Saturday, June 30, 2012

Determinism as a defence

To: Anthony K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Determinism as a defence
Date: 6 December 2007 12:47

Dear Anthony,

Thank you for your email of 28 November, with your essay for Possible World Machine, entitled 'Determinism as a Defense'.

The original question was, 'In the light of the critique of 'free will', can blame and punishment ever be rationally justified? Consider hard cases, such as brainwashing, crimes of passion, the influence of drugs, medical or psychological conditions etc.'

This is a well written essay, for the most part. From the point of view of grammar, in a couple of occasions you started sentences with 'If...' but there was no 'then..'. There were some surprising spelling errors (like 'natageve' for 'negative') which suggest that you need to make better use of your spell checker.

Your answer to the question takes the line of a determinist theory of punishment. One noted philosopher who defends this view is Ted Honderich. You can probably find something about Honderich's views on free will and punishment if you search on Google.

Your reasoning for this conclusion is mostly sound. However, there are some aspects of the problem which need to be gone into more fully.

Society needs to be able to enforce a code of behaviour, otherwise we will 'implode on ourselves'. That is your main point. How do we decide who is fit to punish and who should be let off, or given treatment in a mental hospital? A crude but effective criterion is to consider whether they would have been deterred by the imminent threat of punishment.

The bank clerk who hands over the money to a robber at the point of a gun would not have been deterred by the imminent threat of punishment. That is why he is exonerated for his part in the crime. Punishment works as a deterrent against persons who have the ability to make choices for themselves. That lets off bank clerks threatened with guns, and also, arguably, people suffering severe psychological compulsions, such as kleptomaniacs (although it could be argued, on the other side, that a death penalty combined with the certainty that they will be apprehended would be sufficient to deter many kleptomaniacs from stealing).

Yet even this simple and relatively clear cut criterion runs into trouble. In the First World War, British troops who refused to go 'over the top' and face almost certain death at the hands of German machine gunners were subsequently executed by firing squad for cowardice, implying that still had the freedom to choose to face the machine guns. US marines who guard nuclear missile silos are presumably required to sacrifice their lives if necessary rather than give terrorists access to nuclear weapons.

The main argument against a determinist theory of punishment, however, is that it fails to distinguish between cases where, intuitively, we feel punishment is 'deserved' and cases where it is not deserved. A good case can be made for the practical efficacy of preventive punishment, e.g. where innocent youths are given a good beating and told, 'This is what you will receive, and more, if you become delinquent.' The idea strikes us as outrageous. But why? Isn't efficacy the only consideration? If not, why not?

The British philosopher F.H. Bradley (in his book 'Ethical Studies') gives the example of the 'Master of Hounds', before the fox hunt, giving his dogs a good thrashing, 'just to show who's boss'. We don't do this with people because we have a notion of justice, or when a punishment is 'deserved'.

Towards the end of your essay, you consider some hard cases for deciding whether a person is responsible, but I don't think that you find these cases hard enough.

There are many examples where courts have genuine difficulty in deciding whether the defendent was responsible or not, or indeed whether there are grounds for 'diminished responsibilty' (an alternative which you do not consider). E.g. the abused wife who stabs her husband with a carving knife gets a lesser punishment than she would have received if she killed him to get the insurance money. What is the rationale for this judgement?

It is true that we consider a drug taker responsible for taking the drugs that subsequently led them to commit a serious crime. However, deciding the extent of responsibility for that crime is not simply a matter of deciding whether or not they freely chose to take the drug. This case is similar to deaths caused by drink driving, where the motorist is severely punished, but not for 'murder in the first degree'. It is wrong to drink and drive, and worse if, by some unfortunate circumstance, death results. But this wrongness is still not comparable to the wrongness of cold blooded murder.

The Patty Hearst case is a famous example where debate continues to this day whether the kidnapped heiress should have been punished for her part in the bank robberies committed by her captors, the 'Symbionnese Liberation Army'. She didn't choose to be kidnapped. She didn't choose to be brainwashed. And yet, or so the jury were persuaded to believe, the person they were convicting was the person that Patty Hearst had become, a terrorist and a criminal, not the innocent girl who was kidnapped many months before.

All the best,


Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism

To: Tejaswini T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will incompatible with determinism and indeterminism
Date: 6 December 2007 12:02

Dear Tejaswini,

Thank you for your email of 29 November, with your first essay for Possible World Machine in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will ins incompatible with determinism and also incompatible with indeterminism.

This is an intelligent response to the question which sketches a defensible position in the free-will debate. Most of the points I will make are on matters of detail rather than principle.

I like the idea that the problem arises with 'absolutes and limits'. There does seem something right about the idea that we have a concept of 'free choice' which works for practical purposes, and only generates paradoxes when we approach 'too closely to the edge'.

A similar claim could be made about the concept of knowledge, where (it can be argued) the argument for scepticism gains a hold because we neglect the majority of situations where for practical purposes we have a perfectly good notion of when someone 'knows' something and when their belief falls short of knowledge.

However, in the case of free will, one cannot simply say that the notion is unproblematic in practical cases - as the other essay question on free will shows. For example, the Patty Hearst case generated fierce debate over whether the kidnapped heiress was morally responsible for her part in the bank robberies by the 'Symbionnese Liberation Army' in which she took part. There are many similar, if less spectacular cases where courts have to decide between shades of responsibility for a crime, and where it is not at all clear where the line should be drawn.

Your example of the apple and orange nicely illustrates the dilemma between having a motive for choosing and complete indifference, which represents the exclusive options of 'determinism' and 'indeterminism'. However, it is not correct to describe the indeterminist option as one where 'everything is indeterminate and random'. Such a world could hardly exist, or if it did, it could not be described. Rather, the possibility that determinism might not hold is meant to apply locally, in the form of exceptions to the general laws that govern physical reality. If the brain works by harnessing quantum mechanical effects then it is possible that an agent could be in a genuine state of 'indifference' as you describe. But, as you argue, this is not a situation where we would regard the agent as being responsible for his/her decision.

It is true that we can predict, statistically, what choices people will make. The rate of marriages for men aged, e.g. 25 only goes up or down by a small percentage point every year. I am always amazed by the Pathways web statistics which maintain a remarkable constancy, day after day. I know which sites will receive five hundred or a thousand hits in a day, and which sites will only receive around twenty or less. Each page click is a free choice, yet the result is highly predictable nonetheless.

However, as argued in unit 2 with the example of the butterfly effect, there is every reason to believe that individual choices are unpredictable in principle, because every measurement is subject to a margin of error.

Despite this (and this is where determinism 'bites') we have to recognize that in a determinist world the future seems open, 'undecided' until we make our 'decisions', only because of our necessary ignorance. In a determinisit world, our 'decisions' are merely causal consequences of prior states of the universe.

But is it true to say, in ordinary language, that we regard a predictable choice as 'unfree'? Consider this version of an example given by F.H. Bradley (in his book 'Ethical Studies'). You find a fifty dollar bill on the street and hand it in to the Police Station. Your friend remarks, 'I'm surprised you didn't keep the money.' You retort angrily, 'You should have known me better than that!'

In the face of the dilemma argument, philosophers have tried various means of defining a 'compatible' notion of free choice which you allude to. The second dialogue in unit 2 takes this further, attempting to explain the 'rationale' of arguing with someone that they shouldn't have done what they did.

As the discussion shows, the problem here is not just one of 'blurring' but one of principle. It seems plain irrational to get angry or resentful at someone's action, when we know that, given all the prior circumstances, they had to do what they were going to do. Arguments that a concept of free will is useful in deciding who merits punishment or reward are futile if at the end of the day we have to face the conclusion that our thinking about human choice and free will is deeply incoherent, and perhaps necessarily so.

All the best,


Perception and the nature and limits of knowledge

To: Foo W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Perception and the nature and limits of knowledge
Date: 30 November 2007 12:56

Dear Foo W.,

Thank you for your email of 24 November, with your fourth essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'What is perception? Explain the role of perception in an account of the nature and limits of human knowledge.'

The first question that your essay stimulates me to ask is, 'Is perception dispensable?' Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to see, hear, feel, taste smell can wonder what it is like to lack some -- or all? -- of these senses.

You described picking an object up to verify its reality, by turning it in your hands, feeling its texture. Consider a race of beings on another planet who grow from the ground, like trees. They have eyes and can wag their branches at one another in order to communicate, but are otherwise incapable of action. The trees have developed a complex social order. They have a state, an education system, a judiciary, etc. But the only 'crimes' that are ever committed are verbal ones. Their science is rudimentary as they are unable to perform experiments, but they are great mathematicians.

This thought experiment tests traditional accounts of perception, which prioritise sight as the main source of knowledge of the external world. We know, from history, that human beings are very credulous. Get a group of people together, and they can persuade one another that the earth is flat, or that they have seen a ghost or a UFO. Luckily, in the real world, reality has a way (eventually) of refuting false beliefs. But not so with our intelligent trees. Like human beings suffering from paranoid delusions, any belief that the intelligent trees hold can be 'verified by perception' since none of their beliefs have any practical consequences. How, in the case of the trees, does the truth prevail over error?

Indeed, is what I have just described, a real possibility? Have I described a 'possible world'? The fact that you can picture to yourself a tree with eyes, wagging its branches (like the 'Ents' in Lord of the Rings) doesn't prove that the description is logically coherent.

In the 20th century, the traditional 'passive observer' view of perception was attacked on a number of fronts: from phenomenology (Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty), pragmatism (Pierce, Dewey, James) and in Britain by the work of John Macmurray and the later Wittgenstein.

Now contrast the opposite case, either the real life story of Mary Keller, who was born deaf, dumb and blind or eponymous hero of the Who's fictional rock opera 'Tommy'. If you are an agent, if you can move about the world, handle objects, make things, then the lack of other senses is not an insuperable barrier.

We can imagine a race of aliens born without the senses that we enjoy, who eventually develop science and technology and build artificial 'eyes' and 'ears' for themselves. (I remember seeing a feature on TV where a blind man was provided with a TV camera which stimulated a pad attached to his back with tiny pins which reproduced the camera image and enabled him to negotiate an obstacle course. A very painful way to see!)

As you argue, the fact that we are sometimes mistaken in what we think we see -- a straight stick immersed in water looks bent, or illusions of water on the road on a hot sunny day -- is not an argument for mistrusting perception. On the contrary, it is perception which tells us (on a closer look) that we have been misinformed.

Descartes makes this point in his First Meditation. He also considers the possibility that he may be dreaming. You argue that we would not know the difference between dreaming and being awake if we were not sometimes awake. Is that persuasive? Imagine someone who has spend their whole life in the Matrix. They have a concept of dreaming and being awake. Indeed, we can go further and suppose that in that persons' Matrix world there are cinemas showing a film called 'The Matrix'. In other words, it is not necessary to ever have been 'awake' (or not in the Matrix) in order to be able to form the concept of the distinction between non-waking and waking 'experience'.

It is a strange thing about human experience, that when we are exposed to extreme situations -- for example, some of your experiences in A+E departments, which I would prefer not to think about -- we tend to 'switch off' a part of ourselves, almost to the point of losing our sense of reality. You can almost imagine that you are watching a film, that this is not really happening. Perhaps this is a survival technique. If you can do what is necessary, perform your function effectively as a surgeon in just the same way as you would in a simulator -- without excessive emotion -- I imagine that the patient has a greater chance of survival.

All the best,


Plato's analogy in the Republic between health and justice

To: Lyn F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's analogy in the Republic between health and justice
Date: 27 November 2007 13:30

Dear Lyn,

Thank you for your email of 18 November, with your University of London Greek Philosophy essay (or, rather, essay fragment) in response to the question, 'Assess Plato's claim that justice is to the soul what health is to the body.'

I would have responded sooner had I taken the time to read your email where you said that the essay was not complete and asking for advice on how to continue. Normally, my deadline is ten days, but I would have tried to get back much more quickly. I am sorry to have kept you waiting for this.

The essay is OK so far as it goes. The first thing you need to do is separate out the question of Plato's analysis of the structure of the soul into three components -- the validity of his analysis, whether it gives a plausible explanation of the process of moral reasoning etc. -- from the wider question whether justice can be understood by analogy with the concept of health, which is the main focus of the question.

The problem that you would be grappling with in addressing the wider question is the problem of where moral values ultimately come from. A 'naturalistic' moral theory would be one which attempted to define moral values in terms of 'normal' or 'correct' functioning. Although there is room for competing accounts of just what is 'healthy' (e.g. is it healthy for a girl who is nearly six foot tall to be only eight stone? is it healthy to engage in extreme body building? etc.) there is a sense in which we can decide whether a person is healthy or not simply by conducting a medical examination. It is a matter of fact, not value, they an individual is not suffering from disease or injury, has organs which are all working etc.

How plausible is it, that we could give an account of justice which would enable one to decide, in a similar manner, whether a person's soul was 'healthy' or not simply by looking at his or her behaviour without making additional value judgements?

As an illustration of this, you might be interested to look at Rachel Browne's ISFP Fellowship dissertation 'Ethical Relations' which argues that behaving immorally can be understood as a form of psychological maladjustment.

This is a problem of moral philosophy. G.E. Moore's famous 'Naturalistic Fallacy' argument (look this up if you haven't heard of it) puts the case that we can always ask, with respect to any factual description, 'But is this good?' Alternatively, it is possible that you might have heard of David Hume's argument that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is' which makes substantially the same point.

Is it plausible, that someone who behaves cruelly or unjustly towards others, or neglects their concerns for the sake of his or her own self-interest, must have something wrong with his or her soul? Of course, they may have, but we are looking at a theory, or possible theory, which says that failure to be just must be a consequence of a 'disordered' soul. Why?

Another question is whether Plato is in fact offering a purely naturalistic theory of morality/ justice. It could be argued that the 'order' of the soul which he has described is only partially analogous to health. In other words, he is not defining justice as simply a form of 'mental health' but rather bringing in metaphysical considerations which transcend the merely factual.

What you do need to do (which is certainly not evident from the extract that you have shown me) is not only read the relevant sections of Republic thoroughly, but also read commentaries on Plato which discuss this issue. Ideally, I would like to see a bibliography at the end of each essay you send me, just to reassure me that you haven't just relied on the text alone or the section in Grayling.

All the best,


Semantics of indicative and counterfactual conditionals

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Semantics of indicative and counterfactual conditionals
Date: 27 November 2007 12:51

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 17 November, with your University of London Logic essay in response to the question, 'Should we treat indicative and counterfactual conditionals differently? Justify your answer.'

This is a model answer. I have no doubt that if you were able to reproduce something like this in an exam you would get a first class mark.

Firstly, this is a horrible question. You are being tempted to offer (and defend) theories of indicative and counterfactual conditionals, which would take you way beyond the scope of the question. You have managed to avoid this, by sticking to the logic of the question:

1. If indicative conditionals are truth functional then indicative and counterfactual conditionals should be treated differently.

2. If indicative conditionals are not truth functional, then indicative and counterfactual conditionals should be treated in the same way only if there is a unifying theory that explains both.

3. Indicative conditionals are not truth functional.

4. The two unifying theories proposed (by Davis and Edgington) both fail in the face of counterexamples.

5. Therefore, in the absence of a third proposal for a unifying theory, indicative and counterfactual conditionals should be treated differently.

As it happens, Dorothy Edgington was my tutor when I was an undergraduate at Birkbeck during 1972-6. She marked and commented on an essay I wrote on counterfactuals for my Oxford graduate application where I argued for a novel treatment of counterfactuals, which basically involved defending Mackie's account against David Lewises objections in 'Counterfactuals' by turning Mackie's account upside down. Instead of starting with the actual world and considering what changes need to be made if we hypothesise the antecedent of the counterfactual, we just start with the antecedent and build up a world (or, rather, a range of alternative worlds) from that. (To this day, I don't know whether the theory could be made to work or not: Dorothy had a number of pertinent objections!)

Your counterexample to Grice is a thinly disguised version of the two paradoxes of material implication put in the form of a disjunction:

Either if P then not-P or if not-P then P.

If P is false then the first disjunct is true, if true then the second disjunct is true.

I'm not convinced. However, I accept that it is a good ad hominem argument against Grice's theory of conversational implicatures.

My question would be, what does it mean to say that when 'we' assert indicative conditionals 'we' do not mean them to be understood truth functionally? Who is 'we'?

Suppose I told you that whenever I use indicative conditionals, *I* wish them to be understood truth functionally. I've used a number of indicative conditionals (e.g. 2. above). Are you confused? There is no reason to be. The point of having a sign for conditional statements 'P -> Q' in *my* language is that there is a way to learn that such a conditional is true *in some other manner* than using introduction rules for propositional calculus (e.g. from Q you can infer P -> Q). If there wasn't a way to do this, then any time I asserted P -> Q I would have to know that either P is false or that Q is true.

That is where the causal or logical connection comes in. It has nothing to do with 'conversational implication' but simply with grounds. The ground for asserting a proposition P are not equivalent to the truth conditions for P. Truth conditions are tied to consequences. Human knowledge is expanded by means of indicative conditionals because of the possibility of using the elimination rules modus ponens and modus tolens.

Frege somewhere gives the example, 'If the sun has not gone down then it is very cloudy.' The ground for the assertion of this conditional is that it is late and it has gone dark. Either of the two hypotheses, 'The sun has gone down', 'It is very cloudy' would explain what we see, but there is no other connection asserted or implied between the two propositions.

However, I said I was talking about 'my' language. I would regard this question in a Quinian spirit as one of 'regimentation', avoiding completely the muddy question of what the average speaker thinks or means by indicative conditionals. The only question is what is the best, most elegant way to explain how indicative conditionals could *possibly* have a point, a use.

As for the so-called paradoxes of material implication, this is just a case of 'baroque', i.e. irrelevant consequences of the use of a particular system of representation. It is 'language going on holiday' to use Wittgenstein's phrase. We don't need to be protected against this (as if the only theory that is acceptable is one that makes it impossible to say anything pointless or stupid). We just need to be proficient in using this particular linguistic tool, to be au fait with the logic of our language.

Of course, it still leaves open all the interesting questions about how we evaluate the grounds for indicative conditionals, and whether indeed there can be a single philosophical 'theory' that explains all this. I don't think there is one, because what one is asking is a theory that would encompass all forms of reasoning, causal reasoning, probabilistic reasoning, inference to the best explanation etc. etc.

I'm sure that if Edgington was reading this she would probably pick my argument full of holes. You do need to be aware (maybe you are already) that Edgington has much more to say about indicative conditionals, which links the issue of conditionals to probability theory. However, you have certainly said enough to answer the question.

All the best,


Aesthetic judgements and the emotions

To: Nathifa G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aesthetic judgements and the emotions
Date: 23 November 2007 13:17

Dear Nathifa,

Thank you for your email of 14 November, with our notes towards an essay for the Associate Award on aesthetic judgements and the emotions.

I agree with you that this looks more like the structure for a thesis on aesthetics, or even a text book.

I think what you need here is a 'stalking horse'. If you have not come across this expression before, the original meaning is a horse which a hunter walks behind, so that his/her quarry is not aware that the hunter is there.

In application to a philosophical discussion, it would be a particular author whose views raise the kinds of issues that you especially want to discuss.

Hume looks like an excellent choice, not only because he has a very well articulated aesthetic theory, but also because he addressed specifically the question of how we can enjoy, e.g. by a tragic play, or in general an artistic depiction which in real life would cause us distress. (See his short essay 'Of Tragedy' 1757 which I have attached as a PDF file, obtained from Note that the text is a 'doctored' version in up-to-date English done by the philosopher Jonathan Bennett. This was the first thing to come up when I did an internet search.).

Colin Radford once wrote an article on this theme, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?', and it also forms the topic of ch 3. of the text used by University of London Philosophy External students, 'Reading Philosophy' edited by Guttenplan, Hornsby and Janaway. I've attached a more recent discussion by Colin Radford, as a PDF file.

That's one topic would be sufficient for an essay.

Another topic which you have raised is the question of the relation between aesthetic criticism and morals. Is it correct to hold (as e.g. Roger Scruton has argued, e.g. in 'Art and the Imagination') that, ultimately, all aesthetic criticism has a moral dimension on the grounds that we are evaluating the intentions of the artist; a work can exhibit insincerity, inauthenticity, cowardice, sentimentality, tastelessness, lack of originality -- all arguably dimensions of moral assessment.

Your appendix on 'representations of power' is a topic I haven't come across before. This too would be a very fine topic for an essay. I have no idea what you would read for this.

On the other hand, an attempt to survey all the ways in which aesthetic judgement might relate to the emotions would be impossible to contain within the bounds of an essay. You have to select a topic which gives you the opportunity to show that you know how to argue a case, and that you are capable of thinking for yourself and are not just an able expositor of the theories of others.

All the best,


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Defining the logical constants

To: Pat F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Defining the logical constants
Date: 22 November 2007 12:13

Dear Patrick,

Thank you for your email of 10 November, with your University of London Logic essay in response to the question, 'What does it mean to say that an expression is a logical constant?'

Apologies for the delay in my response: on Monday and Tuesday I was in Edinburgh to give a presentation on The metaphysics of the photograph at George Watson's College, Edinburgh. Yesterday, I had to do a drastic shift of gear and prepare unit 2 of my new Pathways Business course on Ethical Dilemmas (for the one student who has so far enrolled on the program).

Today, it's logical constants. Ugh.

Well, Patrick, I checked out the Stanford Encyclopedia (sic) article too (just to brush up on my knowledge, you understand). I don't think you've done too good a job of summarising it. But then, what would be the point.

That aside, I can't help wondering where is the philosophical meat in all of this.

Your (?) idea that 'logical constants can be arbitrarily defined and... the definition then privileges certain logics' does appeal to me because I just can't see this as a real problem. Sure, anything can be a logic.

In the 50's, in the wake of logical positivism, philosophers of religion were writing about 'the logic of God-talk'. It is not necessary to believe (or disbelieve) in the existence of God. Just take the set of statements that you would like to make about God and organize them in the form of a 'logic', which allows certain inferences, disallows others. Then you can say all you want to say about God in the spirit of making moves in a game.

I'm all for this: have as many logics as you like. However, there does come a point where you want to say, 'Look, there are 'logics' and there is LOGIC. LOGIC doesn't need any justification, you can't believe or disbelieve in it. Whereas to use a 'logic' you have to buy into a particular view (maybe a metaphysical view, as in logics of tense and modality) of the world. An axiomatic system set up in the form of a 'logic', with the axioms embedded in its so-called 'logical constants' is just an axiomatic system. It isn't LOGIC.

The next question, however, is, 'How much LOGIC do we need?' Do we need anything apart from propositional and first-order predicate calculus? (assuming it's agreed that Aristotelian logic is inadequate to capture the inferences which we intuitively feel are 'logical').

If the question had been, 'In your opinion, which expressions should count as the logical constants?' my answer would have been, 'The terms used to form propositions in propositional and predicate calculus.' However, the question doesn't ask this. It merely asks, 'What does it mean to say that an expression is a logical constant?' In other words, you are not being asked for your opinion about which are or which are not logical constants (or indeed whether 'it makes no difference what you call a logical constant') but rather, What is at stake? why do we care?

I agree that one acceptable answer would be (as you would like to say) 'Nothing is really at stake. If we call something a logical constant then this follows, and if we don't call it a logical constant then that follows. Take your pick.'

This suggests that the ultimate criterion is indeed pragmatic. We are guided in our decisions by considerations of efficiency, simplicity. There are no metaphysical consequences of our choice, only the consequence that you get to say what you want to say more or less clearly and succinctly.

I suspect that examiners will not be satisfied with this kind of answer. Probably, the best answer to this question would be (as you have probably realized) a well judged distillation of the very thorough Stanford encyclopedia article. Except of course that you have to assume that the examiner has seen the article. So anything that you can read up on this in addition will improve your mark :)

All the best,


Spinoza's account of the relation between mind and body

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza's account of the relation between mind and body
Date: 16 November 2007 13:31

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 12 November, with your University of London Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'What account did Spinoza give of the relation of a human mind to a human body? Is it coherent, or even intelligible?'

This is a very good essay which makes good use of the text, and shows that you have done some investigation of your own into the scholarly controversy over the interpretation of Spinoza's metaphysics.

Spinoza is walking a tightrope, between saying that the attributes of thought and extension are merely different ways of grasping one and the same essence -- which collapses into either material or mental monism -- and saying that the attributes of thought and extension define 'objects' with separate powers and agency, which is Cartesian dualism.

I would worry over the distinction which the exam question makes between what is 'coherent' and what is 'intelligible', implying that Spinoza's theory might be intelligible, but ultimately incoherent. This is a possible position to take: for example, if you think that it is possible to understand the structure of the theory and how it is meant to work, but come to the conclusion that the theory is open to decisive logical objections. (For example, I would argue that Descartes' mind-body dualism is intelligible but incoherent.)

So the question is, whether there is room on the tightrope (coherence), or, if not, whether it is at least possible to grasp where Spinoza thinks there may be room (intelligibility).

Here, I think you could do a bit more, in relating Spinoza's theory to contemporary discussion of the mind-body problem. Spinoza's theory has sometimes been described as 'property dualism'. Property dualists think that they can embrace, at one and the same time, a materialist ontology while allowing that there exist mental properties of material objects which are not reducible to, or definable in terms of material properties. David Chalmers is an example of a philosopher who has defended property dualism.

On Chalmers' view, it is logically possible that there could be an individual materially indistinguishable from me, who did not have psychological states but merely behaved as if he did (the notorious 'zombie thought experiment'). Applying this to Spinoza, if the two attributes, material and mental, really are two then one might think that it would be possible for one to exist in the absence of another. But this seems extremely implausible as applied to Spinoza.

Another term that has been applied to Spinoza is 'double aspect' or 'dual aspect'. Brian O'Shaughnessy in his book 'The Will' claims to be offering a dual aspect theory. What this amounts to is a critique of materialist theories of willing and intending, showing that we have to recognize an irreducible mental 'aspect' to the will: there is such a think as 'willing' which is not reducible to desiring and/ or intending. However, this theory is specifically directed to the problem of the will, rather than being a general defence of a double aspect solution to the mind-body problem.

I have to confess that I struggle to make intelligible sense of Spinoza's theory. If God has infinite attributes and we only know two, how likely is it that our grasp of these two attributes is anything close to approaching adequacy? This is reminiscent of Colin McGinn's approach to the mind-body problem: that we are just not intellectually equipped to grasp how mind and body are ultimately related. Maybe that was Spinoza's intention.

Then, again, the idea that *every* mental aspect has a corresponding material aspect and every material aspect has a corresponding mental aspect simply boggles the mind. We don't normally think of the idea *of* an entity being equivalent to how things are subjectively from that entity's point of view. Yet that seems to be the consequence of Spinoza's theory.

Spinoza would no doubt reply that the very notion that I am an 'entity' with a discrete 'point of view' fails to reckon with the fact that there is only one substance, only one entity, and consequently every time a thought is thought, it is God doing the thinking. One can say the words, say what one has to say, but the words just don't mean a lot.

One other philosopher I would mention is Thomas Nagel, who has speculated about the possibility of a 'third substance', neither mental nor material, in which mental and material properties ultimately inhere (in his book 'The View From Nowhere').

I would justify mentioning contemporary philosophers because the question, 'What account did Spinoza give...?' can be read (as you have done) as asking for an exposition of Spinoza's arguments, but also as asking you to identify Spinoza's theory in relation to the various positions taken up in regard to the mind-body problem: i.e. what kind of account is it? This arguably would be one way to demonstrate the relevance of Spinoza's metaphysics to contemporary philosophy.

All the best,


Could you exchange bodies with someone else?

To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Could you exchange bodies with someone else?
Date: 16 November 2007 12:15

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 12 November, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Could you exchange bodies with someone else?'

I got a strong sense reading this essay that some hard thinking was going on here. You have really grappled with this question. If you can do this kind of thing in an exam (i.e. under pressure, when it is easy to fall back on things you've learned rather than relying on one's ability to think originally about a problem) then you will do very well.

An examiner might criticize the essay on the grounds that you have not addressed the questions Williams raises, concerning the seeming paradox that arises when we look at a brain swap scenario from different perspectives. However, the exam question didn't ask this so I think it would be unfair to penalize the essay for that reason. However, in that case you need to find sufficiently interesting things to say about the aspects of the problem that you pick up on. I think you do succeed in this.

The question looming over your discussion concerns the nature of personal identity. 'If... the self is just a logical construct, there is nothing to transfer; transferring the psychological makeup would be merely changing the psychological makeup of the recipient person and, the reverse process would be changing the psychological makeup of the initial donor person.'

One question we can ask is whether a 'self' which is a 'psychological construct' cannot be an 'entity with an identity'. Can't a construct be an entity?

Consider mathematics, where primitive notions (e.g. a set) are used to construct other abstract objects, such as numbers. There is no doubt that such constructed objects have an identity which can be clearly defined.

Or, suppose someone argued that a 'spatio-temporal object' is merely a logical construct out of molecules. The borderline where one body ends and another body begins, or the conditions under which we say that a body has been 'destroyed', depends on the way that we have defined 'spatio-temporal object'. Unlike mathematics, identity over time for material objects, such as a chair or an axe or a ship, is not precise but vague: there are central cases which are clear, and borderline cases where we do not know what to say.

The vagueness of questions of identity is a point you make towards the end of your essay. However, I would disagree that the question of identity or non-identity is, 'just an opinion'. It can be, when we are dealing with borderline cases. But there are plenty of examples where there is only one reasonable 'opinion' to take. I smash your grandmother's vase and, to make up for my carelessness, buy an 'identical' vase on eBay. Even if the vase I bought is indistinguishable from the original, it is not a matter of mere opinion that it is not the original. Whereas, if I had painstakingly stuck the pieces together, the result would be the original vase, although badly damaged.

So let's take a brain swap scenario, where there is not the least room for vagueness or doubt: my brain is switched with Mother Theresa's. Whether one looks at this from the subjective or objective viewpoint, there is no doubt that *someone* with Mother Theresa's body thinks he is GK, while *someone* with GK's body thinks she is Mother Theresa. It is possible to define a notion of personal identity (in terms of the spatio-temporal continuity of the material basis for consciousness and memory, i.e. combining spatio-temporal continuity with psychological continuity) which justifies the view that there has indeed been a 'body swap'. GK now has Mother Theresa's body and Mother Theresa has GK's body.

However, we don't *have* to do this, and I think this is your point. The concept of a 'person' just wasn't designed for such outlandish scenarios, and if surgery became sufficiently advanced to allow brain swaps, we would be faced with a genuine decision about which 'concept of a person' is the most faithful to the existing moral and social institutions in which the existing concept of a person is embedded. Indeed, there always remains the possibility of drastically altering those institutions -- making this an extremely difficult question to answer.

An alternative response (which Parfit gives in his book 'Reasons and Persons') is to say that the concept of a person is incoherent, and best disposed of. Not just because it is a construct, but because the attempt to define identity over time runs into insuperable difficulties.

As a footnote, I once asked my first two daughters when they were very young, 'If someone swapped your heads and each of you looked in a mirror, whose face would you see?' Each unhesitatingly replied that she would see the face of her sister.

All the best,


Descartes and the malicious demon

To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes and the malicious demon
Date: 12 November 2007 10:46

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,


Monday, June 25, 2012

Coherentist theory of epistemic justification

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Coherentist theory of epistemic justification
Date: 9 November 2007 14:14

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 2 November, with your University of London Epistemology essay in response to the question, ''The fact that your beliefs can form a coherent set and yet be false shows that coherence cannot suffice for justification.' - Discuss.'

This is an excellent piece of work, which demonstrates considerable knowledge of this subject area. However, it is not so commendable as an answer to the question.

I accept that you need to look at all aspects of a topic in order to be sufficiently prepared for an exam. However, part of the reason for writing me essays is to focus on what is required to give the best answer to a question in the examination. The examiner is not just testing your knowledge: you are also being tested on your ability to respond to the challenge presented by a specific question in the most relevant and persuasive way.

I apologize if I seem to be labouring this point. But it is one that comes up regularly with my UoL mentees. The best solution, as other students seem to have discovered, is to write (for your own benefit) an essay or report which surveys the problem area, then write a second essay (for me) which answers a specific question. This is the best way I can help you.

Considering the question you have been asked, the first thing one needs to consider is whether, given that we accept that a belief can be 'justified' but false, we do in fact accept, as a matter of principle, that a justification which is false -- or contains something false -- cannot be considered a 'justification'.

This seems pretty difficult to deny. It is hardly necessary to go into specific examples to show that if you believe something on false assumptions, your belief is not justified. But what if the assumptions hang together and only some of them (the minority) are false? (as is indeed often the case). Then your justification is flawed but still adequate.

So the fact that the belief P that we are seeking to justify might be false is not an objection. We are only considering whether we are justified in believing it, not whether it is true or whether we know it to be true. Nor is the fact that some of the beliefs in the justifying set are false sufficient to undermine the claim that the set as a whole justifies the belief that P, provided that sufficiently many beliefs in the justifying set are true.

So the next thing to consider is whether, indeed, it is possible for a person's entire corpus of beliefs to be false, as the question seems to imply. This sounds incredibly unlikely. What does seem possible is that sufficiently many might be false to undermine the justification for the given belief P.

A practical example of this would be paranoid delusions, where a large number of beliefs hang together, exhibit strong coherence and mutual explanatory power, and yet the result is that they 'justify' a belief which is completely insane. Or perhaps a society where everyone has extremely weird, irrational (from our point of view) beliefs about the world. Like the Azande tribe who believe (allegedly) that they carry their souls in a stick.

Prima facie, this doesn't look like a very persuasive criticism of a sufficiency coherentist theory of justification. Obviously, the coherentist will say, the person suffering paranoid delusions has a deep incoherence in his total belief system. In order to maintain the tottering structure of his paranoid delusion, it is necessary to embrace patent absurdities (which human beings are, admittedly, very good at doing).

The second case is harder, because it raises general issues about rationality. But even here, there seems no good argument against the common sense view that a large group of people can reinforce one another's irrational beliefs, and that this is shown by a crucial failure of coherence at some point.

The key weapon in the coherentist's defence is the role of experience. However, it is also a serious potential weakness (as you point out) because it seems to remain a pure coherentist while accepting that failure to cohere with what one sees and feels and hears is a pretty devastating indictment of a system of beliefs, however coherent it might be in other respects.

Nevertheless, the coherentist will say, this observation does not force us to embrace the 'myth of the given' or become semi-foundationalists. It is an uncontested truism that all our information about the world ultimately comes our senses. However, as good coherentists, we accept that no report is immune from challenge.

...And so on. I'm not trying to write a model answer, but just give an example of the kind of answer that I believe the examiner is looking for: one which takes the question, if necessary challenges the assumptions behind the question, and seeks to construct the most economical case which either defends the assertion in question, or refutes it without adding any extraneous information.

All the best,


Hume on why we enjoy tragedy

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on why we enjoy tragedy
Date: 8 November 12:33

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 30 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Seeing people suffer is painful, and we don’t ordinarily undergo pain willingly. So you would expect that we would be reluctant to attend theatrical performances in which people are portrayed as suffering. Explain why Hume thinks that this expectation is not borne out.'

I am glad that you enjoyed working on this topic. This is for the most part a thorough and careful account of Hume's argument which stays close to the text.

The only point where I think you need to say more is in Hume's explanation, illustrated by examples, of how a agreeable emotion can in general be heightened by contrast with a disagreeable one. One example he gives is the familiar saying that absence makes the heart go fonder. Another is the parent whose love for a child is increased because the child's 'sickly infirm frame of body has occasioned them the greatest pains, trouble and anxiety in rearing him.'

You say that 'the feelings of pleasure which have been created by the performers or developed by the narrator of a tragic scene, have overpowered the negative emotions and indeed have exploited these negative feelings to generate and stimulate the feelings of passion and arousal.' This is too general, however; the point needs to be forced home that what occurs in the enjoyment of the portrayal of tragic events is, in Hume's view, an instance of a *general* psychological principle which is also illustrated by the examples I have just cited.

It is in the subsuming of a particular case (the problem of tragedy) under a general principle (the workings of human emotions) that the account offered gains explanatory power.

As an answer to the question, however, my main criticism would be that you have taken the wording too literally and merely given a precis of Hume's argument. Whenever in an exam question you are asked to 'explain why so-and-so thinks that...', in order to give a full and satisfactory answer you need to do one of two things: either criticize the explanation and show where it falls short, or, if you fully agree with the explanation then you need to think of plausible objections that might be raised against it and defend it against those objections.

After reading your essay, I am not entirely sure whether you fully agree with Hume or not. The question of how tragedy moves us, is very difficult. I wouldn't be able to give an adequate answer if asked. You need to prove to the examiner that you have made some attempt to grapple with this question for yourself, so that when you turn to the answer provided by Hume, or Feagin, you have a vantage point from which to offer your own criticisms.

Obviously, I can't write the essay for you, but I am going to suggest some questions that you might ask yourself -- or ask Hume:

What is the problem, exactly? Shouldn't we be asking why human beings are moved by fiction at all? We don't just admire the skill of the writer or painter, we feel for the characters involved, as Hume says. We weep in sympathy for their terrible situation, laugh with joy when they overcome their difficulties. We are thrilled by their adventures. How is that possible? It seems totally illogical that we should care at all about someone who is merely a figment of the artist's imagination. The suspicion here, in other words, is that Hume is asking the wrong question, or else, that there is more than one question that needs to be raised.

Following on from the last question, how convincing is Hume's argument against Fontanelle that it makes no difference, in principle, whether the described events really occurred or not?

What about Hume's claim that what moves us is our recognition of and admiration for the skill of the artist? Can't we also be moved by a pulp novel or soap opera, whose literary quality we recognize as being very dubious?

I think you can also mention Feagin, even though the question does not ask you to compare Hume's and Feagin's accounts, because she does give a different explanation from Hume and therefore raises the question which explanation is the more plausible.

There is no single 'correct' way to answer this question. A lot depends on the views that you have formed in thinking about the problem that Hume addresses. But this is what the examiners are looking for: evidence that you have not only read and understood the text but have also grappled with the philosophical problem or problems raised.

All the best,


Strawson's argument in 'Freedom and Resentment'

To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson's argument in 'Freedom and Resentment'
Date: 6 November 2007 13:21

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 26 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Strawson speaks of ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’ in the debate about freedom and determination. Explain the view of the optimists and pessimists. How does Strawson’s own view contrast with the view of his optimists.'

Although you seem to have followed most of the argument, I did miss (perhaps you said it too quickly) what is central to Strawson's view: that our capacity to extend our reactive attitudes 'vicariously', putting ourselves in the shoes of another person who has been treated badly is what defines an attitude to a 'person' as contrasted with a 'thing'.

In Strawson's view, what first appears as merely irrational, our instinctive reactions, in fact provides a naturalistic foundation for interpersonal discourse, based on reason giving and argumentation, and ultimately for a sense of moral respect. Thus moral reasoning gains a kind of 'objectivity', by virtue of being tested inter-personally.

The main point that Strawson makes against the pessimists lies in his contrast between the way we deal with persons and with things. We 'give reasons' to persons -- for example, explaining why what A did to B was 'morally wrong' -- whereas objects are simply there to be manipulated. Words of praise or criticism, punishment and reward are just levers which we manipulate to change an agent's behaviour.

From the point of view of the pessimist, reasoning is ultimately pointless -- a sham -- and all that we can be doing is manipulating. In order to resist pessimism, therefore, some account needs to be given of the point of such reasoning, which is what Strawson sets out to do.

However, the question also asks in what way Strawson's view contrasts with the optimists. Optimists fall back on the explanation that the distinction between actions which are 'free', and actions which are 'unfree' -- as the result of external (being pushed or forced at gun point) or internal interference (psychological compulsions) -- has a point simply because it makes possible the institution of reward and punishment. There's no benefit to punishing someone for an action that they could not help doing.

Strawson's statement at the beginning of the extract, 'Some hold even that the justification for these concepts and practices requires the truth of the thesis [of determinism]' is powerfully illustrated by an example given by F.H. Bradley (in his book 'Ethical Studies'). I tell you that I found a twenty pound note in the street and straight away handed it in to the Police station. You reply, 'I'm surprised you did that.' I retort angrily, 'You should have known me better!' We demand that the actions that we do, which flow from a good moral character, be predictable. The fact that someone could have known what we would do in no way detracts from our 'freedom' in carrying out the action.

Strawson finds the optimists' account too easy. It leaves out what we think is most important, which is that the guilty person *deserves* the punishment that they get. It is that feeling -- that moral conviction -- which needs to be explained, and which the optimist theory is too thin to give a useful account of. (Although I've given an example from Bradley, I don't think that he ultimately belongs in the optimist camp, as Strawson defines this. Bradley's view is more complex.)

You seem to have gained the impression that reactive attitudes are 'merely subjective'. However, Strawson is at pains to contrast the egocentric perspective, which is truly subjective, with the moral perspective where we imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others. It is that capacity for seeing things from another person's point of view which gives rise to, makes possible, the institution of morality.

However, there is at the same time an acknowledgement that there are limits to the interpersonal view. We are able to view others (and ourselves) as 'persons' precisely because we don't, in fact, occupy a vantage point from which the causal antecedents of every action can be traced to their source.

As you note, even without this godlike knowledge, it is possible to take a radically different view -- as exhibited in certain Eastern religions -- whereby all such attitudes are merely illusions. Nothing is 'good' or 'bad' in itself, or 'desirable' or 'undesirable'. It is only (as Buddhists claim) our 'attachment' to the here and now which blinds us to the ultimate truth that we are all part of a single reality, where the very borderlines between different 'selves' are merely inventions.

I would contrast this with the full-blooded pessimistic view, however. What characterizes Strawson's pessimist is continued belief in the existence of selves as self-contained entities, which interact with one another according to the laws of causality. Whereas the Buddhist ultimately has a motivation for acting 'morally' in the rejection of the pursuit of self-interest, the pessimist is led to consider all action as equally pointless, and therefore has no more reason to be 'moral' than 'immoral'.

All the best,


Making morality work

To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Making morality work
Date: 2 November 2007 13:08

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 25 October, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'Making morality work.'

I have problems with this essay. It seems to me only tangentially 'philosophical'. I can see the point that a rational defence of morality does not necessarily provide the best means to inculcate morality, either in oneself or in society at large: but that is just one point.

To take an extreme 'thought experiment'. Suppose there was a hypnotic drug which made people very suggestible. It is only necessary to take this drug once (its use is carefully regulated by the Government Ministry of Ethics). You are administered the drug, programmed and ready to function as a fully ethical member of the moral community. All in one day.

This scenario raises questions of ethics which require philosophical discussion: for example, you could be just as easily programmed/ hypnotised to do evil as to do good. Furthermore, who is to decide on the weighty question of just what is good? do you go in with a shopping list of traits which you would like to have inculcated? or do the philosophers sitting on the government ethical panel decide? And so on.

Well, that's just a mad thought experiment. However, if you are looking for something philosophical, then it really does become important how one's view of ethics, or indeed one's meta-ethical theory, impacts on views about moral education: which is a recognizably philosophical topic.

To give one example which you may not have encountered. There is a very influential British moral philosopher called R.M. Hare (who died not so long ago). In a series of books, Hare presents the case for 'prescriptivism', a meta-ethical theory according to which moral statements are disguised commands (prescriptions). Later on, Hare developed his theory into a theory of preference utilitarianism, arguing that the only 'moral' principle capable of being rationally defended is the principle of 'non-fanaticism'.

Hare also considered the impact of his theory on moral education. Consistently with his preference utilitarian view, he held that it is not a good idea for lay persons to think too much about the foundations of ethics. Moral education should be in the hands of philosophers who understand what can be said in the classroom and what it is better not to say. Children should be taught 'principles' and how to apply them. It is not part of this process to learn the ultimate philosophical/ rational basis for these principles.

This bears out your original point in a particularly dramatic way. As it happens, I find Hare's view repugnant. The role of 'inculcating principles' is just one issue in moral education which could be usefully discussed.

A very different meta-ethical view is provided by virtue ethics, which you call upon heavily in your essay. The very least you can do, however, is to go into the foundations of virtue ethics in order to explain the connection with the question of moral education. Some reference to the leading virtue ethicist Alasdair McIntyre ('On Virtue' Duckworth) would not go amiss.

(Incidentally, one point you make about 'embedded' habits of morality which Aristotle would disagree with strongly is what you say about guilt. Aristotle distinguishes between the man who is moral -- who would never think to steal -- and the man who is merely 'continent'. The continent man, desires to steal but is prevented from doing so by feelings of guilt. We should all wish to be moral and not merely continent, in Aristotle's sense.)

Consequentialism (and not just preference utilitarianism) is saddled with the problem -- discussed at length by Bernard Williams -- that for consequentialist reasons we don't want people to go too far in reasoning consequentially. In the famous example cited as an argument against utilitarianism, if a house is on fire and Archbishop Fenelon and his chambermaid are in different rooms, you will save the chambermaid because she is your mother, despite the better consequences for the happiness of humanity at large if the Archbishop is saved. For ultimately consequentialist reasons, we *want* to cultivate human beings who are incapable of sacrificing their mothers for the greater good. This presents the consequentialist with somewhat of a paradox.

As I have tried to show, in order to make your essay work you need to go far more into the contrast between different meta-ethical views and their consequences for moral education. These consequences are not necessarily a matter of entailment -- which is what makes the discussion so difficult to handle. Saying the right things is not enough. You need to find philosophical issues around the question of moral education to grapple with.

All the best,


Friday, June 22, 2012

Hume on the continued and distinct existence of objects

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on the continued and distinct existence of objects
Date: 1 November 2007 12:47

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 24 October, with your University of London BA degree one hour timed Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Why, according to Hume, does our belief in the continued and distinct existence of objects need to be explained? How satisfactory is his explanation of it?'

This is a good exam answer. However, there are a number of details in which the answer could be improved.

Also, an examiner will be looking to see whether you are able to make the problem appear gripping. Hume is driven to the point of complete bafflement by the problem of the continued and distinct existence of objects. The reader is looking for some explanation of how he could have been gripped so strongly by it.

The first thing you need to do is give Hume's definitions of 'continued' and 'distinct' existence. Hume makes a point of the fact that he is concerned with two attributes of external objects rather than only one. Objects continue to exist when unperceived, and exist distinct from the act of perception.

This is what we all believe. And yet, as Hume demonstrates, all it takes to cast doubt on this belief is to press one of your eyeballs with the result that you see double. How can the idea that the object I perceive is the object itself - for example, the red book on the table - if after pressing my eyeball I 'see' two books?

This brings to a sharp pitch the question of just what it is that the 'vulgar believe'. How can anyone believe something so obviously absurd as that I can make one red book turn into two red books by pressing my eye?

Vulgar belief is by definition unphilosophical. To Hume's mind, there is something about the very activity of philosophy that is problematic here. - Hence, Hume's radical 'solution' of going off to play a game of backgammon. It is tempting to say that this is the very paradigm of an 'unsatisfactory' resolution of the problem. However, it is unsatisfactory only if you believe that philosophy is able, in fact, to do better here than the account which Hume offers.

You say that Hume's account 'does not explain why we believe that our impressions come from *external* objects... the impressions could stem from god or our mind could produce them.' This seems to be mixing up the question of what, in fact, we believe and the various philosophical theories that are put forward to account for this belief (either as error theories, like Hume's, or in the case of the direct realist, in defence of the belief).

Thus, Berkeley, is presented with an analogous problem to Hume, of explaining in terms of his theory, how it is that we naturally believe something completely different from what the theory states. According to Berkeley, when I look at the red book I am looking at the inside of God's mind at God's perception of 'a red book'. But that is not how things *look*, that is not what anyone believes prior to doing philosophy.

You will gain marks for showing an appreciation of the difference between the question of the nature of 'vulgar' beliefs - or the beliefs that we form prior to undertaking philosophical inquiry - and the philosophical theories put forward to explain them.

It could also be argued that Hume's despair over the possibility of a coherent account of the continued and distinct existence of objects is misplaced. He does have a theory, which acts as a bridge between the philosophical theory and the explanation of our naive belief: his theory of 'fictions'.

Fictions are mental surrogates of 'real' external objects, ideas which we create ourselves, which in some sense 'stand in' for the objects themselves. I can say, truthfully, that the red book exists when I am not looking at it because I am talking about my idea of the red book, or the fictional red book that I have created in my own mind. By contrast with a reality existing in God's mind, according to Hume each of us has a model of 'the world' in our own minds, which is sufficient to account for the things that the 'vulgar' - not knowing the underlying philosophical explanation - say and believe.

Some commentators have pointed out that Hume's theory is not a million miles away from the account later put forward by Immanuel Kant, of the 'a priori category of substance', under which we subsume 'appearances'. All that is required to convert Hume's theory of fictions into a Kantian-style explanation is an argument which demonstrates the impossibility of experience which is not 'as of' external objects located in space: Kant's famous 'Refutation of idealism'. Hume's 'fictions' are Kant's 'appearances'.

All the best,


Milesian progression in the idea of primary substance

To: Richard P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian progression in the idea of primary substance
Date: 1 November 2007 11:54

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your email of 24 October, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'The Milesian Progression in the Idea of Primary Substance'.

This is an illuminating and well thought out explanation of the debate between Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes over the nature of the arche, or material substance underlying all things.

Before going any further, I should apologize for using - or rather misusing - Aristotle's term 'primary substance' which in his philosophy has a specific meaning of an individual, such as a particular man or horse. Individual primary substances are identified under 'sortal concepts', which have the special property of defining criteria for spatio-temporal continuity. For example, to fall under the sortal concept 'man' implies certain essential properties, such as having a mind or being alive, in the absence of which the object in question cannot 'exist', as well as accidental properties - such as being skinny or fat - which can change over time.

However, there is an interesting connection worth bringing out, between the problem of how an individual, a spatio-temporal particular or Aristotelian primary substance, is able to retain its identity through change, and the more fundamental problem of identity as addressed in the theories of the Milesians.

When a man dies, that individual ceases to exist, although the matter of which the man's body is composed continues. However, matter too can change. The body is cremated and flesh, blood and bone is converted into smoke and ash. Is there anything that we can identify 'in' the smoke and ash which was previously flesh, blood and bone? Or, to consider the matter from a more radical standpoint, should there be?

Admittedly, it is not clear that Thales asserted that water IS the arche in Aristotle's sense, i.e. the matter that remains the same through every possible change. Aristotle imposed a scheme of interpretation on the work of his predecessors which does not necessarily fit the facts. However, if we look at how the argument might have gone, as you do, then it is very tempting to say that this is what Thales believed. The flesh and the ash are both really 'water'.

Strictly speaking, Anaximander's theory of 'injury and retribution' is not part of his theory of the Apeiron. We would still be discussing his contribution to the debate over the arche if he had never made the famous quoted statement about 'paying penalty'. However, in the course unit I do suggest that some version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason might have persuaded him that there is 'no more reason' for the primary substance to be water rather than air, or air rather than earth and so on. Admittedly, this is little more than speculation. It is plausible that he might have thought that way. I don't know of any fragments or testimonia which provide any further support to my claim.

You say earlier that the accounts of the Milesians are characterized by the 'absence of mystical themes'. One of the charges laid at Anaximander is that his notion of the Aperion is 'mystical', in that there is no attempt to relate the properties of the Apeiron to experience - as Thales and Anaximenes both do with their arche. As you say, he 'leaves more questions than answers'.

One thing you missed out in your account of Anaximenes, in relation to his improvement over the two previous thinkers is the postulation of a mechanism of change - compression and rarefaction - based loosely on observation. (Although it has been pointed out that if Anaximenes had been more systematic in his observations, he would have realized that compressing air causes it to heat up rather than cool down.)

In other words, not only is Anaximenes' theory better from the point of view of Ockham's razor, it also is richer in explanatory content because it gives a mechanism for change whereas the other two theories posit change without explaining the mechanism.

It is not uncontroversial that there is progression in the idea of arche in these three thinkers. In antiquity, Anaximenes was regarded most highly of the three, yet to some modern readers, Anaximander seems more philosophically profound in the questions that he asked, even if Anaximenes was the better 'physicist'.

You suggest that the discussions of the Milesians was the 'earliest beginnings of the idea of universals, albeit in a materialistic form'. Universals provide another example of 'one in many', which is not concerned with identity in change but rather with the notion of multiple instantiation, by contrast with the proper name of an individual. Logically, there can be only one 'Julius Caesar' but there can be many 'emperors'. Socrates is generally credited with being the first philosopher to specifically address the problem of universals, in his quest for 'Socratic definitions'. There is a connection with the Milesians, but it is somewhat distant.

All the best,


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Spinoza on human freedom

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza on human freedom
Date: 29 October 2007 13:47

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 22 October, with your University of London Modern Philosophy Essay in response to the question, 'How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of human freedom?'

This is a good essay on the whole, and I liked the way you introduced it, with the example of the young boy waving his finger.

The question is asking you to do two distinct things: give an exposition of Spinoza's account of human freedom, and also give your own philosophical evaluation of that account. The latter can take the form of raising questions about specific claims that Spinoza makes, or looking that the problem of freedom more generally, seeing how well Spinoza's formula, 'An action is free to the extent that it is determined by reason' applies to problem cases, or compares with other theories of freedom.

An examiner might raise his eyebrows at a statement such as, 'Elsewhere in the Ethics and in other writings, he says things like...'. You might as well be waving a red flag which says, 'I don't remember what Spinoza said or where he said it but...'. In other words, if you fail to be specific, the examiner will assume that you don't know or can't remember. I think it would have helped your case if you had been a bit less vague here.

However, despite that, I get the gist. You say enough to make it reasonably clear to the reader what Spinoza's theory is. So the question is how one evaluates this theory philosophically.

One point worth making is that Spinoza's solution is similar in some respects to the 'compatibilist' view of free will and causality, put forward e.g. by David Hume. Suppose that determinism is true. It is nevertheless possible to distinguish between different kinds of causal chain leading to the performance of an action. The bank clerk who steals 1000 Dollars from the till in order to buy a stereo is acting freely, whereas if a bank robber threatens him with a gun then his action is 'constrained' and therefore unfree.

'Freedom' in this sense is a forensic term, in that we apply the criterion of whether it was the agent's own decision, or whether the action was forced on him/ her in deciding whether the action merits punishment (or, indeed, praise). In defence of this distinction, it can be said that punishment only 'works' against the bank teller tempted to steal from the till, and not against the bank teller who concedes to the robber's threat.

Spinoza would go more deeply into this scenario, however. Take an apparently 'free' (i.e. unconstrained) action like taking the money from the till. The bank clerk who is overcome by desire to purchase an expensive consumer item is acting like a 'slave to his passions', while the bank clerk who takes the money for a selfless reason is more 'free'.

You might raise the question whether being 'determined by reason' is necessarily being determined to an ethical end, as this example implies, or whether on the contrary, there could be a supremely 'free' master criminal, who possesses superlative will power and ability to resist his passions.

Another angle on Spinoza's theory is provided by what Thomas Nagel says about free will in his book 'The View from Nowhere'. Nagel describes a 'necessary penumbra of ignorance' concerning the causes of an action which must exist in order for there to be agency at all. This seems to contradict the implication of Spinoza's view of freedom in that Spinoza sets an ideal which, if realized, would result in the action failing to be an action at all.

To some extent, you have anticipated this in your exposition of what you term Spinoza's 'negative account'. To have total knowledge of all the causal antecedents of my action would be knowledge that only God can have. When God acts, there is no 'penumbra of ignorance'. In that case, in what sense can God be described as an 'agent'? God does not think, or plan or deliberate. All these things imply the 'necessary penumbra of ignorance' that Nagel describes.

In what sense, then, is whatever God 'has' an appropriate idea to set ourselves? There is a strong intuition in support of Spinoza that we do wish to know more about the causal springs of our own actions, and that this can, in some sense make us more free. The idea finds powerful expression in Freudian psychoanalysis, where the subject seeks to become aware, and through becoming aware, control, the unconscious fantasies which motivate irrational behaviour.

As I have tried to show, the question is open ended, in that in addition to examining the coherence of Spinoza's theory in its own terms, the idea of 'satisfaction' bring with it wider issues, such as what kind of 'freedom' we really want (as philosophers seeking a notion of freedom worth wanting), and whether indeed Spinoza's 'freedom' is the freedom that we would be most satisfied with.

All the best,


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The cluster of descriptions theory of proper names

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The cluster of descriptions theory of proper names
Date: 29 October 2007 12:52

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 20 October, with your University of London Logic essay in response to the question, ''A proper name is an abbreviation of one or more definite descriptions.' - Discuss.'

This is (or would be, apart from one serious glitch) an impressive piece of work. Not only have you shown that you have digested the literature and understood the main lines of argument, you have also contributed a theory of your own. Although the theory, as stated, as serious shortcomings, it is not the worst theory that has been proposed as a solution to the problem of defining a proper name, and your explanation has some plausibility.

First, the glitch. On p. 4 when stating Kripke's modal argument, you state, 'For example, Richard Nixon would according to Kripke, have the proper name 'Richard Nixon' in all possible worlds, but he may have different definite descriptions in different possible worlds.' Then on p. 7, you say, 'I do not regard proper names as rigid designators. For example, if the lump of protoplasm that was Richard Nixon could, in an alternate world, have lost the 1968 election, I do not see why, in the same alternate world, his parents could not have named this lump, 'John Smith'.'

This is just wrong. 'Rigid designator' and a 'no-rigid designator' are terms which refer to referring expressions in our language -- the language we use in the actual world. 'Richard Nixon' is a rigid designator, according to Kripke, because when we apply the terms of our language to other possible worlds, it always picks out the same object. Whereas, 'Winner of the 1968 US election' is non-rigid because it picks out different objects in different possible worlds.

It is perfectly possible, on this model, that Richard Nixon might have been called 'John Smith'. The first name is a term in our actual language. The second name, in quotes, is not the name of any particular individual. Understanding the quoted expression does not require that one attribute to it any particular referent.

I have a smaller disagreement with what you say about Wittgenstein's comments on Russell's theory, in Philosophical Investigations §79. It seems clear from the context that Wittgenstein is not criticizing Russell but rather applying his theory and elaborating on it. He takes Russell to hold that a *particular use* of a proper name is intended to invoke a particular description. On another occasion, it might invoke a different description. Russell's response to Searle would be that it is a fault of natural language that we can't just all agree on what definite description or descriptions a name stands for (as one can, e.g. in mathematics).

Dummett wrote his response to Kripke in 'Frege Philosophy of Language' at the last minute just before the manuscript was due to go to press. His argument about scope is unconvincing because it clashes with the intuitions that Kripke appeals to: The actual writer of the Odyssey might not have written the Odyssey, but we do not say, on that account, that 'Homer might not have been Homer'.

However, Dummett has a much stronger case against Kripke, which you don't develop. There has to be a 'route to the reference'. If a name has currency in a language, then we need a philosophical account of how that is possible, the semantic facts by virtue of which the name links to that object. This is what Frege intended with his notion of 'sense'. The problem with Kripke's chain of communication theory, in Dummett's view, is that it fails to distinguish between someone who really grasps a name and someone who is merely 'acting like a tape recorder'.

The 'linguistic division of labour' idea muddies this point, because although it is true that linguistic labour is divided, we nevertheless require an account of what someone who fully grasps a term (rather than deferring to the 'experts') knows. This is the reason why Gareth Evans ditched his earlier 'causal theory of names' in virtue of the much more subtle account in his 'Varieties of Reference'.

Kripke does consider the theory (or a version of the theory) which you put forward. The problem, which Kripke and Dummett both appreciate, is that viewing a name N as equivalent to 'the person named N' doesn't answer the philosophical question of how it is possible to give anything a name, and then subsequently use that name to refer to that thing. If you read Evans' book, you will see just how hard it is to explain this.

Still, considering the difficulty of the topic you have done a good job.

May I also recommend the article by John McDowell, 'On the Sense and Reference of a Proper Name' Mind, New Series, Vol. 86, No. 342 (April 1977), pp. 159-185. (You'll find it in JSTOR.) This is a quite difficult and subtle paper but very well worth taking the time to study.

All the best,


Monday, June 11, 2012

Why be moral?

To: Rakia F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 26 October 2007 13:17

Dear Rakia,

Thank you for your email of 18 October, with your notes on unit 3 of the Moral Philosophy program, and your first essay, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral'.

On the general question of 'understanding': Some of the things that you have difficulty with may be wrong or incoherent (when an academic philosopher says that he/she 'fails to understand' an argument this is generally intended as a criticism). But even where there is something coherent to be understood, you may not be ready at this stage to take it in.

The answer to the problem is to see your engagement with the text as a 'percentage game'. Provided that you can get sufficiently many good shots, you will have succeeded in extracting most of what is valuable or worth extracting. It is also possible that some of the points which fail to make an impression on you now, may come clear later when you have read more of the text and also looked at more secondary reading.

Unit 3

I am glad that you have got most of it.

On the question of ranking, the point (which I think you have seen) is simply that there is an alternative, intermediate position between a determinate scale of values with each decision assigned a different value, and no scale at all. Your question is, What do we do then? If there is no objective basis on which to decide between two alternatives which have been given the same ranking, does this mean that our decision is 'based on subjective feelings' after all?

Well, what do we do? A mere 'subjective feeling' is not a moral reason. The decision cannot be based on a whim, or because you like people who have blonde hair, or because today is Friday. So you act without reason. This is what we have to do. Any attempt to concoct a 'reason' where no reason exists would be a form of deception (or self-deception). I have tried to convey the sense of 'tragedy' in such cases, where we feel that the problem is too deep or too big for us, but we have to act anyway and bear responsibility for our action.

The case of moral dilemmas does not *prove* that moral decisions have an objective basis. Rather, it serves as an 'intimation' that something deep is there, that it is not just a matter of subjective likes or dislikes. Feeling the way we do about moral dilemmas, it is harder to agree (but not impossible, at this stage of the argument) with the subjectivist account of moral judgments.

Why be moral?

This is a good answer to the question, with which I have no real disagreements.

I think it is worth while to look closer at the claim that, 'Morality is the way people conduct themselves if they were, individually and collectively, to use reason in thinking about the choices that they face.'

David Hume, who gives a strongly subjectivist account of morality famously remarked that, 'Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them' ('Treatise of Human Nature' Book II, Part III, Section III). On Hume's theory, one of the passions which rule us is natural sympathy, and it is on this basis alone that morality can be 'rationally' based.

In other words, reason can only be claimed as an 'objective' basis if, as you say, there are 'objective facts' which reason is able to discern. These facts need not be (as I have argued) Platonic 'Forms'. An alternative account would be that there are logical constraints on human reason which can be discovered through philosophical argument.

In the program, it is argued that recognition of the 'reality of the other person' forms the basis for such an overriding principle of rationality.

This is where the argument gets somewhat complex: I want to give due recognition to the fact that each of us is 'stuck' in a particular time and place -- in a particular body. Despite this, we are able fully to acknowledge the 'reality' of other persons, and discover reasons for action not based merely on what we want, but rather on the recognition of the needs and wants of the other.

This is similar to, but distinct from the strategy used by Kant, who argued that the 'categorical imperative' is the overriding principle of rationality which guides our actions.

One philosopher who has appealed to the connection between moral reasons and belief in 'other minds' is Thomas Nagel (see, Nagel's book 'The Possibility of Altruism'). However, the thinker whose views are closest to my own is Emmanuel Levinas, in his account of the 'otherness of the other'. You might find it easier to look up articles on Levinas, as his writings are not very accessible to the student.

All the best,


Friday, June 8, 2012

Strawson's critique of Cartesian mind-body dualism

To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson's critique of Cartesian mind-body dualism
Date: 26 October 2007 12:15

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 16 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Explain and assess Strawson’s reasons for thinking (i) that a Cartesian is committed to thinking that a dualist reduction or analysis of the idea of a person is possible; and (ii) that such a reduction or analysis is not possible.'

This is a good essay, which shows that you have thought hard about Strawson's argument against dualism and its implications. I was hoping that this would be the first (!) essay I have received on this topic to agree with Strawson's 'no entity without identity' argument. But we will come to that in due course.

You are right in what you say about the need to establish that Descartes is committed to dualism. It is a fair point to make that Descartes does not attempt to give an argument for dualism until the 6th Meditation. However, the question uses the wording, 'is committed to' which implies that according to Strawson what Descartes says about the self in Meditation 2 is sufficient to *commit* him to dualism.

In that case, what we are looking for is an argument which takes what Descartes says in the extract as a premise and has as its conclusion a theory which is clearly recognizable as dualism. You could say a bit more here (remember this is a two-part question) relating what Descartes says in the text to what any dualist is committed to.

It is a fair point that a sceptic (your spellchecker seems to have substituted 'scenic') might deny the existence of a material world, in which case we would have an alternative, non-Strawsonian way to be 'anti-dualist'. Actually, I think 'sceptic' is also wrong. You mean 'idealist'. A sceptic would say that we cannot prove the existence of material objects, but nevertheless allow it is possible that they exist. That possibility would be sufficient for dualism.

You give a good account of Strawson's first argument against Descartes. I agree with you that Strawson is doing little more than stating, without argument, that according to dualism, a reduction of statements about persons to statements about minds plus statements about bodies must be possible but cannot, in fact, be given. What Strawson is doing here is simply putting the onus of proof on the dualist rather than going for a knockout punch: 'OK, you think that the reduction can be done: show me how.'

Your explanation of Strawson's main argument is sufficiently clear to make the argument seem persuasive. However, you disagree. Let us look at the reasons for your disagreement.

You offer two arguments. The first argument is that if God made my soul, then he knows whether or not it is the same soul. The second argument is that even if God doesn't exist, 'subjectively it makes little difference' if I am one self or a bunch of selves, whether I have identity over time or am a succession of fleeting selves.

In response to the first argument, one would cite a principle to which Descartes must agree: that God can only do what is logically possible. If there is no criterion of identity for souls, then even God cannot count souls. What I think lends some seeming plausibility to your objection is the idea that, from God's point of view, the soul is more than just something subjective, a bearer of mental properties. God 'sees' the metaphysical substance of the soul. However, we still need an account of how this metaphysical substance is multiply instantiated. Souls are not located in space, so the possibility of using spatio-temporal position as a method of discrimination is ruled out. Unless you can provide an alternative way in which identity and difference could be explained, your objection reduces to a mere assertion, 'God could do it, we don't know how,' which is a nice prop to fall back on when all else fails.

It could be argued that your second objection concedes too much to the sceptic. Descartes believes that he is a thinking *thing*. Whereas, you are prepared to admit that the only thing that Descartes is aware of is the fleeting 'I-now'. However, the topic of this discussion is dualism and arguments against it, and someone who believed in the existence of a material world, plus a fleeting non-material series of 'I-now' moments which cannot be gathered together to form a 'substance' would count as a kind of dualist, albeit of a non-Cartesian variety.

One more point worth noting. Strawson's own position (as explained further in Ch. 3 of his book 'Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics') is different from material monism. His view is that there are two kinds of spatio-temporal particulars, material objects and persons. A 'person' just is the kind of entity to which both material and psychological predicates apply. From the perspective of a diehard materialist, this could be seen as a sophisticated version of 'dualism'.

All the best,