just as Plato said
in his Republic) is not what you think
it is. We are all cave dwellers. Even if Plato was over-optimistic in thinking
that the philosopher alone has the power to escape from the cave, at least one
can make the attempt — over and over again if necessary.
Will asked this question:
need a bit of guidance in regards to Freud. Could you please tell me what is
meant by 'anatomy is destiny' and do you think he proves that anatomy is in
it might just be to do with the developmental stages that Freud theorised about
and how these affect us when we grow and so affects our behaviour and thoughts.
Searching for "Anatomy is destiny" in
Google I quickly found an answer to Will's question in the Online Glossary of
Psychological Terms from Athabasca University:
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
claimed that anatomy is destiny, that is, one's gender determines one's main
personality traits. Karen Horney (1885-1952), while considering herself a
disciple of Freud, disagreed. Beginning in 1923, she began publishing papers
arguing for culture over biology as the primary determinant of personality.
Thus, if a woman feels inferior to a man, it is not due to some universal
process such as penis envy. Rather, she wrote, '[t]he wish to be a man... may
be the expression of a wish for all those qualities or privileges which in our
culture are regarded as masculine, such as strength, courage, independence,
success, sexual freedom, right to choose a partner' (New ways in psychoanalysis New York: Norton 1939, p. 108). For
Horney, the reason psychoanalysis appears to understand men better than women
is that the field, from the beginning, has been dominated almost exclusively by
male thinking and thus has evolved into a masculine enterprise.
Disentangling the strands of nature and nurture
with respect to human sexuality is an incredibly difficult undertaking. But
Freud wasn't simply guessing in the dark or expressing common prejudices of his
day (or indeed ours). He made his judgement on the basis of many hundreds of
hours of analytic practice.
— But then, so did Horney.
I don't have an axe to grind in defending Freud.
It seems to me perfectly possible that like many researchers Freud discovered
what he was looking for. As this is a question for Ask a Philosopher and not
'Ask a Psychoanalyst' or 'Ask a Social Psychologist' I don't want to get bogged
down in that debate.
However, I do have experience of my own to call
upon. I am male, and a philosopher, and many hours of following, or attempting
to follow the Socratic maxim 'know thyself' has naturally led me to reflect on
the role of my sexuality in relation to my chosen calling.
In my post on ‘Knowing the limits of knowledge’
One might observe that the
attitude which Santayana describes of opening ourselves up to experience the
wonder itself shows something of the aspect of 'the feminine'. By contrast, the
thought of adventurously penetrating to the heart of reality has a resolutely
I go on to cite one of my favourite quotes from
Hegel, from the Preface to his Lectures
on the History of Philosophy (1825-6) where he says that 'The Being of the
universe... has no power which can offer resistance to the search for
knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker — to set before
his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.'
Even though the words make me cringe, just a
bit, I recognize that, fundamentally, that is how I feel about philosophy. It's
not that I've never experienced the 'opening up' feeling Santayana describes.
But far more often my thoughts dwell on the challenge of honing and sharpening
my intellect in order to get down
into the recalcitrant roots of reality.
At this point, you might accuse me of focusing
too narrowly on a single image. What about the competitive nature of philosophical
I've been witness to some
comic scenes in Oxford academic philosophy seminar rooms, where professors high
on intellectual vanity and testosterone have tussled like angry bulls. —
And they wonder why there are fewer female academic philosophers!
Glass House Philosopher
Notebook II, p. 46
Yes, there is that aspect too. But I think that
it is less fundamental. How else to you behave when philosophy seminars are
organized as bull rings? There is another way, where debate is co-operative
rather than competitive, but to make this happen you have to do some radical
thinking; about ways to overcome the inherently competitive nature of a career
where in order to rise to the top you have to prove yourself to be better than the next philosopher.
Oh, I just remembered something:
And have you ever thought
about the strange phenomenon of books? why they are made the way they are? why
scholars love to pore over them? Because what they are secretly after is a
Glass House Philosopher
Notebook II, p. 134
The year was 1977, my first year as a graduate
student at University College Oxford. On my wall, in my room at Merton Street,
was an Athena poster of a Modigliani nude. I'd just woken up from a nap.
Glancing up at the painting, I caught myself in the act of daydreaming, about a
book — that wasn't a book. I've never fully been able to shake that image
from my mind.
But this isn't a psychoanalyst's couch, and the
evidence of dreams or daydreams is flimsy at best. What I know is how I think, how my mind typically works, whatever the
topic or problem. An attitude, a sense of conviction which colours everything
that I do.
Then what is there — down there?
I remember seeing a quote from a review of Iris
Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil
(1998) where the main protagonist, a philosopher called Rozanov says something
to the effect that, 'When you dig down — and that's not very far down
— all you find is jumble and rubble.' That depressed, and depressing
thought was quite sufficient to put me off reading the novel.
I don't mind that there is jumble and rubble in me, I accept Murdoch's view that when
we 'tell our story' we always idealize, we avoid looking at the bits of the
jigsaw that don't fit together. That's about the self, the jumble and rubble in
us. But what I can never accept is that that's how it is, at the very roots of
In the past, I've referred to this piously as
'the faith of the philosopher', but that makes it sound as if I'm searching for
God. And what if I met up with my quarry? — 'If you meet Buddha on the
road, kill him!' (Sheldon B. Kopp, Bantham 1976: a brilliant take on the aims
and practice of psychotherapy.)
It's not God, not destiny or faith, but just
resolute determination not to be illuded, to ask questions where no-one else
sees a question, to 'break on through'.
The point is that I can. I am free, and that is
what freedom ultimately means to me. I don't know what's 'down there'. If I
did, there wouldn't be a question. I may never know. But whatever the chances,
even if there are none, I will continue digging. It's a matter of pride;
arguably, male pride.
world created by our minds?
Dan asked this question:
one of the following is true:
world we observe around us is real, though our perceptions of it may differ
from person to person.
world around us is created by our minds, and possibly co-created with other
minds like our own.
we tell the difference between these two scenarios?
I remember once discussing with my junior school
friends how we could ever be sure that the world wasn't just a dream, and, if
so, whose dream was it? We kicked the question around for a while but didn't
reach any firm conclusion.
We'd read the Alice books. Here's how Lewis Carroll ends his tale Alice Through the Looking Glass:
Now, Kitty, let's consider
who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear, and you
should not go on licking your paw
like that — as if Dinah hadn't washed you this morning! You see, Kitty,
it must have been either me or the
Red King. He was part of my dream, of course — but then I was part of his
dream, too! Was it the Red King,
Kitty? You were his wife, my dear, so you ought to know — Oh, Kitty, do help to settle it! I'm sure your paw
can wait!' But the provoking kitten only began on the other paw, and pretended
it hadn't heard the question.
Which do you think it was?
Carroll (a.k.a. Charles Ludwig Dodgson) was a
mathematician who knew more than a bit of philosophy. When Alice calls this a
'serious question', the reader might think Carroll is poking fun. But in a way,
he is serious. He knew his Berkeley. Bishop Berkeley's answer — in Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous
and Principles of Human Knowledge
— is that all that exists are subjects and objects of experience. We are all dreaming one
another's dreams of 'the world' because everything that exists, exists in God's
infinitely capacious mind. The world is God's dream.
On Berkeley's view, the experiences we have
while asleep which we call 'dreams' do not 'create a world' because they are
private to us. The dream images in our minds do not correspond to anything
outside our own experience.
I doubt whether this is something me and my
school friends would have figured out for ourselves. But in any case, Berkeley
is going out on a limb here. If you add together all the 'waking dreams' of all
the human beings (and non-human animals and aliens too, if you like) there will
be massive gaps. No tree fell in the forest if no creature saw or heard it.
Objects come into existence from nowhere and go out of existence in a flash,
when someone looks, or looks away.
This is an untidy hypothesis, but the God theory seems a trifle extravagant as
a way to avoid it.
The entire story of my life, and yours, reduces
to a sequence of experiences. You can well ask, if it would make any difference
whether or not there exists something corresponding
to those experiences. What kind of 'difference' is a difference which no-one
(by hypothesis) can ever detect or perceive?
But if we are prepared to go this far then I
think another step is needed. The entire story of my life reduces to a sequence of experiences. I can ask, if it
would make any difference whether or not there exist experiences belonging to
the familiar objects which move about and talk, which I call 'people'. People
exist in my waking dream, to be sure. But I can't see how it can make any
difference to me whether or not I
exist for them.
Maybe you can see where this is going. Because
there is still one more step to take. Bertrand Russell once raised a question
how we know that the universe has existed for millions of years. Perhaps the
universe came into existence five minutes ago, and you and I and everyone else
with our apparent memories.
Let's throw Russell's sceptical hypothesis into the
mix. As before, you can dispense with any idea of God having anything to do
with this. Let's just say the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago
as a result of a gigantic cosmic accident. (If you think that's far fetched,
how come you are so ready to believe in the Big Bang theory?) In that case, for
all I could ever discover, the entire story of my life, your life, the universe
and everything is just an apparent
memory I am experiencing now.
make any difference. It makes no difference
whether or not a real world exists, whether or not other people exist, whether
or not the past exists. At this point, maybe you are beginning to wonder
whether the intuition about 'telling a difference' might be less clear than you
thought it was?
Jason asked this question:
of job can you get with a philosophy degree? I'm studying philosophy as an
option in an Arts and Contemporary science degree which is an equivalent to a
philosophy degree, but I'm worried that having this on my resume won't really
impress anybody. What are my options?
I'm having a second go at this question. Back in
2001, I answered a question from 16 year old Phil who candidly admitted,
'obviously I want to be the next modern day Plato or Aristotle, or wait —
even better — Leonardo da Vinci.' Here's an extract from my answer:
At a Freshers induction day
for the Sheffield Philosophy Department, I was asked by young student just
starting out on her BA degree what were the job prospects for philosophy graduates.
'I complete my degree, then what?' 'Then you sign on the dole!' (social
security) I replied. This did not go down too well. I think she was expecting
me to say, 'Then you get a job teaching philosophy, have a brilliant career,
become famous and live happily ever after.' You will not be surprised to hear
that I was not invited to any more induction days.
It wouldn't have been so
bad, had our conversation not been overheard by a young woman from MIT who had
recently joined the Sheffield teaching staff. She was outraged. How could I
justify living off the state? A parasite financed by taxpayers hard-earned
money? I said something to the effect that the tax payers were getting 'good
value for their money' from unemployed philosophers who worked hard at what
they did best. She replied coldly that people with jobs didn't have the choice
whether or not to pay taxes.
Back in 1987, only three or
four years before this incident occurred, I was unemployed, driven to the
desperate expedient of putting up 'Philosopher for Hire' cards in the windows
of local shops. Everyone deserves at least one lucky break in life. Mine was
having a sharp-eyed reporter from the Sheffield Star notice my little advert. A
week later, I was being interviewed and having my photograph taken. The article
appeared under the headline, 'Philosopher in Bid to Hire Out His Talents'...
... And the rest is history.
For the sake of a reality check, here's a very
different account, from an article published in The Guardian newspaper in 2007:
Figures from the Higher
Education Statistics Agency show philosophy graduates, once derided as
unemployable layabouts, are in growing demand from employers. The number of all
graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation has risen
by 9% between 2002-03 and 2005-06; for philosophy graduates it has gone up by
It is in the fields of
finance, property development, health, social work and the nebulous category of
'business' that those versed in Plato and Kant are most sought after. In 'business',
property development, renting and research, 76% more philosophy graduates were
employed in 2005-06 than in 2002-03. In health and social work, 9% more.
Just to reinforce the statistics, the Guardian
article offers quotes from enthusiastic employers of Philosophy graduates.
Fiona Czerniawska, director
of the Management Consultancies Association's think tank, says: 'A philosophy
degree has trained the individual's brain and given them the ability to provide
management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and
clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical,
provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions.'
— Is that the sort of answer you're
looking for, Jason?
From the Guardian perspective, the case for the
employability of Philosophy graduates is all about transferable skills. The very same skill that you use to analyse an
argument from Plato's Republic serves
equally well in analysing a financial forecast or the pitch for a new ad
Analysing, criticising, thinking 'out of the
box' are obviously very useful
attributes. We should all strive to be useful members of society. That is what
we are taught from an early age. And if society has a use for you, you will be
rewarded. Isn't that it?
You might say that it is easy for me to indulge
in scepticism, given that the majority of Pathways students have degrees or
advanced degrees and/ or professional qualifications, and are in well-paid
jobs. Yet I detect that some are not happy, and would much rather chuck it all
in if they could. A lucky few — those who have made enough money to
afford an early retirement — have the leisure to devote themselves
full-time to philosophical study.
Philosophy gets you, that way. It makes you question
assumptions, to be sure, but one of the assumptions that you will find yourself
questioning is why you are so keen to 'impress people with my resume'.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't be interested
in having the best possible resume. My question is what it would be good for. Let's assume that the better your
resume, other things being equal, the more employable
you are. You have a wider range of jobs available to you. For most people, this
translates into opportunities for more highly paid jobs. But as a philosopher,
or someone interested in philosophy, that is an assumption that cries out to be
questioned. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but money isn't everything.
Of course, you can always go for the 'early
retirement' scenario, if you are that
good. On the panel of Ask a Philosopher is an Englishman who retired at 52, for
the second time (he got bored after
retiring in his early 30's). But you do have to be very good — or very
Of the two greatest Stoic philosophers, one was
a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius) and the other a slave (Epictetus). Lacking
the resources of an emperor, you don't have to opt for wage slavery. The kind
of job a philosopher would look for (outside of the academic world, an option
we are not even considering) is one that allows you time, and mental freedom,
and pays enough to keep body and soul together. If you are also doing something
that enables you to put your beliefs into practice — like working for
Greenpeace, or for an organization helping the homeless or the unemployed
— that's a bonus.
It is possible that after you get your BA degree
you may feel no need or motivation to pursue your present interest in
philosophy any further. That happens too. There's no shame in it. In that case,
these words are not for you. But that's not something you know now. Taking the philosophy course option
might deepen your interest. I hope it does.
There seems to me something very wrong with
society. Our values are all screwed up. Materialism is rampant. But if you want
to swim against the stream, be aware that it is not an easy option. As I have
painfully discovered, you have to accept the pitying looks of those —
they may be your family or your friends — who judge success by material
possessions. It's your choice.
the limits of knowledge
Tanzeel asked this question:
As it is
admitted that there is a limit to human knowledge or understanding, I just want
to know what is meant by limit? How and when can we say that 'Now that is the
limit'? How can anyone have the knowledge of the limitation of the knowledge?
This is a great question. We take it more or
less for granted that human knowledge has limits — limits that we don't
know (because we haven't reached them yet) but also limits that we do know
about. Bertrand Russell has the dubious honour of writing a book that was once
referenced in one of the episodes of the legendary BBC comedy written by Ray
Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock's Half Hour:
Oh I don't KNOW what he's
talking about. The limit and scope of human knowledge. Well we've soon found
out MY limit haven't we — three sentences!
The title of Russell's book (which Tony Hancock
is struggling to read in bed) is Human
Knowledge: It's Scope and Limits (1948). I've had a copy on my bookshelf
for years and never got so far as reading one sentence. I'm sure it's a very
worthy book, and far from being one of Russell's potboilers. But my main limit
is patience. There are lots of things I ought
to know but don't, just as there are lots of books I ought to have read but
haven't, because it would cost just too much time and effort.
Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have owned up to
that, but age has brought a modest increase in self-knowledge. As Dirty Harry
once said, 'A man's got to know his limitations.'
But we're not talking about that kind of
'limit'. Limits to human knowledge would be limits that we could not overcome
even with our very best efforts.
In many cases, or so we naturally assume, we
will never know what these limits are because we will never even get close to
them. In Donald Rumsfeld's immortal words, they are 'unknown unknowns'. But
Tanzeel isn't concerned with this kind of limit. She's concerned with the
limits that we allegedly know about.
How can you ever know, for sure, what the limits to human knowledge are?
There is a puzzle that has to do with the
quantitative aspect of knowledge, the sheer immensity of things to be known. It
is a problem that infects Finitism in mathematics (sometimes known as 'strict
finitism') which extends the rejection of the classical notion of the infinite
by mathematical Intuitionism to the Aristotelian-Kantian notion of the
'potential' infinite. According to finitists, anything to do with the
'infinite' in any sense of the word
is beyond human knowledge and understanding, period. You might as well just be
The difficulty with this position is that even
if you get rid of the infinite, you still have to deal with immensely large
finite numbers, like a quadrillion to the power of quadrillion. A proof which
required that number of steps would be beyond the capacity of any embodied
being, now or a any time in the future. There are not enough particles in the
The problem I'm thinking of has to do with the
ancient Paradox of the Heap. One grain of sand is not a heap. If n grains of
sand cannot make a heap, then n+1 grains of sand cannot make a heap either. But
then it follows by a simple application of mathematical induction that no
amount of sand can make a heap. Let's take a similar case in finitism. A proof that
requires a thousand lines is capable of being constructed. (If you have the
patience to do it, of course.) If a proof consisting of n lines is capable of
being constructed, then a proof that is just one line longer is capable of
being constructed. Therefore (as before) a proof of any finite length
(including a quadrillion to the power of quadrillion lines) is capable of being
Or in more down-to-earth terms: we know how to
measure the weight of one grain of sand (it's around a half to one milligram).
This is easily done with any precision laboratory balance. If you can know the
individual weights of n grains of sand, then you can know the individual
weights of n+1 grains of sand. You just measure the weight of one more grain.
Therefore you can, in principle, know
the weight of each grain of sand on every beach in the world. But we know we
can never know this.
So there is a real difficulty with the idea of
'knowing the limit' when it comes to merely quantitative restrictions on
knowledge. There is no way, in principle, that you can draw the line between
what is knowable and what is not knowable.
What about qualitative
restrictions on the kinds of knowledge it is possible to have?
There are various kinds of case where we come up
against the limits of observation and prediction. There are very good reasons
why you cannot predict the behaviour of a human being with complete confidence.
But on the other hand we can come close in many cases, and especially when we
are dealing with human behaviour from a statistical point of view (e.g. the
number of men each year who marry at the age of 25). In physics, by the
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle you can never know the precise mass and
velocity of a particle, because all measurement involves some form of physical
interaction, and physical interaction alters the state of the thing you were
attempting to observe. But, once again, we can gain a great deal of information
about physical systems on the sub-microscopic level.
But I don't think that this is the kind of case
Tanzeel is thinking about either. Like the quantitative limits to knowledge,
these kinds of example are just too mundane.
In my last post, I talked a bit about Kant's
theory of phenomena and noumena, and the idea that the world of physical things
in space which we interact with and which science investigates is merely an
'appearance' of some unknowable ultimate reality. I've already given my reasons
why I don't accept this view. You can only go by the best argument, in
philosophy as elsewhere, and according to the argument that persuades me, Kant
is wrong. Maybe The Matrix does 'have us'. But in that case that is just more physical reality, not something
supra-physical, beyond space and time.
However, one might think of the category of the
Unknowable in a less metaphysically loaded, but no less compelling way.
In his Herbert Spencer lecture 'The Unknowable'
George Santayana rescues a doctrine that Spencer was heavily criticized for,
the view that the 'substance' of the world is 'unknowable', and gives it a
I have sometimes wondered
at the value ladies set upon jewels: as centres of light, jewels seem rather
trivial and monotonous. And yet there is an unmistakable spell about these
pebbles; they can be taken up and turned over; they can be kept; they are
faithful possessions; the sparkle of them, shifting from moment to moment, is
constant from age to age. They are substances. The same aspects of light and
colour, if they were homeless in space, or could be spied only once and
irrecoverably, like fireworks, would have a less comfortable charm. In jewels
there is the security, the mystery, the inexhaustible fixity proper to
substance. After all, perhaps I can understand the fascination they exercise
over the ladies; it is the same that the eternal feminine exercises over us.
Our contact with them is unmistakable, our contemplation of them gladly
renewed, and pleasantly prolonged; yet in one sense they are unknowable; we
cannot fathom the secret of their constancy, of their hardness, of that perpetual
but uncertain brilliancy by which they dazzle us and hide themselves. These
qualities of the jewel and of the eternal feminine are also the qualities of
substance and of the world. The existence of this world — unless we lapse
for a moment into an untenable scepticism — is certain, or at least it is
unquestioningly to be assumed. Experience may explore it adventurously, and
science may describe it with precision; but after you have wandered up and down
in it for many years, and have gathered all you could of its ways by report,
this same world, because it exists substantially and is not invented, remains a
foreign thing and a marvel to the spirit: unknowable as a drop of water is
unknowable, or unknowable like a person loved.
George Santayana 'The Unknowable'
Herbert Spencer Lecture 1923
If you look at the question this way, then of course there is a limit to human
knowledge, which exists by virtue of the fact of the sheer inexhaustibility of
the world. We know that we will never
cease to find things that we previously didn't know about — new aspects
to marvel at — so long as we continue our quest for knowledge. But there
will always be far, far more than we can ever know.
When I first read this, in an old volume that
belonged to my parents, Reading I have
Liked edited by Clifton Fadiman, I was enchanted. These days one would
hesitate to quote Santayana's references to 'the ladies' and the fascination that
they exercise 'over us' (weren't there any 'ladies' in the audience?). But I
would just say, Get over it, otherwise there's too much great literature that
you would have to consign to the flames.
One might observe that the attitude which
Santayana describes of opening ourselves up to experience the wonder itself
shows something of the aspect of 'the feminine'. By contrast, the thought of
adventurously penetrating to the heart of reality has a resolutely masculine
appeal. This quote from Hegel, from the Preface to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy which I have used for unit 1
of the Metaphysics program says it all:
But in the first place, I
can ask nothing of you but to bring with you, above all, a trust in science and
a trust in yourselves. The love of truth, faith in the power of mind, is the
first condition in Philosophy. Man, because he is Mind, should and must deem
himself worthy of the highest; he cannot think too highly of the greatness and
the power of his mind, and, with this belief, nothing will be so difficult and
hard that it will not reveal itself to him. The Being of the universe, at first
hidden and concealed, has no power which can offer resistance to the search for
knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker — to set before
his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.
G.W.F. Hegel Lectures on the History of Philosophy
On the Pathways Follydiddledah! web site I have
illustrated this with a photo of a NASA Saturn Rocket blasting off from Cape
Kennedy. (I could have also used a photo of the Large Hadron Collider.) I hope
that human beings will never lose the appetite 'to boldly go'. However, it is
good to temper boldness with a modicum of reverence for the inexhaustibility of
a universe which we found and did not make.
Matt asked this question:
If one is
not certain of something, should they withhold judgement and simply attempt to
not certain that leaving my house today will result in my death but I can't
stay inside my entire life due to a possible factor with low probability, thus
it would be pragmatic to go outside when needed barring no other factors.
if one isn't certain of anything would we gain more peace of mind simply by
withholding judgement about everything and living life in whatever manner was
the most beneficial for ourselves?
I recognize Matt's last remark as a version of a
doctrine held the Ancient Greek skeptic Pyrrho, the doctrine of ataraxia. There's a nice quote in the
By suspending judgment, by
confining oneself to phenomena or objects as they appear, and by asserting
nothing definite as to how they really are, one can escape the perplexities of
life and attain an imperturbable peace of mind.
(I can't tell from the context whether the quote
is meant to be from Pyrrho's pupil Timon of Phlius or the book by Sextus
Empiricus Outlines of Pyrrhonism.
Come on Wikipedia!)
Note Pyrrho's distinction between 'phenomena or
objects as they appear' and the question 'how they really are'. If you and I
see twinkly white dots in the night sky, that isn't a matter upon which
arguments can be put for or against. It is a given. Even if I have no idea what
the white dots are, I can be certain
about what I am experiencing now. Whereas my judgement, 'The earth is round',
or 'The moon is thousands of miles away' could conceivably be false,
consistently with my experience. As soon as you try to state how things 'really
are' you run up against the problem of how to extend knowledge through inference. The case can be made for a
flat earth, or the moon hovering a few miles off the ground, however
implausible you might consider that case to be. If no argument is absolutely
irresistable, if for every case for
there is a case against, then the
only reasonable course of action is to suspend judgement. That is Pyrrho's
In Ancient Greece, it might not have made any
practical difference whether the earth was round or flat, but one could not say
that today. It is no longer possible for human beings to inhabit a 'world of
appearance'. Too many of the things which are an essential part of our lives
depend on layer upon layer of scientific knowledge. Science is part of common
sense. You can of course pretend to be a savage and regard computers, motorcars
and toasters as working 'by magic', but that would just be a pretence. Whereas
if a motor car was transported in a time machine to Ancient Greece, there could
be genuine, rational disagreement over the theory
that a car engine derives its power from internal combustion.
What would be the equivalent of Pyrrho's ataraxia today? Matt offers a possible
solution: concerning the things beyond our present experience, the appropriate
attitude is pragmatic.
'Leaving my house today' is actually a loaded
example. No-one knows what the future holds. That I might be killed in a freak
accident on my way home is not something concerning which I have any reason to
be certain or doubtful. Freak accidents do happen, just as people do win the
lottery. The thought, 'it will never happen to me' does perfectly well as a
pragmatic attitude, but as Matt notes, pragmatism isn't the same as certainty.
By contrast, if I fill my car petrol tank up
with water, or plug the toaster into the telephone socket, then I can be certain that the result will be a
non-functioning car or non-functioning toaster. To have this kind of certainty
you need basic knowledge of how things work.
(I've just remembered a scam from the 1930's: if
you add a test tube of acetone to a petrol can full of water, the mixture will
run a car. The 'miracle fuel' which cash strapped motorists queued up to buy
had only one drawback: it destroyed the engine after a few miles.)
In my answer to Demetreus I argued against the
'lazy' view in epistemology that knowledge doesn't require certainty. To be the
one who knows about some particular
question or topic is to have authority
as one whose testimony is to be trusted. If you are not certain of the truth of
your belief, then you should not state
your belief as a fact, at least, not without qualification (as in, 'I think
there are buses running today, but I can't be sure').
The difficulty with Matt's position is that he
is, in effect, giving up on knowledge. Pragmatism will do in a situation where
knowledge cannot be obtained, where we are not in a position to be, or
justified in being certain. The temptation is to 'play it safe' and take the
Pyrrhonian view that certainty is not to be had about anything. But we need
certainty about lots of things. I need to be certain that pouring water (or
diesel) into the petrol tank of my car will stop the engine from working, or
that the wheels will not fall of as I'm driving along.
We need certainty, not only for immediate
practical purposes but because others rely on the statements we make. To give
up on certainty is to give up on the authority to make statements about matters
of fact. The only consistent Pyrrhonian stance — as critics of scepticism
understood — is one of total silence.
Despite this, there is a sense in which
pragmatism is vindicated, by the observation that certainty is itself a practical attitude. I am certain, so
long as there are questions you don't ask me, or that don't occur to me (like
the trick with the water and acetone). This makes knowledge a 'contextual'
notion (as noted in my answer to Demetreus) but that is surely a better outcome
than Pyrrhonian scepticism.
In stating that certainty is a practical
attitude, or has a pragmatic dimension, I am following Wittgenstein's views as
expressed in his work On Certainty, the last book he wrote (and incidentally
one of his best). However, the most pungent quote on doubt and certainty comes
from Philosophical Investigations:
'But, if you are certain, isn't it that you are shutting
your eyes in face of doubt?' — They are shut.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Part II,
Wittgenstein's target is Descartes, rather than
Pyrrho. There are many things concerning which we can conceive or imagine a
doubt — for example, Descartes' thought that my world might be dream
produced by an 'evil demon', or in the contemporary (and less extreme) version
that I might be a prisoner in the Matrix. But to merely conceive or imagine a
doubt is not yet to doubt. If I
hadn't known about the acetone, I might still have imagined that there 'might
be' some substance which, when added in small quantities to water makes it
sufficiently combustible to power a car engine, as unlikely as that may seem.
Certainty is too robust to be shaken by this kind of imaginary worry.
But it can be shaken, and often is. As we learn
more about our world, our previous 'certainties' crumble. — Of course,
Pyrrho couldn't have said that, because to learn
is to acquire knowledge.
Life in a
Ray asked this question:
the meaning of life? Is the world we live in not just a well oiled machine and
we as a species are simply one gear in that machine? If this is so, wouldn't
that mean our meaning or purpose would simply be, to BE. I have struggled with
this one for a bit, maybe someone can keep me going on these thoughts?
You have a choice, Ray. You have the choice whether
to be. So does the human race. It
wouldn't be necessary to make the decision to kill ourselves, or even to allow
the human race to die out as a result of nuclear war or ecological catastrophe.
We could just choose not to procreate — as indeed can you.
A machine is constructed for a purpose, but if
the universe is a mere machine then it has no particular purpose that we can
fathom. Nor does the machine need human beings in order to function. When we
go, we won't be missed. The stars and planets will continue to obey the laws of
nature, flawlessly, however things turn out.
I gather from your question that you see no
meaningful place for God or religion. Neither do I. But suppose one accepts the
pragmatic view that some beliefs are more useful
than others. Even the materialist, atheist Marx had to admit that religion, the
'opiate of the masses' was yet the 'heart in a heartless world'.
Marx isn't conceding that the human race is
better off with religion than without it. What he means is that things are so bad for so many people — the
downtrodden workers — that it would be too cruel to take religion from
them as well.
Meanwhile, the world is indifferent as to
whether you choose to be a revolutionary, or reactionary — or reluctantly
or gladly or unthinkingly embrace the status quo. Life goes on regardless; your
life goes on, or not, as the case may be.
Where's the meaning in that?
Bertrand Russell, in his 1902 essay 'A Free
Man's Worship' (Mysticism and Logic
London Unwin 1963) offers the following consolation for those who accept that
their ultimate fate is be born, procreate and die:
The life of Man, viewed
outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The
slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater
than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things
which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel
their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free
men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we
absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private
happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for
eternal things — this is emancipation, and this is the free man's
Bertrand Russell Mysticism and Logic ‘A Free Man’s
'To think of them greatly.' To pursue truth, to
appreciate beauty — if only the beauty offered by the tragic spectacle of
human life and death — is all we have. That is why the free man rejects
the false comforts of religion.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Russell
wrote his essay just twelve years before the Great War. Amongst the 'great
ideals' that he describes in such glowing terms are those of courage, duty and
sacrifice, so brutally exploded in the trenches of the Somme and the war poems
of Wilfred Owen. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
No, there is no meaning that I can discern. We
have witnessed how bad things can get, and they could get still worse. But my
view of this remains a cheerful one. Unlike Russell, I don't need high ideals,
so long as there are questions that
grip me, as yours does. Meaning is for 'true believers'. I just want the truth
— as best as you, or I or anyone can discern it.
Maybe my optimism is misplaced. Maybe I still
have illusions to shatter. In that case, as F.H. Bradley once remarked about
pessimism (Appearance and Reality
1897, Preface), 'Where everything is bad, it must be good to know the worst.'
sense of the world
Aurora asked this question:
there a need for man to make sense of the world?
Aurora's question is about a topic that will be
familiar to many. What is the meaning of life? What sense can be made of the
world? Well, it's good that she didn't ask that question, because if she had I
wouldn't have chosen it. We get that question frequently. Why should we know? Do people asking what the
meaning of life is seriously expect an answer? Luckily that's not Aurora's
question. What Aurora wants to know is why
do human beings feel motivated, or impelled to ask that question? Why is there
a need to 'make sense of the world'? That's not a question many ask. A
I would like to know the answer to that too.
More to the point, I would like to know what
on earth the question is about. (I won't make anything of the fact that
Aurora asked why man needs to make
sense of the world — and woman doesn't?)
There's no puzzle about why we need to make
sense of things. I mean, things in
the world, situations or events or objects that we encounter. There are
different kinds of 'making sense'. The detective tries to make sense of the
scattered clues left at the scene of a crime, say, a murder, by reconstructing
the sequence of events, analysing cause and effect. There's also the question
of motivation: was the motivation revenge, or theft, or was it just a random
senseless killing? Then there's the hastily scribbled note left on the table.
What does it say? what do the words mean?
I've just given three contrasting examples of
'making sense', which we apply every day. We ask about causes and effects; we
ask about intentions, motivations, purposes; and we ask about the sense of
words. There's no puzzle about why we
do this. Try getting getting through the day without once doing one of these
things. It's a matter of sheer survival. This can be an everyday event: like
reading the words on the bottle to make sure you're taking the right medicine,
or judging whether an approaching car is slowing down because the driver has
seen you step into the road. And even when our survival isn't threatened, we
ask these questions out of natural curiosity — which itself has survival
Aurora could have asked why human beings are so curious about the world, curious
beyond any reasonable need if survival were the only thing we cared about.
Other species exhibit curiosity too, of course, but at least in their case
evolution supplies a sufficient explanation. Curiosity may have killed the cat,
but it's not difficult to see why on the whole this trait is beneficial rather
than harmful to kitty.
It was in this spirit that Plato and Aristotle
both remarked that 'Philosophy begins with wonder.' Human beings are creatures
that wonder, that ask questions which go beyond any obvious utility or purpose.
We ask for the sake of asking. We just want to know. That's one of the wonderful things about being human.
But that's not Aurora's question. Her question
isn't about why, out of insatiable curiosity, we try to make sense of
everything we come across. It's about why we ask the familiar question, 'what
does this mean?' about the world. The
world as such. The whole thing. All
that is (or 'all that is the case').
Being qua being. Life, the universe
I've remarked before that it would be
intolerable if the world had a sense — in the sense of a meaning or
purpose — and we finally got to know what it was; and it would be equally
intolerable if we finally got to know, absolutely and for certain, that the
world does not have any meaning or purpose. What I'm now saying is that neither
alternative — that the world has a sense, or that that world does not
have a sense — makes any sense to me at all.
I am talking about the absurd. A world where everything added up, and you could see
exactly the point of everything would be an absurd world; equally absurd would
be a world where you knew there was no prospect of adding things up. A world that
made sense, or didn't make sense, would be absurd. But it's absurd even to ask this question. And that's the point.
Yet we do, anyway!
Physics, or rather cosmology, makes a pretty
brave attempt at making sense of the universe in the first of the three senses that
I outlined above: figuring out the sequence of causes and effects. But of
course that's only on the assumption that by 'the world' one means 'this
universe', that is to say, the world as governed by the laws of physics.
Cosmologists sometimes forget (one can hardly blame them) that these laws are,
ultimately, contingent not necessary (an observation I made in my previous
post). There could have been different universes, governed by different laws
than the laws that govern this universe.
A case could therefore be made for saying that
the world, the world as such, is bigger than the physical universe or cosmos,
because maybe there are potentially lots of universes, just as there are lots
of suns with orbiting planets in this universe. But I don't want my argument to
turn on that debatable claim. Let's just talk about the universe.
The universe or cosmos is that which is,
existence, which of course includes ourselves. Whenever we try to 'make sense'
of something, in any of the three senses which I distinguished (cause and
effect, intention/ purpose, semantic meaning) it is always in relation to a framework. You can ask whether the
universe as a whole 'has a purpose', say, if you are prepared to hypothesize
something outside the universe, such as God is conceived to be. But then the
same question arises again. You can only put God or a creator outside the universe
by, in effect, hypothesizing a larger universe that contains both the creator
and 'his' creation. (This is a familiar point from debates over the various
arguments for the existence of God, so I won't labour it.)
The idea of a framework, the distinction between
questions within a framework and questions about a framework, is one that
Rudolf Carnap discussed in his seminal article, 'Empiricism, Semantics and
Ontology'. After Quine's attack on the analytic/ synthetic distinction less
attention has been paid to Carnap's foundational work on this topic, but the
fundamental point is still valid as a diagnosis
of the error which we easily fall into, of confusing questions about a
framework with questions within a framework.
When the framework is the universe or cosmos,
and the question is about meaning, then the correct and proper conclusion to
draw from Carnap's theory is that we
imagine a question where there is no question. We attempt to ask questions
about the framework that can only be asked within the framework, such as the
question, or questions, about the 'sense of the world'.
Why do we do this? Why are we impelled to commit this error, over and
over again? That's a question that Kant asked. The whole of the Critique of Pure Reason is devoted to
exploring, in different ways, the limits to questioning and how we are impelled
to transgress those limits. So I guess it would be appropriate to let Kant have
the last word:
Human reason has this
peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions
which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to
ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to
The perplexity into which
it thus falls is not due to any fault of its own. It begins with principles
which it has no option save to employ in the course of experience, and which
this experience at the same time abundantly justifies it in using. Rising with
their aid (since it is determined to this also by its own nature) to ever
higher, ever more remote, conditions, it soon becomes aware that in this way
— the questions never ceasing — its work must always remain
incomplete... by this procedure human reason precipitates itself into darkness
and contradictions; and while it may indeed conjecture that these must be in
some way due to concealed errors, it is not in a position to be able to detect
Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason Preface to the
First Edition (N.K. Smith tr.)
Kant's great book was one of the first volumes I
picked up when I discovered my interest in philosophy — even though I
knew I wouldn't understand most of it. You could do worse, Aurora, than read
Kant's Introduction and Prefaces (to the 1st and 2nd editions). It will inspire
Xiaoqing asked this question:
Why I am
me and not you?
Wen asked this question:
I've put Xiaoqing's and Wen's questions together
even though they seem to be about totally different topics, because they are
both examples of what I would term a request for a 'metaphysical explanation'.
I want to examine these two examples in order to
show how a philosopher responds to a request for a metaphysical explanation, by
indicating the kinds of logical steps that one would typically take. This isn't
going to be an infallible recipe, or 'how-to-do-it' guide, but it will
demonstrate, I hope, something about the nature of the inquiry known as
The first point to make is that not all
metaphysical questions are requests for a metaphysical explanation. What is
time? or What is truth? are metaphysical questions
but they are not, on the face of it, requests for metaphysical explanation.
A request for a metaphysical explanation
typically takes the form, 'Why is...?', or 'Why isn't...', or 'Why can...?', or
'Why can't...?' We notice that something always is the case, and wonder why it
always is the case. Or we notice that something is never the case, and we
wonder why it is never the case. We have an inkling that it's not just an accident that things are like that, that
somehow we are dealing with something necessary.
The question is, What is the source
of that necessity?
A metaphysical explanation is not like a
physical explanation, for example the answer to the question, Why is the sky
blue? In a different world, where the physical conditions were different from
what they are on earth, the sky might have been pink, or green. The same
applies if the laws of physics had been different from what they in fact are in
this universe. It is a contingent fact that the sky is blue, and the
explanation takes the form of a deduction from known facts about the world, or
Different again are questions concerning purely
logical necessity, such as, 'Why does 2 plus 3 always make 5?' If you grasp
that the series of natural numbers is defined by the 'plus 1' operation, and
that each number in the series is identified as a given number of applications of the 'plus 1' operation, then the
question, 'Why does 2 plus 3 make 5?' is equivalent to, 'Why does 1 plus 1 plus
1 plus 1 plus 1 make 5?' And the answer is, 'That's just what 5 is!'
Of course, if you want to delve more deeply into
the philosophy of arithmetic, there's more to say about this: the point is that
the question, 'Why does 2 plus 3 make 5?' isn't a question about what numbers
are, in themselves, which would be metaphysical, but rather a question about
arithmetic. If you don't know why the answer is 5, then you don't understand
Examples of requests for metaphysical
explanation which typically turn up on the Ask a Philosopher pages are, 'Why
can't an effect precede its cause?', 'Why can't a stone be conscious?', 'Why
can't two objects occupy the same spatio-temporal position?', 'Why do all
things go forwards in time?', 'Why am I the same person today as I was
Logically, the first thing to ask is, Is it true that the statement in
question is a necessary truth? Is it necessary
that things break, or are some things incapable, in principle, of being broken?
Is it necessary that I am me and not you, or might there have been
circumstances in which I became you, or even in which I was born as you?
What gives these questions their bite is that we
think we can imagine, or half imagine, things being different. The mobile phone
on my desk would shatter if I hit it with a heavy hammer. But suppose it
didn't. Suppose I hit the mobile phone with every kind of hammer, put it in a
powerful steel press, tied an atomic bomb to it, and none of these attempts at
breaking the mobile phone succeeded, wouldn't one conclude that the item was
really unbreakable? Or imagine that you and I are having a casual conversation,
suddenly I feel my consciousness floating free from my body, the next moment I
am entering your head. And then I am you, talking to 'me'!
Can't an effect precede its cause? Suppose I
forgot to turn the water heater on, and now the water is too cold for me to
take a bath. So I tap my time belt and travel back in time one hour and turn
the water heater on. When I return to the present time, the water is nice and
hot. (It's quicker than having to wait.) Can't a stone be conscious? Suppose an
evil witch turns me into stone. I can see the witch holding up a mirror and
laughing at me, but I can't move a muscle. In the mirror I see, to my horror, a
stone statue where previously there was my living, breathing body.
Let's look at the case of the unbreakable mobile
phone, and the case of 'me becoming you' more closely. (The other two questions
I have looked at elsewhere: For 'Why can't I change the past?' see my Afterword
to David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded
For 'Why can't a stone be conscious?' see my ‘Truth and Subjective Knowledge’ http://klempner.freeshell.org/articles/shap.html.)
A mobile phone can be disassembled. If it has
screws, then these can be unscrewed. Most objects — including biological
'objects' such as human beings — are 'assemblies' in this sense, parts
fitted or put together, by nature or design, such that the resulting assembly
performs a particular function or set of functions. The function of a mobile
phone is to send texts and make phone calls (amongst other things). The
function of a human being is to live and procreate (amongst other things). Just
as the mobile phone is made of parts, so the parts themselves are made of
smaller parts, or different kinds of material such as metal or plastic, and
material is 'assembled' from yet smaller parts, i.e. atoms and molecules.
Breakage is a particular kind of 'disassembly',
where taking the object apart involves force, rather than following the
disassembly procedure that the item in question is designed to permit, e.g.
when it is being serviced. A broken mobile phone is no longer able to perform
its proper function. (If you like carving pretty patterns into it with your
penknife, that is modification rather than breakage — the mobile phone
'But couldn't God make an unbreakable mobile
phone?' In that case, it doesn't have 'screws'. Not only that, but the material
isn't metal or plastic or any substance made of atoms or molecules, because as
we have seen any material physically composed of atoms or molecules is capable
in principle of being broken apart.
But, then, this is metaphysics, so we should not
come to any conclusions which depend on assuming the truth of the laws of
nature, which are themselves merely contingent, not necessary.
So, we are to suppose that the mobile phone
isn't made of natural material, but supernatural
material. Only God can work with supernatural material. In that case, if the
mobile phone can't be taken apart or broken by any natural means, what about
supernatural means? Can't God break asunder what he himself has made?
Here's a nice question that turns up on Ask a
Philosopher from time to time. 'Can God make a stone that he cannot lift?' Or,
'Can God make an object which he cannot break?' The answer in both cases is,
No. However, this does not entail a limitation of God's power, because the
definition of an object which is 'unbreakable by a being who has the power to
break any object', or 'unliftable by a being who has the power to lift any
object', is self-contradictory. It is not a limitation of God's infinite power
that he cannot 'break' the laws of logic. So the mobile phone is breakable
either way, whether it's manufactured by Nokia or by God.
The Greek atomists Leucippus and Democritus
defined 'atoms' as metaphysically unbreakable. Each atom is an exemplification
of the unchangeable One of Parmenides. The problem is that you can't just
define an object with specified properties into existence. Atoms have a
definite size. (The Atomists believed that there were 'atoms' of every size,
including atoms the size of planets.) In that case, different parts of an atom
occupy different parts of space. In that
case, surely we can conceive of the logical possibility of those parts being
(I guess it's possible that Wen was probably
thinking more of the fact that valuable items such as mobile phones break too
easily. Well, if you will insist on using your mobile phone in the bath! In
that case, you'll have to ask Nokia. The reason why consumer items break so often
is a question of economics rather than metaphysics.)
How about the question, 'Why am I me and not
you?', or, 'Why can't I be you?'
In the case of the mobile phone we imagined, or
tried to imagine, possible universes that
were 'designed' to allow for unbreakable objects — the theist universe of
natural and supernatural objects, or the Greek atomist universe of unbreakable
atoms. In both cases, the design flaw is a purely logical or conceptual one.
There is no logical way to make a universe to the specification required.
What would it take for me to be you, or to become you? Let's go back to our conversation. My consciousness
floats free, and enters into your head. Now I'm you seeing me. But wait a
minute: in order to be you, to be really you, I can't bring any of my
me-thoughts with me. All the thoughts I think must be your thoughts. So that
rules out me thinking, 'Hey, now I know what it is like to be someone else!'
Before, there was you, thinking your thoughts, then afterwards there is someone who looks identical to you,
stands exactly where you stand, experiences all the experiences you experience,
thinks all the thoughts that you think. How on earth can that person not be
Maybe there is a way. Once again, we have to
'imagine a universe'. In this universe, human beings have physical bodies, and
brains that enable them to experience, feel and think. But they also have something else, the I-factor. (In some
respects, the idea of an 'I-factor' is similar to the Atman of Hindu philosophy, but I won't make anything of this.) It
is possession of the I-factor which makes me me. My I-factor could have been born in your body, in which case I
would have been you. Or, indeed, my I-factor can 'leave' me and 'enter' you.
The peculiar thing about this, as we have already observed, is that this isn't
an 'experience' in the normal sense.
It looks like we are going to have to bring God
in again. (Always a sure sign of desperation.) I can never 'know what it is
like' for my I-factor to be 'in' you. But God, or so we imagine, 'sees' my
I-factor in me and your I-factor in you, and is perfectly capable, should he
choose to do so, of swapping the I-factors around. Let's not ask why would God possibly want to do this.
Let's say he does it just for fun. Why can't God do things for fun sometimes?
It suffices that he can. But can he?
I don't think so, and I don't think Xiaoqing thinks so either. The idea of a
transferable I-factor, as I have defined it, is the purest nonsense.
That's the reason why I am me and not you, and
you are you and not me. It's a logical, conceptual reason. You can't make a
universe where things are any different from the way they actually are —
with respect to me being me and not you, or with respect to things being
breakable — because you have failed to give a coherent description of the
alleged properties of such an alternative universe, other than one which merely
begs the question.
of the moral philosopher
Lfand asked this question:
moral philosopher, or a student in moral philosophy as I am, have an obligation
to behave morally, or in a much more moral way than anyone else (as a
Which do you think is worse, hypocrisy or
If I tell you that I am more moral than you
because I am a moral philosopher, then isn't that just arrogance? On the other
hand, if I tell you that despite the fact that I am a moral philosopher, I do
not regard this as having any consequences for the morality of my actions,
isn't that just hypocrisy?
If anyone claims to be more moral than I am,
then it takes all my powers of self-control to prevent me from giving them a
smack. So don't parade your moral virtue in front of me, I won't be impressed.
And don't call me a hypocrite just because I refuse to parade my moral virtue
in front of you.
I don't like philosophers who preach. In the
past, I have nearly succumbed to the temptation, in my erstwhile incarnation as
a philosopher of business. My ten part Ethical
Dilemmas ('a primer for decision makers') contains guidelines for business
people designed to help them think more clearly about moral issues. However,
thinking clearly about a moral issue can sometimes mean seeing that whatever
you do will be 'wrong' — from one point of view or another — so
don't feel too bad about it. Just do what you've got to do.
What is 'morality'? It is an ugly word, but so
is 'ethics'. When philosophers distinguish between the two, it is usually for
the sake of some pet theory. I personally don't have a view on this and don't
care what term one uses. (My usage generally accords with what Fowler mildly
denigrates as 'elegant variation'. When I get bored with using the term
'moral', I switch to 'ethical', and vice versa.)
When Marx in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach stated
that philosophers should seek to change
the world rather than merely interpret
it, he was in a way restating the view expressed 2500 years earlier by Socrates
in Plato's dialogue Phaedo. In a
long, memorable passage, (96A ff.) Socrates explains why he lost interest
in the physical speculations of his predecessors, in particular Anaxagoras.
'Man' and the question how one should live is the central concern of
My own taste veers towards 'interpreting the
world', understanding the nature of existence. I would like to understand
ethics, or morality, because the phenomenon puzzles me. I don't mean this in a
superficial sense. I accept that ethics is a direct route to metaphysics, and
you can't do metaphysics without at some point tackling ethics. But what has
ethics, or metaphysics, taught me (if only incidentally) about right or wrong,
or how I ought to live?
You see, I have real problems with the idea that
there are some things I 'must' or have an 'obligation' to do, by contrast with
the things I desire for myself. To my mind, I don't do things 'for myself', or
'for others' but simply for a reason.
Anything else would be irrational. But maybe I mean something different by
'reason' than you do. Being 'fun' is a reason, so I do some things for fun. But
sometimes you have to avoid things which would be fun, or do things which are
positively not fun. It might be fun to knock a policeman's helmet off, but the
reason for not doing so is (in most cases) stronger.
This is where the real problem arises. Just
because, being a philosopher (or a moral philosopher) you aim to understand and
see more, there is a danger that you see reasons for action that other persons
fail to see, or indeed that you will see
through what others mistakenly take to be valid reasons for action. In
other words, it's simply about being true
to what you know.
Following this line of reasoning, it would be
perfectly logical — perfectly rational — to come to the conclusion
that, as a result of what you now know (which you didn't know before) you
realize that in the past you have been more
moral, more ethical than you ought to have been. You foolishly allowed yourself
to be swayed by irrational considerations into doing acts which won moral
praise from others, which you ought not
to have done, and would not have done had you known better.
Let's say you are a previously ardent Christian
who reads Nietzsche and concludes that much of what you thought was ethical is
merely the expression of 'herd morality'. You unwittingly allowed your emotions
to be manipulated by others to their own ends. Or, let's say you are a
previously ardent Socialist who reads Ayn Rand and discovers the 'virtue of
I am not putting forward these philosophers as
necessarily representative of my own views; I am merely stating a point of
principle. If you look into morality with the unblinking eye of a philosopher
seeking truth, there's no saying in advance what you may discover or where your
investigations may take you.
What I believe is true — and I don't
consider it arrogant to say this — is that the study of philosophy has
made my life better. I don't mean
this in a moral sense, or a non-moral sense because I don't recognize the
distinction. I see meaning, where others struggle to see meaning. But nor is
'helping others to see' a reason for what I do. How could it be, if I didn't
have a reason to be a philosopher that was a reason for me?
If truth be a woman
Tev asked this question:
does Nietzsche compare truth, and what is the meaning of his comparison?
Malcolm asked this question:
Nietzche open to so many interpretations or misinterpretations?
This takes me back. I have a vivid memory of
sitting in a cafe opposite the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, London in 1982.
Each table had an inlaid chess board, but I hadn't come to play chess. In my
coat pocket was a newly purchased copy of Walter Kaufmann's translation of
Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. A
month or two before, I had been awarded my D.Phil. And I hadn't even read
Nietzsche. What an admission!
I opened the chubby paperback at the Preface,
and this is what I read:
Supposing truth is a woman
— what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all
philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about
women? That the gruesome seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they
have usually approached truth so far have been awkward and very improper
methods for winning a woman's heart? What is certain is that she has not
allowed herself to be won — and today every kind of dogmatism is left standing
dispirited and discouraged. If it is left standing at all! For there are
scoffers who claim that it has fallen, that all dogmatism lies on the ground
— even more, that all dogmatism is dying.
Speaking seriously, there
are good reasons why all philosophical dogmatizing, however solemn and
definitive its airs used to be, may nevertheless have been no more than a noble
childishness and tyronism. And perhaps the time is at hand when it will be
comprehended again and again how little used to be sufficient to furnish the
cornerstone for such sublime and unconditional philosophers' edifices as the
dogmatists have built so far: any old popular superstition from time immemorial
(like the soul superstition which, in the form of the subject and ego
superstition, has not even yet ceased to do mischief); some play on words
perhaps, a seduction by grammar, or an audacious generalization of very narrow,
very personal, very human, all too human facts.
Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil W. Kaufmann Tr.,
This was incredible. Nietzsche was talking to
me, he had written this for me. A
hundred years separated us, yet here he was sitting at my table, fixing me with
his glassy eyed stare.
My thesis The
Metaphysics of Meaning was a critique of the 'realism vs. anti-realism'
debate in the philosophy of language, focusing on what I termed the 'ego
illusion' and the 'truth illusion'. I agreed with Michael Dummett — and
Kant, and (as it turned out) Nietzsche — that there is no 'direct route'
to metaphysical knowledge as the dogmatists, or 'transcendent metaphysicians'
But I was equally sceptical of the analytic
philosopher's attempt to distil metaphysical conclusions from the analysis of
language, or, in Dummett's terms, 'an account of the form of a theory of
meaning'. To me, that was just another form of dogmatism.
Philosophers are never so happy as when they
have a 'method' for solving a problem. I suppose the equivalent in seduction
techniques would be the kind of book you see advertised on the internet, 'Six
fail-safe methods for winning a woman.' (I mean, if they are fail-safe, why do
you need six? Wouldn't one be enough?)
My hero was a philosopher of an altogether
different calibre, Wittgenstein, who understood well what it was like to 'try
to untangle a spider's web with one's fingers', that the only way to make real
progress is through patient philosophical therapy applied to the various things
we are tempted to say, that turn out
to be so much nonsense. Or what I called, rather crudely and impatiently,
The irony is that Dummett's arguments for an
'anti-realist theory of meaning' were, so he claimed, inspired by
Wittgenstein's account of 'meaning as use'. Well, you've got to try, haven't
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein are masters
of a philosophical style which has become known as indirect discourse. To pull this off, you need special literary
gifts, as well as a finely tuned sense of irony. These are philosophers who
deliberately risk being misunderstood, because correcting your misunderstanding is a necessary part of the
learning process. (I can understand, though I don't altogether agree with the
view that there is more real philosophy going on in English departments these
The question is, putting aside the rhetoric, is there such a thing as truth in
philosophy? Is truth something that philosophers can attain if we give up brute
force and heroic full frontal assaults, and become seducers (Kierkegaard's term) teasing out the truth with tact and
But that's forgetting that Nietzsche is an
ironist, and he is being ironic in this passage. The similarity to Kant's
description of Metaphysics, in the Preface to the 1st Edition of Critique of Pure Reason, as erstwhile
'Queen of the Sciences' now a 'matron outcast', is too obvious. Nietzsche is
'doing a Kant', and he's doing it tongue in cheek. There will be no grand
critique, no systematic drawing of the limits of human reason, no method.
there be truth? Did Nietzsche, tragically unsuccessful in his attempt to woo the
only woman to capture his heart, Lou Salomé (see Matthew Del Nevo, 'Lou Salomé
and Nietzsche' in Philosophy Pathways Issue 148) seriously think he was up to
the task of attaining truth? Or is he trying to tell us that the very idea of
'pursuing the truth' as philosophers have thought of themselves as doing, is in
some sense absurd?
Nietzsche is no mere relativist. He saw nihilism
as the greatest threat. Yet the last thing he would have claimed is to have
discovered 'the truth'. Each time you circle round the problem, you tease out
different aspects, gain new perspectives. And this process is itself done for a purpose, that is to say,
ultimately a practical purpose. To know 'the truth' as such is not, for
Nietzsche, a credible or even intelligible aim for the philosopher.
In his 1880's Notebooks, published posthumously
as The Will to Power, Nietzsche
states more than once, 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' With this,
you can seemingly get away with saying anything. 'I'm not stating my view as a
fact, just an (or my) interpretation!' Is the interpretation meant to be valid? or merely a subjective report on
the way you happen to see things? Anyone who has read Nietzsche and felt the
urge to say, 'Yes!' to an insight or observation would find it disconcerting,
at best, to be told that the thing they said 'yes' to wasn't meant to be true.
There are many truths, many partial
interpretations, like pieces of a jig-saw. As with a partially assembled
jig-saw, you kind-of get to see the big picture, but it is ambiguous, like the
'duck-rabbit' illusion. One moment, you see it this way, then you see it that
way. But there is still something to see.
Nietzsche evidently thought so. He was gripped by the urge to communicate his
vision. The last thing Nietzsche wanted was for his readers to give up on
Some time in the late 80's, I stopped thinking
of the thing I'd called in my thesis the 'ego illusion' as an illusion. If
something is an illusion, that implies a way of seeing things from a
non-illuded perspective. But in the case of 'I', that can never be (unless you
are God, but then, as I argue in Naēve
Metaphysics, God can't see the 'I-ness of I' either). I don't even know if
it's true to say that I changed my mind.
Am I just looking at things from a different viewpoint? Do I now have the
truth? Was my previous view false, or only partially true? — I found
another jig-saw piece, that's all.
is what it seems
Louella asked this question:
explain the saying,
IS WHAT IT SEEMS.'
or does REALITY
Louella has struck a nerve with her question. On
the face of it, it looks like a beginner's question, the sort of thing that
someone who hasn't had much exposure to philosophy would think about. 'Nothing
is what it seems.' We know that isn't true, don't we? Some things are what they
seem (e.g. the half-drunk cup of luke warm coffee on my desk is a half-drunk cup of luke-warm
coffee), and some things aren't what they seem. We sometimes get the wrong
impression of things. We correct that wrong impression, and then we see things
But, actually — at least in certain moods
— I am more inclined to think that all that's just superficial. What we
term 'reality' is just a more or less coherent story, not the real truth about
things whatever that may be. — I'm just describing a feeling, you don't
need to think particularly deeply just to feel
this, say, to feel the way Neo felt in The Matrix.
But note what I just said: 'not the real truth
about things'. Louella goes on to ask, 'or
does reality exist?' Either nothing
is what it seems, or reality exists,
but not both. That's the implication of her question. But I'm suggesting the
opposite: In stating that 'nothing is what it seems', we have in mind, or
imply, that there is something real,
a real truth about things, which we can never know, or at least which is very
difficult to know, or maybe only a few people know.
What if reality didn't exist? How would you
describe that situation? Then everything is what it seems. A thing cannot fail
to be what it seems unless reality exists, unless there is a way that thing
'really' is, which is different from the way it seems. If reality doesn't exist
then everything is the way it seems to me, and everything is also the way it
seems to you. If things seem different
to you than they do to me, neither of us can be wrong. We are both right. My
world-of-seeming is mine, and your world-of-seeming is yours.
But surely that's just... nuts? How could
absolutely everything just be exactly as it seems? That would mean
that I never a mistake or error about anything, that it is never necessary to
correct my first impressions, that, basically, my beliefs are always true (and
so are yours). One only needs to consider that a person's beliefs are are not
always consistent with one another to
realize the impossibility of what I've just stated.
Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus considered these questions. Interestingly, he didn't
think that the idea was so 'nuts' that it was OK to ignore it. He puts the
thesis, 'Everything is what it seems' in to the mouth of the great sophist
Protagoras. (Some commenators would argue that this is a somewhat unfair gloss
on Protagoras' famous statement, 'Man is the measure of all things.') Plato
doesn't rest content with saying the obvious: that the very attempt to state
the thesis leads to absurdity. He considers how
one would have to think of knowledge if that hypothesis were accepted.
If there is no real distinction between
'seeming' and 'reality', then we can no longer think of statements as 'aiming
at the truth', that is to say, aiming to correspond with the way things 'really
are'. Instead, a statement becomes a tool
which one uses to affect someone's behaviour. That's what a sophist aims to do
in Plato's picture. As a result of listening to the sophist's discourse you are
not 'informed' about 'reality' (because there is no reality). Rather, as the
sophist would claim, you are made 'better' in some way. The athletics trainer
helps you run faster. The rhetoric coach helps you to impress people with your
speaking ability, that is to say, your ability to use words to influence or
In a Protagorean universe, according to Plato,
everything as we 'know' it is turned upside down. Nothing is 'rational' or
'irrational', 'valid' or 'invalid', 'true' or 'false'. All one is permitted to
say is that the verbal statements we make are either 'effective' or 'not
effective'. Nor can one even speak of there being a 'truth' as to whether or
not a statement is 'really' effective. All speech is propaganda, all thinking
is reacting. In some ways, it is a perfect depiction of the world George Orwell
horrifyingly portrays in his novel 1984.
That's surely not what Protagoras or the other Greek sophists had in mind, but
according to Plato it is the inevitable consequence of the relativist view of
So what about that feeling I had, that maybe
Louella is right and nothing is what it seems? All this, all of you, these...
things around me are just shadows, as indeed am I myself. Plato talks eloquently
about this too, in his dialogue Republic,
in the allegory of the Cave. But, then, according to Plato, something is real, because you can get
out of the cave — if you're clever enough, if you know how to work the
dialectic. And then you will 'see', not with your eyes (which can never yield
true knowledge) but with your mind.
The perfect world of Forms.
But if Plato is right then something is what it seems, after all. The eternal
Forms are what they seem (to the mind's eye). You cannot gaze upon the highest
Form, the Form of the Good, and not know it for what it is, in its very being
If like me you think that this is all fairy
tales — or 'the last fumes of evaporating reality' as Nietzsche describes
it in Twilight of the Idols —
then maybe you will begin to feel an unnerving sense of the threat that the
Protagorean way of seeing things poses. I can't quite wholly believe in this
familiar world, I can't fully accept it's 'reality'. But I can't see anything
else either, no alternative, certainly no 'purer' or 'higher' world behind
these deceptive appearances. Then, maybe, we really can't say for sure whether
the Protagorean view, as Plato describes it in Theateteus might not after all be the only possibility left
standing, after all the alternatives have fallen away.
If this is a Protagorean universe, then I am not
arguing with you now. I am not making a case. This isn't logic and my words are
not governed by any notion of validity. I am behaving — linguistically — a trick invented by a
certain species of ape around 50 thousand years ago in order to improve their
success rate in hunting non-speaking animals for food. Or whatever is the
current explanation. Except of course that what I'm telling you now isn't
'knowledge', or even a 'probable theory'. Just words intended to produce an
One of the more interesting developments in
English-speaking analytic philosophy in the last century, was the idea of a
clash between 'realist' and 'anti-realist' approaches to the nature of meaning
and truth. A foremost figure in the debate is Michael Dummett who argued for an
'anti-realist' theory of meaning, along the lines of the later Wittgenstein's
notion of 'language games'. (I first came across Dummett's views in his
celebrated book Frege Philosophy of Language
London, Duckworth 1973.) To know the meaning of a word or a statement is no
more, or less, than to be competent in following the rules for using that word or statement, as
accepted in one's local linguistic community.
Subsequently, in an interview (around 1980 in a
religious program on TV exploring Dummett's Catholic faith) Dummett confided
that his real desire — though he could not yet see a way to do this
— was to argue for the necessary existence of God, in a manner similar to
the idealist philosopher Berkeley. Rebounding from the Protagorean universe
described in the anti-realist theory, there is no alternative to believing in
God, if you want to defend your belief in knowledge, truth and rationality.
When I saw the program, I was shocked by Dummett's frankness. My D.Phil thesis
which I was working on at the time defended a stark version of anti-realism,
without the God option.
I don't know exactly where Dummett stands on the
God issue today. It is true that he has modified his views on the theory of
meaning somewhat. But the stark challenge posed by the philosophy of
anti-realism remains: believe in God — or something — or resign yourself to living in the world of 1984. I am aware that there are many
analytic philosophers today who broadly follow Dummett's line who would dispute
this claim. Wittgenstein believed he was merely combating illusions about our
inner life and the 'grammar' of our language. Quietism does not necessarily
lead to totalitarianism. However, I don't think that things are that easy or
simple. I don't think we really know where we are. My impression is that the
way things are going now, it would only take a couple of small steps to find
ourselves living in an Orwellian universe.
Meanwhile, academic philosophers debate
minutiae, not realizing the ground is being cut from under them.
identity and belonging
Casey asked this question:
doing a school essay on identity and belonging.
is: 'Personal identity is determined by what others think of us.'
just wondering whether there are any philosophical theories relating to this
Casey, I'm guessing that you have done a few
Google searches and seen the phrase 'personal identity' on philosophy web sites
and forums. It's a popular topic in academic philosophy. However, when
philosophers discuss personal identity they are primarily interested in
identity in the forensic or strict
sense: the precise physical and mental criteria for being one and the same person at time A and time B. Much of the
discussion is quite arcane, involving science fiction thought experiments of
body duplication, mind swaps etc.
But let's bring things down to earth.
A suspect is arrested for a murder. What the
police want to know is whether the suspect is
the person who did the murder or not. Suppose that they think that he is the murderer. (Well, obviously we assume they do
otherwise he wouldn't have been arrested.) What the police think is just their
belief — which might turn out to be true or might turn out to be false,
depending on whether the suspect really is
the murderer or not. That's what they hope to find out.
Applying your formula — 'personal identity
is determined by what others think of us' — would lead to the absurd (and
scary) conclusion that a suspect is guilty if other people believe he is
guilty, even if he knows that he is innocent!
The facts are the facts. Sometimes, innocent
people get convicted of crimes they did not commit, and no-one ever discovers
the truth. On your formula, however, that would never happen. Your formula says
that the identity of a person — e.g. the perpetrator of a crime —
is determined just by what people
So, if you don't
mean personal identity in the forensic or strict sense, what do you mean?
I think what you are talking about is a person's
sense of what kind of person they
are. We loosely refer to this as 'a sense of identity', but the identity in
question is not the identity of a particular individual over time but rather identity with something larger than
themselves, for example, a family, an occupation, a religion, a flag. All these
things express one's 'sense of identity'. You can accept or reject the religion
you were brought up with. You can be proud to be, e.g., an American, or
indifferent, or ashamed depending on how feel about the country of your birth.
Whatever my parents' religious beliefs may have
been, whatever they hoped I might believe, my beliefs are mine. Whatever people
may think of me, I'm the best judge concerning whether I am proud of my country
or not. Those are facts about my
feelings and attitudes, and the kind of person I am. How can what other people think be relevant?
What makes your topic interesting is that
despite what I've just said there does appear to be room for questioning this
Consider the popular phrase, 'You can't deny
your roots.' Do you agree? or disagree? Think of different actual situations
where someone might make this remark to another person. Is it always true, or
does it depend on the situation? Are there circumstances where it is OK, or
even desirable to deny one's roots? Who has the final say?
In certain parts of the world, skin colour is,
sadly, still a major factor in determining how others think of you. 'I may have
white skin, but I have a black heart,' said an Irish politician to his Harlem audience.
They didn't laugh.
Around 1970 I was wearing granny T-shirts and
bell bottom jeans, and sported a shoulder width Jimi Hendrix hair style. You
might have taken me for a hippie. Maybe I thought of myself as a hippie, but in
reality I was just a middle class British kid dressing up. If someone had
offered me free love or a tab of LSD I would have run a mile.
What others think of you affects the way you
think of yourself. If how you think of yourself is an expression of your sense
of identity, then what others think can be a determining factor of your
'identity'. But much still depends, just as before, on the facts. You can be wrong about who you think you are, and others
who 'know you better than you know yourself' can be right. Or they can be wrong
and you can be right. Or maybe in this particular case there's no answer to the
question. You just have to make your decision and stick with it. — All
these answers are equally possible.
Or perhaps it is truer to say that we conspire with others through our
desires, beliefs and attitudes to create our social 'identity' — our
allegiances, our 'roots' — a 'fact' that we subsequently embrace or
repudiate (for good or bad reasons). Each person has his or her own version of
the story. There's no referee keeping score.
existence of holes
Asia asked this question:
really exist or are they pockets of non-existence?
Whoa! I know someone who would love this
question — my erstwhile student and Pathways mentor Brian Tee. Brian got
his MA in Philosophy from The University of Sheffield and now owns The Porter
Bookshop in Sheffield — a nice job for a philosopher. I have to apologize
to Asia in advance because Brian would have been able to give a much better
answer than me. But I can only try my best.
I remember having a three hour discussion on the
philosophical topic of holes with Brian while downing pints of Easy Rider at
The Sheaf View pub, just up the road from my office. John Riley, another
ex-student who designed the banner for The Ten Big Questions was also there.
The discussion was sparked off when Brian pointed to the absence of beer in his
glass and reminded me that it was my turn to buy a round.
How can an absence be something? As any beer drinker knows, the absence of beer in your
glass is a very serious matter that needs to be rectified as soon as possible.
Somehow, that got us onto the topic of holes.
Let's say that holes undoubtedly exist. Then
what is a hole?
Consider a hole in a wall. (I think that was my
bright idea.) A hole is something you can climb through: an opportunity (if you
are trying to get to the other side of the wall) or a threat (if you are trying
to prevent someone from getting to the other side of the wall). However, a hole
— say, a gap in the brickwork — isn't a hole in the wall if it is too small (then it's a crack — another
concept that one could look at), or if air is blasting through at a
sufficiently powerful rate, or if it contains a guillotine designed to chop you
in half if you try to climb through.
Chicken wire is full of 'holes', but a hole in a chicken wire fence is a matter
of concern to the farmer, especially if there are foxes about. Here again, what
does or does not count as a hole is relative to the function or purpose of a
Is a hole a thing?
Consider the holes in Emmental ('Swiss') cheese. If you bought some Emmental at
the supermarket and then discovered that it didn't have any holes, you'd have
the right to complain: the cheese may taste the same, but it isn't Emmental
without the holes. You'd miss the peculiar pleasure of exploring the holes with
your tongue as you bite into the cheese. Visual appearance is also very
important. In this and in many other cases, holes are a positive aesthetic feature.
However, so far we are merely skirting round the
issue. Talk of the 'functional' or 'aesthetic' role of holes merely underlines
the reasons why we take a practical interest in these strange objects. The
philosophical question, however, is what holes are, ontologically speaking.
From the point of view of logic, to say that a
hole is a 'something' is to assert that it is an 'entity with an identity' in
P.F. Strawson's sense: an object of reference whose persistence and identity
conditions are sufficiently well defined to enable a speaker and hearer to identify
it as the 'same again' on different occasions and say things about it.
One of the things we discussed in the pub was
Sartre's discussion of 'the absence of Pierre'. I'm waiting in a coffee bar for
Pierre but Pierre hasn't shown up. Wherever I look, Pierre is not in my field of vision. In terms of
Gestalt psychology, I perceive the cafe not just as general scenery but as a ground on which I am expecting a figure to appear. All the details fade
into a more or less uniform blur. And yet what I perceive is not merely a blur
but something positive, Pierre's absence.
To perceive a hole is to perceive a gestalt, a
'figure' on a 'ground'. But, equally, to perceive the absence of a hole is to perceive a gestalt. The hole searched for
is not there.
Frege or Russell would say that the absent
Pierre isn't a peculiar kind of object inhabiting the 'realm of non-existence'.
Rather, the statement, 'Pierre is not here' can be analysed in first-order
predicate calculus as, 'For all x, if x is in the cafe, then x is not equal to
Pierre', or, analysing proper names ą la Quine, 'For all x, if x is in the cafe
then x does not have the property of being-Pierre'.
However, this response still fails to address
the question why absences, or holes, are philosophically interesting, and
indeed why Sartre sees the very notion of 'nothing' or 'nothingness' as having
deep phenomenological or metaphysical significance. You don't have to believe
that holes are 'made of' a special kind of non-existent stuff, or think of
holes as 'pockets of non-existence' in order to sense that holes are somehow
problematic and disturbing.
Assume that a hole is, as stated above, an
'entity with an identity'. Holes that meet this criterion are like things, and
yet they lack many of the essential qualities of things. Holes lack the
defining properties of a 'substance' in Aristotle's sense. In Lockean terms,
holes do not have 'primary qualities' from which their 'secondary qualities'
And yet holes are like things in that they have
a natural life, a natural history. Consider the hole in a sock, which starts
off as a broken thread and then gradually grows and grows until your heel
sticks through. The holes in Emmental are produced by a biochemical reaction,
their distribution and size is carefully controlled by the precise conditions
under which the cheese is manufactured. And yet they are not made of anything. They contain pure carbon dioxide but they are
not made of carbon dioxide, any more than a hole in a brick wall is made of
Just like physical objects, holes can combine
and merge. Two small holes in a sock can gradually grow until they merge and
become a bigger hole. Equally, holes can be divided up. Adding a few strands of
wire fixes the 'hole' in the chicken wire fence. From one point of view, the larger
hole has been divided up into smaller holes, but, as we have seen, the smaller
holes are not holes in the fence,
which as a result of the timely repair is once more an effective fence,
sufficient to keep the foxes out.
In the pub we also considered the idea that the edge or rim of the hole constitutes is actual, physical presence. It is
true that in describing the precise dimensions of the rim you have described
the dimensions of the hole. And yet logically the rim, qua physical stuff, cannot be a constituent element or part of the
hole, because you can fill the hole in (e.g. a hole in a wall) without in any
way changing the material properties of the the rim. Equally, if I mark a chalk
circle where I plan to cut a hole in the wall, I have defined a potential rim
which in a sense actually exists (as physical material) and yet does not yet
exist — just as for the sculptor the statue already 'exists' in the
— Come to think of it, what is it that one
'sees' in the hunk of stone?
Last week, I was kicking around possible designs
for a new web page, ISFP Publishing https://isfp.co.uk/publishing/.
The idea is to help unknown authors promote books on philosophy. Somehow, I
gravitated towards the idea that the background should look like old paper. I
found something very nice on Flickr. But still, there seemed to be something missing. Then the idea came to
me — from I don't know where — that what the page needed was a fly, crawling across the paper. The
people I've shown the page to agreed that the fly was just right and nothing
else would do. But how did I know this, from just staring at the space where a
fly was not? What did I see?
However, I think there's something else that
needs to be emphasized, something to do specifically with our psychological
attitude to holes in particular, which does not apply to absences or lacks
As a matter of physical fact, our bodies are porous (from the Greek poros, passage or pore). The human body
is made of, defined by, its holes. (Something about this reminds me of Tantric
philosophy.) Through these passages and channels, information and physical
material flows in and out. The miracle of reproduction is the most
The very notion of perception involves the idea of holes or channels whereby
information is conveyed into our minds from the external world, through the
eyes, ears, nose. To be receptive to experience is essential to our
connectedness with the world and our surrounding environment, as indeed it is
to our capacity to communicate with one another. Yet equally important is the
role of holes in relation to physical needs, the need to breathe, eat etc.
Last time, I strayed into Freudian territory in
talking about 'male' and 'female' aspects of the impulse to philosophize.
Leaving aside the differences between the sexes, the discovery that one has an
anus as well as a mouth, must be a momentous event for the human infant.
All of which leads me to conclude that what
makes the topic of holes so enticing is not just one thing but a potent
combination of factors.
— Well, those are some more or less
jumbled thoughts. Holes exist. But there is no single, definitive way of
stating what makes something a hole. It depends on your point of view, or interest.
And I've tried to explain why holes are so 'interesting'. If there is a core or
real essence to the 'philosophical problem of holes', I don't think I've found
it. Maybe you will, Asia, if you keep looking. Or ask Brian.
idea of international law
This is a
political philosophy question about the incompatibility of national sovereignty
and international institutions such as the UN, EU, treaty commitments and the
legitimacy (or not) of enforcement mechanisms. I'm sorry it's so long.
entire adult life I have been a strong supporter of the UN and international
law as the best hope to prevent and mitigate wars and help bring about, if not
perfect global peace, harmony and justice, at least a reduction of conflict and
more peaceful coexistence. I dislike nationalism, and particularly
superpatriotism, which seem to me one of the principal causes of conflict, and
have looked forward to the decreasing importance of nation states.
since I've developed an amateur interest in philosophy and ethics, I discover
that national sovereignty is seen by many as key to human progress and
civilisation since at least the Enlightenment; that it is inalienable and by
definition supreme, meaning that states cannot relinquish any part of their
sovereignty, thereby destroying any claim to legitimacy of international law
(and the courts to enforce it). I read, too, that while states have the
authority to make treaties and sign up to conventions if they wish, they can
also break them at will if that suits, and that no other state or institution
has (or can have) legitimate authority to prevent them, or penalise them for
doing so (or even, it seems, have grounds to criticise them, since states are
not moral agents).
those of us who were against the Iraq war complained that it was a war of
aggression, or we cite the Geneva Conventions (rather than basic morality) on
the treatment of prisoners, or the Law of the Sea when unarmed passengers are
killed on ships in international waters, or the discriminatory application of
the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, or we welcome the establishment of the
ICC, apparently we haven't a philosophical leg to stand on.
nothing short of a world state (inevitably oppressive and therefore far from
desirable) can legitimately override national sovereignty, what is to be done?
Are we stuck forever with a Hobbesian state of nature in the international
arena, where the strongest countries can generally expect to prevail over the
wishes and needs of the weakest, backed by the threat of superior brute force?
warned that studying philosophy would force me to rethink some of my
fundamental beliefs, which was true and is stimulating, but I'm finding this
very hard to come to terms with. Is there a way round or over the sovereignty
stumbling block to greater global justice, a philosophical route to legitimacy
for what I think of as progressive international institutions?
The question of how the actions of nation states
can be subject to law is the most urgent question of our times. It is, above
all, a practical question. If the
United Nations and the Security Council are not sufficiently effective to deter
or prevent wars of aggression then we should be figuring out ways of making
them more effective. Which is of course exactly what political thinkers and
political leaders have been doing. If we succeeded, would it really matter if
this went against some treasured philosophical principle? I don't think so.
Sovereignty is essential, as Hobbes argued in Leviathan because in the absence of a
sovereign to whom one cedes the power to enforce law, there can be no justice
and no law except the law of the jungle, the war of 'all against all'. But
Hobbes also argued with perfect consistency that a monarch, ruling alone, is
the only effective sovereign. As soon as you introduce limitations to the power
of the monarch — a parliament for example — the problems that the
idea of a sovereign was introduced to solve break out all over again.
The problem is encapsulated in the famous example
of the Prisoners' Dilemma. Of all the many game-theoretic strategies that have
been explored, Hobbes' solution is the only one that guarantees the an
agreement or contract will be honoured by both parties — because they are
answerable, not just to one another but to a third party who has the unfettered
power to punish infractions with lethal force. The third party, once appointed,
cannot be unappointed. That's what ensures no backsliding on the deal.
No-one accepts this today in the political
arena. Why not? Logically, Hobbes' argument is unassailable. To absolutely guarantee peace, the humble acquiescence
of every subject to the law of the land, nothing less than the absolute power
of a dictator is required. The problem is, kings and dictators have an awkward
tendency to behave in way that is not necessarily aimed at the good of their
subjects. (But that's OK, because they will face the judgement of God.)
Having made the experiment, human nations have
settled for less. We have a political system — I'm talking about liberal
democracy although you could say similar things about other political systems
— which works for the most part in maintaining the peace of the nation.
Bad things still happen. There are political stalemates when we need urgent political
action; the police force struggles to stay on top of the crime rate; civil
disobedience and strikes throw their spanner in the works.
'Thank goodness that they do,' would be a
reasonable response. Can you imagine what kind of state it would be, where the
decree of the ruler was absolute, where every crime and misdemeanour was
instantly punished? Vid screens in every room just like in 1984. You drop a piece of chewing gum on the pavement and Whooof!
off you go in a puff of smoke. (Although I know a few people who would agree to
So my argument would be, if we are prepared to
compromise the logic of Hobbes'
response to the prisoners' dilemma for the sake of practicality, then what this means, in effect, is an admission that
the idea of a 'sovereign' is a fiction. It may be, as many believe, an
indispensable fiction, but it is a fiction nonetheless. I recognize the law of
the land, by and large, but there are cases where my conscience, or just urgent
practical need, overrides respect for the law. One drives through the
occasional red light.
The United Nations is a building in New York. It
is also a fiction. It doesn't exist except in the minds of the political
leaders who founded it and the delegates who attend it. Belief that the UN can work is necessary in order to make
it work. And it has worked, by and large; at least one can argue that world
affairs would have been in a far worse state without it.
There isn't a question of what may or may not
'legitimately' override national sovereignty from a philosophical standpoint.
If a resolution is passed by the UN, then it is legitimate, because that's just what the member states have
subscribed to. Of course, the real world being what it is, resolutions fail to
be implemented, just as national laws fail to be observed. Punishments and
sanctions only deter in proportion to their severity: that's a problem for
national law as well as for international law.
philosophers figure something out? Insofar as this is a problem for game
theory, you need game theorists; insofar as this is a problem of practical
politics, you need political scientists. Maybe somewhere in there, is a role
for utopian dreamers. (The League of Nations was once a utopian dream. It's
failure led to the UN.)
The most intractable problems of our time
require more than a number-crunching or logic-crunching response; they require
originality, creativity. Something new, at any rate. I do wonder whether there
is any meaningful role for political philosophy. You want 'philosophical
legitimacy' for international law? You've got it. What we want is just to make
international law more effective,
without it hurting too much. Maybe that just shows the colour of my
philosophical creed (for want of a better word, call it pragmatism with a small
obligation to testify
Penny asked this question:
This is a
question about justice, the law and the duty of bystanders who witness a crime.
philosopher friend criticised my son as a 'snitch' for going to court to
testify in a case as a witness (whereas I thought he was being public spirited,
and argued that justice through the courts can only be achieved when people are
prepared to testify even in the face of intimidation).
and three teenage friends were the only other customers in a family-run
Pakistani restaurant which a group of aggressive white men trashed when they
were unhappy with the service. They also attacked and injured one of the
waiters, a clever sixth former in the same school my son and his friends
attended, leaving him with some brain damage.
much discussion of this and other hypothetical examples, my philosopher
friend's reasoning seemed to be that giving evidence against people who have
done nothing to you is not your business. If that evidence is given to
authorities with coercive authority over people, it constitutes an act of
aggression against others. He argued that it goes against Kant's first
formulation; and challenged me to devise an appropriate maxim that would always
hold true and I couldn't. As he wrote to me about it, 'If a principle cannot be
universalised without contradiction it is not true and cannot be true. It may
be an emotionally attractive principle and make you feel better, but it still
that I could report a robbery (or other crime) in progress to the police to
allow them to do their duty and then go about my business, or I could intervene
directly in the situation myself. But he claimed that I could not justify
giving evidence in court after the fact.
interested in philosophy but am very poor at following through to logical
conclusions. I asked if his was a very hardline Kantian position, as I couldn't
imagine any of the usual secular humanist Kantian philosophers whose articles I
read in the Guardian or wherever taking the same line, but he claimed that was
the logical application of the CI in this case and there was no getting round
No, your friend is not right. The claim is that
witnesses to a crime not only do not have the moral obligation to testify in court, but indeed are morally obliged not to testify. As justification for
this claim your friend offers the first formulation of Kant's Categorical
Act only according to that
maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
So we have to propositions to consider: First,
whether witnesses to a crime are under a moral obligation not to offer themselves up voluntarily in order to testify in
court; Second, whether this claim follows from Kant's Categorical Imperative,
or, more specifically, from the first formulation of the Categorical
Let's look at the first claim. One of the basic
regulative principles which govern the way arguments in moral philosophy are
conducted concerns the way we test proposed moral theories or philosophical
claims about ethics against our intuitions, i.e. our ethical beliefs prior to
conducting a philosophical examination. The American philosopher John Rawls,
author of A Theory of Justice (1971)
has coined a nice term for this, which has become part of the contemporary
philosophical vocabulary: he calls it reflective equilibrium.
When you make a claim, on the basis of a theory,
which goes against unreflective moral intuitions then there are potentially two possible outcomes. Either one
rejects the intuitions, or one rejects the theory. No moral theory is
sacrosanct in this regard.
If witnesses to a crime never have the moral obligation or even the right to testify in
court that would strike a blow at the very basis of our system of justice. The
outcome would be intolerable in a civilized society. You know this. That is why the response from your 'philosopher' friend
has left you so perplexed.
Now, it could well be that your friend has
seized on this example as an argument against
Kant's Categorical Imperative. This is familiar territory for moral
philosophers. Even if one does not accept Kant's Categorical Imperative, one
would be disinclined to accept the conclusion that Kant was just stupid, and
didn't see an obvious negative consequence of his view. (Here, I am invoking
another regulative principle, the Principle of Charity.) In other words, even
philosophers who are not Kantians, have an interest in showing how Kant might
have dealt with this challenge to his theory.
Suppose you were to say, 'Any time someone finds
themself in the circumstances I have described [you then go on to describe the
circumstances in detail] is under a moral obligation to testify.' This looks
like a cheat, and it is. Kant would reply that more is required to make a maxim
truly 'universal' than simply expressing it in the logical form of a universal
Yet surely it is not the case that at all times and at all places, a witness to a
'crime' is morally obliged to testify in court. If as a student during the
Third Reich I had the misfortune to hear my professor uttering words of
criticism of Adolf Hitler, I am not morally obliged (even though I may be
obliged by Nazi law) to attend as a witness for the prosecution. (There is, of
course, a potential moral dilemma here for anyone who holds that there is a
moral obligation to always obey the law, whether you agree with it or not: The
issues are explored in the ISFP Fellowship dissertation by George Brooks on
Positive Law Theory and its application to the case of Nazi Germany.)
The challenge for Kantians would be to find an
acceptable path between the overly lax and overly rigid formulations of what
the maxim of your action would be in this case. The result which we want is one
where there is a moral obligation to testify in cases like that of the
restaurant thugs, but no moral obligation to testify, or indeed a moral
obligation not to testify, in cases like that of the outspoken professor.
One possibility would be to incorporate the
caveat that testifying 'serves the interests of justice'. Once again, however,
that makes things too easy. The Categorical Imperative was supposed to be the
infallible touchstone of moral action, but now we would be appealing to a prior understanding of what is 'justice'
or what actions are 'just' or 'unjust'. Nor, indeed, would we want it to be the
case that whenever witnesses are asked to testify, they first have to decide
for themselves what does or does not serve the interests of justice. That is
why we have judges.
In some ways, the challenge to the Categorical
Imperative looks similar to the case of lying. Kant notoriously argued that it
was never right to tell a lie, even
in the case where a crazed axeman is pursuing his intended victim and demands
to know, 'Which way did he go?' (In his essay, 'On the Supposed Right to Lie
Because of Philanthropic Concerns', Kant argues, unconvincingly, that e.g. if
you say, 'He went left' thinking that he went right, and in fact unknown to you
the victim did go left, then you would bear full moral responsibility for the
Despite the well-known objections, I do think
that Kant is onto something important in the case of lying (see Unit 5 of Ethical Dilemmas). We have to recognize
— as Kant apparently did not — that even for the impeccably 'good
will' some times there can be irresolvable ethical dilemmas. Whatever you do
will be 'wrong', so you have to choose the lesser of two evils.
In the case of the obligation to testify, more
is needed than simply the rule that one must always tell the truth. I can
simply refuse to enter into the courtroom. So the challenge for the Kantian in
the case of the obligation to testify is, if anything, harder than the challenge in the case of apparent counterexamples
to the moral principle that one should never tell a lie.
If the challenge can't be met, then that is bad
news for the claim of the Categorical Imperative to provide an infallible
touchstone for ethics, and your moral intuitions about your son testifying in
court survive. On the other hand, if the challenge can be met, then once again
your moral intuitions survive. Either way you are right and your 'philosopher
friend' is wrong.
Can the challenge to Kant's Categorical
Imperative be met? My hunch is that Kant's strategy would be to invoke the Third formulation of the Categorical
Therefore, every rational
being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member
in the universal kingdom of ends.
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
A 'kingdom of ends' in Kant's conception is not
a mere collection of isolated individuals, each of whom takes care not to
encroach on the moral rights of others. On the contrary, Kant's vision is
overtly teleological, something that
was not apparent in the first (or indeed the second) formulation. In a kingdom
of ends each of us has a responsibility for actively supporting the state and
the rule of law.
That doesn't mean I have to set myself up as
judge and jury. It does mean that one has to acknowledge one's duties as a
citizen. In contemporary terms, that includes voting, jury service, and, where
necessary, attending as a witness in court.
is that there is indeed a fine line between responsible citizenship and being a
busybody or a 'snitch'. In a relatively trivial matter like littering or
indecent behaviour I would rather not be called upon to play my part in oiling
the wheels of justice. In such cases, the Categorical Imperative does look like
a rather blunt instrument, but I don't know of any moral theory that would fare
better. — So much the worse, some would say, for 'moral theory'.
possibility of comparison
Brian asked this question:
talking to someone the other day and we stumbled on a question which like all
good ones seems so obvious once it is asked, but which has stumped me:
it to compare one thing with another — do we compare things or properties
of things? can we only compare like with like? but if so haven't we already
presupposed a comparison?
comparison a basic 'category'? is it prior or anterior to other concepts e.g.
identity, difference, metaphor.
philosophers discuss the methodology of comparison?
Is this one of the 'good ones'? I've already
picked it as the Ask a Philosopher Prize Question for February — the best
of a not terrifically great bunch — but I'm still not sure just how good
a philosophical question it is. Let's
How do you compare two peas in a pod? Or apples
and oranges? Or my ear and the moon? 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's
Are we dealing with a basic logical category,
like identity and difference? or could it be even more basic? or is it merely
Ricoeur wrote a book on metaphor (The Rule of Metaphor 1981). I can't
imagine a philosopher writing a book on comparison. There's something meaty
about metaphor. Comparison seems too general a topic, compared with metaphor.
But that's just my first reaction. I could be wrong.
Let's start with something easy. Does comparison
have a methodology? Let's say I run a
research team for a washing powder manufacturer. One of the things we might
regularly do is compare different formulations of washing powder. Because this
is a laboratory and not a laundry, the tests have to be strictly controlled,
and the points of comparison clearly defined. Powder A is more effective on egg
stains than Powder B at 40 degrees Centigrade.
However, a consumer might be more interested in
which powder makes clothes smell nicer. How do you test this? what methodology
do you apply? I read somewhere that deodorant manufacturers employ people to
sniff the armpits of volunteers, in order to determine which formulation is
more effective at preventing offensive odour. The training may not be quite as
rigorous as for wine tasters but the job still requires a special skill. The
aim is to get as objective an
assessment as is possible given the inherent subjectivity of judgements of nice
or nasty smell.
In order to make a specific comparison, a methodology
may or may not be appropriate. In choosing the Prize Question of the month, I
simply go through all the questions in my email in-box and make a short list.
Then I run through the short list two or three times and pick the one I
consider the best. That's how I chose Brian's. I didn't employ a 'methodology'.
I just used my judgement. (There was a question on solipsism that I quite
liked, but the questioner seemed a bit too confused: it wasn't sufficiently
clear what the question was.)
But we're still circling round the problem.
Brian seems to think that there is a potential paradox here: 'can we only
compare like with like? but if so haven't we already presupposed a comparison?'
'You're comparing apples and oranges' is
something you'd say to someone who asks for a comparison between two things
which are too unlike to form a sensible judgement. But you can still compare
apples with oranges: you can ask which fruit is richer in Vitamin C, or which
is better value at the local supermarket this week. However, that presupposes
that you have already identified applies as 'like' oranges in respect of their
nutrition, or as value for money. Then again, you can compare an apple with a
tennis ball (both good for a game of catch, although apples don't bounce).
We don't first acquire concepts and then
discover that things falling under different concepts can be compared. They are
different aspects of one and the same skill.
The ability to apply a concept, like 'red' or
'fragile' or 'intelligent', involves the ability to compare red things, or
different objects with respect to their fragility, or different people with
respect to their intelligence. But how do you do this? Doesn't the ability to
make comparisons presuppose that you have a standard
— e.g. for what counts as red, or fragile, or intelligent? But then, how
do we judge that the standard is the
correct standard for the thing it's for?
In the opening pages of The Blue and Brown Books Wittgenstein considers the following case:
If I give someone the order
'fetch me a red flower from that meadow', how is he to know what sort of flower
to bring, as I've only given him a word?
Now the answer one might
suggest first is that he went to look for a red flower carrying a red image in
his mind, and comparing it with the flowers to see which of them had the colour
of the image.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Blue and Brown Books Blackwell, 1969 p.3
Well, what's so wrong with that?
...consider the order 'imagine a red patch'. You are not
tempted in this case to think that before
obeying you must have imagined a red patch to serve you as a pattern for the
red patch which you were ordered to imagine. (Ibid.)
Wittgenstein is making an important point here
about the nature of concepts. My ability to recognize, e.g. a red flower as
'red' is, partly, what my grasp of the concept of red — or, in the
linguistic mode, my understanding of the use of the word 'red' — consists
in. The idea that I need an internal standard of red to compare red things with
in order to tell whether or not they are red leads to a vicious regress.
I think Brian was kind of hoping that the
concept of comparison is paradoxical because of the implicit threat of a
vicious regress. Well, there isn't one, and it isn't. At least, not for that
Concept use involves judgements of 'identity'
and 'difference'. You can't be said to have a concept unless you are able to
make judgements about the things that fall under the concept (identity) or the
things that do not fall under it (difference). The ability to make judgements of
numerical as opposed to qualitative identity and difference
— the 'same man' or 'same horse' — is somewhat more sophisticated.
Aristotle was the first philosopher to really explore this topic.
Imagine a world much simpler than the actual
world, where objects differ only in kind and not in degree. There is no 'more'
or 'less' (except in a strictly numerical sense), no 'shades', no borderline
cases. In short, no scope for comparing
which of two objects is closer to some given standard. In this imaginary world,
for any concept F, and any object x, either x is an example of F, or x is
not an example of F. There is no other possibility.
I have just demonstrated (I think!) that the
concept of comparison is not derived
from the concepts of identity and difference. As I conceded, even in this
imaginary world, you can compare numbers: there can be more objects which
satisfy a given description or concept than those which don't. Numerical
comparison is a matter of simple arithmetic. I think Brian would agree that that
isn't the notion of 'comparison' he had in mind.
For the same reason, I don't think we can say
that identity and difference are derived from the concept of comparison. In the
simple universe, objects either match (or satisfy) or fail to match (or
satisfy) a given description or concept. Which leaves one remaining
alternative: that comparison is an equally basic category, alongside identity
and difference. That seems to make sense.
In the more complex universe we inhabit, objects
fall at different points on a smoothly sliding scale with respect to a given
concept or quality. Things are vague, blurred, have fuzzy edges. This is a huge philosophical topic. When
logicians and philosophers of language debate the topic of vagueness, it can
sometimes seem as if the existence of expressions which do not have a precise
definition is an unfortunate quirk of ordinary language. Frege, the father of
modern logic thought so. Two centuries earlier, Leibniz dreamed of a characteristica universalis, a form of
precise notation which would render every philosophical problem soluble:
All our reasoning is nothing
but the joining and substituting of characters, whether these characters be
words or symbols or pictures... if we could find characters or signs
appropriate for expressing all our thoughts as definitely and as exactly as
arithmetic expresses numbers or geometric analysis expresses lines, we could in
all subjects insofar as they are amenable to reasoning, accomplish what is done
in Arithmetic and Geometry. For all inquiries which depend on reasoning would
be performed by the transposition of characters and by a kind of calculus,
which would immediately facilitate the discovery of beautiful results...
Moreover, we should be able to convince the world what we should have found or
concluded, since it would be easy to verify the calculation either by doing it
over or by trying tests similar to that of casting out nines in arithmetic. And
if someone would doubt my results, I should say to him: 'Let us calculate,
Sir,' and thus be taking to pen and ink, we should soon settle the question
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, quoted at:
But this gets things completely back to front.
In the real world, things are not simply, 'F' or 'not-F' without qualification.
They are more or less good examples of F, with the less good examples shading
off into cases where it's difficult to form an opinion, which in turn shade off
into cases which look more like not so good examples of not-F. While the
canonical forms of human language appear to cut things up into the categories
of 'same' and 'different', ordinary reality contradicts and subverts this
ideological image at every turn.
Aristotle viewed human beings as creatures who
categorize. To be rational is to possess the ability to sort things into
species and genera, or recognize a valid syllogism. But it is surely closer to
the truth to regard human beings as creatures who compare and evaluate. This was something Aristotle did consider,
especially with regard to ethics. But ultimately, in an Aristotelian universe,
logic comes first.
— It has just occurred to me that the
'golden mean' is Aristotle's contribution to the methodology of comparison. A
brilliantly simple but deep idea. A topic for another question, perhaps.
Good question, Brian.
ethics and moral values
Dian asked this question:
always enjoyed mulling over philosophical questions but I've run into a road
block with this one. It concerns morals and ethics. Basically their origin: is
there such a thing as absolute morality and what is the direction humankind is
going when it comes to concepts of morality and ethics?
approach the matter in the right philosophical frame, and honestly examine the
origin of morals and ethics, I feel I have to first disengage myself from all
the preconceptions I've picked up from my Judeo-Christian background to think
clearly and without bias on the subject, focusing rather on general innate
human predispositions. It seems paramount to me to place one's self in the
position of being a human being rather then a believer or inheritor of a
certain traditional mindset to truly understand the human condition.
I already become biased because I look at things from the position of being a
secular humanist with existentialist leanings? How can I tell if I'm learning
anything or only examining what I already think I know?
Chris asked this question:
of those philosophy students in college who are prodded from time to time. It's
unlikely this will be addressed in class so I ask it here:
our class studies thus far (the classicals, Aristotle, Plato, etc) and my
limited private studies of more recent philosophers (such as Nietzsche) I have
noticed an overlaying theme that Humanity is special. That we are either
divinely inspired, logically superior to nature, or press forward on our
personal development to a fixed collective goal.
found scarce are resources regarding (or maybe there isn't any legitimacy in?)
thoughts on the more 'scientific' approach, that we just happen to be really
complex amoebas, we just have a brain, but it's still as predictable to the
'outside' observer as we can predict what a single celled organism will do in
question is best summed up as this: Are Humans really doing anything
spectacular with this philosophy thing, or would anything given our
characteristics have ended up in the same place?
I have decided to answer Dian's and Chris's
questions together, because they converge on a common theme: the idea that
there is a naturalistic account of
how human beings have developed ethical rules and moral values. By
'naturalistic' I mean an explanation that can be given from the 'outside' in
Chris's sense, in terms of a broadly scientific understanding of what human
beings are and how they have evolved.
If ethical rules and moral values can be
explained in this way, then there it would be true to say that human beings are
nothing special. We may be the most
advanced organisms on this planet, as measured in terms of our neural capacity,
but we share with all organisms the same tendency to prefer (or 'value') particular outcomes out of a range of available
choices, based purely on our individual needs or inbuilt conditioning.
The question has become especially pressing for
me, because of my increasing scepticism regarding the possibility of a
metaphysical foundation for ethics, which I attempted in my book Naēve Metaphysics. I don't think that
the idea of a necessary link between the concepts of truth or reality and
'recognition of the other' is worthless, but I have come to realize that I
seriously overvalued it.
Others exist, are 'real': so what? That bare
recognition leaves me almost as free to do
what I will as the psychopath or amoralist, given that I remain the final
judge and jury on what I 'owe' to others, the extent to which recognition of
their needs and interests bears on my conduct, if at all. In short, it depends
on just how important I think I am in
the overall scheme of things — no-one, neither any individual nor
society, can dictate that to me. (A Max Stirner or an Aleister Crowley would
have no difficulty with that thought.)
To answer Dian's question, I don't see that
there is any problem of bias, if we take the secular humanist view as the
default position. Surely, the onus is on the theologian to offer something
better, explain why we are more than just a part of nature.
You might question how the issue of onus is
decided. How come I'm so sure that the onus is not on those who question the
'Judeo-Christian' view? It isn't about numbers. I don't have to listen to any
argument that is predicated on a belief,
in the absence of sufficient justification
for that belief. Nor will I accept Pascal's view that, given the stakes are so
high, I ought at least to grant theism the benefit of the doubt. I don't scare
so easily. (Russell once remarked that if he were ever to find himself at the
gates of Heaven, he would tell God, 'You should have given me better reasons
for believing in you!')
However, the debate over ethics is one which has
thrived on false oppositions, the most blatant of which is, 'God or science?'
To accept that human beings are ultimately part of nature does not commit one to
Freudianism/ Kleinianism, or Marxism, or evolutionary ethics/ sociobiology, or
Dawkins' memetics — or whatever is the popular theory of the moment for
explaining the human sense of right and wrong.
Just as I won't accept God as an explanation, so
neither do I need to accept any reductivist theory based on observation of my
behaviour or human behaviour in general. But this is where things get tricky.
Because I am all these things: each
of the competing explanations potentially contains a fragment of the truth. If science has shown anything about what it
is to be human, it shows that we do not
know our own selves. Ideas that seem to spring from a miraculous creative
power, in fact have a perfectly intelligible genetic explanation (as Freud
showed so brilliantly). That's why, for me, the existentialist option is no
Why are people courageous? why are they kind? or
just? or honest? Why be moral? I think that the answer, in the end, does lie with philosophy. Not in some a priori proof why one 'ought' to
embrace any of these values, but rather in the very capacity which philosophy
gives us to see ourselves
synoptically as part of an 'overall scheme of things'. That was Plato's and
Aristotle's legacy to ethics.
Human evolution and culture have given us the
ability, unique amongst the organisms that populate this planet, to engage in
rational inquiry: for example, to consider questions about ends and not merely
means to ends. (In McDowell's phrase, we inhabit the 'logical space of reasons'
no less than the physical space of causes and effects.) But what that is, what it is to practice
this ability is something one can only appreciate from within the 'form of
life' of beings-who-philosophize.
Daisy asked this question:
necessary for personal survival?
I guess that Daisy isn't looking for an answer
along the lines of, 'a compass, a pen knife, a torch, a box of matches, and a
can of Mace.'
This is one half of a question which analytic
philosophers call, 'the problem of personal identity.' I won't say whether this
is the easier or more difficult half. The problem of personal identity concerns
the necessary and sufficient conditions for the identity of person A at t1 with
the (allegedly) same person A at t2. This isn't a question that arises in
everyday conversation. However, there are particular circumstances where the
issue of personal survival becomes urgent: Can a person be said to 'survive' if
they suffer total amnesia? or in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease? or if
they fall into a permanent coma?
Added to these relatively few practical
challenges — which would hardly justify the vast industry of philosophers
who've worked on the topic of personal identity — are all the resources
of science fiction. One feels, and as an analytically trained philosopher I
think this feeling is largely correct, that if you can't say whether a person
'survives' in this or that imaginary scenario, if you are puzzled and are not
sure what to say, then there is an understanding
which you lack — an understanding of what it is to be a person. Maybe in everyday life (modulo the
medical cases) we can get by perfectly well without this understanding. But
that's just part of the genius of philosophy: it poses questions you never
thought to ask.
But once you see the question, you are gripped.
We will consider some of these problem scenarios
in a minute. But actually I don't think this is all of it. There is a deeper
question about survival and identity, which I considered in my book Naēve Metaphysics. I reached the scary
conclusion that there is no such thing as survival. The 'I' — the
essential I — does not survive from one moment to the next:
[T]he subjective standpoint
is a world every bit as rich and detailed as the world of the objective standpoint.
Yet its reality hangs by the slenderest possible thread. It is real because I
take it to be real, and only for so long as I take it to be real. By the
slenderest possible thread the objective world is held at bay, yet no power in
the universe can break that thread, so long as I exist.
Geoffrey Klempner Naēve Metaphysics: a theory of subjective
worlds, Ch. 8
Only something that
continues through time can cease to exist. Yet my subjective world, as a
reality constituted by its own appearance, only appears to continue; and that
appearance itself is something which neither continues nor fails to continue.
My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every
new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than
that very moment.
Ibid. Ch. 9
But let's get back to basics. One of the things
I tell my students is, if you get stuck, try to think like a detective. Go back
to the very beginning and don't assume anything. So I won't make any
assumptions about what a 'person' is, or might be. Instead, I will list all the
things, or kinds of thing, that might be necessary for personal survival.
Here's the list:
— Something physical
— Something psychological
— Information (e.g. pattern, structure)
— Something metaphysical (whatever that
— None of the above
As you see, I'm not leaving anything to chance.
At this point, one can't imagine what might be covered by item 5. but you never
However, I will make this assumption: if a
thought experiment or science fiction scenario inclines us to say that survival would, or would not have occurred,
then that should be considered as a datum, so long as we are unable to find a
compelling argument against that intuition.
1. Is something physical required —
logically required — for personal survival? My intuitions tell me, no. It
seems to me perfectly possible that (as in Anthony Quinton's much discussed
thought experiment in his article 'Spaces and Times' Philosophy 37 1962: 130-4) I could wake up tomorrow morning on
Planet X, and know who I was, in the absence of any evidence of something
physical having made the journey from Earth to Planet X, or indeed evidence
that Earth and Planet X were in the same universe.
2. Is something psychological required for
personal survival? John Locke thought so. Indeed on Locke's account memory is
not only necessary but also sufficient for personal identity. Locke's theory of
personal identity appears to confirm the intuition expressed in the previous
paragraph. What matters is consciousness of my own identity. The essential
thing, when we praise, or punish, is that the person be aware that such praise
or punishment is merited, which they cannot be in the absence of memory of what
one did in the past.
I don't agree that this is an inviolable
intuition, and as evidence for this I put forward the case of Cypher in The
Cypher: I don't wanna
remember nothing. Nothing, you
understand? And I wanna be rich. You know, someone important … like an actor.
Agent Smith: Whatever you
want, Mr. Reagan.
Cypher bitterly regrets his decision to take the
red pill. He's sick and tired of 'reality'. He feels duped by Morpheus. What's
interesting about this is that the scriptwriters evidently thought (and I agree
with their intuition) that it is reasonable that someone might wish to have a
total memory wipe. I wouldn't, but some would. From Cypher's perspective, this
isn't death, not at all. He will be
the famous actor, feasting on juicy digital steaks, living a life of ease and
luxury. He will survive, even though the famous actor has no memory of Cypher's
present existence. (I can't help wondering if the name chosen for this
character, 'Cypher', isn't a sly joke on the part of the scriptwriters.)
3. It would not be an unreasonable inference
from 1. and 2. that what is necessary for personal survival is either something physical (as in
Cypher's case) or something mental
(as in Quinton's thought experiment). Analytic philosophers don't like such
'disjunctive' answers. When you ask for necessary or sufficient conditions, a
disjunctive, 'either-or' answer just sounds like equivocation. Either we're
talking about 'physical survival' or we're talking about 'mental survival'. But
that would be missing the point. In the case of the necessary conditions for
personal identity, there is just one thing we are interested in: survival of what matters.
There is a way around this, however. One could
say that 'what matters' is the continuity of information, a certain unique structure or pattern that can be
carried either in a physical or a mental medium, or both. However, this is not
a view that is universally held. While the idea of reincarnation or rebirth
appears to require continuity of some aspect of the consciousness of the person
who dies, there is no agreement amongst different schools (e.g. of Hinduism or
Buddhism) on what exactly that aspect is. There appear to be some who have
argued that what survives is the sheer point of view as such, distinct from all
psychological attributes or contents of consciousness. That's how I understand
the notion of an individual 'atman'.
I think this is sufficient to warrant a 'pass'
on the question of transmission of information, as necessary for personal
survival. To massage this intuition, one might envisage a combination of the
Quinton and Cypher thought experiments. Imagine that Cypher wakes up on Planet
X and spends a few years there, where his existence is totally miserable. Then
Agent Smith offers him a splendid life on Planet Y, where all his memories of
Planet X will be wiped.
4. At this point you will be champing at the bit
to argue that in our new thought experiment, Cypher must believe that what he is essentially is an 'atman', a sheer
point of view, which exists now on Planet X and will exist on Planet Y, even
though nothing physical or
My response is, believe this if you like. It
just doesn't make any sense to me. I lose the thread at this point. But I can't
rule the possibility out because I just
don't know what I'd be ruling out. It's an 'unknown unknown'. I have the
feeling, though, that if Daisy gives this as her answer (I'm assuming, Daisy,
that you have an assignment to write) she won't be very popular. Perhaps a
better line would be to argue for an aporetic
conclusion, as I have done. We've tried all the alternatives and none of them
work, end of essay.
5. By now, you may have guessed where this is
heading. We've tried all the alternatives and none of them is satisfactory. I'm
happy to accept that not everyone will agree with me about this. At any rate,
I'm not satisfied. 'Person' is a concept with a valid use within our linguistic
community, our moral, legal and political practice. The philosopher's 'problem
cases' aren't really problems. But they are to the philosopher.
Then again, if you are looking at the concept of
a person from a philosophical standpoint, it is arguable that we put far too
much emphasis on identity (see Derek Parfit's acclaimed book Reasons and
Persons, 1984). However, I think Parfit overstates the case. I wouldn't like to
live in his preference utilitarian utopia where the notion of being a person,
or of personal identity or integrity is no longer considered 'important'.
We need to look again at the question of 'what
matters'. When you consider the sufficient
conditions for personal identity (something I haven't done here), it becomes
apparent (as some philosophers have argued, e.g. David Lewis) that the best
theories we have allow for multiple survival. E.g. I go to sleep, and two
— or a hundred and two — GKs wake up, each individual version of GK
fully satisfying the criteria for personal identity, according to our best
theory. In this kind of scenario, our intuitions go AWOL. We don't' know what
to say. We feel drawn to insist on something 'metaphysical' (such as a Cartesian
soul substance, or Buddhist atman) which exists in one, and only one of the
GKs, but common sense and logic tell us that there simply is no foothold here
for picking out one of the GKs from the multitude in order to bestow this
So what really matters? I don't know about you,
but I want to know is what it is by
virtue of which it is true that I am GK
(Thomas Nagel's 'I am TN'). That's what matters. The fact that I am here, that
there is a world for me, when it is perfectly conceivable (as I would argue,
you may disagree) that the world might have been exactly as it is now, in the
absence of I. In other words, the existence of my subjective world is a contingency that depends on nothing at
all. It's just a brute fact, evident to me now as anything can be, and yet
nothing in my knowledge or experience justifies or accounts for the existence
of my subjective world one single moment from now.
I realize that many will regard this conclusion
as fantastical. I — the
essential or ultimate 'I', the thing that matters — do not survive. I
will not survive to see this blog post finished. Not even to see the next
sentence that GK will write. I remember once my old Prof David Hamlyn (who did
a writeup for my book) commenting in a letter that he sometimes worried that I
took Plato's advice to 'follow the argument wherever it may lead' beyond the
point that most would consider reasonable. I don't have a reply to Hamlyn,
except to say, 'that's just me, innit?'
as a process
Nastik asked this question:
someone objected, If philosophy is ongoing process, what's the point of
engaging in it? You'll never get any certain answers; your search will never
end. Such a prospect is thoroughly depressing. How would you respond to this
I've been wrestling with Nastik's question
lately. There's a very easy, almost knee-jerk response that philosophers
sometimes give to this kind of objection, along the lines of, 'The point of
philosophy is that it is a journey.' As a philosopher, you are always on the
way towards something but you never finally 'arrive'. Every stopping point is
just another stage in the journey.
This response is wrong in so many ways I don't even think I can list them all. But I will
just look at one or two.
When is a journey more important than the
arrival? I recently bought myself a classic car on eBay. I hadn't driven for
ten years. What finally prompted my decision was the realization that I didn't need a car. My 36 year old
Scimitar GTE is strictly for joy riding. We're lucky to live in a part of the
UK (on the edge of the Peak National Park) which has some great roads. You pick
a destination — there are many to choose from — drive there by the
most picturesque route and then drive back. There's no point to it other than
the pleasure of the ride.
If I'm actually going somewhere, and the distance is short enough, I walk. I walk
the two and a half miles to my office. Otherwise, I take the bus or the train.
One of the things about an old car is that you can never be certain that you
will reach your destination without mishaps. When you're joyriding, it's part
of the sense of adventure.
Is that what philosophy is like? Firstly, there
is far more pain than pleasure in a philosophical journey. I mean, if you are
really serious about it. Philosophy can be agonizing. You do it, you endure,
because you are trying to get somewhere
and for the sake of getting there. And when you fail, which given the nature of
the activity is often a foregone conclusion, on top of the pain is a sense of
disappointment and regret.
You can study philosophy for pleasure, if that's
what you want. You can follow the thoughts and the lives of the great
philosophers, take a dip in the deep waters of two and a half millennia of
philosophical thought, and come out feeling exhilarated and refreshed. Many of
my students feel this way. But my best students know that there is more to it
There's another way in which one might seek to
justify philosophy as a process. This is along the lines of the mental gym where you exercise your
thinking muscle. 'No pain, no gain.' You don't give up when the going gets
tough, you try harder. All the time you know that your mental powers are being
steadily improved. In the mental gym, there's no such thing as failure, because
every hour you put in makes your mind stronger, better.
That's fine if you see philosophy as just
another means of self-improvement. But if you are really gripped by a philosophical question, you want to know the answer.
In athletic competitions, something counts as 'winning' or 'losing'. If you are
serious about athletics, not just someone who goes to a gym twice a week to
work out, then you want to win. Yes, there is satisfaction in knowing you did
your best. But that's not sufficient compensation for coming second.
Why study philosophy? 'For pleasure,' is one
good answer. 'For self-improvement,' is another good answer. But neither of
these answers gets anywhere close to the core of what philosophy is about.
Ultimately, there is no justification for engaging in philosophy other than the
brute fact that one finds the problems and questions of philosophy gripping. And if you are gripped, really
gripped, then you want to know the
answers, just as much as the runner wants to win.
So let's consider 'the philosopher' as a
character motivated, neither by pleasure or the desire for self-improvement but
solely by the desire for knowledge. The desire for answers. You can satisfy
this desire, and many serious and fine academic philosophers do this, by
picking problems which can be solved. The implication of Nastik's question,
they would say, is simply false.
Open any journal of academic philosophy and you
will find contributions which advance
the study of philosophy by answering questions, solving difficulties,
clarifying confusions. In principle, the situation is no different in academic
philosophy than any other academic subject, say, chemistry, or history.
Meanwhile, the big questions remain matters of incessant debate. But the
progress of the subject isn't judged solely by the progress made with big
questions. Physics is not refuted by the likelihood that there will never be a
fully consistent 'Theory of Everything'.
That would be fine if you are content to spend
your time as a philosopher tweaking theories or debating points of logic. As I
am not. Like many committed philosophers I also
want answers to the big questions. I'm not satisfied with indefinitely putting
off any hope of a solution. But isn't this a strange kind of paradox? I know that the ultimate problems can't be
cracked. I know that the effort to
find a solution is futile. And yet, I feel compelled to keep trying.
This doesn't depress
me. It doesn't exactly fill me with joy either. Because it isn't really about me. Feelings count for something but
they are not the most important consideration. Nietzsche understood that there
was something more important than happiness (which 'only Englishmen' seek as an
end in itself) and that is to have, or to be an arrow, to be possessed by a sense of direction and purpose. Yes, I
do feel something, deeply, the sense that in doing this I am fulfilling my purpose even though I
couldn't tell you exactly what that purpose is. To know that I would have to
know the ultimate answers, and I already said, I don't believe I will ever know.
When I do philosophy, when I grapple with its
insoluble problems, I have the sense that I am in the presence of something sublime. That feeling is something I
value, even though, as I said, feeling is not the most important consideration.
In the presence of the sublime, other things — things which are not
sublime but merely mundane, the distractions of everyday living — are put
into their proper perspective. And it is good
to have a proper perspective.
being a philosopher
Marcin asked this question:
the point of being a philosopher?
you actually accomplish when you answer a philosophical question?
Let's say I'm a philosopher. I will accept that
as the premise of your question, although on some days (or in some moods) I
don't really feel that I qualify. Elsewhere (My philosophical life) I've
described myself as a latter-day 'sophist'.
Amongst the most prominent Sophists of Ancient
Greece — Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, Prodicus, Antiphon, Thrasymachus
(Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic
Philosophers Ch.XXI) — there was by no means agreement on the value
of the new-fangled inquiry known as 'philosophy'. By all accounts, the
self-styled 'lovers of wisdom' were a pretty exclusive group, jealous of their
monopoly on 'the truth' (as they saw it).
A true lover of wisdom would never stoop so low
as to make a living as a professional thinker. That's fine if you're an
aristocrat like Plato, or content to live on the streets like Diogenes, begging
pennies off passers by.
You will gather that there's no love lost
between me and Socrates. I have no interest in defending Socrates' and Plato's
grandiose view of the philosopher as best qualified to rule because the
philosopher alone knows what is required for the 'proper care of the soul'.
Yet the questions of philosophy grip me. I state
that as a fact, which often (on some days, in some moods) surprises me. Why do
I care about the nature of time, or the relationship between consciousness and
the brain, or the definition of truth, or the problem of knowledge? It beats
me. I just do. As I described in a previous answer, I have puzzled over the
nature of time for as long as I can remember.
I suspect, though I can't prove, that most
persons — even those who scoff at philosophy — are gripped from
time to time by philosophical questions; they just don't recognize a
philosophical question when they see one. Like any area of expertise, you get
better at spotting opportunities for applying your knowledge with practice.
However, that's not really an answer to your
question. It is blatantly circular to defend the value of answering
philosophical questions by appeal to the brute, inexplicable fact that you find
the questions gripping (as Socrates would no doubt be quick to point out).
Maybe the critics are right: philosophy is best described as an obsessive
compulsive disorder, and philosophers need to be cured, not indulged in their
pursuit of answers which serve no useful purpose.
(As an aside, the great 20th century philosopher
Wittgenstein in his later writings compared the activity of the philosopher to
therapy, the aim being to cure us of our tendency to erect fanciful theories in
response to seeming 'questions' which only arise in the first place because we
misunderstand the grammar of our own language. — But, actually, on a
closer look, Wittgenstein seems to me the very archetype of the 'philosopher's
I think the problem with your question, Marcin,
is that you are looking for an answer on a level of generality that completely bypasses the issue what philosophical
questions are actually about. Above,
I gave a list of the first questions that occurred to me (time, consciousness,
truth, knowledge). The list isn't random. Philosophical questions are not about
anything you please. They are about the
nature of reality.
There is no such thing as a definitive answer to
a philosophical question. You grapple with it. As a philosopher, you get to see
bits and pieces of reality, never the whole thing, all at once. Traces of the
Millions have enjoyed the Matrix movies, and
heard Neo confess to Trinity that he knows there's 'something wrong with the
world' but he just doesn't know what it is. Neo is right. There IS something
wrong with the world. Something about the world just doesn't add up. And in a much
more profound way than some silly conspiracy tale about good guys and bad guys.
We tell ourselves stories about what we are and
why we're here. Everyone you meet has their 'pitch'. We compete with one
another to be more attractive or fascinating. Above all, human beings need to
justify their existence and will do anything to avoid admitting that their
lives are pointless, unnecessary, superfluous. So the first thing you need to
do is take off the mask. Admit to yourself, even if you won't admit to anyone
else, that you don't know how it all adds up. You didn't ask to be born.
When you finally realize it's 'game over', then
a new game — the real game
— begins. You have woken up. You are no longer sleeping in your pod,
dreaming the same dream as everyone else. You won't have to ask what the
questions are because you will know.
You will have started on the road to philosophy.
John asked this question:
non-existence be supported, if once existence has occurred? And by a good
estimation, existence has always been. Is there such a thing as non-existence?
John's question is prompted by a legitimate
sense of bewilderment at the very idea that there
might have been nothing at all — that what might have been true but is not in
fact true of reality or how things are is that nothing existed: that a
state of sheer non-existence obtained.
I am assuming that we can still talk of 'how
things are' or 'reality', as indeed one must in order to make any sense of
John's question. As Wittgenstein states in the first two propositions of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 'The
world is all that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of
In the case where a state of 'sheer
non-existence' obtains, it is a fact
that there are no things. Nothing
exists, in the sense of 'no things'. Whether or not you like this way of
talking (one of my philosophy lecturers once commented on an essay I'd shown
him, 'I'd much rather defend the necessary existence of God than the necessary
existence of facts!') I can't think of any other way to approach this.
It seems, prima facie, to make sense to say that
if the Big Bang hadn't banged, if there hadn't been anything to go bang, then there would have been no
universe, no space or time, no galaxies, stars or planets. No us. But what
about the laws of nature? Are we supposing they to be non-existent too? Or can
laws still exist — which dictated what would happen if something else happened — even if nothing
I'm not sure that this isn't a question for a
physicist rather than a philosopher. Suppose that according to law L, there is
a finite but very small probability of a grain of matter coming into existence
(something to 'go bang'). However, if an event is only probable, or improbable
(it makes no difference), then it is still logically possible that it never in
fact occurs. It is logically possible, according to the laws of thermodynamics,
that all the air will spontaneously rush out of this room (all the air
molecules as a result of their trillions of collisions will just happen to all
be pointing in the direction of the door). But it will never happen.
it conceivably be a 'law' that matter can spontaneously just appear, out of
nowhere? I think John would say that an assumption we are making — which
he will not allow — is that such a law, or indeed any laws, could 'exist'
in the absence of any physical matter, or energy fields, or anything similar.
One could object that John isn't entitled to
say, 'And by a good estimation, existence has always been.' How does he know?
We know (or rather, according to the best cosmological theory currently
available — if that counts as knowledge) that the Big Bang happened
so-and-so many billions of years ago (13.7 to 14 billion was the answer I found
when I searched on Google). Except that according to physics that's when time
started too, so in that sense it is true that existence 'has always been'.
Richard Swinburne in his book Space and Time (Macmillan 2nd. edn.
1981) argues that we are not logically compelled to identify time with
'physical time', in which case it would not be self-contradictory to state that
there was a time before physical time existed. At least (so he argues) an empty
time is a more coherent idea than an empty space. In one way this satisfies our
naive intuitions (that there is no 'first moment' of time) but creates another
problem, which vexed the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides: 'And what need
would have driven it [sc. the One] later rather than earlier, beginning from
nothing, to grow?' (DK Fr. 8).
In other words, given a prior state of
non-existence, supposing such could occur, you cannot get existence, because as
each moment of eternal time ticks by, there is no reason why anything should happen at this particular time, rather than some other time. Maybe that's
true, if you grant Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason. Or maybe Swinburne
is wrong about time and the physicists (e.g. Hawking) are right, and time and
existence necessarily go together because time begins with the Big Bang.
That still does not get us any nearer answering
John's question. Given that something does exist (and maybe always existed, but this isn't crucial) how can this make way
for a state of sheer non-existence? Once you have something how can there ever be nothing?
Or, perhaps more to the point, how can we so much as conceive of a state of non-existence?
I haven't got an answer to that. In my book Naēve Metaphysics I argue that when we
consider the question, 'why anything exists' there are two problems not one:
why there is a universe, and why there is I.
Those are baffling questions. But isn't it also true that it is as hard to
conceive of my non-existence as it is
to conceive of the non-existence of the universe?
You can't argue from difficulty in conceiving
alone. Maybe some persons are better at forming conceptions than others. I tell
you that I can't conceive of my non-existence and you reply that you have no
difficulty in conceiving of your non-existence. End of discussion. Exactly the same
applies, if the topic of our conversation is the non-existence of the universe.
induction, and belief in God
Lucy asked this question:
pragmatic considerations show it is irrational not to believe in the principle
of induction, do they also show it is irrational not to believe in God?
Mmm, it looks like Lucy is asking us to do her
homework for her. This has all the hallmarks of an assignment or essay
question. But unlike some we receive on Ask a Philosopher, this one is not that
bad. How much help my answer is going to be is another question.
Two things ought to scream out at you when you
see the phrase 'pragmatic justification of induction' (by the way, you'll find
loads of pages if you search for this in Google):
The first point is, how on earth am I going to
be persuaded by a pragmatic argument that belief in induction 'works in
practice' or 'leads to practical benefits' if I'm not already committed to
induction? In that respect, a pragmatic justification of induction is in exactly
the same quandary as an inductive justification of induction. Just because
induction works fine for you, or just
because it has worked for me in the past, is no reason for me to believe that it will work for me now unless I have
already accepted that inductive reasoning is reasonable.
The second point has to do with the —
allegedly modest — idea of a merely 'pragmatic' belief. Suppose I accept
that induction 'works' (or has worked for me in the past, or has worked for
you); is that supposed to be a true
statement, or only something that it is useful to believe? If I state that it
is merely useful to believe the statement just made, is that a claim to truth, or am I merely saying that it is useful to
believe that it is useful to believe... and so on.
This is all very well covered ground — as
you will discover if you do an internet search. In any event, the idea of a
'pragmatic justification of induction' has at least two major points of
uncertainty/ instability before we even go on to consider the even more explosive
idea of an inductive proof of the existence of God.
(In my last post, I described myself as a
'pragmatist with a small 'p''. Perhaps, one should make clear that the
background to this question is most definitely Pragmatism with a big 'P', I'm
talking in particular about the philosophies of C.S. Peirce and William James.)
The Pragmatist may object at this point that I
have willfully misinterpreted the pragmatic case for induction. We are not
concerned with anything so abstract as the 'definition of truth' (although this
more ambitious thesis is what James attempted in Pragmatism, 1907), but rather the question of how one ought to behave, or, equivalently, what makes behaviour
'rational' or 'irrational'. When I avoid putting my hand in a pot of boiling
water in order to stir the spaghetti, I am not considering what would be a
'true statement' concerning the effect of a temperature of 100 degrees
Centigrade on living human tissue. Rather, I am simply avoiding doing something
that I know to be harmful. The
knowledge in question is practical knowledge. It is something you just don't
do, without having to think about it first.
We navigate our way through through the world,
avoiding myriads of dangers large and small, choosing intelligently without
pausing to reflect on that choice. This is part of what it is to 'be rational'.
You wouldn't call someone rational who only did the rational thing when
prompted to think about it, but the rest of the time behaved in a more or less
This also disposes of the objection that a
pragmatic justification of induction presupposes inductive reasoning. The whole
point of the pragmatic 'turn' is to halt the threatened regress of an inductive
argument for preferring induction. At a certain point, thinking comes to an end
and we just act. The capacity to learn
from experience (which is basically all that induction amounts to) is an
intrinsic part of the capacity to make intelligent choices, whether or not
these choices are reflected upon.
I'm prepared to buy all this, just for the sake
of Lucy's question. I should add, however, that I don't really like the idea
that induction is something we just 'have' to believe, come what may. There are
principles that it definitely pays to believe even though they are apparently
counter-inductive. One is Sod's Law: If something can go wrong, it will go
wrong. If you estimate the chance of something going wrong with your plan, your
estimate — however rationally based, however carefully you have sifted
all the relevant inductive considerations — will always be too
optimistic. Another well attested counter-inductive principle (which I don't
have a name for) is that Good Things Never Last. On the basis of induction,
rationally it oughtn't to make a difference whether you are onto a 'Good Thing'
or not, but in practice it just does.
But maybe that just shows what a pessimist I am.
Maybe (to be really clever, if not cute about this) you could make an
inductively based case for pessimism, on the grounds that it offers a necessary
rational corrective to the natural human tendency to be over-optimistic.
However, this is merely delaying the real
question: whether an useful analogy or, better still, inference can be drawn
between a pragmatic justification of induction and a pragmatic justification of
On the face of it, there's a huge disanalogy, a
massive non-sequitur. You say belief in God works for you. I say non-belief in
God works for me. If you didn't believe in God, you say, your life just
wouldn't be worth living. My response is that if I believed in God, my life
would become hell. There would be no place far away enough or deep enough to
Instead of the happy-clappy belief that 'God
will always love me' or 'God is on my side', I prefer the honesty of good
old-fashioned Catholicism. When you die, you can expect to spend 1000 years in
Purgatory (according to one book I came across — it's a grimly
fascinating subject for debate), going over every aspect of your life, inch by
inch, until you are thoroughly cleansed and prepared for everlasting life in
The idea of being a 'God-fearing man' has this
aspect of truth about it. As Geach (a Roman Catholic) says in his defence of
Divine Command theory (see my post on Plato's Euthyphro) to defy God is the
very definition of insanity. For my part, I couldn't live with that fear
looming over me. The fire and brimstone preachers had the right idea: What the Hell are you smiling for?
However, you will say that I have just conceded
the Pragmatist's case, by demonstrating that I am prepared to argue over the
question of belief in God, on the ground of what is or is not the most weighty
pragmatic consideration. How that argument is resolved is a mere point of
detail. — I do not concede. I am expressing my personal feelings. Unlike
the Pragmatist, I don't consider for one moment that my personal feelings
constitute an argument let alone a
'rational' argument. So far as the existence of God is concerned, there is no
case. There is no doubt where the onus of justification lies: it is with the
theist, not the atheist.
For the sake of argument, however, let's put
aside the last point. Suppose it were true that the question of the existence
or non-existence of God is one to be settled by pragmatic considerations. To
answer Lucy's question (finally!) there is still a huge disanalogy with the
pragmatic justification of induction because (notwithstanding my somewhat
tongue-in-cheek case for counter-inductive principles like Sod's Law) there
really isn't a meaningful debate about whether or not we should accept
induction. The genuine counter-inductivists died out long ago.
and the cosmos
Fred asked this question:
thinking about presentism and the conditions of the cosmos. It is well known
that when we look out into space we are looking backwards in time. If we look
out far enough we will eventually see the big bang itself. Since this is true,
even if I look out a fraction of a millimeter from my eye, what I am seeing is
in the past. Even when I look at my body I am seeing it not as it is, but as it
was. Thus everything that I perceive is not as it is, but as it was. If
presentism is true, it seems everything I perceive does not exist. Really, only
my mind exists and I am a solipsist. Is this argument sound?
I take it that the argument in question is that
presentism entails solipsism. The argument, as you state it, is unsound. I will
explain why. However, there is a link between a particular way of interpreting what the presentist means which
connects with a particular way of interpreting
what the solipsist means. And this is something I see as valuable and
important. I will return to that question later.
What is presentism? The first thing we need to
do in evaluating this doctrine is to forget all we know about physics. In the
actual world, the best evidence we have points to Einsteinian Relativity being
the correct description. Relativity is also (as it happens) a more elegant and
simple theory because it is based on the principle the laws of physics remain
constant in all frames of reference. There is no 'ether flow', as the
Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated. So you can imagine that Relativity
would be the theory God chose, if there was a God and He had the choice. That's
what Einstein believed. But it is still only a theory which, if true, is true
as a matter of empirical fact, not logical or metaphysical necessity.
The point of this preamble is that the
presentist is perfectly entitled to say that there is at this present moment — the only time that is really real
— something happening on a planet circling some star in the Andromeda
galaxy. Maybe, a philosopher seated at a computer answering a question about
the theory of presentism. What you see, when you gaze up at the night sky is
the Andromeda galaxy as it existed 2.5 million years ago. The Andromedan
philosopher is beyond all possible knowledge, so far as you and I are
concerned. But that is consistent with the truth
of, 'An Andromedan philosopher is thinking about presentism at this present
The statement I have just expressed makes
perfect sense in a Newtonian universe. There is a case for saying that it does
not make sense in an Einsteinian universe, where there is no absolute definition
of simultaneity. Two events 'happen' at the same time or at different times,
depending on the frame of reference. All that means, however, is that the
Einsteinian physicist has no use for
such a definition. It is not required in order to express the laws of physics.
However, as Richard Swinburne argues in his book Space and Time, that does not refute the belief in absolute time. (Swinburne is a theist: so you might
suspect he has a special interest in putting the case for an absolute present
which is God's awareness of the current state of the universe.)
I don't feel that I have sufficient knowledge of
physics to wade into this debate. But it is not necessary to do so because, as
I said, we are only concerned with evaluating the the argument that presentism
entails solipsism. In order to demonstrate that the argument is invalid, it
suffices to show that there is a possible world where presentism is true and
solipsism false. The possible world in which Newtonian physics is true, is a
counterexample to the argument. Admittedly, it is somewhat difficult to believe
in presentism if you also believe in Relativity — because in Relativity
there is no such time as the present
— but as I have indicated the point is at least arguable.
Up to now, I have been talking about presentism
as you describe it, what I would term 'naive presentism'. However, there is a
deeper question whether there may be some way to express what the naive
presentist means which does not
attempt to encroach on territory occupied by contemporary physics.
Michael Dummett in his seminal article, 'The
Reality of the Past' (1969), puts the case for what he terms an 'anti-realist'
theory of meaning, which rejects the intuitively plausible idea that we can take the truth condition of a statement
like, 'It's sunny today in Sheffield', and use it to account for the meaning of
'It was sunny at this location exactly 1000,000 years ago.' In the course of
his argument, he makes the observation that to be an anti-realist with respect
to the past involves taking the reality of time
seriously. A realist about the past, by contrast, is more drawn to the
eternalist view of time, according to which there is no pre-eminent time which
we call now. Every time is a 'now'.
I share the intuition that it is a fact —
a metaphysical fact, if you like — that the time is now. In terms of John McTaggart's distinction between the
A-series (past, present, future) and the B-series (the series of events ordered
by the 'before and after' relation), I would describe myself as an A-theorist.
You don't have to be a presentist in order to be an A-theorist. One alternative
would be C.D. Broad's view that the past is real
while the future is unreal. Aristotle
held a similar view. The past has happened, that's a fact, while the future is still open,
it hasn't been 'made' yet. Some would regard this as just plain common sense.
I'm more drawn to Dummett's view. There's no
recording angel. The ripples of events die down, until not a trace remains.
There are no immutable 'facts'. I would go further and state that there are no truths, period, not even truths about
'what is happening now'. There are merely the things we believe, or say that we
know and 'hold to be true'. No-one is keeping score except ourselves.
But who is 'we'? I can't speak for Fred, the
author of the question, or for the anonymous reader of this post. Each of us
has our own unique perspective, our own unique point of view. At the same time,
we can and indeed must keep score of one another's beliefs and assertions. I
can't do this just for myself. Wittgenstein's argument about private language
and 'meaning is use' — the main inspiration for Dummett's argument
— implies the incoherence of solipsism. There is no statement I can make
about my experience concerning which I can claim incorrigible certainty. I am
not the ultimate authority on whether or not I am 'following a rule' for the
use of a word.
Yet, just as there is a fact that the time is now, and not some other time, so, I would
argue, is it a fact that I am the
person writing this post, not Fred, not the anonymous reader. This is what I
argued for in my book Naēve Metaphysics.
I call it the (partial) vindication of solipsism. The I-now is an ultimate fact, but it is not the only fact, for, if it
were, then all these words would be meaningless and there would be nothing to
do but wag my finger. The conditions for the possibility of meaning must
obtain, and they are a 'fact' too.
I won't deny that this is all deeply mysterious.
I don't go in for mystery-mongering, but I recognize a contradiction when I see
one. I also recognize when we have no
choice but to believe that a contradiction (I call it a 'metaphysical
contradiction') can be true. (Or, 'can hold' as I don't believe in 'truth'.)
You're welcome to come back at me and say that, in saying what I've said, I've
given up any right to evaluate the validity or soundness of arguments. But I
would turn that around. My view of metaphysics is eclectic, maximally
permissive. There are no 'true' metaphysical theories and there are no 'false'
ones either. I believe in what I see,
and I 'see a truth' in presentism, even while I accept that presentism is not
Vaidyanathan asked this question:
I am a
newcomer to philosophy, and metaphysics in particular. I would like to know
about the method of analysing and proving statements in metaphysics. Being a
student of mathematics I am familiar with the axiomatic method. Is there any
systematic method of proving statements in metaphysics?
Vaidyanathan has taken me on a trip down memory
lane. How I wrangled with this!
Spinoza in his Ethics (1677) is probably the best example of a philosopher who
explicitly uses Descartes' 'geometric method' for proving propositions in
metaphysics. But you'd be totally wrong to think that Spinoza is any different
from the majority of metaphysicians who eschew Spinoza's barbaric apparatus of
axioms, definitions, propositions, scholia etc. etc.
You've got to start somewhere. Descartes starts
with the 'Cogito'. Whatever proof you offer (and we'll get on to the question
how there can possibly be 'proofs' in metaphysics in a minute) you need to
assume something; or have you?
Thirty years ago, I showed this to my harassed
thesis supervisor John McDowell. He was predictably nonplussed:
1. I begin with nothing:
only an unspecified commitment, a pure question mark, a certain mental
attitude. I want to tell the truth in a true way, before I even have any truths
to tell; to grasp the nature of ultimate reality while reality itself presents
no point of entry to its innermost circle; to forget all that I have learned
and begin this time without a beginning, empty-handed and empty-headed.
It gets worse:
2. The dialectic is pure
impulse to movement; and it is omnivorous. Everything serves as raw material,
including its own self. When pure movement feeds upon pure movement, something
may indeed arise out of nothing: the dialectic becomes conscious of itself and
begins to construct its net.
3. In metaphysics, the
truth wholly ceases to be true when told in a false way. The activities of the
misguided thinker issue, neither in partial truth nor partial falsehood. They
have no issue. From the point of view of ultimate reality the activities remain
confined within themselves; they fail to acquire an external reference...
(I hope you're following this.)
...For to 'begin with
nothing' means rejecting the 'matter in hand' and the 'common purpose'.
Metaphysics is not a 'subject' concerning which there may be partial agreement
or disagreement. One simply refuses to understand 'results' which the dialectic
cannot be made to generate entirely through its own resources.
It's a wonder that I ever succeeded in writing
my D.Phil thesis. Needless to say, this version of Chapter 1 didn't make it
into the final draft.
The thing is, Vaidyanathan, I know exactly what it was I was trying to do.
I really thought this was possible. You start without any assumptions. Ground zero. Nada. Then you spin the dialectic,
say 'Abracadabra' and 'something' emerges out of 'nothing'.
(I've tried this exercise of retracing my steps
before, in the Glass House Philosopher, Notebook II, page 9. Disappointingly,
the attempt fizzles out after a few pages.)
However, there's nothing wrong with starting
again. What was I trying to do?
Let's get back on course. You're a
mathematician, so you're familiar with mathematical proofs. Here's a famous
proof invented by the Ancient Greeks long before anyone thought of axiomatizing
To prove: The square root
of 2 is irrational.
1. Assume (for the sake of
reductio) that the square root of 2 is rational.
2. Therefore the square
root of 2 can be expressed as the fraction m/n, where m and n have no common
3. Squaring both sides of
the equation, 2 = m2/n2.
4. Therefore m2
= 2 n2.
5. Therefore m2
6. Therefore m is even.
7. If m is even, then m is
2k for some number k.
8. Therefore (substituting
2k for m) 2 = 4k2/n2.
9. Therefore 2n2
10. Therefore n2
11. Therefore n2 is even.
12. Therefore n is even.
13. If m and n are both
even, then they have a common factor, viz. 2.
14. But this is a
contradiction because we assumed that in m/n, m and n have no common factor.
15. Therefore the square
root of 2 cannot be expressed as m/n
where m and n have no common factor.
16. Therefore the square
root of 2 is irrational.
As I said, this proof is familiar to any mathematician.
But what I want you to try to do is picture what is going on in your mind, as
someone who doesn't know that the square
root of 2 is irrational, as you work through the proof step by step.
Remember the first time you learned this proof (and imagine what you would have
thought if you hadn't been taught in school that the square root of 2 is an
irrational number). Or picture the (unknown) Greek mathematician who discovered
Now, I'm going to show you another proof. A
direct quote this time. (I've just interpolated numbered steps.)
Let us imagine the
1. I want to keep a diary
about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with
the sign 'S' and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have
2. — I will remark
first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated.
3. But still I can give
myself a kind of ostensive definition.
4. — How? Can I point
to the sensation?
5. Not in the ordinary
6. But I speak, or write
the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation
— and so, as it were, point to it inwardly.
7. — But what is this
ceremony for? For that is all it seems to be! A definition surely serves to
establish the meaning of a sign.
8. — Well, that is
done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way I impress
on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation.
9. — But 'I impress
it on myself' can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the
connexion right in the future.
10. But in the present case
I have no criterion of correctness.
11. One would like to say:
whatever is going to seem right to me is right.
12. And that only means
that here we can't talk about 'right'.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations
On the face of it, there are notable differences
between Wittgenstein's reductio ad
absurdum of the notion of a 'private object' and the proof by the unknown
Greek mathematician. But I would argue that these are superficial. In his
famous para. 258, as well as the paragraphs leading up to and following it,
Wittgenstein uses all his rhetorical gifts to get inside the head of someone who thinks that the notion of a
'private language' is possible. If you take all the extra trappings away, you
get a 'proof' that is two, or at most three lines long. Even so, exactly the
same thing is happening as in the arithmetical case.
My aim is: to teach you to
pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations
I can write down, 'The square root of 2 = m/n'
but what I am writing down is impossible. It cannot be true. However, it takes
a proof to see this. Prior to
discovering the proof, you don't see it. The nonsense is disguised. Maybe (as
the Greeks probably did), you spend hours and hours looking for a fraction
which correctly represents the square root of 2, not realizing that all the
time you were chasing a chimera. That is exactly what Wittgenstein says philosophers
are doing, who put forward theories of the mind according to which feelings and
sensations are 'private objects'.
Thousands of miles of ink have been spilled
expounding, or defending, or attacking Wittgenstein's 'private language
argument'. I'm not going to add anything to that now, except to say that I
believe (as I believed 30 years ago) that this is the most important argument
in the whole of metaphysics.
As I once described it, the argument is like a
'metaphysical wall'. You see a wall, blocking the path of your thoughts. You
imagine that there must be some way round the wall, or under it, or through it.
But there is not. 'You reach the wall, only to find you are facing the other
Just as we can tease out the assumptions, the
'axioms' behind the theorems of arithmetic (as Peano attempted to do) so I'm
sure that there are plenty of assumptions or axioms to tease out if you want to
formalize your intuitive grasp of what metaphysics is, that is to say, what it
is to seek a 'definition of reality' (or 'Being qua being' in Aristotle's sense). But it would be a mistake to
think that the results of metaphysics therefore 'derive from axioms'. They do
not. The arise through the determined attempt to think whatever is thinkable,
to the ultimate extent and wherever that may take us.
Metaphysics progresses by demonstrating what is not thinkable. Metaphysics shows us that
the things we thought were thinkable are not thinkable. It seeks to 'make the
nonsense manifest'. It is tempting to assume (and here's a possible
'metaphysical axiom' if you want it) that whatever emerges from this exercise
unscathed is thinkable. But we can
never know this for sure. And so, just like mathematics, there is no end to the
discovery of the 'truths of metaphysics'.
Lois asked this question:
situations where the pursuit of our own happiness and peace of mind conflicts
with that of another. Must we always put the interests of others before our
own? Is there any justification for pursuing one's own welfare at the expense
of someone who stands in the way of our goal?
This question came in a while ago, and I wasn't
going to answer it. Other Ask a Philosopher panel members have already had a
go, and I couldn't really see that I had anything to add. (Lois didn't provide
an email address so she'll have to wait — rather a long time, I'm afraid
— until the next series of Questions and Answers is posted.)
But something happened to make me look at this
question again. (It's not something I want to talk about here.) The thought
occurred to me that pursuing this question from Lois can take you into a very
dark place indeed.
But let's start off with the more obvious points
that a moral philosopher would make.
I can think of two clear cases, which few would
dispute, where in the one case it was perfectly reasonable to put oneself
before another; while in the other case one has a clear obligation to put the
other person before oneself.
Let's say you are one of two shortlisted
candidates for a well paid executive position, waiting to be interviewed. This
is the first time you have reached the short list after scores of unsuccessful
Your stomach churns as you realize how much
depends on how you perform in this interview. A divorced mother of three. You
are behind with your mortgage payments, and you and your children are
threatened with eviction from the home they have lived in all of their lives.
Your age is against you, and it was only pure luck that you managed to get this
far in the selection process.
The other candidate catches your eye. 'How long
do you think we're going to have to wait?' You mumble something in reply. But
the other woman needs to talk so you listen. You listen with a growing sense of
amazement to her story about her husband who cheated on her with his personal
trainer, her subsequent divorce, her three young children and how far she is
behind with her mortgage payments. She could be you. She has as much to gain,
or to lose, as you have yourself.
What should you do? There's no question. You go
for the job. In the interview you fight for your happiness and the happiness of
your children. You fight for all your lives.
Our moral intuitions tell us — at least,
my moral intuitions tell me — that in a situation of fair, or even not so
fair competition such as the one I have described, there has to be a winner and
a loser. You have every right to strive to win with all your might, even though
as a necessary consequence the other must lose. Until human beings finally
succeed in creating Utopia, that's the nature of the society we live in.
I've painted this in black and white colours,
but it is not just an isolated, extreme example. There are many, many ways in
which human beings have to fight for their happiness and peace of mind, knowing
that there will inevitably be winners and losers in the game of life. Of
course, you can do your best to help those less fortunate, give generously to
charity and good causes. But if it was
wrong to compete in the first place, then charity and good deeds would
merely be a salve to ease one's guilty conscience.
In the example I have just given, it could be
objected that I was unfairly raising the stakes as each candidate was naturally
concerned for the well-being of her children. I don't think that's the crucial
point, however. My original idea was to have two not-so young but single
Philosophy PhDs competing for an academic post. (I can sympathize, but not that
many would.) Exactly the same considerations apply. One is destined for a life
in academia and the realization of all his or her dreams, the other will end up
as a bank manager. And both believe this is the very last chance for either of
But what about a parent's duty to one's child?
Isn't that the clearest case where one has an obligation to put the happiness
of others before one's own? The very definition of a 'bad mother' or 'bad
father' is a person who refuses to do this. Again, I'm relying on moral
intuition, but I expect the majority of parents would agree. It's a cliché, but
clichés are often true, that parenthood is a sustained and bloody exercise in
Well, I could go on to talk about all the cases
in between, where we are pulled both ways, towards wanting to say that one has
an obligation to put the other first, and saying that one is justified in
putting oneself first. Or, I could delve into moral theory in order to account
for these alleged intuitions: what would a utilitarian say? or a Kantian
deontologist? or a virtue ethicist? or an evolutionary biologist?
But I leave that as an exercise.
What concerns me is a disturbing vibe that I get
with this question. Our 'happiness and peace of mind' is at stake. What would
one not do for the sake of one's happiness and peace of mind? As a parent, you
can't be happy if your children are unhappy. And if there really is no prospect
that one will ever attain happiness, wouldn't it be better just to end it all?
And to think that you could be happy, were it not for the one person standing in your way!
What you would say to the the mother of three
who fails to get the job is that it isn't the end of the world. OK, so you get evicted from your home. That's
terrible. But people survive worse, and they end up making good lives for
themselves. Or to the disappointed PhD, one would remind them that they still
have their life ahead of them, there are other ways to pursue one's interest in
philosophy besides paid employment in a university.
When do we not
think this? When are we absolutely and utterly convinced that unless XYZ
happens, our happiness and peace of mind will be gone forever, never to return?
Love would be pretty high on the list. But not the only item. It could be a
political cause that you have dedicated your whole life to. Or something as
banal and unidealistic as the mistaken belief that you can only be happy having
lots and lots of money.
Which brings us to that dark place, which
popular films and TV dramas love to explore.
In Lois' question, there was a nice vagueness in
the idea of doing something 'at the expense' of another. One naturally assumes
that we are dealing with a tit-for-tat situation. What one stands to win, the
other stands to lose. But there's no logical reason for this assumption.
— That is the way a murderer thinks too.
Sergio asked this question:
is Sergio, I'm from Italy and I like spending time reading your page. During my
studies I've got stuck in a real big problem:
ERGO TEMPUS? WHAT IS TIME?
look simple to answer but it isn't for me, that's why I need your help.
Italian (and maybe in English too) we talk about time as if we are the owner of
it (sorry I don't have time for you, I don't want waste my time, etc.).
we talk about time like if it's negative for us (the time was bad with that
girl, she is 30 but she looks like she was 40).
the time is something far away from us, for example when we have a problem and
we can't find a solution (the time will bring the answers).
talk about the relation between time and space.
things mean the we use time, it's ours, but doesn't really say QUID EST ERGO
help me to find a solution?
not really looking for Husserl or Kant or St Augustine or what the other people
say about time, I'd like to know what you think about time.
I'm sorry to disappoint you, Sergio, but I
really don't know the answer to your question, 'What is time?' Like St
Augustine, I seem to know what time is, so long as nobody asks me, but when
someone asks, then I don't know.
I think this 'not knowing' points to something
very deep. It isn't just a matter of some knowledge which I don't have yet, or
which I would like to have. I'm not even sure if it's correct to say that time
is unknowable, something outside or beyond human knowledge or understanding.
Time, if anything, is too close to be
out there, too close, even, for knowledge. However you try to get a handle on
the nature of time, you find that you are talking about something else, related
to time (for example, space).
I term which I have heard in this context is
'promiscuous'. Time is a promiscuous concept because it is mixed up with so
many things. You can't explain time in terms of movement, because movement
presupposes time. You can't define time as something that exists, because to
exist is to exist in time. And so on. However philosophers try to explain time
or theorize about it, they end up chasing their own tails.
What I will do is outline a theory of time,
which is not my theory of time but simply my construction on what you have
said. In other words, what I am offering is your
theory of time, according to what you have told me. What you've said, in
recalling familiar ways in which we talk about time, is very revealing.
For want of a better term, I will call this
theory the 'agent theory of time'. By that I don't mean the obvious point that
action or agency presuppose time, that doing or acting would be inconceivable
in a world without time, whatever that would mean. (I'm also aware that in
traditional theology, God is conceived to exist outside of time, rendering the
question of how God acts on the world problematic. But more of that in a
What I mean is, rather, that according to this
theory, your theory, time is an agent.
Time does things, or has the power to do things:
• To have time, to own it, is like having money.
Just as I can use the money in my pocket to buy things, so I can use the time I have available, this is a power that
I have, which can be taken away from me. My time can be wasted or stolen. Time is money. You can use money to buy time,
or use up time to gain money by earning interest on your capital.
• Time does things to people; to the unfortunate
30-year old woman, time has been unkind, her features show the ravages of time,
the cares and worries that time has wrought. In colloquial English, we have the
expression (now somewhat stilted and old-fashioned) 'How goes the enemy?',
meaning, 'What is the time?' Time is the enemy that all of us have to contend
with at some time or other.
• And sometimes, too, time is our friend and
ally; a solution will come to the problem I am worrying about if only I wait
long enough. Time is secretive. You can guess but you can never know for sure
what time will bring, or even whether what it brings is something that we want
or something that we don't want.
The agent theory of time is a mythological view of time, which like
all myths seeks to render comprehensible something of great importance to us
that we cannot control or understand, by a process of personification.
On a hunch, I looked up 'God of time' and found
this article in Wikipedia:
In Greek mythology, Chronos
in pre-Socratic philosophical works is said to be the personification of time.
His name in Modern Greek also means 'year' and is alternatively spelled Chronus
(Latin spelling) or Khronos. Chronos was imagined as an incorporeal god.
Serpentine in form, with three heads — that of a man, a bull, and a lion.
He and his consort, serpentine Ananke (Inevitability), circled the primal
world-egg in their coils and split it apart to form the ordered universe of
earth, sea and sky.
So much for mythology. Is there any truth in this idea, or is it just
another pre-rational belief that human beings have cast aside on the road
through philosophy to science? Could there be a God of time?
I may not know what time is, but can I venture a
view about what time is not?
I don't know.
There could be a God of time. Why not? Forget
the Biblical story of Creation, of how the world was made in six days, 'and on
the seventh the Lord rested'. If we take this story literally it would mean
that the God of the Bible did not create literally everything. He is subject to time, just like every finite being.
My story would begin with a different God, a God
truly outside of time who creates a world also outside of time, a world which
reflects His eternal glory like the sun shining through a stained glass
cathedral window. (This image is from Richard Wollheim's book F.H. Bradley talking about McTaggart's
vision of the 'unreality' of time. In McTaggart's theory of eternally loving
spirits, we are the figures in the
Eternal glory is a fine thing. But it gets
boring (after a while, ahem). Then came along Chronos, the God of time who
finally made things... interesting.
I don't believe
this. But I can see the point of it. I can imagine it. I don't care what
physics says about time. Physics isn't the last word, whatever the Stephen
Hawkinses of this world might think. If you believe that there could have been a world outside of time, if that notion is
not logically self-contradictory, then two things follow:
First, McTaggart is wrong. His view of time, the
metaphysical claim that time is ultimately unreal, is false. But it is contingently true of a world that might
have existed, instead of this world. There could have been a world outside of
time, but, in fact, there isn't. The world, as we all know despite McTaggart's arguments, is a world in time.
Secondly, if you try to imagine who might be listening when you say your prayers, you
can only imagine the God of time. A God outside of time can do nothing for you.
You might as well pray to the number 42. As it happens, I am an atheist. But if
I wasn't an atheist, then the God I would worship is the God of time.
Ruy asked this question:
possible to embrace idealism and not to fall into solipsism?
Muganga asked this question:
like to know the difference between the idealistic philosophy and the realistic
I've postponed this question long enough. I
first tried an answer a couple of weeks ago, but abandoned it. You could say
that solipsism is my Achilles' heel. But Ruy is one of my University of London
students so I have to give it a go.
The starting point is a talk I gave to graduate
students at The University of Hull in 1997 entitled The Partial Vindication of
Solipsism. I had to apologize to my audience because the talk was only
half-written. At the crucial point, I just ran out of things to say, so I had
to extemporize. (We had a lively discussion — I wish someone had taped
Let's first get clear about some definitions.
I'm not interested here in the realism/ anti-realism debate about truth and
meaning, associated with philosophers like Michael Dummett and Crispin Wright.
I've written about this — you'll find it in the Pathways Philosophy of
Language and Metaphysics programs, but I want to focus here on 'traditional'
idealisms, like Berkeley's Immaterialism, Kant's Transcendental Idealism (with
phenomena-noumena distinction) and, possibly, Bradley's (or Hegel's) Objective
Idealism. These are all robustly non-solipsist theories, so in a way that
answers Ruy's question.
But, of course, it doesn't because the next
question is, can Berkeleian Immaterialism or Kantian Transcendental Idealism or
Bradleian Objective Idealism (or etc. etc.) be defended? If you do some
research on the internet you'll see that a 'case can be made'. Two notable books
which I may have mentioned before are John Foster The Case for Idealism (1982) and T.L.S. Sprigge The Vindication of Absolute Idealism
You don't need to be an idealist in order to see
the attractions of a 'partial solipsism'. In fact, as I argue in my book Naēve Metaphysics it doesn't even help
to be an idealist so far as contemplating the attractions of solipsism is
Here, I want to give my 'take' on why idealism
is challenge to be reckoned with. I think that idealism can be refuted. But
there wouldn't be much interest in its refutation if idealism wasn't worth
Science has moved on, since Berkeley attacked
the idea of 'matter'. The distance between a Newtonian corpuscularianism
(essentially, a modified Democritean atomism) and (e.g.) string theory is
stupendous. Physicist David Bohm's notion of an 'implicate order' could even be
described as a 'new idealism'. But I'm going to take a broad sweep and include
any view that sees physics as giving the ultimate account of the nature of the
universe as inconsistent with philosophical idealism. The universe might be
much stranger than we supposed, but physics gives the final account. After
that, there's nothing more, you've included everything that exists.
According to the idealist — or at least my
kind of 'idealist' — physics can never give the ultimate or final
account. Physical theories aim to tell us how
the world works, at the most fundamental level. But there is something
else, which physics doesn't and cannot explain.
It's easier to grasp this if you are a theist
(which I am not). What there is, which physics doesn't account for, is, on
Berkeley's version of theism, the super-mind within which all physical
existence is enclosed. When you look out onto the world, you are merely looking
at the inside of God's mind. All the physicist does is look deeper into it. The
nature of the deity is a subject for theology, or, possibly, metaphysics, but
(You can of course, be a theist without
embracing idealism. God did his God bit by 'making' things out of 'matter', the
way a potter makes pots out of clay. Alan Watts has a great phrase for this
theory in The Book on the Taboo Against
Knowing Who You Are (1966): he calls it 'The Crackpot Universe'.)
If you asked me, 'How is it that the Earth is
able to hang suspended in space?' and my reply was, 'Imagine the Earth resting
on a tortoise. Now, remove the tortoise', you wouldn't think much of my answer.
But I do contend that what I said about the tortoise is a valid way to think of
idealism. 'Imagine the universe existing inside God's mind. Now, remove God.'
The point is that nothing is explained by appealing to the nature of the deity. How can we know? But, equally, one can't
simply say, with Wittgenstein, 'A nothing would serve as well as a something
about which nothing can be said.' Serve what purpose, exactly? If you just mean
'serve the purposes of science', then you're just begging the question.
In short, for all its ambitions towards
objectivity, science is confined to looking at the universe from the inside. That's what the
idealist claims. There is something beyond science, for the same reason that
anything that has a 'inside' must have an 'outside'. But as to what that
'something' is we can only speculate.
A student of metaphysics might notice that what
I've said isn't very far away from Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena. Or
maybe Schopenhauer's World as Will and
In objective idealism, the metaphor of 'inside'
and 'outside' is replaced by the notion of part
to whole. According to F.H. Bradley
in his treatise Appearance and Reality
(1893), thinking dismembers experience by means of the apparatus of terms and
relations, resulting in irreconcilable 'contradictions' which are only
'overcome' in the Absolute —
although as finite beings we can have no positive knowledge of how this is
possible. Even God is merely an aspect of the Absolute.
What's wrong with idealism? We can leave aside
the usual objections, like P.F. Strawson's disappointingly weak reasons for
rejecting the phenomena-noumena distinction in his otherwise excellent book on
Kant, The Bounds of Sense (1966).
Yes, talk of an 'unknowable ultimate reality' borders on the unintelligible.
But that's precisely the point where we need to avoid the temptation to throw
our hands up in horror (the way the old-time logical positivists used to do).
Commenting on Bradley's denial of the reality of
spatial and temporal relations, Strawson's contemporary at Oxford J.L. Austin
is said to have remarked, 'There's the part where you say it, and then the part
where you take it back.' Space and time are 'real', for all practical human
purposes, just not for metaphysics. Well, I
know what Bradley meant, even if Austin (disingenuously, in my view)
professes not to. If only philosophy were that easy!
I've not done much more than try to describe the
idealist's vision, so it would be
somewhat unfair to offer a refutation when I haven't really given an argument to refute. I have more to say
about this in the Pathways Metaphysics program. However, there are two books that
stand out for me as encapsulating what
needs to be said if you want to resist the idealist's challenge.
The first book, or rather pair of books, is John
Macmurray's The Self as Agent (1957)
and Persons in Relation (1961) based
on his Gifford Lectures, 'The Form of the Personal'. Macmurray identifies the
key move that needs to be made as the rejection of a 'metaphysic of experience'
in favour of a 'metaphysic of action'.
The second book is Richard Rorty's rightly
celebrated Philosophy and the Mirror of
Nature (1979) where the key assumption behind the panoply of idealist
philosophies is identified as the view that human thought acts as a 'mirror'
which serves to 'copy' or 'represent' an 'external reality'.
We are as agents bound up with the world too
intimately to make a separation, even in thought, between experience, or
thought, and its 'object'.
I suppose that this is, essentially, pragmatism.
The American Pragmatist William James correctly identified this as the weak
point in F.H. Bradley's idealism, the notion that human physical agency reduces
to so much 'experience'.
It is the same point, again, as the famous
incident when Dr Johnson, emerging into a church courtyard after hearing one of
Berkeley's sermons, kicked a heavy stone and declared 'I refute it thus'. An
idealist would say that Dr Johnson was being naive because 'of course' idealism
can explain the experience of rapidly moving your boot, the judder of contact,
etc. What Dr Johnson saw — and Berkeley missed — is that what makes
reality real, and not merely
'virtual', is that actions are things we do
rather than things we merely experience.
Derrick asked this question:
recently read a report on a request made by the Russian Minister of Finance who
asked that Russians smoke and drink more as the country needed the revenue. Is
this not as a result of their adoption of the capitalist system, a system that
has been faulty since its exception?
did not work and the West did its utmost to see it failed, the Capitalist
system is no better as it benefits only a small segment of the population and
the myth of the creation of wealth which is now the holy grail is all smoke and
mirrors and has value as long as the paper Dollar retains its value.
comes to finance we have people who are awarded the Nobel prize for the
creation of systems that are supposed to improve how systems work, I have yet
to see this actually effect anything, in fact things keep getting worse.
told how well we are doing while pensioners don't know how they are going to
also told the markets know best, best for who? A shareholder's interest is
never a countries interest, self-interest is the only consideration.
we need to break the cycle of greed, a 3rd World war? But then war is
understand Greek Philosophers had thoughts on matters of finance, does
Philosophy have solutions or is man so flawed that we are too far into the
abyss to pull back?
Derrick's question is timely. I have been
seriously considering whether I want to continue as Editor of Philosophy for
Business, the e-journal which I launched in November 2003, in an atmosphere of
heady optimism that a 'reformed' version of Capitalism, or 'Capitalism 2.0' was
just around the corner. The philosophers would show the way.
While the readership of the e-journal has
steadily increased, the flow of articles has significantly declined. There are
undoubtedly business ethicists out there, marketing their expertise, but
they've gotten smart. They know the things that companies and corporations
don't want to hear, so they don't tell them. All the talk is of how, by
increasing the company's ethical quotient, or boosting its CSR strategy, or
even developing the 'emotional intelligence' of managers and executives,
profits will inevitably increase. Cast your bread upon the waters.
Don't mistake these remarks for cynicism. I
think that the business ethicists are doing the right thing, the only thing
they can do, by working for evolutionary change and not trying to start a
revolution. If things seem to be going very slowly one has to remember that the
system has massive inertia. Change will come, but it will come slowly. At
least, that's the optimistic forecast.
But too slowly for the likes of me. The great
slogan of defenders of Capitalism (of which I am one) is 'freedom'. I believe
in freedom. You can't have freedom without the marketplace, where goods,
commodities and services are freely bartered and exchanged. That's the way it
works. This isn't caving in to human 'selfishness' but rather the only way the
game can be played. There's a place for ethics, provided you recognize that
ethics and CSR are things you have to budget for. In some years you have more
to spend and in other years less.
What really hurts me is seeing how unfree this same system has made us. If
someone offers you work you don't waste time thinking whether you really need
the money (unless you are lucky to have an inheritance or private income). It
doesn't matter if you are a senior executive or do the postal round. Now, as a
response to the recent downturn, belts are being tightened once more, we are
being asked to work harder and longer — while we avert our eyes from
those unlucky enough to be cast on the scrapheap.
We are prisoners of our own expectations —
for example, that the only healthy state for an economy is growth. You must
consume more, so that the money can go round, job opportunities increase etc.
This is all economic witchcraft. Why not consume less, work less, have more
time to dream, more time to philosophize?
Our wealth is one another, our friendships, our
human capacities, the world of culture that human beings have created. When
will there be an economics of that? Could there be, or is it more realistic to assume
that the very concept of being 'economical' is at fault, that human beings are
at their best when they are extravagant, when they don't count the cost? When
was the last time you treated yourself — or your partner, or family
— to something you couldn't
afford? If you ever did, did you feel guilty afterwards? Shouldn't one feel more guilty at allowing such base
considerations as money to influence one's decisions? (Actually, I think we do
— based on my own experience.)
I sympathize with the Russian Minister of
Finance. Alcohol and tobacco are two of the greatest benefits bestowed on
humankind and at the same time two of the greatest curses. They are not just
'addictions'. They make you feel good. I can't think of anything more important
then feeling good about oneself and about the world. You'll say that the
country 'doesn't need' even more resources expended on the illnesses caused by
smoking, or the social disorder caused by drinking. But maybe there is a
balance that hasn't been reached yet. The economic benefits of a ten percent
increase in smoking, say, marginally outweigh the cost of the increased burden
on the health services. I can see that.
In his question, Derrick refers to the Greek
philosophers. One of the fashionable trends in contemporary business ethics
— reflected in the number of articles on this topic published in
Philosophy for Business — is the application of Aristotelian virtue
theory to the business world. The focus on the virtues needed for the 'good
life', and in particular, the virtues needed to be a good business person, is
one that I welcome. (See my Ethical
Dilemmas, in particular Unit 10.)
The problem is that if you are looking to
redress the imbalance between the rich and the poor, Aristotle and Greek
philosophy generally is the wrong model. The Greeks had no problem with the
idea of social inequality. Slaves were an essential part of the well-ordered polis. Unless you give a totally false,
'Christianized' gloss on the notion of 'virtue', there is no necessary
corollary that exercising the virtues, or the business virtues will lead to a
'fairer' world, where we can all be free and equal together.
But I agree with Derrick that the world is in a
mess, in so many ways, as it always has been (although that's no comfort).
My response is unoriginal, one that you will
have heard many times before. If you can't change the world, if things move too slowly regardless of your best efforts,
then at least you can work on yourself.
If you are well-off, in a good job, then stop being so complacent. Become aware
of your over-dependence on the system, which rewards you now but tomorrow may
kick you out through the back door. If you are poor, then stop complaining.
Consider all the ways there are of improving yourself without amassing useless
material possessions. Ask how you can be helpful to others rather than just
looking to others for help.
I am going to publish my answer to Derrick in
the next issue of Philosophy for Business, which is due to go out at the
beginning of next week, provided I can scratch together another couple of
articles to go with it. If you are a philosopher or business ethicist reading
this, then the offer of the Editorship is genuine. There's no salary, but then
there's not a lot of work to do. Mainly, you will be badgering (or, if
necessary, bullying) colleagues or people you know into writing articles. It
would look good on anyone's CV.
If you're interested, email me on
firstname.lastname@example.org. Initially, you will be invited to guest edit one issue.
This is an experiment we've successfully tried in the past. If you pass the
test, and still have the appetite for more, then the job's yours for as long as
you can continue the flow of quality material. Think about it. It could change
your life — it certainly changed mine.
Robert asked this question:
some key mental/ psychological characteristics of those who enter the study of
philosophy? Meaning, are there internal mental phenomena that occur in the
psyche of those who first enter into studying philosophy (and who can actually
grasp and internalize the material)?
have parallel experiences of mental phenomena during their initial exposure to
philosophy? Can one almost detect their own mental rewiring and the side
effects of that wiring?
time periods where people, who are studying philosophy, actually balance
between two world views and the result of which is the inability to function
normally? Can studying philosophy trigger underlying psychological problems?
Can philosophy bring about ones propensity for schizophrenia for example?
Robert's question follows on naturally from my
answer to Nastik last week. It is interesting that over 15 years of running
Pathways to Philosophy I have gathered a lot of data on how students react to
the challenge of philosophy, how it changes the way they think, how it changes them. And yet, I have comparatively
little idea about how all this feels on the inside.
Here's a telling response to my post on ‘Philosophy as process’ from one of my
more articulate students:
Yes to pleasure — the
occasional experience of exhilaration, the aah moments, but more often pain,
not to mention F*** it, I give up! Yes to mental gym, and the work-out is more
demanding than I'd ever have imagined. And emphatically yes to wanting to know
the answers — but in my case knowing that I, lacking the necessary
equipment, will never be able to work any of them out myself. I'm glad you have
your sense of being in the presence of the sublime — I don't know how you
could carry on otherwise.
The vast majority of my students are different
from me in one important respect, typified by this example. The most impressive
thing, for the beginner, is the sheer difficulty
of the subject. And one of the early decisions that one makes is that one is
aiming for self-enrichment and self-improvement — and pleasure, to be
sure — but not to become a
philosopher. So, yes, you have to 'grasp and internalize the material' if
you are to make any progress. But there is a cut-off point. You recognize your
limits, and accept this as a fact. Then you can relax and drink at the deep
well of philosophy and feel refreshed.
I realize that this might sound rather elitist.
But I am talking about philosophy as a life choice. Apart from professional
philosophers (not all of whom I would describe as 'philosophers' in the sense I
mean), I don't get a lot of opportunity to talk to people who feel this way,
who have made this life choice, who see the designation 'philosopher' as
closest to what they truly are, or at least strive to be. Most of my students
have successful careers in other fields. They are intelligent, inquiring, but
they are happy to remain students of
philosophy. They know their limits and stick to them.
What this boils down to is that in answering
Robert's question I really only have myself to go on.
The human brain is versatile. You can develop
your interests in a wide variety of ways — requiring very different ways
of thinking — and not feel any great sense of strain. I have experienced
this for myself. I like computers, I like photography, I like designing web
sites, I like music. I used to like chess until I realized that I was so bad at it, that there was no point in
pursuing that particular interest (although I still occasionally play against
the computer when I'm feeling in a sufficiently masochistic mood).
It has been hypothesized that maybe this has
something to do with the fact that there are two hemispheres of the brain with
(to some extent) specialized functioning. I'm a rather peculiar case, in that
in that I can only read comfortably with my left eye (my right eye is 'lazy')
which means that information gathered from reading gets routed through the
'wrong' side (the right hemisphere). I would love to see a scientific study of
this. It might explain why I have such immense difficulty in reading generally.
(Of course, in the absence of evidence from research what I have said is not
much more than idle speculation.)
Yes, I had a life before I 'discovered'
philosophy. At one time, I wanted to be a scientist (I started a BSc in
Chemistry at Leeds University but I was a lousy student). Then I discovered
photography. I can remember vividly what it was like, doing dangerous chemistry
experiments in the bathroom, then a few years later prowling the streets with
my camera. Fond memories. But the person who did those things had no idea what lay ahead. (See the
account I wrote in 1999 My philosophical life.)
And yet — and this is the ironic thing
— human beings inevitably tell the story of their lives from a biased
perspective. I can't help feeling that somehow, even then, I knew that I was bound for philosophy. At
12, I was nearly expelled from my barmitzvah classes for proudly telling a
fellow student that I was an atheist. I have a memory fragment of wrestling with
the God question in the toilet, calling God every rude name I could think of,
scared of the punishment I would receive, but nothing happened. God ignored my
insults. At some point, He just vanished. Only later, I discovered that this
was a question you could argue about,
logically. But the decision had already been made.
Then there's a memory fragment I had from when I
was much younger, maybe 6 or 7 that I described in the Introduction to Glass
There is a persistent memory from my childhood
— I could not have been more than six or seven — holding my head in
my hands on the stairs, in a swoon. I date this as the time I first became
aware of the world around me as a world. Our house, the street, the suburbs of
London, the Earth and sky spread endlessly out to the stars.
As my head spun,
I had a fleeting memory image of a girl with blue eyes and black hair, standing
in front of a school desk holding a large square piece of red paper. We used a
lot of coloured paper at school. Cutting it, sticking it, folding it into
models. I have never been able to discover the true connection between the
image and the feeling of a world revolving dizzyingly around me. Was it maybe
the panicked thought that everything, the world, myself included, is just made
of different coloured stuff?
What was that about? It feels so real to me now.
Can I really say, for certain, that that experience was my first inkling that I
would be a philosopher?
To cut a long story short, I like to think that some of the things I did
were somehow explained by an innate propensity, a natural inclination towards
philosophy. But there is no way to verify this.
So now, we skip to my first year at Birkbeck
College London. I am going hell for leather. At every lecture I take copious
notes, carefully filed in a large red binder. I stay up until 3 am in the
morning solving a logic proof. (I succeeded, but what if I'd failed? would I
have carried on?) — What is going on in my head?
This is what Robert wants to know. It seems to
me that the study of philosophy has this peculiarity. That if you're serious
about the subject — serious enough to want to be a philosopher —
then everything you do and every interest
that you have undergoes a form of mutation. I was no longer a photographer,
I was a philosopher with a camera. I was no longer a hippie lookalike singing
Bob Dylan songs, I was a philosopher with a guitar (who still looked like a
hippie). Most important of all, everyone I met got to know very quickly about
'my' philosophy. I had discovered a way of being in the world.
I guess what this is working up to is that this
isn't really about the brain. As I have already argued, the brain is versatile,
it can cope with almost any new input. This is about the struggle to define
oneself, to decide how you face the world and how the world sees you. Of course
there will be hiccups in the process of transition. You do feel sometimes that
you are going mad (good advice to take a complete break when this happens
— go for a walk, have sex, do something distracting). Robert Pirsig's
bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance paints a vivid picture of a philosophy student ('Phaedrus'
named after Plato's dialogue) who goes over the brink from too much mental
exertion — reading that may have saved me from a similar fate.
You've got to push yourself a little bit —
actually rather a lot — if you are serious. But I would never take a
student whom I suspected had mental problems. For the same reason you wouldn't
let someone who had a heart condition do martial arts training. That's just
asking for trouble. On the other hand, none of us is perfect. Maybe it is even
true that a painful sense of one's own mental imperfections is what drives one
to philosophy. As the cheesy sign you sometimes see in offices says, 'You don't
have to be mad to work here, but it helps.'
as a virtue
Tigist asked this question:
true that we are here to help others, what are the others doing here?
Tigist is quoting — or rather misquoting
— a remark reputedly made by the famous poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973):
We are here on earth to do
good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.
I recognized Auden's quote from a sharp exchange
I had with the business ethicist Tibor Machan (recorded in ‘The Glass House
Philosopher’, second notebook page 106).
In an article, 'On the Possibility of a Business
Ethic' (Philosophy for Business Issue 27) I expressed a view about Ayn Rand's
'virtue of selfishness' that Machan strongly objected to. I won't rehash the
debate here. Machan cited Auden as a rejoinder to what he saw as 'this
widespread eagerness to deem all of us altruists'. I regret that I didn't take
the opportunity to analyse exactly what Auden meant to convey by his witty
remark. In philosophy, you don't judge a quote by how well it sounds, but by
how good a case it makes.
In her question, Tigist talks of being 'here to
help others' whereas Auden merely says 'do good for others'. The difference is
more than a shade of meaning. There are many ways in which you can do good for
others which would not count as 'helping' them. A painter who paints a painting
or a novelist who writes a novel which gives pleasure or inspiration to others
is not 'helping' them thereby. To disseminate one's work (as I'm doing here) is
not an act of selfless giving but rather closer to what Nietzsche described as
the 'will to power'. We need others in order to express ourselves, in a sense,
in order to be what we are.
Maybe I'm giving a spin on Auden's words that he
didn't intend. But at least on this reading, one can say that he is not
attacking a straw man. According to this interpretation, what Auden is seeking
to reduce to absurdity is not the view that the reason why we are here is to
perform acts of charity, but rather the view that we are here so that others
may benefit in some way from the actions that we do or the things that we
Why is that so wrong? If we are here merely to help others, then the question naturally
arises, 'help them do what?' Help us?
Help some third class of persons not yet accounted for? On the other hand, if
we are here to produce something of benefit to others, there is surely no
absurdity in the notion that every member of society has something to offer,
according to his or her talents or abilities.
Ayn Rand admired the producers — be they novelists, film producers or business
tycoons — who do things that others benefit from. Yet she passionately
believed that the only valid basis for this is egoism. I am writing this for myself, not for you, the reader. Whatever
value these words have derives from my integrity
as a writer or (dare I say) as a philosopher. — If you don't like the cut
of my writing, you can surf away to another blog.
Exactly the same principle applies in business.
(Here, it could be argued that Ayn Rand betrayed herself as possibly too
idealistic for the nitty gritty realities of the business world.) Suppose I
create a design for a better mousetrap. As the saying goes, 'the world will
beat a path to your door'. It's a win-win situation: I make a profit from
marketing my invention which I can use to improve the life of myself and my
family, and the lives of others are improved through the reduction in the
population of house mice, not to mention the employment opportunities generated
by the ever-increasing orders for mousetraps.
Ayn Rand didn't merely promote this notion of
egoism as a virtue. She saw the opposite, 'self-sacrifice' or 'altruism' as a vice. Those who praise altruism are
deniers of life, who denigrate all that is best about what it is to be an
individual — what it is to be human.
As a writer, what I am here for is to write.
What you are here for, is to read. Converting this observation into a general
principle, I am here to create, while others are here to enjoy the fruits of my
creation. That would be fine if we are prepared to make a distinction, as
Nietzsche did, between two classes of human being, the mensch and the übermensch.
The übermenschen or 'over-men' (in
some translations, 'supermen') are the value producers, while the rest of us
are merely value consumers.
It is the weakest link in Nietzsche's philosophy
that he couldn't see a way to define a common good for all human beings, and not just a special elevated class. Aristotle,
whose Ethics and Politics in many ways provides the model for Nietzsche's conception
of human flourishing, was able to avoid that fatal step by seeing every human
being, from the ruler down to the slave as having their justified place in the polis. There are virtues appropriate to
every station in life.
F.H. Bradley passionately defended this
Aristotelian idea of virtues appropriate to one's station in his essay, 'My
Station and Its Duties' (in Ethical
Studies, first published in 1876). However, the clearest expression of
Bradley's recognition that the possibilities of human life span a continuous
range from pure 'self-assertion' to pure 'self-sacrifice' occurs in his
metaphysical treatise Appearance and
Reality (2nd edition 1897, pp. 414-429).
This is the core of my case. All human values
ultimately involve reference to 'the other'. No man is an island. That doesn't
mean we all have to be eager do-gooders. It is one of the fundamental
existential choices which human beings face, where exactly we exist on the
continuum between self-assertion and self-sacrifice. Nietzschean will to power
is vitally important, but so is Humean sympathy. As the Jewish Talmud reminds
the faithful, whatever your life plan, do not forget to make necessary
provision for 'the widow and the orphan'.
Ayn Rand hated the idea that other human beings
have the right to demand our help and
support. Yet all the developed countries accept this basic principle. Budgeting
for overseas aid is mandatory: the only question is how much. Yes, of course,
there is self-interest involved, it is not pure altruism. But the point I am
arguing is that no-one is purely altruistic or purely selfish. We have the
right to assert ourselves, the right to personal integrity. We don't have the
right to shut our eyes and ears to what is going on around us, or the pleas of
those less fortunate than ourselves.
Roy asked this question:
trouble understanding what people mean when they use a phrase with the word
'exception'. To me it sounds like a contradiction. So my question has two parts:
using the term 'exception' ever legitimate?
the term 'except' usually contradict the general rule that comes before it?
example, All ice cream should be taxed, except vanilla.
that the quantifier 'all' is false if a member is excluded.
example, All students passed the final exam except Roy.
me this means only Roy failed the final exam and the quantifier 'all' makes the
help me make sense of the term 'exception'. Thanks for your help.
I am going to treat Roy's question as a problem
for truth-conditional semantics. Grammarians, who professionally are required
to have a little more respect for natural language 'as it is spoken' might
The modern wave of truth-conditional semantics
was launched by the work of Donald Davidson in the late 60's, beginning with
his seminal article 'Truth and Meaning' (1967). Davidson was merely continuing
the project started by Frege with his revolutionary Begriffschrift, and continued by the early Wittgenstein, Russell
Davidson reformulated the task for a semantics
of natural language — based upon Frege's ground-breaking invention of
first-order predicate calculus — which aimed to satisfy two requirements:
(1) to explain how it is that a speaker, using their knowledge of a finite
number of words or semantic units, is able to generate a potentially infinite
number of meaningful sentences; (2) make explicit the logical entailments
between sentences which are only implicit in natural language.
Applied to the notion of 'except', what we need
to explain is how it is possible for
a speaker to use this term consistently in any number of sentences that they
have never used or encountered before, and how they are able to recognize the
logical implications of a sentence containing the word 'except'.
The logical analysis represents the speaker's implicit knowledge. What exactly it
means to attribute implicit knowledge to a speaker is itself a problem in the
philosophy of language, but as it affects truth-conditional semantics
generally, I won't develop it here.
Now here comes the crunch: if you can do this,
if you can give an analysis which satisfies Davidson's two requirements, then
Davidson would say it really doesn't matter too much if the analysis which you
offer of the idiom doesn't look at all like something that an ordinary speaker,
unversed in the symbolism of first-order predicate calculus, would recognize.
This is all rather general. Let's apply this
idea to Roy's case.
I can see why Roy thinks that it is odd to say
something like, 'All the students passed, except Roy who failed.' If they all passed, then Roy passed. This
follows logically from a basic rule of inference that any speaker competent
with the term 'all' recognizes. But we just said that Roy failed. He didn't
pass. Therefore Roy passed and Roy didn't pass. In other words, to say that all
the students passed except Roy entails a logical contradiction.
Or does it?
Here is a first shot at translating the
statement 'All the students passed, except Roy', into first-order predicate
(x)(((x is a student & x is not Roy)
–> x passed) & ((x is a student & x is Roy) –> x
'For all x, if x is a student and x isn't Roy,
then x passed; if x is a student and x is Roy, then x failed.'
This seems OK. Let's try to apply it to the
(x)(((x is ice cream & x is not vanilla)
–> x is taxable) & ((x is ice cream and x is vanilla) –>
x is not taxable))
'For all x, if x is non-vanilla ice cream then x
is taxable; if x is vanilla ice cream then x is not taxable.'
This is fine so far as it goes but it seems to
leave out a rather important aspect of the meaning of 'except', which any
competent speaker would recognize. When we say 'all... except...' we are
pointing out a relatively infrequent exception
to a generalization, which otherwise holds. 'All trains into London St Pancras
are running normally today, except from Derby and Chesterfield.' If the
announcer had gone on to list all the trains into London St Pancras bar one or
two, then the statement would be regarded as false, or at best, deliberately
Exceptions are in the minority. This is an
important part of what we mean when we use the term 'except', and any logical
analysis that fails to recognize this is inadequate. If all the students except
Roy had failed, then you wouldn't say (unless you were being cruel), 'All the
students passed — except John, Mary, Christopher, Bob, Susan...'.
Closely connected with the use of the term
'except' is the quantifier, 'most'. 'Most of the candidates passed the exam.'
Or, 'All the candidates passed, except Roy and Susan.' (We sometimes loosely
say, 'Most of the students passed, except Roy and Susan'. But this is confusing
when you think about it.)
But how do we evaluate what counts as a
'majority' or 'most'? Is it more than 50%? more than 60%? Can the threshold
change between different contexts? 'Most blood supplied for transfusions in the
UK has been tested for Hepatitis C.' That better had better be 99.999% or the
Minister for Health has a potential scandal on his hands.
Various attempts have been made to give a
truth-conditional semantics for 'most', although I don't know of any particular
analysis that has been generally accepted. To allow a vague term into logic itself would have caused
great affront to Frege, who saw natural language as unavoidably deficient and
lacking the purity and precision of logic. The fact is that ordinary speakers
exercise refined judgement in deciding exactly when and how to use terms like
'except' and 'most' and their logical implications. This ability is one that
is, at best, inadequately explained by the procrustean formulae of first-order
— So much the worse, some would say, for
wisdom and wonder
Kym asked this question:
philosophy is not sophistry?
philosophy is not wisdom?
philosophy begins with wonder?
Having once described myself as an 'internet
sophist' (see My Philosophical Life) you could say that I deserve this
question. I am proud to belong to the tradition of Sophists, which includes the
great figures of Thrasymachus, Protagoras, Prodicus and Gorgias. These were
thinkers of stature who ventured out into the market place, as I have done, not
to talk to anyone willing to listen like Socrates — a most unsuccessful
Sophist if there ever was one — but rather on the understanding that
their time was worth something, that
they deserved recompense for their work. These contemporaries of Socrates and
Plato were highly respected. The term 'sophist' had no negative connotations at
that time. The closest translation would be 'professor'.
However, I accept the assumption of Kym's
question: that there is an accepted sense of 'sophistry' (indeed, no-one these
days would use the term any other way) that implies strong criticism and
rebuke. To engage in sophistry is to use bad arguments deliberately to confuse
your audience, in order to manipulate their beliefs. I hope that I have never
done that, deliberately, or even as a result of carelessness or inattention. I
share Socrates' passionate concern for the truth. Nor will I criticize his life
style. There is nothing commendable about being wealthy. I make a living at
what I do — working as an independent philosopher outside the Academy
— but no more than I need for a very modest subsistence.
But pity poor Xanthippe. Pilloried by historians
for being a fish wife, she had to live with the consequences of Socrates'
decision to give up his well paid profession as a stone mason, choosing poverty
and despising all comforts in order to follow his muse.
It was, above all, the founding of Plato's
Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum that put the final nail in the coffin of the
honorable profession of Sophists. If you didn't belong to a school, then you
didn't belong, period. To be a genuine 'philosopher' was to be recognized as
such by other 'philosophers'. If you were not a member of the Philosophers'
Party then by definition you were no lover of wisdom. That still holds true
today, although universities are now under increasing pressure from the
marketplace, as the recent scandal over the massive hike in UK university
tuition fees has demonstrated. It is high time the university professors
recognized that they no longer have the monopoly on excellence.
There are indeed signs that the prediction I
made back in 1999 when I wrote my piece for The Glass House Philosopher was not
so wide of the mark: 'The university departments have had their day. Time has
come for a more democratic arrangement.' If I may venture a plug for my
philosophy school, Pathways to Philosophy, you can do a highly acclaimed BA
(Hons) degree in Philosophy from the University of London, with a higher
standard of tutorial support from Pathways than any of the universities is able
to provide (including Oxford and Cambridge with their long-established tutorial
systems) for less than £5000 all in, for a complete four-year course, a
fraction of what it would cost you if you applied as an internal student to the
least 'expensive' university today. — And you don't have to give up your
(I think I have earned the right to blow my
trumpet now and then. After all, no-one pays me to do this blog.)
Well, what about wisdom. There are examples of
great philosophers you could point to who were not very wise. Possibly the most
catastrophic example from the 20th century would be Heidegger, whose flirtation
with the Nazi regime (whatever gloss you place on it) cannot be justified or
explained by any amount of sophistical reasoning. Bertrand Russell, rightly
regarded as one of the most important figures in English-speaking philosophy
and one of the founders of the tradition of philosophical analysis, was a
serial womanizer, who alongside his brilliant views on logic and epistemology
was prepared to entertain ideas on social reform which many today would
consider opiniated and uninformed. Finally, there is Gottlob Frege, possibly
the most important of all the founders of the analytic movement, about whom
Michael Dummett in the Preface to his monumental first book Frege Philosophy of Language (1973)
There is some irony for me
in the fact that the man about whose philosophical views I have devoted, over
years, a great deal of time to thinking, was, at least at the end of his life,
a virulent racist, specifically an anti-semite. This fact is revealed by a
fragment of a diary which survives among Frege's Nachlass, but which was not
published with the rest by Professor Hans Hermes in Freges nachgelassene Schriften. The diary shows Frege to have been
a man of extreme right-wing political opinions, bitterly opposed to the
parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above
all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and,
preferably, expelled from Germany. When I first read that diary, many years
ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely
Michael Dummet Frege: Philosophy of Language Preface
Which just goes to show that the capacity for
logical reasoning doesn't always go together with wisdom. That's not to say
that we should take a sanguine view of philosophers who do not aspire to
wisdom. There is a point in speaking of the 'love of wisdom', it's not just hot
air or a mere political slogan. I view my own lapses from wisdom with regret,
but it doesn't seem to me that my failings in that respect make me any less of
a philosopher. One could have also pointed out that there are many persons whom
one would consider wise, who have never ventured into philosophy. My old
grandmother Rose was wise, though to my knowledge she had never read a word of
philosophy. To put the point in terms of the language of logical analysis,
being a philosopher is neither a sufficient
condition for being wise, nor is being a philosopher a necessary condition for wisdom.
Finally, wonder. The motto on the web site for
the International Society for Philosophers is 'Philosophy begins with wonder'.
When I came to write this answer, I couldn't remember whether it was Plato or
Aristotle who said this. Then I found this answer from Hawkinsian on Yahoo
Plato puts the following
words in the mouth of Socrates at Theaetetus 155 d (tr. Benjamin Jowett): 'I
see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature
when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a
philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.'
Aristotle echoes the
Theaetetus passage at 982b12 of his Metaphysics: 'It was their wonder,
astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.'
What many miss, however, is that Plato and
Aristotle are both talking about the search for theoria, for a knowledge and understanding of the nature of the
cosmos and our place in it, in a sense which today would include the great
figures of science as well as those of philosophy. (I guess that Hawkinsian is
a fan of Stephen Hawking.)
Another motto — which I penned for the
PhiloSophos web site — is, 'Philosophy is for everyone and not just
philosophers. Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.'
Philosophers should know about Hawking — and Dawkins and all the rest.
Nor do you need any specialist academic training in philosophy to be a
philosopher, to feel that special sense of wonder. That's why I said that
philosophy is for all, and I meant
it. But not everyone does feel that sense of wonder. My explanation would not
be that the non-philosophical multitude lack sufficient knowledge or
intelligence for philosophy. Rather, as the great Presocratic philosopher
Heraclitus said, they are like people asleep. They sleepwalk through life,
never once thinking of the Logos, the
ultimate principle of all existence whatever that may be. The question never occurs to them. But it can occur to anybody.
I date the beginning of my interest in
philosophy with that question. I have grappled with the question all my career,
although, if the truth be told, there has been a long gap where my attempts to
make progress with it had to go on the back burner (roughly, from the date when
my book Naēve Metaphysics appeared).
Now I'm back on the case. I've started another blog, where my daily attempts to
put the the jig-saw pieces together is recorded. I may never succeed. In fact,
given the ambitiousness of the project, it is almost guaranteed in advance that
I will not succeed. But while I remain engaged, I am filled with wonder, I am
doing the thing that I do best. I can without blushing call myself a
work for a pessimistic misanthrope
Robert asked this question:
I am a
former engineer, and I have studied about 20 great cynic philosophers over the
last 10 years. Diogenes, Voltaire, Buddha, Malthus and Schopenhauer are some of
my favorites. I lived in the woods for 2 years to try and get a clearer view of
cities, and find out what constitutes meaningful work.
seems very widespread within modern society. Everyone appears to be 'acting' in
a very large play, which Shakespeare alluded to. I have a theory that 90% plus
of the population of any given city has a small reality tunnel, and they may be
a kind of farm animal that is working, paying rent, paying taxes and paying off
debt for the better part of their adult life to benefit some wealthy elite(s).
like to know what your panel thinks would be a good livelihood for an
intelligent cynical, stoical, pessimistic misanthrope?
as I now call it, lacks logic, proportion and integrity. I plan to spend the
next year fishing and looking for silver coins on beaches with a metal detector.
Is this where geniuses end up? I welcome your comments.
Well, Robert, to quote Morpheus, I know exactly what you mean.
The figure of Diogenes haunts me, ever since one
of my students — coincidentally also called Robert — sarcastically
referred to me as Diogenes in the marketplace. Being permanently hard up for
cash, I don't have a lot of choices but at least I live in a house and not a
barrel. I don't have to display my bare ass in the street while doing my daily
My three teenage daughters rejected the academic
world. One works as a nursing assistant in a local hospital, another is out all
night doing gigs as a club DJ, the youngest is a singer in an aspiring heavy
metal rock band. For lots of reasons, I'm not a good example — to anybody.
But let me tell you a story.
Yesterday, I travelled down to London to meet
the people responsible for running the University of London International
Programme in Philosophy. I was nervous about this meeting. Tutoring students
for the University of London BA degree provides a good slice of my income. Yet
I have done my best to remain aloof from the world of academic philosophy. For
similar reasons to those you cite, I see it as a world mired in corruption. To
survive as an academic philosopher today, you have to sell your soul many times
over to ignorant administrators and the money men. You devise little tricks and
ruses to enable you to carry on doing something worthwhile and real, while all
the time you service the needs of a corrupt society steeped in materialist
I gave a good account of myself, while the
inscrutable face of university bureaucracy smiled and nodded — and failed
to understand a single word I was saying. I might as well have been speaking
I would love to spend the rest of my life
fishing and looking for coins on beaches with a metal detector. As long as I
had my laptop and an internet connection — because I don't believe in
hiding my light under a bushel.
But what will actually happen is that I will
remain here for quite a while yet. It wouldn't be fair on the kids who lost
their mother to lose their father as well. And they still haven't learned how
I will continue to expend all my passion loudly
declaiming to my audience of twenty-seven (or however many it was yesterday, I
haven't checked the web stats) for no reason other than my own pathetic need
and vanity, but at least I recognize that fact. That's got to count for
You can't take it with you. Don't envy the
'wealthy elite', they may have the best healthcare but it won't save them in
Meanwhile, all you rich and great… get out of my sunshine!
benefits of war
Marcin asked this question:
the benefits of war?
'War is the father of all
and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some
slaves and some freemen.'
Heraclitus (Diels Kranz 22B
‘What is [war] good for?
Edwin Star (Song written
for The Temptations by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong)
While pondering this, you might look at the
online version of Wilfrid Owen's famous war poem Dulce et Decorum Est
(referenced in my answer to Ray).
Here's the last verse, which states Owen's
concise case against the view that 'it is sweet and fitting to die for one's
country'. Owen is describing a British infantryman who has become victim to a
poison gas attack:
If in some smothering
dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et
Pro patria mori.
Wilfrid Owen ‘Dulce et
Edwin Starr argues his case on two fronts: the
sheer horror of violent death, and also the loss of innocent lives. War ‘brings
tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes’ when their sons go to ‘fight and lose
Searching the internet, I found lots of pages
quoting the fragment from Heraclitus, but nowhere did I find any attempt to
explain the meaning of his words. It may not be immediately obvious, but he is
stating a case too.
There is a view that Heraclitus isn't talking
about war as such, but merely
re-iterating the fundamental principle of his metaphysics, that the universe is
held together through the conflict of opposites. In other words, reference to
'war' is merely metaphorical. Anyone who thinks this hasn't bothered to
consider what Heraclitus actually says:
1. War is the 'king' or 'father' of all.
Everything that exists comes from war. Here, he is talking about 'war' in the
metaphysical sense, as well as the literal sense. Everything we know, the
entire universe, is a product of eternal tension or conflict. But it is also
true in the literal sense that the life
we live now is a product of wars and battles past. Human history without war
would be unthinkable. From what he goes on to say, Heraclitus is clearly aware
of the double meaning of his words.
2. War 'manifests' some as 'gods' and some as
'men'. One could read this as stating that the Gods on Mount Olympus, no less
than the human beings who populate the earth, are the product of the eternal
metaphysical tension between opposites. However, Heraclitus is also stating
literally what it is that war reveals.
War gives men the opportunity to be heroes,
to be 'gods amongst men'.
3. War makes some men 'slaves' and some
'freemen'. One could stretch a point and argue that men are 'free' so long as
they have knowledge of the Logos, the
law which governs all change. But freedom and slavery is also literally what war is about. Von Clausewitz famously
remarked, 'War is a continuation of diplomacy by other means'. The threat of
war offers the vital incentive in a negotiation. Execution of that threat is an
attempt to achieve the conclusion you want by force. In other words, the
possibility of war is the permanent undercurrent of peaceful diplomacy. In
modern warfare, the winning side no longer take slaves. Yet for the losing
side, surrender means a loss of freedom: you have to agree unconditionally to
the victor's terms.
I would like to take a dispassionate view of the
arguments, such as they are. Ideologically, I'm neither a hawk nor a dove. But
I am gripped by the question of war
as a challenge to the very notion of who I am or what life is about.
anything that I would be prepared to fight or risk death for? If not, what does
that say about me?
It is never necessary
to fight. Faced with the threat of deadly force, you always have to option to
offer passive resistance, as Gandhi showed when he stood up, unarmed, against
the guns of the British Army. No-one doubts that this was an act of great
heroism. More than that, Gandhi was fully aware that the greater battle was for
hearts and minds. Passive resistance was a weapon
in that war. The cost of employing that weapon was death for many of his
supporters. In the end, Gandhi was victorious.
Gandhi also argued, notoriously, that the
British should use the same strategy against Hitler. All evil empires
eventually fall. To take this lofty historical view, however, is arguably even
more callous than the British generals who ordered their troops to march at a
steady pace towards the German machine guns on the battlefields of the Somme,
where they were mown down in waves like wheat at harvest time.
Wilfrid Owen appeals to horror, as his main
argument against war. The Spartan hoplites, for whom nothing was more desirable
than a 'good death' knew that the reality of death at the point of a spear or a
sword — to lie for hours freezing on a battlefield, disemboweled, as your
life blood ebbs away — is no less horrific than the horrors Owen
describes. Owen's bitter words were for the folks at home who saw the Great War
through a misty romantic haze. The Americans who viewed the daily news footage
from Vietnam on their TV sets were under no such illusions.
As one of my philosophy students from Northern
Island once remarked, 'What is so bad
about death?' On the contrary, isn't it good
that you have something so valuable — your life — to wager as proof
of your commitment to your highest beliefs and ideals? That's something Gandhi
Yet as much as it is a soldier's duty to put
oneself in the line of fire, it is also necessary to kill. And it is this,
rather than the danger of being killed, which seems to me the most difficult
issue. It is more than mere squeamishness that makes me recoil at the thought
of causing death of any kind — let alone horrific death, or unavoidable
innocent death. Your training gets you over that. I have no right to extinguish another life. But
doesn't that mean I'm really no different from the Jain monks who take immense
pains to avoid causing death to any living thing, even the insects under their
Or, if, rejecting all forms of religious belief,
there is nothing for me on this earth or in this universe that is holy, whence the reverence for human
Without death, war would just be a competition,
a contest. If you wanted to avoid injury, you'd have to ban many sports. Death
is the meaning of war. We have no
comprehension of the meaning of death, or the meaning of war, so long as we
lack a proper understanding of the value of life.
Bill asked this question:
an idealist, namely Schopenhauer, talk about 'the material (or physical) world'
whilst claiming mind (consciousness) as the subjective 'support of the world'?
anyone take idealism seriously nowadays given the strong physicalist view of
doesn't idealism seem quite anthropomorphic? Why privilege ourselves so? As far
as we know sentient beings exist only here on this cosmic speck of dust we call
Finding an effective
argument against idealism is a central challenge for philosophy. I won't
attempt to do that here. What I will try to show is that idealism is not a
straw man or easy target practice for first-year philosophy students.
I take idealism seriously — which probably
puts me in the minority of English speaking philosophers working in the field
of metaphysics. Notable books are John Foster The Case for Idealism (1982) and T.L.S. Sprigge The Vindication of Absolute Idealism
(1983). The Pathways Metaphysics program is based around the debate between
idealism vs materialism as 'theories of existence', and realism vs anti-realism
as 'theories of truth'.
I like Bill's question, not least because of
what he says in his last sentence. For all we know, we might be alone in the
universe. There are good reasons for thinking we are not — it would just
be too fantastical a coincidence — but the reasons are less than
conclusive. You can play the game of 'calculating the probable distribution of
intelligent life in the universe' any number of ways, but whichever way you do
it, you have to make assumptions that cannot be verified.
So: we are very, very small, and the universe is
very, very big. Maybe we are alone; but even if we weren't, surely it would be
absurd if material existence — physical planets, stars, galaxies —
were all mere products of consciousness. And, in any case, physics and
cosmology provide a far more convincing explanation of the existence of the
universe than the human mind. That's the essence of Bill's question.
However, the idealist is not defeated so easily.
Consider the fact that Schopenhauer also said that conscious experience is
produced by the brain. How can he possibly hold that the brain (being a part of
the physical world) is simultaneously produced by consciousness and that which
produces consciousness? It doesn't add up.
Or consider the view that the Earth existed for
billions of years before life evolved. How can that be true, if the planets,
stars and galaxies only came into existence with the first conscious
The simple, short answer is that idealism is not an empirical claim. The
idealist can quite happily endorse current scientific theory. The best
explanation, in whatever field of scientific inquiry, remains the best
explanation. What the idealist questions is whether 'the best explanation',
supposing it to be true (and given that it is the best explanation, we have to
regard it as probably true) is the ultimate truth about the nature of
Putting a formal case for idealism requires a
book. I am just going to ask you to consider a thought experiment, or, rather,
two thought experiments. The aim is to show that a seemingly easy and plausible
way of arguing for materialism can be 'turned on its head' and converted into
an equally plausible way of arguing for idealism.
John has toothache. What can we say about John
that is true? Obviously, things are unpleasant for John, and he would
vehemently agree. So one thing that is true is that John is wincing, holding
his jaw and complaining of toothache. Another thing that is true is that John
has a large, festering cavity in his tooth, which is the obvious cause of the
pain. This example suggests a plausible generalization: take any psychological
state: what is true about it reduces to all
the causal connections between that state and the rest of the physical world.
That, in essence, is the idea behind Armstrong
and Smart's 'topic-neutral analysis' of mental states. You can insist that, regardless
of all that is physically true about John's toothache there is something real for John, a 'raw feel' that cannot
be reduced to the physical. You can keep saying this till the cows come home,
but nothing turns on it. Any truth that can be stated, can be stated in the
physical mode without implying the existence of anything extra over and above
the neural state which, according to the best explanation, is John's pain.
What materialists may not have noticed, however,
is that exactly the same form of argument can be used by the idealist.
John perceives an apple tree. What can John say
about his experience that is true? John is standing on the grass, admiring the
juicy apples dangling on the branches. If he closes his eyes and opens them
again, the tree is still there. If he walks round to the other side, it still
looks like a tree (and not e.g. a cardboard cut-out). John shakes the tree,
some apples fall down. He takes one, and eats it.
Everything that John can ever know about the
tree is ultimately based on his direct experience or knowledge that he has
gained through experience, including the fact that the tree was planted before
he was born, belongs to a species which has been cultivated for hundreds of
years, is studied extensively in university departments of botany. So far as
John is concerned (or you or me or anyone who asks the same question) any
question relating to the tree is a question to be answered (if it can be
answered) by investigating and thus enlarging upon human experience.
That in essence is Bishop Berkeley's argument
for immaterialism. You can insist that, regardless of what may be true about
the tree as an object of experience, there is something real that the experience is of,
the actual substance, the 'matter', which produces the experiences in us. But
whatever you say about this 'material substance' merely reduces more talk about
experience or possible experience.
What I am suggesting is that when you tell the
story about science, the 'raw feel' of conscious experience is indescribable,
but also dispensable; when you tell the story about human experience, the
'material substance' behind all that experience reveals is indescribable, but
But now comes the finesse. The upshot of the two stories is the same. The subject of science
is the world of our experience. The object of experience is the world of
science. Look at the picture any way you like: from whichever side you start,
the other side drops out as superfluous. The thing itself — 'raw feels', 'material substance' —
which we regarded as so important, cannot be expressed.
With two perfectly balanced arguments, you might
be tempted to call the debate between the materialist and idealist a stalemate.
That would be premature. I prefer to say that the easy-going materialist has
been hoist by his own petard.
Sherrie asked this question:
the nature and meaning of the egocentric predicament?
I ought to try to answer Sherrie's question, as
this is what my book Naēve Metaphysics
is largely about. The phrase 'the egocentric predicament' was used by Bertrand
Russell. It belongs to another age, when 'realists' battled it out with
'idealists', and the theory of knowledge was conceived along the lines laid out
by Descartes in his Meditations: How
can I pass from knowledge of my existence and my mental states, to knowledge of
things or subjects of experience, outside me?
In his hostile reception of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Russell
accused his former pupil of giving up 'serious' philosophy. Wittgenstein's
theory of 'meaning as use' failed to address the egocentric predicament. It was
as if Wittgenstein couldn't see any problem about our knowledge of an external
world or how it is that human beings are able to communicate with one another.
In My Philosophical Development
Russell remarks dryly, 'We are now told that it is not the world that we are to
try to understand but only sentences.'
On this occasion, Russell was wrong.
The key argument of Wittgenstein's that Russell
failed to grasp is the argument against
the possibility of a private language. To show this, I will recast the
argument in terms of our 'understanding of the world'. But I also want to argue
that Russell was right about there
being an egocentric predicament, even though he misconceived it. Valid and
important though it may be, Wittgenstein's argument merely serves to sharpen
the sense of paradox of there being an 'I' in relation to a world, which is at the very same time an entity in the world.
The private language argument takes the form of
a reductio ad absurdum. In other
words, we will start with a proposition that we seek to disprove, in order to
deduce consequences which are patently absurd. As Wittgenstein succinctly
explains, 'My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense
to something that is patent nonsense' (Philosophical
Investigations Para. 464).
From my Cartesian 'egocentric' standpoint, I
don't know anything about the world, other than what is given to me. That there is a 'world' outside me is something that
has to be proved. In that case I can bracket
all my former beliefs and opinions. I don't know that the Earth exists. I don't
know that I am sitting at a computer, writing these words. I don't know that I
have a physical body. All I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that
I am experiencing now.
But do I
know this? What is it to 'know' something? What is the absolute basic minimum
needed for knowledge? Wittgenstein's answer is: you need a means of representation, a 'language'. So long as I concentrate on this, on that which is present to my
mind, without trying to describe it in any way, I do not know it. If I try to say what I know, all I can say is THIS, or point, speechlessly. (If you're
into meditation, you might thing that 'this' is a very important piece of
'knowledge' — but that's just a dispute about semantics, because no
factual proposition follows from this.)
'No problem,' says the Cartesian. 'It's quite
apparent to me that the contents of my subjective experience have variegated
properties, such as colour or shape, or sound, or smell.' OK, then, give us an example. 'I see a patch of blue now.'
I am staring up at a clear blue sky. Even if
there is no Earth, no sky, no physical matter I know with absolute certainty that
there is this blue.
Wittgenstein has a simple question that shatters
that certainty: 'How do you know the
meaning that the term, 'blue' has for you?' Remember, I am only going on what I
know, I am not allowed to make any assumptions of any kind. As a term in my
'private language', the word 'blue' must have a meaning. It denotes areas of my
visual field that have this colour.
— What colour is that, exactly? 'Blue, of course!'
What kind of fact is the fact that I call this blue? Well, I just did. It's blue.
And now I have just done it again. The sky (or, rather, the patch in my visual
field) hasn't changed colour. It's still the same colour, blue. — But how
do I know that?
I don't. This is where Wittgenstein throws his
Always get rid of the idea
of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that
you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Part II,
You don't think that this is much of a hand
grenade? You don't get it?
I've chosen the quote because it's all
Wittgenstein needs; the rest is just
heuristics. We are talking about knowledge, and I can only say what I know. I
don't know that my 'private object',
the visual patch, is not constantly changing, so that each time I say or write
the word 'blue' I am describing a different colour. The meaning I gave to the word 'blue' is a second private object; maybe
that's changing too. If I don't know either of these things, then on the
assumption that 'all I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am
experiencing now', I don't know anything. Q.E.D.
Cast in this mode, the argument is one that
Russell was familiar with. It's a point he made himself: When consistently
thought through, solipsism, the belief that only I and my mental states exist,
retreats to 'solipsism of the present moment'. All Wittgenstein's private
language argument does is deliver the final coup
de grace. In the present moment, there is nothing to 'know', nothing but
the wordless this.
Now comes the constructive part of
Wittgenstein's investigation, the part that left Russell bemused. In order for
there to be a language in which I can express knowledge about the world, the
meanings of the words I use cannot be up
to me. The language I use is one that I learned, from other language users,
and if other language users must
exist, in order for me to know anything at all, then I must know a lot more
than I thought I did when I conceived of myself being in an 'egocentric predicament'.
My response? I agree up to this point. But in
recasting Wittgenstein's argument against a private language, I gave a hostage
to fortune. I conceded one very small but significant point: that there is this. Of course, the statement I have
just made is nonsense. I'm trying to say
what cannot be said ('and you can't whistle it either' was C.D. Broad's pithy
comment on the Tractatus, where
Wittgenstein claimed that there are things that 'cannot be said but can only be
To say that there is this puts me in the
picture. From my subjective standpoint, I am more than just 'an other to others
who are other to me'. It's a point noted by Thomas Nagel in his book The View From Nowhere. The statement, 'I
am GK' states a fact, but in the
sense that I mean it — or seem to mean it — is a fact only
One reviewer of an earlier version of Naēve Metaphysics alluded to an
underlying theme of 'the metaphysics of presence' — Derrida's memorable
phrase. Well, I'm not afraid of Derrida. But here's a less metaphysically
loaded way to express the point: Someone
is grappling with the egocentric predicament and seeking to refute it, or
escape from it; someone is deploying
the private language argument against Cartesian epistemology. And that someone
is me. I am the one asking the question.
There, stripped of its metaphysical trappings,
is what the egocentric predicament is really about. When you do philosophy, you
are gripped by a question and you try to answer it. Each person must do this
for him- or herself, because philosophy is ultimately about making sense of my world, or (what amounts to the same
thing) my place in relation to the world
of others. That's what makes philosophy different from all other forms of
elephant in the room
Louie asked this question:
possible that there could be a overwhelming stream of information, via the five
senses, that bombards us throughout our daily routine; this stream cannot all
be deciphered/ processed, so eventually the subconscious brain acts as a filter.
Filtering out the "useless" and processing the "useful".
And that all humans are innately desensitized to their environment?
Bertrand Russell's collaborator A.N. Whitehead,
at the beginning of his magnum opus Process
and Reality comments that human beings habitually 'perceive by the method
of difference'. We notice an elephant in the room because an elephant is not
always there. Whitehead is speaking figuratively. If an elephant followed you
everywhere you'd still be able to 'notice' it whenever you wanted to! But
Whitehead is talking about general
and structural features of our
experience, the kind that interest the philosopher engaged in metaphysical
The inhabitants of Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998) never think to ask
themselves, 'When was the last time you remember doing something in the day
time?' Could we be like them? Might there be something in our world, and not just in its general or structural features
that we fail to see because our senses are overloaded and we've become
This is one of the perennial themes of radical
left politics, the idea that we are living in a state of perpetual 'false
consciousness', our minds numbed into paralysis by insidious propaganda. If
you're interested in science fiction, then Dark
City or The Matrix provide models
for all sorts of fanciful conspiracy theories.