Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Empedocles' contribution to philosophy

To: Simon A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Empedocles' contribution to philosophy
Date: 24 September 2002

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your e-mail of 16 September, with your fourth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'The most impressive scientific achievements of Empedocles were in establishing the basis for Dalton's science of chemistry, and anticipating Darwin's theory of evolution.' How would you assess Empedocles’ contribution to philosophy?'

This is a very readable and nicely judged essay.

I agree broadly with your claim that 'the main contribution which [Empedocles] made to philosophy was the attempt to reconcile the evidence as given by the senses with...reason as provided by philosophy.' But what exactly does this mean? And how did Empedocles differ from his predecessors in this respect?

This is where you need to explain to the reader how the philosopher's view of 'reason' changed after the contributions of the Eleatic philosophers, Parmenides, Melissus and Zeno. The Milesians used reason to interpret the evidence of their senses, often putting forward hypotheses which seemed greatly at odds with the evidence. The difference is in Eleatic logic and the strict prohibition on any form of 'change'.

The 'reconciliations' attempted by Empedocles and his successors would not have been acceptable to the Eleatics. The philosophies of Empedocles, Anaxagoras and the atomists were an attempt at compromise. So one question, when looking at Empedocles, is whether the compromise is merely superficial or whether, on the contrary, Empedocles made an important discovery which took the debate forward.

The common idea, in essence, is that the local movement of unchanging parts or qualities is a more acceptable form of change, i.e. less susceptible to Eleatic objections. In reality, when things appear to change their qualities, what is happening is that microscopic bits of earth, water, air and fire are moving from one combination to another. The only qualitative 'change' is in the effect of this movement on our perceptions.

Jonathan Barnes refers to this idea of limiting change to movement of unchanging parts as the 'logic of locomotion'.

You did well to pick up on the question of the difference between genuine compounds and mere mixtures. The most obvious objection to raise about a theory which involves a mere mixing of the elements - certainly more obvious to the observer than the point about elements combining in fixed proportions - is that mixtures typically produce a perceptible quality which is intermediate between the quality of each of the two components that are mixed, just as white and black paint mixed together produce grey. Something more fundamental must therefore be taking place.

Your account of the cosmic cycle follows the 'double cycle' theory which I prefer. However, it is important to be aware that this is an issue of scholarly contention. We do not have conclusive evidence that this was Empedocles' view. On the other side, a 'single cycle' of order evolving from separation and chaos nicely fits the idea of Empedocles' anticipating the theory of evolution by natural selection. My response to this is that Empedocles' *motivation* was very different from that of Darwin. Darwin was seeking to show how mere mechanical processes of natural selection could produce ordered, complex structures. Whereas Empedocles' notion of Love embodies a 'teleological', i.e. non-mechanical principle. When love predominates, there is a natural tendency for complex, ordered structures to develop. So the similarity to Darwin's theory is merely superficial.

I am not altogether happy with your use of the term 'induction' to describe the process whereby Empedocles put forward the theory of love and strife. Induction is usually limited to the idea that the more instances of a phenomenon which you observe, the more probable the same phenomenon will be observed in the future. 'All swans are white' is an induction (as it happens, a false induction, since there are in fact black swans.) What Empedocles does is much closer to hypothetico-deductive explanation, i.e. putting forward a hypothesis concerning things that cannot be observed in order to explain things that can be observed. Sometimes the name given to this is 'inference to the best explanation'.

You say, 'this...could be used not only to explain physical phenomena, but also...metaphysical ones.' I think this is true. Physics is one area where inference to the best explanation has proved spectacularly successful. However, a case can be made that there is a role for inference to the best explanation in philosophy too.

All the best,


Dummett's argument for an anti-realist theory of meaning

To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dummett's argument for an anti-realist theory of meaning
Date: 17 September 2002 12:55

Dear David,

Thank you for your letter of 27 August, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, "Give a critical account of the main features of Michael Dummett's argument for a global, anti-realist theory of meaning.'

This is a very difficult topic. You are correct in your inference that the essays (and units) increase in difficulty as the program proceeds. However, when it comes to understanding Dummett, many professional philosophers feel at a loss. When I started my postgraduate on the philosophy of language at Oxford university, the supervisor who had been assigned to me said that he could not accept any essays on Dummett or anti-Realism because he himself had not mastered the topic! (At the last minute, however, I was able to get John McDowell, the supervisor I had originally asked for.)

You give a good account of the background to Dummett's argument. The main point to make, as you say, is that we are concerned with taking a realist view of classes of statements, rather than of classes of objects?

But what exactly does that entail? There are in fact two ways in which one can take an anti-realist view of statements: First, you can deny the realist view of what it is that makes a statement true ('anti-Realism about truth'). Secondly, you can deny the realist view of a statement's meaning ('anti-Realism about meaning'). Dummett wants us to accept that these two views - about truth and about meaning - necessarily go together. I happen to disagree. In my view, a truth-conditional theory of meaning ('Realist' by Dummett's definition) is fully consistent with an anti-Realist view of truth. This is one of the things I try to show in the program.

You have picked up on one of Dummett's two arguments against a Realist theory of meaning, the so-called 'acquisition' argument. However, there is another argument which Dummett uses, concerning what it takes to *manifest* linguistic knowledge. The argument is what you'd expect: according to Wittgenstein's doctrine of 'meaning is use' a necessary constraint on a theory of meaning is that it gives an adequate account of how a speaker's implicit knowledge of meanings is 'manifested' in their linguistic behaviour. Dummett remarks at one point in his Frege book that it is logically possible that men could have sprung up from dragon's teeth, with the full ability to use a language. Such an alleged possibility would by-pass the acquisition argument, but not the manifestation argument.

You concur with my argument against Dummett, that his demand for a global anti-Realist theory of meaning is seriously weakened in the face of the fact that no such account has ever been successfully been given or (I allege) could be given.

This worries me, though. I don't like arguments which say, 'I can't see how such-and-such can be achieved, therefore such-and-such is unachievable'. However, there is more to say.

A more substantial argument is that Dummett sets far too high a standard for what would count as 'manifestation' of one's knowledge of meaning – effectively the demand for a reduction of meaning into behavioural terms. (This is the point which John McDowell makes in his seminal paper, 'Truth Conditions, Bivalence and Verificationism' in 'Truth and Meaning' McDowell and Evans Eds. OUP 1976.) The sticking point is Dummett's notion that the correlation between statements and 'manifestations' should be one-to-one. The alternative view is that it is the theory of the speaker's linguistic knowledge *as a whole* which is supported by the observed facts of linguistic usage. As in other theories – e.g. theories of physics – it is recognized that the best explanation or best theory can, or almost certainly is one which is *underdetermined* by the observed facts.

In the light of this, it is perfectly proper to remark that theories which take a truth-conditional form are, to date, the only serious contenders for an account of linguistic understanding. We have to go with the best theory.

The essay title did stress that Dummett is arguing for a *global* anti-realist theory of meaning. This is in contrast to arguments which concern anti-realism regarding a specific area of discourse. If there had been room, you might have looked at the way Dummett's uses specific areas where an account of meaning might be in dispute - e.g. the reality of the past, which you mention - as a springboard for his argument for global anti-realism. In Dummett's view, however, the only coherent form of anti-realism is a global theory: this is because the manifestation and acquisition arguments apply to any area of discourse.

Overall, it is remarkable that you have managed to squeeze so much into such a small space. Dealing with the issues I have mentioned would merely have increased the word count. You have done well.

All the best,


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Our moral obligations to non-human animals

To: Trevor P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Our moral obligations to non-human animals
Date: 7 September 2002 11:45

Dear Trevor,

Thank you for your letter of 26 August, with your fifth and final essay for your Moral Philosophy program, in response to the provocative question, "'Brute animals are not moral beings. Therefore, we do not have moral obligations towards them.' - Is that a good argument?". I am very glad that you enjoyed the program.

A Certificate showing that you have completed the course requirements together with my tutor's report will be on their way shortly.

Your answer to the question, in short, is:

1. Many non-human animal species are *not* 'brute', but on the contrary are able to reason and/ or possess a form of language.

2. Some non-human animal species exhibit moral behaviour, therefore *are* 'moral beings'.

3. We have moral obligations towards *any* entity which is capable of experiencing suffering or happiness.

As you are no doubt aware, these considerations overlap but are by no means equivalent.

Accepting 3. would be sufficient to establish that we have moral obligations to all non-human animals, regardless of whether they are 'brute', and regardless of whether the exhibit moral behaviour. However, this claim made by Peter Singer is based on the utilitarian principle that the only defensible ground for moral decision making is maximization of happiness and minimization of suffering, together with the evident fact that non-human animals are indeed capable of happiness and suffering. If you are a utilitarian, then this consideration would be convincing. However, it is worth while asking whether, and on what basis one can establish that we have moral obligations to non-human animals if utilitarianism is rejected.

Let's start with 1. I intended the designation 'brute' to be non-controversial. Perhaps this is wrong. Many animals use natural systems of signs which serve to communicate information on a purely cause and effect basis. For example, the dance of the bee 'informs' the other bees in the hive how far, and in what direction to fly in order to find honey. Dolphins exhibit a sophisticated ability to convey to other dolphins information about underwater objects that they have encountered. There is no evidence, however, that a bee decides upon the best means of expression, or what information would be most appropriate to convey in the circumstances. The communication is spontaneous. However, as the case of Washoe the chimpanzee showed, some non-human animals do have the ability to learn a conventional system of signs, and to show intelligence and discrimination in the use of such signs. Similar claims have been made about dolphins. So let us agree for the purposes of discussion that 'brute' includes bees, but not Washoe, and possibly not dolphins. I am claiming that the designation 'brute' is meaningful, even though there may be dispute about its application in a given case.

Why would someone argue that brute animals are not moral beings? To be a 'moral being' requires more than simply behaving in a way that benefits other members of one's species, or indeed other species. The co-operative behaviour of ants is not moral, though it would be moral if humans exhibited it. To be a moral being implies at the very least a certain power of choice, where the interests of another being are deliberately taken into consideration. The assumption here is that to consider alternatives as genuine alternatives, to reflect upon them, requires something which mere 'brute' animals (by the definition above) do not possess.

Kant argued that an action motivated merely by sympathy is, as such, not moral. Moral motivation involves taking interests of another individual into consideration irrespective of your feelings towards them: all that matters is whether the individual in question *has* interests. It follows that any description of putative 'moral' behaviour by non-human animals is bound to be controversial: there is always the possibility of an alternative, non-moral explanation. The same is true of human beings too: the difference is that you can challenge someone to explain their actions.

The most challenging cases, however, arise from experiences which we find difficult to articulate, such as the relationship you describe with your dog, who 'tells when he is anxious, happy, hungry or tired'. Horse riders describe a similar form of bonding, of intuitive communication. It is here, I think, when we enter into an 'I-thou' relation with another being - such as Martin Buber describes in his book 'I and Thou' - that it becomes impossible to think of the other in non-moral terms, irrespective of whether the other is human or non-human.

Here, the behaviour in question is not observed from the outside, and subjected to clinical, detached analysis, but experienced from within the I-thou relationship. Someone who has had the benefit of this experience has a much better chance, one might say, of *seeing* all non-human animals as deserving of moral consideration, whether it is possible to enter into such a relationship with them or not.

All the best,


Frege's distinction between sense and reference

To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Frege's distinction between sense and reference
Date: 15 August 2002 11:08

Dear David,

Thank you for your letter of 4th August, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'What is the point of Frege's distinction between sense and reference?'

Asking 'what is the point' is a way of asking for clarification on what exactly the distinction is and the purpose it serves. These are the two questions that you have to answer. Of course, there are other questions one might consider. Was Frege right to distinguish between sense and reference? or, if Frege's version of the sense/reference distinction cannot be defended 'as is' (e.g. because of the difficulty of accepting an indefinite hierarchy of indirect senses in cases of nested propositional attitudes) is there a version that can be defended? (such as Dummett's, for example).

What is the distinction? I have to take issue with you when you seem to imply that the distinction between sense and reference is an extension of the distinction between concept and object. Maybe this isn't what you meant when you said, 'These ideas [concerning the analogy between concepts and mathematical functions] were applied and extended in his philosophy of language'. However, it is important to see that the sense/reference distinction is a new idea and not merely a generalization or development of the concept/object distinction.

Indeed, the point should be emphasized that for Frege the sense/reference distinction applies to both concepts and to objects. A concept word can have both sense and reference, just as a proper name can.

It is true that in a statement like, 'The morning star = the evening star' the two referring expressions on the right and left of the '=' sign involve different combinations of concepts. In this case, it is clear that the difference lies in 'how one conceives of the denotation of the term'. The concept '...appears in evening' is a different concept from the concept '...appears in the morning'. Similarly, in a mathematical statement of the form 'x=y', where 'x' and 'y' are two different ways of referring to the same number such as your examples '4' and '8/2', the 'route to reference' is clearly displayed in the way concepts are combined together.

Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, however, implies a Russellian solution to the problem of the informativeness of identity statements. That is to say, whenever you have two names on either side of an '=' sign, some equivalent descriptive phrase can be given for each name which displays the two different 'ways of conceiving' of the denotation. As you correctly note, Frege did not hold this view. The crucial point of difference is that the 'mode of presentation' need not be conceptualised, i.e. articulated in words. When we take the most basic terms of the language, both terms which refer to objects (i.e. proper names) and terms which express concepts, the speaker may have no way of giving an adequate definition: they simply know how to use the terms correctly, to refer to an object, or to express a concept.

What, then, is the purpose of the sense/reference distinction?

Although in his essay 'On Sense and Reference' Frege motivates the distinction using the example of identity statements, it is clear that his aim is to account for indirect discourse. I felt that you didn't say enough here to make this convincing (although I accept that this is difficult within the word limit). How does Frege's theory explain the difference between, e.g., 'Tom believes that Mr Hyde struck the coach driver' and 'Tom believes that Dr Jekyll struck the coach driver'? For Frege's theory to work, the sense of 'Dr Jekyll' and 'Mr Hyde' must be the same for everyone. So when Tom expressis his belief, he is not referring to Dr Jekyll (=Mr Hyde) but rather referring to the commonly recognized sense of 'Dr Jekyll' or the commonly recognized sense of 'Mr Hyde'. That is how it is possible, e.g. to believe the first statement but not the second. As we have said, these 'senses' are ontologically a distinct kind of thing from concepts.

You are right to emphasize that senses are not private impressions existing in the mind of a particular speaker, but rather are shared between speakers of the language. But how exactly does this come about? By what process do we come to recognize non-physical objects called 'senses' at the same time as we learn to recognize the physical objects that populate our world? - These are some of the questions raised by Frege's theory of sense and reference.

Given the restriction on length, I think you did a good job in explaining the essence of the idea of distinguishing sense and reference. As you will have seen from Dummett's magnificent book, this is indeed an inexhaustible topic.

All the best,


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Can a zombie be an epiphenomenalist?

To: Tom M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can a zombie be an epiphenomenalist?
Date: 15 August 2002 09:58

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 August, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, ''You say that you are an epiphenomenalist, but your zombie double would say that too!' - Is that a valid refutation of epiphenomenalism?'

This is a very well constructed essay with which I cannot find anything to disagree. You have expressed the zombie argument against the epiphenomenalist clearly and succinctly. In what follows, what I am going to say should not be understood as a criticism of your essay, but rather as an attempt to find some points where there could be further fruitful discussion.

You say that if we accept epiphenomenalism then 'we must consider a particular thought as having two components: the subjective awareness we have of it and the hidden episode of brain activity it represents'. Of course, this applies to all kinds of mental phenomena, not just to episodes of thinking. So let us consider the phenomenon of pain. On this version of the epiphenomenalist theory, there is the subjective awareness of pain, and there is its physical cause: say, 'stimulation of C-fibres' (this is the standard example given by philosophers - I have no idea who was the neuroscientist who first put forward the 'C-fibre' theory). However, it could be argued that this is not what we mean when we say, 'Jones is in pain'. Although it may be true that the occurrence of such things as pain is ultimately explained by physical events in the brain, the *meanings* of mental concepts relate to human behaviour in the context of normally observable physical circumstances. 'Pain' is a concept which collects certain types of phenomena, namely, those which show themselves through speech and behaviour.

This 'behavioural' view, suitably elaborated, does give in my view a correct account mental phenomena: with two provisos. The first proviso is that it should be seen as implied by the theory that there is a 'central' physical state that accounts for behaviour. In other words, when we say that someone is in pain, it would be like saying that this is an example of a particular 'natural kind' which can be classified by its hidden physical structure, just as when we say that a piece of material is gold, what we mean is that it is an example of the natural kind which has the inner, physical structure of gold. (There is a seminal paper on this question by the American philosopher Hilary Putnam entitled 'Meaning and Depth Grammar' which you might come across.) The second proviso is we need to provide a convincing account of first-person knowledge of mental states which coheres with the behavioural view. This is the tough part. A well-known criticism of behavioural view is that 'one cannot apply it to oneself without feigning anaesthesia'.

The epiphenomenalist accepts the structure of the behavioural view but with an essential modification: the true 'inner structure' of pain is thought of as a non-physical event whose occurrence cannot be verified except by the individual in whom the event occurs. Stimulation of C-fibres is not the innermost aspect of pain. This is how the idea of 'pain' having two meanings arises: the subjective meaning and the behavioural meaning, including reference to a hypothesised inner physical structure.

You were right to consider the epiphenomenalist who claims that the non-physical aspect cannot logically be separated from inner physical states. I fully agree with you that an epiphenomenalist who makes this move deprives themself of the only way of expressing what they mean by calling epiphenomenal states 'non-physical'. However, more argument could be given here. In fact, an essay could be written on this one point. Is the only way to express the idea of the inner or the 'non-physical', one which involves thought experiments of the Cartesian variety?

Nagel will be good to read on this question. Nagel's idea, tentatively expressed, that the physical might turn out not to be the must fundamental notion for understanding reality, but rather 'concept X' where X has both physical and mental 'aspects' harks back to Spinoza's 'double aspect' account of the mind-body relation in the 'Ethics'. (As I may have mentioned, these speculations are confined to a footnote in Nagel's book 'The View From Nowhere'. There is much more to Nagel's theory of the subjective and objective, as you will see.)

I still do not see, however, how this saves dualism, as opposed to making a more sophisticated version of materialism (or rather X-ism). On the other hand, I am not totally convinced that there might not yet be a possibility which we have overlooked.

All the best,


Private language and why language matters to philosophy

To: David C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Private language and why language matters to philosophy
Date: 31 July 2002 12:10

Dear David,

Here is my response to your first and second essays for the Philosophy of Language program which you posted together on the 14 July.

Essay 1 'Why does Language matter to Philosophy?'

I'd like to start by looking at your comment on Wittgenstein's famous quote, 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language'.

Does language itself 'cloud our intelligence' or is Wittgenstein making the more modest claim that 'we can combat philosophical confusions through clarifications of language'? In what way is our relationship with language 'unsatisfactory'?

It is no great surprise that confusions can be overcome by clarifying language. We do it all the time. Language is designed to be extensible, so that, whenever a question arises about what exactly we mean, we can express our meaning by using other words - perhaps in the case where a new concept is involved a lot more words. But that is not a philosophical point, except insofar as it recognizes that Language is not a tool that we find simply given, but rather one that we are able to fashion and shape for our own purposes. There are many ways of being confused, and then overcoming that confusion, besides the philosophical.

Something more fundamental is involved when language or our understanding of it gives rise to philosophical confusion. Our very intelligence is 'bewitched'. We cannot think straight, or resolve our confusions because the thinking that would enable us to do this is contaminated. Extending the language, using more words or coining new ones won't help. That's where things get interesting for the philosopher.

It is very difficult to talk about this in general terms without getting down to cases. One thing you might try to do is think for yourself about examples of philosophical problems which allegedly involve this 'deep' kind of linguistic confusion, and how that confusion is eventually overcome through philosophical argument.

It is now commonplace amongst writers on the philosophy of language to talk of the philosophy of language 'interfacing' with philosophy of mind and metaphysics, as well as, outside philosophy, with mathematical logic and linguistic theory. Whereas, as you note, in the first half of the twentieth century there was a robust notion that the philosophy of language was the 'First Philosophy' (just as metaphysics, then epistemology had once been thought to be) there is now widespread agreement that, in the words of W.V.O. Quine, 'there is no first philosophy'.

I am not altogether happy with this tendency (the original title of my book 'Naive Metaphysics' was 'First Philosophy'!). I would agree that exaggerated claims have been made for the philosophy of language. But I still think that language is one of the most fundamental issues. The philosophers who talk of 'interfacing' regard the philosophy of language as just another area of philosophy where one puts forward theories. I think there is something more at stake, which Wittgenstein in his quote alludes to.

It is interesting that many contemporary philosophers are still pursing the Tractarian project of doing ontology via the logical analysis of language. So, for example, philosophers of mathematics debate over whether the correct logical analysis of numerical discourse, whether the expressions which refer to numbers should be interpreted as genuinely referring expressions. Following Davidson's work, there has been much discussion about whether we 'need' an ontology of events in order to give a correct logical analysis of statements about actions, and so on. - These are all interesting issues, but I don't see them as fundamental.

There is no reason why the philosophy of language should be inaccessible, as I hope the Language and World program will bear out.

Essay 2 'Discuss the implications of the private language argument'

The essay is about the implications of the private argument, so inviting us to consider the question, 'What implications would follow, if the conclusions of the private language argument were accepted?'

You state that there cannot be, according to the private language argument, an act of 'private ostensive definition, of a private mental sample functioning as a standard for the correct application of a word, and of a rule which cannot logically be followed by another person.' The idea of a private language, in other words, is that of a language used to describe aspects of our experience which we cannot communicate to others.

I look up at the 'blue' sky, I feel the 'cool' breeze, these are things which I can perfectly well communicate to others. As you say, we learn the use of all words, including the words for inner sensations, from other people'. What the private linguist is seeking to do is to express, to name, for his/her own benefit alone, the blueness that is my 'blueness' the cool sensation that is my 'coolness', as witnessed in the privacy of my own isolated ego.

On the face of it, it is difficult to see how this idea is necessary for the Cartesian project, or 'traditional epistemology of the sort...encountered in Locke, Berkeley and Hume'. Consider Descartes' evil demon, or, better still, let us transpose the plot to that of the film 'the Matrix'. It seems to me that one can perfectly well understand the worry about whether my experience corresponds to a world outside me without invoking the idea of a private language in the sense attacked by Wittgenstein. It is possible for the captive in the Matrix to know what it is for something to be blue, even if, in reality, they live in a world where there is no sky, and where everything is coloured in shades of grey. 'Blue' here is not intended to refer to a private object, but to just the sort of thing that we mean when we use the word 'blue', that is to say, to a phenomenon that is, in principle, publicly accessible and which two individuals can agree in calling 'blue'.

However, there is another level to this question, where what is at stake is not, 'How things really are in the objective world', i.e. whether they are as the seem to be, or whether on the contrary the objective truth is such as described in the evil demon or matrix hypothesis. On the more fundamental level, the question one is tempted to ask is why there *needs* to be an 'objective world' in this sense. Every thought that I entertain is a thought about my experience or possible experience, including the thoughts that I have just been describing. In other words, according to the solipsist, 'the world is my world'. The concept of an 'objective' world, outside of, or in addition to the world of my subjective experience and the various interpretations that I make of it, is empty, without meaning.

The upshot of the private language argument is the rejection of this hypothesis. Language is not merely *experienced* as a social phenomenon, which is as true of the solipsist as the non-solipsist. Rather the very idea of judgement implies a distinction between the individual and the world of which that individual is a part, alongside other individuals. There is another side of me, which cannot logically be reduced to my experience or possible experience: my reality in the eyes of the other whom I engage in dialogue.

All the best,


Monday, May 23, 2011

Philosophical significance of the paradox of the heap

To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical significance of the paradox of the heap
Date: 31 July 2002 10:18

Dear Mary,

Here is my response to your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program which you e-mailed to me on 7 July. Please accept my sincere apologies for this long delay.

'How would you explain to a non-philosopher the philosophical significance of the paradox of the Heap?'

I liked this essay a lot. It is worth making the point that the question of whether you call something a 'heap' or a 'pile' can be seen as a problem in addition to, or at least not he same as, the problem of vagueness. However, the indeterminacy in the question which is the best of two terms to use in a particular case is a phenomenon which the later Wittgenstein was just as interested in as the problem of vagueness.

The concept of a 'heap' is different from the concept of a 'pile' and the difference can be explained with some degree of precision. In a pile, things are balanced on top of one another, whereas in a heap, things are dropped on the top and allowed to tumble down. Some objects can be put in piles only with great difficulty, but easily form heaps. A very inexpertly arranged pile might be mistaken for a heap.

I am saying this in order to narrow our focus on the specific problem of vagueness, where we are concerned with a given term and its range of application, rather than with the choice between two different, overlapping terms.

The point about philosophers is not simply that they like precision. The response to the demand that every statement should be precise is to point out that there are many cases where we cannot give a precise description. We cannot count the grains of sand in a heap. So vague predicates are a genuine enrichment of the language which allow us to communicate information which we could not express in any other way.

What philosophers hate is having to accept a logical contradiction. However, you don't have to be a philosopher to wish to avoid logical contradictions. If it was OK to say things which were self-contradictory, there would be no complaints when, e.g. politicians contradicted themselves.

So what is the difference? Why are most non-philosophers simply not bothered by the fact that we are happy to allow that at a certain indeterminate point, a non-heap mysteriously turns into a heap? Why is this not perceived by non-philosophers as a form of self-contradiction?

A reasonable strategy when confronted with a paradox is to look for an assumption behind the paradox. The appearance of paradox can then be seen as showing that the assumption is in fact mistaken. The interesting thing in the case of vagueness is that most people, when asked, would agree with the assumption that lies behind the vagueness paradox: namely, that when we make a statement, we intend to state a fact. The statement is true if the facts are as the statement states them to be and false otherwise. But it seems that can't be right. If there were a 'fact' of the matter whether a given amount of stand made heap or not, then it would not be true that by adding one grain it is impossible to convert a non-heap into a heap.

The later Wittgenstein's view which you describe, 'language does not have "the truth" wrapped up inside it, but, hey, it works!' involves a radical rejection of the idea that a statement states facts. A statement is nothing of the sort. It is a counter which we use to make moves in a game, or a tool which we manipulate for a particular purpose. These are radical, unnerving ideas which seem to involve the total rejection of the ideas which the non-philosopher accepts implicitly.

(As I will argue later in the program, it is possible to redefine the concept of 'truth' in the light of Wittgenstein's arguments - but at a price.)

That's what makes this issue so gripping. It is not that the philosopher is a fusspot who sees problems where ordinary folk are quite happy to get by. On the contrary, it is the beliefs and ideas of ordinary folk which contain the seeds of the problem. The only reason we are able to 'get by' is because we fail to think things through.

Two things which appear in your essay which I haven't mentioned are solipsism, and the idea of saving the 'fact-stating' or 'truth conditions' view by defining vagueness in terms of the probability of a given response from the average speaker.

Solipsism gets a look in here because it is only when we move away from the point of view subject to see the individual as involved in a practice, that it becomes possible to formulate Wittgenstein's notion of a 'language game', as an alternative to the fact stating view.

My objection to the 'probability' view is that, if we are talking about truth here, then we cannot let this rest on what the 'average' speaker would say. Some individuals have better, more refined judgement about particular questions than others. We cannot allow the merely average response to determine truth. But there is no precise way to measure degrees of expertise.

All the best,


My unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world

To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: My unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world
Date: 31 July 2002 08:57

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 23 July, with your fifth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, on the question, 'How successful, in your view, is the theory of subjective and objective worlds in accounting for *my* unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world?'

Well done for completing this program! A certificate and report will be on their way.

You describe the dualism of subjective and objective worlds as 'on the one hand, I, my self-conscious awareness, now at this instant and at this place, and on the other hand the whole objective universe, everything that is not I'.

There is, however, a powerful objection to describing the duality in this way. On this account, the momentary something named by 'I' seems utterly ineffable and indescribable. In what sense can it be said to 'exist', if everything that can be said about my thoughts, feelings and sensations is a statement about the objective, and not the subjective world?

There is some truth in the comparison with this idea of an indescribably momentary I-ness, and the nugget of subjectivity which survives the critique of Descartes' notion of an immaterial soul. However, it should be remembered that Descartes, in declaring that 'I exist' must be true whenever it is uttered or thought saw himself as making a general statement about kinds of stuff or entity. There is the physical kind and there is also the mental kind. If the mental kind lacks the capacity to form enduring substances as Descartes' critics have argued, still one can speak meaningfully of a plurality of such non-physical, momentary 'I's.

But this is not what the theory of subjective and objective worlds claims, and in fact it is inconsistent with that theory.

The two-world view is a theory about indexicality, or what differentiates *this* 'I' from all other 'I's, whereas Descartes' theory, whether we take the 'fat' or the 'thin' version, is a theory about the quality of subjectivity which all 'I's (or momentary 'I's) have in common.

About any form of Cartesian dualism, the proponent of the two-world theory can still ask, 'What kind of fact is it that one of these 'I's is *I*? What is the difference between a world which contains *I* and a world, just like the actual world in its physical and mental aspects which contains an entity (or momentary entity) exactly like I?

This is an extremely weird question, I agree. It doesn't matter whether you are a materialist, a dualist or an idealist, the question is the same: namely, what kind of fact is it in virtue of which I am *this* I and not some other 'I'. (A similar question can be raised about the indexical term 'now' - what kind of fact is it in virtue of which now is *this* now and not some other 'now'.)

For this reason, the radical view of eliminative materialism, which you describe, is no more of a challenge to the two-world theory than any 'ism'. In fact, the two-world theorist is happy to receive confirmation that there is no problem of 'consciousness' as such. The problem we perceive as the problem of consciousness is in fact the problem of indexicality.

Going back to your characterization of the subjective pole of the two-world theory, if this is just intended as an expression of the recognition of the irreducible metaphysical fact of indexicality, then the subjective world includes everything from the objective world, just as the universe existing 'now' is a universe with a history stretching back billions of years. The Andromeda galaxy is *my* Andromeda galaxy, just as this hand is *my* hand.

You mention solipsism, where 'my Cartesian soul is expanded to include the whole universe'. What the solipsist fails to see is how there can be an Andromeda galaxy which is *not* 'my' Andromeda galaxy,. In other words, the solipsist claims that the subjective world is the only reality. What refutes this is not the argument against the privacy of experience as such - because the solipsist is happy to accept that the only concepts one can use are concepts which relate to an external world - but rather (what I take to be the real import of the private language argument) that the very notion of judgement implies a distinction between how things are for a given subject, and how things are from a point of view outside that subject. So, for example, we understand what it means to say that someone is suffering from a systematic paranoid delusion. The solipsist can only reduce this idea to the possibility that I might discover that I have been suffering from such a delusion. But that is not the same thing.

- I should say that I can't remember the last time someone tackled this essay question. It is hard for me to write about this because the two-world theory seems to me - as it seemed when I wrote 'Naive Metaphysics' - a theory which it is impossible to reject, and yet also impossible to accept. My suspicion is that the problem here is the traditional language of ontology which has been used to express the two-world theory. What the theory is really about is not a 'dualism' of any variety, but rather the rejection of the 'totalising' project of ontology within which the notion of a 'dualism' alone makes sense. (This is as much as I have gleaned from the works of Emmanuel Levinas, see his 'Totality and Infinity'.)

All the best,


Friday, May 20, 2011

Is morality subjective or objective?

To: Samuel T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is morality subjective or objective?
Date: 29 July 2002 10:44

Dear Samuel,

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 July, with the first draft of your second essay for the Associate program, 'The foundation of Morality: Is Morality Subjective or Objective?'

In your essay you raise a number of good questions which will certainly give any defender of moral subjectivism pause for thought. I should also say that I myself have argued strongly in favour of the view that morality has an objective foundation, both in my book 'Naive Metaphysics' and at greater length in the Pathways Moral Philosophy program (Program E) Reason, Values and Conduct.

However, I found your essay disappointing for a number of reasons.

Although you give a long bibliography, there is - amazingly - no mention of Kant's 'Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals'. This is in fact the source of C.S. Lewises citation of the 'moral law'. (In the 'Critique of Practical Reason', Kant famously cites two things that fill him with wonder: 'the starry heavens above and the moral law within'.)

I would have thought that Kant's 'Categorical Imperative' is the starting point for any serious investigation of the foundations of morality. What Kant is seeking to do is provide a rational foundation for morality: to show, in other words, why it is a constituent part of rationality that we should make certain moral choices, choices which are universally demanded of all rational beings.

Kant was a devout Christian. But he was quite clear about the boundaries between matters of faith and matters of knowledge. He believed that objective foundations for morality could be established as a matter of knowledge, through philosophical argument.

The key idea in your essay is that moral laws exist as Platonic Forms, and that the existence of these Platonic forms can ultimately be explained only through the existence of God.

Amazingly, you cite the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, yet it is here that opponents of the idea that moral laws derive from God have found their most powerful argument. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether things are pious because they are 'commanded by the gods' or whether, on the contrary, they are 'commanded by the gods because they are pious'. This challenge has been taken as a reductio ad absurdum of any definition of the form, 'X is good = X is commanded by God'. (However, one place where I have found a sturdy defence of Euthyphro against Socrates is Peter Geach 'Logic Matters' which should be in your university library. Geach goes so far as to accuse Socrates of sophistry, though I am not convinced.)

A comparatively recent introduction to moral philosophy, 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong' by J.L. Mackie, gives an equally formidable argument against the idea that morality can be based on Platonic forms. Mackie cites two arguments, the 'argument from relativity' and the 'argument from queerness'. You deal at some length with relativity in your essay, and I am partly in agreement with what you say. To make things simple, if there are two cultures A and B, and A believe that X is good and B believe that X is bad, it does not follow that one or other culture cannot be *right*. On the other hand, in order to put forward this defence it is necessary to explain how it came about that one culture espoused the right view and the other the wrong view. Where did the culture that got things wrong go wrong? at what point did they deviate from perception of the moral truth? And how did the other culture manage to get things right?

This is the point were the argument from queerness comes into play. Platonic forms of moral values would be metaphysically 'queer' objects, for two reasons. The problem is not only explaining how our minds can make contact with transcendent, non-material objects (which is difficult enough) but also accounting for the motivational force of such knowledge. The latter point goes back to Hume's famous argument about the gap between 'Is' and 'Ought'.

A lot of the argument in your essay takes the form, 'Morality must exist objectively otherwise there is no explanation of how we came to such-and-such an idea'. But as you are no doubt aware, defenders of moral subjectivism have plenty of explanations. Mackie describes his position as an 'error theory' of morality. The explanation takes the form of an error in reasoning or inference to which we are naturally prone. The problem for your strategy here is that, however many subjectivist accounts you examine and reject, you cannot say definitively that subjectivism cannot account for the origin of our moral ideas. In other words, this form of argumentation is always vulnerable to the 'overlooked alternative'.

You are right in charging relativism with self-contradiction when it says that 'murder is wrong' can be true for me but false for you. If it is true for me that murder is wrong, then I cannot admit that in saying, 'Murder is not wrong' you are saying something 'true'. However, the relativist has a response. This is to deny that there are any moral 'truths'. 'Some people *like* murder and some don't. I am one of those who don't' does not involve any self-contradiction.

As I said earlier, I would put myself firmly in the camp of the moral objectivists. The line I would take is Kantian, in that I believe that what we are looking for is objective reasons for being moral, rather than metaphysical 'objects'. But that is another story.

One last point. Where did Sartre say, "If God is dead, everything is permitted"? Your citation is to Schlick. If this is a direct quotation then it requires a citation of the original source.

All the best,


In defence of men

To: Ian H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: In defence of men
Date: 29 July 2002 09:05

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 July, with the first draft of your third essay for the Associate program, 'In defence of Men'.

I must admit, I worried when I first saw this title. Having looked at the essay, however, I am confident that this will 'evolve' into a fully acceptable portfolio essay!

The problem that you are addressing is quite general: whether the (alleged) fact that human beings have genetically based predispositions towards certain types of behaviour can be cited in exoneration of those types of behaviour. You have chosen to illustrate that problem with the case of the 'male genetic tendency towards polygyny'.

It would have helped a lot if you had made the point at the beginning, or at least early on in your essay that the specific problem of male sexual behaviour has been chosen as an example of general issue. It is a very good example because there does seem in this case to be a very clear choice between the genetic imperative and actions which are considered ethically correct. You might, however, consider mentioning other cases which show a similar structure, in order to underline the point that we are dealing here with a problem of more general application.

A while ago, I answered a question on the Ask a Philosopher page, 'Does evolutionary psychology imply that man has no free will?' The reference, if you are interested, is:


In my answer, I said, "Human beings have a nature. We inherit natural predispositions from our genes. That is hardly surprising. It would, if anything, be a far greater cause for concern if it turned out that human psychology is infinitely malleable. That there was no such thing, from the inside, as what it is to be human. Then it would be completely up to us to make of ourselves what we will... [T]o be in possession of a capacity for reason is to be capable of making choices. If we submit to 'nature' then we are acting for a reason, which we may reflect upon and which others may praise or criticize, no less than if we resist."

In your essay, you argue along similar lines when you say that "Rose's... remark that since men are genetically inclined to polygyny, they cannot be blamed for philandering, is mistaken because it ignores a capacity for responsibility - the capacity to...think through what we are about to do and judge between competing desires".

This is the part that I agree with. You will see, however, that I go further in making the point that it is inconceivable that human beings should *not* have had a 'nature', a predisposition towards certain types of behaviour, or liking certain things and disliking others. This puts things into rather a different perspective. The point here could be made even if we did not know anything about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection or genetics. Human beings have a nature. That is a fact which has been know and accepted by philosophers since the time of Socrates.

However, you also go further than I would be prepared to go, when you speculate about the evolution of two further traits: an impulse towards a form of altruism, and the ability to make reasoned choices between alternatives. If you are right, we could imagine a possible world where intelligent beings evolved who, as a result of very different local conditions, did not 'evolve' this limited tendency towards altruism, or, alternatively, did not evolve the ability to make reasoned choices. Here, however, I think that you are making the very error that you have sought to expose and criticize in your essay.

The 'self interested but nonetheless altruistic' impulse which you refer to would be Dawkins' 'grudger' gene (if I am not mistaken). Supposing that we accept the evidence for the existence of such a gene in the animal kingdom (e.g. the predisposition of certain monkeys to pick the tics from the fur of other monkeys who are willing to pick their tics) it doesn't follow that the existence of this gene is either necessary, or sufficient to explain altruism in human beings.

Nor would I accept that there is any interesting sense in which we have 'evolved the capacity for making reasoned choices'. We have evolved intelligence, certainly, but intelligence just *is* the capacity for making reasoned choices. It is meaningless to speculate how things would be for 'us' if we did not have this capacity.

I may be wrong in attributing to you the two arguments which I have just criticised. If these are not arguments which you are relying on then that is not at all clear from your essay. It certainly would be worth while, however, to consider these arguments in your essay in order to explain why you are not relying on them.

A book which was very well reviewed when it appeared in the 80's and which would be an excellent addition to your bibliography is Mary Midgeley's 'Beast and Man'. There's a good chance that it will still be in print. From what I have heard, I think you will find that the book has material which you will find very useful in beefing up your essay.

All the best,


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Narrative and and storytelling in identity constructing

To: Angelique D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Narrative and storytelling in identity constructing
Date: 25 July 2002 10:11

Dear Angelique,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 July, with your first piece towards your Fellowship dissertation, 'Narrative and Storytelling in Identity Constructing'.

This has given me a good idea of what you are aiming to do.

A philosopher will notice immediately that you have strayed onto two very significant areas of dispute/ inquiry: the issue of radical interpretation and the dispute between realism and anti-realism.

Radical interpretation is about the question of how we understand another person, either from our own or from another culture, when the meanings that they assign to their words cannot be taken for granted. What is the basis for saying that, of two proposed alternatives, one particular interpretation of a person's speech and actions, one is more correct than another? The writings of Donald Davidson (e.g. 'Essays on Actions and Events' CUP) provide the starting point here. A seminal collection of articles which helps to relate the issue of radical interpretation to your concerns is 'Action and Interpretation: Studies in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences' edited by Christopher Hookway and Philip Pettit (CUP 1978).

The issue of realism vs. anti-realism within the context of a theory of meaning for natural language was first raised by Michael Dummett (see 'Truth and Other Enigmas' Duckworth). The most accessible text from your point of view is 'Realism and Truth' by Michael Devitt (Princeton 1996). Crispin Wright has also written a number of books including 'Truth and Objectivity' (OUP). This has been one of my main interests since the late 70's. The quickest way to see what is at stake here is to consider the past. Are there truths about the past which exist irrespective of present evidence? Our intuitions tell us that if an event happened, it happened and no amount of arguing or believing that it didn't happen 1984-style can make it not have happened. The Holocaust denial controversy is a case in point. But realism is not at all easy to defend, and some of the things you say in your piece seem to dismiss any possibility of defending a realist view.

Then again, the two issues, of radical interpretation and realism/anti-realism overlap when we consider the question of what it means for one interpretation to be 'more correct' than another (although I deliberately avoided the word 'true', it is in fact impossible to avoid some term of evaluation of 'correctness').

Two questions raised early on about your piece that need to be related to one another are the nature of narrative and the nature of conversation. Narrative relates to history, our sense of personal and social identity. In conversation, 'we do things with words' (quoting the title of the 50's Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin's famous book) and it is not the case that all conversation, or even most conversation, is concerned with communicating information. In both cases, the question of truth, or the idea of 'aiming at truth' is compromised. In narrative we can create a 'truth' that did not exist before, or destroy a previous 'truth'. In conversation, we aim at other things besides truth.

This is not, as such, argument in favour of the anti-realist view. The philosopher can say, 'Of course, in the actual world, we do lots of things with words but we *also* sometimes try to state facts, or discover what is the case, and this is what I am concerned with.'

(Incidentally, your statement 'Wittgenstein sees words as being like pieces used in a game of chess' is very inaccurate because in 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein stresses the sheer variety of language games. I understand that here you are simply generalizing on Frege's 'context' principle, according to which a word has 'meaning' only in the context of an utterance - thus by extension, an utterance only has meaning within the context of a given language game.)

One thing you said that struck me as being clearly wrong was, 'For symbols to convey meaning, agreement has to be reached between sender and receiver as to their significance.' David Lewis, in his book 'Convention' (Blackwell) explores the way in which it could be possible for individuals to *reach* agreement concerning the meanings of their words. In many cases, surely, we say things not knowing how they will be taken, and what goes on is a process that is best described by game theory. You send something out with the intention of gaining a response, from which you can gauge how your utterance has been taken, and also with the hope of conveying to the listener the fact that you are looking for a route towards mutual understanding. By successive approximations, and much misunderstanding, something that passes for agreement is reached. Philosophical dialogue is very much like this!

I liked better your phrase, 'negotiated intelligibility' in the next paragraph.

I also liked the sentence in the last paragraph, 'Language is a took used in the interactive process of sense making by individuals in the form of ongoing conversations without beginning and end.'

My overall impression is that you do need to pursue the realism/ anti-realism debate (I don't mean necessarily *in* the dissertation) in order to see where your interests branch off from, or run at a tangent to this debate. In other words, you need to find a way to bracket the general metaphysical claim about truth, in order to concentrate on the questions that concern you. I think that there could be a fine dissertation here in the making.

All the best,


Definition of identity and the mind-body problem

To: James M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Definition of identity and the mind-body problem
Date: 25 July 2002 08:15

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 July with the corrected version of your essay of 16 July for the Philosophy of Mind program in response to the question, 'What is identity? What is the relevance of a definition of "identity" to the problem of the relation between mind and body?'

I like what Ortega has to say about the self. I was charmed by his little book 'Some Lessons in Metaphysics' (Norton), where he proposes the formula, 'I am myself and my circumstances'. What he means is that 'I' is a relational concept, not a name of a substance. It is only in terms of the idea of 'I' as the name of a substance that the traditional oppositions between materialism, idealism and dualism can be expressed.

Philosophers are forever looking for ways to get behind a dispute and upstage the participants. This is something Kant does in various places in the 'Critique of Pure Reason', for example in the Antinomies of Pure Reason, where he shows that the theory that 'the world has a beginning in time' and also the theory that 'the world has existed forever' arise from a false, shared framework. In his Critical philosophy the question of 'the beginning of the world' cannot be posed in that way. (An 'antinomy' involves a pair of contrary propositions which appear to be contradictory, whereas in fact there is a third, overlooked alternative. This logical idea later became the core of Hegel's philosophical method, his 'dialectic'.)

It seems to me that a possible philosophical point of your examination of 'My Experience' (if I may speak for you) is to try to see if there might not be some logical space for manoeuvre in between these various 'isms'. The way things turn out, however, is that each of these three traditional ways of relating mind to body make an appearance in everyday experience. Everyone can cite experiences of when the mind seems to be physical, or when physical things seem to be mental, or when mind and matter appear as separate entities, in co-operation or at odds with one another.

It's hardly surprising, when you think about it, that the ideas which motivate the great metaphysical systems relate back to common experience. The materialist, idealist, dualist each identifies one particular type of experience as most illuminating of the whole. It is their epiphany. They are perhaps not even aware of doing so, because if they did become aware, they would realize that not all experiences fit this artificially restricted paradigm.

The point of the essay question did not directly concern identity over time (which is also discussed in the program) but rather identity at a time. What you say about personal identity - as applied to your own case as a representative example - certainly has implications for the problem of relating the criteria of bodily continuity, mental continuity etc. in a logical definition of 'personal identity'. Memory, as you show, is a much more complex thing than analytic philosophers working in this area are generally prepared to allow. However, this is not primarily what I was thinking of in raising the question, 'What is identity?' in relation to the mind-body problem.

In terms of the critique of the 'substance' theory, we can say that identity is a concept that involves putting two names on either side of an 'equals' sign. The identity statement is true if and only if the names refer to the 'same thing' and false otherwise. As Frege showed in his famous essay 'Uber Sinn und Bedeutung' ('On Sense and Reference') this is a blatantly circular definition (because it talks about 'the same thing' which is the very concept we are seeking to define). However, it will do to identify the area that we are exploring. As I explain in the program, identity statements can (surprisingly) convey information. To say that Morning Star is the Evening Star is not a tautology. But what is important, from our point of view (and Ortega's) is the implication that we are indeed dealing with *things*. The inner view provides the opportunity to 'name' various items of mental stuff. The outer view provides names for various items of physical stuff. The philosopher then speculates whether any identity statement involving names for inner and outer stuff can be true.

However, if, as the radical critic of the 'substance' idea seems to imply we have already gone astray in raising the question of identity (and I should point out before I forget that Hume, in criticizing Descartes' notion of mental substance, fully embraces the idea of substance, making each individual idea a self-contained 'substance' with an identity all of its own) then materialism, idealism and dualism are all equally non-starters so far as the problem of understanding the nature of our embodied existence is concerned.

My argument, for what it is worth, is that even if we *do* grant the 'substance' view, it is in fact impossible to make sense of identity statements where there is a name for an inner, mental something on one side of the equation and a name for an outer, physical something on the other. But that is another story.

One thing that I have not said is that I was moved by your account. Although it reads as a letter to me (you refer to our previous discussion at one point) I would like to see some suitably modified version of this as an article in 'Philosophy Pathways'. Would you be interested in doing that?

I enjoyed reading this. Thank you for your illumination.

All the best,


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Counting others unequally in one's deliberations

To: Trevor T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Counting others unequally in one's deliberations
Date: 16 July 2002 16:31

Dear Trevor,

Thank you for your letter of 6th July, with your fourth essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Once you give up the principle that others should always count equally in our moral deliberations, you are on a slippery slope which ultimately leads to the morality of "anything goes"' How good is that argument?'

I must admit that it was not clear - until the very last paragraph - that this was the question you were answering. The essay looked more like an answer to the question, 'On what basis do we (or should we?) make moral decisions?'

Thus, the utilitarian decides on the basis of the moral law, 'The greatest happiness for the greatest number' together with their empirical beliefs concerning which actions are most likely to bring about that end.

Dawkins' man reasons on the basis of the principle of gene selfishness. This has the consequence (which you have not noticed) that if another human being does share all my genes -- my perfect identical twin -- then I should consider that individual's interests equal to my own. So it is not correct to describe this as a recipe for self-interestedness, although it is not a moral principle either.

Hobbes' man, on the other hand throws his lot in with society and its laws for ultimately selfish reasons. However, it should be pointed out that this is far from being the only basis on which respect for the rule of law might be grounded.

Finally, those who believe in 'conscience' or 'higher ideals' accept that in some sense all human beings are equally deserving of my consideration, for the ultimate truth is that we are all one.

In each of these cases, it is possible to construct an argument against allowing some individuals to 'count' for more in my deliberations than others. In utilitarianism, the greatest happiness principle requires that the same amount of happiness counts for the same, irrespective of the individual in whom the happiness happens to reside. In a society ruled by law, every individual must be regarded as equal in the sight of the law, otherwise the law (and the monarch or state responsible for upholding the law) loses the ability to command respect . In a Spinozistic reality where there is ultimately no difference between you and me, I must as a matter of sheer logic count your needs as equal in importance to my own, irrespective of who 'you' happen to be.

However, it is not clear on any of these three scenarios that the conclusion you want goes through.

Consider utilitarianism. The ultimate aim is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, some philosophers (Bernard Williams, for example) have argued that *in the interests of* the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it might not be best if individual people made their moral decisions by appeal to that principle. The easiest case in which to see this is the person who is just not very good at forming a realistic prediction of the amount of happiness or unhappiness their action is likely to cause. More interestingly, it could be argued, strictly on utilitarian grounds, that a society made up of individuals who ignored ties of family and friendship would be on the whole worse off so far as happiness was concerned than a society where it was accepted that one's first duty is to those close to one.

Let us now consider the claim that 'everyone is equal in the sight of the law'. The law is not the same as morals. We may have equal rights under the law, but the law has nothing to say about personal altruism or selfishness, or all the degrees in-between.

Finally, the question of 'higher ideals'. In the Moral Philosophy program, I consider the practical consequences of a metaphysical view such as that of Spinoza or that of Schopenhauer, where one seeks to obliterate the distance between 'self' and 'other'. However, I argue that there is another metaphysical view, no less 'idealistic', which seeks its foundation on the 'otherness of the other', on the infinite distance that separates the other from me, in virtue of which I cannot reduce the other to a mere obstacle or tool. This metaphysical theory also yields objective reasons for taking the interests of the other into consideration at all time, i.e. objective reasons for being moral. What it does not do, however, is supply any guidance on how this should be applied in practice. It would be impossible to summarise all the argument here, but the upshot is that each case is unique. There is no general formula for doing good, such as 'taking a disinterested view at all times', or 'striving for the greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

Where does that leave us? The 'slippery slope' objection, as I see it, is as much a challenge within this general metaphysical view. What is required to meet the objection (and I am not saying that I am clear about exactly how it should be met) is showing how we can justifiably say, 'This far and no more' in a situation where we are required to form a judgement of how much of a 'weighting' we should give to the furtherance of our own ideals and projects, or the well being of those closer to us.

All the best,


'The world is my world' and solipsism

To: Michael W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'The world is my world' and solipsism
Date: 6 July 2002 12:52

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your e-mail of 26 June, with your last essay for the Philosophy of Mind program:

'The world is my world' - Explain how the theory of solipsism arises in the context of the mind-body problem. Can the solipsist be refuted?

Well done for completing the program! My report together with a certificate of completion will go out next week.

I am glad that you have enjoyed the course. The Philosophy of Mind program ends with a question which has been with me now for a long time. I doubt whether I shall ever get past it. So I can understand well your feeling of disappointment too.

This a fine, energetic and creative approach to the question of solipsism. This is the first time I have seen the predicament of the solipsist compared with that of the prisoner in Plato's Cave. I liked that a lot.

What do we learn from the thought experiment of Solly, Laura and the VR machine? The hypothesis, and the claim that the hypothesis is irrefutable, is *not* solipsism. I don't believe you think this. Rather, you are using the thought experiment as a way in to the solipsist's metaphysic.

Someone who says that the VR hypothesis is irrefutable is not saying that my subjective world is all that there is. On the contrary, the sceptical threat is real because one accepts without question that this subjective experience has an objective side: the problem is we don't know what this objective side is. (Sorry if I seem to be labouring a point that is obvious to you.)

Within my experience, there is always the empirical possibility of 'waking up' (as in the film 'The Matrix'). There is room for doubt - which can be confirmed, but never assuaged.

What gets the solipsist going is the thought, 'However things turn out empirically, whatever happens to me is merely a story about the my world.' In other words, although one may talk of 'appearance' and 'reality', subjective experience and its objective interpretation, this is all a relative distinction *within* my world - which from an ontological point of view is all there is or could be.

Solly the newly converted solipsist continues to use the language which he 'learned'. The words do not become words for 'private objects' but continue to refer to such mundane things as computers, cars, trees and people. (You don't need to say that there can be thought without words.)

This, I would argue, is the lesson of Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism': 'The empirically determined consciousness of my own existence proves the existence of an empirical reality outside me.' Thought, concepts, language cannot work without 'objective things' to latch onto.

The trouble is that this is just grist to the solipsist's mill. (I call this version of solipsism, 'transcendental solipsism'.) The point of the private language argument is not that there must be a language in *this* sense, but rather that the rules of language cannot come from me, otherwise 'whatever seems to me to be "right" will be right, which means we cannot talk about "right".'

If the rules cannot come from me, they must come from outside me, and not merely be *experienced* as 'coming from outside me'. Hence, Wittgenstein says, 'following a rule is a practice'.

This is a terribly difficult idea to get a handle on. The way I have tried to explain it is in terms of the example of the man with paranoid delusions. We understand the difference between 'how things are' as a question about my world, to be answered by my best judgement, and that same question raised with the added suspicion that my judgement might, for all I could ever know, be systematically and incurably distorted. With that idea necessarily comes the idea of an external reality that cannot be reduced to the 'best explanation I can give of my experience.'

So I would disagree with you about the question whether solipsism can be refuted. The solipsist cannot say, 'I know I have thoughts' because if there were no objective side they would not be 'thoughts' but only the semblance of thoughts. (If the solipsist accepts this and agrees to give up all talk of thoughts, knowledge or truth *then* they cannot be refuted.)

On the other hand (as I argued in my previous Shap paper at sophist.co.uk/glasshouse/documents/shap.html ) there is something I have which I cannot, in principle share with anyone else, something concerning which it is not possible even for me to make judgements, namely the way my brain state appears to me.

This bears on the intriguing possibility which you consider, of two solipsists whose worlds 'collide'. This cannot happen. Suppose you and I are wired up so that we literally share part of our brains in common. An experience which reaches a common part of our fused brains, arrives in our conscious minds at precisely the same moment. Each of us knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that the experience is, say, that of 'descending very fast in a lift'. But so long as our minds are distinct, neither has access to the other person's subjectivity, in a way that would prove, without further need for argument, that solipsism is false.

From this starting point, which I take to be the residual truth in solipsism, we can raise the question of what follows if we accept (as I have argued) that the idea of truth is conditional on the recognition of the reality of the other. I think what follows is the necessity for bring moral. But that is another story.

All the best,


Monday, May 16, 2011

The case against science

To: Samuel S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The case against science
Date: 28 May 2002 12:27

Dear Samuel,

Thank you for your e-mail of 21 May, with your first essay for the Associate program, entitled 'The Case Against Science'.

As a general comment, it seems to me that a case can be made for saying that your case is weakened rather than strengthened by your several references to 'the Post-Modern age' and its consequences.

If science is just one 'language game' we play amongst others, if there is no such thing as truth, but only a good or bad move in the game, then this counts against any proposed alternative, e.g. the 'art game' or the 'religion game'. No human enterprise can claim access to the ultimate level of reality, because there is none. On the other hand, if we really are free to choose which game to play, then the scientist can retort, 'I play the science game and I am quite happy with that.'

I suspect that you want to say that there is an ultimate level of reality and human beings do have access to it. The case against science, in these terms, is that it claims to have access to the ultimate level when in fact it doesn't.

What is science, or the scientific method? Care needs to be taken here that you are not attacking a straw man. There is a highly influential approach to the philosophy of science which fully accepts what you say about the limitations of scientific method. According to Karl Popper (see his 'Conjectures and Refutations') the testing of hypotheses is the 'objective' aspect of science, not their selection. To be judged 'scientific' a hypothesis need not have any prior evidence in its favour. It is sufficient that the proposer can state testable consequences of that hypothesis.

You might reply that objective 'testing' is an illusion, and whether a hypothesis is accepted or rejected depends upon our prior philosophical assumptions. Consider the statement, 'According to theory T, when we do X, effect Y will be observed.' According to the theory that a telescope enables you to see aspects of faraway objects that are not visible to the naked eye, if there are mountains on the moon, and you look through a telescope at the moon, you will observe mountains. Famously, the inquisitors who looked through Galileo's telescope refused to believe what they saw, and had a ready explanation. It's the work of the devil. Is that an example of what you mean?

The chief challenge to Popper's approach comes from Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure of Scientific Revolutions' which is notably missing from your bibliography. The main charge is that in practice, theories are held despite sometimes overwhelming evidence, simply because of the inertia of the scientific community. Kuhn talks about periods of 'normal' science, where researchers follow given paradigms of investigation, punctuated by 'revolutions' where new paradigms are put in place. Paul Feyerbend, in 'Against Method' takes this critique one stage further, arguing that 'scientific method' is never practised, and that the true situation is far more anarchic than scientists are prepared to recognize.

There is certainly a good case for saying that not all knowledge can be systematized. Personal experience and intuition are important sources of knowledge. What you need to show, however, is that science, or the idea of science is incapable in principle of being expanded to incorporate these ideas. To take one example, Sigmund Freud viewed psychoanalysis as a 'science'. Yet he places emphasis on the personal qualities of the analyst which cannot be reduced to the application of a series of rules that anyone could follow.

One of the chief claims made in favour of science as a source of knowledge is that it enables us to make predictions, hence your quote from Robert Park. One way to restrict science would be to argue that not all knowledge enables us to make predictions. How do you show this? Consider an individual whom we judge to be a fine judge of character. You say, 'Mr Brown is not to be trusted, despite appearances to the contrary' and I agree. I credit you with being a good judge of character, and you return the compliment. Naturally, because we both agree. But whether a person really is a fine judge of character is something which can be put to the test. For example, to everyone's surprise (except you and me) Mr Brown runs off to Mexico with the Society funds and the Chairman's wife.

On the other hand, not all intuitive knowledge is like this. For example, religious experience, or aesthetic experience. What is the case for saying that these are not just experiences which many human beings share, but a source of knowledge of the real world? It is not enough to argue that science is limited, that there are problems which science may never be able to solve (e.g. problems arising from irreducible complexity) because all that justifies us in saying is that there are limits to knowledge set by the human condition. It does not justify, without further argument, the claim that there exist alternative sources of knowledge that can be used to fill the gap.

I know that I have raised a lot of points. However, this looks a promising essay, and I certainly would not wish to dissuade you from exploring the topic further.

All the best,


Hume on the self

To: Tom M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on the self
Date: 28 May 2002 09:41

Dear Tom,

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 May, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question: 'Do you agree with the philosopher David Hume that, "I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never observe anything but the perception"? Examine Hume’s account of the nature of self, showing the main features that distinguish it from Cartesian dualism.'

You have given a clear account of how Hume's bundle theory explains the identity of a subject, defined as a collection of mental items, at a given time. The key point is that the relation of 'presence to' defines what is known as an 'equivalence relation'. An equivalence relation is transitive (if xRy and yRz then xRz), symmetrical (if xRy then yRx) and reflexive (for all x, xRx). Given these three properties, any domain of mental items will be divided by the equivalence relation into distinct, non-overlapping classes.

Commenting on Hume's theory, you say, 'It is a simple explanation, which adheres to Ockham's razor...If mind can be explained without reference to a subjective witness, then this is preferable to a more complex model.'

So we have two arguments for Hume's theory: 1) the self apart from its perceptions cannot be perceived 2) by Ockham's razor such a self is redundant anyway.

This sounds very much like an argument that might be given against the theory that car engines misfire because of gremlins: 1) No-one has ever seen a gremlin 2) it is possible to explain engine misfiring without positing gremlins.

Can it really be as simple as that?

One niggling doubt concerns our understanding of the relation, 'x is present to y'. Logically, the definition is impeccable. We know exactly what is entailed by any statement of that form. So, for example, given a situation where a lump of cheese is 'present' to a pair of scissors, if the moon is present to the lump if cheese then it is also present to the scissors. Now you know!

If you reply, 'But my notion of presence only applies to mental items, not to physical things!' then you still owe an explanation of what it is about being a mental item that gives rise to the 'presence' relation.

Hume would agree that mental items or 'perceptions' such as itch, or a memory of Scarborough, or the decision to have hamburgers for lunch are 'substances', like the cheese, the scissors or the Moon. You could take everything in the universe away and leave just the moon, or just the pair of scissors, or the cheese. Similarly, you could take everything away and leave just an itch. An itch can be present to other mental items, but logically it need not be. That is a consequence of defining the 'self' as an equivalence relation between mental items. But do we really understand what it would mean to say that, in some possible world, the only thing that exists, under the category, 'perceptions', is a single, lonely itch?

The second problem concerns the 'tapestry theory' of identity over time. On Hume's own theory, a memory of an itch is a distinct perception from the itch itself. Perceptions are defined not only by their capacity for 'presence' to one another but also by their existing *in the present*. So if we look at this itch, what we see is not something that persists from moment to moment, the way physical substances do, but rather:

t0 itch
t1 memory of itch (t0)
t2 memory of itch (t0) and memory of 'memory of itch' (t1)
t3 memory of itch (t0) and memory of 'memory of itch' (t1) and memory of "memory of 'memory of itch'" (t2)

...and so on.

Each line gives a list of momentary mental items, which can exist independently of the existence of lists of items on the other lines. So, just as we did with the lonely itch, we could take a moment in the life of GK or TM and posit a possible world in which the total mental contents of GK or TM at that moment exist, but no other mental items exist in the past or future.

However, it is possible to use the notion of a tapestry to construct an 'ersatz' concept of identity which would look for examples of the above series and call such examples 'a persisting self'. As you note in your essay, this allows for branching lists where using the above example, the series t0, t1, t2, t3 is continued t4, t5, t6... and simultaneously continued t4', t5', t6'....

If one is unhappy about these consequences, positing a Cartesian 'soul substance' will not help solve the problem. This is shown by the series of 'spectator in the theatre of consciousness' thought experiments which you quote.

So where does that leave us?

My conclusion would be that we should reject both Hume and Descartes. The only way to do that is by ditching mind-body dualism.

All the best,


Thursday, May 12, 2011

The mind-body difficulty

To: Ian H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The mind-body difficulty
Date: 24 May 2002 13:12

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 14 May, with your latest essay for the Associate Award, 'The Mind-Body Difficulty'.

First, two minor points. The formulation, 'I think therefore I am' actually occurs in Descartes' 'Discourse on Method', although it does not occur in the 'Meditations'. On page 2 you say that, for Descartes, the pineal gland is the place where the soul was 'located'. However, you also correctly observe that the mind/ soul exists in time but not in space. So although its effects are located in space, the soul itself is unlocated.

It is not in fact until Meditation 6 that Descartes gives his argument for mind-body dualism:

"..because I know that all the things I conceive clearly and distinctly can be produced by God precisely as I conceive them, it is sufficient for me to be able to conceive clearly and distinctly one thing without another, to be certain that the one is distinct or different from the other, because they can be placed in existence separately, at least by the omnipotence of God; and it does not matter by what power this separation is made, for me to be obliged to judge them to be different. And therefore, from the mere fact that I know with certainty that I exist, and that I do not observe that any other thing belongs necessarily to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists in this alone, that I am a thinking thing, or a substance whose whole essence or nature consists in thinking. And although perhaps (or rather as I shall shortly say, certainly,) I have a body to which I am very closely united, nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself in so far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and because, on the other hand I have a distinct idea of the body in so far as it is only an extended thing but which does not think, it is certain that I, that is to say my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from by body, and may exist without it."

The key point here is not the appeal to God - which merely illustrates the kind of 'logical possibility' of separation that Descartes has in mind - but rather the move from the conceivability of mind existing apart from body to the conclusion that mind and body cannot be identical. This is known as the 'modal' argument for dualism because it involves the 'modal' ideas of possibility and necessity. If A *is* B, then there is no possible world in which A and B exist as separate entities. Conversely, if A and B *can* exist as separate entities - i.e. if in some possible world A and B exist apart, then A is not B.

How does the beeswax argument, which you refer to, fit in with the proof of mind-body dualism? The key point is that in talking about whether the mind 'can' or 'cannot' exist in the absence of body, Descartes is not talking about what can be imagined, but rather what can be conceived.

My gloss on the significance of the beeswax passage for the above argument would be this: It may well be that we cannot imagine what it would be like for the mind to exist apart from body. In terms of our ability to 'picture' possibilities in the imagination, the world created by an evil demon 'looks' just the same as a world of objects in space. However, Descartes thinks, we are able to conceive of the difference it would make if an evil demon was the cause of our perceptions, rather than objects in space. That is why the argument for dualism depends not on what we can 'imagine' but on what we can 'conceive'.

I think it would help if, armed with a clearer picture of what Descartes is arguing for, you then had a look at a few discussions of the mind-body problem. Dennett's book 'Consciousness Explained' would be a good thing to read. Nagel's 'The View From Nowhere' is also well worth having a look at.

As it stands, the structure and aims of your essay are unclear. You discuss several positions without giving the reader any clear idea of what they entail or how they are related to one another. What exactly is the 'identity theory' and how does it differ from functionalism? What is the 'more cognitive view of the mind...that predominates today'?

It is quite a task to describe all the different theories and approaches. Which is why you should consider narrowing down the focus of the essay.

For example, you could look at the question of mind-body interaction. The metaphysical problem of how mental substance interacts with physical substance gave rise to a number of alternative 'dualist' theories: occasionalism, parallelism, pre-established harmony, and epiphenomenalism. However, even within a materialist (material monist) framework, the problem of the causal relations between 'mind' and 'body' reappears in the form of the question how we are to construe the causal relationships between statements describing the brain on the physical level, and statements of 'folk psychology', i.e. describing the things we think and believe, perceive, feel etc. Thus, contemporary writers use the term 'epiphenomenalism' to refer to a version of materialism, by contrast with epiphenomenal dualism, which holds that mental states exist purely as non-physical by-products of physical processes.

Or, alternatively, you could focus on the challenge posed for materialism by the 'problem of consciousness'. Here, the core of the debate concerns the idea of 'qualia', which you refer to towards the end of your essay.

All the best,


On the existence of qualia

To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On the existence of qualia
Date: 24 May 2002 11:48

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 12 May, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, commenting on the statement, 'If there are no such things as qualia, that means that human beings do not really experience feelings or sensations, they only talk and act as if they do.'

One question to raise with this statement is who are the 'human beings' who 'only talk and act as if they [have qualia]'? Is this everyone besides me, or does it include me? In the latter case, it would indeed be true, as you say that 'I don't have feelings, it just feels as if I do.'

If it feels as if I have X then I have feelings. It follows that 'I don't have feelings, it just feels as if I do' is self-contradictory. Where do we go from there?

An obvious thing to say would be, 'There are feelings and there are *feelings. Human beings, including myself, have feelings. What they don't have is *feelings, i.e. feelings as construed by the philosopher who subscribes to the notion of qualia.' In other words, people feel itches, and pains, happiness and sadness etc. but 'itch', 'pain', 'happiness', 'sadness' are not names of qualia. The error made by the qualia theorist is, in Wittgensteinian terminology, 'misconstruing the grammar of sensation'.

In that case, what are we to make of Dennett's statement from 'Brainchildren', which you quote near the end of your essay, 'I deny that there are any [qualia]. but I agree wholeheartedly that there seem to be'?

Recall what was said about the Martians back in unit 1 of the program:

"It is difficult to say how far the Martians would get in their investigation [into the human concept of the soul]. For the one thing that would be lacking is any sense of the problems - philosophical or otherwise - to which the notion of a soul is a response."

Unlike us, for the average Martian there do not 'seem to be' qualia or *feelings. It is as if they have fully mastered and internalised the Wittgensteinian of the grammar of sensation, to the point of being oblivious to the temptations which we feel.

I, for one, would like to know what Wittgenstein would have said about this. My point, in unit 1, is that having experienced the temptations and successfully mastered them, we know more than the Martians know. But that ducks the question where these temptations ultimately come from, whether is it human psychology or the history of human culture or philosophy, or something else that explains why it 'feels' to us as if we have qualia.

Earlier, you say that 'If we reject both identity theory and dualism, we are forced to deny the existence of either the physical or the mental or both in favour of some other, unimaginable concept of reality. Here, it seems that you have collapsed two different theories:

1. Nagel's 'double aspect' theory which he proposes tentatively in 'The View From Nowhere'

2. Eliminative materialism.

In a footnote, Nagel speculates - in a manner similar to Spinoza - that at some time in the future we will discover that reality is neither mental nor physical but a new kind of substance altogether whose properties account for the appearance of both mental and physical attributes.

I argue in the program that identity theory is really a closet dualism - in fact, the dualist and identity theorist are ultimately unable to distinguish their two positions from one another. To subscribe to 'eliminative materialism' is to reject qualia, as opposed to looking for material states to 'identify' them with.

Yet I fully accept that Nagel has identified a problem which sticks in the throat of the eliminative materialist: the place of 'I' in the materialist universe. My response is reintroduce a dualism, not of substances but of worlds.

Someone who accepts the 'two-world theory' is prepared to say, 'I don't have *feelings, it only feels as if I do.' What they are not prepared to say is, 'There is no *I, I only think there is.' In other words, I can apply the Wittgensteinian critique to my understanding of words referring to sensations. That's OK, no problem. The sticking point is the sense or feeling that there exists a subjective world, apart from or in addition to the objective world in which 'I' am just one individual amongst others.

In the former case, there seems to be at least the prospect of explaining where the illusion comes from. In the latter case, the reality of the I-illusion appears stubbornly ineliminable.

All the best,