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PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS electronic journal


PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue No. 189 21st November 2014


Edited by Eric DeJardin

I. 'A Quasi-Realist Approach to Morality' by Kamala Vadlamani

II. 'What the Ability Hypothesis Teaches -- The Conceptual basis of Moralizing' by Matthew Sims

III. 'Doubting Descartes: Skeptical Scope and the Dream and Deceiver Arguments in the First Meditation' by Eric DeJardin



This edition of 'Philosophy Pathways' is dedicated to the work of philosophy students who are pursuing a BA with the University of London's International Programme (UoLIP) http:---. For those of you who are unaware of UoLIP, it's a distance learning program that was founded by the University of London in 1858. It provides students all over the world with the opportunity to pursue University of London degrees without having to leave their homes, their families or their jobs. In addition, the cost of the program is extremely low -- the total cost of the BA is actually less than what the average full-time student in the U.S. pays for a semester's worth of coursework. However, the flexibility and cost effectiveness of the UoLIP philosophy BA is achieved in a unique way: registered UoLIP philosophy students only receive (1) syllabi for the courses they're studying, which include reading lists and a very brief overview of course topics, (2) exam questions and examiners reports from the previous seven years, (3) access to an online library, (4) the opportunity to be tested, once a year, at approved examination centers around the world, and (5) the opportunity to have their yearly exams graded in London by the same examiners who grade the work of the brick and mortar students at the University of London's eighteen constituent colleges. Note, UoLIP students do not sit for lectures or receive any feedback whatsoever from University of London faculty throughout the year while they work through their course materials. Indeed, the only feedback students receive from UoLIP is in the form of one exam grade per course at the end of each academic year!

Although the UoLIP courses are designed to be studied entirely on one's own, many UoLIP students receive tutorial assistance from outside the University of London. Indeed, the three students whose work is featured in this issue are all former students of Dr. Geoffrey Klempner, the founder of the 'Philosophy Pathways' journal. And at the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, the graduate students at Birkbeck College, which is the lead college of the UoLIP philosophy BA program, set up an arrangement with UoLIP to provide tutorial support to interested UoLIP students at a very reasonable cost. The availability of this sort of tutorial support from experienced philosophers, along with the presence of various community promoting websites (such as the University of London International Programme Philosophy BA Facebook site: http:---), help fill in the gaps in the educational experience that are a consequence of UoLIP's commitment to keeping costs low and their programs of study highly flexible.

As you might imagine, studying with UoLIP is not for everyone. There is no hand-holding or spoon feeding whatsoever. However, I believe that a self-motivated, hard-working student can achieve amazing results, especially with the aid of experienced tutors. And this conclusion seems to be borne out by the data: In a comment on a post on distance learning on Brian Leiter's 'Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog', Dr. Samuel Guttenplan, the former Director of the University of London International Programme in Philosophy, wrote that 'Quite a few students completing the [UoLIP philosophy] BA got First Class Honours and went on to postgraduate work at e.g. Cornell, Oxford, London and several other universities' (http:---). Now that's very encouraging!

With that brief introduction to UoLIP out of the way, I shall now introduce the essays that are included in this UoLIP dedicated issue.

The first essay, 'A Quasi-Realist Approach to Morality', is by Kamala Vadlamani. In it, Kamala explicates Blackburn's moral quasi-realism, which is an attempt to retain the moral language of the moral realist, with its concomitant logic of moral discourse, while remaining uncommitted to the sort of metaphysical suppositions that moral realists often find themselves encumbered with. Kamala begins by clarifying the quasi-realist position, and concludes 'that quasi-realism falls into the trap of subjectivism -- the mind-dependent account of moral truths -- and thus doesn't entirely escape the charge of relativism'. She concludes the essay by considering 'the kind of normative ethics... compatible with quasi realism'.

The Second essay, 'What the Ability Hypothesis Teaches: The Conceptual Basis of Moralizing', is by Matthew Sims. In it, Matthew posits and defends an application of the Ability Hypothesis response to Jackson's Knowledge Argument to moral reasoning. Matthew argues that what he calls the '3Rs' of the Ability Hypothesis -- 'remembering, recognizing and representing' -- presuppose the possession of concepts that are necessary for empathizing. And, since empathizing is necessary for moral reasoning, he argues, the 3Rs too are thus necessary for moral reasoning. Hence, Matthew defends the conclusion that moral reasoning necessarily involves a facility with specific conceptual resources.

The Third essay, 'Doubting Descartes: Skeptical Scope and the Dream and Deceiver Arguments in the 'First Meditation'' is mine. Since I'm a first year UoLIP student, I decided to write an essay on that quintessential first year philosophy student topic, Cartesian Doubt. I argue that the famous Dream Argument, which Descartes advances yet ultimately rejects in his attempt to establish a highly specific variant of universal doubt, is much stronger than Descartes would lead us to believe, at least in his 'First Meditation.' More specifically, I argue that his Dream Argument has the conceptual resources to refute each of the three objections he adduced for ultimately rejecting it, and that it is capable of establishing the circumscribed version of universal doubt he sought in his 'First Meditation.'

I would like to thank Dr. Klempner for extending the opportunity of editing this issue to me. It's been very challenging, but very rewarding as well. And I'd like to thank Kamala and Matthew for their excellent submissions, their many helpful suggestions and, not least, for their encouragement, motivation and support. This project is very much a collaborative one, and has only come to fruition because of our mutual commitment to it.

Inquiries about tutorial assistance for UoLIP students are currently handled by Karl Egerton, who can be reached at kegert01@mail.bbk.ac.uk with the subject heading 'UoLIP tutor'.

(c) Eric DeJardin 2014

Email: dejardin@cox.net

About the editor: https:---



The rejection of ethnocentrism, with its attendant sexist and racist beliefs, in western liberal democracies has led to an erosion of belief in moral objectivism -- the view that there are universal moral principles. Multiculturalism has replaced ethnocentrism and engendered the rise of moral relativism -- the belief in a theory that there are no universally valid moral principles. So, all moral principles are valid in the context of respective cultures and societies, according to relativism. But moral relativism itself poses problems, because it does not do justice, nor does it accurately address conflict or disagreement. There is something fundamentally infuriating about confronting, for example, the way women are oppressed by Islamic radicals and being told that the differences in attitudes are merely cultural. Some of us may want to say no; it is not merely a case of cultural differences, but something objectively wrong about oppressing women. In this paper, I explore Blackburn's quasi-realist theory of ethics to see how he defends against the challenge from relativism, and what kind of normative ethics are compatible with quasi-realism.

Origins of quasi-realism

David Hume in his Treatise showed how morality is 'more properly felt than judged of' and the drive to action comes from passions and sentiments rather than reason. Hume argued forcefully that ethics is primarily a practical subject and that moral distinctions are not based on reason, but instead derived from moral sense. So how should we interpret this? Mackie interprets this to mean that we can call something virtuous if and because it produces a particular kind of pleasure, and evil, if it produces a particular kind of pain. The virtuousness or evilness is not in the objects themselves but in the sentiments they evoke in us.[1] Hume's position on ethics attracted few philosophers at that time but in the twentieth century objections to realist theories in ethics, brought the focus back to Humean traditions.

In the twentieth century G.E Moore proposed what came to be known as the 'Open Question Argument' against Moral Naturalism -- the view that there are objective morals facts and properties and that these are natural facts and properties.[2] Moore's argument tried to show that any serious ethical theory needed to explain the distinction between questions like 'What is goodness? And questions like 'What things are good? '[3]. Judgments of Goodness according to Moore, offer us an opportunity to pass normative judgments, where we can condemn or endorse. The Open Question takes scientific and empirical facts to be settled, but leaves open to interpretation, judgments on morality. Moore, himself argued for a type of ethical intuitionism -- the view that moral judgments have a unique identity that can only be evaluated by the process of intuition.[4] Confronted with the Open Question, philosophers began to look to a new approach to ethical matters, leading to the emotivism of A.J Ayer and Charles Stevenson. Emotivism concentrated on the practical aspects of expressing emotion, but their work too fell short of providing a satisfactory theory of metaethics because in many cases, ethical discourse can be understood to be unemotional. R.M Hare's prescriptivism provided a better formulation for issuing ethical prescriptions, and provided a broad canvas for identifying what exactly is being expressed. Hare's work focused on moving from language oriented discourse to a practical action theory. His moral judgments are therefore more prescriptive rather than descriptive. However it is important to remember that their prescriptive nature is not because of some natural (descriptivism) or non-natural (Moorean intuitionism) properties but because they guide action. Ayer's Emotivism and Hare's Prescriptivism led the way towards a broadly Expressivist theory in ethics, by making the assumption that 'the meaning of a sentence is to be understood on the basis of the effects it is used to achieve or the speech act it is used to perform.'[5]

The Expressivist approach conceives normative propositions to be directives, and an obvious advantage of this approach, is that it takes into consideration the motives of moral commitments. For example, take the proposition 'X was a bad man'. Expressivism denies that the speaker is describing her own mind (and thus differentiating itself from subjectivism) but is instead voicing a position that must be held. As we shall see by the end of this essay this balancing act is very hard to pull off.

Quasi-realism flows from expressivism and has been described as an antirealist, non-cognitive theory in metaethics, which claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions, but instead express emotional attitudes as though they are real properties. It thereby earns the right to speak of morals in realist terms, while firmly remaining in the anti-realist camp. Blackburn himself, recently (November 14-15 2014) at a Conference on Moral Sentimentalism held at Holy Cross College, USA, has expressed being uncomfortable with being described as a Non-Cognitivist.

One way to approach quasi-realism is to view it as a means to rescue expressivism from error theory associated with J.L Mackie. Mackie states that 'the assertion that there are objective values or intrinsically prescriptive entities or features of some kind, which ordinary moral judgments presuppose is, I hold it not meaningless but false.'[6] According to the above statement then, moral judgments refer to truth-apt representations of fact, and since there are no truth apt-representations of fact, moral assertions are false. Moral discourse is thus referencing entities that are not there. We are therefore in perpetual error when we assume that there are moral entities, thus, the name 'error theory.' Mackie's error theory has been described as a descriptivist antirealist position because it maintains that there are no moral facts, and that moral judgments describe the world. This combination of moral antirealism and descriptivism is what makes Blackburn think Mackie's position is untenable.[7]

Blackburn's response to Mackie's Error Theory is to reject that there is any error. He denies that any 'first-order ethical practice embodies any mistake',[8] one of the reasons being, that Mackie himself never showed what a practical system of ethics would look like if it was free of error.[9]

Is Quasi-realism fictionalism?

In a paper titled 'Quasi-realism is Fictionalism',[10] David Lewis argued that the quasi-realism of Blackburn is a kind of moral fictionalism. Lewis grants that quasi-realism succeeds 'on its own terms', so that the quasi-realist is entitled to 'echo' everything the realist says. He draws attention to the similarity quasi-realism shares with fictionalism by noting that the quasi-realist echoes everything the realist says but his assertions are quasi-assertions, because 'they are preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by a disowning preface. That preface, is to be found in the endorsement of projectivism that precedes and motivates his advocacy of quasi-realism... It is something the quasi-realist says the realist will not echo.'[11] Lewis argues further, that since the quasi-realist wants to say everything the realist wants to, he must either be a realist or is pretending that realism is true. But since he is not a realist, and is instead making believe realism is true; he is a fictionalist. Does Lewis have a point? Is quasi-realism really another term for Moral fictionalism? Not really; Lewis' argument is predicated on the point that the quasi-realist wants to say everything the realist wants to say but either she is a realist or just pretending to be one. But this is exactly why Blackburn rejected Mackie's error theory. Blackburn's objection was that there was something fishy about promoting an ethical theory, with fingers crossed behind your back.

The sense in which the quasi-realist wants to 'say everything the realist does' is not the same as the sense in which the realist makes assertions, nor does she want to pretend that she does. The quasi-realist does not want to make any assertions at all when she utters first-order moral pronouncements, which the realist absolutely wants to do. The quasi-realist certainly says things that sound like what a realist would say, but she wants people to understand them differently. For the quasi-realist, her first-order moral pronouncements are just expressions of attitudes. Taking this argument further, we can say that expressing an attitude requires no commitment to a realist style belief in moral propositions. In a rebuttal to Lewis,[12] Blackburn respectfully argues that while Lewis thinks that quasi-realism gains luster from its association with fictionalism, he disagrees with Lewis on this. Blackburn views fictionalism with deep suspicion, especially its application to evaluative thoughts and philosophical discourse. Blackburn recognizes that the term quasi-realism could prove misleading and evoke ideas of an 'as if' philosophy. Meaning, that we can talk of morals and ethics as if they exist, when in truth there are none. How then does one talk of ethics in realist terms and ascribe it to an anti-realist?

In making a case against moral fictionalism, Blackburn suggests that fictionalism should not just be a doctrine where we talk of something as being true, which it is not, but something more ambitious -- a doctrine, where falsity is integral to practice and where we must take refuge in make-believe once this falsity is exposed.[13] The difference with the quasi-realist, Blackburn argues, is that falsity is not integral to practice, and therefore there is no need for make-believe. When we talk of fictions, he further argues, we must know the contrast with fact. Using the argument from Mackie, Blackburn asserts Mackie himself never showed clearly what a non-error based moral theory would look like. On the contrary, Mackie makes several straightforward assertions on morality and what a good life should look like in same old (supposedly tainted) vocabulary. Mackie's thesis concludes that according to error theory, there is no such thing as first-order moralizing but adopts the Humean view that one can accept the social function of morality, and choose the moral views and moral positions to adopt. Blackburn's point against Mackie is simple: 'why should we choose to fall into error'[14] he asks. Quasi-realism can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to save expressivism from error theory by showing that 'ordinary moral thought is not infected root and branch with philosophical myth.'[15]

Blackburn's defense against charges of moral fictionalism thus focuses on proving how an error-based moral theory is not sustainable in the way quasi-realism is, and how therefore fictionalism is not a good interpretation of his anti-realist position.[16]

Meeting the threat from relativism

The threat from relativism is real if we are to accept Blackburn's own description that 'an ethic is the propositional reflection of the dispositions and attitudes, policies and stances of people'.[17] It follows from this description that different dispositions and attitudes will emerge from different ethics -- each having its own truth apt claim. This in turn makes it eminently hospitable to the slippery ethical slope called relativism, with its threat of legitimizing different ethics, all in conflict with each other. But Blackburn argues that there is no threat to quasi-relativism from relativism because there is no problem of moral truth. Moral opinions, he argues, do not represent actual moral facts but assess actions, choices and attitudes.[18] They reflect which attitude or action to adopt in situations. For example, suppose I express the attitude that human beings should not be beheaded, and then I meet a member of the terrorist group ISIS, that holds the view that beheading is permissible. What quasi-realism allows me to say is that 'this view is wrong'. The relativist may respond that it is merely your opinion, conditioned by your environment. The relativist can also question the quasi-realist, being an antirealist, how one can state that beheading people is a moral wrong, if as she believes, there are no objective moral facts? The response, according to Blackburn, is that being an antirealist does not mean that there are 'no facts of an ethical or normative kind'.[19] Quasi-realism does not provide an explanation for ethical facts, but explains why the reasons that propel philosophers to realism need not do so. The ISIS group can believe beheading is correct without it being so. Quasi-realists can state beheading is wrong whether anyone believes it is so. So what exactly does this mean? By stating that beheading is wrong, the quasi-realist regards any potential challenge to the belief that beheading (or beating blind puppies or abusing women and so on) is wrong, as being indefensible. This is what Blackburn means when he says that quasi-realism regards a moral claim as being true, independent of anyone's opinion about. The very definition of expressivism used to mean that moral sentences can be explained without appealing to their truth-conditions, but Blackburn seems to have embraced that school of thought (still firmly in the expressivist camp) that does not shy away from speaking about moral truths or even moral facts. Blackburn endorses a minimalist or deflationary theory of truth. As he says, 'To say that an ethical view is true is just to reaffirm it, so it is if we add the weighty words 'really', 'true', 'fact', and so on. To say that is objectively true is to affirm that its truth does not vary with what we happen to think about it, and once more this is an internal, first-order ethical position.'[20]

Quasi-realism is thus comfortable with the idea that we can have objective views, but if we were to change our minds about those views, the underlying ethical facts would not change.

What kind of normative ethics are compatible with quasi-realism?

Blackburn argues that modern moral ethical theories are handicapped by their Aristotelian and Kantian trappings in how they deal with modern ethical conflicts.[21] Those trappings, he says lead one group to assert, for example, that murderers will not flourish and another to assert that 'they have transgressed against some rational constraint on practical reasoning.'[22] Both have failed to capture the picture accurately because murderers do get away with murder and there really is no proof of a Kantian theorem of practical reasoning that they trespass against. So these schools of ethical thought offer no practical solutions to our everyday moral conflicts. Instead, Blackburn argues, what is wrong in coming out and saying murder is wrong; or oppressing women is wrong; or beating puppies is wrong? Is that not enough? Why we should feel compelled to say anything more, he asks. The right way to deal with murderers is to make sure, as a society, that they be punished. It is up to individual societies to punish transgressions.

On charges of being subjective about ethical issues, Blackburn argues that it is a mistake to see it from the view point of a single BIG Question. Instead, he argues, they are many little questions. So if someone accuses me of being subjective when I condemn the Taliban's oppression of woman, it is possible she is biased or unable to see a different point of view, but she has no overarching single charge that she can make stick. Individual judgments vary according situations, and I could be mistaken in some situations, where if I have a disagreement with another person about whether factory farming is ethical or not, one of us is objectively right. The point Blackburn is trying to make is that charges will vary because there really is no single all-encompassing morality. Quasi-realism frees us in a way to follow a practical ethic without committing to any moral absolutes.


At the very outset, I set myself two tasks in this essay. One, to judge whether Blackburn's quasi-realism provides an adequate defense against moral relativism, and second, what kind of normative ethics are compatible with it?

To the first, Blackburn tries to walk a thin line between rejecting the kind of relativism that asserts that had our conative impulses been different, we would have embraced different ethical positions; and had our conative impulses been different, we would have embraced different ethical positions, and these positions would have been right for us to embrace.[23] So, is what Blackburn suggesting that: 'I cannot be wrong about morality, but others can?' If that is the case, then it resembles what the Australian philosopher David Stove called the 'Ishmael Effect' a reference to Melville's Moby Dick, whose narrator Ishmael, ends the book by stating 'I alone escaped to tell the tale' -- an assertion that is hard to accept, given the tale he tells about being rammed by the whale and being plunged into the depths of the ocean.[24] Blackburn uses this reference, ironically, to point out the flaws in the relativist position. The relativist cannot claim that all human beliefs are subjective except, the belief that all human beliefs are subjective. She cannot be an exception to a fate that she claims befalls everyone.[25] Ironically, Blackburn himself falls into the same trap that he claims the relativist is vulnerable to. His position smells too much like subjectivism -- the mind-dependent approach to moral discourse; to which charge, his only defense is that that no other assessment is possible, because one cannot evaluate and pass judgment without using those very same parts of the brain that enable one to pass judgment.[26]

To the second question: about what kind of normative ethics are compatible with quasi-realism? The answer is: whatever you want it to be. It is true that this position can be deeply unsettling, especially because we tend to grasp at 'Big Truths' that ultimately disappoint, and in this way, we seem to be defined by our epistemic insecurities. Blackburn, in his defense, seems to offer a way out. His is not a 'Big' overarching morality but instead, suggests that we address each moral problem like individual problems; according to the beliefs and attitudes, we hold individually. In this way, Simon Blackburn's quasi-realism succeeds in threading the needle to allow us to, in one breath, reject moral absolutes while retaining moral convictions.


Blackburn, S. (1993). 'Errors and Phenomenology of Value' in Essays in Quasi-realism. In S. Blackburn, Essays in quasi-realism (pp. 149-165). New York: Oxford University Press.

Blackburn, S. (1993). Essays in Quasi-realism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Blackburn, S. (1998). Ruling Passions: a theory of practical reasoning. Oxford: Clarendon press.

Blackburn, S. (2005). 'Quasi-realism no fictionalism' in (Ed) Mark Kalderon 'Fictionalism in metaphysics'. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blackburn, S. (2005). Truth: a guide. Oxford University Press.

Blackburn, S. (2006). 'Antirealism, expressivism and quasi-realism' in The Oxford Book of Ethical Theory(Ed) by David Copp. Oxford University Press.

Blackburn, S. (Nov 10, 2010). 'Is Objective Moral Justification possible on a Quasi-realist Foundation?'. Inquiry:An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 42:2, 213-227, DOI: 10.1080/002017499321552.

Hurka, T. M. (2010, March 25). Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http:---

Kauppinen, A. (Spring 2014). Moral Sentimentalism. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http:---

Kim, S. (n.d.). Retrieved from Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy: http:---

Lewis, D. (2005). Quasi-realism is fictionalism' in Kalderon, Mark (Ed) , Fictionalism in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press.

Mackie, J.L (1977). Ethics: inventing right and wrong . London: Penguin Books.

Mackie, J.L (1980). Hume's Moral Theory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Moore, A. (July 2002). 'Quasi-realism and Relativism'. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol LXV, No1.


1. Mackie, 'Hume's Moral Theory'

2. http:---

3. Moore G.E , 1903 'Principia Ethica'

4. http:---

5. Kauppinen, Antti 'Moral Sentimentalism' Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy Spring 2014 page 21 http:--- (Kauppinen, Spring 2014)

6. Mackie J.L (1977) ' Ethics: inventing right and wrong' London. Penguin Books page 40

7. Moral realism in 'The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy' http:---

8. Blackburn, Simon (1999) 'Is Objective Moral Justification possible on a Quasi-realist Foundation' Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 42:2

9. Blackburn, Simon (1999) 'Is Objective Moral Justification possible on a Quasi-realist Foundation' Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 42:2

10. Lewis, David ' Quasi-realism is fictionalism' in Kalderon, Mark (Ed) , Fictionalism in Metaphysics

11. Lewis, David 'Quasi-realism is fictionalism' in Kalderon, Mark ( Ed) , Fictionalism in Metaphysics, page 315

12. Blackburn, Simon, ' Quasi-realism no Fictionalism' ' in Kalderon, Mark (Ed) , Fictionalism in Metaphysics

13. Ibid

14. Blackburn, Simon 'Errors and Phenomenology of Value' in Essays in Quasi-realism page 150

15. Blackburn, Simon 'Antirealism, expressivism and quasi-realism' page 154 in The Oxford Book of Ethical Theory

16. Kalderon, Mark ' Introduction' in Kalderon, Mark (Ed) , Fictionalism in Metaphysics

17. Blackburn, Simon quoted in (Moore, July 2002)' Quasi-realism and Relativism' Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXV, No 1, July 2002

18. Blackburn, Simon (1999) 'Is Objective Moral Justification possible on a Quasi-realist Foundation' Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 42:2 page 214

19. Ibid

20. Blackburn, Simon ' Ruling Passions' page 296

21. Blackburn, Simon (1999) 'Is Objective Moral Justification possible on a Quasi-realist Foundation' Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 42:2 page 222

22. Ibid

23. Moore A.W. 'Quasi-realism and Relativism' Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol LXV , No1 , July 2002

24. Quoted in Blackburn, Simon 'Truth' page 47

25. Blackburn, Simon ' Truth' page 47

26. Blackburn, Simon 'Antirealism, expressivism and quasi-realism' page 154 in The Oxford Book of Ethical Theory

(c) Kamala Vadlamani 2014

Email: kamala.vadlamani@gmail.com



Jackson in his Knowledge argument (1982) concluded that one who would have a certain phenomenal experience for the first time would learn something new despite having previously known all physical knowledge pertaining to that kind of experience. He claimed that experience makes non-physical information available, and thus physicalism, the metaphysical position that all information is physical information, is incorrect. One attempt at defending physicalism, put forth by both Nemirow (1980) and Lewis (1983) was known as The Ability Hypothesis, AH. AH, rather than concluding that one gains propositional knowledge or no new knowledge at all, holds that the kind of knowledge gained is only that which is involved in gaining certain abilities; those of remembering, recognizing and representing the phenomenal character in question; let's for brevity refer to these three as the 3 Rs. Furthermore, Lewis argued that the 3 Rs are necessary and sufficient conditions for knowing what some phenomenal experience is like. Michael Tye (2000), however in his paper 'Knowing What it is like: The Ability Hypothesis and The Knowledge Argument' successfully argues how the AH fails to do what it set out to do. The fined-grainedness of experience outstrips our ability to recognize a difference between two shades of red that are located next to one another on the colour spectrum. The average human just cannot recognize, remember or imagine a difference between red #4 and red #5. Despite lacking these abilities, Tye points out that we can successfully experience both shades. Thus, acquisition of the 3 Rs is not necessary for knowing what it is like to have a particular phenomenal experience and the AH fails.

Why aren't acquisition of the 3 Rs necessary? Consider Baby Harry. He is one month old and there is a good chance that he cannot see anything further than 12 inches away from him. He does have the ability to see colour but can barely hold his eyes fixed long enough to track a moving rattle in front of his face. Considering Harry's situation, there is a good chance that he lacks all of the concepts that you and I have. Despite life without concepts, he is still able to have phenomenal experiences. Thus having phenomenal experiences does not require concepts. With this in mind, how in the case of Jackson's Knowledge argument, could Mary's gaining the abilities to remember, recognize and represent be claimed necessary and sufficient for the kind of knowledge that she gains from experience? It seems that if Harry can experience what he does without concepts, Mary's gaining certain abilities which presuppose certain concepts for their success is something additional to anything she learns having a certain phenomenal experience.

If this is correct, it should come as no surprise as to why the AH was not successful. Any hypothesis made in response to a question which requires by the very nature of its subject matter a non-conceptual 'response' is bound for failure; any meaningful answer in any language will fail, given there is no language in the absence of concepts. This being said, although 'knowing what it's like' phenomenally may outstrip those conditions formulated by the AH, there seems to be something intuitively correct about those same conditions when viewed as integral to our moralizing; 'knowing what it's like humanly'. In this essay, I will firstly argue that gaining the 3 Rs is necessary to empathize. Lastly, I argue that because empathy is something that is necessary for moralizing, moral values and attitudes are dependent upon the concepts underlying the 3 Rs as given by the AH. Thus the insights of the AH illustrate that to moralize is to make use of various conceptual abilities.


The ability to recognize some object, x, successfully presupposes an ability to identify that x which one has previously been attentive to. Such an identification demands of an agent that she be acquainted with various criteria to which she can apply the concepts of 'similarity' and 'difference'. It is only through the application of these two concepts that one can say (or think) of something x that given similarity in criteria, C, it the same type or token as previously experienced. Whether it is the same x now at time t that was experienced at t1 or it is another token x of the same type, the concept of similarity (and difference) are necessary for recognition. Similarly, the ability to remember can generally be defined in terms of one's successes in bringing to mind past experiences or facts. Such successes are evidenced in the often practical natures of memory application. The success of my remembering that the water in one of the tea cups setting before me is boiling hot, is evidenced in my not severely burning myself. Without possession of the concepts of 'similarity' and 'difference' with respect to C, the boundary between imagination and memory becomes blurred.

1. One objection to this line of argument is that a cat may certainly recognize its owner, but on the given account this would entail that animals posses concepts and there is something wrong about this. To this I might argue that non-human animals and very young children are limited to having feelings of familiarity with respect to certain stimuli. This is to be distinguished from recognition; a process that surely seems to require one's having classificatory concepts and is thus itself required for language competence. If words only felt familiar and were not recognized, meaning could never get off the ground; a sentence might be a guessing game with no rules nor consequences other than sounds of air being produced.[1]

Because the abilities to recognize, remember and represent presuppose the possession of the basic concepts of similarity and difference with respect to some particular criterial set, and that the successful application of these concepts require identification or re-identification of some object, the 3 Rs must therefore somehow play an essential role in the identification and re-identification of objects. This, may seem painfully obvious to some. If it's not obvious, consider the following; Is it possible for you to identity the very house you live in and yet simultaneously lack the ability to recognize it? Lacking the ability to recognize x is just to say that one lacks the ability to identify x. The same follows with remembering x. Classifying a certain cat as a Russian Blue requires that one apply a certain relational concept of likeness to the object in question and to some criterial model. The path from one to the other necessarily involves remembering.

Representing x however, seems to be a bit more difficult to prove necessary with respect to identification. If we can identify an icosagon drawn on a page but we cannot represent the same figure in our minds, then representing that figure cannot be necessary for the ability to identify it. One must ask with respect to the fine-grainedness of identification cases, like that of a icosagon, can one really ever identify that polygon as such in the first place? Isn't it more likely that what we are doing when we think we are identifying such a many-sided figure is counting the sides independently rather than recognizing the figure as a whole? If this the case then our identification of it is not as a twenty-sided figure per se, but as figure that contains 5 four lined segments of equal length; this of course depending upon our ability to discriminate line composing line segments. Now given the limits of the length which it is possible to hold an image in mind and the fact that we cannot compare one mental image with another which serves as an imaginary stable model, it comes as no surprise that we cannot represent a twenty-sided figure or discriminate it from one that is nineteen-sided; we are not in the position to count the sides as we can when it is drawn upon a page. If the average person hasn't the ability to discriminate between a nineteen-sided figure and a twenty-sided figure, even when drawn on a page, without counting the sides of the two figures, why should we expect our ability to represent such a figure in mind to be any less dependent upon counting?

I would like to emphasize a very important the idea which comes to the fore when thinking about the limits of our ability to represent; that having these limits forces us to decide which features of objects are important enough for us to say that some object is the same type as another. Such features, it would seem, are chosen with respect to our purposes. Two dogs are of the same breed and could visually be identical but there is only one that I am interested in identifying after I've been informed that only one of them is rabid. This interest is telling of my value for my own health which is the purpose of my choosing to discriminate between the two otherwise identical dogs.

One purpose which seems to be of extreme importance with regard to the ability to identify objects according to some relevant feature is that of defending human value; and this bring us to the notion of empathy. Empathy, can be defined in many ways; an ability to harmonize emotionally, the ability to 'put oneself in another's shoes', the ability to imagine what it's like for someone else. It is this last simple definition which I would like to concentrate on for a moment.

Just how is the ability to identify x related to the ability to empathize with x? Maybe this is the wrong question to pursue; the better one being 'how is the ability to identify some object, o, as x related to the ability to empathize with o?' Looking back at the simple definition we have chosen to consider, one answer could be that they are related through an ability to imagine. Now Prinz rejects this kind of definition of empathy, saying of one very much like it that,

     [First] the appeal to imagination seems overly
     intellectual. Imagination sounds like a kind of mental act
     that requires effort on the part of the imaginer.
     (Prinz, p. 212)
     It seems inflated to call a contagion ['catching the
     emotion another person feels'] an imaginative act.
     (Prinz, p. 212)

However, this is exactly what we have seen above not to be the case. Unlike phenomenally experiencing redness, representing something does require effort and presupposes acquaintance with various concepts -- such as that of likeness. In terms of considering empathy being a contagion, I can see no reason to disagree that this could be the case. However, its being such is consistent with empathizing requiring the abilities to identify and to imagine. How can this be so? Well, the emotion of fear could also be said to be a contagion and yet it seems that to 'catch' this emotion one must have the ability to recognize that someone is feeling fearful and recognize that that someone is like us enough to matter. The autumn wind in downtown Chicago sometimes screams but it hardly manages to elicit fear!

Now it may be uninteresting to ask the question, 'can one empathize with something one cannot identify?' However, to ask the question, 'can one empathize with something one cannot identify with?' is more interesting. We do not empathize with rocks, mountains or trees. It certainly could be debated whether or not we empathize with lower animals such as a snakes, dogs, or cats. However, to completely deny that when a dog cries out, one is not moved and cannot understand the dog's pain in such a way as to remind one of one's own pain, would be to ignore something of great importance; that is that empathy seems to be a gradient phenomenon. We all do not share the same levels of empathy for the same objects nor do all classes of object inspire empathy to the same degree. One thing that may be certain, however, is that most normally psychologically functioning agents are most likely to feel empathy towards those things which most resemble humans.

Perhaps this is too fast and not careful enough. If empathy requires the ability to represent to oneself how it feels for some other thing, then such a requirement presupposes firstly, that the other thing can enter into causal relations in a similar fashion as do I. Secondly, it presupposes that those causal relations end in states that are similar to those which I have. Thirdly it presupposes that their behavior is as a good a guide to their feelings as my own are. If by our natures as metaphysically subjective beings we can only know what our own subjective states are phenomenally like, then these presuppositions are just three variations of a way to make the claim that empathizing requires some minimal degree of identification on the part of the empathizer with those empathized with. The higher this degree is, seemingly the less there is to infer or imagine in terms of what someone who is like me must be feeling.

This kind of view I assume will be met with an objection similar to that of Prinz's; that empathizing does not require that one go through some criterial list and tic as many boxes as one sees fit in order to react to some state of affairs afterward. It is something that happens automatically without thinking about likeness or similarity or our own cases for that matter. I would have to agree that it does 'seem' automatic. However, perception's not 'seeming' like it's a process does not entail that it's not a process. Furthermore, there is no reason for anyone to hold the position that identifying with someone, which can be considered a type of conceptual process, and the feeling of empathy must occur simultaneously. If we recognize ourselves by means of being related causally to the world in a way particular to the very spatial location that each of us individually occupy at any moment in time, then the concept of likeness to my own case will be that which characterizes others' cases by my inferring a similarity in causal interaction. Once my own case is established, it is something which I have the ability to remember, recognize and represent generally without the need for computation or inference. It is what I refer to when I think and utter 'I'. Perhaps this comes close to what Frege had in mind when claiming that I-thoughts are 'primitive' and what Kripke labels as 'autonomous designation'. If this is true, then identifying something to be causally like me, may only seem automatic given that one part of the relation in question is always available to me.


It was noted above that the criteria with which we judge something as being similar to (or different from) are sensitive and telling of our purposes and values. If the criterion for determining that something is human is bound to the degree to which it is similar to us and assuming that psychologically normal agents do have a sense of self-esteem, then such a criterion of humanity is telling of our value for a class of things to which we invariably belong. This results in the notion whereby those whom we can identify with the most -- those who we recognize as human by our own standards and those who we can thereby infer via our own case 'what it is like' for them -- are those whom we most ultimately value. Our moralizing, in particular having of reactive attitudes we do, could be considered evidence of this. If a tree falls and kills a man in a hurricane, we neither hold it nor the hurricane responsible for murder. If a dog bites its owner, although the owner might very well be angry as a result, if she is a rational being she will not morally judge the dog. We do, however, hold those who we feel are like us causally, and hence who are like us motivationally, accountable.

Now of course there is a danger looming in the background; that of the moral egoist. A position like this would reason something like, 'it is because you are similar to me, that I can empathize with your situation -- but it is really my own situation that is making me uneasy and I find it morally wrong that I feel this way regardless of how you may feel.' This position is considered by many an undesirable one, however, is not a position that follows simply from one holding that empathy is essential to the having of moral reactive attitudes. Just because I am not in a metaphysical position to ever be able to know your pain the way you know it or experience redness exactly as you experience it, does not entail that my ability to identify with you via my own case will land me in the position of a moral egoist any more than my being limited to experience the world given my particular spacial extension at any given time must land me in a position of being a solipsist.

Strawson in his seminal essay, 'Freedom and Resentment' put it very nicely. Crudely paraphrased, it is only those who we feel to be morally accountable agents that we have reactive attitudes towards. Our moral reactive attitudes are essential to us as humans. Others, who for some reason or another lack the ability to have reactive attitudes are as a result 'objectified' and held unaccountable. One way to interpret this is that our humanity is a common identity amongst seemingly causally efficacious beings and it is this which grounds our ability to empathize and thus moralize; holding others like us responsible. It justifies our moral reactive attitudes even if we turn out not to be as causally efficacious as we consider ourselves to be. So if we hold our humanity as a reason for having the moral reactive attitudes we do, then given our metaphysical circumstances as humans, the inability to empathize without some sense of being able to identify with someone via our own subjective cases mustn't lead to a moral egoist view; only a view that is unmistakably human.

Can moral judgement occur without the ability to empathize? Sure, why not? It is possible to train a group of people to utter 'stealing is wrong' and sometimes this kind of passive judgement -- when reinforced by punitive acts -- is all that is necessary to dissuade when there is a lack of empathy to be had. Can moral reactive attitudes occur without empathy? Surely not! If what has been put forth has been correct, moral reactive attitudes depend on a sense of identification between beings who can from their own case imagine what it is like for someone else. It is this knowing what it's like for someone else which requires the 3 Rs and thus they are essential the kind of moralizing that we are personally invested in. It is due to our being personally invested that our moral judgements based upon our reactive attitudes are self-motivating; we are our own enforcers of those acts which uphold that which we value.

But what about morally condemning acts that do not involve directly harming people? Dumping toxic waste into the ocean is considered wrong but one doesn't usually have feelings of empathy towards the ocean. 'Wrong' in this case could just be a judgement resulting from a social convention. Again it would be hasty to conclude that because these kinds of moral judgements do occur that all moral judgements are of this kind; for this example can be explained otherwise. Firstly, this objection assumes that empathy is only something felt towards a moral victim. In judging such an act wrong, it is our empathy which is extended towards those who commit such acts which justify our holding them as causally and morally accountable. It is their motivations that are disapproved of given that they are human enough to be held accountable. Secondly, the ocean is full of animals and for many with an extended sense of empathy, being an animal is being similar enough to us to imagine what it's like for them; that they could like us feel pain and thus to be a reason for concern. Hence, the abilities necessary for empathy are essential to a moralizing that counts motivations as those things that are the objects of our approbation or disapprobation.

It has thus been argued that empathy is necessary for a kind of moralizing that involves reactive attitudes and that empathy itself necessarily involves three conceptual abilities. Thus, the kind of moralizing which is based upon our moral reactive attitudes must necessarily require the concepts inherent in the 3 Rs. If this is the case, then perhaps the the insights of the AH can be directed away from anti-physicalism and redirected toward an argument against the objectivity of moral values. Such an argument is beyond the scope of this paper, however, I mention it only as a possibility that becomes available as the result of accepting this argument as plausible.


I believe it was Moore that once said something to the effect that many of the problems of philosophy are the result of asking the wrong questions. The Knowledge argument poses such a question. By demanding that a description be given of a subjective phenomenal experience -- something that by its nature falls short of analysis by means of objective concepts -- it is asking for something that is metaphysically impossible. This however doesn't prove that physicalism is wrong any more than my not being able to occupy the same space as you proves that physicalism is incorrect. Such a question is the wrong one to ask and in agreeing to answer it, the AH has not a chance but to fail. However, I have argued that the 3 Rs when understood as basic to the concepts that ground empathy, get us closer to understanding how moral reactive attitudes depend upon concepts. Take away these concepts and one not only takes away the accountability necessary for having moral attitudes but one does away with any chance of being human.


Frege. G., 1918, 'Der Gedanke. Eine Logische Untersuchung', in Beitrage zur Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus, I (1918-1919): 58-77. Translated as 'Thoughts', by P. Geach and R. Stoothoff, in McGuinness (ed.) 1984.

Jackson, F. 1982 'Epiphenomenal Qualia,' Philosophical Quarterly, 32, 127-136.

Kripke, S., 2008, 'Frege's Theory of Sense and Reference: Some Exegetical Notes', Theoria, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Lewis, D. 1990 'What Experience Teaches Us,' in Mind and Cognition: A Reader, ed. by W. Lycan, (Oxford: Blackwells).

Nemirow, L. 1980 'Review of Nagel's Mortal Questions,' Philosophical Review, 89, 473-477. Prinz, J., 2011, 'Is Empathy Necessary for Morality', in Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, Oxford University Press.

Strawson, P. F., 1962. 'Freedom and Resentment,' Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 1-25. Reprinted in Fischer and Ravizza, 1993.

Tye, M., 2000, 'Knowing What it is Like: The Ability Hypothesis and the Knowledge Argument,' in M. Tye, Consciousness, Color, and Content, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


1. I would like to thank E.F. Dejardin for bringing this objection to my attention.

(c) Matthew Sims 2014

Email: sims303@hotmail.com




Let's call an argument the conclusion of which calls into doubt our ability to ascertain either the veracity or justification of some particular belief or set of beliefs a 'Skeptical Argument.'[1] And let's say that two or more skeptical arguments have the same 'skeptical scope' if they call into doubt our ability to ascertain the veracity or justification of the same set of beliefs. In his 'First Meditation', Descartes employs two main Skeptical Arguments to establish the conclusion that he has grounds to doubt everything he formerly believed. Let's call this conclusion 'Descartes' Doubt'. He uses both arguments, which we shall call the 'Dream Argument' and the 'Deceiver Argument,' because he believes that they differ in skeptical scope. More precisely, he argues that only the Deceiver Argument can establish Descartes' Doubt. For he believes that the skeptical scope of the Dream Argument is circumscribed by what we shall call his 'Three Responses' to it. We shall refer to them as the 'General Response,' the 'Basic Response' and the 'Mathematical Response.'

I shall argue that Descartes is wrong about the skeptical scope of the Dream Argument. For I think that it has the resources to refute each of the Three Responses. That is, I shall argue that the Dream Argument has the same skeptical scope that Descartes concludes the Deceiver Argument has. Hence, I conclude that by Descartes' standards, it too can establish Descartes' Doubt.

My argument concerning the skeptical scope of the Dream Argument assumes the following claims. First, I shall assume that the Deceiver Argument successfully establishes Descartes' Doubt. Second, I shall assume that it does so because the ground of doubt on which it rests is immune to the Three Responses. Hence, it follows that I shall also assume that if the Dream Argument can withstand the Three Responses, then it too can establish Descartes' Doubt. Therefore, all I'm trying to establish in this essay is that the Dream Argument can withstand the Three Reposes. For given the three plausible assumptions laid out above, if I can establish that conclusion, I'll have shown that the Dream Argument has the same skeptical scope as the Deceiver Argument.

This is not to say that each of these assumptions is uncontroversial; I grant that they could each be questioned. Rather, I've presented them here only to delimit the scope of my argument from the outset to the issue of whether the Dream Argument can refute the Three Responses.

This essay shall proceed as follows. In Section One, I shall explain some preliminary notions that are essential to understanding the argument I shall subsequently develop. Then, in Section Two, I shall explicate the Dream Argument. Finally, in Section Three I shall explain the Three Responses, and show that the Dream Argument can be used to refute each of them.


The 'I' of Descartes' 'First Meditation' is an empiricist (Frankfurt 1970, pg. 32). That is, he believes that everything we know is ultimately grounded in sense perception. We shall refer to him as 'The Empiricist'.

We must clarify, however, the sort of empiricism to which The Empiricist is committed. Importantly, it does not appear to be the sophisticated empiricism of the trained philosopher, which admits the possibility of a priori knowledge while merely denying that it pertains to the world we experience. Rather, it seems to be what Frankfurt calls the 'naive empiricism' of the 'philosophical novice' who 'ascribes to the senses... many things that are not properly to be found in them' (Frankfurt 1970, pp. 61-62). Frankfurt defends this conception of The Empiricist by referencing a passage from the Conversation with Burman, in which Descartes identifies The Empiricist with 'a man who is first beginning to philosophize' and who is thus 'limited to the senses' (Frankfurt 1970, pg. 62). As such, Descartes continues, he is incapable of considering anything 'in the abstract and separated from matter and particular instances' (Frankfurt 1970, pg. 62). Hence, The Empiricist of the 'First Meditation' would be unable to entertain the sort of abstract reflections on a priori propositions that are readily available to the sophisticated empiricist. In this essay, I shall adopt this Frankfurtian conception of The Empiricist.

While the empiricism of The Empiricist may be naive, he is not. For as the 'First Meditation' opens we learn that The Empiricist has decided to question his empiricism, since he desires certainty, yet has discovered that some of his beliefs are false. Those isolated instances of false belief, he fears, may by symptomatic of epistemic rot at the base of his doxastic structure. He thus concludes that if certainty is his aim, he can best achieve it by first rejecting all of his dubious beliefs. And since, qua empiricist, he judges his sensory beliefs in general to be both the most reliable and the most fundamental of all his beliefs, he decides to begin his investigation by questioning them.

But how is he to determine which beliefs are dubious? Since his aim is certainty, The Empiricist adopts a stringent standard: If a ground for doubt that he believes is merely possible can be adduced for a particular belief, then it's a sufficient ground, and that belief must be jettisoned as if it were false. Let's call a ground for doubt that satisfies this inordinately low standard of dubiousness a 'Cartesian Ground'.

The Empiricist concludes, by the end of the 'First Meditation', that he has found Cartesian Grounds for doubting all of his former beliefs. That is, he has at that point established Descartes' Doubt. As we said above, Descartes' Doubt is ultimately established by what we have called the Deceiver Argument. However, Descartes in fact formulates the Deceiver Argument as one horn of a dilemma. Either the faculties by which we come to hold beliefs or acquire knowledge, which we shall call our 'cognitive faculties', were created by an omnipotent god, or they were not. If they were created by omnipotent god, then he may have designed them such that we're continuously deceived, both when we experience the world and when we reason about it. Thus, if an omnipotent god exists, The Empiricist has Cartesian Grounds to doubt everything he believes. But if we're not the product of an omnipotent god, then our cause, being less than omnipotent, is likely to have produced us with unreliable cognitive faculties. For they would then lack, as it were, the guarantee of reliability that omnipotence alone can provide. Thus, if an omnipotent god does not exist, The Empiricist has Cartesian Grounds to doubt everything he believes. Hence, since he cannot confirm that whatever caused his existence has provided him with reliable cognitive faculties, The Empiricist has Cartesian Grounds for doubting any belief or claim to knowledge that they produce.

I shall argue that we need not consider the atheistic horn of Descartes' dilemma. For as long as one concedes the possibility that an omnipotent god exists, Descartes's Doubt is generated. And I suspect that even most atheists would grant that god's existence is minimally possible, even if they deny that certain well specified conceptions of an omnipotent god could possibly obtain. Therefore, we shall suppose that Descartes' Doubt is adequately generated by the theistic horn of the dilemma alone, i.e. by the Deceiver Argument.

We've stipulated above that the Deceiver Argument provides The Empiricist with Cartesian Grounds for doubting everything that he believes. But the Deceiver Argument is only adduced after The Empiricist posits and then rejects what we have called the Dream Argument. For The Empiricist argues that what we have called his Three Responses to the Dream Argument permit him to maintain his empiricism even if he grants the argument's conclusion.

We've now completed our account of the fundamental elements of Descartes' 'First Meditation' that are relevant to the issue we're investigating in this essay. In the next section, I shall develop the version of the Dream Argument with which we shall subsequently be working.


Descartes' Dream Argument presupposes that we have genuine experiences while dreaming. Let's call these 'Dreaming Experiences', and contrast them with our ordinary non-dream experiences, which we shall call 'Waking Experiences'. (I shall ignore, for the sake of simplicity, non-ordinary Waking Experiences such as hallucinations, illusions, etc.) It begins with the premise that our Dreaming Experiences often fail to correspond with the Waking Experiences we would be having if we were instead awake at the time of a dream's occurrence. For example, I may dream that I'm standing near the ocean while I'm in fact lying in bed in the desert. Let's call this the 'Correspondence Failure Premise'. The argument further supposes that it's minimally possible for any imaginable Dreaming Experience to match the degree of vivacity that's attained by our most vivid Waking Experiences. Let's call this the 'Vivacity Premise'. Finally, the argument contains the implicit premise that whatever I can experience while awake is a possible element of Dreaming Experience as well. Let's call this the 'Experiential Premise'.

From the conjunction of the Vivacity and Experiential premises, it follows that I can never be certain that what I'm experiencing at any given time is a Waking Experience as opposed to a Dreaming Experience. Why? Because any possible Waking Experience is also a possible Dreaming Experience, and both Dreaming Experiences and Waking Experiences can attain the same degree of vivacity. That is, they can in principle be qualitatively indistinguishable qua experiences. If we couple this sub-conclusion with the Correspondence Failure Premise, we can infer the ultimate conclusion of the Dream Argument, viz. that I have Cartesian Grounds for doubting any specific experience I might have. For if I can never be certain that I'm not dreaming, then given the frequent failure of correspondence between Dreaming and Waking Experiences, I always have Cartesian Grounds for doubting the veridicality of the specific content of any particular experience.

Indeed, even If my Dreaming Experience did correspond perfectly with what my Waking Experience at any moment, I still could not conclude that my Dreaming Experience is veridical. First, I would be unable to adduce any reasons to support the conclusion that my Dreaming and Waking Experiences coincide. For to have a Dreaming Experience just is to be cut off, as it were, from Waking Experience. And this point is not weakened by the fact that our Dreaming Experience can sometimes be affected by phenomena we would also experience were we awake. Indeed, we often notice ex post facto that although, say, a particular sound in the vicinity of our sleeping body may have altered our Dreaming Experience, we don't necessarily experience it as we would have were we instead awake. The sound of a book that's been knocked to the floor by my cat can be transformed by the alchemy of Dreaming Experience into the sound of a gunshot by a masked intruder.

But second, and more importantly, the Dream Argument implicitly distinguishes 'sensations' from 'perceptions'. Let's say that perception necessarily involves a causal relation between a subject and an object in which the object somehow causes a sensation in the perceiving subject. And let's say that a sensation of an object in an act of perception is best characterized as a mental representation, of some sort, of the object perceived. Now what the Dream Argument presupposes is that sensation can occur in the absence of perception; that is, it supposes that perception is a sufficient but not necessary condition of sensation. For ordinary Dreaming Experiences just are sensations sans perceptions. Hence, it follows that even if my Dreaming and Waking Experiences did correspond perfectly, I still would not be justified in concluding that my Dreaming Experiences were veridical. For as sensations alone, the content of Dreaming Experiences would lack any causal relation (at least at the time of their occurrence) with the objects they seem to represent.

Finally, one might object that the Dream Argument is self-refuting, for the Correspondence Failure premise presupposes that Dreaming Experiences can be distinguished from Waking Experiences, while the argument's conclusion asserts that the two cannot be distinguished. But this objection can be met by requiring only that one both possess the concept of a dream, and concede that dreams are possible. For then the Dream Argument can be run without presupposing that one has previously distinguished Waking Experiences from Dreaming Experiences.

Now that we've formulated the Dream Argument, we can examine the Three Responses that The Empiricist raises to it, and show how the Dream Argument can refute each of them.


The Empiricist grants the conclusion of the Dream Argument, but proceeds to develop his Three Responses in an attempt to defend his empiricism from it. The first of them that he considers is the General Response. The Empiricist reasons that the general types of objects that Dreaming Experiences comprise must exist to serve as the source of the specific content of our dreams. So, even if the specific tree or hand or star that I'm experiencing now doesn't exist, trees and hands and stars must exist. And it's my previous sensations of those types of objects that provided me with the imaginative resources to dream about them now. But I'd argue that we can conceive of the possibility of waking from a dream to discover that none of the general objects it comprised accurately represented a type of extant object. I may dream tonight of a world that comprises nothing but a consistent taxonomy of cubist objects, none of which exist in the actual world of Waking Experience. Hence, the Dream Argument provides us with Cartesian Grounds for doubting the existence of the general types of objects we encounter in dreams. Therefore, the Dream Argument can withstand the General Response.

The Empiricist tacitly concedes the weakness of the General Response (Descartes 1985, pg. 13). But not so with the Basic Response, which maintains that not merely all actual general objects, but all possible general objects, must be composed of fundamental elements, such as extension, shape and size. Hence, even if our dream contents comprise nothing but non-existent general objects, they must minimally comprise the basic elements out of which all possible general objects are composed. And the ultimate source of our knowledge of these basic elements is sense experience. Thus, in this attenuated sense, our Dreaming Experience accurately represents at least the basic constituents of the real world of Waking Experience.

We may employ Descartes' supposition that god may exist to refute the Basic Response with the resources of the Dream Argument alone. For god is posited to exist both immaterially and eternally; that is, he exists in a mode that's devoid of matter and that's outside, or rather not in, space-time. Further, it's plausible to suppose that Descartes' god, which resembles a disembodied mind, has something analogous to the experiences we commonly attribute to the sorts of minds with which we're familiar. Finally, it's possible that if such a god exists, he has the power to create beings that, like himself, are both immaterial and possess the capacity for experience. Let's call such beings 'spirits'.

Now is it impossible that I'm in fact a spirit in an immaterial world who's merely dreaming that I'm an embodied being in a world that comprises general objects composed of basic elements? If we can coherently define the notion of 'dreaming' so it applies both to beings like us and to spirits, then it's not impossible that I'm such a being having such a dream. And it certainly seems prima facie plausible that we can so define the notion of dreaming. For example, nothing is obviously incoherent about the notion of dreaming on a substance dualistic account of the human person, some versions of which would seem to require that immaterial minds dream. Further, I now believe that I am (at least) a material being in a material world. But it seems possible that I could dream tonight that I'm a spiritual being in an immaterial world. That is, the notion that I could dream that I'm a spirit in an immaterial world is not obviously inconceivable. Yet if this is correct, then our dreams even now need not involve any of the elements that the Basic Response is concerned with. And hence our dreams can in principle differ so radically from reality that not even the basic elements that they comprise are common to both Dreaming and Waking experiences. Let's call this attempted refutation of the Basic Response the Immaterialism Argument.

I shall consider two objections to the Immaterialism Argument. The first is that it supposes that there is a coherent notion of dreaming that applies equally well to both embodied persons and to spirits. Hence, to support the notion that it's possible that I'm a dreaming spirit, I must provide that definition, which I've thus far failed to do.

But I don't think this is so, at least given the standards that The Empiricist has set for himself and his project. For recall that a ground for doubt qualifies as a Cartesian Ground for The Empiricist if it's merely possible that it obtains. For example, it may be the case that the notion of an omnipotent god is in fact incoherent, and hence that it's impossible that such a god exists. But as far as I know, this has never been conclusively demonstrated. Let's grant, arguendo, that this is correct: no one has successfully shown that the notion of an omnipotent god is incoherent. Further, though, let's grant that the notion of an omnipotent god does in fact represent an impossibility. Given these conditions, would The Empiricist thus be debarred from appealing to the possibility that an omnipotent god exists in making his skeptical case? It certainly doesn't seem to me as if he would be. For The Empiricist has no way of knowing that an omnipotent god cannot exist; for all he knows, it's minimally possible. And this is sufficient to provide him with Cartesian Grounds for any doubt that the existence of an omnipotent god could legitimately raise.

This example clarifies the notion of a Cartesian Ground of doubt by precisifying the conception of 'possibility' it rests on. For it shows that we must distinguish epistemic possibility from metaphysical possibility when judging whether a ground for doubt is to qualify as a Cartesian Ground. Let's (loosely) say that a claim is epistemically possible if it's possible 'for all we know.' And let's (loosely) say that a claim is metaphysically possible if it's a coherent claim, i.e. if it's not self-contradictory. I'd argue that a Cartesian Ground for doubt need only be epistemically possible to constitute a sufficient ground for doubt. For a posited ground of doubt for some belief can be both metaphysically impossible and epistemically possible; that is, we can believe that a ground for doubt is possible even if it's in fact impossible. And in such a case we have no choice, given The Empiricist's methodological constraints, but to judge such a ground for doubt an adequate Cartesian Ground.

Hence, a ground for doubt can be both metaphysically impossible and a Cartesian Ground, provided one does not know (in the strong sense) that it's metaphysically impossible. And this brings us back to the notion of a dreaming spirit. As long as the notion of a dreaming spirit is not known to be a metaphysical impossibility, it can constitute a Cartesian Ground for doubt. Therefore, we are not required to show that it's a coherent concept -- that is, that it's metaphysically possible -- if we are to make use of it in an argument against the Basic Response.

The second objection to the Immaterialism Argument that I shall consider concerns the Vivacity Premise of the Dream Argument. Recall that a Dreaming Experience must be capable of attaining the degree of vivacity achieved by our most vivid Waking Experiences if it's to provide us with Cartesian Grounds for doubting the veridicality of any given experience. But it's highly implausible that a material being could have a dream about existing immaterially that's as vivid as his Waking Experience. For what sorts of experiences would such a dream comprise? A material being would, it seems, lack the imaginative resources that the Immaterialism Argument requires of him. Hence, the Immaterialism Argument cannot refute the Basic Response.

I grant that it's highly implausible to suppose that a material being would possess the imaginative resources to produce Dreaming Experiences about an immaterial world that are as vivid as his Waking Experiences. I further grant that were you to ask me what a Dreaming Experience about an immaterial world could possibly be like, I would have no answer. Indeed, if I did have such a dream, I may not be able to identify it as comprising Dreaming Experiences that are about, or represent, an immaterial world. But none of these concessions demonstrate that it's impossible that I should have such Dreaming Experiences, or that they should be as vivid as my Waking Experiences. Hence, for all I know, I could have such a dream tonight, and awake tomorrow exclaiming, 'So that's what it's like!'; but then it follows that it's epistemically possible that I should have such Dreaming Experiences. And this is all that's needed to get the Immaterialism Argument off the ground.

I thus conclude that the Dream Argument can refute the Basic Response via the Immaterialism Argument. For I may be a spirit dreaming that a material world exists, when none actually does; hence there need not be any general objects, and thus no basic elements to compose them. Further, such 'spirit dreams' no more need to be a product of god's active and willful deception than do our own dreams. Hence, we can use the supposition that god exists in concert with the Dream Argument to refute the Basic Response in a way that clearly distinguishes it from the Deceiver Argument.

Finally, I shall argue that the Dream Argument can handle the Mathematical Response as well. For The Empiricist believes that all knowledge, and thus all mathematical truths, are ultimately grounded in sense experience. But we have shown above that the Dream Argument can render the existence both of the general objects of experience and of their basic constituents dubious on Cartesian Grounds. Hence, the supposition that either one exists must be rejected as if it were false, in accord with the requirements of Descartes' method. And this leaves The Empiricist, insofar as he's employing Descartes' method, with no reliable information about the nature of the external world. But then it follows that it leaves him, qua (naive) empiricist, with an utterly groundless mathematics as well. Hence, the Dream Argument provides The Empiricist with Cartesian Grounds for doubting all mathematical truths.

One might object that mathematical truths are knowable a priori, and hence are not dependent on any knowledge whatsoever of the nature of the world of experience. Therefore, the Dream Argument's ability to withstand the Basic Response by providing Cartesian Grounds for doubting the existence of the material world can do nothing to rebut the Mathematical Response on those grounds alone. The Deceiver Argument, however, by rendering the reliability of our cognitive faculties dubious, does have the resources to refute the Mathematical Response. And if the Dream Argument leaves the Mathematical Response untouched, it follows (given our stipulation that the Deceiver Argument can refute the Three Responses) that its skeptical scope is narrower than that of the Deceiver Argument.

But I'd argue that this objection fundamentally misconceives the conception of The Empiricist that Descartes presupposes. For recall from Section One that he is a naive empiricist, and hence does not consider the truth of any claims, including mathematical claims, to be completely divorced from or independent of the data of sense perception. But then it follows that if the Dream Argument can provide Cartesian Grounds for doubting the existence of the basic elements that mathematical claims are 'about', it can provide Cartesian Grounds for doubting the truth of mathematical claims themselves.

Indeed, I'd argue that even if The Empiricist were a sophisticated empiricist, the Dream Argument could provide him with Cartesian Grounds for doubting a priori truths as well. For I can certainly conceive of dreaming about a man who is certain that two plus two is five, and I can even conceive of dreaming that he has reasons for believing this obvious falsehood to be true. Is it impossible that I should dream that he explains those reasons to me, and persuades me that he's right? I can certainly be taken in by fallacious reasoning while I'm awake, and thus be led to accept as true conclusions that require me to reject beliefs I had formerly thought to be certain. Isn't it then conceivable that I should be similarly misled while dreaming? I have no reason to conclude that it's impossible; but then it follows that I have Cartesian Grounds for concluding that even beliefs that I now judge to be knowable a priori are dubious.

I thus conclude that Descartes' Dream Argument has the resources to refute each of the Three Responses that The Empiricist of the 'First Meditation' raises against it.


I have argued that, contrary to Descartes' arguments in the 'First Meditation', the Dream Argument can supply The Empiricist with Cartesian Grounds for doubting the Three Responses that he adduces to reject it. Hence, I conclude that Descartes underestimated the power and skeptical scope of the Dream Argument in his 'First Meditation.'


Descartes, R. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol.2. translated by John Cottingham, Robert

Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985

Frankfurt, H. G. 1970. Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.


1. I would like to thank Joanne Lovesey, Kamala Vadlamani, Matthew Simms and Richard Chappell for their helpful comments and suggestions, both on an earlier, shorter version of this essay, and on the current version.

(c) Eric DeJardin 2014

Email: dejardin@cox.net


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