Saturday, November 30, 2013

Personal identity and survival

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Personal identity and survival
Date: 22nd March 2011 11:37

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 9 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Is a person's survival different from, and more important than, a person's continuing identity?'

This is a very thorough and well-researched essay which goes deeply into the question of whether, and how, an alternative to what you term 'diachronic logical identity' for persons might be constructed. I don't have any real difficulties with the details of this account, save one.

In considering the 'four possible answers' to the fission puzzle, you reject the answer, 'both' (the B-body person and the C-body person are both identical with the A-body person) and claim that it is 'universally dismissed'. If A undergoes fission into B and C, then it does seem obviously wrong to assert that A=B and A=C but not-(B=C). That is a plain, flat-out contradiction according to the definition of identity.

However, there is a way out of this, which I am sure I have mentioned before (correct me if I'm wrong). David Lewis proposes this solution, although I came to it independently. If A undergoes fission into B and C, then from our new temporal perspective what we can and should say is that we now recognize the existence of two As, the A that became B and the A that became C. In other words, a 'person' is to be construed as a life history. (I'm pretty sure I did talk about this, as I mentioned Wiggins' objection to the effective reduction of a person to a mere series of person-stages.)

What would we say about Riker? I'm pretty the only thing we could say is that both are 'Riker', both enrolled as space troopers and were assigned to the Enterprise. They both remember narrowly passing the exam, flirting with the girl at the space station, being hospitalized for two weeks after a radiation leak and so on.

Does this make sense? Or, maybe a better question, Is this what we want from a notion of personal identity? What question should we ask here?

My main problem with your essay is that you don't address at all the question of what it means to 'survive'. This is the crux. If diachronic logical identity doesn't hold up, if the very notion is beset by irresolvable contradictions, then what interest does a weaker notion of continuity have?

I have three daughters. That means three chances for the 'survival' of my blood line. It is a deep and wonderful fact about human life that, although we are mortal, we are, potentially at least, a link in a potentially infinite series of generations. This is not personal survival by any definition, but it matters to me. It also matters to me that human beings, generally, will survive to populate the universe and not be wiped out in, say, 500 years.

Not good enough? Let's say I have a twin brother, and we both serve as technicians on the same nuclear submarine. There is a reactor failure and one of us has to go in to replace the fuel rods by hand. It means certain death. But if I have to go in, at least I know that my twin will survive. We are very close, we share everything. But he is not I. If the coin falls on heads and I have to go in to the reactor room then I will die. There will be no more of me. Although there will be more of someone very much like me, so like me in fact, that anyone who knew one of us would hardly notice the replacement.

But I don't think this is good enough either. What intuitions are we calling upon, when we attempt to decide this issue?

Shifting back to the fission case, who is to say whether I should or shouldn't count one of my future continuers as 'close enough' for survival? How can survival be a merely relative matter? It's a matter of life or death, surely.

Parfit's agenda is crucially different. The point about downplaying the 'importance' of identity comes out when one considers the consequences for ethics. Logically, a 'good' ought not to be more desirable just because it is good for 'me'. In the case of the submarine twins, there is no justification, period, for my wanting to survive at the expense of my twin. The very idea of there being 'something extra', namely 'my being me', is the very thing that Parfit rejects. We are qualitatively the same, and that's all that matters.

Generalizing from this, all that counts are the qualities of persons, and the satisfactions that can be gained by a person of such-and-such quality, in the process of maximizing the benefit for all. In other words, the ethics of preference utilitarianism.

In other words, Parfit isn't talking about 'survival', he is talking about something else. To use the old formula (which became slightly unfashionable after Quine's '2 Dogmas') he hasn't analysed the notion of 'survival' he has merely 'changed the subject'. I still wait to be convinced that there is an interesting and relevant sense of 'survive' which does not equate to identity.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Kuhn and the demarcation problem

To: Alex V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kuhn and the demarcation problem
Date: 21st March 2011 12:46

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your email of 7 March, with your first submission towards the ISFP Associate Award, entitled, 'Does Kuhn's 'Structure of Scientific Revolutions' identify characteristics of science which provide a solution to the demarcation problem?'

Right at the beginning you emphasize the point that the search for a criterion to demarcate science from non-science or pseudoscience is not just a theoretical exercise for philosophers but has a practical point, e.g. 'the delineation between efficacious medical treatments and those which haven't or cannot be subjected to scientific testing'. I will get back to this issue in a minute.

It is important to emphasize the practical dimension, in the face of serious scepticism (expressed in a recent interview by the famous physicist Stephen Hawking) concerning the worth of philosophy and in particular philosophy of science. Why should working scientists pay any attention to what philosophers of science say? Does philosophy of science have anything to contribute to the ongoing scientific effort?

The rigorous testing of new drugs and therapies demonstrates one aspect of practical science: the urgent need for criteria for adequate testing which can be readily understood and enforced, for the benefit of human life. It is interesting, though, that this same concern is not demonstrated amongst scientists generally. You don't get cosmologists, for example, arguing over the correct criteria for an adequate cosmological theory. Given the looseness of fit between available evidence and the various competing theories no-one would be so bold as to claim that they knew what requirements a cosmological theory had to satisfy, least of all that armed with this knowledge that they were able to unerringly pick the theory which best satisfies them.

On the other hand you will have editors/ editorial boards of Physics and Chemistry journals making decisions about not only the importance of a particular contribution but also the soundness of the research according to accepted criteria, loose though these criteria may be. The more remarkable the claim, the greater the scrutinization of the research -- the furore over alleged 'cold fusion' being a(n) (extreme) case in point.

Kuhn would be the first to emphasize that his primary concern is not with demarcation but simply with realistic description. That's the main thing that distinguishes his work from someone like Popper or Lakatos. This is part of a larger current in contemporary philosophy which one could call 'quietism' over foundational questions, or over questions of proof and justification. So you need to make the case that there is a worthwhile point in trying to extract a demarcation criterion from Kuhn's work, given that he doesn't really attempt this.

I suspect that Kuhn's answer, in the case of scientific vs non-scientific or pseudoscientific medical treatments would be that this is something for doctors and medical researchers to decide, not philosophers of science. End of discussion. Consider a particularly controversial example, homeopathy. The 'theory' so-called behind homeopathy is patently absurd to any biologist or chemist. Yet there seems to be an increasing trend amongst members of the medical profession to consider such 'alternative' medicine on the grounds of proven practical efficacy, just don't worry about the science. Perhaps this shows the extent to which the practice of medicine is an art as well as a science.

The meat of your essay concerns the analogy or comparison between 'progress' in art and in science.

As someone with a one-time serious practical interest in art (I took a year's break from philosophy in the mid 80's to concentrate on art and photography) I can see the point about 'problem solving' within the paradigm of a particular style of art. More than this, I would say that the 'laboratory' for serious artwork is the life class (where Richard Feynman famously discovered his artistic talents), indeed that there is an analogous process to scientific observation and theorizing in the way one formulates a 'statement' in response, say, to a particular pose, using the various techniques and media available.

How far does this analogy go? There does seem to me to be a crucial difference. We can put the 'truth' vs 'beauty' question on one side and accept, for the purposes of the argument, that a certain kind of art (the kind done in life class, say) is primarily focused on truth -- the truth of a representation, in the widest sense. Nevertheless, there is a remarkable difference in the method of 'testing'. In the case of a life drawing, the test is the judgment of an art critic, or experienced art teacher. Capturing a superficial 'likeness' or making a pretty picture are considered less important.

I don't know if this is any help to Kuhn, given that such criteria as he puts forward ignore the nitty gritty process of testing and concentrate on the general idea of 'problem solving' within a 'paradigm'. The details aren't for the philosopher to decide, that's the claim that he is in effect making.

No real criticisms of the essay. I enjoyed reading it. I am aware that you are on the maximum word limit already. Consider my comments as just something to think about when you come to make your final draft. Meanwhile, I look forward to your next submission!

All the best,

Geoffrey

Mill on justice and the principle of utility

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mill on justice and the principle of utility
Date: 16th March 2011 12:52

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 4 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'How successful is Mill in reconciling justice with the principle of utility?'

I didn't get why you concluded that 'Mill's account of justice is stimulating and coherent'. My impression from what you wrote was that you'd knocked it into a cocked hat. I don't recall finding it particularly stimulating except, perhaps, insofar as it is (and intends to be) provocative.

Thank goodness, you get to the point of the essay right away. Why do my other students taking this module labour so much to get there? 'It doesn't matter who bears the pain and who gets the gain, as long as the overall balance is gain.' I liked that.

I don't disagree with any of the points you make. However, I felt by the end that there was something notable by its absence, an appreciation of the dialectic that utilitarianism gets into, which Mill's account so nicely illustrates, whereby what at first seem to be overwhelming objections to utilitarianism get absorbed into the theory, apparently without remainder.

Mill's case, to put it succinctly, is that justice has utility. (You quickly dismiss the half-baked notion that utility is itself somehow 'just' on a cosmic scale.)

There are two parts to this case: the first part could be called an 'error theory' of justice, in that it seeks to account for our belief that justice, or our natural sense of justice, is the ultimate arbiter of moral right and wrong, a belief which the utilitarian claims to be false. (Belief that justice, not utility, is paramount is an example of the kind of thing that Mill deprecatingly refers to at the beginning of 'Utilitarianism' as a moral 'intuition' or 'intuitionism', the idea that we have God-given insight into moral right and wrong, as certain as the axioms of geometry.) Yes, it is very understandable that we place very great emphasis on justice, and Mill seeks to explain why that is. It is inconceivable that a society could arise lacking any idea of justice. That which is always there, we take to be a perception of something 'real', that exists outside us. What we fail to appreciate is the historical/ philosophical explanation of why it is there.

The second part of Mill's case, however, is what I referred to as the strategy of 'absorption'. The strategy is well illustrated in the work of a contemporary utilitarian R.M. Hare (whose work you will be studying for Ethics Contemporary Perspectives). According to Hare's preference utilitarianism, we need to see society as separated into two strata: the philosophers who know the truth of preference utilitarianism (as Hare argues, the only rigorously 'non-fanatical' ethics, and therefore the only one that can be true) and the rest of society, the ordinary plebs, who believe in things like, e.g., 'justice'. In order that preference satisfaction be maximized it is vitally important that the plebs do not think of themselves as seeking to maximize it in the actions they judge to be 'right' or 'wrong', 'just' or 'unjust'.

Bernard Williams in Smart and Williams 'Utilitarianism For and Against' makes much of this point, but it does seem that the utilitarian cannot be accused of inconsistency here. Hare's vision is noxious, but not inconsistent.

What about the philosophers? They know the whole story. So (to be consistent) they have to strive with every fibre of their being to overcome ingrained feelings about what is 'just' or 'unjust'. 'Frame an innocent man to prevent a riot? I do that every day.' Yes, of course, this is objectionable. But the canny utilitarian has one final finesse. Once the philosophers have done their job, and set up society along the right lines we can kill them off. God sees (or would see if He existed) that preference satisfaction/ happiness is in fact maximized.

The position which we reach is unfortunately in an unacceptable degree of tension with Mill's version of utilitarianism. What we have done, in effect, is sharply separate the truth conditions for claims about morality and justice, from the means by which human beings determine whether an action is moral or just. The whole point of Mill's essay was to outline a method for making such decisions. (Not a 'decision procedure' as such, in the strict logical sense, more like guidelines which point us in the right direction.)

I guess the sticking point for Mill, and his best argument, is that with the best will in the world we can't always reach a satisfactory decision by consulting our intuitions about justice. There are hard cases, situations where whatever you do will be 'wrong' in some way. In that case, Mill would say, what else is there to appeal to but utility? The underlying assumption here is that there is no such thing, ultimately, as an irresolvable moral dilemma: an assumption which philosophers like Williams would call into question.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Plato on justice and the nature of the soul

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on justice and the nature of the soul
Date: 16th March 2011 11:41

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 3 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Is Plato's defence of justice in the Republic soundly derived from a correct account of the human soul?'

This is one of those questions which lays down very clearly what the examiner wants you to do. There are two questions to consider: whether Plato's account of the human soul is correct; and whether Plato's attempt to derive the notion of justice from his account of the soul is successful. Purely as a matter of strategy, I would say this straight off, just so the examiner knows that you know what you are being asked to do.

In your essay, you do address both questions, although it has to be said that most of the essay is concerned with exposition. This is very good, so far as it goes. I do think that you have been somewhat unfair to Thrasymachus (though admittedly Plato's portrait of the great Sophist is itself unfair). The idea that those in power are the ones who define 'justice' has a long tradition which arguably reaches its most potent expression in Nietzsche's moral and political philosophy. 'Justice' is for those equal in power, the masters.

Your answer to the question whether Plato's account of the human soul is correct is, basically, that it is on the right lines, and you mention briefly Plato's arguments for the distinctions that he draws -- the familiar phenomena of conflict, e.g. between reason and the appetites, or the phenomena of anger and shame which point in the direction of a third component which Plato calls 'spirit'.

I think the examiner is looking for a bit more. This is a possible topic for an essay, but here you need to treat it as a topic for at least half an essay. Why three components, why not four, or two? Yes, as you state, the model is kind-of plausible, but is there any more one could say? How good is Plato's philosophy of mind here? What criticisms have been made of his conception? How would you defend it against those criticisms?

Your answer to the question whether the concept of justice is soundly derived from the model of the soul is, again, that what Plato is trying to do is along the right lines, the biggest problem being to bridge the gap between justice as a virtue possessed by an agent, and the notion of justice as it applies to acts and the relations between individuals. You concede that a 'just' individual according to Plato's model of the soul, could do 'unjust' acts (i.e. acts which we would intuitively describe as 'unjust'). But, contrary to those intuitions, they would be 'just', just because a 'just' person did them.

There is more to say here. One possible line would be to emphasize what Plato's moral philosophy has in common with what we would now call 'virtue ethics'. The task for philosophy is not to come up with a comprehensive 'theory of justice' as an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions for just action, but rather to come to an understanding of justice as a virtue, from which acts which we would normally describe as just naturally flow, but that doesn't mean that we are simply defining 'just action' as anything a just person does.

What about the analogy with the well constructed city state? Is it just an analogy, nothing more? Just a 'model' of the soul? It seems to me that Plato is attempting something far more ambitious. The three classes which constitute the just state are classes of human beings each of which has a soul divided into three parts. The very possibility of achieving the harmony which the ideal state aims for depends on the constitution of the human soul. Beings who were differently constituted (say, whose souls had two, or four components, if that makes any sense) could not form a just state.

I wonder whether it would be going too far to say that Plato has hit upon a structure which hints at the mathematical idea of fractals. How would just states interact with one another? If there is any possibility of world justice, then one might expect a similar division into states which perform the function of rulers, states which are guardians, and states which are workers. Then, perhaps, one could raise the question how just planets interact with one another...

It's mind-blowing stuff, once you get into it. All I would say is that there is more going on than just 'valid' or 'invalid' arguments for this or that conclusion. Plato is attempting nothing less than describing a metaphysical vision of the place of man (the place of intelligent life) in the universe.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The justification of induction

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The justification of induction
Date: 15th March 2011 11:28

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 3 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Methodology module, in response to the question, 'Is it possible to justify the claim that inductive reasoning is a reliable method of acquiring true beliefs? If it is explain how. If it is not, explain the consequences for our inductive practices.'

This is a good essay. My impression is that you have relied quite heavily on the text book for your answer. Which is OK, I'm not criticizing you for that. The basis for this hypothesis would be difficult to formulate in the way that you have formulated the inductive inference regarding emus, but it is based on my subjective impression, no more than that, that some of the language that you use is textbook-ese rather than essay-ese. I'm hearing your voice, as it were, but not all of the time.

I am taking into account the fact that the work you have sent me has shown a steady improvement, and that in the past you have shown yourself to be articulate, especially when it comes to expressing or explaining a philosophical problem in a way which the reader will find gripping, an ability which not all of my UoL students possess to the same degree.

Because this is in many ways a text-book answer, it is difficult for me to find any objections to what you say. In an examination, you would get a good mark for this. So what I am going to do instead is try to look at things a bit from the side, in the hope that this might stimulate you to ask questions that you might not have considered.

There are really two questions that need to be unpacked. One concerns the challenge to inductive reasoning, as such, posed by Hume. Hume has an ulterior purpose: he is seeking to demolish the traditional claims of philosophy in order to make room for his new science of human nature. I don't think it is too far fetched to see Hume as aspiring to be the Newton of the human mind. The object of the exercise is to undermine the whole idea of 'justification' and 'reason' as it had hitherto been understood.

Today, a Humean naturalism is assumed as the starting point of much of philosophy of science and methodology. Yet we still speak of 'justification' and 'reasons', 'good grounds' for beliefs, and so on. That is because science has a vested interest in making choices between theories, deciding when the evidence is sufficiently strong to support a given theory, or when two or more theories are equally well supported. How are these choices to be made?

One can speak of 'external' and 'internal', not in the sense which you use, i.e. externalist and internalist theories of justification, but rather in Carnap's sense of a distinction between questions about a given framework -- in this case, the framework of hypothesis formation, inductive reasoning, etc. as employed in science -- and questions within the framework, such as whether a particular theory is sufficiently well supported, where the validity of the framework does not come into question. (Look up 'Carnap on internal and external questions' in Google.)

I can well understand someone like Stephen Hawking complaining that contemporary philosophy of science fails to address the interests and concerns of working scientists. The idea that one can argue over whether induction, as such, is 'justified' or not seems absurd, especially when one considers the real challenges which scientists face, not just concerning how one decides between theories, but more often how one finds a single theory that 'works'. I think he has probably over-stated the case (you might say, a typical example of an expert in one field making pronouncements in a field where one lacks expertise) but even so there is a worry that much philosophy of science and methodology is now seen as irrelevant to science.

I suspect that there is a false assumption lurking here, which it is the duty of philosophy to bring to light, which is in a way the legacy of the 'school philosophy' that Hume sought to demolish. Scientists believe, they have to believe, that what they do expands human knowledge. And yet, in so many cases, the decisions we make, say, concerning 'how well' evidence supports a given theory cannot be further justified or supported by reasoning. Science is, at bottom, 'unscientific'. The argument for the alleged circularity in attempts to justify inductive reasoning 'as such', can equally be applied to 'internal' questions (in Carnap's sense) about the decisions working scientists make, the debates in the pages of Physics journals for example. There is no 'method' or higher court of appeal, only the judgements of working scientists, the only ultimate test for which is agreement with the judgements of other working scientists.

This is the 'problem of induction' with a vengeance. Because this isn't about whether we should practice induction at all (no-one is seriously saying we shouldn't not even Popper -- who is still interested in 'corroboration') but about what counts as good science, if indeed there is anything that philosophy can contribute to this debate.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Rawls on justice and the veil of ignorance

To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rawls on justice and the veil of ignorance
Date: 11th March 2011 12:17

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 27 February with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What is the veil of ignorance? Is Rawls justified in allowing exactly this level of knowledge and ignorance?'

This is a well argued essay, focused sharply on the question, which nicely captures the main difficulty for Rawls: that any adjustments to the level of knowledge/ ignorance, such as the examples you give of knowledge of one's 'conception of the good', or knowledge of one's 'natural talents and natural capacity for work' can only be made at the cost of unanimity amongst agents in the original position: unanimity being a basic criterion for the acceptability of the veil of ignorance thought experiment.

However, this makes your answer to the question somewhat problematic. If unanimity is a basic criterion, and the level of knowledge/ ignorance which Rawls assumes is the only way to achieve that goal, then that would, after all, constitute a justification for assuming that level of knowledge/ ignorance. The fact that the result conflicts with the intuitions of some persons, prior to philosophical reflection, is not irrelevant but nor is it a compelling objection. That's the whole point of the idea of Rawls' notion of 'reflective equilibrium', it could be argued. When contrary intuitions are very strong, theory may have to give way, but equally, we must be prepared to adjust or resist our pre-philosophical intuitions in the face of a powerful and consistent theory.

But whence the confidence that philosophers can formulate a consistent and workable theory? That's a question which for obvious reasons is not high on Rawls' agenda. He has found a brilliant and original way -- his supporters would argue -- of testing various theories of justice, in particular the main contender utilitarianism, and arguing for 'better' a better alternative, according to clearly formulated criteria. As with all theories, we have to be prepared to adjust our beliefs, but the payoff is a far stronger support for the beliefs which the theory validates -- e.g. in Rawls' case, the liberty principle -- than they had before.

I'm not convinced by that argument. I would rather say that there really isn't a theory to be had in this area, there is no way you will ever adjudicate philosophically between those who believe in the principles of liberal democracy and those who support, e.g., a strongly communitarian or theocratic view; or between those who believe that human beings have an inalienable right to all the goods they can obtain through the exercise of their greater talents or capacity for work, and those who believe that those who are lucky to be gifted with greater talents consequently owe more to society, and in particular the less gifted.

That would be my strategy for answering the question. What that amounts to saying, in effect, is that one can't say whether or not Rawls is 'justified' in allowing the level of knowledge and ignorance that he does, except in relation to a prior assumption or set of assumptions. If the need for a consistent theory is considered to be paramount, and his precise definition of the veil of ignorance is the only way to achieve it, then he is 'justified', but not otherwise.

To conclude, I would like to explore in more detail, your exposition of the 'natural talents' objection. Imagine the following case. Thinking about the romance/ marriage lottery and the vastly differing fortunes of men and women searching for a mate, it might occur to someone that society would be much fairer if there was just one, state controlled marriage bureau responsible for bringing together optimally suited partners. Only marriages arranged through the bureau are recognized as such. It's a silly idea, of course, but why is it silly? What is the objection?

In the original position, I don't know whether I am handsome or ugly, graceful or clumsy, whether I am a witty conversationalist or a man of few words. Might I not under the veil of ignorance have a greater propensity to agree to this proposal, than if I knew beforehand that I was handsome, graceful and a witty conversationalist? Marx has something interesting to say about this in his essay 'On Money' (1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). If mother nature has given you good looks, then lucky you. Those who are less well-favoured may envy you then that's just their bad luck. Whereas the advantages men gain simply by virtue of possessing money are unnatural and therefore unjustified.

This points to a principle, which many accept, that not all natural 'advantages' are the same, or on the same level. While economic inequalities are matters over which there is great debate, with arguments for or against the redistribution of wealth, very few would accept that there should be a limits on sexual advantages you can gain through your looks or charm. The best answer I can give to this is that it isn't just about 'nature' but about the paramount role of liberty. Whereas my natural talents and capacity for work enable me to earn more money, the medium of exchange, my good looks and charm enable me to win the affections of a human being, who gives herself to me out of her own free will.

In Marx's day there were, in point of fact, socialists arguing for collective or communal 'marriages' on the grounds of 'fairness', an idea to which Marx objected in the strongest terms.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Descartes' case for doubt in the First Meditation

To: Gurdeep K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' case for doubt in the First Meditation
Date: 10th March 2011 12:42

Dear Gurdeep,

Thank you for your email of 26 February with your essay for the University of London Diploma Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What reasons does Descartes give us for doubting all our beliefs? Are they good reasons?'

This essay is not too bad, although I think you lost the thread a bit towards the end when you consider the evil demon argument. But more of that in a minute.

Descartes sets out, as you observe, to cast doubts on all our beliefs in order to discover whether there are any beliefs that cannot be doubted. For the purpose of this essay, however, we don't need to consider his ulterior purpose of 'finding secure foundations for knowledge'. We are only concerned with the strength of the reasons which Descartes gives for 'doubting all our beliefs'.

Why does he give three arguments? Don't you think that's a good question to ask? Imagine an evil demon who is all powerful, who has deliberately set out to create experiences in your mind which do not correspond with reality. If the scenario of an evil demon which I have just described is logically possible, and there is no way to defeat that hypothesis on the basis of sense experience, then surely in a single blow Descartes has cast doubts on all our beliefs based on experience! That's all he needs to do.

Imagine that you are considering buying a new computer. The model you are looking at is the only model that enables you to do all the work you want to do. That is a clinching argument, there's nothing more to say. Now imagine someone challenged your decision. The first thing you say is, 'I like the curvy lines and the colour scheme.' 'Maybe you do,' your friend replies, 'but that's not a good enough reason.' 'OK, then, well I've always wanted an Apple computer.' 'But that's not a good enough reason, if there is another computer which works better.' 'OK, then, the reason is that this is the only model that enables me to do all the work I want to do.'

Why did you bother giving the first two arguments, when the third one, the strongest one, would do? That's the same question we can ask about Descartes.

In the first argument, Descartes observes that our senses sometimes deceive us. You offer an interesting though questionable example of this. E.g. 'The sound of rock music is nerve wracking,' 'The sound of rock music is calming.' Two people can have such incompatible beliefs about rock music, based on the different effects that the sound has on their physical and mental constitution. However, there is no disagreement about the experience itself. Both you and your son, e.g., can agree that a particular rock tune lasts 2 minutes 33 seconds, that the speed is, 100 beats per minute, that it begins with four bars of heavy drum beats before the guitars come in and so on. So you are not in disagreement about the 'facts'. You differ in the effect that the sound has on you.

In order to meet the requirements of the argument from illusion, or the fallibility of the senses, we need examples where our experiences lead us to form false beliefs about how things are in the world. Whether we enjoy the experiences or find them irritating is besides the point. Descartes gives an example of seeing a round tower in the distance, which looks square. Your experience leads you to form a false belief, namely that you are looking at a square tower. But Descartes also offers a reply: we use our senses to correct initial impressions! If you get close enough to the tower, there can be no doubt that it is round.

So that isn't a good enough reason for doubting all our beliefs.

So, then, Descartes ups the ante and considers the case of dreaming. Sometimes we think we are awake when we are in fact dreaming. How can we ever be sure that we are not dreaming rather than awake? This is a stronger argument, but Descartes still finds fault with it. Even if I am dreaming, I know that I can use arithmetic, or describe my experiences in terms of concepts. In other words, even if the argument from dreaming casts doubt on some of my beliefs, it doesn't cast doubt on all my beliefs, e.g. that 2+3=5. The experiences we have in dreams are jumbled up assemblies of the experiences we have when we are awake.

Then, finally, he offers the evil demon argument. Doesn't that show that the first two arguments were superfluous? I don't think so. Because the purpose of the first argument is to draw attention to the difference between a subjective, mental perception and an objectively existing thing. The purpose of the second argument is to show that dreams and waking experience are exactly alike insofar as they are constituted by a sequence of subjective, mental perceptions.

Having established these two claims, Descartes is finally in a position to give the knock-out blow. A sufficiently powerful evil demon could produce these subjective, mental perceptions in us, such that we are led to believe in the existence of an external, spatial world when in reality no such world exists. All that exists is me and the evil demon.

I haven't said whether I think that this is a good enough reason to doubt all our beliefs. I leave that for you to think about!

All the best,

Geoffrey

Kant on freedom and morality

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on freedom and morality
Date: 10th March 2011 12:00

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 26 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, ''Acting freely and acting morally are one and the same thing for Kant.' Discuss.'

On Monday, I was sitting in Gordon Square, WC1, very near the place where I sat in 1973 after I had read the third section of the Grundlegung where Kant discusses free will and the phenomena/ noumena distinction. I remembered how I felt back then: what one would describe as a 'peak moment'. I had an intimation of something breathtakingly deep, coupled with a powerful desire to understand what seemingly surpassed all understanding. This was philosophy!

Why was I there? I was invited down to London for lunch, to discuss Pathways' contribution to the UoL International Programme (as it's now called). Sam Guttenplan's last contract, before he retires, was to revamp the BA, increasing it from ten to twelve modules. Those were the necessary requirements for bringing the degree in line with other subjects which had already switched to the twelve module setup. The changes are due to take affect in 2012/3. Students currently registered with the BA will be given the choice of sticking with the old regulations or switching to the new. The extra two modules are the Introduction (from the Diploma, which existing BA students will be given an exemption for) and a dissertation. The sweetener, is that exams will be two essays in two hours rather than three essays in three hours.

My take on this question is that you are not being asked to go too deeply into the question of how freedom relates to the metaphysics of phenomena and noumena. Rather, the focus is on the specific claim that moral action and free action are one and the same. Are they?

Well, I freely chose to respond to your essay today (rather than yesterday) on the basis of what seemed to me to be reasonable though not compelling considerations. I took Tuesday off (to recover from Monday and to reflect on my options, as not everything went as I'd hoped). When I came into my office yesterday, I had over 200 emails to sift through (many from Philos-L, but still a lot of work). To cut a long story short, the explanation why I decided to respond today would cite certain desires which I had (like the need to be sufficiently fresh, I always reserve the best part of the day for this activity). Was that moral? It would be the right thing to do, for anyone in my position. I am prepared to argue the case that my action was consistent with the categorical imperative.

But note that what I actually did was motivated by my desires, albeit desires which pass the test of the categorical imperative. The desire to perform at one's best is a worthy desire, an ethical desire, a desire that I am prepared to legislate for. If instead I had been motivated by laziness to to procrastinate, to 'put off until tomorrow what one can do today', than that would be an unethical desire, inconsistent with the categorical imperative.

In short, whether my action is ethical or unethical, by the test of the categorical imperative, the explanation of my action is exactly the same in both cases. It is a causal explanation. To use Donald Davidson's formula, it is a combination of a belief and a desire which together result in action. The desire in question, which I would be prepared to cite if someone challenged my decision, is also what rationalizes the action. So it does double duty. John McDowell uses the terms, 'logical space of causes' and 'logical space of reasons' to distinguish these two aspects.

But note that, for Davidson, both motivations -- the desire to be at my best, and the lazy desire to procrastinate -- are equally 'rational'. My 'freedom' in both cases is Humean freedom, as you describe in your essay. ('Weakness of will' is an example of irrationality which Davidson considers a challenge to his account.)

Kant believed that he had discovered another kind of rationality, an overarching rationality which governs actions with the same force as beliefs are governed by the laws of logic. Not all cases of Davidsonian rationality are truly 'rational'. On this picture, true rationality doesn't relate to contingently given desires because it is purely structural or formal. What Kant should have said at this point is that to *exhibit* this kind of rationality is something to be observed or recognized, as a structural feature of the phenomenal world. It is a desirable feature, for those that share Kant's capacity to see its desirability (though, note, this desire is contingently given, not everyone possesses it). But the structural feature itself has nothing to do with causes and effects. It isn't some special kind of 'cause' (the 'free will'). Which leads me to question whether the metaphysics of phenomena and noumena has any real relevance (but that's another story).

The real question, whenever the problem of free will comes up is, 'Is this notion of freedom worth wanting?' E.g. does Humean 'freedom' give us a freedom worth wanting? For libertarians, the answer is no. What about Kantian 'freedom'? For my part, I just don't how it can be, if one is not happy with mere Humean freedom. In both cases, as you observe, we are fully bound by the causal realm. The only difference isn't some different kind of 'causality' but merely an observed structural feature.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Friday, November 15, 2013

Locke's case against innate ideas and principles

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's case against innate ideas and principles
Date: 3rd March 2011 11:52

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 22 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume module, in response to the question, 'What is Locke's strongest argument against innate ideas and principles? Is it strong enough?'

This is a very good answer, which challenges the somewhat simplistic assumptions of the question. You argue in effect that there are two candidates for the strongest argument against innatism: the denial of universal assent, and Locke's empiricist theory of knowledge acquisition, either of which may reasonably be inferred to the the 'strongest' depending on whether we are considering the case for innate knowledge of moral principles, or the case for innate knowledge of abstract or speculative principles.

However, all things considered, your view is that the second argument is the more powerful and successful because what it accomplishes involves a greater challenge. It's relatively easy, you say, to refute the theory of universal moral principles. Successfully accomplishing an easy task is less impressive than success, or even merely partial success, in accomplishing a much more difficult task. Locke's case, in effect, is that all you need is an innate capacity (intuition or the light of reason). Armed with this you can deduce all you need by ratiocination.

My first point concerns the connection, if any, between the question of why there is not, in fact, universal assent about moral principles, and the question -- which arguably Locke considers, although as you observe the textual evidence seems a bit thin -- of the legitimacy of inferring the truth of a principle, moral or otherwise, from its innateness.

Admittedly, the question of whether innate moral principles are true is one that is hardly likely to have occurred to supporters of the innatist view, given that their explanation is that the principles were planted in our minds by God. It is only with the benefit of hindsight, in the light of contemporary versions of innatism (a question I will consider below) that this question would even be raised. But let's consider it.

Here's a nice candidate: 'Love thine enemy.' This is so obviously not held by a large segment of the world's population, yet according to Christian doctrine this as a divine command and immutable ethical principle. How do we know whether it is, in fact, true?

This connects with an argument which is often employed (e.g. by Mackie in 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong') against objectivist views of ethics: the 'argument from relativity'. If we accept as a datum that different ethical principles hold in different societies, then the objective view cannot be sustained. But the objectivist has two responses: the first is to argue that some societies are in error about the 'true' ethical principles. Slavery was once considered perfectly acceptable. The second option is to argue that the apparent diversity of ethical views are all variations on an underlying theme, such as the Kantian idea that human beings are 'ends in themselves'. In other words, one distinguishes between variable local 'mores', and the universal propositions of 'ethics'.

As someone who tends towards the objective view, I would be prepared to deploy a combination of both responses and feel confident I could give the subjectivist a good run for their money. You don't have to be Christian, to believe that societies which preach that one should 'hate thine enemy' are in the wrong. Or, one could view 'love thine enemy' as a powerful formulation of the Kantian idea that human beings are 'ends in themselves'. The idea that one should love one's enemy doesn't mean that you can't have enemies, or wage a just war against the Hun or Al Qaeda.

In recognizing the issue of the relation between innateness and truth, even though not very explicitly, Locke is potentially shooting himself in the foot, because it weakens the argument from universal assent sufficiently to give succour to the ethical innatist. Yes, we have innate moral principles, but we ALSO have a Lockean power of intuition which enables us to discriminate between those principles which are genuinely 'moral' and, say, our innate natural inclinations (original sin?) which are very far from being moral.

This brings us on to the general question of innatism. You constrain your answer within the bounds of the claims about innatism that Locke and his contemporaries would have considered. But there are also contemporary versions of innatism to test Locke's arguments against. For example, still on the topic of ethics, the view that ethical principles are explained in evolutionary terms, that, in fact, a naturalistic ethics can be constructed on the basis of evolutionary ideas and the notion of how human beings need to behave in order to survive.

Chomsky's ideas about universal grammar are relevant too. The arguments around this topic have a decidedly Lockean flavour.

Then there is the question of evolutionary epistemology (e.g. Quine's seminal essay 'Epistemology Naturalized') where the innateness in question concerns our natural ability to distinguish 'better' or 'worse' empirical explanations, our sense of simplicity, even the application of a principle like Occam's Razor.

I am not criticizing you for not including a discussion of these points. If you were writing an exam answer, then you could just state (consistently with what the question has asked you to do) that you are only looking at the question of the relative 'strength' of Locke's arguments in relation to versions of the innatist theory which were held at the time.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Perceptual realism and the argument from hallucination

To: Emelie G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Perceptual realism and the argument from hallucination
Date: 24th February 2011 12:09

Dear Emelie,

Thank you for your email of 14 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'Is there a compelling argument from the possibility of hallucination to the impossibility of our experience being partly constituted by the ordinary objects that we seem to experience?'

In your essay you offer a competent and clear summary of four positions which have been taken up with regard to the question of whether or not our experience is 'partly constituted by the ordinary objects that we seem to perceive': The sense datum theory, the intentional theory of perception, naive realism, and disjunctivism.

Although you allude to the arguments in favour of each of these views, I didn't get a strong feeling of being 'compelled' in any direction. But then, right at the end in the last paragraph, you throw in what seems to be a new argument which you haven't considered above, 'The naive realist and the disjunctivist both claim to see the ordinary objects of our world as they really are, but they cannot give a satisfactory answer to the skeptic's basic arguments like why the grass is green in daylight, grey in twilight, how tepid water feels warm to a cold hand and cool to a hot hand.'

I think that this line deserves to be explored further.

Suppose that it's late evening and I look out at the lawn and notice that it 'looks grey'. There are two possibilities. The more likely possibility is that I don't think anything of it, because I know 'how green grass looks' at dusk. I see the grass 'as' green even though the actual content of my experience, the colour of my visual field, would be more accurately described as grey. It is also possible, however, that I didn't notice how late in the evening it is and for a few moments the panicked thought strikes me, 'What's happened to the grass? The weed killer I sprayed on it earlier must have turned it grey!'

In both cases, the disjunctivist would say, the grass itself partly constitutes my experience. Moreover, as a competent perceiver I know that things 'look' different in different circumstances. In the first case, there is no sense of surprise, I don't think that the colour of the grass has been changed by the weed killer I sprayed on it, I see exactly what I expected to see. In the second case, I am surprised. This leads me to form the false hypothesis that the weed killer has turned the grass grey.

Initially, there doesn't seem to be any problem here for the disjunctivist theory.

Analysing your example of the grey grass from the point of view of the disjunctivist theory, there are two aspects which we can distinguish in perception: the idea that perception puts us into some kind of direct cognitive relation with an object in the world, and the idea that perception furnishes with information about that object. Prima facie, if I am in a direct cognitive relation with an object, then I am in the appropriate state to gather reliable information or facts about that object. However, it is also part of our ordinary understanding of perception that the way objects look depends on the circumstances, and this is something that it is possible to have a false belief about. The result is that I form a false belief about the grass, namely that it has turned grey.

But now it occurs to me that one could 'ratchet up' up this example. The typical case of hallucination that sense datum theorists consider is the case where, e.g., I see a pink elephant in the bar when in fact no object is there at all, just empty space. The 'pink elephant' is just something created by my own mind. However, it is more often the case that we *see an object* as something totally different from what it actually is. The 'huge tarantula spider' about to jump on me is just a ball of tangled thread. The 'object' itself, the tangled thread, plays a minimal part in my experience. My fear of spiders has the tendency to turn completely innocent items into objects that terrify me. Or let's say I have just taken LSD and see a dragon walk into the room. The 'dragon' is only my mother-in-law, but the drug has combined with my negative feelings to turn my experience into the vivid experience of seeing a fire-breathing dragon. (My mother-in-law as she 'truly' is.)

This does look like a challenge for the disjunctivist. We were originally told that experiences are 'either...or...'. Either I am having a veridical experience, an experience of seeing an object, which is in fact there (one doesn't normally talk of a 'veridical object'), or I am undergoing a hallucination produced by my own mind, 'seeming to see' an object which isn't in fact there. But in the examples of the spider and the dragon, neither of these alternatives apply. Are we going to admit a third disjunction into the theory? Or maybe more?

Is this compelling? No, but it looks like a problem for the disjunctive theory which should at least cause some degree of discomfort.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Ontology and the necessity for universals

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ontology and the necessity for universals
Date: 23rd February 2011 11:37

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 14 February with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Are universals necessary elements of any adequate ontology?'

This is an excellent essay, which lays out clearly the strategy which you have adopted in answering this question, and which delivers that answer, with strong arguments to back it up. And yet, somehow, I find that I am still left somewhat confused by this question.

Right at the start you distinguish between two ways of taking the question: Whether universals are necessary, albeit possibly derivative elements of any adequate ontology; OR whether universals are both necessary and fundamental elements of any adequate ontology.

To cut a long story short: Realists believe that universals are necessary and fundamental; nominalists believe that universals are dispensable therefore not necessary; while conceptualists hold the view that universals are necessary but not fundamental.

(It turns out, however, that on the version of conceptualism you wish to defend particulars are not fundamental either. The only fundamental entity is 'the world'! I have already offered comments on this position.)

My difficulty is this. Maybe a bit of personal history would be relevant. In my second year as an undergraduate I read Dummett's book 'Frege: Philosophy of Language'. I didn't just read it, I scoured it from cover to cover filling the margins with copious notes. We'd covered the Presocratics in our first year, looked at the '3rd Man' argument in the Parmenides. The 'problem of universals' so-called was something I might have come across in an old text book but no-one ever talked about it. So when Dummett wrote that the whole questions of universals was old hat, I didn't need much convincing. My outlook (from lectures as well not just from reading) was thoroughly Fregean.

So what IS the fuss about? In the Phaedrus, Plato gives an analogy which is so powerful and appealing that philosophers still use it today: 'Carving the meat at the joints.' We want our language, our concepts, to carve the world at its joints. This implies that the world has 'joints', it is not just an amorphous lump (corned beef from a tin). What is your view? Human beings have needs and interests, which can change from one context to another, and the concepts which we choose to employ are intended to enable us to pursue those interests successfully, given the nature of the world. But, obviously, this implies that the world is some 'nature' rather than another. It has 'joints', an articulation which, admittedly, we only discover indirectly through trial and error, in the course of praxis. The joints can't be seen, they are not recollected by the soul or any such nonsense. But they must 'exist' in some sense, in order to impact on our praxis.

To me, the philosopher whose views come closest to this position is Quine. See his essay 'Epistemology Naturalized' (in 'Ontological Relativity and Other Essays'). This is especially relevant given your interest in evolution. The world impacts on us and the classifications we use because it made us. All there is to say about the way human beings carve the world up in language can be said using the sciences of physics, chemistry and biology and the apparatus of first-order predicate logic. There is no problem of universals. They don't exist, not because nominalists are right but because the whole dispute has been superseded. Nominalism, like conceptualism or realism, is a position with respect to 'universals' and no position needs to be taken because there isn't a meaningful question to answer.

You state that for nominalists, what takes the place of universals are sets. But what is a set? Where do sets exist? Consider the set of all predominantly golden Calico cats which are currently on some floor somewhere (your example). It seems to me absurdly unlikely that such a set 'exists'. Leaving aside the question of simultaneity, consider the aspect of vagueness in 'predominantly', or 'golden', or 'floor'. There is no such set. But why was a set needed in the first place? You suggest the answer: that the naive model of meaning requires a designatum for every designator. Wittgenstein has a nice simile to counter this: in the cab of a locomotive there are lots of levers, but the levers don't all work in the same way. One lever might be an on-off switch, another you have to push and pull continuously and so on.

This variety is regimented (Quine's term) to some extent by the use of first-order predicate logic. Tarski's definition of truth lays down clear and very simple rules for the different elements of the calculus: names, n-adic predicates, variables, propositional connectives, etc.

Before I finish, I would like to mention one thing in particular that you said which is so true: 'While attributing to others the archetypic positions, their own positions appear to blur the distinctions.' In other words, philosophers love to attack straw men. If we were more keenly aware of the extent of this lazy practice, much academic philosophizing would be swept away.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Ethics, liberalism and tolerance

To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ethics, liberalism and tolerance
Date: 22nd February 2011 12:59

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 15 February, with the fifth and last essay for the Moral Philosophy program -- which you originally attempted to send on 3 February -- in response to the question,
''Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core.' What is the alleged paradox? In your view, is the paradox real or only apparent?'

I must thank you for this powerful and emotionally resonant defence of the liberal viewpoint within the context of an ethics of dialogue. I think you'd have a lot in common with my sister Elli (Rabbi Elizabeth Sarah) whom I've mentioned before.

One point which chimed particularly with me was your distinction between the 'more ancient Hebrew idea of 'to believe'' and the 'later Greco-Roman idea'. This accounts for a lot. Elli often talks about the difference between Judaism and Christianity in terms of their respective attitudes to 'belief'. Jews don't have a catechism. There is nothing that you are required to 'believe' as such, only things you are required to do. A significant number of the members of Elli's 'Liberal and Progressive' congregation (some of them converts) would consider themselves 'Jews' even though they do not 'believe in God' in any literal sense. Elli sometimes talks as if the term 'God' is just another way of expressing the idea of 'the Good'.

The biggest hurdle Elli encounters at the interfaith conferences (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) which she regularly attends is the idea that one 'tolerates' those who 'don't believe' (e.g. that there is 'No way to God except through Me') while at the same time holding out the hope, for the other person's sake, that they will eventually see the light. I'm searching for the right word here. Condescending. It's a condescending tolerance when you say to someone from another faith, 'I accept you as a partner in dialogue even though you do not share my belief.'

Being in possession of 'the truth' ('I am the Way, the Truth and the Life') is one way to be superior. Being chosen by God to be a 'Witness unto nations' is another. So it could be argued that the boot is on the other foot. Jews condescend to everyone else. (I think Elli would disagree with that statement, thus baldly put, although I have a suspicion that some of her pronouncements contradict that.)

What this points to (just as an example) is a complexity in the idea of 'equality in difference', or 'equality amongst unequals' which a true ethics of dialogue must somehow come to terms with.

What is liberalism? You allude to J.S. Mill's distinction between 'liberty of thought' and 'liberty of action', but your liberalism isn't the classic version by any means. I'd call it an enlightened or modern version of the liberal ideal which recognizes that different faiths or political ideals are not required to contest their claims on the field of reason, as Mill fervently believed. This is important, because for Mill any moral belief which cannot be justified by reason must therefore depend on irrational moral 'intuition'. Which moral beliefs can be justified by reason? The theory of utilitarianism!

What about those whose words and actions threaten to put them outside the realm of the ethics of dialogue? You say what needs to be said here: they have excluded themselves, so this isn't 'intolerance' on the liberal's part. But I perceive an unresolved problem here.

It is easy enough to see that the ethics of dialogue does not require me to tolerate Nazis. Yet in the UK, as in other countries in Europe where there is a large Muslim population, difficult questions have arisen about the limits of religious tolerance.

Let me give one example. There is a form of strict dress code for Muslim women which requires that the woman completely covers her face with a black cloth with just a slit open for the eyes (the 'Hijab'). Recently there was a case in the UK where a student teacher made a claim for Wrongful Dismissal because the primary school would not allow her to give classes wearing a Hijab. It scared the pupils, the Headmaster said.

I don't see how the ethics of dialogue cuts any ice with this kind of case. Multicultural dialogue is a valuable ideal, but it comes at a price. There is a point where you are forced back into the position of defending the values of your own culture -- in this case, being able to see the face of the person you are talking to. (And yet, it could be argued that the recent astronomical rise of social networking as in Facebook points the other way. A new form of 'socializing' has arisen where the only thing that your partner in dialogue needs to see is the avatar which you have chosen for your home page. Or consider the tyranny in our culture of the ideal of beauty which means that the first thing you notice about a woman is how 'attractive' or 'unattractive' she looks.)

What do we, as liberals, stand for? Surely not just the principle of liberalism and nothing more. There are aspects of the way we live which we choose, and aspects which were chosen for us -- by accident of birth and upbringing. There is a sense of loyalty, identity, which comes from being part of a group, or religion, or nation. To be sure, these are all things to be 'negotiated' in dialogue, in order to create a respectful distance, to allow for 'difference'. But there is no guarantee that in the end this can be achieved without some very tough and painful compromises.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hume on passions as source of morality

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on passions as source of morality
Date: 22nd February 2011 11:58

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 13 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Moral Philosophy module, in response to the question, ''Hume argues that reason never moves us to act, but that morality does. This leads him to claim that passion, not reason, is the source of morality.' Discuss.'

This is a good essay, although you had me somewhat wrong footed, as I expected that your criticisms of Hume's (seemingly) overly restrictive view of reason was shaping up to an anti-subjectivist view of moral judgement. Yet from your conclusion, I gather that your view is subjectivist, if not crassly so.

Your very last sentence, echoing Kant on concepts and intuitions suggests a line of argument which could have an important bearing here, and which deserves to be explored, so I will look at this first.

It's easy enough to see why 'moral emotions without reason are blind'. What would that mean? Say, a person who relied on immediate emotional impulse to make any moral decision, or to perform any action whatsoever. But we know that the very idea is absurd. At the very least, you have to cognize the situation, make a judgement about the kind of circumstance you are reacting to. You see a lad running with a woman's handbag. Is he a mugger running off with the spoils, or did he notice the woman accidentally drop the purse and is running to catch up with her?

Hume has a perfectly good account of this. He would say that our emotions attach to kinds of behaviour -- theft, or the return of lost property -- and it is the business of perception and reason to ensure that those emotions attach to the appropriate target.

'Reason without moral emotions is empty.' The inclusion of the term 'moral' is significant. Pure reason (the caricature of Mr Spock in Star Trek) is incapable of functioning even at the most basic level without some motivating desire. Mr Spock is motivated by a powerful sense of curiosity, to say the least. Reason and logic alone won't take you to the conclusion of a logical proof unless you care about reaching a conclusion. But why do we need the qualification 'moral'?

The moral objectivist would say that this is putting the cart before the horse. Yes, we have moral emotions as Hume observes, it is not necessary to take a course in moral philosophy or learn about the categorical imperative. But Kant anticipates that point right at the beginning of the Groundwork. Ordinary, untutored moral consciousness recognizes that the only thing that is good without qualification is the 'good will'. Everything depends on the underlying motivation. You must desire the good for the right reasons. On further philosophical analysis, those reasons are seen to arise from the very notion of rationality itself. The very possibility of morality depends on our recognition that we are all equal as rational law-giving members of the 'kingdom of ends'.

You cite the example of the psychopath with the damaged amygdala. As you state, this gives support to an evolutionary ethics. One of my UoL students, Stuart, is a strong believer in this view. In an email exchange I put to him the case of the Alien (Sigourney Weaver movies). Consider a race of beings have no need for ethics or morality. Solitary and self-sufficient, their practical reasoning follows just what a human 'psychopath' would choose. God help us if they ever land on Earth. Reasoning or appeals to their 'Vogonity' (Hitchhiker's Guide) would be futile.

Or would it? Maybe one of these Aliens is sufficiently curious about the history of human philosophy to read Kant. Is it conceivable that, contrary to every urge of its genes, the Alien might undergo a moral epiphany, discover its true fellowship with all rational beings in the universe? Well, anything is possible. The point is about 'nature'. Hume and the evolutionary ethicists have no doubt that the question I have raised is either factual or nonsensical. Kant would disagree.

McDowell (my former thesis supervisor at Oxford) is an interesting case. Your discussion here is rather allusive and doesn't really convey the point of his attack on Foot's view about morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives. For McDowell, there are certain facts about the world which you can only 'see' if you have the right feelings (e.g. that an action was 'kind'). Well, I'd take one of my Aliens and give it a few hundred years and all the information about human culture that can be gathered. I think it would do a pretty good job of recognizing 'kind' actions without feeling the least impulse to be kind. McDowell's point is rather fragile, a mere tweak to Humean subjectivism nothing more.

My own view (in Naive Metaphysics and the Pathways Moral Philosophy program) was objectivist although not Kantian, but I have become rather jaded with it. Right now, I'm not sure what I believe. However, reading your essay, I don't see anything that Hume would want to disagree with regarding the question of reason and feeling. Hume is looking at the big picture, his 'hyperbolic' claims do not need to be taken literally.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Berkeley's immaterialism and human action

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's immaterialism and human action
Date: 15th February 2011 12:12

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 5 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume module, in response to the question, ''To act consistently one must either admit matter or reject spirit.' Why was Berkeley vulnerable to this objection? How well did he respond to it?'

This is a very good answer to the question, which makes appropriate and relevant references to the secondary literature. I am also pleased that you are prepared to give Berkeley a run for his money. His theory of immaterialism is a powerful and highly consistent 'vision' (as you call it), even if his arguments for that theory are less than conclusive.

Possibly, you miss one argument which Berkeley deploys in defence of spiritual substance, concerning the nature of causality. In the '3 Dialogues' hee claims that I have a direct experience of causal connection through introspection of the act of willing. (I don't have the reference to hand.) We know what Hume's response would be (just as we know what Hume said about the claim to perceive the self through introspection). Nevertheless, it strengthens the point about action and activity.

Schopenhauer was later to argue that the one piece of direct evidence we have that the world is more than just a phenomenalistic 'world of ideas' is the experience of will, as such. We know, or feel, that a world of mere ideas cannot stand on its own, the notion is deeply objectionable. And yet, what alternative would there be if there wasn't some evidence or clue to the existence of something beyond the world of ideas?

My main complaint against the commentators is the feckless way in which they deal with the phenomenalistic option. Bennett is one culprit. But Dancy also misses the point in calling 'the aid of' Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. It would have been helpful if you'd said a bit more about this.

Berkeley's 'ideas' are not Wittgensteinian 'private objects'. Like Descartes, Berkeley never once considers the thought that an idea, whose 'esse' is 'percipi' has a reality wholly determined by its actual appearance at this very moment (so that, in Wittgensteinian terms, whatever you say or believe about the object is 'right'. If it seems X, then it is X. If it seems Y, then it is Y.) On the contrary, ideas have an 'esse'. All we know about this esse is that it accounts for or explains the event of perception and nothing but that event of perception. It follows that an idea cannot be 'unperceived'. Yet what we perceive is a 'something' other than that very event of perception. The ideas that I perceive have a 'side' other than the side they present to me now.

There is a way to give phenomenalism a run for its money, and that involves appeal to Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism' (Critique of Pure Reason 2nd. edn.). If you really wanted to go to town on this you could try to get hold of Christopher Peacocke's book 'Holistic Explanation', which gives an elegant account of how, in Kantian terms, one would offer an explanation of a course of experience by means of the theory of a subject located in space and the 'objects' it encounters at various locations. The 'transcendental phenomenalist' rejects 'private objects', because every experience must have a place in the theory, must be construed as a perception of an 'object' in the 'world'. In this theory, there is room for mis-perception or failures of perception. I can 'seem to see' a phenomenalistic 'object' which isn't really there.

So, strictly no 'private objects' in the transcendental phenomenalist picture, which isn't to say that the theory isn't fatally flawed. Schopenhauer saw this. Wittgenstein's theory of 'forms of life' effectively rejects the transcendental phenomenalist solution, but a further step is needed in order to distinguish Wittgenstein's attack on the 'private object' from Kant's.

The transcendental phenomenalist would say that what we cannot know, we cannot talk or speculate about. We can only describe. This is how the world is. The theory works, everything fits. It's just that we feel (as did Kant and Schopenhauer) that this can't be all. There cannot be 'appearance' without 'something that appears'.

Berkeley's sin is to suppose that he has knowledge of this 'something' by analogy with his own experience. The 'something' is a subject, like myself. Kant would say, this is illegitimately attempting to describe things in themselves, or the noumenal world, using concepts which are derived from experience.

So Kant would reject the alternative which you present, 'either God, or phenomenalism'. We don't know and cannot know the nature of ideas, their 'esse', that which accounts for their very being. We only know how things appear to us. This is scepticism, but not a 'Godless' scepticism. There is still room for faith.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Kant on freedom and lying

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on freedom and lying
Date: 10th February 2011 11:28

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 2 February, with your essay for the University of London Diploma Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Does Kant have a defensible account of freedom?' and your email of 5 February resending an essay which you originally attempted to send on 15 January, in response to the question, 'Is Kant right in thinking that appeal to the categorical imperative is enough to show lying to be morally wrong?'

Kant and lying

Kant actually wrote an essay devoted to this question, 'On the Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropic Concerns', which is included in some but not all editions of the 'Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals'. In the essay Kant is adamant that lying can never be morally right even in a case where you need to lie to protect the life of an innocent person.

Although it is OK to spend some portion of the essay going into the background of Kant's moral philosophy and the various formulations of the categorical imperative, the examiner expects you to concentrate on Kant's treatment of lying. Your only contribution is to make the obvious point that the claim seems counterintuitive: there are cases where bad things would happen (e.g. criminals discover the whereabouts of a witness you are protecting) if you are not prepared to lie.

But, then, Kant isn't concerned with consequences as such. You make a good point that if all we have as the touchstone for moral decision making is the categorical imperative, then the goodness or badness of consequences must be judged by this principle alone. We can't appeal to our evaluation of consequences to bolster the principle or fill in the gaps where it doesn't seem to give the answer we want.

Another point you make, which deserves to be expanded upon, is the contrast between cases where a maxim fails the test of the categorical imperative because the agent's intention would be self-contradictory, and one which fails the test because there is something incoherent or self-contradictory about the consequences. Is Kant slyly appealing to consequences here? Or is this just another way to refer back to the question of the agent's intentions? If I intend an action, and at the same time foresee that the consequences, or wider consequences of my action would frustrate my intention, then that is another way for an intention to be 'incoherent or self-contradictory'?

I think that Kant has a argument in respect of the question of lying which deserves to be reckoned with (although I obviously don't agree that it follows that one can never lie under any circumstances whatsoever). There is in fact a paradox here. Any attempt to state the 'exceptions' to the law that one must never lie is self-frustrating. I wrote something about this in my lectures on business ethics. Here is an extract from unit 5:

Consider the seemingly innocuous statement, 'I sometimes tell a lie when I'm in a tight spot.' What exactly does this mean? If I say this to you, then you are to understand that if I am ever in a tight spot, my words are not to be believed. But in that case, I cannot lie to you when I am in a tight spot, because a necessary condition for successfully lying is that one's words are believed by the person lied to. The only time I can successfully lie to you is when I am not in a tight spot, because then you are not expecting me to tell a lie. Let's consider now a variation on this scenario. 'I nearly always tell the truth, and only lie when I am in a very tight spot.' Even in a tight spot, I will tell the truth and face the adverse consequences, but in a very tight spot I will lie. (For the purposes of this argument we can assume a common understanding concerning what constitutes the difference between a 'tight spot' or a 'very tight spot', and when either situation obtains.)

By making this statement, I have effectively devalued my word. I might still think that I can still get away with lying in a tight spot. However, you are now justified in reasoning as follows: as I can no longer get away with lying when I am in a very tight spot, the tightest spot where I can successfully lie is a tight spot. So you will not believe me in this case either. Nor, repeating the same reasoning, will you have any reason to believe me when I am in a slightly tight spot. Generalizing from this example, to admit that one sometimes lies, to gain any advantage whatsoever, is logically self-defeating. This argument shows that it is self-defeating to own up to lying. You might think that this is still different from saying that it is wrong to tell a lie. Obviously, if you're going to gain an advantage by lying, the best strategy is to present oneself as someone who is totally honest and trustworthy.

That may very well be so. But the point remains that whenever we discover that someone has lied, we have no choice but to condemn the action. If I discover that X lied to get out of a tight spot, and I excuse the action on that account, then that is tantamount to my saying that I believe that it is acceptable to lie in those particular circumstances. That's what I would do in that person's shoes. And now I am in exactly the same situation that I was in before, when I admitted that I sometimes lie to get out of a tight spot. An action which we will never freely admit to and always condemn, is by definition always wrong. (See http://ethicaldilemmas.co.uk.)

Kant on Freedom

In the 'Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals' Kant presents the question of freedom as the search for a 'third term' which would provide the necessary justification of the categorical imperative. It is not sufficient merely to analyse our ordinary moral notions, specifically the notion of a 'good will' in order to uncover the underlying assumption that the sole basis for moral decision making is the categorical imperative. Why not? Because our moral notions, the language of morality itself, could be fatally flawed. We could be wrong. We could all be living under the illusion that there is such a thing as a categorical imperative when in fact there is not.

Kant is adamant that the only way that the categorical imperative can be show to be justified -- at least to be 'possible' -- is if the coherence of the assumption of human freedom is demonstrated. We can't prove that we are free, in the necessary sense, but we can at least believe in the possibility of freedom. In the final section of the Groundwork, Kant presents the theory of phenomena and noumena as the framework which would allow for the possibility of human freedom.

As you argue in your essay, causality relates to the phenomenal world, while our metaphysical freedom derives from the fact that we exist as noumenal subjects and not merely as phenomenal selves.

This is deeply puzzling. It's bad enough that we are asked to believe in the 'existence' of a noumenal reality concerning which nothing can be known, to which none of our empirical concepts apply, not even the a priori notions of substance or cause, not even (as Schopenhauer observed) the concept of number (talk of 'things in themselves' or 'noumena' presupposes that there is more than one noumenon or thing in itself, but if we can't apply concepts to them how can these 'things' be counted?).

However, there is a more sympathetic reading of Kant's views on freedom, which may or may not have been in the back of his mind when he put forward the phenomena-noumena theory.

In contemporary philosophy, there has been quite a lot of discussion of the contrast between the 'logical space of reasons' and the 'logical space of causes'. You will find this, e.g. in John McDowell's Harvard lectures 'Mind and World'. The idea here involves a strong resistance to the kind of reductionism which would seek a 'translation' of talk of 'reasons for action' into physicalist language. The finesse here involves recognizing that reasons can (and indeed must) be 'causes' as Davidson argued. So it would be wrong to think that these two 'logical spaces' have no point of overlap. My decision to write this email today because it was overdue and I didn't want to keep you waiting any longer (sorry!) caused me to open this file and start typing.

Reason isn't a 'first cause' in the sense of the belief that God is the first cause, the uncaused cause, in the series of causes and effects (something you mention). Rather, the logical space of reasons is self-enclosed, in a way which prevents us from looking beyond the reasons we could give for our actions to the physical machinery working underneath. (There is some scope for 'looking beyond', e.g. in depth psychology.)

Is this observation enough to rescue Kant? Consider the laws of logic. These laws, such as the law of non-contradiction are recognized as being absolute. They are principles which govern rational discourse. Any apparent exceptions must be accounted for. It is much less controversial, to say the least, that human thought 'obeys' the laws of logic, than to say that human reasoning about morals 'obeys' the categorical imperative. And yet, the two claims are alike in that according to Kant both define what it is to be 'rational'.

Consider someone following a chain of logical inference. The success or failure to reach the correct conclusion depends on the machinery of the brain, a long chain of causes and effects. But that doesn't mean that the laws of logic as such are not absolutely necessary. In the same sense, one might argue, the fact that we are empirical beings subject to the laws of causality like everything else in the universe does not show that the categorical imperative is not absolutely necessary, as being definitive of what it is to be a being whose actions are governed by 'reason'.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Mind-body problem: interactionism vs epiphenomenalism

To: Anna H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mind-body problem: interactionism vs epiphenomenalism
Date: 9th February 2011 12:02

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your email of 1 February, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Contrast the main features of 'Interactionist' and 'Epiphenomenalist' versions of mind-body dualism.'

I can see that you have been looking at contemporary discussions of epiphenomenalism and have found them somewhat confusing, when related to what is said about epiphenomenalism in the program. We are actually dealing with two very different theories.

Much of the contemporary discussion is about 'epiphenomenalism' conceived as a view which is broadly consistent with materialism and not a version of mind-body dualism. The idea relates to the notion of 'folk psychology' as giving a more or less inaccurate picture of what is 'really going on' in the brain. We need this picture, we use it every day, but it is just a cultural artifact nothing more, something that enables us to function as 'persons' who engage other individuals in dialogue and treat them as 'persons' like us rather than as things.

What is 'really going on' in the mind/ brain is said to be the province of the neurophilosopher. You and I wouldn't recognize an explanation of our behaviour from the neurophilosophical point of view, although it is in some sense 'the truth' about the causes and effects which operate at the most basic level. Much of what we believe about ourselves, on the level of conscious reflection or folk psychology is just mythology, necessary for practical purposes maybe but not the truth.

This is materialism, and moreover a rather reductive version of materialism which seeks to eliminate mental phenomena rather than explain them. Our view of what is going on, through introspection or folk psychology, is just not relevant.

The version of epiphenomenalism that I discuss in the program is very different. Epiphenomenalism poses a direct challenge to materialism -- any version of materialism -- by asserting that it is logically possible that a perfect duplicate of GK could lack the extra something 'inside' that the original GK has, the variegated qualities of consciousness. The duplicate GK would talk just as I do, and therefore would say the very same things I say about 'the variegated qualities of consciousness' but that's all it would be -- talk. This is the 'zombie' thought experiment. The duplicate GK is a zombie, who is in all respects indistinguishable from me.

However, there is another way of posing the zombie question, which you mention in your essay: 'Without this 'interactionist soul', the brain is just a blind mechanism incapable of thinking for itself.' The finesse here is to point out that, at the present stage of scientific knowledge of the workings of the human brain, we just don't know for sure whether the brain in its physical embodiment is completely self-sufficient, or whether, as Descartes believed, it requires some kind of 'push' from outside to make it go.

This suggests the possibility of a different kind of 'zombie', more like the zombies in zombie movies, which walks around in a jerky way, is able to perform basic repetitive actions but nothing that requires thinking or deliberation. Maybe there is something else, something that does not belong to physics, which accounts for the way the brain works. Call it 'super-physical'. I'm not thinking of 'quantum effects', although maybe these could be somehow 'manipulated' by the super-physical aspect which escapes scientific description.

Is this just wild speculation? The point is about knowledge. We don't know for sure that the brain suffices to explain our capacity for conscious thought etc. We assume that it does. The second zombie scenario suggests that things could turn out otherwise.

But would this be dualism? Surely not in the Cartesian sense, because the whole point about Descartes' original argument for mind-body dualism is that I *know*, with complete certainty, that I would exist even if all physical things did not. The very same argument can be run for the hypothesized 'super-physical' something that makes the brain go. I *know*, with complete certainty, that I would exist even if neither physical nor super-physical things existed. The reason the argument works is that my knowledge of myself is from the 'first person' while any kind of entity or stuff, whether physical or super-physical, is conceived as having objective existence apart how things appear from my subjective point of view.

As you will gather from the program, I reject Descartes' argument. That doesn't automatically make me a materialist, for the reasons stated. I'm doubtful about the idea that there could be more to the world than the entities of physics (which already allows for layer upon layer of scientific description -- chemistry, biochemistry, biology, etc.). But neither can one be certain that everything is physical. It's just a working assumption that scientists make which could turn out to be false.

All the best,

Geoffrey

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Plato's theory of recollection and innate knowledge

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's theory of recollection and innate knowledge
Date: 4th February 2011 12:41

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 26 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Is there any type of knowledge of which Platonic recollection might be an appropriate account?'

This is an excellent essay, which draws a nice contrast between a 'narrow' and 'wide' view of innate knowledge. This fits the question because we are not only asked to consider how Plato actually viewed recollection but also whether there might be an approach for which (something like) 'Platonic recollection' might be 'appropriate', even if this was not Plato's intention.

You use the term 'innate knowledge' in considering the wide view. This naturally leads to a quasi-empiricist view where evolution plays the role once allocated to God, and which gives the empiricist much-needed ammunition in order to defend objections to the crude 'tabula rasa' picture.

The claim has been made (by Vlastos, in a well known article) that the knowledge in question was a priori knowledge. This obviously fits the geometrical example. But the claim is that knowledge of the meaning of 'virtue' or 'justice' is, according to Plato, like geometrical knowledge in being a priori. Before Quine's 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' article, it was considered perfectly acceptable to say that one knows a priori what one means by a term. That's knowledge of 'analytic truths'. On this picture, if we are analysing 'justice', say, or 'cause', what we need to do is introspect our understanding of the meaning of the term, and make this understanding explicit.

I don't think anyone would claim this today. Philosophers talk about 'theories' of justice or causation. The picture of language, as understood by a speaker, as a rich repository of a priori knowledge now looks naive, as does the idea of conceptual analysis making explicit what we already know implicitly as competent speakers. Competence in using the term 'just' or 'cause' does not suffice for knowing what justice or causation are. For that, one needs a theory, where all the real philosophical work goes.

Well, that's now, what about then?

My feeling is that the usual treatments of Plato on recollection fall far short of getting inside Plato's metaphysical vision of reality. In fact, the idea that the soul spends its time waiting to go into a body 'gazing' at the Forms, like an array of paintings on a wall, is ridiculous. You speak at one point of an infinite regress. That would be the case if my recollection was recollection of what I learned in a previous embodied life. But on Plato's theory, it is not necessary that my soul has ever existed in a body before it existed in this particular body.

However, we still have to account for the ability of the soul to recognize the form, say, of Justice or the form of Equality as the form that it is. Here, an infinite regress does threaten (maybe that's what you meant?). As Meno says, if you don't know what you are looking for then you won't recognize it even if you stumble across it. If I don't know what I'm looking at right now (say, I'm a not-yet embodied soul contemplating the form of Justice) what extra information could possibly help me? (Don't say, 'a label'!)

What this neglects is that Plato relies very strongly on mythical language to express something which he felt unable to express in prosaic terms. He is dealing with the deepest mysteries of human existence. Each of us as an inner nature, he believed, which in some way reproduces the nature of reality itself. One could talk of 'similarity of structure', but the notion of 'structure' doesn't quite succeed in expressing the idea.

The thought came to me recently that the form of 'virtue' (so close to the form of the 'Good') is the key here. What is virtue for a human being? Meno thrashes about. He doesn't get close, doesn't even get to first base. In the Republic, Plato has something interesting to say about this, concerning a similarity of structure between the soul and the ideal polis, but this is still on the level of myth. Reality is rational, has a rational nature or structure (Hegel: 'The rational is the real.') You and I duplicate that structure in our own souls. How could real knowledge be anything other than self-knowledge?

To know what virtue is, really is, is nothing less than knowing our ultimate place and destiny in the universe, the reason why we are here, as well as how we should live and what we should aim for. I think Plato thought this. From this perspective, Meno's question acquires an entirely different aspect. Yes, we must seek to recollect. But we will never get there, never reach the final knowledge which Socrates proposes in his innocent seeming question, 'What is virtue?'

All the best,

Geoffrey

Theory of descriptions: Strawson vs Russell

To: Emelie G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Theory of descriptions: Strawson vs Russell
Date: 27th January 2011 14:14

Dear Emelie,

Thank you for your email of 20 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Logic module, in response to the question, ''The present King of France is bald' is neither true nor false. So Russell's Theory of definite descriptions is mistaken.' Discuss.'

You give a good, clear exposition of the bare bones of Russell's theory, as given in his article 'On Denoting', followed by a brief account Strawson's response to Russell in his article 'On Referring'.

The crux of your argument is that (i) Strawson's claims regarding our intuitions about which statements have or fail to have a truth value are inconclusive, in the light of examples which tend to bring out contrary intuitions. (ii) There are cases where Strawson's view cannot be applied, e.g. 'The greatest prime number does not exist' and 'The centre of mass of the Solar System is constantly changing.'

Let's start with (ii). I don't think Strawson would feel that these are particularly impressive or difficult counterexamples.

'The greatest prime number does not exist,' is a very odd way of saying, 'There is no greatest prime number,' which is explicitly a quantified statement.

'The centre of mass of the Solar System' may be constantly changing, but the presupposition of making this statement, Strawson would say, is that the Solar System has a centre of mass, which successively occupies different spatial positions. If in giving a paper to a conference of astrophysicists, I stated, 'The second centre of mass of the Solar System moves in the opposite direction to the first centre of mass,' the audience would express the same perplexity as someone who is told that the Present King of France is bald. As any first-year physics student knows, there can only be one centre of mass, that's just what centre of mass is, and anyone who assumes the opposite isn't saying something false, they are talking complete and utter nonsense.

On the other hand, if in my paper I had said, 'I believe that I have discovered a second centre of mass of the Solar System', then the focus would be on whether my thesis was true or not. Once again, my statement is now explicitly a quantified statement, as in the example of 'the greatest prime number'.

Strawson isn't denying that there is a role for quantification in natural language: his case is that this role is far less than Russell would have it.

So, what is the case that Strawson is making? As you present it, his argument relies exclusively on our intuitions about whether a statement can be said to 'true' or 'false', or lacking in truth value. And as you point out, intuitions cut both ways. It all looks very inconclusive. (A popular nickname for Strawson amongst my generation of students was 'Strawman'. I think in this case your 'Strawson' is indeed a straw man. His 'objection' to Russell seems to carry very little weight and is easily defeated.)

I would like to give Strawson a run for his money. First off, we need to decide a big question, which you don't discuss, namely why it is so important to fill truth-value gaps. (There is an excellent 1959 paper by Michael Dummett on this question, 'Truth', reprinted in 'Truth and Other Enigmas'. Although the paper is short, it is quite difficult. However, I am mentioning it because of its importance.) The short answer is that if we allow truth value gaps, logic gets rather complicated and difficult to do, and there is a premium, as Russell recognized, in being able to apply first-order predicate logic to natural language.

However, this doesn't mean that we should be prepared to pay any price to fill truth-value gaps. So what is the real motivation for Strawson's view? Strawson believed that he had discovered an important concept which is pervasive in natural language. The example of non-referring singular terms is just one case of this phenomenon: the phenomenon of presupposition. First-order predicate logic, as described by Frege and Russell fails to take account of this important phenomenon.

Is he right? How useful is the notion of presupposition? Where else can you find examples of the application of this notion? Can you think of any?

Another point made by Strawson concerns the difference between a Rusellian 'proposition' and what we would refer to, in ordinary language, as a 'statement'. It is not implausible to argue that the primary unit so far as understanding a language is concerned, is a statement, a form of words which can be true on some occasions, and false on other occasions. E.g. 'The snow has melted.' Yesteday, the statement was false because there was still snow on the ground. Today, the statement is true. In a country where snow never falls, the statement cannot be used to state something true, or to state something false -- in other words, it doesn't have a use, because the presupposition fails. By contrast, Russell insists on identifying 'meaning' with the particular use of a sentence on a particular occasion. So, whereas for Strawson a statement sometimes has a use and sometimes not -- which seems intuitively plausible -- for Russell, every occasion on which a person 'asserts a proposition' should be evaluated in the same way, regardless of the circumstances.

All the best,

Geoffrey