Thursday, March 31, 2011

Anaximander versus Anaximenes

To: Karolos G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaximander versus Anaximenes
Date: 21 June 2001 13:35

Dear Karolos,

Thank you for your e-mail of 11 June, with your essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'In the light of the controversy concerning the relative strengths of the theories of Anaximander and Anaximenes, how do you assess the achievements of these two philosophers?'

I liked your elegant explanation of why Anaximenes was led to posit air as the basis substance. According to you:

1. "There is an intellectual gap in the process through which the apeiron, indefinite both in extent and in quality, starts to create definite qualities. We should point out also, that it is not clear how the principle of movement is inherited from the infinite to the definite. I think that this was the very weak point that Anaximenes tried to remedy."

2. "Anaximenes found that air offered a unified principle of matter and life, since it was inexhaustible, contained all sensible objects and at the same time could be used as synonymous to breath and soul."

I would claim that 'movement' for Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes has a purposive, teleological element. Their theories were not models of a universe governed by strictly efficient causation. (I realize that you disagree with this, at least with regard to Anaximander, but I am going to deal with that question below.) It doesn't follow that things 'choose' which way they are going to move in the way that animals or human agents would do.

That is why I am not so sure about your claim that for Thales "a soul, or spirit, may move towards a certain direction even if it is equally possible for it to move in the opposite direction." Water does what it is natural for water to do, e.g. flow down hill. Fire does what it is natural for fire to do. The different substances or opposites have characteristic ways of moving, as well as ends towards which they move, which is part of their insentient nature.

The difficulty for Anaximander is that we appear to have sources of movement on two different levels. The Apeiron, the ultimate mover, imposes its 'justice' on the interactions between the finites, each one of which moves in its own characteristic ways. The resulting picture is complex, and strikingly reminiscent of the relation between the state and the citizen. We each 'move' according to our own needs and desires, while the laws imposed on us by the state keep things in check and maintain an overall balance.

What Anaximenes saw was a way of simplifying this picture enormously. Instead of two sources of 'movement', there is only one. The threatened incoherence involved in reduplicating sources of motion is overcome.

I was somewhat puzzled by your account of Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the earth.

It is clear enough what you are trying to show. Anaximander, you want to say, had grasped the notion of a 'natural law' whereas Thales is still operating with the idea of principles of motion analogous to 'laws governing life in a society'. I would argue that the principle of sufficient reason can be applied just as easily to efficient, causal explanation and purposive or teleological explanation. Let's change the example of the ass to make it similar to that of the fly. If two men approach the ass from opposite directions waving sticks, will the ass move or not? If it does move, that has got to be because the ass has certain decision-making capacities which the fly lacks (something analogous to 'mentally spinning a coin').

If 'law' is understood as basically teleological or purposive, does Anaximander still have a valid explanation for the stability of the earth? On your account, he would not. It is essential, you seem to think, to Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the earth in terms of the absence of a reason to go one way rather than another, that in a world governed by natural law, things do not move unless something makes them move. It is true that human laws are not like this. The law does not dictate very movement I make with my fingers in typing this letter. But that is the wrong contrast. The contrast we should be looking at is between causal laws and psychological laws. Causal laws govern non-purposive movement of inanimate things, while psychological laws govern the purposive movement of beings who have beliefs and desires. People do not move themselves unless they have the belief that by moving they will obtain F, and the desire for F, for some suitable 'F'.

In that case, even if Anaximander's conception of law was still teleological and purposive, analogous (although not equivalent) to psychological law rather than to causal law, he would still have a valid explanation to give for the stability of the earth.

All the best,


Frege's distinction between sense and reference

To: Joao T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Frege's distinction between sense and reference
Date: 14 June 2001 12:13

Dear Joao,

Thank you for your e-mail of 4 June, with your essay for units 7-9 of the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'What is the point of Frege's distinction between sense and reference?'

The key question for Frege is how there can be something *objective* that accounts for the route to reference.

That is why Frege would reject the account which allows that the sun for Joao is the same object as the sun for Geoffrey, but Joao and Geoffrey have different 'private data' of the sun. The mode of presentation of the reference, the sun, is the same for Joao as it would be for anyone in Joao's geographical location, just as the mode of presentation of the sun for Geoffrey is the same as it would be for anyone in Geoffrey's geographical location. An account of the workings of language is not concerned with 'private data'.

However, I wonder whether in fact your example, 'Joao says that the Brazilian sun is brighter than the English one', is best analyzed as a case of Fregean 'indirect reference'.

Let's consider Frege's own example, Hesperus and Phosphorus (the Evening star and the Morning star). We know that 'Hesperus' and 'Phosphorus' both refer to the planet Venus. But let us suppose that Joao believes that Hesperus and Phosphorus are two different planets. And let us also suppose that Joao also believes that Hesperus is in a closer orbit to the Earth than Phosphorus. In reporting Joao's statement of his belief, I would say, 'Joao says that Hesperus is in a closer orbit than Phosphorus'. What matters, for the truth value of this statement involving indirect reference, is not the reference of 'Hesperus' and 'Phosphorus', which is the same, but the sense of the terms 'Hesperus' and 'Phosphorus'. We can preserve the truth value of that statement by substituting terms with the same sense - 'Evening star' for 'Hesperus', 'Morning star' for 'Phosphorus' - but not if we substitute terms with the same reference.

Now it is possible that someone, a child say, might believe that the sun which they saw in Brazil is a different heavenly body from the sun which they saw when they came to England for a holiday. This would be just like the example of Hesperus and Phosphorus. The child believes that the Brazil sun is a brighter sun than the English sun. There are two suns, and one is brighter than the other. However, when you, Joao, say, 'The Brazilian sun is brighter than the English one' you don't mean this. What you mean is simply that The sun *appears* brighter in Brazil than it appears in England!

It is important to note that in order to use the sense/reference theory to explain the truth conditions for statements involving indirect reference, 'Joao believes that....', 'Joao says that...' etc. we need first to be convinced that there *is* such a thing as a 'sense'. As Frege was aware, we need independent reasons for accepting the sense/ reference distinction before we can be confident in putting it to work in accounting for indirect reference. That is why, in his essay 'On Sense and Reference', Frege first tries to motivate the distinction by describing the problem of identity statements.

One interesting thing that follows from Frege's account is that we cannot rely on finding any linguistic formula that would fully capture the sense of a term. It is not true in every case that sense 'can be told but can't be touched'. Sometimes sense can neither be told not touched.

Here's one example: Your guide takes you to a hunting lodge hidden deep in the forest. He tells you that the hunting lodge is called 'Austerlitz'. After a few visits to the lodge, you learn to find it for yourself. Then one day your guide takes you to another hunting lodge which is reached by entering a different part of the forest. This lodge is called 'Waterloo'. Again, after a few visits you learn to find the lodge for yourself. You notice that there is a great similarity between the two lodges, and in the parts of the forest in which they are located. Then one day you discover a box of ammunition in the Waterloo lodge which you had put away in a cupboard in the Austerlitz lodge. 'Its the same lodge! I didn't realize. Waterloo is Austerlitz!'

What is important in this example is that the senses of the terms 'Austerlitz', 'Waterloo' are not associated with *any* verbal description. This contrasts with the case of Hesperus and Phosphorus, which are associated with the verbal descriptions, 'the first star to appear in the evening', 'the last star to disappear at dawn'. The sense or 'route to reference' of the term 'Austerlitz' is associated with a practical ability, the ability to find the hut in the forest, and similarly for the sense or 'route to reference' of the term 'Waterloo'.

This example best shows the contrast between Frege's theory of sense and reference and Russell's 'description' theory.

All the best,


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why be moral?

To: Ricco L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 14 June 2001 10:26

Dear Ricco,

Thank you for your e-mail of 5 June, with your third essay for Possible World Machine, 'Why be moral?'

I am pleased with this piece of work. The examples are well chosen, and you raise some difficult questions. A lot of thought has gone into writing this essay.

At the heart of your essay is your awareness of the 'dilemma' that while the members of society benefit from the fact that each chooses to be moral rather than immoral, this need not count as a compelling consideration for the individual faced with the choice, 'Shall I be moral or not?'

A similar dilemma faces nations. We would all benefit if every nation respected limits to the emission of greenhouse gases. Yet if any nation goes back on the agreement, while the others stick to the agreement, that nation stands to benefit even more. The result, however, of one nation ignoring the agreement is that the agreement breaks down, and everybody is worse off than they were before.

The immoralist would not very much like a situation where morality completely broke down, and it was every man and woman for themself. Unlike agreements negotiated between nations, however, that is not going to happen. To be immoral appears to be a rational choice, because the immoralist can count on other members of society to continue to be moral.

That disposes of one self-interested argument for being moral. Another self-interested argument, which you discuss is the idea that being moral will make us happy. That argument goes back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that it just isn't true. As you say, immoral people are happy and prosper, while moral people are miserable and wretched.

I think there is an argument that can be given which shows that it is rational to be moral, and irrational to be immoral, which does not appeal to self-interest. I am not going to try to repeat that argument here. (The argument appeals to fundamental metaphysical considerations concerning the nature of truth and the relation between self and other. You will find one version of the argument in my online notebook at: .)

Your two examples - of the man who does not make an effort to save the boy from the speeding truck, and the boy who does not see what is wrong with stealing - are especially interesting because the question they raise is not only, 'Why should I be moral?' but also, 'What is moral?'

To murder is immoral, because we are depriving someone of a right to life. However, we do not therefore have a moral obligation to save every life that can be saved. Otherwise, it would be immoral not to give all that one could afford to give to famine relief. Yet, surely, in your story it was morally wrong for the man to refuse to lift a finger to save the boy.

To steal is immoral. But is it always immoral, in every case? I would question whether there can be absolute laws of morality which would never permit stealing, under any circumstances. To provide for one's family is a moral consideration which counts for something. I do not see any reason why, in principle, it should not outweigh the prohibition against stealing. The problem illustrated by your story is that in practice, you have to 'join a gang'. In other words, you throw your lot in with immorality. However, that need not be the case. For example, the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. These are people who do what they do, not out of self-interest, but for moral reasons.

In my view, there are moral reasons of different strengths. If I have lost my wallet, and you return my money to me, you do so for a moral reason. If I am begging in the street and you give me money, again you do so for a moral reason. Philosophers will point out that in the first case, I have a *right* to be given what is mine, whereas in the second case I have no *right* to be given charity, it is your free choice. However, I see the difference between the two cases as one of degree. There are indeed cases, for example the case of Robin Hood 'robbing the rich to give to the poor', where reasons of the second kind outweigh reasons of the first kind.

All the best,


Must God be a realist?

To: Ryan S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Must God Be a Realist?
Date: 7 June 2001 13:50

Dear Ryan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 31 May, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, 'Must God Be a Realist?'

You quite sensibly exclude from the things an omnipotent God must know, answers to nonsensical questions such as, How many hours are in a mile? You also point out that we cannot always know whether a question is nonsensical or not. So that when a scientist asks, 'Is it the case that XYZ?' there exist three possible answers: It is the case that XYZ; it is not the case that XYZ; and 'It is XYZ' is a nonsensical statement.

Let's take another kind of statement, which I assume you would not wish to say is nonsensical. We are adding grains of sand to a few scattered grains on the floor. At exactly what point does the result become a heap? (The Paradox of the Heap.) The problem is that 'heap' is a vague concept. There is no precise definition of how many sand grains make a heap, how many socks make a heap, etc. The phenomenon of vagueness poses a serious challenge to our understanding of the notion of truth, in some ways quite similar to the realism/ anti-realism debate.

Heap would not be a concept of any use to us, if you had to count the grains of sand in a heap before you could decide whether it was a heap or not.

But now consider this. According to your understanding of 'heap', adding a single grain of sand cannot turn something which was not a heap into something which is a heap. The difference is too small. But it follows logically from this that no amount of sand is a heap!

One thing we might conclude from this example is that vague concepts are not part of God's vocabulary. The are useful to us because our knowledge and the means of acquiring it are limited. In that case, however, the universe that God inhabits is a very different place from the one we inhabit. Take away qualitative concepts like colour, smell, sound etc, take away all the concepts with any kind of vague borderline, such as 'car', 'table', 'house' and there is not much left.

Worst of all, not knowing how things are for us in our world, God doesn't really know a great deal about us.

To sum up: God's fully determinate universe, where no fact goes unnoted, has produced us, and we have produced vagueness. So God's fully determinate universe contains vagueness.

That might not be a worry. After all, there is still an important distinction between the way vague statements lack a determinate truth value, and the way in which it is alleged by the anti-realist that statements about the past which we can neither verify or falsify lack a determinate truth value.

But couldn't God deliberately choose to make an anti-realist universe? In the Metaphysics program, I describe a model for global anti-realism, according to which the thing we call the 'actual world' is merely a set of overlapping possible worlds. Like a novelist who does not bother to dot every 'i' and cross every 't', perhaps God deliberately leaves out details of the story of his creation.

This is a question that one ought to address if one wishes to answer the question, 'Must God be a Realist?' Does God's omnipotence stretch to making a universe full of 'gaps in the story' a universe in which - in effect - anti-realism is true?

Another point to consider. It is crucial to the expression of the realist's belief that truth does not depend on knowledge. So if everything is known, then the question of the truth of realism does not even arise. In order to make the theory of realism as the realist intends it true, Surely God would have to make a universe where some actual truths were true despite the fact that they were not known to be true, either by us or by God.

If you believe in God, ought you to be a Realist? Consider any unanswerable question, of the form, 'Is it the case that P?' By hypothesis, God knows the answer. However, we have ruled out the possibility that God could convey his knowledge to us (if he could, the question would not be unanswerable so far as we were concerned). Isn't there still scope to be an anti-realist? The anti-realist says, 'The universe might be a universe where God knows that P, or the universe might be a universe where God knows that not-P. However, there is nothing *in reality* that determines which of these two possible universes is the actual universe!'

Although I seem to be saying that you have left a lot of things out of your essay, I do like the clear and simple way you have set it out. The first paragraph is just right in focusing the question of the 'kind of God we are taking about'.

All the best,


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Protagoras: man is the measure of all things

To: Edvard K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Protagoras: man is the measure of all things
Date: 6 June 2001 14:07

Dear Edvard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 26 May, with your fifth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What do you think Protagoras meant by his statement, "Man is the measure"? In the light of your interpretation, how fair is the account that Plato gives of Protagoras' doctrine in the "Theaetetus"?

As you may know, I describe myself on the Pathways site as an 'Internet Sophist'. I would number myself amongst those who would like to see the term 'Sophist' reclaimed, purged of its negative associations. (I think you would enjoy Robert Pirsig's book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which offers a vigorous defence of the sophists.)

Not all the Sophists who taught their students 'how to win arguments and influence people' cared about philosophy. I believe that Protagoras was one of those who did. Gorgias, on the other hand, seems more questionable. Yet, as I argue in the last unit of the program, he did make - despite his scorn for other philosophers, - a significant contribution to philosophy.

I am not sure that you have really answered the question set for this essay. In the 'Theaetetus', Socrates attributes to Protagoras extreme subjectivist and pragmatist views which are easily refuted. The question is whether Socrates/ Plato is attacking the real Protagoras or a 'straw man'. I suspect that to a large extent he is attacking a straw man. Even so, useful results arise from the discussion of Protagoras, which are relevant to the question which Plato is addressing, 'How is it possible to have a false belief?'

In other words, the attack on Protagoras serves a useful purpose, despite involving a highly suspect account of Protagoras' views.

Of course we don't know for sure what Protagoras meant by his 'Man is the measure' remark. I like your interpretation, according to which 'Each man must judge for himself' and not rely uncritically on the authority, or the opinions of others. That would have been a true and worthwhile thing to say. As you remark, it is 'a very important part of one's personal, subjective development'. I also see how difficult it can be to defend such a view under a totalitarian regime.

In unit 14, I suggest that one moderate reading of 'Man is the measure' is as an expression of the principle of empiricism. This is not the same as the view that each person must judge for themself. It is just another plausible candidate.

I also suggest two less moderate readings, one in the spirit of Berkeleian idealism, and the other in the spirit of contemporary 'anti-realist' theories of truth and meaning.

The Berkeleian reading would certainly fit some of the things that Plato says about Protagoras doctrine in the 'Theaetetus'. However, it is important to recognize that for the Berkeleian idealist there is an objective world, to which my ideas correspond. Berkeley did not believe that all exists is a subjective stream of momentary impressions. Berkeley held that the objective world consists in ideas in God's mind, an idea that would have been repugnant to Protagoras. Take away God, however, and we are once more faced with the problem of accounting for the existence of objects which are not perceived. If the world is made up of objects of sense, how are we to conceive of such objects prior to their being sensed? Do they pop into and out of existence? Is the world full of holes?

On balance, I prefer the alternative, anti-realist reading, although here too there is a danger of anachronism. I hear Protagoras declaring, 'I don't believe in so-called "truths" which no-one could ever know. Truth is a product of judgement rather than something external to judgement.' However, if one presses this initially plausible claim, it becomes apparent that here too, we end up with a 'world full of holes'. Suppose I shake a coin in my hand. Then I shake it again. Surely it was true that the first shake produced 'heads', or it was true that the first shake produced 'tails'? But these are truths which can never be known! So one is forced to say that the proposition, 'The first shake produced heads' lacks a determinate truth value.

Your essay will require quite a bit of work to get up to the standard of the Associate Diploma, but it has promise. I would like to see you say a bit more about the value of your interpretation, 'Each man must judge for himself'. If that is the correct interpretation, then it would certainly be the case that Plato misrepresents Protagoras' views in the 'Theaetetus'.

I look forward to seeing your first Associate Diploma essay. Aim for 2000-2500 words, if you can. You will get another shot at improving each of the four essays which you choose for your Associate Diploma portfolio before submitting the portfolio for examination. I believe you can make the grade!

All the best,


How do you know that the author of these words has a mind?

To: Paul C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How do you know that the author of these words has a mind?
Date: 1 June 2001 11:56

Dear Paul,

Thank you (for the second time) for your e-mail of 22 May with your essay for the Philosophy of Mind program in response to the question, ‘How do you know that the author of these words has a mind?’

This is an original and interesting approach to the question, which brings together a number of important issues concerning the nature of language and the mind.

Your strategy, in dealing with this question, is to distinguish the concept of ‘author’ from the more general concept of maker or producer; and similarly to distinguish the concept of a ‘word’ from the concept of a sound, or marks on paper, or a magnetic pattern on a hard drive.

To produce words, rather than mere sounds or marks on paper that a hearer or reader mistakenly takes to be words requires an author: a conscious being who possesses the capacity for linguistic communication, and who has selected those particular words in order to convey his or her meaning. (Regarding the gender issue, you will find as you do more reading that contemporary academic philosophers have largely settled on using ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘him’, so as to avoid any suggestion of sexist bias. When you see it everywhere it begins to jar.) It would be theoretically possible, as you say, to program a computer to produce random words which just happened, by pure fluke, to give the appearance of (an attempt at) reasoned argument.

There is a web site where you can log into a ‘random essay generator’ which produces a perfect pastiche of, e.g. an essay on deconstructionism. In this case, the piece is quite senseless, yet disturbingly looks as if it means something.

So if it is indeed the case that these are *words* or if it is indeed the case that what have before you has an *author*, then there is no further question to raise concerning whether the individual that produced it has a mind.

However, there is one remaining ground for doubt, which some philosophers have taken seriously. This relates to what has been termed the ‘problem of other minds’. So I would tentatively add a fifth condition to the four that you list in your conclusion:

If GK is a zombie, indistinguishable physically and in its behaviour from a ‘normal’ human being but for whom ‘all is darkness inside’, then GK is not an ‘author’ and what GK has produced are not ‘words’.

The question is whether the idea of such a being is intelligible. According to the mind-brain identity theory it is not intelligible. A brain of a certain sort has got to possess, or give rise to a mind of a certain sort, because all the mind is is a brain functioning in certain ways. On the other hand if you are tempted by mind-body dualism, at least of the non-Cartesian variety, then there does seem to be conceptual room for a doubt to arise. If the mind is merely a product of physical processes, which is not identical with those very processes, then it does seem conceivable that there could be an individual in which the physical processes occurred, which did not give rise to corresponding mental processes.

Physics would have nothing to say about these ‘psycho-physical’ connections. The connection could break down at any time, and there would be no visible effect on the physical world. Hence, it might be the case (for all you know) that the connection has broken down in the case of GK, and that as a result a piece that *would* have been composed with the intention of conveying a meaning is nothing more than a collection of patterns which a reader mistakenly interprets has having been so intended.

I have one extra thing to say regarding your fourth conditional, ‘If GK is purely consciousness then I would dearly like to know how he got the Pathways unit to me’. As you will discover in the Philosophy of Mind program, it makes a big difference whether one is a Cartesian dualist who believes in mind-body interaction, or a ‘epiphenomenal’ dualist who holds that the causation is one way only, from the physical to the mental. If GK is a Cartesian consciousness, then one has to posit a mysterious capacity of the soul to ‘move’ the ‘animal spirits’ (in the pineal gland, according to Descartes) and vice versa. If GK is an epiphenomenal consciousness, then it was GK’s physical body, not GK, that physically brought about a chain of causes and effects which resulted in the pages that you hold in your hand. Which might raise a worry...

Good work!

All the best,


Monday, March 28, 2011

Heraclitus: you never step into the same river twice

To: Robert A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus: you never step into the same river twice
Date: 1 June 2001 11:56

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 May, with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, on Heraclitus’ aphorism, ‘Upon those that step into the same rivers different and different waters flow...they scatter and gather, come together and flow away, approach and depart’.

This is a model essay, well thought out and argued. You have done well to integrate what Heraclitus says about the unity of opposites with the view that change is the fundamental principle of reality. The two quotes (‘All that can be seen, hear, experienced...’, ‘Let us not make random conjectures...’) add nice touches.

Change, not numbers, not substance, is what holds reality together, makes it one. Your essay has enabled me to see something which I haven’t seen before, and that is exciting for me. In the unit on Heraclitus, I unfavourably contrast the ‘revisionary’ interpretation of Heraclitus according to which all he is claiming is that change is universal, with the Platonic interpretation which is far more radical, involving the denial of the reality of substance. - I wonder whether your essay suggests a third possibility?

As an empirical ‘proof’ of his theory of Monads, Leibniz once challenged the aristocrats of the Hanoverian court to find two leaves which were identical in all their attributes. If two such leaves had been found, however, it would not have disproved Leibniz’s view that every individual is uniquely individuated by its properties, “No two objects differ ‘sole numero’.” The reason such a discovery would not count as a disproof of the Monad theory is that, included amongst a thing’s properties is its ‘point of view’ that it occupies in relation to the rest of the universe. Even if we cannot detect it from an external examination, the leaf on the left ‘perceives’ the universe differently from the leaf on the right.

I think one ought to say the same thing about an imaginary challenge that Heraclitus might have issued to his contemporaries, to find a physical object that exists for some period of time without changing, even minutely. Supposing such an object were found, why should that disprove the metaphysical principle that change is the fundamental principle?

Now one possible reply, along the same lines as the defence of the Monad theory, is that even if a thing does not physically change, its relations to other things are changing constantly. I don’t like that, however. Suppose one had a stone, say, that did not change, we should still have to give some account of its continued existence, what it is that ‘keeps it going’ in its stone-hood. If ‘it’s made of unchanging stuff’ is not the answer, then what? Heraclitus’ reply might be, ‘What you see is a temporary stalemate between opposing forces, which is dynamic and not merely static. Energy, force, the impulse to movement is the sole reality. When forces balance, then the appearance of a ‘static substance’ arises.’

I like this a lot more than the interpretation which I assumed, e.g. Kirk et al to be putting forward. The idea of an object as the product of a tug-of-war does indeed seem a serious challenger to the Platonic view, which would make Heraclitus’ theory a version of Whiteheadian process philosophy. Maybe I should give Kirk another look!

It is indeed difficult, within the context of Newtonian mechanics, to overlook the difference between an object accelerating under the influence of a force and two opposed forces acting on the same object (the difference between falling to earth under the influence of gravity, and having landed there). Only the movement qualifies as ‘change’. In Heraclitus’ mind, if we can get inside there, there seems to be the idea that the second of the two states is itself one of constant movement. One might imagine, say, two Sumo wrestlers constantly moving, feinting, trying first one hold than another, while neither makes any forward progress. If only we could see through appearances, we would observe that very struggle in the bow and the lyre. Yes, I like it.

I have nothing else to comment on what you have written. I’ve looked hard for criticisms to make of your essay, but I can’t find any. Well done!

All the best,


Metaphysics - its methods and subject matter

To: Ochieng O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Metaphysics - its methods and subject matter
Date: 31 May 2001 07:43

Dear Ochieng,

Thank you for your e-mail of 21 May, with your first essay for the Metaphysics program, on the topic 'Metaphysics: Its Methods and Subject Matter'.

This is a good essay.

It is fair to say that you have really only tackled the second part of this question: the subject matter of metaphysics. You say very little to indicate the methods of metaphysics. What resources does the metaphysician have for investigating and answering the questions which form the subject matter for metaphysical inquiry? Intuition? Discourse with God? Magic spells? If we accept that there are aspects of the world in which we find ourselves which provoke a sense of metaphysical wonder, what is the proper way of satisfying or dealing with that sense of wonder? Where do we go from there?

Obviously, I don't expect you to be in a position at this early stage to give a clear answer to that question! I am merely indicating the ground that still lies ahead of us.

On the question of subject matter, you do offer some rather curious examples: 'Is the sun really hot?' 'Do the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees?' I can see what you are trying to do. You are looking for examples of propositions which are taken as axiomatic in other fields of inquiry. The idea that 'being hot' is an absolute property was rejected by the first physicist to conceive of the idea of a temperature scale. Compared to a supernova, the sun is not 'hot'. In non-Euclidean geometry the angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees. Whether the geometry of space is Euclidean or not is a question for physics rather than metaphysics.

It is important to stress that the metaphysician seeks *knowledge*. Though 'each thinking person,' as you say, 'is a philosopher in his own right', yet the thoughts of each of these 'thinking persons' aim for something that has universal significance. Truth, if it should be found, is truth for you as well as for me. If each can only discover his own subjective truth, then we should indeed be in a position where no communication is possible with regard to the questions of metaphysics. If such an individual were to say to me, 'Reality for me is XYZ' I should not even be able to make sense of his *words*. Far from being able to evaluate the truth of 'Reality is XYZ', I should not even be in a position to determine the conditions under which 'Reality is XYZ' *would* be true, irrespective of whether or not that statement is true.

I am assuming here a principle from the philosophy of language: that the meaning of a statement is its 'truth conditions', i.e. the conditions under which it would be true. For example, to understand the meaning of, 'Snow is green' is to know under what circumstances it would be true to say that snow is green.

Now, your discussion of the privacy of experience and the difficulties of interpreting an individual's linguistic communications is relevant here. It is one of the *results* of metaphysical inquiry, I would argue, that we learn to see what is wrong with the naive idea that when you and I look up at a clear sky, each of us has something inside our heads that the other can never know, 'what colour "blue" is for you'. Perhaps I can say something about this now. You tell me that you know what colour "blue" is for you. But do you really? Suppose I were to ask you, 'Do you know what colour "blue" was for you a minute ago? You say, 'Yes, of course, it was the same!' But how do you know this? Aren't you just guessing? After all, if the colour in your head did change from what it was a minute ago, but your memory conveniently ignored the change, then the effect would be the same!

I found the story of Jagno strange, and also very moving.

As you will discover, or perhaps you suspect already, the problem of language is very much tied in to the question of 'private experience'. The argument I gave a moment ago is a version of a famous argument given by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his book 'Philosophical Investigations'. Just to get you thinking, here is the paragraph where he describes a thought experiment with a certain sensation 'S':
Let us imagine the following case. 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 the sensation. – I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated. – But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition. – How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. 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. – 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. – Well, that is done precisely by the concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation. – But "I impress it on myself" can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion *right* in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about 'right'.

L. Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations 3rd edn, G.E.M. Anscombe (tr.), Blackwell Oxford 1967, Part I, §258.

You give an interesting illustration of the problem of language and communication in the story of the knights and the knaves. I do wonder, however, exactly what this story shows. You say, 'If I ask the liar the same question, he gives me the same answer I got from the person who told me the truth, and yet, his answer is false.' You seem to find this paradoxical. But is it? We have to distinguish the *content* of what is said, from the *intention* of the speaker in saying it. The statement, 'The knave would show the red door' has the same content, the same truth conditions, regardless of whether it is uttered by a knight or a knave, regardless of whether it is uttered with the intention of telling the truth, or telling a falsehood. Normally, when you converse with someone, you assume that they intend to tell the truth. The information you extract from what they say is equivalent to the content of the words they utter. However, in a situation where you are doubtful whether you are being told the truth or not, or where you expect to be told lies, then the information you extract from what they say will be the result of an *inference*. And that is precisely the case in the story of the knights and the knaves.

Sorry this letter is so long! Well done.

All the best,


Friday, March 25, 2011

My values are objective because they are mine

To: John J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: My values are objective because they are mine
Date: 30 May 2001 17:51

Dear John,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 May, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program in response to the question, '"My values are objective because they are mine" - Is that all there is to the objectivity of values?'

This is good. In just a few short paragraphs, you manage to pack a surprising amount in. Your essay is longer than it looks!

The idea that a value is objective ‘because it is mine’ seems at first a complete inversion of what we mean by a 'value'. Setting aside for the moment Ayn Rand's question, 'to whom and for what?' (with which I agree) the default position, the position which we start from, is that the values I hold arise from objects which, in your words, I *find* of value. In other words, it is because an object has value that I value it. The value in the object is 'found', discovered, not created or invented.

However, the question still arises whether we are describing the *metaphysics* of value perception, of value awareness, or only the *phenomenology*. By 'phenomenology' I mean, what it 'feels' like to be confronted with something which one takes to be of value. To say that this is how value judgement must appear to us leaves open the question what exactly there is in reality that corresponds to this appearance.

If the only acceptable notion of 'objective' entails that values are metaphysical objects or properties which demand recognition then we shall need a metaphysics which will account for the *existence conditions* for values. Something like Plato's Theory of Forms. I take it, however, that you do not want to defend Plato's theory. Of course, Plato would be the first to admit that not every sentient being is equipped to perceive values, but only those who have developed the requisite intellectual refinement and sensitivity (defined otherwise than simply the disposition to recognize the particular value in question!)

Hence my alternative proposal. 'My values are objective' has to be understood dialectically, as a negative, rather than a positive thesis. The only question I can raise about values is one that I myself am in a position to answer, or at least seek an answer, in terms of the meaningful articulations that I discover in my world. The imaginary ‘view from nowhere’ is a view from which values necessarily remain invisible. A world painted a 'uniform shade of grey'.

What right do I have to use the term 'objective' in this way? If I call a nectarine a 'peach' then my thinking that it is a peach does not make it so. A nectarine is not a nectarine 'for' this or that person. It just is, or is not a nectarine. It either fulfils, or fails to fulfil, the botanical criteria for this particular type of fruit. But values are not like this. The criteria for value judgements may be real enough to those who confidently make those judgements, but they escape every attempt at definition.

As I note in the program, I can be wrong in a particular value judgement that I make. The quote does not say, 'My value judgements are true because they are mine.' Indeed I would go further and say that I can be wrong in the reasons I appeal to in making a particular value judgement, true or false. However, the possibility of being right or wrong, judging truly or falsely, is available to me, it is one that I can recognize.

It is interesting that in your final paragraph, you effectively concede that all judgements are afflicted by subjectivity, leading to the conclusion that factual and value judgements are ultimately in the same boat! My view is less extreme. I would defend the view that there is an important difference between judgements of fact and judgements of value, while claiming that they are both ‘objective’. That's what makes the task of defending the objectivity of values so challenging.

All the best,


Milesian philosophers on the primary substance

To: Leonidas M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian philosophers on the primary substance
Date: 30 May 2001 17:49

Dear Leonidas,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 May with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Examining the theories of the Milesian philosophers concerning the nature of the primary substance, we find a progressive clarification of the questions asked, and an improvement in the answers given to those questions.' - Discuss

The first question we have to ask is what work the notion of a 'primary substance' was required to do. Aristotle gives an account, in his historical evaluation of the contribution of the Milesian school, which is arguably coloured by his own philosophy of ‘four causes’, formal, material, efficient and final. As you render it, the primary substance is 'the one from which everything comes, from which they are composed and in which they end, while it remains imperishable and just transforms, taking various shapes.'

You are right to pay careful attention to this question. There is, however, a problem, as I indicate in the program, with attributing the Aristotelian notion of a primary substance or 'arche' to Thales. Did he say that everything really is water, or only that everything comes from water? Apart from the lack of textual evidence, we should ask ourselves whether there might not have been 'progressive clarification' in the very notion of the requirements that a primary substance was expected to meet.

You follow the explanation given in the program of Thales assertion that 'All things are full of gods'. As I may have mentioned to you, I wonder whether that is the whole story. In appealing to the powers of inanimate things, why did Thales pick examples of action at a distance? (the magnet, the amber)? Do we possess these godlike powers? We speak, and as result of our speaking things happen ‘at a distance’ from us, but that hardly seems to be the same kind of thing.

Can we say that what Thales needs for his primary substance is something with the power to transform itself? When we boil water, the water does not cause itself to change into steam; we make the change happen, by applying fire. Thales’ water, however, is not merely passive but active. There does seem to be an unclarity here, not just with Thales but also with the other Milesian philosophers, about the difference between spontaneous, 'self-caused' change, and change brought about by an external cause, between final and efficient causation.

What we can say is that all three thinkers recognized that an adequate cosmogony - an account of the formation of the cosmos - relies on self-caused change at the heart of the process. This gives rise to a third explanation of, 'All things are full of gods'. Human actions are self-caused, goal directed. External circumstances also cause us to move in various ways. This is merely an instance of the universal duality inherent in the primary substance as such. 'Gods', Mind, Soul are just different names for the same underlying idea, namely that the universe exhibits a fundamentally *teleological* structure.

You say regarding Anaximander's fertile idea of 'punishment and retribution' that the periodic regularity is 'seems to be asserted (imposed) somehow from Apeiron'. There does seem to be a difference in the way we would understand this, depending on what role is played by Apeiron after the 'initial stage of cosmology, when the opposites separate from it'. Is the law imposed on ordinary things from without, or do they carry it within?

With the clarification and simplification introduced by Anaximenes' process of condensation/ rarefaction, there no longer seems to be the worry about 'where' the cosmic law is located. We are well on the way towards Heraclitus and the eternal Logos. Yet there remains the fuzziness over the different roles of causation - efficient and final - which Aristotle was the first to clearly distinguish.

All the best,


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Xenophanes on the limits of human knowledge

To: Laura K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Xenophanes on the limits of human knowledge
Date: 25 May 2001 13:53

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your second essay on the Presocratics, which you sent with your e-mail of 15 May.

I enjoyed this essay. Your account of the importance of the history of print in relation to the early development of science was an eye-opener for me. So many things fall into place. All the institutions and frameworks which we take for granted today were still in their infancy, or had yet to be developed. Yet one would never guess this from reading Descartes, at least, without reading in between the lines. His rational quest is that of the sole investigator, determined to rely purely on his/her own resources and refusing to trust any evidence whose legitimacy could conceivably be doubted. No hint that science is, our could be, a collective endeavour.

I can certainly see how a case can be made that the rhetorical strength of Descartes’ appeal presupposes an audience who are only too aware of the untrustworthiness of reports of the latest ‘discovery’. Yet, despite all the pitfalls, science did gain a foothold which it has never relinquished.

Now the old problem has a new twist. In a magazine not long ago (it was ‘The Big Issue’, a monthly magazine distributed on the streets in the UK by homeless people, so quite a number of the articles have socialist/ radical themes) I saw an article which argued that the landing on the moon never happened, and was in fact a hoax, a conspiracy perpetrated by the scientific community. Conspiracy theories will always be with us: claims that the Oklahoma bombing was done by the American government being the latest example.

The point is, that with the knowledge I carry about with me in my head, I couldn’t prove the article wrong. Though I *trust* that the moon pictures and moon rocks were real and not fakes. I *trust* that the astronauts did not lie, that the reports of what the astronauts said were not lies, and so on.

I suspect, however, that these were not issues that loomed large for Xenophanes. First you have to have science before you can doubt science, and the Presocratic philosophers did not even have science. All they had was ‘theory’. So it could be argued that it is somewhat anachronistic to make a connection here with Xenophanes’ reflections on the limits of human knowledge.

On the other hand, it could slso be argued that it is because scientific theories do not carry their proof on their face, because we have to rely not only on evidence, reports, but also on the scientist’s ability to correctly read the evidence and reports, that the problem of trust arises in the first place. This is something Xenophanes would have readily recognized.

I have no quarrel with your interpretation of the fragments from Xenophanes. I am sure you are right that the remark about the Ethiopians and the Thracians was intended to have universal application - intended to put into question our ability to take a properly objective view of ‘the facts’ - and not just as part of his critique of contemporary polytheistic religion.

One thing that puzzles me, however, is how Xenophanes could have supposed that ‘seeking men find out better in time’. How? He had no history, no model of scientific progress to call upon. It was indeed a moot point whether Anaximenes’ air ‘improved’ upon Thales’ water, or Heraclitus’ fire improved upon Anaximenes’ air. All we have are rival guesses, rival ‘theories’ backed up with very sketchy a priori argument. So, once again, we should be wary of the temptation towards anachronism. The idea that we will ‘find out better’ if we persist seems in Xenophanes’ mouth more like a pious hope than the anticipation of scientific progress.

Or was he speaking, not of ‘scientific’ progress as we now understand it, but philosophic progress? In other words, we find out better in time through pursuing the argument as far as it will go, successively refining our ideas to take account of objections. One thing I have tried to show in the Ancient Philosophy program that there was progress, that the argument did get somewhere. So Xenophanes’ faith in the enterprise that he himself was engaged in proved well founded.

I am pleased that you have made the important connection between the topic for this essay and the history of the book. I am pleased to have learned something. One thing I would still like to know is how ‘books’ figured in the debates between the early philosophers. How was a book ‘On Nature’ received? Were Anaximenes and the rest regarded more like Dawkins or Van Daniken?

All the best,


Why must others count in my deliberations?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why must others count in my deliberations?
Date: 25 May 2001 12:15

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your e-mail of 15 May, with your essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ‘Why must others count in my deliberations?’

I am impressed by the power of the moral vision which you describe, of a natural progress towards an increasingly empathetic, and decreasingly self-centred attitude towards other sentient life. I was moved by this essay.

However, I disagree with you, on two counts. First, with regard to the facts of natural history which you cite. Secondly, with regard to the alleged inference from those facts to the claim that others ought to count in my deliberations.

It would indeed be an important discovery about the animal kingdom that the impulse to altruistic behaviour develops in parallel with the development of consciousness, and also with the increasing awareness of the conscious states of members of the same (or possibly different?) species.

Note that there are three things to keep in parallel: we can focus on any two of these and ask what is the evidence for a naturally necessary link between the two terms. I.e. between:

a. altruistic behaviour and consciousness
b. consciousness and awareness of the conscious states of others
c. altruistic behaviour and awareness of the conscious states of others

To keep things simple, however, I shall just focus on c. Is it the case that, e.g. an orang utang’s an awareness of the conscious state of another orang utang is in itself a motivation for altruistic behaviour, or at least an effective motive for altruistic behaviour? I see no reason why that should be the case. Consider, for example, two male orang utangs spoiling for a fight. The first orang utang reads the flicker of fear in the eyes of the second and pounces. That is the way of the animal world. Evolution has equipped the genes of the orang utang with a very valuable power, namely to make an animal which has the ability to ‘read’ another’s mental states from its posture and facial expression.

Where there is apparently altruistic behaviour in the animal kingdom we have to ask how it could serve the purposes of gene propagation, or ‘gene selfishness’ as Richard Dawkins calls it. (My premise here is orthodox Darwinian theory. I certainly do not accept Dawkins’ reductionist ‘meme’ theory as an account of our moral beliefs which is a totally different matter.) It is true that a troop of altruistically motivated orang utangs have better chances in the survival stakes - other things being equal - than a troop of non-altruistic orang utangs. The benefits of co-operation and mutual aid are enormous. The problem is getting there. Evolution does not work via groups but individuals. It is individuals who possess genes that are passed on or fail to be passed on, not groups. Amongst a group of non-altruistically motivated individuals, a lone individual with a gene for altruism doesn’t stand a chance. However, there is a chance for a gene which determines a quality not altogether unlike altruism, which is the tendency to offer help, but withdraw that offer if the other fails to reciprocate when the occasion arises. In other words, the principle, ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.

Let’s put arguments over the facts aside (I would accept that the case is not closed) and consider what consequences might be drawn from the observation that, on some occasions, we, and possibly other members of the animal kingdom, do exhibit genuinely altruistic motivation, or Humean ‘natural sympathy’.

My worry about natural sympathy is the same as Kant’s. It has no rational basis. I might have ever so much natural sympathy for my friends and family, or a dumb animal in the street, then go out to do my day’s bloody work as a Mafia hit man. You would no doubt respond, ‘But it is unnatural to discriminate. Natural sympathy should be extended to all!’ But what is the force of the ‘should’ here? Is it not inconsistent of me to like apples and pears, but not bananas or oranges? Are they not all fruit? I like what I like, and there is no argument you can make against it. Similarly, the Mafia hit man cares for the persons he cares for, and there is no way you are going to prove that caring for some, but not for others, is in any way inconsistent or irrational.

I have wondered about what extra ingredient would be needed to make your story a convincing argument ‘why others must count in my deliberations’. Let’s assume that Darwin’s theory is in fact false. Let’s suppose that, in the terminology of the film Star Wars, there is something called ‘The Force’ which underlies the development of sentient life, guiding it towards increasing awareness of the moral universe which we all inhabit. Then all we have to do to become moral is become aware of that fact, to ‘feel the Force’. Even that, I would argue, would not be enough. For we would still have to face a version of the old question, Is an act good because the Force directs us to do it, or does the Force direct us to do it because it is good?

All the best,


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind

To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind
Date: 21 May 2001 11:59

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 May, and for your first essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, which I picked up from the Department on 11 May, in response to the question, 'What difficulties stand in the way of a materialist view of the mind, according to which thoughts, feelings and sensations are ultimately nothing more than processes in the brain?'

Regarding free will, the fact that a belief, which philosophy appears to reject, 'was there first' does not appear on the face of it to be a very strong argument. But I know what you are trying to say. My own view is that the standpoint of the agent, the primacy of agency is the starting point for metaphysics, but in a way that first has to be justified by argument, in the critique of the metaphysics of the 'passive observer'. This is one of the most important themes of 20th century metaphysics. It is still open to question, however, just how far this goes towards rescuing our intuitive, pre-reflective belief in our own 'free will'.

In my student days, I enjoyed a number of Alan Watt's books. One that comes to mind is 'The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are' where he talks scathingly of the materialist's 'crackpot universe'.

Now to your essay:

This is an excellent piece of work. There is clearly a lot of thinking, and a certain amount of reading, behind this. There is a very difficult path to tread, which you have made somewhat clearer to me in your penultimate paragraph, where we are required to speculate about 'possible future developments' of physics which would explain subjectivity in a way which we are not able to do now. This is the view that Nagel takes. Other philosophers, like Colin McGinn, have argued that our minds maybe simply incapable of grasping the nature of the relation between subjectivity and the physical. Whether this knowledge is ultimately available to us or not, however, the idea seems to be that it is only our lack of knowledge which makes it *appear* as though there could not be an adequate explanatory bridge from the 'outside' to the 'inside'.

The zombie argument is relevant here. You claim that there is a non-sequitur in the zombie argument. It may be that it is only our ignorance which makes us think that a being without *this* - the inner world, or subjectivity - would be possible. It is also possible that if one could understand the physical processes well enough one would see why those processes could not occur without their being *this*.

I think that there is a deeper reason why we should reject the zombie hypothesis. This connects with what you say in the previous paragraph regarding the difficulty, on a property dualist view, of seeing how the non-physical could interact with the physical world, and also your reference to epiphenomenalism in your penultimate paragraph.

I think that there are two quite distinct epiphenomenal theories. The version you discuss concerns the question of the causal efficacy of the 'folk psychological' level of description. At the present time, reductionism here seems simply question begging. We don't know enough about the facts.

However, there is another version of epiphenomenalism which I believe lies behind the zombie idea. On this view, all the mental concepts have an objective as well as a subjective aspect. Zombies have 'consciousness', they experience 'pain' and 'joy'. The best theory which describes us also describes them. There is nothing that we have that a zombie lacks, from the point of view of accounting for the things it 'says' and 'does', its physical workings and behaviour, its interactions with other subjects (whether zombies or non-zombies).

The one thing a zombie lacks is *this*. I know I have *this*. I know that there is no darkness inside so far as I am concerned. But I cannot know the same about you. So I cannot know whether or not you are a zombie.

The word *this* refers to what Wittgenstein called a 'private object'. It would indeed be a sufficient refutation of this version of epiphenomenalism to simply give Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. However, there is a swifter way of dialectically refuting the epiphenomenalist. That is simply to point out that everything I say in defence of epiphenomenalism would be 'said' also by my hypothetical zombie double. The illusion which this forces into the open is the idea that my saying 'I have *this*' tracks an inner 'something' which continues alongside the physical processes that account for my speech and movement. Whereas, by hypothesis, my saying 'I have *this*' is itself one of the events accounted for by those very same physical processes. The very same words would appear, whether there was *this* or not. In other words, there is nothing I can do, in principle, to indicate or mark the presence of *this*.

All the best,


Anti-realism and Holocaust denial

To: Ryan S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and Holocaust denial
Date: 19 May 2001 10:21

Dear Ryan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 9 May, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ‘If the anti-realist account of truth is correct, then it is possible that at some time in the future those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting the truth.’ - Discuss.

It is an excellent strategy, in approaching this question, to distinguish as you have done the three varieties of anti-realism - Evidential, Democratic and Individual - as you have done. It certainly seems possible, before going into the question, that different versions of anti-realism will give different answers to this question.

I do give reasons in the program why the anti-realist ought not to fall into the trap of trying to give an ‘anti-realist definition of truth’. An anti-realist can and should accept that truth is indefinable. However, there are plenty of anti-realists who do not accept that truth is indefinable. So let us look at each of the definitions which you give:

A. Evidential. ‘A’ is true if and only if there exists a possibility of finding conclusive evidence in favour of ‘A’.

Obviously, any old ‘evidence’ isn’t going to be good enough. The evidence has got to rule out the possibility of not-A. (You might be starting to have doubts about this. How can any evidence be ‘conclusive’ in the sense of being incapable, in prinicple, of being overridden? But let that pass for now.)

You say that we can’t rule out the possibility of time travel. In that case there would be no proposition whose truth could not be verified (barring ‘special cases’ of propositions which are designed to be unverifiable in principle, such as ‘I am surrounded by invisible, intangible, mass-less aliens’), and therefore little for the realist and anti-realist to disagree over. However, the realist can still say that in a possible world where time travel was *not* possible - even if the actual world should turn out not to be such a world - there would be propositions for which conclusive evidence could not be found.

Let’s move on to B. Democratic anti-realism. I agree with your claim that this version of anti-realism is ‘ill-defined’. Your thought on the question of experts seems to be this: What is an ‘expert? An expert is someone who is more likely to get hold of the truth. How do we decide that? By taking a poll and giving extra weight to the ‘experts’! This account does seem flagrantly circular. However, there are other ways of defining expertise. For example, in terms of the ability to cite relevant evidence. This still poses very real problems for the calculation of the appropriate ‘weighting’ for different levels of expertise, but at least it isn’t circular.

For the reasons which you give, the definition:

‘P’ is true if and only if the majority agree that P

seems grossly counter-intuitive. There are plenty of cases where the majority are in fact proved wrong. However, the same objection would not apply to:

‘P’ is true if and only if given unlimited time to discuss the question and gather evidence the majority will (are fated to) agree that P.

The problem now is that the reference to ‘unlimited time’ means that this definition could never be used to decide whether a proposition was ‘true’ or not.

What about C? Everyone is aware that they sometimes change their mind about the truth of a proposition. So it would be extremely counterintuitive to insist on the definition:

‘P’ is true if and only if I believe that P.

However, one might following the example of the previous definition say something along these lines:

‘P’ is true if and only if given unlimited time to think about the question and gather evidence I will hold that P.

In relation to the question whether ‘at some time in the future those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting the truth’ it *seems* that *if* truth could be adequately defined along any of the three lines you have suggested, or in any suitably modified version, then there would be a sense in which, at some time in the future, it will be ‘false’ that the Holocaust happened. (We would have to find a way to put an ultimate limit on the length of time for gathering evidence.)

However, as I said earlier, I don’t think that the truth can be defined in any of these ways. We can always make sense of the idea that ‘such and such conditions are satisfied but it is still not true that P’. However you build up the conditions, you can still add something extra in virtue of which ‘P’ turns out to be false after all, despite all the ‘evidence’, despite all the ‘agreement’.

All the best,


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The significance of scepticism

To: Ricco L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The significance of scepticism
Date: 16 May 2001 13:56

Dear Ricco,

Nothing can go wrong today. I am sitting in the garden with your essay and my Psion palm top computer. The sun is struggling to come out. This is the first mild weather we have had.

Thank you for your e-mail of 8 May, with your essay for Possible World Machine on the Significance of Scepticism.

You have done well on laying out the sceptic's case. It is perhaps not quite so clear what conclusions you think we should draw. At the end of your essay you mention G.E. Moore and Norman Malcolm, two stout opponents of scepticism. I am not sure what you think about their arguments.

You indicate (very briefly) two lines of resistance to the sceptic's argument:

1. We have to be more circumspect in our knowledge claims - and learn to make do with 'fallible knowledge'. In other words, all the sceptic has shown is that there is no such thing as Knowledge with a capital 'K'. But we can still have the ordinary sort of fallible knowledge, with a small 'k'.

2. I KNOW that I have two hands, I KNOW that this is a tree, therefore the sceptic must be wrong in claiming that I do not have knowledge.

Now, which argument is your point about the lottery ticket a reply to?

Is the sceptic is saying, ‘You say you are happy with fallible knowledge. But that’s like thinking you hold a winning lottery ticket, when in fact you haven’t won.’ We have the satisfaction of thinking we have something we call ‘knowledge’,but if it isn’t REAL knowledge, then we have no right to feel satisfied. Is that it?

Regarding the arguments for scepticism, it is important to distinguish two distinct strands. The first, illustrated by your tale of the happy fish, concerns the problem of justifying an inference from one level to another. E.g. the inference from the frisky motions of the fish to their inner state of mind. Or similarly from a person's observation of the expression on your face and your shouts of joy.

The second strand concerns specifically the problem of induction: why information about things that have happened in the past should have any relevance to what will happen in the future.

However, the fish example shows more than this. 'You don't know my state of mind, therefore you don't know that I don't know' involves an assumption about knowledge, or about what it takes for something to be knowledge, that a philosopher would certainly wish to question. The assumption is that knowledge is characterized by a subjective state which is such as to guarantee the truth of what is believed: in other words, Descartes' notion of 'clear and distinct ideas'.

Even if God could give Wei Zi the power to see into Zhong Zi's mind, he would still be none the wiser concerning Zhong Zi's state of knowledge concerning the mind of the fish.

Yet another issue raised by this story (the fact that the story raises not one but several philosophical questions explains its peculiar power) is the problem of making SENSE of the assertion that the fish is happy. I know what it is for you or me to be happy: we are two of a kind, the kind 'human being'. Now, what exactly are we being asked to do; 'Take that, take your subjective state, and imagine IT being in the fish'? It? What?

One can see this as a second line of attack on the Cartesian epistemology that underlies the fish story. To attack Cartesian epistemology looks to me the most promising line of resistance against the claims of the sceptic, in this case. Unfortunately, attacking Cartesian epistemology does not help us defend against the sceptic’s doubts concerning induction.

As you say, ‘The sceptic highlights that we live by our own sheer invention’. That is a frightening and disturbing prospect. Should we not be so frightened? Is that the way to answer the sceptic? Or should we reject the sceptic’s claim that our world is merely ‘invented’?

All the best,


Kant's refutation of idealism

To: Soo Chuen T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's Refutation of Idealism
Date: 11 May 2001 09:01

Dear Soo Chuen,

Thank you for your e-mail of 27 April, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Give a careful account of the argument of Kant's second "Refutation of Idealism".'

This is an excellent piece of work. I don't recall receiving a better essay on this topic.

In a relatively short space - and using less words than Kant uses! - you succeed in giving an of Kant's argument which is both persuasive and true to the text. You also make some pertinent criticisms.

Because your account is so clear, I have been prompted to rethink my position on this issue, which has remained more or less static since I studied Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' as a graduate student under the supervision of P.F. Strawson (author of 'The Bounds of Sense' - still arguably the best book on Kant). I formed the view then that the upshot of Kant's 'Refutation' was, in effect, an elaborate defence of egocentric idealism - even though this was certainly not Kant's intention - and that there was a crucial gap between what Kant's 'Refutation' establishes, and the conclusion established by Wittgenstein's argument against a private language.

I also thought then, but do not think now, that the private language argument defeats idealism. It certainly defeats egocentric idealism. As I argue later in the program, however, it is possible to defend a non-egocentric idealism - Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena is perhaps the best example - while fully conforming to the strictures of the private language argument. Some further argument is needed. This is where the claim about the primacy of physical agency comes in. (I recall, however, when I suggested this point to Strawson, his responding, 'How is that different from Dr Johnson kicking the stone? I still do not have an adequate answer to that challenge.)

One virtue of your account is that you make it clear that Kant is arguing dialectically. The only philosopher we are concerned with is the Cartesian, who claims that 'there is only one empirical assertion that is indubitably certain, namely that "I am".' The argument has no effect whatsoever on the sceptic who is happy to give up this one piece of Cartesian certainty.

But what is the argument? Let's look at premise P1:

I am conscious of my own existence as determined in time.

It is a familiar point about the concept of perception that, e.g., "I can see a stretch limo parked outside my front door" can be understood in two distinct senses:

A. There is a stretch limo parked outside my front door and I can see it.

B. There appears to me that there is stretch limo parked outside my front door.

B. would be true and A. false in a situation where, for example, there were two identical cars parked bumper to bumper, but the middle was hidden from view by an obstruction.

So, in a similar way, we can distinguish between:

P1A. I am actually aware of my own existence as determined in time.

P1B. I appear to be aware of my own existence as determined in time.

In both cases, I have beliefs about my subjective states and their objective time order. Only in P1A is there an implication that those beliefs are true.

Descartes, notoriously, argued that P1A follows from P1B. The question for us, however, is whether Kant is arguing against P1A or P1B.

If Kant is arguing against P1B, then the conclusion would be that it is impossible to have beliefs about one's subjective states in the absence of beliefs about an external, spatial world.

If Kant is arguing against P1A, then the conclusion would be that the truth of my belief concerning 'my own existence as determined in time' implies the truth of my belief that there exists a world of objects in space outside me which I perceive.

Of course, we still have to settle what it would mean for it to be 'true' that there exists a world of objects in space outside me.

On the interpretation which I give in the program, what is required is that I have a continually updated *theory* of an objective world, whose empirical support consists in the continuing stream of 'intuitions' or data which are immediately subsumed under concepts of external objects. There is no way to describe the data except in terms of the theory.

However, suppose we ask, in terms of this picture, what is it for one particular theory to be true? For example, what does the truth of the statement, 'There is a stretch limo parked outside my front door' consist in?

I said that the theory is continually 'updated'. We can imagine a sequence of experiences which would lead us to form, first one theory, then a different theory, then go back to the first theory again, and so on. It is always possible that in the light of the 'criteria of all real experience' I should have to revise my beliefs concerning what is real and what is not. For example, I might wake up the very next moment to find myself on the demon scientist's operating table, with wires attached to my scalp.

However, if one presses the question about truth, then one is forced to acknowledge the idea of a *correspondence* between my 'theory of an objective world' and that in virtue of which my theory is true, or false, as the case may be. There is therefore a case for saying that in Kant's view the idea of the 'transcendental object' or the 'noumenal' world is inseparable from the idea of the 'empirical reality' of the world of objects in space - on the grounds that truth requires correspondence - and this is the result which the second 'Refutation' establishes, or is meant to establish.

Does it establish this? According to you, all that Kant has in fact done is achieve the 'demonstration that calling something subjective presupposes our having the concept of the objective'. In other words, one can be an egocentric idealist and still accept Kant's point that in order to have a concept of my 'self' it is necessary for me to have a theory about a world of objects existing in a world in which I am spatially located. As you can see, however, everything hinges on how hard one presses the question of truth. If my belief that I exist is true, then my belief in the existence of an external world must be true. If that belief is true, then there must exist *something* - which does not belong within 'my spatio-temporal world of phenomena' - which my theory about that world ultimately corresponds to.

Finally, you raise the interesting question what happens 'if our minds change'. On Kant's theory, there is indeed room for the idea that there might be creatures whose 'forms of perception' were different from ours, although this is a very obscure aspect of his philosophy. I would be tempted to argue that noumenal reality must have a *structure* which different forms of perception mirror in different, structure preserving ways. In these terms, it does not seem possible that there could be a form of inner sense which allowed it to be true that 7 plus 5 equals 13.

All the best,


Monday, March 21, 2011

'All things have a portion of everything' - Anaxagoras

To: Edvard K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'All things have a portion of everything' - Anaxagoras
Date: 9 May 2001 08:59

Dear Edvard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 26 April, in response to my comments on your Parmenides essay, and also for your e-mail of 2 May, with your fourth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, on the question, '"All things have a portion of everything" - Describe the logical steps that led Anaxagoras to assert that paradoxical claim. Is his view coherent?'

Your explanations of the points arising from the Parmenides essay are admirably clear - I especially liked your simile, 'signs...of Being are not a kind of nice decoration of some abstract idea (like a bracelet on a beautiful lady)'. If you decide to enrol for the Associate Diploma, these should definitely be added to the essay. Difficulties of English aside (which are truly much less than one might expect) the main issue is that you should always imagine as your reader someone who knows very little philosophy. Take the time to explain.

You may be wrong about the 'plenum of possibilities' interpretation. It is a powerful idea. But, as you say, it does look rather too close to the 'third way' which Parmenides rejected.

In the program, I suggest an interpretation of Parmenides which is reasonably well backed by the texts. I would not claim that it is the only possible interpretation. It is very difficult to make Parmenides' argument appear to contemporary philosophers as the serious challenge it was once taken to be.


I remember as a first year student encountering Anaxagoras (my teacher was Professor David Hamlyn, author of "Metaphysics" in the Pathways Book List). The idea that there is 'a portion of everything in everything' seemed totally absurd. Take a piece of bread. In the bread there is bone, bread, flesh, wood etc. So it is not really 'bread'. Then take the portion of bread that is in the original 'bread'. In that portion there is bone, bread, flesh, wood etc. So that portion is not really 'bread'. Take the portion of bread from that portion, and you find that's not really 'bread' either. This has all the appearance of a vicious regress. However much you throw away, you will never find a portion of actual *bread*.

When I wrote the Presocratics program, twenty-five years later, that scepticism was still uppermost in my mind. I expected to find a really hard task ahead of me. But I was wrong. This time, everything clicked together. Anaxagoras' theory seemed admirably coherent!

In your essay, you have largely followed my interpretation. So there is no point in repeating it. When I wrote the unit, I deliberately did not look at the interpretations by Presocratic scholars - Barnes, McKirahan, Kirk et al. I just read the fragments, over and over again. Not all the jig-saw pieces are there. You will have noticed points where I have had to make the most plausible conjecture in order to fill the gaps. But the result is, in my view, highly coherent.

You remark in relation to your mother's favourite saying, 'As it stands that each thing is good for something, the ideal view then should be that everything is a part of everything or anything has something of everything?' A nice idea, although I am not sure how seriously you mean it. From a logical point of view, I don't see how it follows either that (a) if everything is good for something then everything is a part of everything, or that (b) if everything is a part of everything then everything is good for something. But I appreciate this little snippet of autobiography.

I have not overlooked your own original contribution, which is to explain how it is that 'Nous' which is evenly distributed throughout the physical world, apparently has more effect on some physical things (animals, people) than it has on others (trees, rocks). On the face of it, this seems a flat-out contradiction. Surely, every individual thing, containing the same concentration of 'Nous' should be equally animate? The explanation is that 'the different grades of intelligence we observe in the animal and vegetable worlds depend entirely on the structure of the body. the Nous was the same, but it had more opportunities in one body than another.' It is obvious, when you think of it. But I hadn't thought of it. Excellent!

Hopefully, when I come to revise the Pathways programs, I will be able to incorporate that point. Thank you for that.

I have attached unit 15 of your program - the last unit - together with the fifth and last selection of essay questions. Enjoy!

All the best,


Philosophical development of the Milesian school

To: Wilfredo C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical development of the Milesian school
Date: 30 April 2001 12:39

Dear Wilfredo,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 April, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Examining the theories of the Milesian philosophers concerning the nature of the primary substance, we find a progressive clarification of the questions asked, and an improvement in the answers given to those questions' - Discuss.

You have done well to cover all the main issues in the philosophical development of the Milesian school. The essay as a whole is well balanced and well judged.

In looking at the question whether Thales 'discovered' philosophy or 'invented' it, I particularly liked the part where you say:

'If philosophy was indeed discovered, then philosophy becomes a way of learning how reality, on it's own terms unfolds, extends and in quantum moments is visible, discernible and understandable. When philosophy discovers the structures of reality their inherent patterns reveal their relational modality, their complex variety to the wonderer, whose mind is amazingly structured similarly to this reality.'

One thing I might have emphasized more strongly in the units is the way that the early Greek philosophers' wonderment at the universe's inherent rationality, its accessibility to thought, finds expression in the belief that the ultimate principle, water, or air, or Apeiron, is not merely inert physical 'stuff', but possesses the quality of 'mind'. When we come to know the universe through constructing a theory about it, it is as if one part of this 'mind' comes to know another.

This is a theme that would be very familiar to students of the philosopher Hegel. But it is not confined to Hegelian philosophy. One of my students in the USA, an ex-marine living out in the wilds of Washington state, sent me a book 'The Science of God' by Gerald L. Schroeder which explores amongst other things the theme of a universe 'designed' to be capable of being known and understood by the conscious beings whose existence it gives rise to in the course of its development.

I have also had more thoughts about my account of Anaximander's explanation for the stability of the Earth. I wonder whether I may have made the explanation more complicated than it need be. The question is, Did Anaximander consciously appeal to the principle of sufficient reason? Was that necessary? It seems to me that all he needed to say was this:

1. It is an observed fact that all (dense) objects fall to Earth. It is just a fact, we don't know the reason for it.

2. There is no second 'Earth' for the Earth to fall to.

3. So if you put the Earth in space there is *no more reason* for it to move than there is for it to stay still, in 'equilibrium'.

4. Therefore, the Earth stays still.

- This, it seems to me, is a more empirical approach to the problem, which does not require that one formulate any such abstract, universal principle as the principle of sufficient reason. Of course, it is true that if you accept this explanation you are well on the way towards accepting the principle of sufficient reason. All I am saying is that being 'on the way' towards recognizing a universal principle is not the same as actually getting there.

Another of my students, who is also following the Presocratics program, recently pointed out to me that a special reason for admiring Anaximander's theory of the 'Apeiron' is that Anaximander is alone, out of the three Milesian philosophers, in recognizing the possibility of an explanatory principle that is not visible in the physical world. This is the precursor of modern physical theories, which posit all sorts of unobservable entities, as the 'best explanation' of the observed phenomena.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that, being unobservable, the Apeiron might be seen to involve a retreat to the mystification of mythical, pre-rational world views. Perhaps this is how Anaximenes saw it, as a retreat rather than an advance. Only we are in a position to see that Anaximander was in fact ahead of his time.

Again, there is a criticism that Jonathan Barnes makes in his book 'The Presocratic Philosophers', that what is unscientific about Anaximander's Apeiron is its sheer unknowability. One should be suspicious of any principle that explains so much, so easily. Here there is a clear contrast with Anaximenes 'neat' theory (as you say) where the mechanisms of change are clearly laid out and described. And, of course, we should not forget that for the Greeks it was an important and exciting discovery that invisible intangible 'air' was something, and not merely nothing, a substance with physical properties just as water, earth, fire are substances with physical properties.

- Good work!

All the best,


Friday, March 18, 2011

Are we always the best authority on our own mental states?

To: Ram A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are we always the best authority on our own mental states?
Date: 30 April 2001 09:57

Dear Ram,

Thank you for your e-mail of 21 April, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Is it true that we are always the best authority about our own mental states? What conclusions do you draw from your answer to that question regarding the distinction between the 'inner' and the 'outer'?

There are various ways we might try to conceive of a person's inner world. We can focus on the individual's thoughts, feelings and perceptions, the moment to moment flow of 'sense data' That is one picture of subjectivity. Or we can focus on the individual's beliefs about themself and about the world. That is another notion of subjectivity. Then there is a third aspect, more difficult to characterize, which is the individual's sense of the 'meaning of existence', how the world as a totality is for them, or the kind of universe they conceive themself to inhabit. This is something that seems particularly to interest you.

Each of us is different 'inside', in each of these three ways. Somehow, we manage to communicate to one another how things are for us. One question is how this is possible. How can one individual possibly know how things are for another?

There is a tradition in philosophy going back to Descartes which says that the subjective quality of my mental life is known by me to such a high degree of certainty that no-one else could know what I know. For example, no-one can possible know the subjective 'colour' that blue has for me. On this picture, other people can discover my beliefs. They can learn about my perceptions from the reports that I give of them. Yet language only goes so far. What cannot be communicated is the sheer quality of subjective experience. Each of us, in this sense, is locked into a private universe which cannot be shared. The assumptions behind this view will be questioned in the program.

However, one interesting question is whether any evidence might be gathered, from our ordinary experience, to rebut the claim that 'we are always the best authority on our mental states.'

Psychiatry is founded on the assumption that it is possible to know how things are for another person. It is possible to explore another person's state of mind. In that exploration, the subject's testimony is of course of vital importance. Yet one doesn't simply take what the subject says at face value. One would be seriously misled if one accepted without question all that the subject says. There is a professional *suspicion* that leads one to dig beneath the surface.

Yet, even in everyday life, we recognize that a person can be self-deceived. On occasion, a friend can be in a better position to assess my state of mind than I am myself. We say after doing a certain action, 'I thought I was doing it for such-and-such a reason, but afterwards I realized it was really because of so-and-so.'

However, the Cartesian could reply that there is a difference between the subjective quality of perceptions, and a person's system of beliefs. Belief involves interpretation, theorizing. 'I did X for such-and-such a reason' is not just a report of immediate experience but a theory. My actions, which others are in a position to observe, can refute the theory.

Consider the case that you describe. The man concerned had a theory, not merely about his own mental states but about the external world. In this sense, he is no different from a Newton or an Einstein. The problem is that the theory is not only a very poor theory, but the subject is incapable of accepting that it is a poor theory. Evidence which we would see as tending to refute the theory, the subject sees as supporting it. There is a failure of rationality. In questioning the truth of the 'invisible spirit' theory, the psychiatrist is not yet questioning the man's authority concerning his own mental states. The subject knows what he believes. It is just that those beliefs are plainly false.

Does the man who believes in the invisible spirit theory know his own mind? Is he necessarily the best authority on his own mental states? I am not an expert, so I cannot say how far the 'suspicion' I mentioned earlier might take you. Perhaps there is no explanation for these weird beliefs but a chemical imbalance or short-circuits in the brain.

The most difficult question of all concerns the third aspect of subjectivity I mentioned, 'the individual's sense of the "meaning of existence", how the world as a totality is for them, or the kind of universe they conceive themself to inhabit'. Consider how difficult it is for a person with strong spiritual and religious beliefs to communicate 'how the universe is for them' to someone who is simply not interested, for whom the universe is just a world of matter in motion. Yet in a more subtle way, for each of us existence has a certain flavour. We can talk about the things we believe, but that seems somehow to miss out the essential thing. Once again, one *seems* to be thrown back on the idea of a 'private world'.

All the best,


Freedom of the will

To: Ricco L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Freedom of the will
Date: 27 April 2001 11:39

Dear Ricco,

Thank you for your e-mail of 20 April, with your essay for units 1-3 of The Possible World Machine, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism, and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

A dialogue! I'm settling down for a nice read.

I enjoyed this. You have covered many of the arguments in the free will debate.

One thing I noticed, however, is that you have not really got to grips with the idea that free will is incompatible with *indeterminism*. You do have Mark say, at one point, 'it is because in that moment the decision was made, there was no reasons to do one thing more than another, in other words it had no basis for choice'. But this comes after the claim that 'Your action was the product of antecedent causes'! You seem to have missed the dilemma here:

1. If your action was the product of antecedent causes, you shouldn't regret your decision

2. If your action was not the product of antecedent causes, you shouldn't regret your decision

The reason why you shouldn't regret is different in each case. In case 1. you had to do as you did, there was no other possibility given the antecedent circumstances. In case 2. your doing what you did had nothing to do with your character, your desires and beliefs, or thought processes up to the moment of making the decision, because the decision could still have gone either way. The decision was something that merely 'happened' to you, not something you were *responsible* for.

Later, you return to the claim that 'freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism, and also incompatible with determinism', but, once again, the dilemma is not made clear.

The general theme of the dialogue is that recognition that 'free will' is an illusion can only lead to fatalist despondency: 'It makes no difference whatever your act will be. If it should happen, it will happen! Your actions are all determined.'

Now, 'If it should happen, it will happen' is really a different issue from the issue of free will. Have another look at the unit on Fatalism (the story of the two girls at the fun fair). For the fatalist, it is completely irrelevant what the causes of our actions might be. The only issue concerns the idea that when we make a statement about the future, that statement has a definite meaning and must therefore have a determinate truth value, even though we cannot know that truth value. So if it is true that I will die in poverty, then regardless of what I do know, I will die in poverty. But, of course (and this is the bit which the naive fatalist ignores) what I do now is no more under my control, on this picture, than what I will do in the future.

To see the absurdity of naive fatalism, just consider the statement, 'If I will be hit by a bus, I will be hit by a bus' uttered by someone walking across the busy street with their eyes closed. Nothing I do, or don't do will make any difference to what will happen in the future, so I can do something totally crazy and it won't make any difference!

What the sophisticated fatalist would say is that we should adopt a different attitude to our actions. We should give up anxious striving and 'follow nature'. Just do what seems the best thing to do and don't worry about the outcome.

Is there similar advice that would one give to someone who was impressed by the argument that free will is impossible, either on the assumption of determinism or on the assumption of indeterminism? It seems that Mark is wrong to give up, on the basis of his belief that there is no such thing as free will. Mark believes, 'Whatever will happen in the future is not up to me, because what I do is not up to me.' So, for example, if he sees the bus speeding towards him, according to that argument he has no reason to try to get out of the way! In fact, of course, he will jump out of the way because he perceives the necessity of doing so. In a similar way, the street sleeper (we call them 'down and outs' or 'dossers') who makes an effort to get off the street perceives the necessity of doing so.

Those that give up do not give up because of a philosophical argument but because they have lost belief in themselves. They do not believe that they have the power to do what is needed. Are they wrong to think that? Clint Eastwood in 'Magnum Force' famously speaks the line (to the corrupt Police Captain) 'a man's got to know his limitations'. One of the ways in which we are limited is in the strength of our wills. There is such a thing as being weak willed - or, more specifically, weak willed in the face of certain temptations - and it may be beyond our power to do anything about this defect of our character.

Sartre would say that Mark, in giving up on himself, is acting in 'bad faith'. He is ignoring the fact that each set of circumstances in which we make a decision is unique. There is always the possibility of change. I think, however, there can be circumstances where one knows, with absolute certainty, that this 'possibility of change' is an illusion. Things have gone too far. The inability to account for this is a weakness of Sartre's position.

How do I rate your work? There are a lot of good things here, and you managed to incorporate the issues concerning the free will debate elegantly into the dialogue format. However, you do not seem to have thought clearly enough about the key issue, the dilemma.

I look forward to your next essay!

All the best,