Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Merleau-Ponty vs. Husserl on other minds

To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Merleau-Ponty vs. Husserl on other minds
Date: 14 August 2004 10:44

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your email of 1 August, with your second essay for the Associate program, in response to the question, 'Contrast Merleau-Ponty's account of how we know another person's mental state with the account given by Husserl in the 'Cartesian Meditations'.

This is a very good piece of work which is well up to the standard for the Associate award. I have a couple of suggestions for changes/ improvements. However, I will mainly be talking about philosophical issues raised for me by your essay. These should not be taken as criticisms but rather contributions to an on-going dialogue.

First, two issues. Husserl's 'Cartesian Meditations' is noticeably absent from the footnotes and bibliography. Given that the essay leans quite heavily on Kearney "Modern Movements in European Philosophy' and Smith 'Husserl and the Cartesian Meditations', an examiner will be looking for evidence that you have read both Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Citations from Husserl will gain a more credit than citations from a commentary on Husserl. This is something I strongly advise doing before you submit the essay as part of your portfolio.

The second issue is about the question. It would help to distinguish two, or possibly three linked questions:

(a) How we actually gain knowledge, or working knowledge, of another person's mental state - i.e. how do language, observation of physical actions, facial and bodily expressions all figure in the process of acquisition of our knowledge of others.

(b) How is it *possible* to have knowledge of another person's mental state. Here again there are two angles on this: the ordinary sceptical doubt that we can never be sure what another person is feeling (e.g. because they might be lying), or, (c) the more metaphysical worry that no amount of 'knowledge' in the ordinary sense is sufficient to prove that the other person is not a 'zombie' who merely speaks and behaves just like a person.

It might help to give some indication of what the problem really is here. It seems to me that we are concerned with the third problem.

An answer to (a) will not suffice because our problem is one of principle, not of details.

Nor are we concerned with (b). Scepticism of the 'it could always turn out that' variety (e.g. 'it could turn out that she is lying') applies generally to all fields of knowledge. E.g. a recorded delivery parcel arrived for me today which I *know* is from M. On second thoughts, it could always turn out that by coincidence someone else sent me a parcel of similar dimensions which I was not expecting.

Here is our predicament as Husserl sees it: here I am, with 'objects' and 'other persons' around me. 'Other persons' is just a label for certain kinds of objects which move in interesting ways. If one of these objects is crying out 'in pain', then an aspirin will reduce the noise. If one of these objects expresses the desire for an ice cream, then they will look in the fridge, and so on. I know I am more than this. But how do I place the 'extra something' in these other objects of my perception? What does it mean to do this? What am I seeing when I see the other person as being *in pain* and not merely 'in pain'?

Up until the point where Husserl discusses the question of other persons, he is arguably following in the footsteps of Kant's transcendental idealism. The self is the transcendental ego whose very identity over time depends on the perception of objects in space which are identified as not-self. That is Kant's, and Husserl's, position regarding the necessity that I experience my world as a world of objects in space outside me, rather than subjective experiences happening inside my own mind. But when we come to other persons, Husserl departs from the Kantian method. The other person is another 'transcendental ego' over there. I know this by analogy with my own case. And this looks incredibly weak.

What is Merleau-Ponty's position, in contrast to this? There is a point in your essay where it looks superficially as though Merleau-Ponty is also relying on a process of analogy: 'Just as I experience my body as a means of behaving, of manipulating things in the world, I experience other 'bodies' doing the same things in the same familiar way...'.

For Merleau-Ponty, other people as real individuals are in some sense 'already there' for me. Problem (c), the metaphysical problem of distinguishing real people from zombies does not arise because [...] (and now we have to fill in the blank: e.g. '...because I would not be real for myself if other people were not real for me').

So what work, exactly, is the account of other people 'doing the same things in the same familiar way' doing? Here's one way to investigate this using a thought experiment. Suppose as a baby you were kidnapped by aliens. Is it conceivable that, using their knowledge of human life, the aliens could somehow succeed in giving you something that passed for a human childhood and education (perhaps using specially designed robots), but all the while you have always aware that you are the only one of your kind, that every alien does similar things, but they are all doing different things from you? How would Merleau-Ponty respond?

(I don't know - and I'm not saying that you have to answer that question. It's just something to think about!)

I do have my own reasons for suspicion that Merleau-Ponty establishes the reality of others too easily. This has to do with the work of Emmanuel Levinas (see, e.g. his magnum opus 'Totality and Infinity' Alphonso Lignis tr Nijhoff 1979). - Read what Kearney has to say about this.

Possibly a topic to look at next?

All the best,


Subjectivist vs. objectivist accounts of moral judgement

To: William R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Subjectivist vs. objectivist accounts of moral judgement
Date: 4 August 2004 09:21

Dear Bill,

Thank you for your email of 25 July, with the first of your five essays for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'How would you attempt to convince someone who had not studied philosophy that there is something important at stake in the dispute between the subjectivist and objectivist accounts of moral judgement?'

This is a perceptive essay with which I find myself largely in agreement.

The question was looking for something different, so I have to admit my initial reaction was that you had misunderstood the distinction between 'subjective' and 'objective. But more of that in a minute.

According to you, what matters for moral judgement - as indeed for representation painting - is refined perception. This could be described as 'taking in the moral reality' in any give situation where we are faced with a moral choice. There are many substitutes that lure us away from training and honing our moral perceptions. On one side, there is the easy-going relativism which Sartre would describe as 'bad faith' : 'This is how I was brought up and socially conditioned and that is why I judge things to be so.' On the other side, there is the blinkered reliance on moral principles viewed as a priori laws, written in stone.

Iris Murdoch in her brilliant short book 'Sovereignty of Good' mounts a critique of the existentialist view of ethics, whose only rule is 'be consistent'. Murdoch argues for the necessity of a more realist, 'Platonist' vision of values towards which we aspire, values which are viewed as being in some sense 'outside' us rather than merely invented. This does not require embracing Plato's metaphysics. Murdoch's aim is rather to correct false theories about the phenomenology of moral judgement.

Some would see this as a defence of an objective view of ethics. I think that Murdoch would regard the question which provides the topic for this essay as misleading. The point, she would argue, is to understand the nitty-gritty reality of moral judgement. As you argue, both 'subjectivists' and 'objectivists' get this wrong.

However, I do still think there is something at stake when we raise the question of objectivity. When we act out of a sense of moral conviction, it matters to us where this conviction ultimately derives from. This is a question of truth and justification, not merely of giving an phenomenologically accurate description of the process of moral judgement.

I am in agreement with Kant that the ultimate justification for taking the moral, as opposed to the amoral point of view is a priori, and requires a metaphysical theory. I disagree with Kant's view that this entails absolute moral principles like, 'Never tell a lie, in any circumstances whatsoever.' (Incidentally, according to Kant moral judgements are always categorical imperatives and never hypothetical imperatives. 'Don't do that or God will punish you', 'Do this if you want people to approve of you', are hypothetical imperatives. The general form of a hypothetical imperative is, 'If you want X then do Y'.)

As I mentioned last time, Mackie regards the widely acknowledged variation in moral views in different cultures and societies - 'moral relativity' - as an argument against the idea that there exists an a priori justification, an objective ground for morals. I would argue that it is possible to hold that there is a core a priori principle, corresponding to Kant's 'Always treat the other person as an end, never as a mere means', which can be realized in more than one way of perceiving moral reality. It is a fact that perceptions differ at different times and places. This does not mean that there is no such thing as 'moral perception', or that it is all just a chimera of our own imagination.

Later in the program, we will be considering a view which I term the 'ethics of dialogue'. (For a preview see my essays, 'The Ethics of Dialogue' and 'Ethical Dialogue and the Limits of Tolerance' on the Wood Paths web site .) In order to establish this view it is necessary to do some metaphysics. I make no apology for this. It is not enough to set out, as I believe Murdoch does in 'Sovereignty of Good' merely to give a phenomenologically accurate description of moral judgement. (These issues are reconsidered in Murdoch's later, much longer book 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals'.)

Why be moral? To me that is the crucial question. Why be moral, in the face of the 'offer one cannot refuse'? There are no moral 'facts', no Platonic 'forms', even if, as Murdoch observes, things must appear to us 'as if' there are such things. What there is, is an a priori argument that we must always, without exception, be prepared to take the other person into account. Once that single principle is established, the rest follows.

All the best,


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Berkeley's arguments against material objects

To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's arguments against material objects
Date: 22 July 2004 10:05

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 9 July, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Critically discuss Bishop Berkeley's arguments against the existence of material objects'.

A general comment: in an essay critically discussing the arguments of a philosopher, it is helpful to have references to the texts in which these arguments are to be found. This applies even if you are using a book about the philosopher in question rather than the original texts. This is not a requirement for the Pathways programs, but it is required if you decide to go on to the Associate or Fellowship.

I have to own up that I am guilty myself of not providing enough references. So this might seem a case of, 'Don't do as I do, do as I tell you'!

Let's summarize: According to you, Berkeley uses three arguments. We can call these the Redundancy argument, the Master argument and the Causation argument.

Redundancy argument. According to the Redundancy argument, a complete description can be given of the world of our experience, purely in terms of experience, without referring to matter. Therefore, the concept of matter is redundant. Intuitively, if everything we experience or will ever experience is exactly the same with matter taken away, then nothing has, in fact, been 'taken away'. 'Matter' is an empty concept, which serves no purpose in accounting for experience.

You give the objection that not all experiences are on the same level. If all there is to reality is just 'experience', then there is no way to distinguish *veridical* experience from dreams, or Matrix-like illusions or virtual realities. At this point you mention the role of God. However, there is an answer to this which is available to Berkeley which doesn't bring in God. This is to say that the sum total of truths about the world is given in the form of *conditional* statements about experiences. This is how one distinguishes, e.g. 'The oasis is an illusion' from 'The oasis is not an illusion'. (One of these statements will be true and the other false: 'If you were to go up close, you would see sand' vs 'If you were to go up close, you would see water'.)

Having brought in God, you object, 'Why should God choose not to create space and matter?' In other words, why should God be bound by our notions of ontological parsimony? What we require here is something stronger than the way Occam's Razor is normally understood - something like Wittgenstein's 'If a sign is useless, it is meaningless' (Tractatus 3.328).

In response to Berkeley's Master argument, attacking the coherence of the concept of matter, you say 'There must be some mind independent thing about actual objects that distinguishes them from possible objects. And there is no requirement in reality that this aspect of actual objects is conceivable by a finite mind.' Now, there are two ways to respond to this. The more modest way is to talk, as above, about the truth of conditional statements about experiences. 'There is an eleventh planet' is true or false depending on the truth or falsity of conditional statements about possible perceptions of an eleventh planet. The problem with this is that we have to swallow the idea that such conditional statements can be 'barely true', i.e. true even though there is no non-conditional fact which makes them true. That is where God 'immodestly' comes in.

When you say, 'There is no requirement in reality that this aspect of actual objects is conceivable by a finite Mind' Berkeley would say, 'Exactly!' Kant would be even more emphatic here, in denying that we can form any positive notion of 'noumena' or 'things in themselves'. But this is not the way to save matter, quite the contrary.

Coming to the third argument, there is an obvious rejoinder to the argument from Causation, that mind-matter interaction is inconceivable. We can respond by totally agreeing with Berkeley. Cartesian dualism cannot be sustained. If you take the Cartesian starting point, then Berkeleian idealism is the inevitable conclusion. However, in this case there is an overlooked alternative: material monism.

Berkeley argued that introspection allows us to directly observe the operation of cause and effect amongst our 'ideas'. This argument looks decidedly weaker in the light of Hume's critique of causation. According to Hume, we never observe the 'causal connection' itself, but merely a 'constant conjunction'. 'Cause' turns out to be redundant in the same way as 'matter', being replaced by the notion of a universally true statement of constant conjunction.

- You have worked hard with this essay. Some good ideas here.

All the best,


Can non-human animals or machines be conscious?

To: Joanna C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can non-human animals or machines be conscious?
Date: 20 July 2004 12:00

Dear Joanna,

Thank you for your email of 6 July, with your second essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Explore the issues surrounding the attribution of consciousness to machines and to non-human animals.'

Although you comment in your email, 'I have omitted from the essay the point of [the] Turing test, as I believe it to be irrelevant', much of your essay can be read as an illuminating commentary on the Turing Test.

Turing's bold hypothesis was that the question whether or not to attribute consciousness to a computer is not a question about what might or might not be going on 'inside'. It is purely a question about how the computer behaves - specifically, how it interacts with us.

You might ask, can't *anything* be conscious? Wittgenstein at one point in the Philosophical Investigations says 'Couldn't I imagine having frightful pains and turning into stone while they lasted? Well, how do I know, if I shut my eyes, whether I have not turned into stone?...' (para 283).

Turing's starting point is that we are not concerned with 'consciousness' as a weird kind of 'stuff' that could, unknown to us, be 'in' anything, including a stone. Here, as Wittgenstein adeptly shows, Turing is on firm philosophical ground. (For more argument, see my essay, 'Truth and Subjective Knowledge' on the Wood Paths website at .)

Next question: what kind of 'interacting with us' would suffice for consciousness? 'Suffice' might seem to be a problem here, because of the threat of scepticism. Suppose the makers of the Black Box simply put a pre-recorded set of instructions inside a machine, based on a complete set of predictions of everything that we would ever ask the machine? Let's assume then that we know enough about the inner workings of the machine in question to know that its utterances are *caused* (in a way yet to be determined) by our attempts at communication, i.e. it is not just reading from a script.

Turing's idea was that *all* that the machine needs is the ability to communicate (e.g. though a printout, or a screen). It doesn't need 'arms and legs'. The kind of interacting that suffices for consciousness, according to Turing, is simply being able to communicate, to carry out a conversation indefinitely, to listen, to respond appropriately, to reason and argue.

Now, as you point out, one can 'program' a machine to come out with stock phrases, like the toy action men which their push-button repertoire, 'Stand to attention!', 'Attack, attack!' etc. At a slightly greater level of sophistication, you can have a simple program which mimics conversation. In my computer, I have a program called 'Orville'. Here's a short conversation I have just had with Orville:

Orville: Hello

Me: Hi.

Orville: How do you do... please state your problem.

Me: I am writing an email to Joanna.

Orville: How long have you been writing an email to Joanna?

Me: About half an hour.

Orville: What else?

Me: I'm a bit stuck.

Orville: Did you come to me because you are a bit stuck?

Me: I did.

Orville: What is the real problem here?

Me: I'm not sure I understand the Turing Test.

Orville: Do you enjoy not being sure you understand the Turing Test?

Me: No, not at all.

Orville: You are being a bit negative.

Me: I can't help that.

Orville: What if you could help that?...

- At this point, one begins to get suspicious that one's questions are merely being parroted back!

In fact, you can 'open up' Orville's memory to see the transformation rules which enable it to mimic a human conversation. Turing's idea is precisely this: a genuine case of an intelligent/ conscious computer would not use mimicry rules. A couple more exchanges with Orville would make it plain that Orville is not responding in a way that an intelligent subject would respond. The responses cease to be 'appropriate' and become silly and repetitive.

So far, so good.

However, I don't believe that *any* computer program could achieve this, unless it was integrated with a physical body which the computer regarded as its own, including the capacity to act ('arms and legs') physical needs, etc. - There is some argument for this in unit 4.

Early on in your essay, you talk about thoughts and feelings as 'not generated from a stimulus or function of the brain'. The point which you seem to be trying to express is the difference between 'thinking' (in the broadest sense, which includes feeling) and 'response to stimulus'. As a student, I was once given the essay question, 'Do flowers feel?' Flowers respond to sunlight. They generate electricity when their petals or leaves are plucked (which can be played back as a 'scream' using suitable equipment). What is that not proof that flowers feel? Because conscious feeling is not simply response to stimulus.

This takes to the question of attributing consciousness to non-human animals. Animals don't just respond to stimulus. Their behaviour shows evidence of an inner life, in that they acquire habits, learn from past experience and so on. What animals don't have is what the Turing Test requires, viz the ability to communicate in language.

So here is the second big question for the Turing Test: what is so special about being able to use language? Why can't there be an 'intelligent', 'conscious' animal which just doesn't happen to be interested in communication? What is 'consciousness' anyway? Should we regard the 'pain' or 'suffering' of a non-human animal any differently because it has a different degree(?) or kind(?) of 'consciousness' to that possessed by human beings? What about human beings (infants, the mentally retarded, or advanced Alzheimer's patients) who do not have language? - I don't have definitive answers to these questions!

All in all, a good essay which raises lots of issues. Well done!

All the best,


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Moral dialogue takes place between an 'I' and a 'thou'

To: Vasco K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral dialogue takes place between an 'I' and a 'thou'
Date: 16 July 2004 09:08

Dear Vasco,

Thank you for your email of 5 July, with your fourth essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''Moral dialogue takes place... between and I and a thou.' Discuss.'

In your email you said that you found this essay 'tough'. This is a fine piece of work, which has helped move my thinking forward on this very difficult issue. I would like to include this essay (with minor editorial corrections) in the next issue of Philosophy Pathways, due out this weekend.

I had to look 'usance' up in a dictionary as the term is not in common use. In the context, I understand 'usance' to mean 'customary agreement'. The term is also used in a financial sense, concerning the time allowed for making payments (I think).

So when you say, 'mere willingness to engage in dialogue can bring tacit agreement to accept usance', I take this to mean, 'willingness to engage in dialogue implies a customary or previously agreed accommodation between the parties involved'.

The significance of this is that the description of moral dialogue as a negotiation 'from scratch', where everything has to be laid on the table, is an ideal, or an abstraction which has to be fitted to the way we actually live. In many cases, we know in advance what the other party or parties will say, what their interests are; we have the outcomes of our previous dialogues at our disposal. New dialogue arises when our customary agreements and accommodations require an adjustment of some sort to account for changing circumstances.

I agree that we enter dialogue 'prepared that at the end one may be proven totally wrong'. However, this does not imply that we have somehow to ditch all our values, beliefs, rules and expectations before we can start. On the contrary, if you take away a person's values, beliefs, etc. there is no longer any *person* there, no individual. Arguably, only an artificial intelligence could reason from no particular standing point. What is true, and this is a point made by Sartre, is that our values are not *given* facts. My values are merely the way I see things now, at this moment in time; there is always the possibility that I will come to see things in a radically different way. My values are not the *cause* of my present actions - to suppose that they are is what Sartre terms 'bad faith'.

The picture which we have described of moral dialogue is a representation of what ultimately makes a moral decision 'right' or 'wrong'. It represents the closest approximation to a 'theory of moral truth'. The truth is what we would reach in an ideal dialogue. However as you remark, in the real world circumstances are often far from ideal. In such cases, the decision we make is guided by our conception of the 'truth' towards which we *aim* our moral judgement - made often in difficult circumstances, with insufficient time to deliberate, where the parties involved are not able to state their case.

'We must not only try to see through the other's eyes, but we have to defend his point of view (as we see it) with the same vigour as we defend ours.' In the ideal case, the other does not need our help to defend his views. In the real world, when I make a moral decision which affects, say, a child or someone who does not have the resources to argue their case forcefully then, yes, I must in my private deliberations argue the other's case on his or her behalf.

At this point, you raise a very considerable difficulty: 'Imagine that we are aiming at something new, untried, but something we strongly belief in.... How ruthlessly [will we] defend our view... Only as far as we are willing to accept full responsibility and full blame... should we be proven wrong.'

Now, there is a problem with this. Here is a case where this would be true. A government wants to build a new type of nuclear power station. One of the scientists involved becomes convinced from his research that there is a flaw in the design. He has the moral responsibility to fight to convince the others. This is not an opportunity for 'moral dialogue', for reaching a compromise which best respects the values of all. Why not?

Clearly, because the *truth* with which we are concerned here is not a moral truth but concerns the factual circumstances. Is the design flawed or not? Will the power station become another Chernobyl? The duty of the dissenting scientist is to take on the responsibility of convincing the others at all costs, without compromise.

We should always be moral; but not every dialogue is primarily concerned with morals.

On the other hand, suppose that the safety of the power station is not the issue, but instead the argument concerns the competing needs of the local community, who will be adversely affected by the project, and the 'national interest'. Here there is no single individual and no group who can 'take on all the responsibility' of the decision.

Moral dialogue is different from 'mere horse trading'. This was the point of the question. An 'I' and a 'thou' do not horse trade. However, as we have seen above, in the real world there will often arise circumstances where one of the parties is more sophisticated, better at arguing his or her case. In such a case, the moral obligation is to use those skills to represent to oneself the interests of the other.

'Self-assertion' and 'self-sacrifice' is another topic that has come up, in relation to moral dialogue.

The point here is not that each of us has to 'balance self-assertion and self-sacrifice' in the same way but, on the contrary, that we are *not* all the same in this regard. (Most of us are somewhere between the extremes of a Picasso and a Mother Theresa.) There is no single rule for how much self-sacrifice is demanded, or how much self-assertion permitted. The circumstances of each human individual are unique. There is no rule here and moral dialogue does not supply the answer, other than to be 'true to oneself'.

All the best,


Existence of 'I' and the question of solipsism

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Existence of 'I' and the question of solipsism
Date: 29 June 2004 12:21

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 21 June, with your third essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What difference does the existence of 'I' make to the nature of things? - Discuss with reference to the question of solipsism and its refutation.'

You give an accurate summary of the state of play after the refutations of solipsism and anti-solipsism.

I agree with your remark regarding Roger Bannister. My past self, even the past self of yesterday or one hour ago, is just another subject in the world, alongside you, Roger Bannister, the Queen etc. The absolute 'I' which arises 'from the ashes of solipsism' exists only in the moment.

This perhaps helps us to understand the point made by Sartre about 'bad faith': that the only thing that counts in a decision not made in bad faith is my *present* valuational perspective. The decisions, plans, values, attachments of the numerous GKs who exist in the past are mere data so far as my present situation - the situation which calls for a decision - is concerned. In a moment, everything can change, as Sartre deftly illustrates in his novels.

As you note, moral action requires taking the valuational perspectives of others into account - and as we have seen, all others count, 'at least potentially'.

This is something I have not discussed, but it is worth dwelling on the contrast between 'others' and all my former selves, who apparently do not 'count' at all.

Is there anything analogous to a 'moral' obligation which I have to one of my past selves? Suppose I once made a solemn promise to myself, 'I will never give up Philosophy'. One bright morning, I wake up to discover that the trail has gone cold. Philosophy no longer interests me. Undoubtedly, at times like this we do feel that we are 'doing something wrong', and not just because our friends, family etc express shock and surprise at our 'about face'. If it is wrong, however, it is not morally wrong.

Also, one should be suspicious of 'moods'. (Maybe one could argue that this is something Sartre does not take sufficiently seriously. ) If you 'know' yourself well, and this kind of thing has happened to you before, then you will not make any hasty decisions based on what might prove to be a passing mood.

The answer is that vows made to oneself serve an important purpose. They are part of the struggle to remember, to see clearly, who we are. But such vows have no moral force. They are merely a device justified by their practical value to the person who makes them.

What is the ethics of dialogue? Where exactly does 'the dialogue' take place?

I think here in your discussion of Claus Fuchs you may be confusing the distinction between truth and judgement.

A simple example: I judge that the car in front of me is 45 feet away, by imagining three average sized cars fitted into the space between my front bumper and the other car's rear bumper. (Warning: this may not be accurate!) However, the truth of the judgement, 'The Toyota is 45 feet away' depends upon the actual distance between the two cars at the time when the judgement is made. (A police camera on the bridge above will give the operator a much more accurate judgement, but even here we must allow some margin of error.)

The concept of truth, as applied to ethical judgements, involves the notion of what would transpire if we were able to enter into dialogue with all the parties affected by our decision. As such, it is an ideal, like 'the actual distance between x and y at time t'.

In the case of Claus Fuchs, there were importantly non-moral as well as moral issues. Fuchs apparently believed that passing atom secrets to the Russians would lessen the chance that atomic weapons would be used in an actual conflict. Whether or not he was right about this is not a moral question.

In Fuchs' moral calculation - assuming that he did what he believed was right - the fate of mankind was the overriding consideration. In other cases of espionage, the issue of loyalty might have greater prominence. Arguably, to give away my countries industrial or economic secrets for the benefits of mankind at large would be wrong because it would be disloyal.

As Fuchs walked along the Santa Fe river debating with himself, loyalty to the flag may well have been a consideration, despite what I have just said. To betray one's country is what it is. But larger issues were involved, and he had to keep reminding himself of this.

In general, when we make a moral judgement, we conduct an internal dialogue, allowing the other parties to 'speak' to us in our imagination. Some persons have better judgement than others, in the sense of being able to more accurately represent the other's point of view, but this is not the same as being more moral. The calculating villain is also very good at accurately estimating what others want or what they would say.

'Truth' in morals is a very difficult thing to estimate. As I explain in unit 11, this should not daunt us, or cast doubt on the validity of positing a 'reality' which we aim at when we make moral judgements. Nor should be concerned that we can never really 'know' whether our decision hit 'the truth' or not. The moral thing to do is make the best decision we can by our own lights. If we find the situation too complicated to think through, or if we think that our judgement may be swayed too much by subjective factors then the moral thing to do is seek advice from someone wiser.

All the best,


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pythagoras on reincarnation

To: Ana B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Pythagoras on reincarnation
Date: 22 June 2004 12:37

Dear Ana,

Thank you for your email of 13 June, with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, looking at Pythagorases views on reincarnation. In your essay, you raise a number of interesting points. I enjoyed reading this.

In unit 6, I speculate about the connection between the Pythagorean view of numbers and the doctrine of reincarnation. To my knowledge, there is no hard evidence to support the link. What I describe, in the final paragraph as a potentially 'spectacular confirmation' in AI theory is way beyond anything that the Presocratics might have imagined. The best evidence is from the Phaedo, and Socrates' criticisms of the 'attunement theory'.

Your point about the impossibility of constricting the infinite variety of human subjectivity to numbers and equations is well taken. In AI there are two schools of thought. One school holds that there is, in principle, a program that could be written for the human brain, e.g. mine or yours. In that case, it could really happen that my brain program (as Daniel Dennett speculates at one point in his book 'Consciousness Explained') is uploaded onto disc, then downloaded into a freshly grown brain/body. A perfect recipe for immortality! (This became the plot for an Arnold Scharzenegger film, I forget the title.) This would seem to imply that 'highly individualistic emotions...can be calculated through a theorem', which I agree seems improbable.

On the other hand (there is always an 'other hand') it could be argued that this reaction is not much more than a 'gut feeling'. Think of the amazing sounds or pictures that come out of a digital CD or video. Your favourite record is just a number which can be written down (on a very big piece of paper). Of course, the fact that the sounds or images are produced by a number does not show that the experience of hearing or seeing those sounds and images can itself be defined as a 'number' or program. It does show that imagination or gut feeling is not always a reliable guide to what is possible or impossible.

According to an alternative view of AI which is becoming increasingly popular, the human brain is not like hardware programmed with software, but works like a 'connectionist' or 'neural' network. Neural nets are trained to respond to specific stimuli, rather than programmed. For example, you point the camera at the platform of a subway station and the pattern of light and shade is interpreted as 'busy' or 'not busy'. Each time the neural net responds incorrectly, it 'learns' from its error. This could be described as a 'tuning', even though there is no formula which could be written down which captures this tuning - unlike a computer program, or a guitar tuning.

Your other concern with reincarnation is goes against our experience of individual human growth. By contrast with the previous point, this is an objection which Pythagoras and his followers might have thought of.

A possible reply (which you suggest yourself) is that human beings are psychologically different by nature in the way that they respond to given situations. This difference can be observed in human infants at a very early age. It is possible, or at least not inconsistent with the observed facts, that this difference is partially or wholly accounted for by the subconscious effects of past lives.

Another question to ask, however, is whether this is something we should *want*. Given that I will have no conscious memory of my past life, why should I care whether 'I' am reincarnated or not? What interest is it to me that the pattern of my psychological reactions is somehow imprinted onto a new-born baby somewhere if *I* am not there?

One last thought. One of the strange things about death is that it is hard to state what death is, in terms which do not imply a notion which is even more mysterious. To die - from a subjective point of view, which is what concerns us when we think about our survival or non-survival - means to lose consciousness and never wake up. 'Never' is a long time. It means after I have lost conscious, an infinite length of time must pass before I could be truly described as 'dead'. In other words, to comprehend death, the permanent cessation of 'my' consciousness, we have to comprehend infinity. Not an easy thing to do.

As a corollary of this, I think that part of the appeal of the idea of reincarnation is the feeling that, however improbable it might seem, given sufficient length of time there is always the logical possibility, however, remote, that we might come back.

All the best,


Significance of philosophical scepticism

To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Significance of Philosophical Scepticism
Date: 22 June 2004 11:21

Dear Kay,

Thank you for your email of 9 June, with your second essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Assess the significance of philosophical scepticism'.

This is a neat, well argued essay which succeeds in giving a structured response to this admittedly vague question. Your answer, in a nutshell, is that philosophical scepticism has valuable consequences in the philosophical debates which it provokes. In addition, a moderate degree of scepticism has practical utility in helping us to avoid fanaticism.

Both James and Husserl, as you argue, respond to scepticism by aiming lower. For James, the truth we aim at is a practical truth, the truth which 'works'. For Husserl, the reality in question is the world of my experience in all its richness and variety, not a shadowy unknowable 'beyond'.

I agree with you that James makes truth 'relative' but I'm not so sure about describing Husserl as making truth 'subjective'. Husserl's response is not kind of subjectivism that arises from phenomenalism (advocated by A.J. Ayer in the 30's as a response to the problem of our knowledge of the external world) nor, for that matter, the 'logical atomism' of Russell which constructs the world out of sense data. We are describing objects in the world, not our subjective feelings, only as objects-for-us rather than things-in-themselves. The distinction between objectivity, which Husserl emphasises is the goal of knowledge, and mere subjectivity is to be discovered by analysing the structures of consciousness whereby objects become distinguished as objects.

In the case of both James and Husserl, the sceptic could argue that his case has been conceded. However, the concession has been made in such a way that *no practical consequences follow*. We carry on as before. The only thing that changes are the things that we say in a philosophy seminar room.

'So what?' is the obvious response. Who cares about 'ultimate knowledge' anyway if its lack does not impinge on our lives in any way?

Pyrrho is much more interesting. Here is a man who sees the evils of false presumption of knowledge all around us. I take your point that in order to live a life of lazy inactivity, we require the efforts of others to make up the slack. Clearly, Pyrrho cannot allow this. To rely on someone else would be a false presumption of knowledge. They might let you down.

Pyrrho is difficult for us because we are so accustomed to looking at scepticism through the eyes of Descartes. When Pyrrho takes a step forward, the Cartesian sceptic will point out that he is *assuming* that the ground will not open up beneath him. If statements such as, 'the ground will not open up when I step forward' are to be included in the range of things not to be 'believed' then life would truly become impossible.

This is not a consistent position. The point of Pyrrhonic scepticism is supposed to be that it *is* liveable, although the lives of sceptics will be rather different from the rest of us.

This leads me to speculate about how Pyrrho would have drawn the line between beliefs like, 'The ground will not open up' which our very nature makes unavoidable, and beliefs which can, and ought to be doubted.

Suppose you are invited to visit a friend who lives on an island. To get there you have to go by boat. Scepticism says don't go, because you can never be sure that the boat won't sink. But suppose that unavoidable circumstances have led you to take a voyage on a boat and the boat runs into a terrible storm. Then scepticism tells you not to panic. You don't know what the outcome will be, so there is no point in worrying about it.

In other words, the hall marks of the Pyrrhonic sceptic are an extreme aversion to risk-taking combined with a strong tendency to be phlegmatic when facing imminent danger. If you can do something to reduce risk, then do it, but if you can't then don't worry.

David Hume can be read in two contrasting ways, as an extreme metaphysical sceptic who denied the meaningfulness of any assertion which implies that objects continue to exist when we are not perceiving them ('Treatise of Human Nature' Section on 'Scepticism With Regard to the Senses') but also as the theorist of 'human nature' who accounted for human action in terms of associationist psychology, as the outcome of the 'force of custom'. His response seems to be a combination of James and Husserl.

All the best,


Friday, August 19, 2011

Is it rational to fear death?

To: Catherine B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 6 June 2004 11:35

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your letter, with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

This is a well-argued, articulate essay which succeeds very well in getting across the paradox of a death which we fear, even though we will not be there to experience it.

This is a problem which I have grappled with for a long time. I have tried to take the problem forward (the arguments in unit 15 are spelled out at greater length in my 1993 paper, 'Is it rational to fear death?' on the Wood Paths web site at

How would one criticise Epicurus' argument?

Consider the assumption that what is fearful about X, for some X capable of inspiring fear, is the experience of X. Is that necessarily true?

On the face of it, that assumption is false. We fear for things that might happen to our great great great grandchildren, or in future millennia.

However, this kind of example involves fearing X on another person's behalf. I fear for the effects of a nuclear winter, or the consequences of the greenhouse effect, on behalf of my great great great grandchildren, or humanity at large.

By contrast, when we fear our own death, at least part of this fear is on our own behalf. This is the fear whose rationality is being questioned. It is not irrational to fear for what might become of my wife and children after I am dead, because this is fear on their behalf rather than my own.

Here's an example. The loss of our reputation is something we may legitimately fear. This can happen while we are still alive. But it can also happen after we are dead, when we are not able to defend ourselves. If I suspected, or knew, that someone was 'out to get me' who was prepared to blacken my name after I had passed away, would this not be fear on my own behalf?

This looks like a valid counter-example to the assumption that 'what is fearful about X, for some X capable of inspiring fear, is the experience of X'.

Moreover, as we have seen, this fear is on my own behalf.

However, it may be objected that the example of reputation is a special case because it concerns *how others regard me*. So even if it is true, in a sense, that this is a fear on my own behalf, it is also true that it necessarily involves others.

By contrast, I could be the last person alive and still fear my death. The loss of all the experiences I would enjoy were I to remain alive is something I fear, not only on my own behalf, but also regardless of how others view me, or whether other people exist at all.


Well, you'll be glad to know that I have just refuted one of the main arguments in my 1993. An obvious point too. (I'll have to think about this some more. It is also possible that I have forgotten something that my former self remembered. That can happen too.)

It wasn't essential to refute Epicurus in order to put forward my own argument for the irrationality of the fear of death. If Epicurus' argument is valid after all, then it would be a 'double whammy' against the rationality of the fear of death. All the better.

(My argument, if you remember, is that the continuity of the 'I' over time is ultimately a sheer illusion: what does not continue cannot cease to continue.)

But let's look at the point you make about our natural survival instinct. This is what makes the argument against the fear of death so paradoxical. Even when we accept the argument we don't really believe it.

How necessary is the survival instinct, though? It would not be too difficult to envisage an imaginary scenario (on Mars, say) where the survival of one's genes (remember this is what drives evolution, the individual matters only so long as they are able to reproduce) actually required that one die. Far from avoiding death, Martians actively seek it at every opportunity, as this is the mechanism whereby they are able to spread their 'seed'.

So, what is natural is just a matter of fact. The facts might have been different, in another possible world, than they are in this world.

Alternatively, let's leave nature just as it is. All human cultures appear to have developed with the same awe and respect for death as something to be feared. It is true that the Ancient Greek hoplite wished for nothing so much as a 'beautiful death', but at the time this was seen as heroic, as an overcoming of one's natural fear. Imagine, by contrast, a totalitarian society which over hundreds of years has succeeded in indoctrinating its members with the belief that death is to be welcomed, the approach of death something to enjoy and savour. It is difficult for us to imagine what these people would be like. But it is a matter of contingent fact, just as before with the Martians, that we are not like these people.

All the best,


Anti-realism and historical truth

To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and historical truth
Date: 31 May 2004 11:03

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 28 May, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'If the anti-realist account of truth is correct, then it is possible that at some time in the future those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting the truth.' - Discuss'

I am close to agreement with your answer to this question: 'Jill is a figment of Jack's imagination. Jack is trying to imagine what reality is like for Jill, but as an anti-realist he can say nothing about Jill's truths.'

'For an anti-realist to accept an historic truth there needs to be some experience or evidence to back it up.' True. But exactly the same thing applies to the realist. It is a given that the only basis on which to accept or reject an historical claim is historical evidence, whatever one's metaphysical persuasion.

There is no way one could conclusively prove that *every* Brontosaurus was green (advanced genetic science might possibly be in a position to prove that it was biologically impossible for every Brontosaurus to have been green, but it seems extremely unlikely that such evidence could rule out, say, a single freak albino Brontosaurus, or a brown brontosaurus genetic mutation which died out early on in the battle for survival). However, you are right that for the realist this is an 'unknown fact' while for the anti-realist, the hypothesis is merely 'true in some possible past worlds and false in others'.

The Holocaust is an example where we can be convinced that it would be possible to extinguish all evidence. This leaves the question whether one can say that the truth about the Holocaust would no longer exist once the evidence had been destroyed.

It is easy to fall into the trap here of thinking of 'the truth' as some kind of thing which exists or doesn't exist. The crucial point to remember is that, equally for the realist or the anti-realist, truth is tied to a proposition which we consider, or assert, or believe.

You and I can talk about what Jill will believe. The statement concerning an historian called Jill and her beliefs can be made now, and although it cannot be verified, that statement can turn out to be true, or false. (It is easier to be an anti-realist about the future - as Aristotle was in his discussion of future contingents in 'De Interpretatione' - than about the past. However, whether you are a realist or anti-realist, the same applies: we can make a statement which is 'true or false'.)

What you and I cannot talk about is 'what will be true' two thousand years from now, other than in the sense of what is, was and will always be true about how things will be. The Holocaust happened in the past. So any truth about the Holocaust 'is, was and always will be' true about how things *were*. That is simply a point about the logic of truth claims, which both the realist and anti-realist must agree on.

In the unit, I sum this up in the following way: 'We cannot speak for others, we can only speak for ourselves.' Jack can't 'speak' for Jill. Jack, in pursuing his evil project, knows what he knows. 'Truth will remain the same' for Jack because the basis for his beliefs is the evidence as presented to his eyes, not the evidence as presented to the eyes of those who will exist a thousand years from now.

But forget about Jack. There is still the worry that even if he cannot coherently formulate for himself the task of 'destroying the truth', it could still be that as a result of his actions it comes to pass that the truth is destroyed. Jill lives in a world where no trace has been left behind of the Holocaust. Can we not say that in her world there is no 'truth', unknowable to her, that the Holocaust happened? We cannot. If we attempt to 'speak for others' then all we succeed in doing is making statements about what they believe. What was, is or will be true in their world can only ever be what was, is or will be true in our world.

There are no words to express the idea of 'destruction of truth' in the sense implied by the original question, nor can any words be invented. There is no possible thought to express.

The aim is to defend anti-realism from the objection that it makes truth destroyable. Had the anti-realist had been unable to defend against this objection, that would not be a refutation of anti-realism. It would just make it extremely uncomfortable to be an anti-realist. (Ultimately, we want to show why both the realist and anti-realist are wrong - but that comes later.)

There remains the nagging sense that something is lost if we give up realism. Picturing the world two thousand years hence, the image of a 'hole' which was previously filled with solid fact irresistibly comes to mind. But this is only a picture. For both the realist and anti-realist, any proposition 'P' is true if and only if P. Any notion of 'truth' which fails to satisfy that simple formula simply isn't truth. Given that formula, both realist and anti-realist must agree that what was, is or will be true always was and always will be true.

All the best,


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind

To: Joanna C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind
Date: 24 May 2004 11:06

Dear Joanna,

Thank you for your e-mail of 16 May, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'What difficulties stand in the way of a materialist view of the mind, according to which thoughts, feelings and sensations are ultimately nothing more than processes in the brain?'

You have worked hard here, raising lots of difficulties for the materialist view.

You start off, sensibly, by giving a prima facie reason in favour of materialism. There is an observable correlation between damage to the brain and disturbance of normal mental activity.

I call this 'prima facie' because Descartes held that the brain was a kind of relay mechanism conveying the impulses from a non-physical soul to the 'animal spirits' which move the body. So one might expect to find disturbance in observed mental function if the relay mechanism is damaged.

You go on to ask, 'How do I 'know' my mind if one does not exist?' A materialist will say that mind does exist, because the mind *is* the brain. What the materialist denies is the existence of a non-physical 'mind' in addition to, or separate from the brain. When you are aware of a pain, for example, the object of your awareness - in fact the process of awareness itself - is in fact a physical process, even though you do not realize this.

You make the point that we are aware of many things in introspection that cannot be discovered by looking at the brain. Here, the materialist might respond that this is merely a reflection of the fact that neuroscience is still in its infancy. One day we will be able to 'read' a person's most secret thoughts and feelings with a 'cerebroscope' or brain monitor.

However, an alternative materialist response is to admit that no-one will ever succeed in constructing a cerebroscope. All that shows (this second kind of materialist will say) is that information is encrypted in the brain in a way which is inaccessible to anyone other than the subject whose brain it is.

I wasn't clear about how you intended to relate the dispute between rationalism and empiricism to materialism. A good question to ask is what place is there for Reason in a materialist universe. You can't define reasons or reasoning in purely materialist terms. However, the materialist will reply that the world of reasons and reason giving is a different level of description of the material universe. That is all. The analogy offered is that if you are looking at the world on the level of atoms and molecules, there is no way of explaining why a round peg cannot fit into a square hole. You have to use a different level of description, that of shapes. But no-one would think that the existence of shapes was a problem for materialism.

You also raise the question of 'intuitive knowledge'. We undoubtedly do sense things in a way which cannot be defined or reduced to rules. However, you also suggest an answer: it is a matter of fine 'tuning' of our sensory apparatus, which is more sensitive than anything which technology has so far been able to come up with.

You make a valid point about our knowledge of universals. However, this is not the same as the point about different animal species. You would expect different species to be sensitive to different aspects of the material world, depending on their special needs. But how does one define a concept in material terms? What is the object of my knowledge when I think of the concept of justice, or the number 2?

Another point is that the same feeling in two different people might not produce the 'same brain electrical patterns in the same part of the brain'. This is an important observation which leads to a more sophisticated version of materialism, known as 'functionalism', which you discuss a couple of paragraphs further on. The idea of functionalism is that just as the same 'program' can run on two different computers with different physical architecture, so different brains can realize the same psychological states in different patterns of electrical activity.

As you point out, no-one has yet produced a computer which can understand what it is processing. Functionalists believe (but cannot prove) that it will be possible one day to produce a genuine 'artificial intelligence', one that understands, is self-conscious like us.

On the other hand, the evidence of psychosomatic conditions cuts both ways. A materialist will see this as an argument in favour of materialism rather than against.

I must correct you on the subject of 'ectoplasm'. In the Meditations, Descartes was adamant that the mind is not a 'breath of wind, a vapour' - in other words the mind is not any kind of 'stuff'. Mind does not have any of the characteristics of body. Ectoplasm, as conceived by Spiritualists is located in space and can its movements even be recorded on a photographic plate. Descartes would have laughed at this.

A good start. For the Associate, you need to have a look at contemporary books on philosophy of mind which deal with the subject of materialism. (E.g. one of the books mentioned in my introductory letter.)

All the best,


Descartes' argument for scepticism in the 1st Meditation

To: Andrew W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' argument for scepticism in the 1st Meditation
Date: 20 May 2004 10:32

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for your email of 13 May, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'In his First Meditation how does Descartes attempt to show that there is reason to doubt everything one believes?'

You say in your email that you 'have not been ambitious... and have just tried to get to grips with the salient points of Descartes' First Meditation'.

A general comment on this. It is very difficult, if not impossible *merely* to get to grips with an argument. You are reading Descartes critically. That means looking for points where the coherence or validity of what Descartes says can be questioned. This exercise can be carried out even if you ultimately find yourself in full agreement. For example, you can raise objections, then answer them on Descartes' behalf. Or you can consider cases - 'counterexamples' - to which a general claim which Descartes makes does not seem to apply, then show how in fact it does apply when thought about more carefully.

Ostensibly, the question requires you to relate the different steps or stages of Descartes argument. Although the essay question doesn't actually say, 'Is the attempt successful?' this is something you must be asking yourself. It may be necessary (as we shall see below) to add something to what Descartes actually says, in order to show how the argument works, how, in his own eyes, Descartes feels he is justified in drawing the conclusion that there is 'reason to doubt everything one believes'.

You say in paragraph 1, 'he does not want merely to demonstrate that all his former opinions are false'. 'Merely' implies that Descartes is seeking to do more, whereas in fact he is seeking to do less. It will not be necessary to demonstrate the falsity of each of his former opinions, because he will question the assumptions on which these opinions are based. Nor is it the case that Descartes is seeking to prove that these general assumptions are false. Rather, he is seeking reasons for doubting them. The ultimate aim, as Descartes explains, is to discover a foundation for knowledge capable of withstanding these doubts.

The phrase, 'Through a series of taut, rigorously argued passages' can be omitted. It looks like waffle.

In the next paragraph you miss a step. After considering that the senses sometimes deceive us, Descartes counters that it is those very senses which are used to correct our perceptual judgements, as when we take a closer look at something. That is why a more general argument is needed questioning the trust we naturally place in our senses.

You relate how Descartes uses the God hypothesis to show how one might be deceived even about the simplest mathematical propositions. 'But Descartes knows that God does deceive us sometimes'. He doesn't say this. What he says is that God 'allows us to be deceived'. (Later in the Meditations, Descartes goes to considerable lengths to show how errors naturally arise through the malfunctioning of our bodies or sensory apparatus. When we are deceived, God does not deliberately deceive us, rather, the error is the result of a natural process of cause and effect and as such unavoidable. Any physical arrangement for gaining knowledge will lead to errors sometimes.)

When you discuss the 'final passages' where Descartes raises the spectre of the evil demon, you follow Descartes explanation, that the thought of an evil demon will help Descartes to persist with his doubt ('My habitual opinions keep coming back'). It seems, therefore, that the evil demon serves a merely psychological function. Is that right?

The question raised is about probability. Why can't Descartes say (as he is tempted to say) that although it is possible that his former opinions are false, it is more probable that they are true? Isn't this what we would say? 'Yes, it is possible that I am on a laboratory bench, having dreams fed to me by an evil scientist, but highly unlikely!'

It would gain you extra marks to do a bit of philosophy here. Think about what answer you would give to this.

The implied argument, which is not explicitly stated, is that if we grant the coherence of the evil demon hypothesis, then it is impossible to make a judgement of probability. It is impossible to say how probable or improbable it is that there exists an evil demon. Judgements of probability are based on prior evidence. E.g. we rate Jolly Roger's chances of winning the race at 5-4, on the basis of his form this year on the flat. If we'd never visited a race before, and didn't know the odds for the different horses in the race, then so far as we are in a position to judge, each horse has the same probability of winning. The same conclusion would follow if we were told by a reliable source that all the horses but one had been doped, so the form book was useless.

This, then, sets the task of *disproving* the evil demon hypothesis - i.e. showing that it has zero probability - which Descartes sets out to do by proving the existence of a benevolent God.

All the best,


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Philosophical significance of zombies

To: Marc E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical significance of zombies
Date: 13 May 11:59

Dear Marc,

Thank you for your email of 13 April, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'What is the philosophical significance of the idea of a 'zombie'?'

This is an excellent piece of work.

It is worthwhile distinguishing, as you have done, different kinds of philosophical 'zombie' and also different varieties of 'possibility'.

You correctly identify the 'physical zombie', identical at the molecular level as the one to use against physicalism. I wonder, however, whether the other notions of a zombie - the behavioural or functional - might yet have a role to play in the argument. For example, suppose we buy the 'property dualist' account, according to which the subjective, phenomenal aspects of consciousness are related to physical properties via 'psychophysical laws'. On this theory, a silicon version of you might, for all we know, be a zombie but we can never tell, because there is no way to test whether the psychophysical laws fail or not.

Meanwhile, your silicon simulacrum is asking the very same question. Maybe silicon is the element with the power to bring phenomenal consciousness into being, and all the carbon human beings are zombies.

Another point is that if property dualism allows for the possibility of a zombie, then there seems to be little to distinguish this theory from epiphenomenalism. The same paradox arises of the zombie philosopher who declares, 'I know I have phenomenal consciousness'. He must 'say' this - or, rather, utter those same sounds - because, by hypothesis his non-zombie double says it and means it. Strange!

These are not knock-down arguments, but they do give grounds for the suspicion that the zombie hypothesis, however attractive it may seem, is in fact incoherent.

How can one show this? Is there a proof one can give? Let me continue to chip away.

You say you know what you mean by 'phenomenal consciousness' because you are aware of it now, at this moment. Moreover, you are aware that its quality does not change abruptly or oscillate like a faulty television set, but remains constant from moment to moment. But how exactly does awareness tell you this?

Consider the logical possibility that the spectrum of your phenomenal consciousness of colours inverts every second, but your memory is systematically misleading you into thinking that no change has taken place. (Wittgenstein 'Philosophical Investigations' Part II page 207: 'Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.')

Is it improbable that your memory - which has shown itself to be pretty reliable in other contexts - is deceiving you? How does one measure probability in this context?

If you find that thought too fantastical, you have my sympathy. Surely this is a case like G.E. Moore's famous 'Here is a hand, and here is another hand' ('Refutation of Idealism') whether the alternative sceptical possibility is just impossible to take seriously, impossible to 'mean'. - Then consider a less extreme possibility. Over the years, with advancing age, the colours have not altered but merely dimmed slightly, while my memory has adjusted to compensate, so I am thankfully not aware of any difference. The statement, 'Grass still looks as green to me as it ever did' is false, although I sincerely believe it to be true.

I have a powerful motive for being opposed to the physicalist picture of the universe. It seems to me that there could have been a universe physically just like this universe, with a human being just like GK in it who was not I. The alternative GK is not a zombie. We are the same physically and mentally. The only difference is in sheer identity. He is he and I am I.

Alternatively, in Nietzsche's 'Eternal Recurrence', one of the infinitely recurring GKs is I - the present one, the one writing these words now - while all the other qualitatively identical but numerically distinct GKs are not I.

It is a good question for me, why do I find this argument so compelling, while I reject the zombie argument? (Nietzsche clearly thinks that not just GK but I will 'return'. Does Nietzsche see something that I have missed?)

Unlike the zombie argument, the 'GK who is not I' hypothesis does not involve belief in 'private objects' in the sense attacked by Wittgenstein. That is the one positive thing in its favour. I wish I could say more, but I don't think I can.

All the best,


Why others must count in my deliberations

To: Vasco K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why others must count in my deliberations
Date: 11 May 2004 11:49

Dear Vasco,

Thank you for your email of 29 April with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why must others count in my deliberations?'

You approach this on the basis of the question: 'I am the 'numero uno', so what is in it for me?'

As you know, there is a long tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle of approaching the problem of ethics in this way. The initial air of paradox (that we are apparently seeking selfish reasons for being moral) gives way to the conviction that this is the only possible kind of answer - if we are being honest with ourselves - that can have motivating force for us.

I happen to disagree with this - for the reasons that Kant gives. But things are complicated, as you will see.

From a Kantian perspective, your question takes the form of a hypothetical imperative: 'If you want X, then others must count in your deliberations.'

Rejected candidates for 'If you want X' are:

'If you care about what people in authority tell you...'

'If you feel sympathy for others...'

'If you acknowledge the law of duty...'

(Towards the end of your essay, however, you recognize that feelings are important. I think we agree there is something wrong with Kant's unfeeling misanthrope who manages to do the right thing, out of pure dispassionate respect for the moral law.)

After considering what follows from the proposition that 'our life is a life of interaction with others', you come up with a more viable candidate:

'Only by accepting the other as part of me or my life can I fully realise myself, I live in a world populated by others and only if they recognise me as I recognise them [do I] truly exist.'

In other words, 'If you want X' translates into:

'If you want to fully realise yourself...'.

Stated in these terms, perhaps you can see the objection which will be raised against your answer: the individual who has no interest in 'realising himself', who is simply interested in sheer power, or the pursuit of pleasure will not be moved by this appeal. Instead of giving reasons why others *must* count in my deliberations, you have given reasons why others must count in my deliberations, *if* I want X, for some suitable X.

Kant's response is to insist that the moral imperative is categorical, not hypothetical. It does not make any assumptions about what I want. The difficulty for us is seeing how this could possibly work.

I agree with you, in a way, that numero uno is important: hence the dialectic of solipsism and anti-solipsism, and the theory of subjective and objective standpoints.

As I see it, however, this is not a question of 'What's in it for me?' Such appeal can only generate a hypothetical imperative. And that is not strong enough to generate a *must*.

From the point of view of metaphysics, the question of morals is part, but not the whole of the question, 'What is a *coherent* way to conceive reality?' As a matter of logic, an incoherent theory cannot be true. We do not have a choice whether or not to care about truth. (If you are not convinced of this last statement, consider what it would mean if someone 'didn't care' that a particular belief of theirs was false.)

I won't go through the whole argument, because you know it already. In any case, it is not my aim to indoctrinate you with my views. My aim here is simply to contrast the defence of morality which depends on hypothetical imperatives, with one which attempts - successfully or otherwise - to dispense with hypothetical imperatives.

(Interestingly, there was a question posted this week on Ask a Philosopher regarding a famous paper by the British philosopher Phillippa Foot, 'Morality as a system of Hypothetical Imperatives' (1978). 'What does Phillippa Foot mean when she suggests that Kant's view of 'ought' is relying on an illusion as if trying to give the moral ought a magical force?' - The short answer to this question is that Foot believes that the very notion of a 'categorical' imperative is incoherent. The only way that an imperative can acquire motivating force is through an 'if' clause.)

The crux of my 'metaphysical' argument for morality is that:

1. The world of a solipsist is a world without truth. Only by recognizing the reality of standpoints other than my own can there be truth for me.

2. Recognition of the reality of standpoints other than my own can only be achieved through moral action.

Here there is an 'if' clause ('if you care about truth'). However, what distinguishes this 'if' clause from the others we have considered is that we do not in fact have the choice of whether or not to care about truth.

All the best,


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Russell's theory of descriptions

To: Chris H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Russell's theory of descriptions
Date: 6 May 2004 12:36

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 26 April, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Explain Russell's Theory of Descriptions and discuss the claim that the sense of a proper name is equivalent to a description of the object which the name picks out.'

I am going to concentrate on two main points of interest: Meinong's theory and Russell's criticism of it, and the alleged inadequacies of the claim that the sense of a proper name is equivalent to a description.


It is worth asking: how could Meinong have believed that distinguishing between 'existence' and 'subsistence' would solve the problem of negative existentials?

Contrary to what one might gather from reading Russell, there is no logical difficulty with construing existence as a first level predicate, E which belongs to all and only those objects which exist.

Here's what I say in the Metaphysics program (unit 3):

'From Kant onwards, philosophers have objected to the interpretation of existence as a predicate, or first-level concept applied to objects. (Frege analysed the notion of existence as a second-level concept: President Clinton exists , becomes the rather unwieldy sentence, The concept President Clinton is uniquely exemplified .) The objections to existence as a predicate are largely spurious. But care is needed in order not to talk nonsense or fall into logical fallacies. Objects do not mysteriously acquire or lose the property of existing, when, in ordinary language, we talk of them coming into or going out of existence. For example, in the statement, Golders Green Bowling Alley no longer exists, I am not referring to a mental bowling alley that lives on in the childhood memories of those who frequented it, an object which was once solid and real all glass and plush red carpets and bright lights but is now but a ghostly version of its former self. I am referring to an actual physical building that existed in the past and saying that there is no physical object existing now identical with that.'

Golders Green Bowling Alley is an object which exists, in the timeless sense. That is sufficient to secure reference. What about an object which never existed, or which people wrongly believed to exist?

Consider Bertie, who lives in the basement, likes punk rock and practices yoga. Bertie does not exist. I just made him up. No-one lives in the basement, it is far too cold and damp.

You can wrongly think that a fictional character is real (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) or vice versa. We shouldn't baulk at including fictional or mythical characters in our ontology. But Bertie is no more a fictional character than a real person.

Here's one possible solution: let's take all the things - characters, persons, objects, places - that are *wrongly believed* to exist by someone at some time, whether as physical entities, or fictional characters or whatever - and make a new class of abstract objects, alongside objects of myth or fiction. Call them 'nonexistents'. Now we can make statements about them. They exist! Meanwhile, the falsity of the existence beliefs is preserved. Although 'Bertie exists' is literally true (because, on the existence as a predicate view no existence statement can be false), we can unpack the content of the statement, made by someone who believes in Bertie's flesh and blood existence as, e.g. 'Bertie lives in the basement'. This is false, for the same reason that 'Sherlock Holmes once lived in this flat' is false. To actually live in a place, you need to have a physical body etc.

That's the best I can do for Meinong.

Names and descriptions

I don't think that the objections you give here (the Wittgenstein example) are very convincing.

The classic discussion to look at here is the Appendix to Ch 5 of Dummett's 'Frege Philosophy of Language', 'Note on an attempted refutation of Frege'. (Kripke's 'Naming and Necessity' appeared shortly before 'Frege' was due to go into print.)

1. On the theory of descriptions, if I say, 'Wittgenstein was born in Vienna', and you understand by the name 'Wittgenstein', 'The person who was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker', then I don't tell you anything which you didn't already know. So what? I have made a statement with which you associate the content, 'There is one and only one x such that x was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker.' I have failed to get across the thought I intended to express, that, 'There is one and only one x such that x was the author of the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations and x was born in Vienna.' This isn't enough to deter the diehard description theorist.

2. The solution here is note the scope ambiguities. If I understand by 'Wittgenstein', 'The person who was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker', I can still say, 'The person who was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker might not have attacked Popper with a poker.' Admittedly, on the strict equivalence of a name and description this does leave us with the implication that 'Wittgenstein might not have been Wittgenstein.' The solution is to move to a bundle of descriptions theory. Only a very small number of weird cases (names associated with only one description, like Homer or St Anne) will give anomalous results.

All the best,


Essay on 'snow is white'

To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on 'snow is white'
Date: 28 April 2004 11:08

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 17 April, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ''Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white' - Discuss.

You start of by stating that 'this discussion concerns statements such as 'snow is white' from the point of view of a realist metaphysics.' It is not clear to me whether this is a stipulation, or alternatively your interpretation of the question.

If it is a stipulation, i.e. if you are simply proposing to discuss realism and its implications then one set of responses would apply. If, on the other hand, you are offering a commentary on the statement about ''Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white' (SST) then I would respond slightly differently. Let's try both ways:

1. You say, 'Realism is the common sense viewpoint that reality consists of objects that exist independently of our experience of them and which have properties which are independent of the language with which we describe them.'

What view of reality do these statements describe? One way to find out is to consider 'how things might be otherwise'.

Consider a universe in which 'objects come into existence as we probe' (a phrase from Michael Dummett's original essay on 'Truth'). This might be the world created by a lazy deity who paints in just as much as is needed at any time to make the picture *look* complete to beings who only have a limited view. Or consider a universe in which objects have properties which are dependent on the language with which we describe them. This might be a 'world' existing in someone's imagination, where objects gain substance and form only though the process of being described (but cf. the doubts raised about this in the Sophie's World thought experiment).

Neither of these visions, I would argue, is an essential part of anti-realism. Using the apparatus of possible worlds, the anti-realist generalizes from Aristotle's view of 'future contingency' -- the idea that there are multiple future worlds. So, for example, in '5000 years ago to this day it snowed at the North Pole', in each possible 5000 year ago North Pole world (a world where there is such a thing as 'the North Pole'), conceived to be determinate in every detail, it either snows or does not snow. The anti-realist asserts that no single North Pole world is metaphysically designated to the 'actual' by contrast with all the other 'possible but not actual' North Pole worlds.

(Incidentally, Brian Tee tells me that 'It is too cold to snow at the North Pole.' I don't know whether this is true or not, but it sounds plausible.)

This is not intended as a defence of anti-realism, merely an exposition of one version of that theory. The argument for anti-realism consists in a challenge to any self-professed 'realist' to state a definition of realism which cannot be understood in anti-realist terms, as I have sought to do with your statements about 'realism'.

2. The redundancy theory of truth traces back to the British philosopher Frank Ramsay, who claimed that to say that 'P is true' is the same as asserting that P.

Arguably, Tarski's definition of truth in his famous essay goes beyond this simple redundancy claim. In Tarski's account, axioms are laid down which describe the assignments of objects to names, a, b, c... in the language, 'satisfaction conditions' for predicates F(x), G(x), H(x)... dyadic relational expressions P(x,y), Q(x,y), R(x,y)... etc (and so on) which generate theorems of the form:

'Fa' is T if and only if Fa...

'Gb' is T if and only if Gb...

'Qbc' is T if and only if Qbc...

(and so on)

The 'Tarski schema' is laid down as a condition for an adequate truth theory. The theory is adequate if and only if the axioms suffice to generate the T-sentence for every possible sentence of the language.

Tarski claimed that his account was a vindication of the correspondence theory of truth. (Here is where your 'true propositions fit reality like a glove' comes in.) It certainly *looks* as though we are describing the perfect 'fit' between sentences/ propositions and reality.

But consider vague statements. The theory is not designed for these. Attempts have been made to adapt the theory, to give a 'theories' of vagueness, but none has been completely satisfactory. The fact is, ordinary discourse deals in a large part with vague concepts, concepts with a fuzzy borderline whose 'satisfaction conditions' cannot be laid down in black and white.

You propose that vague propositions are 'not statements about truth [but do] have a natural meaning'. The idea, then, is to get rid of all vague expressions, and consider what we would say in a precise language with all vagueness removed. Perhaps this would save realism.

However, even if this could be done (and there are strong reasons to say that it couldn't be done), the anti-realist is waiting in the wings to take over all that the would-be 'realist' says about a fully determinate reality fully describable in precise terms, and apply it to a world of possible worlds as I have done above. Such an anti-realist is perfectly happy with the idea of a 'truth theory' or the Tarski schema.

All the best,


Monday, August 15, 2011

Rationality of the fear of death

To: Marcus S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rationality of the fear of death
Date: 28 April 2004 09:37

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for your email of 19 April, with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, entitled 'The Rationality of the Fear of Death.'

I liked your discussion of the 'before me' and 'after me'. Interestingly, my emotional response to the idea of the 'before me' is different from yours. You see -- or rather, you feel -- the before me being essentially good. This is 'proved' by the fact that it 'brought me into existence'. To me, the thought of the sheer contingency of one moment of conception, one place, one time amongst billions fills me with a sense of dread - a different, perhaps less urgent dread than the thought of my eventual extinction admittedly. There is no goodness or badness -- just sheer is-ness.

This connects with a statement you make in paragraph 5. 'If the fear of death is universal (and it is), then the fear of death is rational. Any characteristic that human beings exhibit across culture and time must necessarily follow from their essential nature.'

In recent times, sociobiology is a discipline which promises a simple way to generate values from facts. Ethics is 'proved' by its survival value, 'good' and 'bad' are defined in terms of what fits the requirements of human evolution or survival. Perhaps stated in such bald terms, you would not agree with this. However, consider this version of your statement:

'If the fear of human deformity is universal (and it is), then the fear of human deformity is rational. Any characteristic that human beings exhibit across culture and time must necessarily follow from their essential nature.'

I wonder what would you say about the Elephant Man?

I would not be in the least surprised if a plausible account could be given, in terms of evolutionary theory and 'gene selfishness', of why human beings with severely deformed features inspire fear. But this fear is irrational, not rational.

The question I would ask first is what exactly is the *object* of the fear of death? Epicurus was the first philosopher to raise this troubling question. When you run a way from a snake, or flinch when you see someone who is severely deformed, there is an object which you can focus on, distance yourself from. But death, qua sheer non-existence, is not an object. 'Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.'

I am not totally satisfied with Epicurus' solution. Even if we accept that my death is not an object, and therefore a fortiori, not a possible object of fear, it remains the case that death deprives us of objects. It is surely rational to *prefer* not to be deprived than to be deprived, to prefer to live a longer life (other things being equal) than a shorter one.

My own solution -- which at times, I must say, I find very difficult to *believe*, but that's another matter -- is to question our conception of 'I' and its identity over time. There is one, perfectly good sense in which you and I survive and persist through time, are able to look towards the future and prefer one possible future 'for ourselves' to another possible future.

Yet when we reflect on the sheer contingency of our being, it seems that that is not the 'I' that is in question. This is a concept I have struggled to express. The 'I' that I am talking about is not MS or GK but the 'I' which senses the 'sheer contingency of its existence', whose existence has no explanation, no rhyme or reason. It is here, now, but if it were not here or now nothing would be different from the way things are now.

In a non-I world, there would still be MS and GK corresponding with one another.

The sheer terror of the thought of death is not explained in terms of mere 'preference' of life over death, not even very strong preference. I believe that it is ultimately a metaphysical, not a natural terror, and that it is based on the recognition of the contingency of 'I'. The fear is irrational -- or so I have argued -- because the 'I' in question which is neither MS nor GK has no identity over time, and only something which continues can cease to continue.

- Well done for completing your first Pathways program! Your Pathways Certificate and report will follow soon.

All the best,


Possible worlds and counterfactuals

To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Possible worlds and counterfactuals
Date: 19 April 2004 15:45

Dear Julian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 April, with your University of London essay, 'Do Possible Worlds Provide a Satisfying Account of Modality?'

I find myself in the position of agreeing with you that we evaluate counterfactuals by constructing models, but also wanting to save possible worlds.

Let's start with the second point first.

I agree with you that similarity of possible worlds is useless as a concept for evaluating counterfactual statements. There are too many cases where it gives the wrong answer. It is too context dependent.

When you look at how we actually go about assessing the truth of counterfactuals, the crucial elements are time and causality. We look at some temporally antecedent condition which might have been changed, then use our knowledge of the way the world works to decide what would have been the result. In the counterexample 'If Oswald had not killed Kennedy someone else would have,' the Warren Commission supporter considers how the world would have turned out if, say, Oswald had been prevented at the last minute from firing his rifle, and not how things are in the most similar world where Oswald does not fire his rifle.

The reason we do this is connected with our interest in making counterfactual statements, the point of having such a locution in our language.

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that counterfactual statements can be vague, pointless, impossible to assess and people generally accept this. (Hence the saying, 'if all the world was apple pie, and all the sea was ink...'.) So is there any real value in insisting that counterfactuals must somehow be shown to have truth conditions? An alternative, anti-realist view is that a counterfactual statement is not a 'statement', or the assertion of a 'proposition' but a condensed argument. The clear cases we can call 'true' or 'false', but all we mean by that is that we are persuaded or unpersuaded by the hypothetical situation put forward for appraisal.

Now, Possible worlds are put forward as a way to justify the attribution of truth conditions to counterfactuals. At least, that is how David Lewis approaches the question. The reasoning here is that if we are prepared to attribute truth conditions to a locution, then we are committed to whatever ontology is required to account for those truth conditions.

In the case of possible worlds, the idea is that even though they might seem rather dubious entities, their existence is logically entailed by something else we believe, and are committed to.

I don't buy this because I think there are other, stronger reasons for believing in possible worlds.

My strategy would be to try to persuade someone who claims not to believe that there are 'ways things might have been' (as you declare on page 4) that it is in fact impossible to consistently hold this view. We construct models in order to predict the future, e.g. the weather. But we also use models in making sense of the world as a world of opportunities and threats, a world where people do things which deserve praise or blame. Thinking about these notions essentially involves thinking about what *might have been*. (Perhaps you do agree with this, because at the end of your essay you say that there is 'no analysis of modality'.)

I agree, Lewis can equally be criticized for effectively doing away with modality. When I kick myself for carelessly losing my Questions page, I am not thinking of some other 'GK' in some other world who took more care. I'm not the least bit interested in that. I'm interested in what I did, or, rather, failed to do.

Of your criticisms of possible worlds, I do need to respond to your argument that there are possible worlds where, owing to a fluke, physical laws are undiscoverable. OK, I agree. So what? In possible worlds (including the actual world) where physical laws are discovered, there is a satisfying explanation of how we are able to discover that those laws obtain. It is not an accident, so far as our beliefs are concerned, that those laws are true. That is sufficient for knowledge.

I am attracted by two alternative views of possible worlds:

(a) Possible worlds are sui generis. There distinction between what is and what might have been cannot be analysed further. Of course, that does not get us off the hook regarding the question of providing semantics for counterfactuals, even if we reject the idea that counterfactuals have truth conditions.

(b) Lewis is right and wrong about possible worlds. Right, because other possible worlds are as real as the actual world. Wrong, because the point of view from which the actual world is seen as merely another possible world is impossible for us, in the same way that it is impossible regard now as just another time or I as just another person (cf. Naive Metaphysics ch 18).

All the best,


Friday, August 12, 2011

Immaterialism, anti-realism and the existence of matter

To: Ochieng O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Immaterialism, anti-realism and the existence of matter
Date: 9 April 2004 13:01

Dear Ochieng,

Thank you for your email of 1 April, with your response to Unit 14 of the Metaphysics program. Or is this your fifth essay? No matter!

You have chosen to write an essay on the topic, 'Combining Immaterialism and Anti-Realism. Does Matter Exist Objectively?'

This is a sparkling essay which I very much enjoyed reading. With your permission, I would like to publish it in Philosophy Pathways.

Let's start with you final question, 'What is space-time?', or, as Berkeley would pose it, 'What is space?'

We perceive things 'in space', like your red cube. The cube occupies a three-dimensional spatial volume. It is located at a distance from us, a few feet. We can reach out and touch it, and, as we do, our hand moves through space.

But nothing that we gain through the senses gives us a space of *three* dimensions, replies Berkeley. The senses give only two.

Now, we have the opportunity to put forward a number of rival hypotheses:

1. There really is three dimensional space 'out there' at a distance from us, and this explains why things appear as they do (common sense realism).

2. Experience is possible only because we necessarily interpret our experiences using a spatial framework which embodies the a priori concepts of substance and cause (Kant).

3. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space, but it is unknowable (Kant again).

4. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space: windowless monads (Leibniz).

5. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space: archetypal ideas in the mind of God (Berkeley).

6. There really is something 'out there' which ultimately accounts for our experiences 'as of' objects in space: quarks, or superstrings, or waveforms etc.

There are grounds for arguing that 1. and 6. are only apparently contradictory, in an analogous way that, according to Kant, 2. and 3. are apparently contradictory. On the other hand, 4. and 5. can be criticized from a Kantian perspective of attempting to grasp things in themselves in terms of concepts derived from experience (cf. Kant's critique of Leibniz in the section of the Critique entitled 'Amphiboly of the Concepts of Pure Reflection'.)

Your discussion of the surveillance system and the computer neatly illustrates the tempting equivocation which makes immaterialism sound like up-to-date physics. Both appear to depend on a cause and effect model of perception. In the former case, the effect is sense data, or Kantian 'intuition'. In the latter case, it is electrical impulses in the brain.

The argument depends on the plausible claim that from the given effect we cannot deduce the cause. We cannot deduce that subjective experiences are caused by objects in space, because the experiences could have been caused in some other way. We cannot deduce that the electrical impulses are caused by objects in space, because the impulses could have been caused in some other way.

However, we should remember that Berkeley claimed that his philosophy provided the solution to scepticism. On the Lockean picture, we are left to doubt whether knowledge of the causes of our perceptions can ever be possible. For Berkeley, all our knowledge concerns perceptions, nothing else. Philosophy tells us that the ultimate cause of these perceptions is not a dubious 'something out there' but rather a non-deceiving God. (We are not deceived provided we don't fall into the trap of believing in materialism!)

Let's recast the problem.

We are not concerned with scepticism. The issue is not whether *something* exists objectively. Undoubtedly, there must be something that ultimately accounts for our experience. The question is what that 'something' is, or, rather, how we may legitimately describe it.

If it truly is the case that the complete description of my experience *leaves the question open* whether there is such a thing as space or material objects, then the space hypothesis is otiose, empty, a wheel which turns though nothing turns with it.

Note that the argument I have just given is the mirror image of an argument used by the Australian materialists (Armstrong Smart) against Cartesian dualism:

If it truly is the case that the complete description of a subject's behaviour in the world leaves it open whether there are such things as 'raw feels' or 'qualia' then the qualia hypothesis is otiose, empty, etc. etc.

The technical term for this method of argument is 'topic neutral description'. Berkeley's idealism effectively rests on the assumption that it is possible to give a topic neutral description of experience, an assumption which he inherited from Descartes (cf. Meditation 1).

Where is the chink in immaterialist's argument? If you grant the starting point, then the rest follows. If the fundamental task is to describe experience, then the space/matter hypothesis is empty, or, rather, we ought to say (along with Kant) that spatial concepts are merely the necessary means for describing phenomenal reality. Space and matter are nothing in themselves.

And if we do not grant that starting point? What is the alternative?

All the best,