Friday, April 29, 2011

Essays on Berkeley and on the fear of death

To: Howard D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Berkeley and on the fear of death
Date: 22 March 2002 13:16

Dear Howard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 February, with your fourth essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, 'George Berkeley 1685-1753', and for your e-mail of 24 February, with your fifth essay, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?'

Well done for completing the program. I will be sending a Certificate and Mentor's report.


This is a useful introduction to Berkeley's philosophy.

You say, 'existing empiricist philosophy (such as that of Locke) resulted in unnecessary doubts about the reliability of our senses and what we can know'. The standard view of Berkeley, is that his theory is a direct response to Locke. Locke sets out to explain how we obtain our 'ideas', not only of general qualities like red or square, but of particular 'material things' in the world as bearers of those qualities. Certainly, Berkeley knew that his readers would be familiar with Locke, and would share his sense of puzzlement at how Locke manages to pull of the 'trick' of explaining how we can arrive at a concept of material substance, when from the start Locke is only prepared to accept an account in terms of sense impressions and the concepts we form on the basis of sense impressions.

So, it looks as though one might outflank Berkeley by pointing out that the fault is not with the idea of 'material substance' as such, but only with Locke's treatment of material substance.

I don't think that this is true. As evidence, I would cite continued interest in Berkeley's ideas. There is a book by John Foster, 'The Case for Idealism' which presents a contemporary version of Berkeley's attack on the concept of matter.

The key argument, for Foster and I believe for Berkeley also, is based on the idea of a 'topic neutral description'. The term 'topic neutral description' was actually first coined in the 60's by the 'Australian materialists' Armstrong and Smart (I don't know who was first). Their idea is that when we say, 'Fred is having an experience of red', the conditions which make this true can be given in a manner which does not imply the existence of a 'raw feel' of red in Fred's mind. Talk of what people experience is talk about what they do and are able to do, which only implies *something* going on inside them. But this description leaves open the possibility that this 'something' is a purely physical process. The idea of an extra non-physical 'something' drops out of the picture.

Now watch how the idealist turns the tables: "In the statement, 'Fred perceives the red apple', the conditions which make this true can be given in a manner which does not imply the existence of a 'material substance' outside Fred's mind. Talk of what people perceive in the world is talk about their experiences, which only implies *something* existing outside them. But this description leaves open the possibility that this 'something' is a purely mental entity. The idea of an extra non-mental 'something' drops out of the picture."

The thought in each case is the idea that we are tempted to make a claim, which turns out to be completely redundant. So no claim is made. In insisting on the 'extra something' in each case, we end up babbling.

In Berkeley's case, this is most clearly shown by contrasting him, not with Locke but with Descartes. Berkeley is in effect saying that with a good 'evil demon' who kept appearances going now and forever more, there would be no further *work* for God to do, nothing extra that God could add to the world.

One point I would make is that you very quickly move to include 'God' in Berkeley's philosophy. It is worth noting that Berkeley talks of statements about external things being conditional statements about experiences. E.g. 'There is a door behind me' means, 'If I were to turn round I would see a door'. If this conditional analysis could be carried through, there would be no need to put God in the picture. The reason God is needed is that the conditional analysis requires that, without God, there would be purely conditional statements experiences which are true, even though there is nothing in reality which *makes* them true.

Our fear of death

You seem to wander around the topic somewhat, although you do get to the main point in the end. The problem concerns our fear of death *as such*, not worries about the manner of our dying, or our fears about what an afterlife might be like, although these are common enough aspects of people's 'fear of death'.

The philosophical problem raised by this is that of giving a coherent account of the *object* of our fear. In other words, how is it possible to conceive of our own death?

Now, one explanation for the fear is that it is, as you say, fear of the unknown. It is the very fact that we cannot conceive of our own death that gives rise to the feeling of terror. It is true that we don't feel the same way about the time before we were born, as you point out. However, that is all water under the bridge. The problem is only one of abstract conception. Whereas our death is something we are inexorably moving towards. It is as if one thought, 'something is coming to get me, and I cannot form an idea of what it is.'

An alternative explanation of our fear of death is sometimes given, namely, that insofar as life is something we enjoy, we naturally don't want it to stop. For example, if there is a good film on TV tonight, and I die before then, I will miss the film. This is not as absurd as it sounds. Obviously, if I am dead, I am not going to 'miss' anything. However, if there are two possible lives I might live, which are identical up to a certain point, and one life includes this extra enjoyable item while the other does not, then surely the first life is preferable to the second. But the same argument can be extended indefinitely.

The reply is that this fails to capture the fear of death *as such*. Why, indeed should we feel fear, and not merely regret?

At the end of your essay, you refer to Wittgenstein's point that 'death is not an event in life.' This seems to be essentially the same view as that expressed by the Greek philosophy Epicurus, 'Where I am death is not; where death is, I am not.' Or is Wittgenstein expressing the much more potent thought, 'Where death is, the world is not'? ('the world is my world' according to Wittgenstein's solipsist).

The solution to the problem of our fear of death must involve facing the question of our *conception* of our own death. I don't think either Epicurus or Wittgenstein in the 'Tractuatus' succeed in doing this. Death is not a mere dissolution of elements as Epicurus believed, nor is it the 'end of the world' as Wittgenstein's solipsist believes.

Or perhaps, ultimately, our own death cannot be adequately conceived, and the answer is that this should inspire, not just fear, but metaphysical awe.

All the best,


Thought about objects and the nature of concepts

To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Thought about objects and the nature of concepts
Date: 22 March 2002 11:33

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your e-mail of 10 February, with your third paper for the Philosophy of Language program, 'No Object, No Thought' and for your e-mail of 1 March with your fourth paper, in response to the question 'What are concepts? How does analyzing the concept of a "concept" help to illuminate the way language works?'

I am sorry for the long delay in responding to your work.

In your e-mail of 10 February, you say, 'It seemed very plausible that language is a social behavior, and humans are active participants in language, and that words can have varied meanings and related thoughts. Is this a fair perception?'

I think that few philosophers of language would disagree with this. Where the disagreement emerges is how to explain these phenomena. For example, is there, as Wittgenstein in the 'Tractatus' believed, a precise logical structure and precise meanings underlying the vague and ambiguous language of everyday conversation? Or is it the case, as Wittgenstein later came to believe, that the true significance of language is located, not beneath the surface in some hidden logical structure but in the language games themselves?

Using formal logic to approach problems in the philosophy of language is neutral between these two diametrically opposed views. You can see formal logic as a mirror of the 'ultimate reality' or you can see it as a useful technical device which can be used to illuminate the way language works.

No object no thought

You make an assumption at the beginning of the paper which handicaps your argument considerably. However, it is possible to extract a version of your argument which still hold when that assumption is removed.

The problem stems from your example, 'Red cars are beautiful.' This is not a *particular* statement, a statement about an object, but a general statement. As such, there is no problem in understanding its meaning, even if there are no red cars in existence.

In order to have meaning, the concepts used in a general statement must have application, i.e. there must be conditions for their correct or incorrect use. However, it is possible for a concept to have conditions for application, even though the world is such that there are no objects falling under that concept.

So, for example, in a world where Henry Ford's rule, 'You can have any colour so long as it's black' was enforced, someone could meaningfully say, 'Red cars are beautiful'. Indeed what they said would be true, even though there are no red cars. On the other hand,it would be false, but still meaningful to say, 'there are beautiful red cars'. Either way, we understand perfectly well what it would be for an something to be a car and red.

The question, however, is about particular thoughts. A good example is 'George'. Let's say a manhunt is launched for George, the man who was described by the witness as running away from the building shortly after the time the murder was committed. Unknown to the police, the 'witness' is an attention seeker who has made the story up. Various things are 'known' about George: He is white, over six feet tall, skinny, has a scar on his left cheek etc. After seeing the pathologist's report, a police officer ventures the thought, 'George is a martial arts expert.'

According to the 'no object, no thought' view, there is no thought expressed by that statement.

On Russell's definite description analysis of proper names, on the other hand, there is a thought expressed, namely the general thought, 'There is a unique x such that x is white, over six feet etc. etc. and x killed the victim with a karate chop.' This general thought is false.

Why go for the 'no object, no thought' view? Because the alternative view according to which proper names are equivalent to descriptions would have the consequence that your thoughts always relate indirectly to the world, our thoughts are always general thoughts.

This might not seem so bad until one looks at the question of objects of demonstrative reference. Here too, Russell wants to say that our thoughts are always general rather than particular. This implies that the real 'objects' of our thoughts are always our own sense data.

Take the example, 'That bug is biting my leg.' You and I can see clearly that there is no bug there. So the subject's attempt at demonstrative reference has failed: they have tried to pick out a particular object in the world, but no object is there. The only 'bug' is a figment of their own imagination.

What you say about this is right, that we can between us talk about the 'bug' which isn't there. It can be a topic of conversation. However, it doesn't follow that we are forced to adopt Russell's conclusion that a subject's demonstrative thoughts about objects in the world are really general thoughts about their own sense data.

Nature of concepts

There are two issues here. The first issue concerns the difference between a concept and a mental image. The second issue concerns the idea of a concept as nothing more than a device of classification versus the idea of a concept as having a 'point', or embodying a theory, which enables an inference from the grounds for applying the concept to the consequences of applying it which would not be possible in the absence of that concept.

To get the imagist issue out of the way first. The witness (who is telling the truth this time) has an image in her mind of the man she saw leaving the bank. But when the witness says, 'He was white, wore a dark suit and waved a shotgun' the meanings of her words depend upon a common understanding of the concepts 'white man', 'dark suit', 'shotgun'.

So much is agreed by the 'classification' theorist and the 'grounds and consequences' theorist. So where does the difference emerge?

When you say, 'A look at investigative activities hints that there may be more to conceptualization than processing an image', I would like to read this as, 'A look at investigative procedures hints that there may be more to conceptualization than classifying an object.' That seems to be the view which you are arguing for.

In that case, however, 'white man', 'dark suit', 'shotgun' might not give us much. But let's see. One could ask about the assumptions built into the concept of 'white man'. An alien from Mars visiting the USA would see people of very conceivable shade. (There is that famous scene in 'Shaft' where the private investigator holds up a cup to the detectives face: 'You're not so white.' And the detective responds, holding up a black biro, 'You're not so black.') Socially and politically, however, 'white man', 'black man' are terms which do not merely classify but which carry a complex structure of theory. It seems to me that this is the point you are making.

For a detective, there are aspects of meaning to certain concepts which someone who was not in that job would not appreciate. For example, consider the statement, 'The witness was co-operative'. In everyday life, we know what it means for someone to be co-operative. The shop assistant who bends down to pick up the apples that have fallen out of your shopping bag. The child who agrees to go upstairs because it's bedtime. But in a policing context, 'co-operative witness' is surrounded by theory: theory about methods of questioning, about human veracity, etc. I am sure you can think of better examples.

I wasn't quite clear how you were using the quote from Ayer (not Ayers). Is it like this: that talk of 'empirical verification' suggests, as you say, a 'checklist' procedure, with Yes/No answers whereas in fact, the way our assertions show sensitivity to the evidence on the basis of which they are asserted is far more complex?

You talk of combining concepts which you say 'takes further argument away from an empirical basis for the use of language...The concept of conceptualization is the oven from which logical relationships spring forth from the ingredients combined in different ways to create products for consumption.'

I can understand this as saying that the 'criteria and consequences' view makes it much clearer how we are able to exercise our creativity in forming new concepts. On the simple classificatory model, concepts ought to combine automatically. But in reality this is never so.

All the best,


P.S. I don't have a 'headline' article for Issue 28 of Philosophy Pathways, which is due to come out this Sunday. Is there any chance that your piece on methodology and policing might be ready by then?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Criteria for the identity of a person over time

To: Michael W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Criteria for the identity of a person over time
Date: 21 March 2002 14:10

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your letter of 3 March with your third essay for Philosophy of Mind, in response to the question, 'Can one give adequate criteria for the identity of a person over time? Illustrate your answer with thought experiments describing "problem cases" of personal identity.'

'Each time we try to establish a baseline upon which to measure change we find that that baseline needs another baseline of its own - ad infinitum!'

I am impressed by the way you have conducted your own original investigation of personal identity, rather than go to the books and repeat the usual things about the 'memory criterion' or 'body criterion' etc.

The way you have laid out the options, both for what you call 'internal identity' and 'external identity' - under the headings 'addition, subtraction division and multiplication' - makes it possible to approach the problem at a considerable degree of abstraction but at the same time very simply.

I would have liked to see more argument for your conclusion, which you state in the lines I have quoted above. It is really just a matter of spelling things out, pointing to the way the 'baseline' shifts in each case.

It is really remarkable, that things to do with what is 'inner', the mind, and things to do with what is 'outer', the body, come under the very same logical categories. How is that possible? Is it just a happy accident, or does it show something about the concept, not of 'inner' or 'outer' but of temporal existence as such?

Looking more closely at the categories, however, I detect possible signs of strain. I think you have tried too hard to relate the categories to examples in the actual world.

Addition and subtraction are easy enough. An entity which exists over time, be it mental or physical, can have bits added on to it or have bits taken away. It is not quite so clear from your examples that 'division' means the same thing in the mental and physical case. Here we need the help of a bit of science fiction.

Mental division, in terms of the problem you are investigating, ought to be something that happens to an entity which was previously undivided. In the mental case, this would happen if all your mental states divided into two packages, each gaining their own identity in the process. The criterion for such division can be stated as follows: A and B are in the same mental packet if and only if every mental item that is present to A is also present to B. If the packet now splits, with A in one packet and B in another, then the same condition can be stated with A and C in one packet and with B and D in another packet. This may or may not be the way some schizophrenic states actually arise: I suspect not.

In the physical case, we would be dealing with human fission, a human being splitting like an amoeba, rather than Siamese twins. Siamese twins do not pose the same challenge for personal identity, because it is generally the case that the twins, though physically connected, are best described as two individuals who share common parts. Where things would get tricky, is if the brain itself was one of the parts/organs that needed to be divided.

Mental multiplication, on the other hand, is something that could be happening right now, although we can never know. As I type these words, a new 'self' comes into existence, thinking exactly the same thoughts and feeling exactly the same feelings, then another then another, until there are thousands of selves each thinking *I* am the one who makes the decision to type the next word. This is actually a powerful argument against a purely inner definition of personal identity: namely, the fact that there is no criterion for *counting* inner 'selves'.

The external case of multiplication is the spectacular example of the person-duplicating machine.

Is that all? Actually, I think not. It could be argued that you have missed out one of the most difficult challenges for the definition of identity, namely, gradual replacement.

Take something neutral, such as the car I used to own. I can add to my Ford Capri, or take things away from it. If Martians point their ray guns at it, it can undergo fission or duplication. But there is also something common or garden which happens to things all the time - and people too. You replace one wheel, then another, and another. New clutch, new water pump, new differential, rewelding here and here and here. Each time we have the 'same' Capri with modifications. Yet it is conceivable that the outcome of this process could be a car which might have no physical bits belonging to the original car.

(Then someone goes to a scrap heap and makes a car out of all the original bits.)

In your terms, gradual replacement is simply the result of successive subtractions and additions. However, these two operations can be combined in a way that poses a special challenge to the idea of identity.

All the best,


Problems for materialism and the nature of space

To: Max T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Problems for materialism and the nature of space
Date: 21 March 2002 12:02

Dear Max,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 February, with your third essay for Possible World Machine, 'Difficulties of Materialist View of Mind', and for your e-mail of 14 March, with your fourth essay, 'In What Ways Does the Nature of Space Pose a Problem for Philosophy?'

Essay on mind

This essay benefits from your judicious choice, first, of Smart as a proponent of the mind-brain identity theory, and secondly the objections by Jackson and Kripke, which represent two of the most serious obstacles that a defender of the mind-brain identity theory needs to overcome.

One point that might be brought out in your account of Smart is that in presenting the mind-body identity claim as 'a matter of scientific enquiry to be settled by experiment and observation', Smart does appeal to an a priori principle: namely the principle of Occam's Razor.

A brain researcher with dualist leanings who accepted all the scientific findings might claim that even though the account of the workings of the brain is sufficient to account causally for everything human beings do and say, the possibility is left open that in addition to the physical aspect of a sensation of orange, which accounts for the subject's ability to discriminate oranges from apples, or their saying things like, 'I see an orange light', there exists a non-physical object, the 'quale' or 'raw feel' of orange, which is brought into existence by the brain processes, but does not itself have any causal effects. The name for this position is 'epiphenomenalism'.

Smart's view is that this violates Occam's Razor. It is unscientific because it posits an extra 'object' which plays no part in scientific explanation.

Frank Jackson's thought experiment of Mary in the black and white world seems to me quite powerful. We are assuming, of course, a future world where the explanation of why we see colours as colours has been discovered. Mary knows all this, she knows the total explanation, yet is unable to imagine what seeing colour would actually be 'like'. How is that possible? We can understand that Mary might be at a loss to identify colours, despite her vast knowledge, because there is something she doesn't *know how* to do, namely discriminate colours. But Jackson would reply that we are merely talking about a physical process of discrimination, not about the experience itself.

I fully go along with Kripke's claim that the identity must be necessary and cannot be contingent. I do not, however, see this as an insuperable obstacle for the materialist. The error which Smart makes is his reliance on Occam's razor. A satisfactory refutation of mind-body dualism needs to meet the idea of qualia head on, e.g. appealing to the private language argument.

Essay on space

From the point of view of understanding how there can be such a thing as experience, the task which Kant set out to accomplish in the first part of the Critique of Pure Reason, one arguably needs a lot less than the fully fledged concept of three dimensional, infinitely extended space within any given finite portion of which there exist a non-denumerable infinity of spatial positions.

It is clear that *our* experience is far richer than the minimal kind of experience which would be sufficient to justify an objective, spatial (or quasi-spatial) interpretation.

So, a simple model of 'experience' might be moving around fixed positions on a finite, two dimensional matrix. The description of the subject's progress is given by the experiences it enjoys at each fixed position, and the 'theory' which describes the matrix and the perceptible qualities which are to be found at each fixed position.

That would be sufficient to justify a statement like, 'The subject perceives that the quality at position, x, y is blue.'

Mathematics tells us that the more complex, infinitely extended and non-denumerably subdivided space is possible. But there is no way, other than by appeal to experience to demonstrate that this more complex space is the space of the actual world. Just as there is no way to demonstrate that space is Euclidean or non-Euclidean other than by appeal to empirical scientific theory.

I notice that you list Foster's 'Case For Idealism' as one of your references. One connection with the previous essay which you might not have noticed is the way that Foster presents an analysis of matter and space which is the *inversion* of Smart's analysis of mental phenomena. Foster makes the point that Smart's idea of a 'topic neutral description' is an equally powerful weapon in the hands of the idealist.

So, when Smart says, 'I can tell you what "having an experience of red" means in purely physical terms', Foster (or Berkeley) can say, 'I can tell you what "the cat sitting on the mat" means in purely experiential terms.' Just as there are objectors who beat their breasts (ineffectively, in Smart's view) and shout 'what about qualia!' so there are objectors to Berkeley's theory who beat their breasts and shout 'what about matter!'

The materialist, and the idealist, each claim to have told us everything about 'what there is', leaving nothing out.

All the best,


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Russell's theory of descriptions

To: James D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Russell's theory of descriptions
Date: 21 March 2002 10:40

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 February, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, on Russell's theory of descriptions.

I am please that you have gone to the original text ('On Denoting') to research this essay. Let me first pick out the salient points which you have noted in your essay:

1. Definite descriptions like 'the present King of England' are 'denoting phrases' which contrast with indefinite descriptions such as 'a man' or 'all men'.

2. Definite descriptions play a key role in accounting for the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description.

3. The context principle: A phrase only has meaning in the context of the statement in which it is embedded. I like the way you put this: 'phrases in themselves have no meanings they are merely cogs in a wheel'. (The picture that comes to mind is a gear mechanism, where several cogs of different sizes are working together.)

4. The meaning of ordinary proper names are given by a set of associated descriptions, although no single description is an adequate substitute for the name.

5. Surface structure is not always a reliable guide to underlying logical form: 'the language structure we use sometimes hides beneath its exterior the real, if somewhat oblique meaning of a name or statement.'

One glaring omission from your account, however, is the *analysis* which Russell offers of definite descriptions, and the *motivation* for that analysis.

Very briefly, if we take a statement like, 'The present King of France is bald', we find that both the statement and its negation, 'the present King of France is not bald' are false. This violates the principle of non-contradiction. Russell's explanation is that the correct account of the logical form of the statement is,

'There is one and only one x such that x is a present King of France, AND x is bald.'

In other words, two claims are being made by the speaker who utters the statement: (a) there is a unique individual x who is the present King of France (b) that individual x is bald.

Now we can see how the original statement and its negation can both be false: namely if it is false that 'there is a unique individual x who is the present King of France'

Note that the occurrence of 'x' in (a) and (b) shows that these two claims are part of a single 'propositional function' as Russell calls it. The explanation of the logical structure of such statements belongs to the theory of quantification which Russell inherited from Frege.

We can see here a ready illustration of the context principle (3. above) which Russell also inherited from Frege.

That is all one needs to say so far as the 'logic' of the 'theory of definite descriptions' goes. However, Russell goes on to apply the theory in his account of knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description.

You need to make clear that this account of knowledge involves two distinct ideas. The first idea is that we do, in fact, succeed in using proper names of people, or places, in order to communicate even though we have never been 'acquainted' with them. Here 'acquaintance' is understood in the ordinary, common sense way, as meeting someone and being introduced to them, or visiting a place. One possible explanation of our linguistic competence is that the meaning of a name is given by a set of associated descriptions. For example, when I say 'Tony Blair is in France' the meaning of the proper name 'Tony Blair' is given by, 'the present Prime Minister of Britain', 'the husband of Cheri Blair' etc.

From this relatively common sense view, Russell then makes a strikingly bold metaphysical claim: that we are not, in fact, 'acquainted' with any of the things we take ourselves to be acquainted with in the common sense way. The only objects we really 'know', the only objects with which our minds actually make contact, are our own private sense data. So, for example, the meaning of 'the Moon' is not the object which I see in the sky, but a complex of definite descriptions referring to my own private sense data.

It is important to distinguish the different claims Russell makes, because we are interested in whether what he says about definite descriptions is true.

Someone could buy the definite descriptions theory, as an account of the 'logic' of definite descriptions, but reject Russell's 'bundle of descriptions' account of the meaning of proper names.

Someone could buy Russell's 'bundle of descriptions' account of the meaning of proper names, but reject his metaphysical theory according to which the only real 'objects' are our own sense data.

- Despite the 'glaring omission' which I mentioned above, I feel reasonably confident from what you have written, that you have got the gist of Russell's theory. The most important aspect is the idea that the logical form of a statement can be different from its surface structure, Perhaps you can appreciate how that idea is one of the most important single ideas in the history of twentieth century analytical philosophy.

All the best,


Zombies and philosophy

To: Tom M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Zombies and philosophy
Date: 18 March 2002 15:50

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 February, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, 'What is the philosophical significance of the idea of a zombie?'

This is a clearly laid out essay, which follows the main lines explored in the program. You show a good, clear grasp of what it would mean to talk of a zombie in the philosophical sense.

One question which you explore is the thought experiment of 'becoming a zombie'. As this appears to be central to the case for the coherence of the idea of a zombie, it is worth looking in detail at the criticisms you make of it. You say:

(a) 'A zombie is empty inside, without thoughts or fears. If an experience as described happened to us [viz. the experience of alternating 'blind' left and right sides] we would be cut off from our bodies, receiving no input from our senses and exerting no control over our actions. However, there would still be emotions and thoughts in our inner world and thus by definition we would not be zombies.'

(b) 'It also appears implausible that you could have a detailed awareness of what you could not sense.'

As the worry in (b) is one which I voice in the unit, citing the example of drawing a flower from life, I will concentrate on objection (a).

The logical structure of the argument for the possibility of experiences which would give support to the hypothesis that one had become a zombie for a specified period is similar to an argument which has been given (by Richard Swinburne in his book 'Space and Time') for the coherence of the hypothesis of a world in which every process stopped for a specified period.

Obviously, there would be no-one around to witness that everything had stopped (and we are not relying on the idea of a God-like observer outside of all temporal processes). However, if everything on the one 'side' of the universe was observed to stop every two years with lawlike regularity and everything on the other 'side' of the universe was observed to stop every three years, that would constitute acceptable empirical evidence that everything in the universe - the two sides simultaneously - stops every six years.

It is also worth noting that John Searle offers an argument where he describes the experience of someone who finds that parts of their consciousness are disappearing, bit by bit. However, this does seem vulnerable to the objection that you give, namely, that the process can only go so far.

One question is whether zombiehood can be conceived of as something that could happen a bit at a time, as Searle thinks, or as I describe in the thought experiment of the bus, while the non-zombie part of you 'looked on'. Suppose that we did accept that such an idea is coherent, i.e. that this is a possible experience. In that case, you need to supply a reason why we could not find ourselves in the position of making the same kind of prediction as the inhabitants of the universe where the two alternate regions freeze at regular intervals.

My own view, however, is that Swinburne and the philosopher who puts forward the 'zombie on a bus' argument have made a similar mistake. They imagine that they have explained what it *means* for there to be a zombie, or what it means for all events in the universe to stop, by explaining what it would be to *discover* or find reliable evidence that this was so. My question would be, Why make this concession to verificationism? ('verificationism' = the idea that the concept of factual truth is tied to the possibility of empirical verification).

In other words, why can't the dualist say, 'I have arguments for my view which do *not* depend on the idea that there could be evidence that a zombie existed. It is a consequence of my dualist theory, however, that it is logically possible for there to be a zombie, although evidence for the existence of a zombie could never, in principle, be found.'

In saying this, the dualist is making a similar claim to one who, in the parallel case of the possibility of a time when nothing changes, argues that this idea makes sense even if nothing could count as sufficient evidence that a period of time without change had elapsed.

(As you will discover in due course, I think that the zombie hypothesis is incoherent, but not for the reasons discussed here.)

All the best,


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pythagoras: numbers and reality

To: Leonidas M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Pythagoras: numbers and reality
Date: 12 March 2002 15:57

Dear Leonidas,

I do apologize for keeping you waiting so long for my reply to your notes on unit 14 of the Ancient Philosophy program (11 February) and your second essay, on Pythagoras (9 February). If you've followed my Glass House notebook and the Philosophy Pathways newsletter you will know that these last four weeks have been a traumatic time for me. This is in fact the second day of what is going to be a long haul: catching up on a month's backlog of letter writing.

I'll start with the essay:

'Just as Thales said everything is made of water, so the Pythagoreans said that everything is made of numbers.' - is that a fair assessment of the Pythagorean theory? Were they proved right?

In unit 6, I do not give much credence to the idea that things 'are' numbers, emphasizing instead the doctrine of Philolaus (echoed in the 'Critique of Pure Reason' where Kant discusses 'intensive and extensive magnitudes') that everything that exists can be analysed into 'unlimited' and 'limiter'. In your essay, you make a creditable effort to show how the idea that the fundamental elements of things literally 'are' numbers is not so mad as it sounds - by tracing the connection noticed by Guthrie with the primitive belief that 'there is a natural affiliation between the object and a part of the object, or the picture or even the name of it'.

A classic illustration of this is the voodoo doll, which you stick pins in, in order to cause injury or death to your enemy, which the doll, in some sense, 'is' and does not merely represent.

We are not talking about rational inference here, but rather 'theory' in the sense of explaining something unknown by analogy with, or using as a metaphor something known. In this case, what is 'known' is something that we would call a primitive superstition. Yet it doesn't take such a great effort to get into the mind-set where the idea of affinities makes sense. - This is something I admit that I completely missed.

From the opposite side, historically - from contemporary physics - it appears that physicists are now talking about explaining matter/energy in terms of something yet more fundamental, which is not a million miles away from Pythagorean 'laws of harmony'. Only certain sets of possible laws, it now seems, obey the mathematical requirements for laws that are truly universal, equally true from all points of view, at all places and times. And these laws are held to be sufficient in themselves for the generation of matter. (I have heard such an enterprise described as 'experimental metaphysics'.) A nineteenth century physicist would surely regard such ideas as the wildest fantasy, certainly as far out as the Pythagorean theory.

Unit 14

Let's look at your four alternatives, A-D.

A. 'Any human can formulate his own theory about the ultimate nature of things...and there is no way to choose which theory is valid.' - This would be consistent with what Karl Popper says about scientific theories being conjectures which the experimenter seeks to refute. The fact that a scientific theory has passed every test we have been able to devise does not show that it is true. Truth, as correspondence with what is objectively out there, can never be known. However, although Popper agrees that 'any human being' can formulate a theory', it doesn't follow that any theory is as *good* or as *useful* as any other theory.

B. 'Human beings can not surpass their sensory even if things exist beyond and independently of human perception, we can not find a Truth accounting for their existence.' - This looks like a formulation of Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena. Sensory perception, according to Kant, gives 'things' in 'space' (there could be no perception at all if data could not be organized into a framework involving space or something analogous to space). But 'things' in 'space' are not *things in themselves*. Of that, we can have no knowledge.

C. 'There is no such thing as truth...'. - This I have difficulty with, or, rather what you go on to say as the two alternatives: idealism (to exist is to be or be perceived), or naive realism (things are exactly as they appear). Berkeley, according to Kant, falls into the fallacy of thinking that how things are in themselves (i.e. in God's mind) can be conceived in terms of concepts that apply to the human, finite case. So there are our perceptions and God's perceptions. According to either Kant or Berkeley, however, there *is* truth, namely, how things are in metaphysical reality. The second of your two alternatives seems pretty crazy. (I remember our daughter when she was small remarked that the sun followed her when she walked along. 'Suppose that someone is walking in the opposite direction?' I asked her, 'Does the sun follow them too?' 'Yes, she replied, without any sense of inconsistency.)

D. 'The real nature of things can be conceived through sensory perception and not through reasoning alone.' - That will do as a statement of empiricism.

- One alternative that you have missed is what I describe as 'anti-realism' in unit 14, which seems to be a rather better candidate to the ones you give for a theory that says, 'There is no such thing as Truth.'

The question left unresolved by all these alternatives - all these 'isms' - is whether Protagoras is posing a problem that we should be worried about ('knowledge is not possible because man is the measure'), or proposing a solution ('knowledge is not possible according to the traditional view, but it is possible according to my view that man is the measure'). My feeling, for what it is worth, is that Protagoras is talking about metaphysics and also about ethics, conceived as part of metaphysics. His statement is an attack on metaphysics, and simultaneously a defence of 'down to earth' knowledge.

All the best,


On necessity, happiness and freedom

To: Diana M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On necessity, happiness and freedom
Date: 12 March 2002 14:06

Dear Diana,

I do apologize for keeping you waiting so long for my reply to your first essay for the Associate program, 'On Necessity, Happiness and Freedom' (13.2.02). If you've followed my Glass House notebook and the Philosophy Pathways newsletter you will know that these last four weeks have been a traumatic time for me. This is in fact the second day of what is going to be a long haul: catching up on a month's backlog of letter writing. Yesterday, I sent out over 5000 words in 6 hours - and then collapsed from exhaustion.

I hope I can to justice to your essay.

Just a comment on your letter. You say, 'I didn't and don't want to work on other people's ideas...'. Not a totally unexpected response from someone who has been deeply involved with reading Schopenhauer, one of the most belligerently original philosophers in the history of philosophy! - But then one remembers that Schopenhauer only got to his philosophy through a deep study of Kant.

It is impossible to avoid writing on the basis of what you have learned and studied. If you really wanted to avoid all contact with other philosopher's ideas then it would be better if you never opened a philosophy book. You don't need me to tell you that would not get very far with that approach!

There are different ways to approach the task of writing a philosophy essay. (See my piece, 'Writing a Philosophy Essay' on the Pathways web site: An essay can set out to describe the views of a particular historical philosopher, or a controversy between two or more philosophers. Or it can set out to describe a philosophical problem, and a possible response or responses to it. Even if you take the latter route, however, it is impossible to avoid the fact that you are coming at the problem from *somewhere*. The account of the problem is one that you may have read in the book by A or the article by B. Even if it seems to you that you thought up the problem, all for yourself, it will have been suggested to you by things people are saying or writing, on TV or in the newspapers. It will be 'in the air'.

Whatever kind of essay you set out to write, the fact remains that you are putting forward your own view. Even if you restrict the essay to, 'Schopenhauer's theory of X', it is your interpretation that you are putting forward.

With that long preamble, let's look at your essay:

Well, surprise, surprise, the essay could almost have been written by Schopenhauer himself. It is difficult to point to any specific thing you say that Schopenhauer would have disagreed with.

Schopenhauer accepts, just like Spinoza before him, that the freedom of indetermination is no freedom at all. An action is free if and only if it is determined by reason.

But where does reason - or rather, where do reasons - come from? Let's take an elementary case. I go to the fridge to get an apple to eat. 'Why did you take that apple?' 'Because I was hungry.' Amongst the things we recognize as legitimate reasons are things we have no choice about. They are given, as part of our biological heritage. Hunger as such is a natural instinct or urge; but 'I am hungry' is a reason. We cannot chose whether or not to feel hunger - although we can, of course, choose whether to do anything about it, or even, with sufficient motivation or practice, whether to 'mind' it. As a reason for action, 'I am hungry' has to compete alongside other reasons.

On the next level, however, are the more interesting reasons, the reasons we ourselves have created. These reasons concern all the things human beings do - all the goals they set themselves - other than simply to survive or procreate. We do not, each of us, create these reasons for ourselves from scratch but inherit them from our culture.

However, we also have the freedom to create new 'reasons'. This seems to be the thing that most interests you. We are not bound by what others have done, or by what others have regarded in the past as a good or bad thing to do or to aim at.

However, there are limits. If I want to make an X, or do Y, I should be able to explain to someone else what kind of thing I am doing. Am I making a work of art? is it a scientific experiment? is it an act of worship? what is there about making an X or doing Y that is desirable, that makes it worth doing?

You seem to see a problem here: 'Being happiness attainable only by each individual, defining this as the satisfaction of both natural and created necessity for each person, the concept of man must necessarily be put apart.'

Why can't we say that it is up to each individual to 'set the limits of his own created necessity' - in other words to set one's own unique goals, to make one's own life plan for oneself - while at the same time recognizing that any such *existential* choice is one that the individual can explain to others, using the common language which they share, in the way I have indicated above?

One particularly interesting aspect of your essay is the way it recalls the ideas of Nietzsche. Only certain special individuals, according to Nietzsche, have the power to create values (= 'reasons' for the purpose of this essay) as opposed to living by values that others had created: the individual Nietzsche calls the 'Ubermensch' or superman. But why? why can't we all be ubermenschen?

All the best,


Monday, April 25, 2011

Xenophanes' reflections on the limits of human knowledge

To: Simon A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Xenophanes' reflections on the limits of human knowledge
Date: 21 February 2002 13:29

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your e-mail of 12 February with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What is it to "know" that something is the case? Can the truth of a scientific theory ever be known? Illustrate your answer by reference to Xenophanes' reflections on the limits of human knowledge.'

The life of Pyrrho of Elis (365-270 BC) overlaps with that of Aristotle (384-322 BC), so Pyrrho came long after the Presocratic philosophers. However, it is a good idea to contrast, as you have done, his ideas with those of the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes, and to speculate on how Pyrrho and Xenophanes would debate the question of the limits of human knowledge.

First, however, we need a working definition of knowledge. This is the first thing that the question asks for. If we don't have an idea of what would *count* as knowing something, we are not going to get very far in investigating the question of whether we can know the truth of a scientific theory, or the more general question of the limits of human knowledge, or indeed whether knowledge is attainable at all.

Knowledge is different from a belief which happens, by accident, to have hit on the truth. For example, suppose that the universe really is made of water. Then Thales' belief was true. But Thales' didn't *know* that the universe was made of water. He just guessed and got lucky.

Similarly, to take a case from everyday life, someone asks me the way to the market and I confidently give directions, not wishing to seem ignorant. In fact, my directions were correct, but I didn't know they were correct. I guessed, and my guess just happened be right.

You've obviously taken the point about the link between Xenophanes' argument for the existence of one god, and his argument for scepticism. How does this affect the question whether, or how we can know the truth of a scientific theory? You say, 'Thus he came out against over-zealous thinkers who took their beliefs for the truth and urged them to moderate their assertions and subject them to rigorous and objective testing as to whether they resemble the truth.'

There are two ideas here:

1. Testing must be rigorous and 'objective' rather than subjective, in the sense of producing results that different investigators are able reliably to agree on. Clearly, the Presocratic physicists had serious shortcomings in this area.

2. The result of this process is still not truth, but only something that 'resembles' the truth. What does that mean? A scientific theory that has withstood rigorous testing may not the final truth, but we can still *count* on it as a reliable guide to action. We can reasonably expect similar results in the future to the results we have obtained many times in the past.

Is this Xenophanes? We know that putting ideas 1. and 2. into practice has very real practical benefits. However, Xenophanes did not have an example of 'good' science to point to. So his message is predominantly negative, while avoiding the extreme scepticism of Pyrrho. So although one cannot read 1. and 2. into what Xenophanes says, it is reasonable to suppose that he would have agreed to these two principles, had he known what we know.

The contrast with Pyrrho is very striking. I am not sure about the argument you attribute to Pyrrho. The argument from illusion was stated by Descartes in the First Meditation in the seventeenth century. Pyrrho's main argument, as I understand it, is simply that equally persuasive reasons can be given for or against any given belief.

Whereas Xenophanes' moderate scepticism can be seen as a spur to scientific inquiry, the scepticism advanced by Pyrrho seems self-defeating. And indeed we are told that he and his followers made the attempt to live life according to the principles of scepticism, avoiding beliefs of any kind, and 'living by nature'.

You ask, 'How could Pyrrho be sceptical about others and be sure about his theory of scepticism?' I used to think that all Pyrrho could meet this criticism by arguing, 'Either we know one thing - the truth of scepticism - or we know nothing. Either way, there is no other knowledge.' However, it seems to me now that this is wrong, and that the objection is in fact a serious criticism of his position. It is not sufficient in order to answer your question, for Pyrrho to acknowledge that he can be wrong about his sceptical theory, as you suggest.

This is the reason. If Pyrrho is wrong in his extreme scepticism, then we have nothing to worry about. If he is right, then we do have something to worry about. In that case, what we are presented with is not the Pyrrhonian argument for scepticism as such but rather a pair of alternatives, whose *probability* we are free to judge:

Alternative A. Pyrrho's argument is valid. Therefore we know nothing, and science is a waste of effort.

Alternative B. Pyrrho's argument is invalid. Therefore we should continue pursuing science.

Having accepted that he might be wrong, Pyrrho cannot plead that there is, say, a fifty per cent chance that he is right. We can confidently say, 'Science seems to work. That's good enough for us,' and assign a 99.9 per cent probability to Alternative B!

All the best,


Essay on 'I'

To: Paul C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on 'I'
Date: 14 February 2002 11:44

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your e-mail of 5 February, with your fifth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program. Although you do not state the title, I take it that your essay is on the subject, 'I'.

This is a case where, because no question has been set, we need to be clear about what is, or might be the question.

You get off on the wrong foot (slightly) when you venture that 'I a truth valid with reference to every living and knowing being...'. What is true, we may safely say, about any living, sentient being is that it is a subject. It would follow that the question we are asking is merely what it is, in general, to be a subject.

Surely, the use of 'I' implies reflection, the ability to consider oneself as a subject of reference among other similar subjects of reference.- For the sake of the discussion, I am going to assume this.

What 'I' purports to refer to is an entity with identity over time. That is how we are able to use 'I' in the past or future tense. (It would be perfectly possible to coin a term which could only be used to refer to present experiences, but such a term would be redundant.)

Now, it looks as though we are getting close to our question, or at least one possible question: what kind of entity-with-identity 'I' refers to. Following your lead, I am going to pursue this question, although there are other questions that one might have pursued.

Prior to philosophy, there would be no difficulty in identifying the entity that 'I' refers to: it is a person, a human being, who is born, grows up, and dies and does various things in between. It is not aware of itself as 'I' at all these states (early infancy, or in advanced stages of Alzheimer's) but that does not prohibit it from using 'I' to say things like, 'When I was born'.

The problem of identity arose historically because thinkers were not content with this pre-philosophical answer. So Descartes attributes identity over time to the 'I' substance, but denies its materiality. Thus arise the criticisms of Lichtenberg and Hume which you cite. (I understand Lichtenberg to be saying that Descartes has no right to say, 'I exist'. He is not saying that you or I have no right to say 'I exist'. I could be wrong about this, as I have only seen the remark and not the original text that it is taken from.)

Unfortunately, we cannot rest content with a refutation of dualism of the Cartesian or Humean variety, because returning to the idea of 'I' as referring to a physical person rather than a soul, leaves philosophers with the vexed question of defining personal identity.

The core of your essay contains an interesting suggestion for a way of understanding the unity of the person - which you then, surprisingly, reject. On a non-reductionist view, the entities dealt with by psychology are not analysable into the entities dealt with by physics. The different sciences selectively pick out different 'objects'.

(You could have added that the non-reductionist supporter of physicalism holds that facts about psychological states *supervene* on facts about physical states. So it would be impossible for two total systems which were identical at the physical level to be different at the psychological level.)

But you then say, 'If the I is just a description of something, rather than a thing, then it can have no influence on events.' Why? Isn't the point of talking about different levels that whatever concepts we use - whether psychological, biological, chemical or physical - are just different ways of collecting together or focusing on the facts whatever they may be. The entities or events that we refer to from within a given theoretical framework figure in perfectly acceptable causal explanations. Whereas it looks as if you are saying that the only *true* causation occurs on the ultimate physical level: everything else is just a fabricated 'description'.

I am not dismissing this worry out of hand because it is very much a live issue in the philosophy of mind, where philosophers debate a version of 'epiphenomenalism' which, unlike the dualist version which I talk about in the program, accepts the physicalist thesis, but questions our right to offer causal explanations at the psychological level.

I do, however, agree that there must be more to 'I' than can be accounted for in terms of levels of scientific theory. This is shown by the fact the description of human action exists within a normative framework, where reasons for actions are offered in place of causal descriptions. Hence the difference between the things that my body does, and the things that 'I' do. Hence the idea that you and I belong not only to the world of nature but also to a human world.

- o O o -

What happens next?

First of all, well done for completing the program! I will keep a copy of this letter on my desk to remind me to send you my mentor's report and Pathways certificate.

If you still have the appetite to continue, there are five other programs (sorry, four!) which you might consider. Or you could go for the next higher level, the Associate Diploma which involves producing a portfolio of four essays of 2000-2500 words. You would send me eight pieces of work, from which you would then select for final revision before submitting your portfolio for examination.

Examples of successful Associate Diploma portfolios can be seen on the Pathways web site at Do think carefully about whether you feel you are ready for this next step.

All the best,


Friday, April 22, 2011

Our moral obligations to animals

To: Heather E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Our moral obligations to animals
Date: 14 February 2002 09:34

Dear Heather,

Thank you for your e-mail of 2 February, with your last essay for the Moral Philosophy program, on units 12-15, in response to the question, "'Brute animals are not moral beings. Therefore, we do not have moral obligations towards them.' - Is this a good argument?"

I did see your point about the more advanced aliens. There are lots of reasons to complain about language (as Ted Hughes does). So creatures who possessed a tool which did the job better would have an enormous advantage over us. But the difference between us and the aliens would not be comparable to the difference between us and non-human animals. What we and the aliens share is a concept of *truth*. They might have immeasurably greater knowledge than us; but we would be alike in having that concept, and the other concepts essentially connected to it: 'reason', 'judgement', 'validity', 'knowledge' etc. My argument for the objectivity of moral judgement appeals to the conditions for the possibility of a concept of truth. That is all it appeals to. It is not concerned with other differences, small or great, between human beings and non-human animals, for example, conscious awareness or the capacity for suffering. That is its strength, and also its weakness.

As I explained before, I see this as a worrying objection to my argument, but I am prepared to see how far one can go to mitigate this counter-intuitive result.


There is a very significant difference between the case of Hitler and the case of young babies and old people with dementia. In order to see this, we must take care with the use of the term 'moral being'.

A moral being is an individual who possesses the capacity for moral judgement. Hitler possessed the capacity for moral judgement, but either misused it or failed to use it. Some historians will take the view that the Nazis thought of themselves as following a (pseudo-) Nietzschean morality according to which there are 'those who count' and 'those who do not count'. Others take the view that Nazism was a deliberate experiment with evil. I think that the majority, and probably Hitler himself, were too confused and consumed with hatred to be able to tell the difference.

My paper for the Shap conference on 'Is Morality an Illusion?' (22-24 February) is entitled, 'In pursuit of the amoralist'. The amoralist is the fictional individual first discussed back in unit 1 of the program, who is simply blind to moral considerations. If Hitler was an amoralist, in this philosophical sense, then he was not a moral being. In that case we would *still* have moral obligations towards him and those of his kind, just as we have to the incurable psychopath.

No law is ever going to be passed which allows psychopaths to be cut up for the purposes of spare-part surgery, whereas it is considered a triumph of medical science if a surgeon is able to give a man the heart of a pig or a monkey.

So, the case of psychopaths, young babies and old people with dementia adds significantly to the objections against my account of the logical basis for moral judgement. We cannot, in their case, advance the explanation given of why we ought morally to take into consideration the interests of non-human animals. However, as before, I am prepared to continue this line of investigation to see if an adequate explanation can be given.

I would have to move too many books to get at my 'Shorter Oxford Dictionary' but I am pretty confident that if you look up 'brute' in a good dictionary you would find that its literal meaning is the lack of a capacity for acquiring language. So the description 'brutal' implying wanton cruelty is indeed a slur on the animal kingdom. No animals are cruel in the way that humans are able to be, because to be cruel you have to be a moral being. (The cats that come into our garden to kill birds are not acting 'cruelly'; it only looks that way to us, because we project onto them human characteristics. The cats are simply behaving according to their evolutionary design, which dictates that killing for play is an essential element in maintaining the skills required for killing for food.)

Moral philosophy does not have any obligation to justify the status quo. At the present time, it is still OK to do things to animals that, perhaps, in the future will be regarded as wantonly cruel, just as we now view slavery as an evil, where once it was regarded as just good business. I am pursuing the argument in the interests of philosophy, because that is the enterprise I am committed to. For philosophy's sake, we ought to find the best reasons that we can for the beliefs that we hold. But if we fail to find the reasons we are searching for, it does not automatically follow that we ought to give up those beliefs.

- Well done for completing the program. I shall keep this letter on my desk to remind me to send you my tutor's report and Pathways certificate.

All the best,


Essays on scepticism and morals

To: Erica A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on scepticism and morals
Date: 11 February 2002 13:05

Dear Erica,

Thank you for your e-mail of 30 January, with your essay for Possible World Machine in response to the question, 'Assess the significance of philosophical scepticism', and also for your e-mail of 5 February on the question of morals.


'Somewhere we have to strike a balance between poisoning ourselves and starving.'

This is a nicely judged essay. You have set yourself the limited aim of explaining the practical value of moderate scepticism.

According to you:

1. We learn from experience the value of moderate scepticism. Some lessons, however, are best not left to experience, as when we take special precautions to protect against the dangers of the child's innocent credulity.

2. From a practical viewpoint, the accuracy of information that we require depends on the task at hand: you don't need a spectrophotometer to judge whether a tomato is ripe enough to eat.

3. Again, from a practical perspective, the philosopher's question, 'Is this world real or only a coherent dream from which I will never wake up?' has no value, because all the judgements that we make, in the face of experience, ought to be the same on either hypothesis.

But this leaves the reader with a puzzle. Why on earth have philosophers taken scepticism to such impractical extremes? What motivated Pyrrho in his refusal to believe anything? Why did Descartes go to such lengths to put the sceptic's case and then find a way to justify our claims to knowledge?

Even if you do not feel this temptation yourself, it is a question that one would like to answer. The philosopher G.E. Moore, famous for his argument against the sceptic 'Here is one hand, here is another hand...' (in his paper 'Refutation of Idealism') used to say that what motivated him to philosophize was only the writings of other philosophers.

Is it just that philosophers are just naturally tempted to extremism? Aristotle, in the words that you quote is not advocating a 'golden mean' for empirical evidence (not too little, not too much) but pointing out what he sees as a logical flaw in the sceptic's case. That suggests that the sceptic has, or thinks they have, a case based on reason and logic, which should be answered in the same terms.

In case you haven't seen it, I give four examples of sceptical arguments in my notebook page 130 at:

I have changed my views since writing the unit. I am more inclined now to say that at least some of the sceptical arguments do show something, namely, that there is something funny or wrong about the concept 'know'.


You seem to be conflating the idea of moral judgements as such, with the 'deontological' view of ethics, according to which actions are judged right or wrong by reference to a universally binding law, for example, 'Do not steal' or 'Do not tell a lie'.

It would be possible to hold that there is an objectively right answer what I should do in any particular situation, without holding that I discover this by consulting a book of 'moral laws'. In other words, the right action in a given situation might be to tell a lie, or steal. By 'right', one means here, all things considered the best of all the alternatives.

The idea, then, would be that there is one general rule of respect for the other, which would in the normal course of events prohibit such things as lying or stealing. Some philosophers have tried to do a 'patch' here, arguing that 'do not lie', 'do not steal' are only prima facie duties. The problem with that compromise position, is that it leaves the idea of 'law of duty' with very little work to do.

We should always strive to see things from the other person's perspective. It is possible, to take your example, that what strikes me as an 'unpleasant remark' might be genuinely seen by the other person as helpful. (E.g. the Sainsbury's TV advert for their 'healthy foods' line.) This is not an example of different moral views, however, but merely different views of the facts. A clash of moral views would be more like someone remarking how terrible it was of X to have an abortion, when you firmly believe in a woman's right to choose. In the moral philosophy program, I consider such cases from the point of view of an 'ethics of dialogue'. The rule of respect for the other is not a formula for resolving such clashes. But we still have a moral choice as to how to behave in the face of such irresolvable disagreements.

No-one would seriously argue that punishment would still be punishment if the recipient did not know why they were being punished. It certainly does not follow from this that the only purpose for punishment is to condition the recipient into more acceptable behaviour. This is, however, a good way to distinguish the concept of punishment from the concept of revenge. You can take secret revenge on someone who has done you wrong (I'm not saying it's OK to do this, I am saying we understand what this means) but you can't, in the true sense of 'punish', secretly punish someone.

Of course, there are cases of morally culpable negligence. However, I don't think that the correct way to categorize these cases is in terms of 'doing something' or 'not doing something'. The man who gets into the car after downing a dozen pints is doing something wrong, even though he does not set out deliberately to hurt someone. (It is interesting, however, how drunk driving receives a far greater punishment if it results in death or injury, even though this is just a question of bad luck so far as the driver is concerned.) On the other hand, the fare dodger who fails to buy a ticket has set out deliberately to do an action which they know to be wrong.

All the best,


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The transcendental deduction

To: Tony B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The transcendental deduction
Date: 7 February 2002 14:43

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your e-mail of 28 February, with your latest essay towards the Associate Award, 'Line of advance: the Transcendental Deduction.'

It is a good plan to concentrate on a critical exposition of Kant's refutation of scepticism/ idealism.

When I did my term's supervision with Strawson for my Oxford B.Phil, the first essay I wrote for him was on the 'Metaphysical deduction of the categories'. This relatively brief section is often overlooked by students of Kant, but I saw it as important because this is the place where Kant has the chance to say what he means by an 'objective judgement'. My admittedly contentious gloss on the argument (once we have stripped the argument of its excessive reliance on the Aristotelian forms of syllogistic reasoning) is that we can deduce from the existence of logic that the world is a place where it is possible to gain knowledge by deductive inference. Deductive inference has real utility only in a world where one is able to put forward a theory of how objects are arranged in space and time, on the basis of a sequence of purely temporal data.

In your essay, you show yourself to be well aware of the charge that the so-called 'transcendental deduction' is merely a piece of analysis.


(1) X is the necessary condition of Y
(2) Y

Therefore, (3) X.

All 'X is the necessary condition of Y' says is that X is necessary for Y. Or, in other words, if Y then X. The argument now becomes a simple example of Modus Ponens, nothing 'transcendental' about it.

One suggestion is that if there is something special about a 'transcendental' argument that distinguishes it from a simple case of modus ponens, it has something to do with the role of possibility: X is the necessary condition for the *possibility* of Y.

But if that is the case, then how does the argument proceed?

(1') If Y is possible, then X
(2') Y

Therefore, (3') X

is an example of a logically invalid argument.

In that case we need to insert at least one extra step:

(1'') If Y is possible, then X
(2'') Y
(3'') Y is possible (from 2'')

Therefore, (4'') X.

With the aid of an axiom from modal logic (If P, then it is possible that P) the argument is now formally valid.

The question now becomes, what makes the third argument interestingly different from the first argument. What *is* so special about a transcendental argument?

Your example of music suggests that what is doing the work is something to do with experience, rather than the mere logical form of the argument. What to do with experience? Might there be transcendental arguments that concern, not experience, but some other concept? Meaning, perhaps? (I am thinking of Wittgenstein's later philosophy, in particular the private language argument.) What is so special about the concepts of experience or meaning that makes them suitable for conducting transcendental arguments?

Suppose someone said, 'All you are doing is analysing the concept of experience (analysing the concept of meaning).' In that case, we are not dealing, as Kant thought, with a synthetic a priori judgement but with a mere analytic judgement. 'If we have experience (we use words with meaning), then Y. We have experience (we use words with meaning). Therefore Y.'

I find your response inadequate here. What you write can be read as saying that we are not dealing any particular experience (any particular piece of music) but experience as such. So the critic will reply that what Kant's transcendental argument does is analyse the concept of experience as such. That's all a transcendental argument amounts to.

- Maybe we shouldn't after all be too bothered about the difference between analytic and synthetic. Didn't Quine once write a rather famous paper to that effect?

The important thing is that we learn something very special from investigating the concept of experience.

It should hardly be necessary to add that a deduction about experience as such is different from an empirical deduction, for example of the bee and the hive.

However, the critique of Locke does suggest that what is at stake here is a special kind of concept that in some way yet to be explained relates to experience but is not derived from experience: that's what the transcendental deduction is really about.

- This looks like a promising strategy. I'll be interested to see how the argument proceeds from this point.

All the best,


Can the solipsist be refuted?

To: James D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can solipsism be refuted?
Date: 7 February 2002 11:28

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your e-mail of 24 January, with your essay, 'Solipsism' for the Philosophy of Language program.

You are responding to the question, 'Can the solipsist be refuted?'

It is my turn to apologize - for the lateness of my reply. This has nothing to do with how fast/slow you are in submitting work, as I respond to students strictly on a 'first in, first out' basis. Send me work when you can, and don't worry about deadlines. I set myself a deadline of ten days for responding to work, but unfortunately I don't always succeed in keeping to that deadline.

In your essay, you advance several arguments against the solipsist:

1. The solipsist cannot say, 'I think' but only 'It thinks'. - The idea here is that the concept of 'I' only has application in a world where one distinguishes one's own 'I' or self from other 'I's or selves. A version of this argument can be found in Chapter 3 of P.F. Strawson's book 'Individuals'. The solipsist, on this account, is someone who wants to have their cake and eat it, claiming the use of a term while 'silently repudiating the conditions for its application' (to use Strawson's formulation). The conditions for the application of 'I' involve identifying oneself as a subject in a world in which there are, or at least it is possible for there to be, other subjects. If the solipsist denies that there can be other subjects, then they must give up the use of the term 'I'.

2. '...the idea that everything exists in only one person's being defies any existence of a world in itself which would be contradictory.' - The denial of the 'existence of a world in itself' is a consequence which the solipsist gladly accepts. There is no world 'in itself', there is only 'my world'. Why is this contradictory? Is it because the very idea of being or existence is something that cannot be relativized to a subject? To say that X exists for A means that X exists, so far as A is concerned. But is A right or wrong in taking X to exist? According to the solipsist, that question has no meaningful answer. I wonder whether an effective argument against the solipsist could be constructed on these lines? It looks good.

3. '...if we follow the route of the solipsist...anything we said would in effect have to make sense.' - In fact, we know that there are real conditions, the social conditions that give rise to language, that make it possible to say something that makes sense. According to the solipsist, the meaning of one'swords is granted automatically, magically, by the mere fact that one's words *seem* to have a meaning. This is a clear indication, if not a proof, that something is wrong with the solipsist theory.

4. '...I can only relate words to my own experiences and live in a world of only "I".' - Above, we questioned whether the solipsist can use the word 'I'. Here the thought is similar to 2. above, that for the solipsist there is no actually existing world, but only a seeming world constructed out of one's own experiences.

5. '...the evidence would have to be checked by the person himself therefore it would appear to be a catch 22 situation.' - This is my main argument against the solipsist: that the solipsist cannot give any real content to the notion of 'being right' or 'being wrong' , i.e. the notions of truth or falsity.

6. 'When there is a chance that the "I" concerned could indeed be wrong, the thoughts...may not take into account the objective reality of thought itself. As it is not possible to have these inner thoughts as 'a priori'. - This looks to me the same as 3. above. For the solipsist, the meaning of one's words is guaranteed a priori, simply by the fact that the words seem to have a meaning. But meaning cannot be guaranteed a priori. In the actual world, we can think we mean something by what we say and be wrong. The solipsist cannot acknowledge this possibility.

7. '...this would mean that the understanding...would need to be innate.' - The very idea that something is innate presupposes a story about a real world, for example a Darwinian story about how certain innate ideas develop through evolution. So the solipsist cannot claim that the meaning of their words is 'innate'. This blocks a last ditch attempt to get out of the challenge posed by 3. and 6.

8. 'Surely also it is motives that would indicate the real thoughts and beliefs of how a person is these actions being non-linguistic...'. - I did not understand what you were trying to say here. Possibly, a word or words have been accidentally omitted. It seems there could be room for criticism of the solipsist on the grounds that we cannot make sense of the idea of a subject *having* motives or intentions, if that subject is not a being in a world. Is that what you meant?

9. '...objects in a world must exist independently of my thoughts and language.' - This looks like a version of 2. In the 'Critique of Pure Reason' Kant says at one point, 'There cannot be appearances without something that appears'. The language of this paragraph is reminiscent of Kant. The solipsist ultimately wants to say that 'my world' is constructed or woven together out of mere appearances. But that idea is absurd, because an appearance must always be an appearance *of* something external to the appearance. The solipsist cannot make any sense of their experiences coming from anywhere or being caused by anything, because there is nothing besides experience.

- A good effort. It would have been helpful to me if you could have referred to the books that you used as source material. In an essay like this, it is a good idea to signal to the reader when you are reporting an argument given by someone else ('Geoffrey Klempner says...', 'Joe Bloggs says...') and when you are contributing your own thoughts to the debate.

All the best,


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why be moral?

To: Howard D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 4 February 2002 14:14

Dear Howard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 23 January, with your second essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be moral?'

I found your essay on scepticism very helpful in stimulating my own ideas. A week ago last Friday, I gave my talk at University College School on the topic 'Sceptical Arguments'. A revised version of the handout can be found on the Glass House Philosopher site, at:

By pure coincidence, my next assignment is a paper for the Shap Conference towards the end of February, which this year is looking at the question, 'Is Morality an Illusion?'

The title of my as yet unwritten paper is 'In Pursuit of the Amoralist'.

Why be moral?

It is not a bad idea to start off, as you do in Part I, defining what it is to 'be' moral. You say, being moral involves certain thoughts, certain actions and certain feelings. An individual can have a 'morality' or set of moral beliefs and so can a community.

The obvious problem with this is that it would serve just as well for a definition of immorality. What *is* the moral, as opposed to the immoral, thing to think, do or feel? To be 'moral' cannot mean merely to accord with a given code of conduct, without any reference to the content or purpose of that code.

If you say that the purpose of a moral code is to enable society to function effectively, then you have still not distinguished a moral code from Conan the Warrior's "Destroy your enemy. Watch them flee before you. And hear the wailing of the women!"

This takes us to the second Part of your essay.

Different moral philosophies have addressed the question, Why be moral? and also the question, What is the morally best action in a given set of circumstances? Now these are two different questions. If we are looking for a reason to persuade us to be moral rather than immoral, then we want to be told, not only that this action rather than that action would be the "moral" thing to do, but also why we should choose the moral, or more moral option, so defined, from the two alternatives.

Arguably, the 'natural law' theory and 'categorical imperative' theories do offer a rational argument why one should choose the moral option. However, in your essay you give little indication in either case of how the argument against the moral sceptic would go, or what it would appeal to. The third theory, utilitarianism, was notoriously defended by Mill on the grounds that each of us seeks our own happiness, 'therefore, each should seek the happiness of all'. In defence of Mill's essay, 'On Utilitarianism', it could be said that he is only concerned with how one decides what is the moral thing to do, assuming that the reader already has a stake in morality.

So where do we go from here?

I do accept that ethics is 'situational' in the strong sense that each of us, on each occasion, has to decide the morally right action taking everything into account. So there will be, as you say, occasions when the morally right thing to do is go against the moral views of the community. But this begs the question of what principle decides 'right' or 'wrong' here.

I also believe that it is not acceptable to say that morality is a ultimately matter of subjective attitude or free choice, which cannot be given any deeper foundation.

In other words I disagree with Kant about the role of moral laws. It is impossible to formulate moral laws, because each situation is unique. But I agree that morality must have a logical basis in the nature of rationality itself, so that failure to recognize the claims of morality is a failure of rationality, and not just an example of having attitudes that differ from the attitudes 'we' happen to hold.

In the Moral Philosophy program, I propose the following principle as definitive of morality: "Every individual counts for something and not nothing". In other words, whether we take another individual's interests into account when we act does not depend on how we happen to feel about that individual, but simply and purely on the fact that as an individual they are an 'end in themself' in Kant's terms. A warrior or Nazi code that said, "Some individuals count for something, while others do not" would not qualify as a morality by this definition.

The question is how one proves this. It is impossible in a relatively small space to justice to the argument against the amoralist. The idea is that the amoralist assumes something - that there is such a thing as a factual judgement's being true or false - which they have no right to assume if they also adopt the principle, "Only my needs count."

The second step involves showing why it is irrational to allow some people to "count" and not others. There is no legitimate basis, I argue, for making such a momentous distinction.

It follows that moral scepticism entails scepticism about the very existence of truth as such. All that remains for the amoralist is their own private 'dream'.

- Wish me luck!

All the best,


Harm principle in the 21st century

To: Ian H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Harm principle in the 21st century
Date: 4 February 2002 13:15

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 22 January, with your first essay for the Associate Award, 'The Harm Principle in the 21st Century: Trouble at Mill?"

This is a solid, well argued defence of Mill's 'Harm principle' against the objections most frequently levelled against it. As you say near the beginning, the result is not to call into question the Harm principle, but rather refine our appreciation of what the principle actually involves.

As it stands, without any improvement, the essay looks to me on the borderline for an Associate Diploma pass (60 or above). I anticipate that the examiner would say that you have possibly not given sufficient credit to the strength of the objections, although your responses are along the right lines.

Let me suggest, under your own headings, a few points that might be considered further:

1. Vagueness. I am not sure that it is correct to represent the question of when offence becomes harm as merely a question of vagueness of definition. There is a more fundamental question at stake, namely, whether the offended individual is *right* to take offence. For example, someone with strong views about homosexuality might be extremely upset to see, e.g., homosexuals demonstrating affection in public, to the extent that the offended individual can legitimately claim to have been 'harmed'. If a defender of Mill says what one would be naturally tempted to say about this case, that the offended individual has no right to take offence, then the objector will respond that the intuitive appeal of the Harm principle is lost. Before we can apply the Harm principle, we need a quite separate principle to decide whether or not a given instance of harm is legitimate or illegitimate, and this cannot be determined simply on the basis of the extent of harm.

What the defender of Mill ought to say is that mere violence done to one's moral beliefs can *never* count as 'harm'. This is the point about the liberty of thought and discussion. So we retain a clear demarcation line. Your example of the Taliban illustrates this point. All I am saying is that you need to make it explicit.

However, that does not take us all the way to the conclusion that we want. Mill wants to defend the idea that there are certain actions which for the sake of public decency and decorum, ought to be kept behind closed doors. It is rather more tricky to state what the limits are here.

Incidentally, if you are mentioning Devlin, you might also mention that Devlin's view, in 'The Enforcement of Morals' was strongly contested by H.L.A. Hart.

2. No man is an island. There are two different ranges of question covered by this heading. The first, which you discuss, is raised e.g. by laws which say that motorcycle riders must wear crash helmets. Why shouldn't pedestrians be made to wear crash helmets, assuming that it led to a reduction in fatal casualties in car accidents where pedestrians are involved? The answer is that there is a borderline, which is difficult to formulate clearly, where on the one side society is prepared to pay the price of individual freedom, while on the other side it is not. The question is how one decides where to place that borderline, and on what principle.

There is another range of questions concerning personal and public space. For example, if I cook my favourite curry, it will be impossible to prevent my next door neighbour from smelling the spice. Arguably, this is not a reason to call the police, whereas my playing my stereo at full volume at all hours is a reason to call the police. Once again, a price has to be paid for individual freedom, but there are limits which need to be defined on some intelligible principle.

3. Liberty and utilitarianism. The crucial point here is covered by the section in 'Utilitarianism' where Mill discusses the value of individuality ('On Individuality'). A explicit reference to this section would help cap your argument.

You might show some awareness that there has been considerable controversy on the question of whether Mill actually changed his views - under the influence of his wife - in between writing his two essays. I side with those who say that Mill did believe, not only that utilitarianism and the liberty principle were fully compatible, but that liberty of thought and discussion was the condition for the possibility of a society where ethical questions are decided by appeal to the utility principle.

Conclusion. Because vagueness is not the only charge laid against the Harm principle, it will not do as a defence of the Harm principle to say that a term with fuzzy borderlines can still function effectively. So you need to say a little more here to remind the reader of the other points you have made.

All the best,


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Significance of scepticism

To: Max T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Significance of scepticism
Date: 4 February 2002 10:55

Dear Max,

Thank you for e-mail of 22 January, with your second essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, on 'The Significance of Scepticism".

In the first three paragraphs you carefully different forms of scepticism that have appeared in philosophy, and also the different subject areas in which we make claims to knowledge, where sceptical doubt has been, or might be entertained.

You say, "This paper is concerned with the type of scepticism that says that we can know nothing of the physical world around us - by physical world is meant all those object which one normally senses such as trees, animals, rainbows and mountains."

It is significant that you have chosen the question of our knowledge of the physical world, rather than our knowledge of an *external* world. Bishop Berkeley believed that his philosophy of immaterialism was the best defence against scepticism about our knowledge of the physical world. He would have had no hesitation in asserting that we do have knowledge of such things as "trees, animals, rainbows and mountains". Such empirical knowledge is possible, Berkeley argued, on the condition that we accept the metaphysical theory according to which the things mentioned are all ideas in the mind of God.

This involves the denial that there exists an *external* world concerning which one can raise Descartes' question whether our experiences of things around us are only ideas produced in our minds by some non-physical cause (Descartes' 'evil demon'), or whether those experiences are caused by material things existing in the spatio-temporal reality to which we ourselves belong.

However, we can bracket the Berkeley-Descartes debate by concentrating instead on more moderate versions of scepticism of the 'Matrix' dream-machine variety: i.e. the idea that we might, for all we can prove, be living in a physical world where our experiences are produced by physical means (by wires attached to the brain) but not by our perception of the things around us.

Following Barry Stroud's analysis, you make the point that it is not necessary to *prove* that one is not connected to a dream machine. All one needs to be able to do is 'eliminate' the dream machine hypothesis on the basis of the evidence available. Now, I am assuming that we eliminate a hypothesis, when we are able to put forward a *better* hypothesis, a better explanation. Otherwise, there would be no difference between proving that a hypothesis is false, and eliminating it. The problem is that if we are questioning all our knowledge of the physical world, there is no basis on which we can say whether one hypothesis is 'better' than another. The same point can be made by saying that judgements of probability are relative to prior evidence.

I used to think - though I don't any more - that the point about the approaching car was sufficient to refute this kind of scepticism about the physical world. Belief and doubt have a function which is to enable us to deal with the demands made by the world around us. The thought, 'Maybe I'm attached to a dream machine' has no such function, and is therefore not a meaningful example of something one can doubt.

However, I have now finally come around to the view that there is something fundamentally wrong about the concept 'know' - which does not, however, prevent us from being able to use the word for ordinary purposes. If we follow through the strict logic implied by the concept of 'know', no-one knows anything. What makes the concept useful, however, is that we apply it illogically.

'Know' is by no means unique in this way. Notoriously, it is impossible to give a logic for vague concepts, or indeed any concept whose definition involves fuzzy edges. Yet we 'get along' with vague concepts, indeed it would be impossible to do without them. The problem with 'know' is not that it is vague, but is rather illustrated by various forms of sceptical argument to which, in my view, there is no adequate logical response.

You will find four examples of sceptical argument on my most recent page for my Glass House Philosopher notebook:

The only argument which I do not find convincing is Pyrrho's argument (argument 2.) according to which no reason for believing that P can be a 'good' reason. In my view, the problem is not with reason (as Hume was later to claim in his 'Treatise') but rather with this particular concept, the concept, X 'knows' that P.

All the best,


Milesian philosophers on the primary substance

To: Simon A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian philosophers on the primary substance
Date: 23 January 2002 17:05

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your e-mail of 12 January, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Examining the theories of the Milesian philosophers concerning the nature of the primary substance, we find a progressive clarification of the questions asked, and improvement in the answers given to those questions.' Discuss.

I have tried to glean from your essay, your thoughts about the 'progressive clarification of the questions asked, and improvement in the answers given'.

According to your account, Anaximander's theory improved on Thales' theory in two ways:

1. There are physical laws that animate and inanimate objects have to obey.

2. The Apeiron theory explains more things than the water theory.

That's good for a start. But here would have been an opportunity to point out that Anaximander is also working from an improved formulation of the question, 'Why is there a cosmos? (i.e. why order rather than disorder). While Thales merely asks, 'What are all things made of, and what makes them go?' Anaximander poses the further question, 'Why do the comings and goings happen in an orderly way?' The answer: because of 'cosmic justice'.

When we come to Anaximenes, a further advance was made. That might not have been the case. In antiquity Anaximenes, was regarded more highly than Anaximander. So there is room for some debate on this question.

According to you, 'Anaximenes' notion that the universe formed by a process of condensation and rarefaction left fewer gaps to be filled by ad hoc hypotheses.' It would have been a good idea at this point to have identified aspects of Anaximander's theory which involved ad hoc hypotheses, showing how Anaximenes' theory was an improvement.

So, now we have a third criterion for what makes a good theory, 'Having fewer ad hoc hypotheses'. What is an ad hoc hypothesis? That is also something that might have been explained.

You note that Anaximenes proposed a mechanism for change involving condensation and rarefaction, but you miss the opportunity to point out that this was itself an improvement on the Apeiron theory which has no account to give of how the Apeiron is able to take on different forms. It seems that Anaximenes has asked a question which Anaximander failed to ask, so that once again we have an illustration of 'progressive clarification of questions asked'.

What makes one cosmological theory better than another? That is one way of answering the question, 'What is this wonderful concept called 'theory' which the Milesian philosophers invented?'

We have laws, mechanisms, explaining more things, and having fewer ad hoc hypotheses. Something could be said about each of these revolutionary concepts, and how they relate to one another.

- Although I have pointed out places where you could have said more, this is not at all bad for a first attempt. What I would like you to do in your second essay is focus on the question set, and make your case, i.e. persuade the reader that your response to the question is the correct one. Imagine a sceptical voice saying things like, 'No, I think Anaximander's theory has fewer ad hoc hypotheses, not more,' or 'I think that returning to Thales' idea that the earth rests on something was a backward, not a forward step.'

All the best,