Monday, January 30, 2012

Philosophical problem of weakness of the will

To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical problem of weakness of the will
Date: 9 January 2007 13:07

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 29 December, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''No-one ever does wrong knowingly.' - Why is that a paradox? Explain the philosophical problem of weakness of the will.'

Thank you for pointing out the similarity between the Socratic maxim and Christ's 'Lord, forgive them for the do not know what they do.' It had never occurred to me to consider this in the light of Socrates' principle that virtue is knowledge.

If I consider what I originally thought was the meaning of Christ's statement on the cross, it would be something along the lines of, 'They don't know WHO I AM.' If the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross had known who he was, they would not have done what they did. No-one would knowingly kill the son of God. However, this is lack of factual knowledge, rather than lack of moral knowledge.

That's the first thought. However, it does seem to me on reflection that much of the language of the New Testament reflects the Socratic idea that knowing what is the morally right thing to do and doing it are one and the same. I would suggest that it is not altogether implausible that Jesus knew more than a little of Greek philosophy.

I like what you say here: 'The subtle truth may be hard to accept or even understand. At times, such statements may also seem to be logically impossible.' This is a good point to make. Socrates was not saying something obvious, and he knew this. Plato's 'Republic' describes the arduous journey which the philosopher must take in order to perceive the light of the Good. Everything that we believe from day to day or for practical purposes is just opinion, nothing more, just useful maxims for living in our darkened cave. Knowledge is something very rare and special. Very few people have moral knowledge, most only have moral opinions (which may, nevertheless be true, an important point).

Following this line of thought, only the philosopher does right out of moral knowledge. The majority of us learn the rules of our society (a society which according to Plato would ideally be ruled by philosophers).

However, there remains the wider issue which does not necessarily relate to ethics or morality, as I try to show in unit 2. We regularly 'do wrong' to ourselves, we are 'imprudent'. And this is harder to explain. How is it that an individual can know, e.g., that a certain action would have very bad consequences for him or herself - and yet still do it?

There are two lines of explanation: either doing this action (e.g. accepting the cigarette) is simply irrational, something that we feel mentally compelled to do despite all reason; or, there is a more subtle account to be given in terms of knowledge and self-deception. I incline to the view that one should posit irrationality only as a last resort. For example, in the example of the cigarette, there is an overwhelming desire to smoke, but also the clear memory of what the doctor said ('I predict that with your emphysema if you carry on smoking, you will be on an oxygen machine in two years.') It is madness to smoke. And yet the person does it. At the moment of accepting the cigarette, the subject genuinely believes that 'It is only one cigarette, I can stop any time I like.'

How does this come about? Knowledge is a much more complex thing than we commonly suppose. You can know a fact (e.g. that you have incipient emphysema) and yet not really *know* it, that is, appreciate it for what it is. Or you can know how bad you are at keeping to your resolutions, and yet fool yourself into thinking that in this case you are not 'really' breaking your resolution.

Getting back to morality, I don't accept that 'the truth is morality is egoistic and conditional'. What is true, in my view, is that each person has to make moral judgements for him or herself. There are no general rules, each case must be considered on its merits. History has shown repeatedly how the 'general rules of a particular society' can be wrong (e.g. slavery, human sacrifice). But judging for oneself is not the same as being egotistic.

If there is any objective basis for morality (as I will argue there is) then, just as in the example of Plato's Cave, if you know and appreciate this fact clearly then you cannot act in an egoistic way. Cases where an individual 'yields to temptation' and does something which he or she 'knows' is immoral are like the smoking example: a trick that one plays on oneself, a form of self-deception.

All the best,


Justifying the law of excluded middle

To: Catherine H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Justifying the law of excluded middle
Date: 9 January 2007 12:19

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your email of 29 December, with your University of London essay in response to the Logic 2006 paper question 'What kind of justification can be given for the law of excluded middle? Is it convincing?'

Although you clearly felt that your response to the question is inadequate, you have in fact covered the main issues (perhaps guided by the examiners' report!).

The most important point to make is that the law of excluded middle, P or not-P, is NOT the same as the law of bivalence, 'Every proposition has the value true, or the value false.'

The law of excluded middle is a law of logic. The law of bivalence describes a semantic model for a system of logic, in this case classical logic. A seminal essay to read about this is Michael Dummett's British Academy lecture 'The Justification of Deduction' (reproduced in his collection 'Truth and Other Enigmas' Duckworth).

If you haven't already done so, read up in an elementary logic text book (e.g. Guttenplan 'Languages of Logic') about truth tables and the difference between syntax and semantics. A logical system is defined by its syntax, the connectives and the rules governing them. The semantics describes the intended interpretation. Thus the 'truth table' for the connective 'v' (inclusive 'or') is as follows:
P  Q     P  v  Q


In other words 'P v Q' is only false when both P and Q are false.

Applying this to the special case of 'P v -P' (P or not-P) we get:
P      P  v  -P


In this sense, the law of bivalence 'justifies' the law of excluded middle. What the essay asks is whether this justification is convincing.

One obvious objection is that the idea behind the rule, 'P or not-P' just is the idea of bivalence. However, it is not difficult to show that the two notions - excluded middle and bivalence - are in fact distinct.

Consider a statement about the future, 'CH will pass the Logic exam'. On Aristotle's view of 'future contingency' there is no determinate 'fact' about the future, in virtue of which that statement, asserted now, 'has' a determinate truth value. The future doesn't 'exist' yet. However, it remains the case that there is no middle possibility in between 'CH passes the Logic exam' and 'It is not the case that CH passes the logic exam' (as in your example from Russell, note that we are taking care to use 'not' in its primary occurrence). Every possible future history - including a future where the universe is obliterated before the date of the exam - is one in which either 'CH passes the Logic exam' is true or one in which 'It is not the case that CH passes the Logic exam' is true. (But note that we are in fact invoking the law of bivalence for each possible future history.)

The biggest challenges to the law of excluded middle, as you note, are from examples of unverifiable statements - including statements of unrestricted generality - and examples of vague statements. For verifiability, Dummett's essay 'Truth' (also in the above collection) is the place to start. Dummett uses the example of intuitionist mathematics to describe an 'anti-realist' view of the world which sees things 'coming into existence when we probe' rather than existing independently of our knowledge.

In mathematics, classical logic allows one to prove conclusions which are not provable in intuitionist logic. In his essay 'Truth' Dummett gives an example of an attempt to do a similar proof in the case of an empirical proposition. Either Jones, who died never facing a situation which required bravery, was brave or not. Therefore, there is something which existed in Jones by virtue of he possessed bravery or failed to possess bravery. I find this unconvincing. To speculate that 'It is not the case that Jones was brave' (i.e. with 'not' in its primary occurrence) leaves it open whether we are considering that Jones actually possessed an attribute of character inconsistent with bravery, or whether we are merely considering - without any extra assumptions - the absence of the attribute of bravery.

Similarly, in the case of vagueness, Sainsbury's pornography example appears to show that matters of fact can be fallaciously inferred from cases of excluded middle. But this appearance is superficial. Once more, we need to pay heed to whether 'not' is in its primary or secondary occurrence. Either Fred is an adult, or it is not the case that Fred is an adult. However, to derive the unacceptable consequence, one needs the additional premise that if it is not the case that Fred is an adult, then he is a child.

Susan Haack in her book 'Deviant Logics' describes various alternative systems of multi-valued logic which have been put forward for a variety of motives, including the perceived need for a logic which works for vague statements. However, it is not clear that any system of logic, with however many values, solves the problem of vagueness.

All the best,


Philosophy of language: words and world

To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophy of language: words and world
Date: 9 January 2007 10:57

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 28 December with your, 'Internet Blogging on Language and Linguistics', your email of 29 December with the first version of your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program, 'Words and Worlds' and your email of 30 December with the extended version.

A couple of things before I start:

It was A.N. Whitehead (Russell's collaborator on 'Principia Mathematica') who in his magnum opus 'Process and Reality' said 'The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato' (Process and Reality Part II, ch. 1, sec. 1).

The later rather than the early Wittgenstein said that it was his task to 'shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle' ('Philosophical Investigations' para 309).


Your essay starts with the question of the logical analysis of vague statements. It is not clear from what you say whether you think that such analysis is either necessary, possible or impossible.

'Defining the concept clearly', admitting the relative nature of the attribute', or (or, 'and so') 'allowing a sliding scale' are all proposed general solutions which do not in fact work.

The utility of vague terms lies precisely in the fact that they do not have precise definitions. Most of the terms in our language are in fact vague, or have a dimension of vagueness.

The relativity of attributes is a different phenomenon from vagueness as such, as is the phenomenon of attributive adjectives. This is shown by the fact that we can produce any number of versions of the Sorites paradox which do not depend on such relativity.

Again, a sliding scale is just another useful way of sorting objects which is itself infected with vagueness. An object is either grey or not grey, warm or cool (it is of course irrelevant to the question of vagueness as such that observations such as these are observer dependent).

Vagueness is a difficult challenge, whichever way you take it: either as a challenge to provide an adequate analysis - to my knowledge this has not yet been done - or as a challenge to provide an alternative model for what is actually achieved in acts of linguistic communication.

As I remarked in an earlier email, Wittgenstein did not accept Russell's characterization of his project in the Tractatus, as 'seeking an ideal language'. This brings his early philosophy closer to his later philosophy, because he always held that our language, as it is, is fully adequate to do what we do with it. The difference - which is profound - is that in the Tractatus he claimed that what we do with language is picture 'facts', or assert 'propositions', while in his later philosophy he described the radically different theory of language games, which you talk about in the second part of your essay.

While both the early and late Wittgenstein 'had great confidence in the ability of everyday language to convey significance', the early Wittgenstein was led to the project of symbolic construction, not as an improvement on ordinary language, but rather in order to reveal the logical structure that actually exists underneath the skin of ordinary language.

The statement you quote from Wittgenstein, 'Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of language', is intended as a deflationary claim. There is no metaphysics. There is only grammar, which we mistake for metaphysics. He is not making a claim about the mystical harmony of thought and reality. Wittgenstein's 'mysticism' is reserved for questions of aesthetics and value, our sense of the meaning of life - all questions which escape language, as he defines it.

The claim that 'meaning is socially constructed', therefore the witch persecutors of Salem or the Sharia courts are necessarily in the right cannot be derived from 'meaning is use' without the use of additional, and very questionable premisses. Our ordinary language 'is all right as it is'. We have the resources to seek justification and question belief, even in cases where acceptance of a given word seems to imply acceptance of the belief which it embodies. As Oscar Wilde said in his trial, '"obscenity" is not one of my words' (see my glasshouse notebook 2, page 65). You can refuse to use a word, or deliberately use it with a different meaning (like 'nigger', said by a rapper). But much more is being 'done' than appears on the surface.

However, I would not go so far as to assume that we can say anything, or that there are no limits. There has been discussion recently of the question whether the human mind is incapable of discovering the solution to the mind-body problem, as claimed by Colin McGinn. Might there be limits, which we cannot see? This is the frustrating thing about limits, that you don't see them.

I am not arguing that 'therefore' there are limits, or that any of the limits that have been claimed are limits, but simply that we don't know. We don't know what it would take to create a 'language' that successfully limited thought (as attempted in Orwell's '1984'). Maybe it is ultimately an empirical question, like the fact that some people are just smarter than others. Maybe there is a limit to just how 'smart' we can be - or there again maybe not.

All the best,


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Parallels between theories of space and theories of time

To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parallels between theories of space and theories of time
Date: 8 January 2007 11:42

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 26 December, with your final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'What illuminating parallels can be drawn between a philosophical account of the nature of space and a philosophical account of the nature of time?'

So my guess that you were inspired by McTaggart seems to be correct! I take it that, like McTaggart, you are responding to the challenge of creating something analogous to time without temporality as such (the A-series) but more time-like than mere 'spatialised' time (the B-series).

I feel ever more confident that you will read Alexander, Whitehead and McTaggart with great pleasure.

Space and time

I didn't have any particular parallels in mind when I composed this question. An obvious one would be the question of infinity vs finitude explored by Kant in the Antinomies of Pure Reason, in the second part of the Critique of Pure Reason. ('Space is finite' vs 'Space is infinite', 'Time has a beginning' vs 'Time does not have a beginning'.)

However, the theme which emerges for me is much more to do with the lack of parellism between space and time. As I see it, this comes out in two ways:

Richard Swinburne, in his excellent book 'Space and Time' gives an intriguing argument for a disanalogy between the claim that it is logically possible to have an unoccupied space, and the claim that it is logically possible to have a period of time without any events. (I may have mentioned this before, sorry if I'm repeating myself.) The argument goes like this:

Imagine a space containing several objects. Now take the objects away, one by one (don't ask how, just annihilate them - we are investigating logical, not physical possibility). At last, we take away the final object and the space is empty. Now try to put one object back. There is no 'place' to put it because place is logically defined in relation to existing objects.

Now consider time. The universe comes to a halt for one minute. Then it starts up again where it left off. No-one is the wiser. No clue is left. By contrast with space, this is logically possible, because the time when the universe was at a standstill is fixed, determined by its relation to the previous times and the times that came after.

This suggests a disanalogy between time and space, and also suggests a possible reason for claiming that time is capable of 'making boundaries' in a way that space is not.

As you argued, every spatial boundary is a mere transition from one kind of 'stuff' to another. Whereas the mere passage of time is intrinsically 'boundary-making'. That's just an idea - I haven't anything more to say about it.

The second point is for me the more fundamental: McTaggart is wrong. The reality of the A-series cannot be denied on the basis of a mere claim about logical inconsistency. What McTaggart's argument succeeds in showing is that it is impossible, using language (and there is admittedly no other means of expression) to say what the passage of time consists in, no way to express the fact that the time is now: just as there is no way to express the fact that I am I. My conclusion from this is that a complete metaphysical description of reality must acknowledge 'indexicality' as an aspect of what is real. The eternal view cannot capture the nature of time. Time adds something to the world which cannot be seen from a viewpoint sub specie aeternitatis.

This is what I argue in my book 'Naive Metaphysics', although the main emphasis is on 'I' rather than 'now'. In fact, what I am arguing for is the undeniable reality of the 'I-now'. If this leads to inconsistency, then we must embrace inconsistency. That's the price you have to pay for attempting to tell the whole truth rather than just the part that you can conveniently package into a consistent philosophical 'theory'.

You are fortunate indeed to be able to feel that you have a lot of work still to do on your project. I hoped this too when I wrote my book: but instead my metaphysical investigations came to a dead end. The Metaphysics program managed to find more things to say that aren't in the book, but the clash between the objective and subjective worlds - or the world of 'I-now' and the world of 'all that is the case' - is one that I have never succeeded to this day in elaborating on or taking a step further. Maybe I am wrong and McTaggart (or Mellor, see his book 'Real Time') is right. The discovery that this was the case would at least be a spur to further investigation. But I'm not counting on it.

Anyway, I've enjoyed our correspondence on the central questions of philosophy. I have a strong feeling that your thoughts and ideas have developed a lot through our exchanges. I have certainly found your contributions very stimulating.

All the best,


Parmenides' argument for the proposition 'It is'

To: Namet I.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides' argument for the proposition 'It is'
Date: 8 January 2007 10:43

Dear Namet Ilahi,

Thank you for your email of 24 December, with your essay for the Ancient Philosophy program in response to the question, 'Analyse and give a commentary on Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It is'.'

This is an accurate and well judged summary of Parmenides' argument.

However, the big question facing anyone grappling with Parmenides is why he insisted on asserting the exclusive alternative, 'It is and cannot not be' or 'It is not and must not be'.

You tantalisingly offer a one sentence explanation: 'These conclusions are based on the argument that one can never prove the non-existence of something.' In itself, this claim is not altogether implausible, so let's see how it goes. How would you go about proving the non-existence of unicorns? We could conduct a very thorough survey, but there would be no way to be sure that a unicorn had not existed in the dim distant past, and died without leaving a trace. Or, even if we were sure that no unicorns exist or ever existed on Earth, there is still the rest of the universe to explore.

However, the problem does not have to be put in those terms. It is not so difficult to prove the non-existence of a unicorn sitting at this desk typing these words. An observer only has to look. Being a human being is, by definition, inconsistent with being a unicorn. In other words, the fact or facts in virtue of which it is true that there is not a unicorn sitting here are that there is a human being sitting here.

In this sense, it might be claimed that every negative is a necessary negative. It is not necessary that a human being was sitting here. My seat might have been occupied by a unicorn. But as a matter of contingent fact, this not the case. My seat is occupied by a human being. And it follows by logical necessity from this fact that it is not occupied by a unicorn. 'All determination is negation,' as the Medieval principle says.

It might seem that I am labouring this, but we are faced with the hugely puzzling fact that Parmenides refused point blank to accept this account. Why?

In the unit on Parmenides, I try to give a possible explanation. I am not at all confident that it is correct. There are other explanations.

This is the 'game' that Parmenides scholars play, either trying to find the most plausible explanation for a view which they agree is false, or finding some novel interpretation in terms of which Parmenides turns out to be saying something true after all.

For example, it has been claimed (I seem to recall, originally by Karl Popper) that Parmenides is talking about 'the truth' as such. Either there is such a thing as 'the truth' or not. Belief in the existence of 'the truth' is the way of sanity and reason. Disbelief is the way of insanity and chaos. The battle between 'realists' who believe in truth, and 'anti-realists' or 'constructivists' is one of the major themes of 20th century philosophy. However, if this interpretation is correct, it is hard to see why Parmenides thinks it follows that change and differentiation must be excluded from the reality of 'it is'.

And what about the 'third approach'? This is the other intriguing question. You offer the explanation, 'This could happen when two persons discuss an object about whose attributes their knowledge differs - one may know the attributes 'a' to 'm' and the other the attributes 'h' to 'n'.'

I wonder about this. When two people know different things about an object, they don't necessarily disagree - in fact, if we are talking about knowledge then logically this rules out disagreement. If there were any disagreement, e.g. whether or not the object had attribute 'c', then as a matter of logic one of the two people must be wrong. Either the object has 'c' or it doesn't. But in that case, there is no claim, 'it is and is not'. If the object has 'c' then it has 'c' and it is wrong to assert that it does not have 'c'.

What exactly are the alternatives? Let's run through this again:

(a) It is. Parmenides' theory of the One is correct.

(b) It is not. There is no 'One', no 'truth', no 'reality' or however you want to describe it.

(c) What most muddle-headed mortals believe, that some things are 'real' and 'true', but other things are 'not', whatever that means.

To me, this is the especially striking part of Parmenides argument. He seems to be saying, in effect, 'You already half-believe what I'm trying to tell you, but you want to have things both ways. You refuse to accept the full logical consequences.'

What I would like to suggest is that this provides an extra handle on the argument for 'It is'. Whatever that argument may be, it has to be one which identifies something which we already 'half-believe'. All Parmenides is doing is rigorously (so he believes) following through the logical consequences of that belief.

All the best,


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Strawson on freedom and resentment

To: Anthony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson on freedom and resentment
Date: 22 December 2006 13:04

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 19 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'According to Strawson, what can make it inappropriate to feel resentment towards someone? Is he right to think that belief in determinism would not make it inappropriate?

This is my last response letter before the holidays, and frankly my immediate reaction was, 'my brain hurts'. I don't know if Strawson's theory covers that. Not that I'm in any way resentful and being presented with such a challenging essay. But the point is that the aim of this email is to engage with your argument. How is engaging with someone's argument different from reacting in a determinist way? I hope you can see the relevance here.

In other words, an analogous argument to the one Strawson puts forward can be developed in relation to philosophical discourse. I can engage with your argument. Or I can assume that you are not thinking rationally or are merely exhibiting the symptoms of some kind of brainwashing, and find the best way to 'deal' with you. Interestingly, I don't recall any philosopher arguing that determinism shows that philosophical criticism is not rationally justified! (Richard Dawkins comes close with his theory of memes, but then he's not a 'philosopher'. Then of course there's Marx...)

Regarding your question about preparation, my advice would be to dive into the journals and online discussions or any books that come your way and enjoy the extra time for reading and thinking. Maybe start a philosophical notebook. Don't allow yourself to get stale. Don't let concern over performance in the exam tempt you into overly narrowing your focus. You have a good chance of getting an excellent mark, but on the day there's always an element of luck.

If you're someone who gets nervous in exams then by all means do some practice essays. I never did.


Regarding the wording of the question, I wonder whether you shouldn't have given more space to developing the cases where resentment is inappropriate (section 2). Is it really so easy to distinguish the two broad classes of case, the one's were resentment just 'is' appropriate and the ones where it just 'isn't'? How does this work? Take the example of someone who is under 'massive emotional strain'. Isn't that precisely where we have to make an extra effort to 'meet' them on a personal level rather than merely 'dealing' with them?

Someone bumps into me by accident in the pub and spills beer on my new shirt. I will make it known in no uncertain terms that the offending individual owes me an apology even if he or she is completely innocent of carelessness (say, they were pushed by someone else). So, here too, the distinction doesn't quite seem to work.

Strawson's account is powerful and subtle. But I would also argue that something vital is missing from Strawson's theory. This is the need to explain the rationality of 'arguing' against something that someone has already done. How can it make sense to say, 'You shouldn't have done that', and go on to explain why, given that we accept that at no point does determinism allow any real possibility the considerations that we put forward might have been taken into account? In other words, we don't just 'feel' something, a sense of resentment or offence, we put a case. What exactly are we doing?

I do think that you are overly hard on Strawson. For example, you accuse him of 'mixing up' factual judgements and value judgements, in talking of cases where resentment doesn't 'fit' (I'm trying to find a neutral term). There's no mystery about how you can derive value statements about reactive attitudes from factual statements about reactive attitudes, if we assume as Strawson does that things are as they ought to be. We do (in fact) deal with one another on an interpersonal level, although there is always the permanent possibility of choosing not to do so. Strawson believes that something is lost (value) whenever we give up interpersonal discourse and make do with 'dealing' with someone.

However, there is room for raising the question whether we should be less resentful than we are, as some philosophers (notably Spinoza) have advocated. Perhaps you wanted to say this, that in assuming that things are as they should, Strawson has neglected the possibility of something better, rather than worse, than 'interpersonal discourse' as he describes it.

I don't think Strawson is confused in his claim that people to whom we take the objective attitude are 'abnormal'. There is no inconsistency in asserting that the majority of cases are 'abnormal' (supposing that CJD becomes rampant) in the same way that had the secret Nazi counterfeiting plan worked, the majority of British bank notes would have been forgeries. It could even happen that as a result of the epidemic you are the only 'normal' person left in the world: a nice subject for a science fiction story.

All the best to you and yours for 2007!


Berkeley's argument against material objects

To: Kathleen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's argument against material objects
Date: 22 December 2006 11:46

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your email of 19 December, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Critically discuss Bishop Berkeley's argument against the existence of material objects.'

This is a nice, clear summary of Berkeley's position. What I missed, however, was engagement with the argument against matter. Are you persuaded by the argument? Or is it obvious that the argument is false?

Two explanations suggest themselves:

The Locke connection. At the beginning of your essay, you remark that Berkeley, 'took Locke's distinction between the world as it is in itself and the world as we perceive it a step further by denying the existence of matter, the constituent of Locke's "world as it is in itself".'

First, I should remark that the notion of the 'world in itself' sounds much more like Kant than Locke. What Locke does do, in his Essay, is pour scorn on the traditional idea of substance as 'something I know not what' which underlies the primary and secondary properties which we perceive. (Locke gives the example of the primitive belief that the world rests on a tortoise which rests on, etc. etc.) However, Locke has a positive, non-metaphysical account of the ideas of substance and real essence which makes clear that there is no 'metaphysical' claim involved in the assertion, e.g. that a table is an individual 'substance' with primary and secondary qualities, or that wood and water are general types of substance etc.

The traditional view of Berkeley amongst analytic philosophers is that his argument for immaterialism is just a bad argument, and that the only way to understand why he was motivated to put it forward in the first place is because he was reacting to an equally bad theory put forward by Locke. This view has changed, especially with J.L. Mackie's excellent book 'Problems from Locke' (Oxford) which makes the points I've made above.

So, if Berkeley's theory cannot be seen as merely showing the absurd consequences of Locke's position, either it is just rubbish or the argument is better than the traditionalists have claimed. John Foster's book 'The Case for Idealism' (RKP) is evidence that Berkeley's arguments are, once more, being taken seriously - as I try to do in the program.

Second explanation: As you present it, an essential component in Berkeley's theory is the existence of God. Surely, it is a lot easier (at least, for an unbeliever) to believe in matter than to believe in God! Berkeley has taken an idea which is, admittedly, problematic and replaced it by one which is more problematic. But that ignores the fact that Berkeley believes that he has a crushing argument against belief in matter. We have to accept whatever consequences follow from that.

Belief in God is a consequence of Berkeley's theory, not part of the theory itself. Indeed, as you will have discovered from your reading, Berkeley presents his theory as an analysis of statements about the objects of perception in terms of subjunctive conditional statements. 'There is a chair in the study' is translated as, 'If you were to look in the study you would see a chair.' That's just an illustration, in fact it becomes quickly apparent that things are much more complicated than that because every term for a 'substance' that appears in the conditional statements itself requires the same analysis.

There are two arguments against this: the first, general argument, is that we have no idea of 'conditional facts'. If a subjunctive conditional is actually true, there must be some non-conditional facts in virtue of which it is true. This takes us back to God, or something that serves the role of God such as Kantian noumena.

The other argument derives from Kant's refutation of idealism. It is in fact impossible to talk about the non-material entities (sense data) which figure in the conditional analysis. All concepts are necessarily concepts which apply to an external world. As we have seen, this is not enough to refute idealism in the wider sense, but only one version.

What about science? Berkeley was hostile to the corpuscular theory, embraced by Locke, for whom corpuscles represent the 'real essence' of the material objects we perceive. However, arguably, he needn't have been. If he is prepared to allow the investigation into causal relationships between phenomena (as you explain), then it is a perfectly acceptable part of such investigation to employ hypothetico-deductive theories which posit unobservable entities and derive testable consequences. This leaves Berkeley with two alternatives: either to claim that the unobservables exist as ideas in the mind of God - a perfectly reasonable position - or take an instrumentalist or pragmatist view which accepts the usefulness of the corpuscular hypothesis in deriving empirically testable theories.

All the best for the holidays and 2007!


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gettier on knowledge as justified true belief

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Gettier on knowledge as justified true belief
Date: 21 December 2006 13:07

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 14 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, ''Knowing that P is at least a matter of having a belief that P which is both true and justified.' Is this an adequate definition of knowledge? If not, how should it be improved?'

My first reaction is that it is a bit of a 'trick' question. The correct response is to say that 'A is at least B, C and D' can never be an adequate definition of A because in order to have a definition you need necessary *and* sufficient conditions. That would be my first sentence.

Now the question splits into two parts. Are truth and justification each necessary for knowledge? (discussed in our previous exchange); and are the conditions put forward jointly sufficient as well as severally necessary?

I was momentarily alarmed when you stated, 'this single sentence does not provide an adequate understanding of just what is meant by either 'true' or 'justified',' because it looked as if you were going to base your essay around this point. If the question had said, 'A causing B is at least a matter of A occurring before B in time', it is obviously irrelevant to object that 'the simple sentence offers no guidance as to which notion of 'time' is being referred to.'

However, as you go on to show with your exhaustive survey of responses to Gettier, we are in fact very much concerned with different notions of 'justification', if not of 'truth'.

In a couple of places you allude to examples without describing them. I haven't actually come across the 'assassination' example (or if I did, I have forgotten) so that makes it difficult for me to follow this point. As I may have said before, in an exam you sometimes have to do this because time is so short, but a general rule is that you should at least attempt to describe the example, however briefly. The same applies to your statement, under the heading 'No-False-Inference', 'But like all other proposed Gettier solutions, counter-examples have been offered for this one as well.'

Your decompositional theory is initially interesting and looks to be your own contribution to the debate. Whenever you do this in an essay, it is worth while stating clearly that this is your idea and not something that you have come across - otherwise the only clue to its originality the examiner has is that the idea is unsound! (If your idea is sound and original then that would be in most cases sufficient for a 'first'.)

However, after the initial response, 'this looks interesting', my next thought (following very close behind) about the compositional theory was that it can't work. You can dispose of the 'lazy' Gettier examples which rely on disjunction, but as you yourself appear to note it doesn't stop there. Each new 'reduced' claim is open to new counter-examples and you are pushed back and back until the only things that you can claim are things which you have infallible knowledge of.

The question your theory raises is this. Forget about the explicit logical structure of language, what are the real 'atoms' of knowledge? For example, if I say that the mug is on the table, would an 'atomic' knowledge claim be the precise position of the mug? (but how can one tell just by looking?) or the position within margins of error allowed for in the absence of a ruler? or...?

The compositional theory is still a very good point to make, even if turns out that the objections are insuperable. Just say, 'One might be tempted to think... but...'. There's always a way to turn things around.

Incidentally, my objection to your theory is an example of a philosophical judgement which one makes without necessarily 'thinking things through'. I just 'know' that the theory 'can't work'. But could I be missing something? Suppose it turns out that I'm right (after exhaustively examining all the possibilities). Was my initial judgement a case of philosophical knowledge? (If I'm wrong, tell me. But briefly please!)

Judgement involves a leap. When we judge correctly, and circumstances are appropriate (plug in your favourite theory) then we have knowledge. However, the very fact that there is a leap there is the thing that causes the problems.

My own feeling is that the crucial step is deciding what use we have for a concept of 'knowledge' (cf my previous email). Of course we can claim that Fred has knowledge but be wrong, not because the thing Fred believes is false but because circumstances are such that it would be wrong to describe this as knowledge. If we can never be sure whether Fred has 'knowledge' (or something else, less than knowledge) then the concept of 'knowledge' has no utility. You might as well get rid of it. So any theory must give us a reasonable shot at being able to tell whether Fred 'knows' what he claims to know or not. This is the admittedly pragmatist perspective, I would argue, from which the various proffered alternatives may be judged.

I sympathise with your objections to 'ridiculous complexities'. But I don't think that the allusion to our practice of 'attributing knowledge to animals and pre-intellectual children' is adequate to justify your claim. For me, it would be an open question whether exercises of this kind are ultimately valuable or not. It is really a matter of how one conceives of the point of the activity of 'philosophy'.

All the best,


Descartes' proof of God in the 3rd Meditation

To: Barry T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes proof of God in the 3rd Meditation
Date: 15 December 2006 11:53

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your email of 10 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'What weaknesses, if any do you find in Descartes' proof of the existence of God in the Third Meditation?'

This is on the whole a very good essay. However, if I was marking this in an exam, I would put a big 'R' (for relevance) in the margin next to the discussion of the Cartesian Circle.

The reason for this is that it is not part of the question of the validity of Descartes' argument for the existence of God, to consider objections to Descartes' strategy of using God as the ultimate guarantee that clear and distinct ideas are indeed true.

There is a danger that you would lose marks, and also lose time. Don't give in to the temptation to give more than the question asks for. (That does not mean you have to give the examiner what he or she expects. It is perfectly possible to surprise the examiner with an answer to the question which they had not anticipated.)

That leaves the causal adequacy principle, and Descartes claim to have a clear and distinct idea of an infinite God.

You say, 'Descartes gives no grounds for rejecting the concept that there could be an indefinitely long chain of ideas.' You are right that he does not offer an explicit argument against this idea. However, it would be within the remit of this essay to look for one. The question is how we decide whether a regress is, or is not vicious.

An analogous question arises in relation to the cosmological argument. Objectors to the cosmological argument point out that there is no logical absurdity about a chain of causes and effects which stretches back infinitely. That may be true. However, someone who puts forward the cosmological argument believes (rightly or wrongly) that the way the world is at the present time is dependent on the way it is at past times, in the way in which, e.g. a link in the chain holding a chandelier is dependent on the links above it. Being infinitely long would not prevent the chandelier from falling to the ground.

In a similar manner, Descartes would argue that making the chain of ideas infinitely long merely defers the question where the idea of God comes from rather than answering it.

At least one twentieth century philosopher has taken Descartes' argument seriously, although not exactly as Descartes intended. Emmanuel Levinas in 'Totality and Infinity' cites Descartes idea of infinity as the model for his argument for the 'otherness of the other' as the ultimate ethical anchoring point for metaphysics. All that we can reason from our own heads is 'thematized' knowledge, or knowledge of the causal order. But such knowledge would never suffice to prove that another person is real, rather than just another 'object' in my world that behaves in various more or less predictable ways.

Another issue, which would not be irrelevant, is the question of our idea of infinity as such. Of course, there is the mathematical definition of an infinite set as one whose members can be put into a 1-1 relation to a proper subset. But this definition is not adequate to explain what it would mean to ask the question, 'Could it be, as a matter of brute contingent fact, that there are an infinite number of physical objects in the universe?' The mathematical notion of infinity is related to a recursive rule. The problem is with contingent or 'brute' infinity, there just happening to be an infinite number of things. (See the excellent book by Adrian Moore, 'The Infinite' RKP.)

So while it is certainly legitimate to question, as you do, whether Descartes really has an idea of an 'infinite God', or merely thinks he has, the problem of where such a 'big' idea comes from is not one that one can escape simply by refusing to allow the coherence of the notion of a deity as such.

Descartes can say this. 'Not everyone thinks they have an idea of God. If you don't think this, then my argument is not going to be of any interest to you. But if you do think that you have an idea of God, then you must either admit that this is a delusion, or you must come up with an adequate explanation of how you were able to acquire this idea.'

The argument that if the idea of God is innate then everyone should have it does not seem to be compelling. You say in that case 'it should be present in every able minded human being'. But that is precisely the point. Most human beings are not 'able minded' in the philosophical sense, even if their minds are fully adequate to meet the demands of daily life. However, by a suitable training in philosophy, one can become better able (as Plato believed when he wrote the Meno) to perceive the ideas that one implicitly has.

All the best,


Parmenides: why we cannot follow the path of 'it is not'

To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides: why we cannot follow the path of 'it is not'
Date: 15 December 2006 10:54

Dear James,

Thank you for your email of 8 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Why does Parmenides hold that it is impossible to follow the path of 'it is not'?'

This is without doubt a first class piece of work. Your argument is clearly laid out and you make excellent use of citations. You have taken great care to explore the various options and made judgements which are, at least, sufficiently justified by the textual evidence to be persuasive.

I am attaching the units on Parmenides from the Pathways Presocratics program. Lacking Greek, I am not able to participate in debates over the precise meanings of Greek terms. However, my gut feeling which I try to justify in these units is that Parmenides argument is more interesting than your final diagnosis - Parmenides' ignorance of first-order predicate calculus - would seem to imply. I am aware that this probably puts me in the minority of students of Parmenides.

The problem that Parmenides is onto, according to my view, is the ontological status of negative facts. As you show, Plato offers a way of parsing some negative statements so that the negation is no longer explicit (although it remains implicit). The temptation - which for example Sartre succumbs to in Being and Nothingness - is to say that reality itself can't have any 'negation' in it so it is we, or 'consciousness', which must supply it. As the medieval principle has it, 'All determination is negation.'

This would account for the consequences which Parmenides draws from 'it is'. Here I think, possibly, you should have said something because one might half agree with the claim that it is not possible to make a negative existential judgement, until one realizes that the consequence Parmenides wishes to draw - which tells us more about what he means by 'it is' than the argument alone - is that there can be no plurality, movement or difference of any kind. How does one get to the One from 'it is'? If you were answering this question in an exam, I think that more explicit reference to this point would be justified.

I like the way you have drawn attention to the 'change of subject' in B2 and B6. In my reading, Parmenides is arguing dialectically. So the very meaning of the argument changes after one has appreciated the significance of the conclusion. 'Take anything you like,' he starts off, 'either it is or it is not'. Then, after working through the argument, we can start again, this time appreciating that there is in fact only one possible subject, the One.

The idea that 'centaur' might be an idea in the mind is not just a red herring, but a serious fallacy. However, it is perfectly possible to employ a first-order sense of 'exists' as a predicate without committing this fallacy. Call this 'eggsists'. Then the statement, 'A eggsists', where 'A' is a proper name, is always true. Nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when one is tempted to explain the statement, 'A does not eggsist' as a statement which takes as its subject the idea of A. In which case the statement is about the idea of A, and not A, and is necessarily false for the same reason as before. (The principle, 'no object, no thought' is emphasised, for example, by Gareth Evans in his account of proper names in 'Varieties of Reference'.)

In what sense does the same thing exist for thought and for being? 'The same thing exists for thought as for being' does not mean that being is the same as thought. It cannot, literally, be the case for Parmenides that 'Being is Being-known', because this applies a predicate to Being which is other than 'is'. In that case, it follows logically that there is, after all, something that Being 'is not'. (I remember long, long ago drawing the incorrect conclusion that 'Being is thought' in an essay I wrote on Parmenides in the first year of my BA!) What Parmenides means is that whatever can be, can be thought, and whatever can be thought, can be. This is the principle you use in your argument, so I cannot accuse you of making the aforementioned error.

So we get back to Frege. How strong is this point, given that it is perfectly possible to use 'exists' (or rather 'eggsists') as a first-order predicate? Is it really true, that without first-order predicate logic we are forced to embrace Parmenides' conclusions?

It is worth noting that the issue of 'negative facts' has appeared sporadically in analytic philosophy. It was raised by Russell. It also appears in the famous Aristotelian Society debate between J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson in Truth. I would argue that this is the beginning of the slippery slope which can only end in Parmenides' One.

All the best,


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is knowledge justified true belief?

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is knowledge justified true belief?
Date: 8 December 2006 11:15

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 4 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Is knowledge justified true belief?'

Significantly, the one line which you have not explored is the 'Gettier counterexamples' (Edmund Gettier 'Is knowledge justified true belief?'). It is possible that this is your intended topic for your follow up essay, so I won't say any more about this.

You may be surprised to hear that the two most recent essays I have received on this question (interestingly, both students are American) both argued the case *against* condition (a). So much for what is 'generally agreed by almost all who ponder the issue'! Their essays were actually quite good. In both cases, the arguments revolved around worries about 'truth' and the threat of scepticism. It is worth while considering how you would respond to someone who argued that a 'better', more useful concept of knowledge would be one which allowed us to (occasionally? frequently?) say that someone 'knew' something that was not, in fact, the case.

Of course, if you just find it impossible to see how anyone could question (a), that might be rather difficult. But there is something to say here, or, at least, I found something to say in responding to the two essays. The strategy I used was to coin a 'new' concept, 'knorridge', which is like 'knowledge' except that in place of the standard three conditions, we have:

1. S believes p

2. S is justified in believing that p

3. S's justification for believing that p is commensurate with a) the degree to which the proposition fits into S's complete world model, b) the perceived importance (to both S and society at large) of the proposition in question, and c) the plausibility of existing counter-claims to p.

(This is the analysis offered by the first of the two Americans I mentioned.) My question was, 'Which is more useful as a concept, knowledge or knorridge?', or, if this does not amount to the same thing, 'Could we, in fact, get by with a concept of knorridge without ever talking about knowledge?' You might like to think how you would respond. (I doubt whether the acceptability of condition (a) is likely to come up as a specific question in the Epistemology exam.)

The case of belief is more widely contested. One stock example is the 'nervous schoolboy' who when asked what is the capital of France, doesn't 'believe' the answer that comes to his lips, even though we would like to say he does really know. If that doesn't convince, then one can look at the question how strongly one has to believe something. For example, one might point out that in ordinary language, we say things like, 'Deep down, you know that I'm right' to someone who doubts, or thinks that he doubts. Later the individual ruefully admits, 'Yes, I did know' (implying that he knew at the time, rather than that he now knows).

I haven't got much to say about your survey of the internalist/ externalist alternatives. This is text book stuff, but well presented.

I can't recall whether a question as simple as this has been used in the UoL Epistemology paper. Usually, exam questions have more of a twist, or are more specific in what they ask for. So if you were to see the simple question, 'Is knowledge justified true belief', a good strategy would be to try to spend equal time on each of the conditions, (a), (b) and (c). In answering (c), however, you would have to say something about Gettier.

It is interesting to explore what follows from an 'evolutionary' conception of knowledge. One paper which you should read on this is Quine's essay, 'Epistemology Naturalized'. In that paper, Quine famously stated, 'There is no First Philosophy'. In other words, philosophers who follow the Cartesian tradition are completely on the wrong track. From a 'naturalized' perspective, the questions Descartes asked cannot even be raised. This is the 'foundational' question for the philosophical discipline of epistemology: are we, in fact, interested in normative issues - such as arguments for scepticism and responses to those arguments - or is the study of epistemology, as Quine claims, continuous with science, in effect a branch of psychology?

From our previous dialogues, I can (maybe) guess your answer to this.

All the best,


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus proposition 4.04

To: Daniel H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus proposition 4.04
Date: 8 December 10:05

Dear Danny,

Thank you for your email of 3 December, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, ''A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound-waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation to one another of depicting that holds between language and the world' (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 4.04). Discuss.'

In answer to your question, with this kind of question it is perfectly possible to confine yourself to explaining the remark in the context of the text, in this case the Tractatus. The question does not ask for your critical comments. However it would be within the remit of the question to offer critical comments if you have any (as you do at the end of your essay) or indeed refer to criticisms made by other philosophers, including the later Wittgenstein (who for many purposes can be viewed as 'another philosopher').

Here's a telling remark from the later Wittgenstein:
'What the names in language signify must be indestructible; for it must be possible to describe the state of affairs in which everything destructible is destroyed. And this description will contain words; and what corresponds to these cannot then be destroyed, for otherwise the words would have no meaning.' I must not saw off the branch on which I am sitting. (Philosophical Investigations para 55).

In other words, Wittgenstein is trying to get across what he once thought, but no longer thinks, and the picture in his mind ('I must not saw off the branch') that motivated him to think this. You can imagine this being said with a wry grin.

The idea that the world has indestructible 'substance' was not new. Kant argues for this in the Critique of Pure Reason, not on the basis of a theory of meaning but rather as a condition for the 'possibility of experience', along with the law of determinism. By linking the demand for substance to semantics, Wittgenstein in effect finds an unmetaphysical way to revive a traditional metaphysical doctrine.

However, the idea captured in the gramophone example, as such, does not take us all the way to 'substance'. Additional arguments are needed. The key argument is 2.0211: 'If the world had no substance, then whether a proposition had sense would depend on whether another proposition was true.' (Compare the paragraph from the Investigations.) This argument is actually based on Russell's Theory of Descriptions: 'The present King of France is bald' must make sense even if there is no King of France (Russell's example).

The key word in the gramophone quote is 'internal'. What does 'internal relation' mean in this context and how does it differ from an external relation? (Here again, we have concepts from traditional metaphysics but applied in a new way.) We might try to express this is in terms of 'subjunctive conditional' statements. 'If the crotchet had been one line down, then the tune would have ended on a C instead of an E.' Each possibility of putting the notes at different points on the stave, or giving each note a different value (crotchet, quaver etc.) corresponds to a different tune. There is no combination of crotchets that does not identify a tune, nor is there any tune which can not be represented in this way.

However, this is not yet sufficient to capture the sense of 'internal'. What makes these subjunctive conditional statements true is not a scientific law, which would only give external relations, but the 'law of form' which comes into existence with the recognition of an activity called 'making music'. In other words, we would say that human intention is involved. However, in the austere vision of the Tractatus this would be a mere remark about 'psychology' and not relevant to 'logic'.

The gramophone example describes, as you say, 'musical form'. It is not logical form. So something needs to be said about this too. What is the difference? We are only dealing with 'meaning' and 'propositions' when we make pictures whose form is logical form. Propositions are true or false. The music to Frere Jaques is neither true nor false, although relative to a given purpose it can be the 'wrong music' (e.g. you asked for the music for Ring a Roses, or you played the wrong note).

What about the question of vagueness? This is an issue not with the notion of picturing as such but rather with the simples theory. In defence of Wittgenstein, one could say that he was fully aware of the existence of vague propositions and has a theory to explain it: however vague a statement seems, on the surface, in reality it has a precise meaning. E.g. 'The cup is on the ta table' means, 'Either the cup is at position 1, or at position 2 or...' (and the same for all the possible ways something can be 'the cup').

On the other hand, ethical, aesthetic and religious statements fail according to the picture theory to respect the very notion of 'representing what is the case'. Even if Wittgenstein had not been impressed by Russell's argument, arguably his theory would still have banned these areas of 'discourse' to the realm of the unsayable.

All the best,


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Descartes' argument for scepticism in First Meditation

To: Hakeem G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' argument for scepticism in First Meditation
Date: 6 December 2006 11:08

Dear Hakeem,

Thank you for your email of 29 November, with your second attempt at your University of London essay, 'What reasons does Descartes give for doubting all his former beliefs? Are they good reasons?

You have produced an excellent piece of work. You have made some very good points, and given clear evidence that you have thought hard about Descartes' argument in the First Meditation.

In particular, I very much liked the argument in paragraph 4: 'In other words, if senses deceive us with respect to the details of things around us they make available for our perception, can they be considered deceptive when they don't present us at all with the sensation of a present object when it is obstructed by another opaque object...'.

I also liked the discussion of dreams, and the point about 'contradictory realities'. In a well known article by the philosopher Anthony Quinton, 'Spaces and Times', the Cartesian thought experiment is taken a stage further. An individual goes to 'sleep' in one world and wakes up in another which is in every respect equally 'real', then returns to the first world by the same method. Would that be proof of the existence of two spatially unrelated spaces?

The only criticism I would make this time is that your essay is mainly an answer to the first part of the essay question, and not the second.

You do offer criticisms of Descartes' argument, as well as suggestions for improvement, and this can be taken as part of an assessment 'whether the reasons Descartes offers are good reasons'. However, a full answer to the question would have to include your own judgement whether, e.g., the evil demon argument IS a good argument. In other words, what is your view?

Do you think that it is logically possible that all your experiences are produced by an evil demon? And, further, if this possibility is granted, do you accept that it follows that you should doubt all your former beliefs?

There is nothing wrong, in principle, when faced with a question like this, with saying, 'Yes, I think they are good reasons.' In that case, the work you have to do for this part of the essay is in considering possible objections - objections which have been raised against, e.g. the evil demon argument - and the reply that you would give to these objections.

Let's look at each of these questions separately.

Do you accept that it is it possible that all your experiences are produced by an evil demon? One way to approach this would be to consider a more 'up to date' version of this argument, as provided by the film 'The Matrix'. What is the difference between an 'evil demon' hypothesis and a Matrix scenario? In the case of the evil demon, I am deceived into thinking that there is such a thing as 'objects in space', whereas in the Matrix scenario, the existence of objects in space is assumed in setting up the thought experiment. But is the idea that there could be a non-spatial reality consisting purely of experience coherent?

The second question is whether admitting this possibility is sufficient to put our beliefs in doubt. Common sense tells us that all sorts of things are 'possible' yet we don't for a minute allow these to cause us to entertain doubts. It is logically possible, for example, that the floor of my office will collapse in the next five seconds. But I'm not allowing myself to lose any time worrying about it! What is the difference between this case and the argument given by Descartes for doubting all his former beliefs?

Descartes would reply that in the case of my office floor, it is possible to rationally assign a probability, based on my general knowledge. Floor collapse without prior warning is something that very rarely happens in a well constructed house. However, probability is relative to evidence. In the case of the evil demon or Matrix scenarios, anything that might count as 'evidence' for a probability judgement is itself put into question.

Some philosophers e.g. Hilary Putnam have argued that even if we accept the coherence of the Matrix scenario (or 'brain in a vat', as Putnam describes it) this cannot be used as a premiss in a sceptical argument, because if I AM in a pod, or a vat, then I am not thinking real thoughts, my words do not have any real reference beyond my own mind. - You an explore this issue further for yourself. My own view is that this line is not ultimately effective against the sceptic.

Obviously, in an exam, you won't have time to write as much as you have written here. I'm telling you that you need to say even more! In a one hour exam, you have to explain yourself more briefly, while covering all the points you want to make. - Later on, you can practise some one hour essay questions.

There's no need to attempt this topic a third time. Try another essay topic, and this time paying particular attention to the exact wording. You have done very well this time.

All the best,


How does space pose a problem for philosophy?

To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How does space pose a problem for philosophy?
Date: 28 November 2006 11:04

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 22 November, with your essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'In what ways does the nature of space pose a problem for philosophy?'

In your essay, you have posed several ways in which space might be a problem for philosophy.

1. Measurement. You almost get to the point of posing the question here, but not quite. As you observe, certain fundamental physical quantities are interdefinable. As a result of history, we are stuck with a rather awkward number for the length of a meter, but the point is that assuming the constancy of the speed of light, any quantities defined in terms of this will be equally constant.

But suppose someone suggested that, for all we can know through observation and experiment, the actual length of a meter, as defined in terms of the speed of light, is shrinking, correlatively with all other physical quantities defined in terms of the length of a meter. There are two possible responses: (a) the hypothesis is unmeaning (b) the hypothesis is unverifiable. The equivalence of (a) and (b) can only be assumed if you hold a verificationist theory of meaning. Does that mean, if you are not a verificationist, that it is really possible that the universe is expanding or contracting in a way that can never be measured by any instrument? or is the absurdity of this hypothesis an argument in favour of verificationism?

2. The unit on space poses the idea of two or more spatially unrelated 'spaces'. This is similar to, but not the same as the theory put forward by David Lewis according to which every possible world exists in its own space and time, the difference between other possible worlds and the actual world being merely one of local perspective.

The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics comes somewhere in between, in that the many worlds are a subset of all the possible worlds, namely those that can be reached by considering alternative histories of the universe starting out with 'the' big bang, or those consistent with the actual laws of physics. (These are equivalent only on the assumption that there is a world for every possible variation of the 'big bang' consistent with the laws of physics.)

The objection to Lewis is that he has turned possible worlds in to actual worlds. This ignores the essential difference between possibility and actuality. In terms of ontology, the realm of the possible should be seen as sui generis, not reducible to the actual.

3. The existence of the vacuum is a conundrum as old as philosophy. The Greek atomists defined space as 'non-being', the absolute opposite of being, in defiance of Parmenidean monism. This is not space as we would understand it, however.

If the ultimate constituents of the universe are particulate then there seems no objection in principle to defining a region of space where all particles have been removed. If the ultimate constituents are not particulate, on the other hand, then there is no method in principle of reducing the concentration of material in a given region to zero. But couldn't we just get lucky, anyway? couldn't there be regions completely devoid of material even though we can never know this, because the concentration is so low? Once again, the verification principle looms.

4. In the unit of the Metaphysics program dealing with Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism' I consider the possibility that Kant's argument for the necessity of 'space' only goes so far as establishing the need for a pre-spatial 'matrix' which can be any number of dimensions apart from three. This would be enough for 'objective experience' according to Kant's argument, even if this is not what Kant himself held.

Provided that the subject has a 'theory' of what is external to perception, in relation to which seeming perceptions are capable of being judged veridical or otherwise, one has all the structure necessary to resist the naive idealist view that 'all that exists are my own perceptions'. In effect, however, this is just a more sophisticated version of idealism.

5. Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that all the problems of infinity - infinitesimals, transfinite numbers etc. - can be raised with time as well as with space. If that is true, then the concept of space as such is not the source of these problems.

All the best,


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paradox that no-one ever does wrong knowingly

To: Yann M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Paradox that no-one ever does wrong knowingly
Date: 27 November 2006 13:00

Dear Yann,

Thank you for your email of 21 November, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''No-one ever does wrong knowingly.' - Why is that a paradox? Explain the philosophical problem of weakness of will.'

It is a good idea to approach this, as you have done, by contrasting Plato and Aristotle. You note that Aristotle criticises the Socratic view because it fails to 'take into account... akrasia', but you don't explain how Aristotle does attempt to take this into account.

Here, would have been a good opportunity to contrast the Socratic/ Platonic view of virtues as essentially cognitive - the soul's knowledge of the Forms of Courage, Temperance and Justice - with Aristotle's psychologically more realistic account of inculcated habits of thought and action. It is not enough to 'know' that courage is good and cowardice bad, one must in addition have these qualities 'drilled in' as a result of repeated practice. Hence the emphasis that Aristotle places on psychological habit.

Although in unit 2 I offer a defence of something closer to the Socratic view, I would fully accept that there is an aspect of 'physical courage' which can only be acquired through repeated physical drill. I mean the kinds of things that elite Paratroops or the Foreign Legion do in training, learning to survive in extreme conditions or to resist brutal interrogation techniques. In an extreme combat situation, many would be prepared to accept at face value what the shell-shocked soldier says later the Court Martial, that he *could not* carry out the order to stand fast in the face of a hail of bullets.

This seems to be different in a crucial way from the example of the cigarette smoker whom you consider. The withdrawal symptoms may be very severe, the social pressure enormous, but still there is a clear choice made. The smoker still has the power to say 'No' even while he or she says 'Yes'.

You refer to Richard Holton, who argues that 'weakness of will is just a tendency we all have to revise our judgements about what is best'. I accept that this works for some cases. In the combat situation, I may have the physical courage to stand and face the bullets, but I decide to run in defiance of my orders, in order to live to fight another day. The cigarette smoker knows the dangers, but decides in this special case to make an exception, in the certain belief that it is only an exception.

You could call this flexibility of judgement rather than weakness. Nietzsche's point in your quote from 'Beyond Good and Evil' is that persons of strong character are necessarily inflexible about certain matters, and this is a good not a bad thing. Even if we generally think that flexibility is an intellectual virtue and inflexibility a vice, it is not always so. There is such a thing as being *too* flexible.

However, it is a sad fact about the human condition that circumstances do arise where we feel anguish at our weakness. This is not explicable simply in terms of 'revision of judgement'. Consider the case of the soldier who has the physical courage to stand. He is fully able to make a decision to stand or run. Moreover, he does not think in this case that 'discretion is the better part of valour'. He has not revised his firm judgement that running would be a cowardly and despicable thing to do. And yet, to his everlasting shame and regret, he runs.

My explanation for this would still be in terms of knowledge. This is the account I give in unit 2. It is not a case of rationally revising one's judgement, nor is it a case of physical inability. It is not the 'will' that is weak, but rather a case of 'bad judgement', failing to keep one's objective steadfastly in view.

You make a point about the difference between the 'agent centred' moral philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, and 'action centred' view of contemporary moral philosophers. In recent times, there has been a strong move back towards 'virtue theory' (e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre's book 'After Virtue'). While I applaud the emphasis on the importance of the virtues, I feel that there is a danger of ignoring the fundamental question - addressed in this program - of the ultimate basis for moral judgements. The problem of weakness of will is a special challenge to any view which attempts to argue for an objective rather than a subjective basis for moral judgements, which would the judgement that 'such-and-such would be wrong' a question of objective knowledge rather than merely exhibiting approved attitudes or behaviour.

All the best,


Kant's 2nd refutation of idealism

To: David Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's 2nd refutation of idealism
Date: 27 November 2006 12:03

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 20 November, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Give a careful account of the argument of Kant's second Refutation of Idealism'.

You are right to start with Descartes. As Kant makes clear in his preliminary discussion, Descartes is his intended target, the 'problematic idealist' who seeks proof of an external world (by contrast with the 'dogmatic idealist' who regards matter and space as something 'utterly impossible').

I think Kant is a little bit off the mark here. As I argue in the program, Kant's argument does meet the challenge of one kind of 'dogmatic' idealist - the naive subjectivist who refuses to understand what could be meant by 'external objects' because all I can possibly know is my own subjective experience.

The person Kant had in mind as being 'dogmatic', however, was Berkeley. Here, it could be argued that Kant is much closer to Berkeley than he wants us to think (the Refutation is from the Second Edition to the Critique of Pure Reason where Kant was concerned to rebut allegations that he was an 'idealist' like Berkeley). Both Kant and Berkeley reject the idea that space and matter are something 'in themselves'. They differ only in that Berkeley attempted to explain the nature of the noumenal - as 'archetypes in the mind of God'.

But lets stick with Descartes. What we would expect - and what we in fact find - is an argument which goes along the following lines:

1. I know I exist in time as a thinking subject.

2. If I do not perceive objects in space then I cannot have knowledge of my own identity through time as a thinking subject.

Therefore, 3. I do perceive objects in space.

Note that there is no mention, either in my summary or in the original text, of 'other subjects'. This just isn't a topic for Kant. He assumes that anyone can run this argument for themself, and when they do, the upshot is all that is required to escape the clutches of idealism.

Your example of perceiving a Chimera on an unexplored planet would do better as an illustration of what Kant goes on to establish after the refutation of idealism: that all experiential knowledge presupposes the law of causality. In the refutation, causality is implied in the idea of a world whose changes are predictable, but not explicitly alluded to.

I disagree that Kant calls this thing 'space'. By 'thing' Kant means what we would mean, things, like tree or a house. (Later, along with the argument for the law of causality, Kant makes a stronger claim for the permanence of 'substance' - the stuff of which trees and houses etc are ultimately made of.)

(By the way, I don't agree with Mautner's definition of 'noumenon'. To my knowledge, nowhere in the Critique does Kant claim that a noumenon is an 'object of awareness' as such. He denies that we can have any knowledge of noumena, direct or indirect. All we can know is that they must exist. If you like, you can call this an 'intellectual acknowledgement' of the necessity for noumena.)

How exactly does Kant's refutation of idealism work?

This is the hard part. I have a particular interpretation in mind (which goes along similar lines to that of Strawson in his book 'The Bounds of Sense') but it is not necessarily the only possible account of the structure of Kant's argument.

On this interpretation, 'awareness of my own existence as determined in time' should be understood as 'awareness of my own identity through time'. In other words, I am aware that yesterday I did X and the day before yesterday I experienced Y, and so on. The claim is not merely that X was done or that Y was experienced but that I did and experienced these things. This is, after all, what Descartes is claiming when he says in the Discourse, 'I think therefore I am'.

(Why can't the egocentric subjectivist pull in his horns and say, 'X was done and Y was experienced'? Why not just give up the I? The problem is that the identification of a subject is required in order to distinguish between true and false memory.)

Now comes the controversial step: in order for there to be a genuine distinction between what I seem to remember and what actually happened there must be room for a clash between what I predict on the basis of my memory, and my present experiences. There might never be such a clash in practice if the world is perfectly well behaved and never trips me up; the point, however, is that we have to allow logical room for such a clash. For example, I remember digging a hole, but when I visit the spot there is no hole to be seen. Either the hole was filled in, or I have forgotten where I dug the hole, or maybe I just dreamed that I dug a hole.

If my experience is not 'as of' a world of objects in space, any clash between what I seem to remember and my present experiences can be fixed any way I like. What the 'theory' of objects in space supplies is the necessary empirical constraint which prevents the 'fixing' from being merely arbitrary.

There is still the worry why Kant wasn't more explicit about the role of the distinction between 'true' and 'false' memories, but perhaps he just thought that this point was too obvious to need labouring.

As I said before, I don't think that 'other subjects' play a role here. The argument would work perfectly well for a solitary individual who lived his entire life unaware that any other conscious beings existed. Wittgenstein's private language argument gives reasons for possibly questioning that assumption, although this again is controversial.

All the best,


Monday, January 16, 2012

Are possible worlds really real?

To: Francis W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are possible worlds really real?
Date: 24 November 2006 12:26

Dear Francis,

Thank you for your email of 19 November, with your first essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Are possible worlds really real?'

You have set about this in the right way, first raising the question, 'What is 'Real'?' and then applying the answer to the specific topic of possible worlds.

Like you, I am a fan of the Matrix and think that the discussion of 'reality' in the film is relevant to this question.

Is Morpheus right, that 'real' is 'simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain'?

The idea is that the signals are intrinsically the same, whether produced by perception of objects outside you, or via wires and electrodes attached to your sleeping body. Either way, you have the capacity to be an 'agent' - manipulating physical objects in the world, or virtual objects in the virtual world. However, Morpheus 'knows' the 'truth' which other inhabitants of the virtual world do not, that they are merely asleep, being used as Duracells.

Or does he?

Morpheus could still be wrong about what he takes to be 'real' - a possibility explored in another film with a similar theme, Existenz. In that film, the main character wakes up - only to discover that he is in another dream. No experience of 'waking up' can prove that you are now in the 'real world' and not still asleep. If you have every had a nightmare where you thought you woke up, you will know what I mean.

The question, 'What is real?' is not equivalent to the question, 'How do we know what is real?' Even if we cannot prove that we are not asleep, we still know what we mean by the term 'real'. This is how scepticism about the external world is possible. The sceptic exploits the fact that we 'know what we mean' but don't know whether the possibility is realized or not.

Descartes raised the same question, but he thought the question through further than Morpheus. We think we know what we mean by 'real' - existing as a physical agent in direct contact with the physical objects which one encounters in experience, rather than asleep in a pod - but how do we know that ANYTHING physical exists? Descartes considered the possibility of a world which is not physical or spatial, where all that exists is me and an Evil Demon who creates dreams of a world of objects in space and time in my non-physical soul. All I know is that I exist, mentally. I do not know that anything physical exists.

In your essay you make the important point that what is 'real' is what 'really effects our actual feeling and our conscious experience'. In other words, in the Descartes scenario, what is real is the evil demon. In the Matrix, what is real is the world where people are kept in pods. 'Real' is the label for whatever causal explanation of our experience is TRUE - even if we do not possess the means to discover with certainty which is the 'true explanation'.

How does this apply to possible worlds?

What your later paragraphs bring out is that there are two ways in which we might apply the term 'real' to possible worlds. Constructed worlds, like the worlds of video games are very 'real' to the persons who experience them, in the sense that they have a powerful causal effect on our experience and indeed the quality of our lives: for example, the youngster who beats someone up after playing a shooter game for several hours. What actually caused this behaviour was not a 'world' but a computer program which simulated a world.

So too, the 'worlds' described by novelists can have an immense effect on a reader, but what actually causes this effect is the thought and the words, rather than an actually existing 'world'.

In this sense, it seems that possible worlds cannot be really 'real'. Possible worlds do not have causal effects on our experience, because what causes the effect is the computer program, or the book.

However, it could be argued in reply that this merely shows that 'having a causal effect on experience' is too narrow a definition of 'real'. Someone who believes in the 'reality' of possible worlds - for example, the American philosopher David Lewis ('Counterfactuals', 'On the Plurality of Worlds') - would argue that if statements about 'What might have been' can be true, then we must believe in the 'reality' of anything whose existence is required to explain - in a logical way - how they can be true. According to Lewis, the only credible analysis of such 'counterfactual' statements involves reference to possible worlds. 'Therefore' possible worlds are real - for just the same reason that if statements about numbers can be true, then numbers are real.

David Lewis thinks that possible worlds are as 'real' as the actual world, the only difference between the actual world and other possible worlds being one of perspective, like the difference between 'then' and 'now' or between 'you' and 'I'.

However, in the unit, the character Lucy suggests a less extravagant alternative to this 'all or nothing' view of the reality of possible worlds:

'Anything we talk about has to be real in some sense or else we couldn’t talk about it. Agreed? For example, Sherlock Holmes is a real character of fiction. He exists in the pages, so to speak, of the books Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote. Now, possible worlds don’t have to be "real" in the way this actual world is real, if you see what I mean, any more than fictional characters are supposed to be actual living people. But these other worlds do have the kind of reality that applies to things of that sort, I mean, the kinds of things that we think about as being possible rather than actual. There’s nothing more to say!'

Is there? - I'm hedging my bets.

All the best,


Locke on personal identity

To: Anthony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke on personal identity
Date: 21 November 2006 11:09

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 12 November with your University of London Essay in response to the question, 'Outline and evaluate Locke’s account of persons and their identity.'

Locke's account of personal identity is remarkable because of the way he poses the question of identity. He says that personal identity is a 'forensic' concept. This is absolutely crucial. (Yet this word does not even occur in your essay!)

I wonder whether you wouldn't have felt more 'on top' of this subject if you had approached Locke from this point of view, rather than going through all that Locke says about identity in general. However, there is still a lot of good work here, and if the question came up in an exam I am confident that you would do well.

It is OK to struggle with a question. From my experience, papers which struggle tend to score higher marks than those which glibly present the standard 'objections and replies'.

Regarding identity in general, the 'same what' point is important and certainly worth mentioning. You say, 'The horse you see now may not be the same lump of matter as the horse you saw ten years ago, but it might for all that be the same horse.' There was a dispute about 'relative identity' some time ago between Peter Geach ('Reference and Generality') and David Wiggins ('Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity' later expanded as 'Sameness and Substance'). Geach cites examples like yours as cases of relative identity. The problem is that this leads to logical contradiction: A=B and not-(A=B).

However, you can retain the point about 'same what' by paying close attention to what is being referred to. Ten years ago, you saw a horse, Nellie, and you also saw a lump of matter. Today, you see Nellie but you do not see that lump of matter. That is because 'Nellie' refers to the horse, not to the lump of matter. Nellie IS a lump of matter, but this 'is' is the 'is' of constitution, not of identity. Hence, no 'relative identity'.

How do we decide criteria of identity? You cite functional considerations (watches), organism (trees), matter (boulder). In each case, the decision is based on our 'interest', the point of the concept of a 'mechanism' or 'organism' or 'lump'. Decisions are not hard and fast. Is a dead tree still the 'same tree'? How much can you chip off a boulder? and so on.

When we come to persons, the question of the point of the concept is paramount. This is Locke's idea. The point of identifying persons is forensic. We are interested in praise and blame, punishment and reward, promises and property.

By attending to what he sees as the point of the concept, Locke is able to formulate his remarkable thought experiment regarding the prince and the pauper. As you correctly point out, he doesn't have to commit himself to physicalism or dualism. Like the identities of artefacts, organisms and lumps it can sometimes be vague or indeterminate whether we have the 'same person' or not. But this in itself is not an objection in principle to using the forensic criterion of 'same consciousness'.

But there are objections. I am the man who married Jane, because I remember saying, 'I do'. However, it is not enough to remember this being said by someone, I must remember MY saying it, which begs the question. You might think that whether I said 'I do' or someone else said it can be represented in memory. But then we have to reckon with the Proust-style example of someone who honestly says, 'I remember 'my' saying 'l love you', but *I* am not (do not feel myself to be) the person who said that.' Or Myra Hindley saying, 'I remember "my" switching on the recording machine as the children were tortured but *I* am not (do not feel myself to be) the one who did that.'

This leads to a distinction which is not marked in ordinary English, between 'I remember X-ing' and 'I "remember" X-ing', where in the latter case I have knowledge via memory but I fail, or refuse to identify myself with the individual who X-ed.

So the objection is not that using memory to define personal identity is 'circular', but rather that memory is necessary but not sufficient. In addition, there must be an act of 'self-identification', which is an attitude which one takes or fails to take towards a past self.

The second line of objection cuts deeper, because it questions Locke's account of memory itself. According to Locke, all it takes for the truth of a memory claim is faithfulness to the events remembered. However, this ignores a necessary condition for knowledge, namely the existence of an underlying causal or material basis for the memory. Otherwise, we have no means to distinguish between memories which truly represent events which happened in the past which are not 'true memories', and memories which truly represent events which happened in the past which are 'true memories'.

All the best,


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Regress problem and foundationalism vs coherentism

To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Regress problem and foundationalism vs coherentism
Date: 21 November 2006 10:06

Dear James,

Thank you for your email of 15 November with your University of London essay, 'The Regress Problem and Foundationalist-Coherentist Debate'.

I have to say straight away that this is an issue which I, personally, find difficult. It seems obvious to me both that:

1. Human knowledge is a complex, holistic structure which displays a large degree of coherence, the larger the circles of mutual justification the harder it is to reject the beliefs and theories which form those circles.

2. There are basic beliefs which in normal circumstances it is unreasonable to question, like 'There is a mug of tea on my desk,' or 'It is sunny today,' or 'I have two hands.'

As you show in your essay, the basic motivation is the desire to defend knowledge claims in the face of sceptical attack. However, if we are giving free reign to the sceptic then any proposal is bound to fail. Coherence fails because of the (alleged) possibility of alternative coherent systems. Foundationalism fails because of the (alleged) possibility that any given basic belief might still be false.

I would therefore question whether it is correct to see a theory of justification as a response to scepticism.

The purpose of a theory of justification is to make the nature of knowledge more perspicuous, to enable us to understand how knowledge relates to perception, testimony, theory etc. The dialectic of scepticism is a separate enterprise. There are various motivations which might lead to scepticism - for example, the belief in 'Cartesian mental events' which can occur just as easily in a dream as in waking experience - and each one has to be met and rebutted, in the Cartesian example by deploying the private language argument.

As an essay, I found this well structured and evidently knowledgeable. However, I sensed a certain 'distance' from the issues themselves. You report that a certain view is held, and that it fails for such-and-such a reason, but the reader is given no insight into what the view is or why it fails. For example, '...although Chisholm attempted to clarify a distinction between certain 'appearance' statements and 'appeared to' statements, he failed to make a clear distinction between the two groups...'. I would like to know more. How did he attempt to clarify the distinction and why did he fail? A couple of sentences would be enough.

On the basis of what you have written, the reader would have a hard time even deciding whether Chisholm is for or against foundationalism, or whether Sellars is for or against coherentism.

I am not sure what an examiner would say. Certainly, in a one hour paper, a student will get credit for doing just what you have done as this is evidence that they have grasped - or at least know about - this piece bit of the argument. However, if this was, say, a submission to the Philosophy Pathways e-journal or an essay submitted for the Associate award I would object on the grounds that it amounts to doing philosophy 'second hand'. You need to rehearse the philosophical arguments, it is not enough to just report on them. I want to see you doing philosophy.

In your final paragraph you say, 'We either must accept the sceptical conclusion of infinite regress, or we must reject the very premise of the regress argument; namely, that knowledge is justified through reference to an internal belief structure which can be presented on request.' I wonder whether it would not have been a better strategy to signal at the start that this was your objective, reminding the reader at each key stage that there is a choice to be made between the internalist and the externalist view?

Another thing that occurred to me is that part of the problem might be that you have tried to squeeze a paper into the essay format. A question on the UoL Epistemology paper would be a lot more focused than the title you have given yourself, which allows you to attempt an appraisal of foundationalism and an appraisal of coherentism - at least two essays, if not more.

However, you obviously have a very good grasp of these issues and I have no doubt on the basis of the work you have sent me so far that you will do very well in the exam.

All the best,