Thursday, May 31, 2012

The redundancy theory of truth

To: Pat F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The redundancy theory of truth
Date: 16 October 2007 12:04

Dear Pat,

Thank you for your email of 7 October, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Is the Predicate ' true' redundant?'

You offer an argument by Grayling against the redundancy theory, and back it up with an argument of your own. However, I wasn't convinced by your argument; either your argument is unsound or I have misunderstood it, either way you need to say more in order to put a convincing case (at least, a case that convinces me: it is possible that I am just being dense, although I don't think I am).

First, Grayling's argument. It could be argued that the problem stems from the fact that propositional quantification is a lot more difficult to understand than truth, because of the problem of giving criteria of identity for propositions.

If propositions don't have clear criteria of identity, then objectual quantification is ruled out. There is no entity without identity. While substitutional quantification is either purely syntactic -- which gives meaningless results -- or we are identifying particular syntactic sequences as having a meaning, in which case we are back with seeking identity conditions for propositions.

However, suppose that propositions did have clear criteria of identity (or at least, that we had an account which worked 'for practical purposes'). Then I don't see why, from what you have given of Grayling's argument, we need to regard the third 'p' in (p)(hAp, p) as elliptical for 'p' is true. A third possibility would be that propositions are not 'objects', either in the sense of objective inhabitants of Frege's world of thought, or in the sense of syntactic strings with a meaning. Propositions are propositions, not objects. Quantification over propositions is therefore sui generis.

When I say, 'Smith said something true,' I am doing two things. I am asserting that Smith asserted something, and I am also asserting -- at one remove -- what Smith asserted. My assertion is 'at one remove' because I haven't actually told you what it is, in Smith's long speech, that I agree with. However, you have the right to challenge my right to make this claim, and, if necessary you could reel off the entire speech sentence by sentence, and challenge me, to back up what Smith asserted in at least 'one' case (note here, the relevance of criteria of identity: the number of 'things that Smith said' is not necessarily the same as the number of sentences that he spoke).

The crucial difference between propositional quantification (supposing there could be such a thing) and ordinary quantification lies in the fact that we assert propositions, whereas we do not 'assert' objects.

This brings me to your argument. Firstly, it looks like your argument in 2. is just a straightforward modal fallacy. It is necessarily true that if all gods are immortal and Socrates is a god then Socrates is immortal. It does not follow that 'Socrates is immortal' expresses a necessary truth. It makes absolutely no difference whether we formulate the argument as in 1. or as in 2. Either way, the necessity is the necessity of an 'if...then...' statement. The argument in does not establish the conclusion that 'Socrates is immortal' is a necessary truth.

There seems also to be some confusion over the notion of 'what can be asserted'. I 'can' assert that the moon is made of green cheese. All I have to do is open my mouth and say the words. For the very same reason, I can also assert, 'It is true that the moon is made of green cheese.' However, if I do make either of these assertions, you have the right to challenge my right to make the assertion. To make an assertion implies that one has adequate grounds for that assertion.

(When the weatherman says, 'It will rain tomorrow,' it is understood that this is elliptical for something to the effect that, 'There is a sufficiently high probability of rain'. Normally, if you only know that p is probable, then you have no right to assert that p, but only that p is probable. This is consistent with the observation that a weatherman would never say, 'It is true that it will rain tomorrow' because this does, effectively, remove the possibility that the assertion is elliptical for 'There is a sufficiently high probability of rain.')

In general, the truth predicate is a handy way to remove quotes from a proposition. It also serves as equivalent to what we would express by means of propositional quantification, were it not for the fact that it is difficult to give a coherent account of the rules for propositional quantification. So, in this sense, it is not redundant. It would be difficult to do without this notational device.

Most importantly, having this notational tool allows us to raise deep metaphysical questions about the relation between language and reality. The most prominent is the debate between realist and anti-realist theories of truth. As before, the predicate, ' true' serves as a notational device which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do without. Both realism and anti-realism offer 'accounts' of truth, but not in the sense of traditional theories of truth, i.e. attempts to define the truth predicate, e.g. in terms of 'correspondence' or 'coherence'. Both the realist and anti-realist can accept that truth cannot be defined, yet each clearly gives a different account of the 'nature of truth'.

All the best,


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why be moral?

To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 15 October 2007 13:13

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 5 October, with the revised version of your essay for the Associate Award, 'Why be Moral?'

This time, you have kept to the topic very well. It is clear what you are setting out to show, and what your arguments are. The essay is well structured and readable.

In terms of the Associate, this might be enough to satisfy the Board. However, there are issues that I would like to raise. I leave it to you to decide what changes, if any, are needed before you submit your essay portfolio.

The first issue concerns the question of 'standards of proof'. I fully agree with you and Aristotle that one does not expect an answer to the question why one ought to be moral to have mathematical rigour. However, there is a significant distance between the different kinds of proofs offered by someone who takes Kant's (and my) view that morality is part of rationality, and someone who takes Aristotle's view that morality is (as a hypothetical imperative) necessary for the 'good life'.

My argument for morality would be that one must recognize the claims of others, on pain of giving up the notions of an objective world and of truth. Suppose that the would-be amoralist accepted the argument. The amoralist could still embrace the conclusion that an 'objective world' and 'truth' were worth giving up. These notions are just abstractions, whereas the benefits one gains from giving up morality are palpable.

As philosophers who understand what is meant by giving up such notions, we can 'see' where the amoralist goes wrong, even though our arguments fall on deaf ears. (I am overlooking for the moment the fact that this claim would itself be debated by philosophers.)

Contrast now the argument you would give. One must recognize the claims of others, because the sense of friendship and solidarity and the emotions that these involve are a necessary psychological condition for human well-being. In order to resist the argument, the amoralist need not dispute any philosophical claim. All the amoralist needs to say is, 'I don't feel the emotions that you allege other persons feel. I am perfectly content doing what I do.'

I got the distinct impression from reading your essay, that you thought that the acceptance that the standard of proof is not mathematically rigorous is equivalent to giving up the idea that morality is part of rationality or the idea of a 'categorical imperative'. However, as you can see from above, this does not seem to be the case. The fact that there is no way to compel a person to be moral through argument does not point either way. Both the 'objectivist' and 'subjectivist' have to accept reduced standards of 'proof', albeit for different reasons.

The second issue concerns the considerations that you give, in the spirit of an Aristotelian/ Platonic argument why, e.g. one would choose to be moral, even if one was guaranteed immunity against punishment or being found out.

It is agreed that not everyone is capable of being 'reached' by such an argument. However, both Plato and Aristotle make an attempt to show the necessity for friendship and solidarity. I would have liked to have seen a more extended discussion, e.g. of why friendship matters. Your view seems to differ from Plato and Aristotle in that you accept the desire for friendship and solidarity as a purely contingent 'given'. It is just a fact that certain emotions are aroused in the brain when we do certain things. This seems to me to be giving up too much. The 'meat' of this essay ought to be a persuasive account of why these things are important, why, in other words, the life of the amoralist would be necessarily impoverished and not something that any clear thinking person would want. That is what Plato and Aristotle believed.

What is so bad about being an amoralist? One can try to describe a coherent 'life plan' for someone who has no interest in anyone except as a means to one's own end. What is worth wanting, and why? What projects are worth pursuing? What kinds of things give pleasure? You will have succeeded in the stated aim of your essay if you can get the reader to see what is wrong with that idea, that is to say, if you can at least make the view credible that a principled amoralist, one cannot have a coherent life plan, one can only live 'for the moment'.

All the best,


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Where does goodness come from?

To: Reiner L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Where does goodness come from?
Date: 15 October 2007 12:17

Dear Reiner,

Thank you for your email of 3 October, with your essay for the Associate program posing the question, 'Where does goodness come from?'

You have found a novel way of raising one of the fundamental questions of ethics, and linking this to the mind-body problem. Your conclusion is, if there is no dualism, there can be no goodness.'

To take things backwards, I agree with that statement, but not in the sense that you intend. If -- per impossibile -- we were not able to distinguish the 'logical space of reasons' from the 'logical space of causes' (in McDowell's sense, see 'Mind and World' Harvard 1994), then the only 'goodness' that could be defined would be a crude naturalistic one in terms of 'good for X' where X is a recognizable benefit that can be defined in materialist terms.

Evolutionary biology might make some headway here, in explaining how a sophisticated system of 'morals' might develop purely as a means to each agent's self-interested end, but this is not the 'goodness' that you or I intend by that term.

However, your inquiry is hampered at the start by a failure to distinguish between two very different notions of what it is to be motivated for, or by the good. Kant's philosophy represents, in its purest form the idea that the moral law is a rational constraint on action -- a view with which I ultimately concur, although the account that I would give is very different from Kant's. (See my 'Naive Metaphysics' Ch. 13).

The alternative view is represented by Hume's theory of natural sympathy. Perhaps you have overlooked this because it seems inevitable that we would seek an explanation for the 'evolution' of natural sympathy in materialist terms. However, that is all water under the bridge so far as the agent is concerned. If I have the non self-interested desire for the well-being of another human being, then that is my desire. If you ask, 'But where did that desire come from?' there doesn't have to be any interesting reductive answer. A brick fell on my head, and suddenly I 'see' the feelings and needs of others when before I was uncaring and selfish. Logically, that 'explanation' (or, rather, refusal to seek an explanation) cannot be faulted.

G.E. Moore in his short book 'Ethics' gives the classic refutation of the argument that if I desire something which benefits you, and that desire is satisfied, then my motivation is self-interested because I 'got what I wanted'. On the contrary, argues Moore, the very fact that I truly desired something good for you shows that my motivation was altruistic and not self-interested in this particular case. Of course, not all our apparently 'moral' actions are like this. But Hume, for one, accepted the overwhelming evidence that at least some are.

So we have two very different accounts of the 'desire for good' in the running. My main objection to the Humean view is the same as Kant's: that it leaves the question whether I 'ought' to be moral beyond rational discussion. No arguments can persuade me, the most that you can do is get me to 'see' things that might affect my frame of mind, i.e. motivate me to form the second-order desire that I should be the kind of person who has first-order moral desires. Aristotle's description of 'the good life' is, arguably, an account which takes this form. If you accept the picture that Aristotle draws, then you will acquire the motivation to develop the appropriate 'habits' of a person who desires the good and moreover has the strength of will to act on that desire.

I am talking about the debate between an 'objective' and a 'subjective' view of the ultimate basis for moral motivation. There is 'goodness' either way but arguably its metaphysical character is profoundly different.

Davidson's argument in Mental Events, which you cite in your essay, is based on the principle of the 'anomalousness of the mental', or the holism of explanations in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions. The problem identified by Davidson is that the very same action can, in principle, be explained by more than one combination of beliefs and desires. Whether one views moral motivation as ultimately having an 'objective' or a 'subjective' basis, makes no difference so far as the holism of the mental is concerned. The question turns on whether 'goodness' should be included amongst given Human desires -- so that the presence or absence of this desire is merely a contingent fact about a given agent -- or whether moral motivation is (as I believe) one of the principles governing the very nature of rationality.

Thus, the question, 'Where does goodness come from?' can be understood in two radically different senses: we may be seeking an explanation in terms of biology, psychology, sociology, history which makes it intelligible that human beings are sometimes motivated by the good. Where does altruism come from? Your daughter believes that there is such a thing; the psychological egoist denies this. Even with the egoist's arguments out of the way, there is still much work to do.

The second sense of the question, however, is whether there is a rationally compelling argument which one can give for choosing good in any given case. If there isn't, and we rest content with a 'subjective' account, then the worry is that, despite the authority of Aristotle, there will always be the possibility that one might find oneself in circumstances where it was rational, all things considered, to accept the Godfather's 'offer that you cannot refuse.'

All the best,


Monday, May 28, 2012

Descartes and the malicious demon

To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes and the malicious demon
Date: 8 October 2007 13:14

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 1 October, with your University of London essay in response to the question, ''I shall suppose that… some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.' What leads Descartes to make this supposition?'

The concerns that you express in your email betray a misapprehension about the way that philosophers work. When looking at a philosophical question, it is impossible to go right back to the basics and question everything: you have to start somewhere, by 'bracketing' (assume answers to) quite a lot of questions in order to concentrate on other questions.

In particular, when you are writing an essay in response to an exam question, your main concern is evaluating arguments - as in the above, in Descartes's argument in the First Meditation. You can be interested in an argument because it is a good argument, even if you have already concluded (for other reasons) that the conclusion which the argument purports to establish is, in fact, false.

This is, in fact, a very good essay. Given what I have said about 'bracketing', it is worth mentioning that what Descartes is seeking to do in the First Meditation does not contradict the idea that one can put aside certain questions in order to concentrate on other questions. Descartes stated aim here is to consider 'what may be doubted', in order to determine whether there might be, after all, a way to resist this doubt and thus establish secure foundations for knowledge.

What examiners are looking for is an exposition of Descartes' argument which either makes it sufficiently credible that one would seriously consider the hypothesis of an evil demon, or explains where Descartes goes wrong in thinking that he needs to address this hypothesis. In other words, 'what leads Descartes to make this supposition' can either be a valid argument (in your view) or an invalid argument. If it is invalid, then the question is where the fallacious step arises.

You steer a middle course between these alternatives, endorsing Descartes' reasons up to a point, but also suggesting difficulties with some of the claims that he makes: which is a perfectly acceptable strategy.

I liked your example, or rather 'counter-example' to the claim that if a belief relies on other beliefs one or more of which has been found to be false, then that belief must itself be rejected. Let me see if I have got this right. If I believe that team A beat team B 2-1, and as a result of this believe that team A have gone up one position in the table, my belief that team A have gone up one position is unaffected by doubt whether the scoreline was in fact 2-1 or 3-2, so long as A won. (This of course depends on my prior belief that A is ahead of the next team in the table on points and not merely on goal average, as there are possible circumstances under which A would go up one place based on a score of 3-2 but not if the score is 2-1.)

Suppose we put this point to Descartes. His response would be that even though I am less than certain about my belief that the score was 2-1 rather than 3-2, what I am certain of, and what my belief that A has gone up one place depends on is the truth of the disjunctive belief 'Either the score was 2-1 or 3-2', or maybe just the more general belief that A won the game. If I was uncertain whether, in fact, A won or lost the match then that would destroy my confidence in the belief that they went up one place. Nevertheless, it is still a good point to make: in the real world, we often tolerate a degree of uncertainty in the grounds for our beliefs, where this can be kept within acceptable limits. In the witness stand, under cross-examination I stick firmly to my claim that the person I saw running out of the bank is the accused, even though I can't remember whether that person was wearing a grey hoodie or a black one.

You are right to raise the sensitive issue, which Descartes dismisses far too readily, concerning whether he is in fact sufficiently sane to be able to form rational beliefs. Why isn't this something concerning which one might consider doubt? Descartes is not forthcoming about this point, and therefore you are justified in pressing him and pointing this out as a possible weakness in his case. Suppose Descartes convinces the reader that the possibility of a malicious demon has to be considered, in order to be rejected. That rejection will not count as a refutation of scepticism, so long as the even more radical possibility that Descartes is mad or irrational is left unanswered.

All the best,


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Is a rational belief the same as a reliable belief?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is a rational belief the same as a reliable belief?
Date: 8 October 2007 12:29

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 30 September, with your University of London Epistemology essay in response to the question, 'Is a rational belief the same as a reliable belief?'

After reading your email message, I was not prepared for what is, in many respects, a model answer to the question. This is a very good essay.

After offering working definitions of 'rational' and 'reliable', you give an explanation of what it means for the two to be 'the same', in terms of the truth of a biconditional. You then look at alleged counterexamples to the necessity and sufficiency of the biconditional, giving appropriate references to the literature. You conclude with speculations about the aetiology of a 'two-headed' concept of knowledge, which I would regard as fully relevant to the question, although I agree that the right place for this is at the end after you have stated your main conclusions.

In an examination, the last part of your essay would suffice to push it over the edge into the first-class bracket. The examiners are looking for something more than just the 'model' answer, evidence that you have thought about this problem for yourself and are not merely reproducing what you have read in an epistemology text book.

How can the essay be improved?

As you have raised my expectations, my general advice would simply be to do as much reading as you can. Get a subscription to one of the general philosophy journals, or at least take the time to look at the latest issues in a university library. I don't see it as my job to spoonfeed students with things they 'ought' to read. This is part of the research aspect of a degree, something you should be doing for yourself. However, as a general rule you should take time to do things like reading reviews of the latest books ,and avoid relying too much on potted accounts in encyclopedia articles. If you can take the opportunity to attend some philosophy seminars where visiting academics give presentations at a university near you that would be a great bonus.

What I am going to do is try to respond to your arguments, suggesting lines of thought which you might not have considered.

One thing that occurred to me is that you have assumed, in your answer, that the question is about knowledge involving rational belief and knowledge involving reliable belief. Even if we did conclude that in this case knowledge reliably produced is also rationally produced and vice versa, it might seem that we still have to consider the logical possibility that reliable belief and rational belief might diverge in cases where the belief is false.

A reliable belief which is false is still reliable. I have just said that it is. As it happens, I have received essays from two different UoL students both arguing that truth is not a necessary condition for knowledge, which is a pretty radical claim. The argument is that if a belief is truly reliable, who cares whether it is, 'in fact', true or not? Before the two essays, it had never occurred to me that this is a question that one can sensibly raise.

On the other hand, what use is a rational belief which is false? You can reason to all sorts of wrong conclusions. All it shows is that in addition to rationality, we count on the fact that we are not given misleading evidence. So this seems at first sight to be a clear case where reliable belief is very different, by definition, from rational belief.

A point to make against this, however, that we are dealing here with two different concepts of 'reliable'. The above counterexample relies on a 'pragmatic' definition of 'reliable' as enabling the agent to successfully accomplish his/her purposes, insofar as the belief in question is implicated. Whereas, arguably, the sense of 'reliable' assumed in the question concerns what you dub 'truth-conduciveness'. In this sense, a 'reliable' belief cannot be false, by definition. The very fact that it turned out to be false shows (from an externalist perspective) that it was not reliable.

The other point I wanted to make concerns your very useful account of the evolution of two different concepts of knowledge. I would like to ad to this considerations about why we have a concept of 'knowledge' at all. In any particular case where I am raising the question whether P, my only interest is whether P is in fact true. If I have satisfied myself that P is true, then asserting that I 'know' that P seems little more than a way of adding extra emphasis: P is true, believe me!

Just asserting P, however, is doing something which is tantamount to the same thing: I am setting myself up as a source of information on the question whether P. If I wasn't sufficiently sure whether P, then I have no right to make the assertion.

This suggests an explanation of the 'two-headed' phenomenon in terms of a performative-type analysis of knowledge. We are interested in determining who 'knows' and who merely has beliefs which happen to be true (howsoever produced) because we are interested in identifying those whose testimony carries 'authority'. However, it turns out that there are two different ways in which one can have one's authority established in the eyes of others, either by one's skill in offering rational explanations, or simply judging from successful results.

All the best,


Friday, May 25, 2012

David Hume's two definitions of 'cause'

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: David Hume's two definitions of 'cause'
Date: 2 October 2007 11:42

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 23 September, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'In both the Treatise and first Enquiry, Hume provides two definitions of "cause". What does the second definition add to the first, and why did Hume think it necessary to introduce it?'

This is not a bad essay. You have said enough to answer the question. The only point which made me reach for my red pencil was your all-too brief discussion of the exchange between Robertson and Richards. I would have liked to have known more about why Richards thinks that Hume wants to defend a distinction between 'natural' cases of causation and 'unnatural' ones.

However, there is a lot more to say in this topic. In what follows, I am going to try to fill in the gaps and suggest things to think about in relation to Hume's theory.

I would disagree that, strictly speaking, the first definition does not contain an explanation of necessity. What it leaves out is the naive/ unreflective idea of *necessary connection*. To assert that events of type A are always followed by events of type B is to make a very strong claim: at all times and at all places if A occurs, then B occurs afterwards. This is a universal generalization with unrestricted domain. No human being can ever survey all the possible instances of A 'causing' B according to this definition. In other words, there is necessity, but it is the necessity of unrestricted generalization, or 'lawlike' necessity.

What human beings naturally believe is another matter. According to Hume, when we observe A 'causing' B, we imagine something invisible connecting A and B, a 'causal influence' which passes from one to the other. This belief cannot be defended by observation or logical analysis. So, the task for Hume is to provide an error theory, an explanation of why we falsely believe in a necessary connection, in addition to his analysis of causal necessity. He is providing an explanation of a philosophical error. Once we recognize the error, we will still naturally expect A to follow B, but we will no longer be inclined to offer incoherent accounts of what it means to say that 'A caused B'.

You are right to suggest that the situation here is in some respects comparable to Hume's account of the rationally unjustifiable but natural belief that objects continue to exist when unperceived, and have a distinct existence from the act of perception. In both the case of causation and the case of spatio-temporal continuants (or 'substances') Kant was able to complete the train of thought that, arguably, Hume was grasping at: that in order to have experience at all we need to place our experiences in a spatio-temporal and causal framework. Hume's 'fictions' become Kant's a priori categories of substance and cause.

However, there is arguably an important difference between the two cases. Whereas everyone is agreed that Hume's difficulty with spatio-temporal continuants was the result of his over-exacting empiricism, there are many philosophers today who would defend a Humean account of causation in terms of lawlike connection. And indeed, Kant's does not attempt to resurrect the 'necessary connection' but merely argues for the necessity of causal determinism, as a precondition for the possibility of experience.

Another point I wanted to make is on the borderline of this essay question, but could occur in an exam - and is at least worth mentioning here. You say, '...the impression of the first forces the mind to associate the second one'.

Critics of Hume have pointed out that the banned notion of 'necessary connection' reappears in the idea that an impression 'causes' a corresponding idea. In Hume's defence, one would apply his own analysis of cause in terms of lawlike necessity. The Humean philosophical psychologist, inspecting the workings of the Human mind, makes a generalization about the association of ideas which is claimed to be true - as a lawlike necessity. That is what the 'forcing' or 'causing' consists in, and nothing more.

My last point concerns the claim that 'A is always followed by B'. Hume was fully aware that circumstances differ in each case of A, and so if one is attempting to formulate a causal law, one would have to add extra conditions. At one point in the Treatise, he goes into some detail about 'rules for judging causes and effects' which take this into consideration. Throwing a stone against a window does not always break it; but only if the stone is heavy enough, thrown with sufficient force, while the window is fragile enough etc. etc. A criticism of Hume (made by Elizabeth Anscombe) is that it is in fact impossible to ever give an example of a 'lawlike generalization' that applies to any particular example of cause and effect. The 'ceteris paribus' clauses ('other things being equal) are infinite. So it turns out that this 'law' is an ideal law that can never be formulated - rather a long way to come for a strict empiricist.

All the best,


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bernard Williams on the idea of equality

To: Stephen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Bernard Williams on the idea of equality
Date: 26 September 2007 12:02

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 17 September, with your essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy paper, in response to the question:

'Williams distinguishes between two elements in the idea of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of respect. What is the difference between these? Is there any reason to think that there could be a problem in practice of combining equality of opportunity with equality of respect?'

This is an excellent piece of work which shows that you have really grappled with the issues that Williams raises in his provocative essay.

It should go without saying that if this question came up in an exam, you would not have the time to spend on sketching too much background. However, you have stuck to the question very well, and even the reference to Nozick, which had me reaching for my pencil, does seem to be sufficiently motivated, given that Williams is discussing the right to different forms of equality and not merely different definitions.

It is very hard to find anything to disagree with in your essay. However, two main issues emerge which you might think about.

The first concerns what you say in part I about the Golden Rule(s). Nowhere does Williams assert the Golden Rule, even implicitly. Indeed, it could be argued that the Golden Rule is useless as a weapon against the inequalitarian. I may strongly believe that one should always strive to win, and that losers should be treated with contempt. If I do lose, I would feel that the contempt I received was indeed well deserved. This is an example which Kant would use against the idea that the Categorical Imperative is merely a version of the Golden Rule, because it ignores the point about 'transcendental equality' to use Williams' term. No-one deserves contempt in any possible circumstances, but only just treatment, rewards for good deeds and punishment when merited.

(In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant discusses the Golden Rule and raises the objection that it reduces moral duty to an empirical question about how this or that person 'would feel', while the categorical imperative is a law of reason which applies independently of psychological considerations.)

What Williams does refer to is the idea of 'providing a reason'. Differences in treatment (e.g. between whites and blacks) would have to be motivated by a reason; moreover, such a reason cannot merely be arbitrary (as implied by certain views of ethics which would allow, 'You must always eat an egg for breakfast,' to be a moral principle provided that you were prepared to universalize it). But no such reason can be given, because skin colour is an irrelevant consideration.

What Williams is doing, in effect, is applying Leibniz' 'Principle of Sufficient Reason' to the sphere of action. This does not generate a moral code all by itself, but arguably acts as a necessary requirement for any possible moral code. In other words, in order to address the question of equality, it is not necessary to have formulated a complete code of ethics. Codes of ethics which differed in important points of detail could still (in principle) agree on the question of equality. (We don't know this for sure, this is merely one possible outcome of the investigation of the nature of equality.)

My other point concerns Williams' discussion of a 'hierarchical society'. It seems very likely to me that Williams is in fact thinking of a particular famous essay, 'My Station and Its Duties' by F.H. Bradley (in his book 'Ethical Studies') which presents a powerful and moving case for a society where everyone knows his place and is content. (The old children's hymn, 'All things bright and beautiful' comes to mind.) Bradley was fully aware that this blissful state of affairs is potentially unstable - a point which Williams exploits. In the essays following 'My Station' Bradley goes on to explain how 'cosmopolitan morality' undermines this 'organic' vision of society.

However, that said, it could be argued that some version of Bradley's vision is required if the conflict between equality of opportunity and equality of respect is to be resolved. Materialism, the competition for status, the cult of celebrity all act as distractions which prevent us from seeing the value of accepting one's station without feelings of jealousy or resentment. A meritocracy has its advantages in making maximum use of the available human potential. But then why is doing things to the maximum so important? Other, more traditional, ways of assigning citizens to their station might turn out to lead to less conflict.

I am not seriously advocating this; only pointing out that an argument needs to be given. At any rate, Williams' own argument seems very inadequate: 'Once, however, one accepts the further notion that the degree of man's consciousness about such things as his role in society is itself in some part of the product of social arrangements, and that it can be increased, this ideal of a stable hierarchy must, I think, disappear.' Why? Isn't that the very question at issue?

All the best,


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coherentism, reliabilism, internalism, externalism

To: Alfred M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Coherentism, reliabilism, internalism, externalism
Date: 25 September 2007 11:58

Dear Al,

Thank you for your email of 22 August, with your third University of London Epistemology essay, in the form of a dialogue on coherentism, reliabilism, internalism and externalism (etc.).

I note that in my two previous responses I remarked that you had 'missed the point of the question'. This time, I can't make this criticism as you haven't said what the question is!

However, there are a lot of good ideas here, and I get the general drift of what you are trying to say.

My job is to get you through the exam (and with good marks). It is essential that you know and understand the importance that examiners place on 'relevance to the question'. As an illustration of this, students who memorize essays for reproduction in the examination can come badly unstuck, if the question is just slightly different from the one to which the essay was originally written. The examiners want to know (want you to prove to them) not only how much you know about the general topic, but also how good you are at constructing an argument in response to a specific challenge - how good you are 'on your feet'.

Which brings us to Fog and Phyllus, the peripatetic soldier-philosophers.

One of the charms of the dialogue format (and the reason why Plato's dialogues are so gripping) is that we see the participants actively thinking on their feet, responding to the other participants' arguments rather than merely trotting out their pet theory. You have done well here, in making the issues come alive. They did so for me.

As the dialogue started, I gained the initial impression that your intention was to explore the nature of concepts from a broadly Wittgensteinian perspective. In the 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein puts forward his theory of rule following and 'forms of life' in opposition to what he sees as the twin illusions of Platonism and psychologism. The illusion of Platonism is not necessarily literal belief in Platonic forms but rather the notion that there is an objective entity, 'the meaning of A' with which my mind somehow makes contact when I use the term 'A' correctly. The illusion of psychologism internalizes the meaning-object, while retaining its determinacy. While according to Wittgenstein's doctrine of 'meaning is use' there is nothing but the language game itself, the things we say and do and the reasons that we give in justification.

Another way of expressing this radical view of language is to say that there is no 'god's eye view' of language. There is only the point of view of language users themselves.

The point I want to make here is that this is something that externalists in epistemology fully accept. Externalism is not god's view but merely the view of the 'third person'. It is seen as a natural correlate of Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. If it is not possible, in principle, to determine what I mean by 'S' by observation of what I do and say, then I don't know what I mean either (see Philosophical Investigations para 258).

However, my sympathies are with you to a greater extent than this would imply, because I have a strong complaint about externalism in epistemology: externalists make things too easy for themselves. They assume from the start the very thing that causes such anxiety about knowledge. Externalists tell us that *If* A knows that P then such-and-such consequences follow. But what we want to know is what *right* do we have (do we ever have) to claim that we 'know' something, when no empirical belief (as numerous sceptical examples show) is 100 per cent certain.

This gives renewed impetus to a form of internalism which sees that there is something that we need to justify: the pragmatic value of the concept 'knowledge'.

How would one show this? I think you are right in stressing the importance of 'functional knowledge'. We need a term to distinguish knowledge from true belief. If I tell you that I believe that P, and moreover my belief that P is true I have not added anything to the claim that P. (The assertion that P is to all intents and purposes equivalent to the assertion that it is true that P.) But if I say that I know that P then I have said - or rather done - something extra. I am putting myself forward as an authority on the question whether P, and inviting you to accept that authority.

On this view the pragmatic value of the concept of knowledge lies in our interest in testimony, in assessing the credentials of potential bearers of testimony, i.e. deciding who to 'trust' in forming our beliefs. Arguably, the social structures which you describe could not exist in the absence of this feature. Human beings do not simply babble and disseminate beliefs. They investigate, reason, argue, persuade. All of these normative notions imply a distinction between knowledge and mere true belief. On the evidence of the 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein was fully aware of the aspect of normativity. It is because we cannot speak of 'right' in the case of the private linguist, that there is no following of a rule, no meaning expressed.

You also talk of coherentism in your dialogue. Here, the essential point concerns the absence of 'foundations'. There are no privileged knowledge claims, everything is up for revision. I would argue that this is a separate issue to some extent: you can adopt a 'performative' view of knowledge as a coherentist or anti-coherentist. But that is a topic for another essay.

All the best,


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why be moral?

To: Foo L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 24 September 2007 11:20

Dear Foo Weng,

Thank you for your email of 15 September, with your third essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

You start off by posing the question, Why are people sometimes not moral? why do we do wrong?

The Biblical story of Adam and Eve is an allegory (unless you hold fundamentalist beliefs) about man's finitude. We are beings who are not perfect. We are selfish, irrational, weak willed; and what sympathies we have are limited so that the further away the consequences of our actions are from us, the harder it is to care if those consequences are bad for someone else.

Yet at the same time we also (and this is your second point) have a in-built sense of right and wrong, a 'conscience', which is amplified through our culture into laws and precepts. Whether this 'moral sense' is natural, i.e. part of our genetic inheritance, or alternatively a product of culture, the end result is the same: in many situations, the question, 'Why be moral?' does not arise because we *are* moral. Generally, we do the right thing - provided the cost is not too high.

However, there lies the biggest problem:

Take the example of the 100 Pound note. Imagine you are penniless and unemployed, and in desperation you have taken out a 'doorstep loan' which is due to be paid back tomorrow. You have been threatened with physical violence if you don't pay. - This is just one of many examples where the cost of being moral seems to be a lot higher than its benefits.

Yet that is the very question we are asking: are we moral because we have done a cost-benefit analysis and decided that on balance we are better off? If that is the case, then 'moral' just means a kind of self-interest. It is prudent to be moral. Morality just *is* prudence.

Without doubt society would be a lot better off if everyone was moral. Whether there would be no wars is a moot point, because one problem we have to factor in is the fact that not everyone has the same moral beliefs. There would still be conflict and war between peoples of different faiths, each side fervently believing that they are fighting for God against the 'infidel'.

But even if I accept that things would be better if everyone was moral, that still leaves me in exactly the same situation that I was in before: it gives me a good reason for hoping that other people will be moral. But it still leaves the question why *I* should be moral. If I can count on everyone else being moral (and their false belief that I am moral!) then I can commit immoral acts and still gain all the benefit.

Plato dramatized this point in a story which he tells in his dialogue Republic, about the 'Ring of Gyges' which confers invisibility on the wearer. If you had the Ring of Gyges and could do whatever you wanted, while people believed that you were a moral person and a fine upstanding member of the community, would you *still* be moral? (The movie 'Hollow Man' raises this question in an entertaining way.)

Your answer - which is also the answer which Plato gave - is that 'being moral will help us to live a satisfied life'. Plato argued that it is impossible for an immoral man to be truly 'happy', because to be immoral is to give up all that makes a human life worth living.

I respect this answer, even though it is not my answer. The problem is that it could be argued that Plato is still relying on a cost-benefit analysis. I look at the two possible lives that I might lead, the moral life and the immoral life, and decide that I would be happier being moral. But that is contingent on the circumstances. Not everyone would make that judgement, or not in every case. (Imagine the case where the hood from the Mafia 'makes you an offer you can't refuse'.)

My answer would be that the cost of being immoral cannot be evaluated simply in terms of happiness or unhappiness. There is a deeper, metaphysical question at stake. The person who has abandoned morality has also given up the world and substituted his own private dream. In my own private dream world, I am king and everyone else is just a 'character', a piece on a chessboard for me to manipulate at will. But if the world is merely my dream, then any benefits or riches that I gain in this world are merely dreams too.

All the best,


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Berkeley: to exist is to perceive or to be perceived

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley: to exist is to perceive or to be perceived
Date: 21 September 2007 13:00

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 10 September, with your fourth essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question:

'To exist is either to perceive or to be perceived.' - How would you explain Bishop Berkeley's idealism to someone who knew nothing about philosophy?

This is a good essay. Many students are very puzzled by Berkeley's claim that his theory is intended as a 'defence against scepticism'. You have grasped the bull by the horns and constructed your explanation Berkeley's theory around this point.

I don't know what a 'real' tree is, because I have never met one, and never will. All I know is my perception of this tree and other trees like it. - This seems an open invitation to the most extreme scepticism which denies that the objects of our perception exist.

Berkeley's answer is that there is no 'real' tree, in the sense of some object or entity that exists apart from perception. All there is, is the possibility of my perceiving the tree, of enjoying my tree-perception, vouchsafed by God's unwavering attention to all the objects of his creation, which exist as nothing more than perceptions in God's mind.

This response differs from another possible anti-sceptical response which avoids the God-hypothesis altogether. Why not say that the 'possibility of my perceiving the tree' is just that and no more? There is a hypothetical statement - or list of hypothetical statements - whose truth is equivalent to the 'existence of the tree'. You know what a 'statement' is, and what 'truth' means. You know what it is for a statement to be hypothetical ('if A then B'). Why not stick with that?

The clear advantage of this theory - also known as 'phenomenalism' - is that we are not giving a hostage to fortune in positing a God whose existence the sceptic would be all-too ready to deny.

However, as Berkeley clearly saw, phenomenalism suffers from a defect which severely limits it as a theory of reality. The problem is that, on the normal understanding of what a hypothetical statement is, we do not accept that a hypothetical statement can be barely true, rather than true by virtue of some underlying non-hypothetical facts. There are no irreducibly 'if then' facts.

For example, 'If I drop this cup, it will break', that statement is true by virtue of the fact that the cup is made of a certain type of material, the floor has a certain hardness, the height is sufficient to cause an impact sufficient to break the cup. On the other hand, if I state, 'If I take a sip right now, there will be a hurricane in Japan,' you are entitled to ask me, not just how I know that my statement is true (I could just be idly speculating), but what I MEAN by that statement. What connection am I stating between the cup and the weather in Japan? What chain of causes and effects is meant to lead from the sip to the hurricane?

Maybe I'm just making a point about chaos theory. In that case, you do know what I mean. But if I say, 'No, I am not implying any chain of causes and effects. All I am saying is that my hypothetical statement might be true,' then you are entitled to say that you don't understand what claim I am making.

So God, or a concept which does similar work in grounding hypothetical facts about experiences is indispensable.

But now the question is: why does Berkeley's theory have any advantage over Descartes, who also brings in God in order to defeat the sceptic? In Descartes's theory, the 'real tree' exists because if it didn't God would be deceiving me. But God wouldn't do that because he is not a deceiver.

So now the dispute resolves into a debate between two different conceptions of God: a Berkeleian God and a Cartesian God. Berkeley's point against Descartes is that we simply do not comprehend what more God can do than provide for our perception of the tree whenever required. Anything more is pure redundancy.

You could have made the point that there are, in fact, two different kinds of scepticism: inductive scepticism and scepticism about an external world. We have been discussing scepticism about an external world. An example of inductive scepticism would be the Matrix scenario. The assumption behind the scenario is that there is a real physical world in which people are kept alive in pods and used as Duracells. Even if God exists, it is still possible that I am not really writing this email to you. All I have to go on, in deciding whether I am really 'awake' or not at this moment is my experience.

Both Berkeley and Descartes must concede that God cannot create a world where human beings are never deceived. In Meditation 4, Descartes goes to some lengths to explain why that is so. We are given organs of perception and the capacity for judgement which, if used correctly, can lead us to knowledge and truth. However, Descartes must ultimately allow that, given our finitude, there is always the possibility that we are being tricked, and even the most careful and responsible search for truth might never discover that fact.

All the best,


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Truth of moral judgements and the limits of ethics

To: Matthew A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Truth of moral judgements and the limits of ethics
Date: 21 September 2007 12:04

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 10 September with your fourth and fifth essays for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the questions:

'According to the ethics of dialogue how is it possible for moral judgements to be true? What does your answer to that question show about the nature of truth?'

'Identify one area in which the subject of ethics, or the resources of the moral philosopher, may be said to be 'limited'. What is the practical significance of that observation?'

Truth of moral judgements

This is an excellent essay which shows a good understanding of the issues surrounding the difficult question of realism vs anti-realism in ethics and in science.

You pose a challenge for me, when you state: 'To move from having justified moral beliefs to having true moral beliefs it is still necessary for such a moral realist to establish the explanatory power of moral values. Otherwise justified moral beliefs established by dialogue would exist without connection to the reality of the natural world.'

This is an aspect which I did not sufficiently consider when I addressed the question of realism vs anti-realism, and the nature of 'moral truth'. I said that the 'marks of truth' were convergence, stability over time and the possibility of explaining error (11/224). Is it also a mark of truth that a true proposition may be used as a premiss in a hypothetico-deductive explanation?

Michael Dummett, in his seminal paper, 'Truth' (reprinted in 'Truth and Other Enigmas' Duckworth 1978) emphasizes that a proposition may be regarded as capable of truth or falsity if it can be the antecedent of a conditional statement. In effect, this is all that hypothetico-deductive explanation amounts to. We say that if there is an entity (which we call a 'photon') travelling at such and such a speed, colliding with such and such particles, then a visible vapour trail will be produced in a cloud chamber. The observed vapour trail is taken as confirmation (not proof) of the theory, whereas failure to observe what was predicted is - in principle if not in scientific practice - a disproof.

Similarly, if it is true that a particular action was 'cruel', then we may draw conclusions from a hypothetical statement of the form, 'If action X was cruel then Y'. This is what we do. If cutting off the arm of the civilian suspect was cruel, then the person who did it is either a merciless sadist who deserves to be subjected to the full weight of the law, or a psychopath in urgent need of psychiatric treatment. We then investigate to see if that was indeed the motive for cutting off the suspect's arm. Perhaps the suspect was injured in a bomb blast and it was necessary to remove his arm surgically. In which case we cannot, after all, assert the antecedent of the conditional.

What this doesn't give us are explanations which have independently verifiable empirical consequences. If that was a requirement, then any attempt at attributing truth to moral statements would have to be given up once and for all.

The response would be that empirical, scientific truth is central to understanding our world. But it doesn't account for everything. There is more to the world than the world of science. Human beings, in effect, inhabit two worlds, the world of causes and effects and a 'human world', in which the appropriate form of explanation takes the form of reasons rather than causes. (John McDowell refers to this as the 'logical space of reasons' see 'Mind and World' Harvard 1994.) This claim is fully consistent with materialism. We are not resurrecting Descartes' 'ghost in the machine'. Rather, the point is about irreducibility.

Even within science, it could be argued, we recognize irreducibility: for example, the impossibility of translating an explanation in biology into the language of physics, or indeed the impossibility of explaining on an atomic level why you can't place a 'square peg in a round hole'.

Donald Davidson, in a seminal paper 'Actions, Reasons, and Causes', Journal of Philosophy 1963, argues that viewing actions has having reasons is consistent with also viewing them as having causes. The agent's reason IS the cause of the action. This explains how the 'logical space of reasons' and the 'logical space of causes' can map onto one and the same material world.

Limits of ethics

This essay ranges rather more widely than the title would suggest. However, the general theme relates to the third of the three 'limits' explored in unit 15: supererogation, politics and the idea of theory.

There is, as you advised, a certain amount of overlap with the previous essay.

The core idea of this essay involves the distinction between normative ethics and meta-ethics. I have argued that philosophy has a 'limited' role in normative ethics - against ethical theories which attempt to generate moral judgements, such as utilitarianism.

Although you do not state this in so many words, it seems reasonable to raise the question whether philosophy encounters 'limits' at the level of meta-ethics. No philosopher would claim to have a complete and adequate metaphysics, with so many metaphysical questions (realism vs anti-realism is just one) still being debated today. Perhaps there will never be a complete and final metaphysical theory. But, then, why insist on a complete and adequate meta-ethics?

In this program, we have taken on the relatively modest task of engaging the subjectivist 'error theorist' dialectically, showing how the refutation of solipsism and anti-solipsism leads to a third alternative -- the asymmetry of self and other -- which implies a 'logical basis for moral conduct': the claim that the recognition of the other is a necessary condition for the very idea of 'truth'.

The claim is controversial. Philosophers seeking to establish some form or other of 'objectivism' have adopted a variety of dialectical strategies against the subjectivist, and there is no general consensus that any of these strategies is wholly adequate. It could perhaps be said to be a 'limit' to meta-ethics that this question has not yet been resolved despite many centuries of debate, and perhaps never will be.

All the best,


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Could a computer be capable of an act of will?

To: David T
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Could a computer be capable of an act of will?
Date: 20 September 2007 12:54

Dear Dave,

Thank you for your email of 10 September, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, ''A computer can think and make decisions, but it cannot will.' - Is that a convincing argument against a materialist view of the nature of the self?'

As you clearly point out, the argument is unconvincing, if only because it assumes - without argument - that the only way in which materialism can be true is if the human brain is a Turing machine. There are plenty of philosophers today who would reject that assumption.

As you also show, interpreting the argument as an appeal to the subjective 'feel' or quale of willing is equally a non-starter, as is the idea that I just 'know' that I have free will, and moreover that this is something that no mere material entity behaving according to laws of cause and effect can possess.

I take all the blame for inviting these red herrings in my formulation of the original question.

The question I wanted to raise (I guess) is about the idea of 'willing' as such, and whether such an event or process is, as alleged, inconsistent with a computational or 'generate and test' model of decision making.

We are all familiar with the scenario where an agent goes through a process of reasoning, following up various possible scenarios to their conclusion, deciding on which outcome is optimal, all things considered - and then does something different, or nothing.

All things considered, the Volvo is the ideal car for my growing family. Then I go and blow my cash on a Mercedes two seater instead, forcing my wife to take over the role as taxi driver.

All things considered, the best action in view of uncertainty over enemy strength and activity is to wait until more intelligence is received. On a hunch, the commander decides to risk a frontal assault and wins a brilliant victory.

I've chosen these examples because neither would be interpreted as 'weakness of will'. Weakness of will indicates that something is going wrong, and it's difficult to argue that the possibility of 'things going wrong' in this way is a property which human beings possess and computers don't (or can't). Whereas acting on impulse, or a hunch, or against all advice can turn out to have been the right thing to do, not just by the virtue of hindsight but given the actual circumstances which the agent faced.

What seems to be wrong here is the model of 'rational decision making' which we know from numerous examples is false to the way human beings actually deliberate.

What does that show? Nothing, in my view. For all we know, the decision to by the Mercedes or to risk the assault did arise as a result of a process of computation. The mistaken assumption is that the rational structures which we impose on our behaviour necessarily reflect - or are even capable in principle of reflecting - what is really going on.

Kant emphasized that human judgement cannot be reduced to rules. 'Examples are the go-cart of the understanding.' That isn't to say that the process of making a judgement is ultimately anomic or random, but rather than any rules we can give are ad hoc, partial, mere rationalizations.

Your example of a computational program with an added randomizing device (to cope with Buridan's ass scenarios) is a perfect description of a chess computer. Whatever move the chess computer makes, we know that it was provided for by the initial rules - such as plus or minus values given to certain types of position calculated as fractions of a pawn. We know what these rules are because we made the device, even though the result can be that the chess computer does things that surprise or even amaze us.

This is not to claim that folk psychology is a false reflection of what is 'really going on inside the brain'. On the contrary, folk psychology is sufficiently flexible and subtle to recognize that deciding isn't the same as rationalizing, that not all decisions can be explained.

I would argue that willing is deciding. If I decide to do x now, then I *must* do x now, as a matter of logic. There is no alternative. If I don't do x, it is not because a mysterious 'act of willing' was absent, but because I didn't really decide to do x. I merely rationalized that I 'ought' to do x but something held me back. In retrospect, I might decide that it was a 'brilliant hunch', or 'cowardice', or any number of explanations that folk psychology has developed in order to make sense of this kind of situation.

All the best,


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Argument for universal doubt in Descartes 1st Meditation

To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Argument for universal doubt in Descartes 1st Meditation
Date: 13 September 2007 12:51

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 8 September, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'In his First Meditation, how does Descartes attempt to show that there is reason to doubt everything one believes?'

This is a difficult kind of question to face in an exam, because on the face of it you are simply being asked to summarize a philosopher's argument. However, there is always more to it than that. And I am pleased that you found points on which Descartes can be criticized, or where there is unclarity in what exactly he is setting out to do.

For the purposes of this essay, we can distinguish two aims, a destructive aim and a constructive one. The destructive aim is to 'show there is reason to doubt everything one believes'. The constructive aim is to find some means to repel this doubt, or defend against it. However, the essay question is not asking for Descartes' constructive response.

It is part of the constructive endeavour to seek 'secure foundations for his beliefs'. The point that you make in the sentence that begins, 'He believes, therefore that all of his beliefs should be questioned...' can be better made by saying that in seeking to cast doubt on a set of beliefs it is necessary only to undermine the principles which serve as a necessary foundation for those beliefs.

Later, in Meditation 3, Descartes will find an alternative foundation, which does in his view resist all attempts at doubt. But we are not concerned with that here.

You make a good point when you say that logical relations between beliefs can be complex, so it is not always easy to identify a 'foundation' for the sceptic to attack. Indeed, this is a version of one of the arguments put forward by epistemologists who reject foundationalism altogether.

Your examples of astronomy and biology are relevant because they show how a limited area of knowledge can be put in question by doubting the principles upon which that area is based, while leaving the rest of one's beliefs intact.

Your most substantial point, however, concerns the way that Descartes deftly avoids the problem of how he knows he is not delusional. If you are interested, there is a book by Harry G. Frankfurt, 'Demons, Dreamers and Madmen: the defense of reason in Descartes Philosophy' which explores this particular issue. You are right to say that Descartes wouldn't even be conducting his Meditations if he was not at least able to assume that he is capable of reasoning.

Does this get Descartes off the hook? I don't think so. The reason is the one given, effectively, in Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a 'private language': the first-person standpoint cannot ultimately be self-sufficient. It is a meaningful question to raise whether I can trust my own reason. It's not enough to point out that a person can uncover lapses in rationality through the discovery in contradictions between one's beliefs, because there is always a way to patch up a seeming contradiction; as demonstrated in cases of paranoid delusions. It follows that the question is one that can only be answered by the observer of my behaviour. The attempt to erect a system of knowledge on the basis of the first-person is doomed to failure.

What you say about there being aspects to one's own mind which are not transparent to the first person is relevant to this. The very possibility of there being more to my own mind that is available to first-person introspection points to the fact that a 'mind' is something that belongs to a person in a world, whose behaviour can be observed, who is capable of being challenged to give an account of oneself and one's actions by others.

Admittedly, a Freudian would insist that the possibility of 'discovering' aspects of the unconscious depends upon 'making the unconscious conscious'. That is why so much stress is placed in analysis on the patient accepting the psychoanalyst's interpretation. But that is not enough to save Descartes' project. Ultimately, the patient and the analyst have to agree on the outcome that has been achieved.

If I was being picky, there are steps in Descartes' argument that you don't look at: his deployment of the argument from illusion, the reply that the senses can be used to correct errors made by the senses, which then moves on to the point about 'general ideas'. Otherwise, this is a good first essay.

All the best,


Monday, May 14, 2012

Kant's second 'Refutation of Idealism'

To: John D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's second 'Refutation of Idealism'
Date: 6 September 2007 11:34

Dear John,

Thank you for your email of 30 August, with your essay for the Metaphysics program in response to the question, 'Give a careful account of the argument of Kant's Second 'Refutation of Idealism'.

This is not a bad piece of work. You are puzzled by things that you should be puzzled by. However, I am not sure whether reading this account I would be persuaded to embrace the conclusion that Kant intends. Perhaps you yourself are not fully persuaded.

I remember as a graduate student studying Kant, coming to the conclusion that Kant did not fully grasp the force of his own argument. (For the sake of balance, I have to say that my supervisor at the time, P.F. Strawson, did not fully agree with me.)

Apart from Berkeleian idealism and Cartesian 'problematic idealism' there is a third target which Kant does not even bother to name, but which (I would argue) is the real target: namely, naive subjectivism, the view that all that exists, is a stream of experiences which I am experiencing. Not only can I not prove that anything else exists (as Descartes tries to do), I can't even *make sense* of the idea of an entity or object which is not an experience of mine.

Berkeley's solution is to make experience or 'ideas' something which exists independently of me, in the mind of God. That is how he establishes a notion of objectivity without recourse to the idea of 'matter'.

Kant's objection to Berkeley is that the very ideas of 'matter' and 'space' are constitutive of experience. It is not an accident that I seem to perceive objects in space (even though, according to Berkeley I am really looking at the inside of God's mind). There is no other form that experience can take. The real error of Berkeley, as it turns out later, is his attempt to picture 'things in themselves' on the analogy with things we experience ('ideas' in God's mind are like our 'ideas').

This is the clue to something that puzzled you, Kant's remark that 'This idea of permanence is not itself derived from external experience.' The point of the Transcendental Deduction is to establish that the ideas of causality and permanence cannot be derived empirically from experience (as Locke thought) but rather are an a priori condition for the possibility of experience. In other words, if our minds did not operate with the notions of causality and permanence, then we would not be capable of experience anything at all.

But why? Surely, I can imagine a stream of experiences, spread out in time, where nothing is permanent, nothing causes anything or is caused by anything? What's wrong with that? That is what the naive subjectivist believes. I know an experience when I have it. There's nothing more to say.

Kant's answer is that I have no right to use the word 'I'. To say that I have an experience X followed by an experience Y assumes that one and the same 'I' has experiences X and Y. This is how the time order is established. But there is no basis for making such a claim. Things would be just as they are now if experience Y ('my' present experience, along with an apparent memory of previous experiences) is the only thing that has ever existed in the history of the universe.

The Refutation of Idealism solves this riddle by linking self-knowledge to knowledge of the world around me. The two stand or fall together: either I have knowledge of the world around me, and of myself as one of the entities that traverse a path through the world, or I have neither knowledge of the world around me, nor of my own self.

You can see how Kant (correctly) interprets this as a response to Descartes. Descartes believed that knowledge of the external world can be established only by first proving the existence of a non-deceiving God. What he fails to reckon with is that knowledge of the external world is already presupposed in the certainty of the cogito.

However, the real target, as I indicated above, is the subjectivist who refuses to go even as far as Descartes. While Descartes is prepared to accept that an external world 'might' exist (depending on whether he is being deceived or not), the subjectivist declares that the very idea of anything existing outside my own mind is self-contradictory and absurd.

One aspect of Kant's Refutation which you don't mention, but which I think you should have been puzzled by is Kant's concession that I might, after all, be dreaming that I am writing this email to you. According to Kant, whether I am dreaming or not is a matter of inductive judgement, based on the coherence of my present experience with past memories etc. etc. If Daleks were to appear in my study threatening to exterminate me, or if I seemed to wake up in a pod in the Matrix world, I might revise that judgement. But in that case, how is this knowledge? No matter how coherent my experience appears, everything can still be overturned in the next moment.

This worry is not Descartes' worry that there might not exist an external world of objects in space *at all*, but rather scepticism about how things actually are in the physical world. But that's still a pretty scary thing to be sceptical about.

All the best,


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Berkeley on abstract ideas and unperceived objects

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley on abstract ideas and unperceived objects
Date: 5 September 2007 12:10

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 27 August, with your response to my comments on your essay on Berkeley on primary and secondary qualities, and your two new University of London essays, 'What, according to Berkeley, is wrong with the theory of abstract ideas?' and ''What more easy to conceive a tree or house existing by itself, independent of and unperceived by any mind soever?' How does Berkeley reply to this challenge?'

There's a very useful paper by Anthony Grayling, 'Berkeley's Argument for Immaterialism' at Grayling emphasises the importance that Berkeley places on the principle that the existence of x requires that x is actually perceived.

One point worth making is that when a philosopher has a well-articulated theory, as Berkeley does, we should not assume that there is one, and only one, canonical way to argue for the theory. A philosophical argument is simply something that takes you from something you accept to something you wouldn't have accepted without argument.

Abstract ideas

Given that the rejection of abstract ideas is part of Berkeley's attack on the idea of 'matter' (although not necessarily the premise, cf. above), it should nevertheless be possible to examine the critique of abstract ideas in its own right, apart from any application that is made of it. That is what this essay question is asking for.

It's OK to give matter as one example of an abstract idea (and hence, an example of what is wrong with abstract ideas) but that's as far as you can reasonably go.

Reading your essay, I gather that for Berkeley what Locke would term an 'abstract idea' is a particular idea which is 'general in its signification'.

But what exactly is the difference between saying that I have an idea of 'cat' which can apply to any cat by ignoring particular features, e.g. size, colour, and that I have an idea of 'cat' which contains only those features which are possessed by all cats (e.g. having parents which are cats)?

Hume thought that the rejection of abstract ideas was a 'great discovery'. What is so great about it?

You mention nominalism. One possible motive is Occam's Razor. Armed with a suitable notion of 'resemblance' you don't need any other concept (a point made by Russell). But why is that an advantage? Is it possible that Berkeley didn't realize that the one 'abstract idea' that you can't get rid of is the idea of resemblance?

It is worth noting that the notion of an 'abstract idea' is not equivalent to the doctrine of 'abstractionism' (as criticized by Geach in his book 'Mental Acts'), the Lockean view that we form concepts by seeing what is common in a set of particulars. Critics of abstractionism argue that we need language - i.e. concepts/ ideas - in order to 'perceive what is common'. Is it possible that Berkeley is dimly aware of this point, but chooses the wrong way to express it?

Unperceived existence

How Berkeley immediately replies to this challenge is in his notorious argument that when we conceive of the house or the tree, we conceive of it as the object of the perception of some observer. So the notion of 'unperceived existence' is an absurdity.

Critics of Berkeley have fastened on this as an obvious fallacy, wrong taking this to show that there is nothing more to Berkeley's immaterialism than fallacious or sophistical reasoning. If I were writing this essay, I would use that as a starting point for the other, more substantial arguments that you examine.

We are both agreed (I take it) that there is much more to Berkeley's attack on matter. My view would be that the central argument (not at all apparent from Berkeley's text) is that 'eliminating matter from our ontology nothing happens'.

You need to be careful about how you bring in God. We are agreed that God is required for Berkeley's theory to be adequate, but this is something which would require further demonstration, beyond the demonstration of the incoherence of the idea of 'a tree or a house existing unperceived'.

All the best,


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thought experiment of human body replacement

To: Christopher J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Thought experiment of human body replacement
Date: 21 August 2007 12:31

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 13 August, with your second essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Imagine you are Michael Harding. As you lie injured on the road, you are told that a brain scanner is going to be used to map your memories and personality, and the information used to program the brain of a new body cloned from one of your own cells. The moment the new ‘you’ gains consciousness, the old ‘you’ will be painlessly destroyed. How do you feel about that prospect? – Justify your answer by reference to one of the competing philosophical accounts of the relation between mind and body.'

In your essay, you appear torn between wanting to say that a 'person' is nothing but a 'social construct, a fiction' and the intuition that an original of any entity x can only ever be the original, and a copy can only ever be a copy.

On the basis of the view of persons as social constructs, the identity of 'Mike Harding' is decided by the criteria - the necessary and sufficient conditions - for the identity of things of that kind, i.e. identity as a construct. As a construct, MH2 is 'Mike Harding' in virtue of being the best candidate, compared with the only competitor, recently deceased MH1. A human body can be dead, but a 'person' by definition cannot (except in the historical sense in which we say, 'Napoleon is dead').

On the basis of the view that a copy is necessarily non-identical with an original, on the other hand, there is simply no possibility that MH2 could be 'Mike Harding'. When MH1 dies, Mike Harding dies. MH2 is an impostor, notwithstanding the fact that he sincerely believes that he is the 'real' Mike Harding.

How are we to resolve this dilemma? The background to this question is the rejection of the dualist conception of personal identity. Our concern is purely and simply with giving a coherent set of criteria for personal identity, consistent with materialism, and applying these to the problem case in question.

There is one option which you seem to be prepared to consider, that the only 'true' self is the consciousness that we all have in common. This seems to be Derek Parfit's view in 'Reasons and Persons' and constitutes the basis for his argument for an ethics based on utilitarianism. The concept of 'person' is less 'important' than we believe it to be, and indeed our obsession with 'being persons' provides a major stumbling block in the way of morality. Subjects who have successfully cast aside their personalist prejudices are more likely to behave ethically because they take a disinterested perspective.

However, this debate can be bracketed for our purposes. Faced with the imminent prospect of death, it is difficult not to feel that one's personal identity is an issue of some importance. Even if inspired by Parfit one succeeds in discarding such feelings, it remains a legitimate question how the criteria for personal identity are best applied to the present problem case.

What is it to be an 'original'? Originality is a matter of spatio-temporal continuity. Let's say I accidentally break my aunt's precious Ming vase. A perfect atom-for-atom copy looks as good but it isn't the original. Even if I succeed in covering up the subterfuge, the original is gone.

However, with persons we have an additional factor to consider. Personal identity, according to the best available account, involves continuity of that which is causally necessary and sufficient for memory (this is basically the view of David Wiggins in his book 'Sameness and Substance'). Herein lies the main deficiency of Locke's account, which is unable to offer a criterion for distinguishing genuine memories from true but non-genuine memories.

Continuity of the material basis for memory is not necessarily continuity of a lump of matter, provided that we are able to identify a legitimate causal route which preserves all the necessary information (hence the 'Star Trek' idea of 'beaming down'). However, this allows for the following possibility, as described in the story of Mike Harding: MH1 is alive in the broom cupboard while MH2 is alive in the hospital bed. According to the best available criteria, a 'legitimate causal route preserving all the necessary information' exists for both MH1 and MH2.

Now, there are cases where we would be prepared to say that both 'are' Mike Harding, in other words that there are now two genuine Mike Hardings. For example, suppose Mike Harding stepped into a booth, which caused a symmetrical split down the middle from which two MHs emerged. However, the present case is not like this because there is a marked asymmetry. MH1 seems to have a greater claim to be the 'real' Mike Harding than MH2. Other things being equal, one would like to say, material continuity is the 'best kind' of causal route (as illustrated by the vase example).

But remember that we are only talking about a 'social construct'. Let's push the difference between MH1 and MH2 a bit more. Say, MH1 has a mental breakdown when he discovers that all four limbs will have to be amputated, or that a brain injury has wiped some but not all his memories, so that he no longer recognizes his family and friends. In that case, MH2 begins to look an increasingly attractive candidate for being the 'real' Mike Harding.

All the best,


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is it rational to fear death?

To: David T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 21 August 2007 11:25

Dear David,

Thank you for your letter of 11 August with your fifth and final essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it rational to fear death?'

This is a very good essay – possibly your best – which covers many aspects of our fear and dread of death and the process of dying. I particularly liked your focus on the social aspect of our fear of death: 'We go through the motions at the same time avoiding the actual subject of death further encapsulating it in fear and dread. Convention then presents us with the grave yard, often a mixture of the unkempt and pristine. Drafty and cold. It is a fearful thought that one day your remains may reside in such a place eventually to be forgotten!'

The social avoidance of the subject of death is a topic which the philosopher Martin Heidegger discusses at length in Being and Time. For Heidegger, 'authentic' existence requires that one fully grasp that to be a human being is to be a 'being towards death'. Death – our necessary temporal finitude – defines our possibilities, gives shape to human freedom, without which we are nothing.

I have to admit that I had forgotten that Plato discusses the immortality of the soul in the Republic. The fullest, and most often discussed treatment of this question is in the dialogue Phaedo where Socrates spends his last day evaluating various arguments for the immortality of the soul with his close friends. I remember once answering an essay question, 'Plato is concerned to prove the indestructibility of the soul rather than its immortality.' The strongest case for this assertion comes from Republic, where the soul escapes destruction so long as it continues to occupy itself with virtue and avoid vice.

Unit 15 contains elements from my longer paper, 'Is it rational to fear death?' which is archived on the Wood Paths site The main aim of that paper is to focus on the fear of death as such, leaving aside the fear of the process of dying, or fear of the unknown. However, it is a legitimate question to ask whether this distinction can be made. When someone is afraid, the precise object or content of the fear does not necessarily make itself manifest. If you ask the dying man exactly what he is afraid of, he would not necessarily be able to give a coherent explanation.

In reality, it is impossible to 'factor out' the aspect of fear of the unknown, from the fear of one's sheer non-existence, or the 'loss of personal identity' as you put it. Pascal famously relied on the unquantifiable aspect of death for his argument for belief in God. As we cannot totally discount the possibility that there may be a heaven and a hell awaiting us, given that the span of a human life is insignificant in comparison with infinity, it is rational to act as if it were certain that each of us will eventually face Judgement Day.

The best response to this is Russell's. On being asked what he would say to God if he found himself at the gates of heaven, Russell said, 'You should have given me better reasons for believing in you.' Pascal's 'wager' is precisely that, a hedging bet rather than an argument for belief.

It was thinking about Pascal's Wager which led me to the thought (which you won't find in the above paper) that, for finite beings, no comprehensible definition of 'death' can be given, for the simple reason that for A to be 'dead' implies that for all infinite future time t, A is not alive at t. But who can get their head around infinity?

What is so dystopian about Aldous Huxley's depiction in Brave New World of 'easy' medically aided death? I find this difficult to answer. At the present time, we already employ many medical aids to make the process of dying less horrific, both for the subject and the subject's friends and family. The dying patient is often drugged up on heroin, or knocked out with tranquilizers, anything to avoid the agony of death. Is it the thought that death is such an important event that it ought to be agonizing?

All the best,


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities
Date: 20 August 2007 13:24

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 10 August, with your University of London essay written under examination conditions, 'Does the notion of resemblance enable Locke to successfully distinguish between "mere powers" (secondary qualities) and "real qualities" (primary qualities)?'

This is a good essay. There are a couple of points I want to raise which you do not discuss, concerning the limitations of Lockean/ Cartesian 'physics' in accounting for the property of mass, and, more radically, contemporary views about the nature of the ultimate physical constituents of reality.

But more of that in a minute.

You offer two main difficulties for Locke's account. the first concerns Berkeley's claim that all qualities are, in effect, secondary qualities, so that the very notion of a 'primary quality' is incoherent. A point you could have made is that this criticism follows from Berkeley's rejection of the notion of 'material substance', in other words his metaphysics of 'immaterialism'.

Berkeley's critique is 'difficult to refute' only insofar as immaterialism is difficult to refute. (I disagree with commentators who think that the theory of immaterialism can be undermined by pointing to alleged fallacies in Berkeley's reasoning. See John Foster 'The Case for Idealism' and Timothy Sprigge 'The Vindication of Absolute Idealism' for contemporary defences of idealism.)

However, your response to Berkeley is correct if we take Berkeley's criticisms out of the context of immaterialism and consider them on their own merit. I agree that, as such, they depend upon 'too strict' a notion of representation.

However, I puzzled at first over your second argument:
Secondly, the fact that Locke uses resemblance to express his intuition that primary qualities are really in the objects is a logical contradiction. Resemblance implies that there is a certain abstraction That A resembles B requires that A and B are not identical but similar with respect [to] certain criteria that both fulfil. But if primary qualities, like a shape, of an object is similar to what is its representation, then there need to be the possibility of a higher level of abstraction. But for a simple idea how should we be able to form a more general term for it (simple ideas are elementary, non definable sense experiences [according to Locke]).'
One possible worry is that we compare A and B with a template C, and say that A resembles B insofar as they both match C. This looks like a version of Plato's 'one over many' argument for his theory of Forms. In addition to my oblong perception and the oblong telephone box which I perceive, there must exist The Oblong, or the Form of Oblong. This is vulnerable to the objection that if the Form of Oblong 'resembles' the telephone box or my perception of the telephone box, then there arises a second Form, leading to a vicious regress (the so-called 'Third Man Argument').

Your point seems to be that we have to distinguish between the perception of the telephone box, which is a complex idea, and its constituent simple ideas, one of which is the idea of extension as such. The problem is that the idea of extension is not actually extended because it does not exist in space, whereas an extended object is extended. In that case, what could the two have in common, in order to provide a basis for resemblance, which is neither actually extended nor actually unextended?

However, there is something in common between the actually extended object and the unextended idea, namely, that they both obey the laws of geometry. Being subject to the laws of geometry would be the common property.

I said I would get back to the point about the property of mass, and contemporary views about the ultimate nature of matter.

One of the most compelling criticisms which Leibniz makes of Cartesian physics is that mass - which gives rise to the properties of impenetrability and inertia - cannot be derived from the geometrical properties of an object. These are qualities which are not given to vision but only to an agent manipulating physical objects in an environment. Locke's theory can be criticized insofar as it fails to appreciate this point.

Contemporary physics has begun to break down the idea that the ultimate constituents of matter have spatial properties. Locke assumed the theory of the day - the Newtonian theory of 'corpuscles'. He even speculates at one point about what it would be like to possesses the 'minute' senses of angels, able to perceive the ultimate material constituents of an object. So it is a valid question to ask, to what extent the primary/ secondary quality distinction can be defended given these developments.

You do well, in attempting to give an alternative account of the primary/ secondary quality distinction. A fuller explanation would have to consider the question of what, if any, of the qualities that we are able to perceive are necessarily required by physics, apart from the property of number. The answer seems to be, at the present state of scientific knowledge, 'we can't say for sure.'

All the best,


Monday, May 7, 2012

Nietzsche: on truth and lies in a nonmoral sense

To: John D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nietzsche: on truth and lies in a nonmoral sense
Date: 16 August 2007 12:35

Dear John,

Thank you for your email of 9 August, with your essay for the Metaphysics program in response to the question, 'Explore one example, based on any reading you have done, of a problem that you see as raising a question about the nature of truth, or a question about the nature of existence.'

You have chosen to look at the questions raised by Nietzsche in his essay, 'On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.' This is an interesting choice of topic.

It could be argued that there are not one but rather notions of truth that we need to consider (and corresponding notions of falsity): truth with a small 't' and Truth with a capital 'T'. What Nietzsche is talking about is Truth, not truth.

In the Metaphysics program, a case is made truth is indefinable, on the grounds that any substantive definition would violate the 'Tarski' principle,

   For all propositions P, 'P' is T if and only if P.

Any predicate that one substitutes for T in the above formula may be viewed as equivalent to truth, provided that the equivalence between the left hand side and right hand side always holds. So, for example, if one attempts to define 'is true' as, 'is the result of a thoroughgoing verification test', the claim becomes,

   For all propositions P, 'P' is the result of a
   thoroughgoing verification test if and only if P.

But we know that this principle is sometimes violated. Sometimes, despite our very best attempts, we get it wrong. Therefore the proposed definition must be rejected.

However, the formula holds the key to a possible definition of truth: 'is true' simply IS the predicate that can always be substituted in the above formula. Whenever you can say, P, you can say 'P' is true. If you are not allowed to say, 'P' is true, then you are not allowed to assert that P, full stop.

Why have a predicate, 'is true' if its meaning is clearly redundant? Simply because it allows us to generalize. One can say, 'Peter said something true,' without having to state which proposition or propositions that Peter asserted is/ are the proposition(s) which one would be willing to assert.

This view is known as the 'redundancy theory', or 'minimalism about truth'. (These two positions are not exactly the same, but we can ignore the difference for present purposes.)

The point is that none of Nietzsche's arguments count against the use of 'is true' in this sense, unless we take him to be arguing for the radical conclusion that it is wrong to ever make an assertion about anything. He is talking about something else, Truth with a capital 'T', the erroneous belief (as he sees it) that human beings have the capacity to gain knowledge of 'things in themselves' or ultimate reality.

It is possible that Nietzsche would find much to agree with, in the characterization offered in the Metaphysics program of the debate between realism and anti-realism about truth. In these terms, he is an anti-realist.

However, I think that there is something more remarkable in Nietzsche's position than merely an expression of the anti-realist standpoint. The debate between the realist and anti-realist is characterized against a background of a common language which we accept as being capable of being used to 'assert truths', the only question being whether, as the realist holds, there 'exist' truths which cannot in principle be verified, or whether such an assertion, as the anti-realist holds, makes no sense.

But what if doubt is cast on the very language itself? What if our so-called 'concepts' are merely 'metaphors that have been handed down the ages and so become fixed, binding'? The question Nietzsche is putting is, really, what reliance can we place on our conceptual scheme?

A response which a contemporary philosopher of language is likely to give (see, e.g. the writings of Donald Davidson, W.V.O. Quine) is that we can only use the language that we use. At any given point in time, we are afloat in a ship which we may attempt repair here or there, but we don't have the option of abandoning ship and building a new one from scratch. The very idea is indeed incoherent.

From this perspective, Nietzsche is the one cast in the position of a 'believer in ultimate Truth' while the sailors on the ship are happy to make do with the only thing available, namely truth. It only makes sense to question whether anyone ever succeeds in stating the Truth, if you believe that there is a Truth out there in the first place. This casts Nietzsche, not just in the position of the metaphysical realist but indeed as a holder of Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena. We are stuck in the phenomenal world, while the noumenal world remains forever out of reach.

Nietzsche would of course abhor this characterization. I would like to think that after reading Quine and Davidson, he would be happy to accept talk of truth with a small 't'. The targets of his rhetoric -- the fanatics and dogmatists who believe that they, and they only, have the ultimate Truth -- don't escape critique. The advantage is that there is no danger, when the critique is reformulated, of Nietzsche being included amongst the believers in Truth.

All the best,