Thursday, August 30, 2012

Defence of Locke's view on real and nominal essences

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Defence of Locke's view on real and nominal essences
Date: 1st April 2008 11:21

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 20 March with your University of London Modern Philosophy 'free' essay in response to the question, 'Is nature "pre-packaged"? -- A defence of Locke's distinction of real and nominal essence.'

This is a superb essay. I would have liked to have known your other sources besides Ayers and Locke, as the argument is of a level of sophistication which implies (to me) that you have read quite widely. The Kripke/ Putnam view of natural kinds would be an obvious example.

There is so much to say. First, the context of the debate (I don't have Ayers to hand but I guess that he refers to this) is J.L. Mackie's resurrection of Locke's account of real essence in his book 'Problems from Locke'. Some earlier abridged editions of Locke actually had the important passages removed. To students (like myself) who were reading the unabridged version of the Essay, Mackie's book came as a revelation.

The traditional interpretation of Locke saw him very much through the eyes of Berkeley, and wrongly identified 'real essence' with the conception of substance which Locke ridicules with the story of 'what the earth rests on' (and the infinite regress which that generates). Mackie reads Locke in the light of Kripke and Putnam, as recognizing the importance of an indexical aspect to the classifications that we make (the point you make with the two varieties of gold).

In an important sense, Locke is right and Aristotle was wrong. That's the crucial point. Locke takes the empirical view of real essence. We seek to adjust nominal essences to our conception of description of the world which provides the best explanation for the varieties which we find in nature -- something which science seeks to discover. This is a major 'interest', although not necessarily our only interest in making classifications.

Aristotle's view of essence, by contrast, has to be understood against the background of his implacable hostility to atomism and the idea of the possibility of micro-structural explanation (e.g. in 'On Generation and Corruption'). In Aristotle's view, human reason and the exercise of sense perception ought to suffice for understanding the world in which we find ourselves. The idea that there might be something forever beyond our knowledge -- imperceptible 'atoms' -- was totally unacceptable. Hence, Aristotle gives Platonic view of essence, as something ultimately given as a metaphysical fact. Water freezes and boils because that is just what the ultimate nature of water is, that is its essence. In respect to this archaic view, anyone today would count as a 'nominalist', including (I hope) Ayers.

Modern attempts to resurrect Aristotle have concentrated on the importance of micro-structural explanation to sortal concepts (such as 'man' or 'horse') which underlie our ability to identify spatio-temporal particulars. You will find this in David Wiggins' fascinating book 'Sameness and Substance', an expansion of his earlier, 'Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity'.

This is where your speculations about worlds where things are as Locke thought they might be on a micro-structural level -- indefinite variability rather than the 'pre-packaging' which we find in our world -- really bite. It seems a merely contingent fact that we inhabit a pre-packaged world rather than a variable world. The problem, however, is that a truly variable world would be one where it was difficult, if not impossible, to provide adequate criteria for spatio-temporal continuity.

From the standpoint of metaphysics, of course one wants to be able to provide a description which is to a large extent independent of mere contingencies. But at least in this respect, the very nature of particulars (in the sense described in Strawson's seminal work 'Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics') does seem to depend on a remarkable contingency, namely the contingency which makes it possible to identify particulars in the way that we do, as examples of natural kinds.

The idea that borderlines between kinds may be fuzzy and don't have to be sharp goes with the empirical view of real essence. The world is messy. There are varieties of ways in which we collect things together in order to explain their properties as flowing from an underlying identity of structure. This idea, however, would be unacceptable to Aristotle. Form is given as a metaphysical fact, that which divides things into given kinds and makes classification possible. There would be no reason or logic in overlapping, clustering or indistinct forms.

One point from Ayers does remain: Locke didn't know what we know, and therefore wasn't in the position to state that the world is, in fact, nicely pre-packaged in all sorts of ways. However, given this, it is all the more remarkable that Locke described a view of essence which goes perfectly with what we know now about biology, chemistry and physics.

All the best,


Abstract and concrete, time and motion

To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Abstract and concrete, time and motion
Date: 31st March 2008 12:28

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 16 March, with your essay for the ISFP Associate Award, 'Abstract and Concrete', and your email of 27 March, with your Associate essay, 'Time as motion and motion as time' which is the second version of an essay which you originally submitted on 4 March.

I am very glad that you are now focusing your attention on getting through the Associate. It has been quite a while since we have been able to add good material to the Pathways Essay Archive.

Abstract and Concrete

I can definitely see scope for an essay along the lines of, e.g., 'Is there a useful distinction to be made between concrete and abstract objects? evaluate different views about the nature and explanation of this distinction.'

The main difficulty with this question, as indeed illustrated by your essay, is that it overlaps with a number of other questions, the most important of which is the traditional distinction between particular and universal, as well as the Fregean distinction between 'complete' and 'incomplete' expressions ('objects' and 'concepts' -- see Frege 'On Concept and Object') and their corresponding referents.

Do we need to recognize the existence of abstract objects? For example, the set of all movable objects on my desk weighing more than 10 grams is an abstract object. However, it differs in a significant way from the set containing the null set together with the set containing the set containing the null set together with the null set. The latter might be called a 'pure' abstract object by comparison with the former 'impure' abstract object. A pure abstract object does not require the existence of concrete objects.

Talking of sets also makes clear that the issue we are addressing is not the same as the question of the nature of universals.

Is a person a concrete object or is it (as Lewis holds) a set of person stages? On Lewises theory, two such sets can in principle overlap, e.g. if I put you into a person duplicator and out come two GFs. Then GF1 is the set of all person stages from your birth up until the moment when GF1 appears as 'the one on the left' while GF2 is the set of all person stages from your birth up to the moment when GF2 appears as 'the one on the right'.

On this view, a 'person' would be an 'impure' abstract object rather than a concrete object.

Bernard Williams, in response to thought experiments about person duplication has gone one stage further in suggesting that one day we might view a 'person' such as GF or GK not as an object but a universal or predicate, like, 'Ford Corsair' or 'Pontiac Firebird'. An example of 'GF' is any object displaying the characteristic attributes of GF-ness, and there could be lots of such examples, all of whom are in a sense conscious of possessing the 'personal history of GF'.

This illustrates the importance of distinguishing 'universal' from 'abstract object'. To say that a person is a universal (as in Williams) is, prima facie, different from claiming that a person is a kind of abstract object (as in Lewis).

Are there pure abstract objects or only impure abstract objects? It has been long recognized that you can do arithmetic 'without numbers' in the sense of analysing numerical statements using only first-order predicate calculus and identity, without going on to make to the further stage of identifying numbers with sets. This is a view in the philosophy of mathematics. Opposing views would be that numbers do 'exist' as either impure, or as pure abstract objects. In Z-F set theory, numbers are defined as pure abstract objects, while, by contrast, the definition of n as 'the set of all n-membered sets' would be consistent with the view that numbers would not exist if no concrete objects existed.

If there are pure abstract objects, how does the human mind succeed in making 'contact' with them? Is that even a sensible question to ask? This seems to be the issue you are gesturing at towards the end of your essay. If no conscious beings existed numbers would still exist -- or would they?

Time as motion and the motion of time

As it stands, I have more difficulty seeing this as a potential essay for the Associate. The point Aristotle is making is admittedly philosophical. Time and motion, in the sense of the motion of an object through space, are interdefinable. This tells us something about time. Yet it also in a sense leaves the mystery of time unaddressed.

The explanation which you offer seems truistic. Measurement of time is the comparison between one movement and another. In the time it took me to walk down to my office today, the minute hand of my watch traversed 192 degrees, i.e. it 'took me' 35 minutes.

The strong temptation, of course, is to see passage through time as itself a kind of 'motion'. But this is strictly speaking nonsensical. An object 'moves' when it occupies different places at different times, and all the places in between the start and end point of its journey. That assertion, however, would fully consistent with the claim, e.g. that time is ultimately unreal, a mere 'fourth dimension' like space.

By contrast, philosophers who insist on the 'reality of temporal passage' want to say that there is something extra or additional which Aristotle's claim about time and motion does not capture. Motion is 'real' and not analogous to the occupation of different places by an extended object.

Indeed, Aristotle himself held a view which is inconsistent with the static view of time: in his discussion of 'the sea battle' he denies that there is a meaningful sense in which we can describe the world as already containing (as it were, from a standpoint outside of time) an answer to the question whether there will be a sea battle or not. The future is open, still to be decided.

In terms of Aristotle's point about time and motion, is it possible to raise any interesting philosophical questions without going into the clash between different views on the reality/ unreality of time? I think there is. You could look, for example, at the question whether it makes any *sense* to hypothesize the possibility of an 'empty time', i.e. a period of time where nothing in the universe changes or moves. This is one of the questions addressed by Richard Swinburne in his excellent book 'Space and Time'.

All the best,


Deductive-nomological model of scientific explanation

To: Yasuko S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Deductive-nomological model of scientific explanation
Date: 25th March 2008 13:44

Dear Yasuko,

Thank you for your email of 16 March, with your University of London Methodology essay, in response to the question, 'Scientific explanation is the explanation of effects by causes.' Discuss.

This is a solid essay which addresses the question relevantly and clearly, and would be very adequate as an exam answer. Although you say that you find the topic difficult, what you have written is relatively clear and straightforward.

I agree that the main issue is whether the D-N model is adequate, and, if not, whether adding conditions relating to our intuitions about causal relations would be sufficient to make good the deficiency.

However, one thing that this simple picture ignores the fact that one of the motivations for proposing the D-N model was to avoid the need to refer to the 'primitive' notion of cause and effect.

You do mention Hume's critique of causation in your essay, but only in the context of the question whether Hume's revisionary analysis of causation is itself adequate.

Why do we think we 'know' what a cause is? Could it be that we are under some kind of illusion or primitive superstition that there are such things as 'causes' and 'effects'?

Bertrand Russell is one example of a very prominent philosopher who argues that the notion of causation ought to be entirely removed from science. Here is an actual quote:

'In the following paper I wish... to maintain that the word "cause" is so inextricably bound up with misleading associations as to make its complete extrusion from the philosophical vocabulary desirable...' ('On the Notion of a Cause' in 'Mysticism and Logic' Unwin 1917).

What I am suggesting is that a better structure for the essay might be to start off briefly with objections to causation, then a discussion of Hempel, followed by a reconsideration of causation which avoids, or tries to avoid, the original objections.

Who needs causation when you have laws which explain and predict? This is not, however, a rhetorical question as your examples show. Some alleged 'explanations' which follow the D-N model are not explanations, and the reason they are not is because they 'explain' a cause in terms of its effect.

This still leaves us in the position of relying on ungrounded 'intuitions'. Why are these intuitions so strong? Why is it so difficult to reduce causation to other notions?

One possible line that I would consider if I had to answer this question would be to note the important relationship between the concept of causation and human agency. Identifying causes and effects is what we do all the time in our daily lives, whenever we seek to intervene in the natural course of nature in order to bring about a result which we are aiming for.

For example, I am building a giant sun-clock using a flag pole. How long does the pole have to be in order to cast a shadow which will reach the hour markings which I have set out on the lawn? Well, obviously it depends on the time of year! But the point of the example is that if I want to change the length of the shadow, I have to lengthen or shorten the pole. I can't alter the pole by altering the shadow.

In general, we identify 'causes' as the things we can alter through our agency, and 'effects' as those which result from the interventions which we make, using the apparatus at our disposal.

Against Russell, it could be argued that we simply *can't* get rid of the notion of cause and effect because it is an essential part of understanding ourselves as agents in a world in which we do things and in which things are done to us.

Rather than simply re-introducing 'primitive' causation, however, this suggests a possible way in which one might meet the objections to the D-N model by viewing D-N explanation within the context of human technology. Say, if you like, that every example of a D-N pattern is an 'explanation'. Nevertheless, some 'explanations' in this broad or weak sense are ineffectual, while others are not, and the difference lies in their practical utility. An example of a D-N pattern is an 'explanation' in a strong sense when it represents the structure of a procedure which one might ideally employ to bring about the explanandum through human intervention in the course of nature. (Of course, such intervention is not always practically possible, but we can still imagine what we would do if our powers were suitably extended.)

Although we started off criticizing Hempel, this looks like a possible defence of Hempel rather than a criticism. Yes, the D-N model produces some funny results, but we have an explanation for these funny results which doesn't undermine but rather supports the basic idea of D-N explanation.

As far as your essay is concerned, if you were answering this question in an exam, then a short section explaining how the D-N model was intended as a better alternative to cause-and-effect explanations would help to underline the point that the D-N model, useful though it may be, doesn't succeed, after all, in removing the need for a concept of a 'cause'.

This is close to the eclectic view which you support at the end of your essay, that what we should do is 'not to make models of explanation compete with each other but to keep integrating them and expanding the model of explanation in order to make it possible to cover its diversity.'

All the best,


Moral dilemmas and Mill's principle of utility

To: Stephen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral dilemmas and Mill's principle of utility
Date: 25th March 2008 12:24

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 12 March, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Does Mill’s use of the principle of utility threaten the reality of moral dilemmas? In so far as there is a tension between Mill’s theory and the reality of moral dilemmas, what is the best way of resolving it?'

I would expect you to do well if you took the Introduction to Philosophy exam this year. However, it's your choice and if you feel that you would get a better mark if you waited a year then that is a consideration you have to take into account. However, in your decision you also need to factor in the danger of getting 'stale' because you have spent too long on a module. In any case, however well prepared you are, there is always a risk when you sit an exam that you will have an off day.

I agree with you that the topic of moral dilemmas is difficult. We look to moral theories for guidance about making moral decisions, and if all a theory can say is, 'Here's a case where there really is no single "right" thing to do,' then there is a suspicion that our theory isn't up to much, and we should look for a better theory.

Of course, that is not the only role for moral theories, but it is one very important role. And certainly it is one that Mill took seriously.

A lot of thought has clearly gone into this essay. However, you are right in your suspicion that it is somewhat diffuse in relation to the question, which is relatively precise. You are not being asked to give a general overview of the problem of moral dilemmas and the various views taken but rather evaluate the argument that 'Mill's use of the principle of utility threatens the reality of moral dilemmas'.

On the face of it, either it does or it doesn't. It does, if Mill's use of the principle of utility implies that every moral dilemma has a solution AND if we accept that some moral dilemmas don't have solutions. Otherwise, it does not.

This suggests a relatively simple structure for an essay in response to this question:

1. Examine whether Mill's use of the principle of utility implies that every moral dilemma has a solution.

2. Examine the claim that some moral dilemmas don't have solutions.

Even if you reject 1. you can still look at 2. In fact, the examiner would expect you to do this, rather than simply doing the absolute minimum required to answer the question.

The question pointedly refers to Mill, rather than utilitarianism generally. That is the point of the second part of the question where you are invited to supply a fix to Mill's theory which resolves the alleged tension.

You make an interesting against Williams' claim that moral dilemmas are more like conflicts of desire than conflicts of belief, citing the example of a 'change of religion'. Perhaps a better illustration would be a physicist trying to decide between accepting one of two theories, where there is no possibility of embracing both. Accepting a theory has long term practical consequences for one's choice of research project, and in this sense a wrong decision could lead to regret. Perhaps the moral here is that difficult dilemmas can arise with beliefs whenever there are important practical consequences. However, Williams might come back at this example (as well as the example of religion) arguing that this is not a typical case of 'belief', but on the contrary more like the choice of a course of action.

My view of the question, for what it is worth, is that Mill has already given up the possibility of a calculation which decides the 'right' thing to do in accepting that there are different and incommensurable grades of happiness. How many pigs would you slaughter in order to make Socrates happy (even in his discontendedness)? Is there a finite number, or is the tiniest amount of 'higher pleasure' worth any amount of 'lower pleasure'?

That aside, the utilitarian's guiding idea is that even though with good will we don't always choose the ultimately 'right' action -- because the calculation is just too difficult, or because we are ignorant of the 'correct' weighting to give different levels of pleasure/ happiness -- nevertheless the answer objectively exists. We either hit the mark or we don't hit the mark. And Guttenplan's objection is that this falsifies the experience of grappling with a moral dilemma. We don't think, 'I hope I got it right' but rather we already know that we have, in a sense, done something 'wrong'. That is the point about the insoluble 'remainder'.

Of course, a utilitarian can always go up a level, and argue that the greatest happiness for the greatest number is best served by cultivating moral agents who respond to moral dilemmas in precisely this way. That is not really a 'fix' or improvement to utilitarianism but rather a last-ditch defence.

All the best,


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 'hard' problem of consciousness revisited

To: Katie H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The 'hard' problem of consciousness revisited
Date: 22nd March 2008 12:18

Dear Katie,

Thank you for your email of 9 March, with the second version of your essay for the Associate Award, 'The nature of consciousness and the Explanatory Gap.'

There is good stuff in here, and this piece is a definite improvement on the first version. There is a better sense of getting to grips with the problem itself, rather than merely surveying what various philosophers have said.

However, I still found the essay difficult to read, not because of any real obscurity but because of its circuitous structure. Although you start off well, distinguishing between the main types of response to the claim of an epistemological or ontological gap, I soon lost sight of this framework. Points and arguments were unnecessarily repeated, and the main point of your argument did not emerge with sufficient clarity.

I also felt keenly the lack of acknowledgement of the basic arguments that have been put forward in this area: Descartes' original argument, in Meditation 6, for mind-body dualism (which implicitly invokes the 'evil demon' hypothesis of Meditation 1); Chalmers zombie argument (you allude to it but don't explain how the argument works); Wittgenstein's private language argument (which forms the basis for Dennett's confident repudiation of qualia); even Nagel's argument in 'What is it like to be a bat?' which you mention, but fail to convey in a manner which would impress a reader who had not read Nagel's essay. (What is so important about Nagel is the way he turns the original Cartesian argument for dualism upside down, focusing, not on 'myself' but on another subject -- a non-human -- and using this to stimulate our intuitions of a gap between the first- and third-person standpoints.)

All this looks like I am asking you to write more; but in fact the essay at around 4500 words is too long as it stands. (The normal length for Associate essays is 2000-2500 words, with an upper limit of around 3500.) First of all you need to cut out the waffle and repetition.

To show what I mean, here is an example which I marked as 'waffle':

'The body-mind theory has generated ample debate and caused significant polemics, intriguing philosophers, psychologists and artificial intelligence researchers in the past century. Each different theory tries to find a way to justify consciousness within the physical world, taking into account the reality of the first-person conscious experience.'

That would be fine in a magazine article, but you don't have the luxury of doing this in an essay addressed to philosophers whose only interest is what is your contribution to the debate.

And here is an example which I marked as 'repetition':

'Should we be tempted to give up, in front of a potential delusion of never being able to claim a complete theory of consciousness? What Chalmers calls "the hard problem of consciousness" is just the right description for this dilemma. Will consciousness ever be completely explained? Any negative answer, epistemological or ontological would implicitly assume the "explanatory gap" as its basic realm.'

I'm not against repetition in principle, where this aids a reader's grasp of the argument. But my general impression was that there was just too much of it, and it didn't aid understanding.

In other words: you have to get down quickly to the point. And once you have made the point, move on.

For me, the 'meat' of your essay is in your very interesting suggestion, following Strawson, that our current notion of the physical is too thin -- still modelled on mechanics as the paradigmatic 'physical' theory -- and it is because of this that an illusory sense of an unbridgeable gap between the mental and physical is generated. This point deserved to be better highlighted.

Nagel's argument, of course, appears to circumvent this because any physical theory, however far it moves away from the paradigm of mechanics, is still based on the 'third-person' standpoint. However, it is not quite so clear that this argument is decisive, given that we simply do not know (yet) what are the outer limits of physical theory.

Strawson's point about the 'physical' goes together with his argument, in his book 'Individuals' for the view that a person is a special category of particular which bears both mental and psychological properties. This response to dualism remains a significant alternative to physical monism (in its various forms) because in effect it recognizes the dualism of material bodies (which don't have psychological properties) and persons (which do).

I also thought that the analogy between consciousness as a property of physical matter, and the observable properties of water was significant. To cap this point, you could have explained how realizability is consistent with non-reducibility, and used examples of emergent properties from the various sciences.

All in all, there is more than enough material here for a very good Associate essay. However, it needs to be much better organized and the structure of the argument made much clearer. If it helps, imagine how you would explain these points to a student who had not encountered the mind-body problem before. What are the main arguments? What is really important, and what is less important in the various debates?

Although Associate students nominally have two shots at each of their four essay topics, I am prepared to look at a third version, at a later date. However, I think it best that you leave this topic for now and concentrate on your next essay. Good luck with that!

All the best,


Franz Rosenzweig on death and redemption

To: Edoardo S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Franz Rosenzweig on death and redemption
Date: 19th March 2008 13:26

Dear Edoardo,

Thank you for your email of 8 March, with your fourth essay towards the Associate Award, 'From the fear of death to redemption: the "ecumenical" soteriology of a Jewish thinker.'

Although you begin your essay with a quote from Schopenhauer, 'Only small and limited minds fear death,' in the context of a discussion of Rosenzweig this is not with approval but rather as an example of the wrong attitude of philosophy, in 'denying' the existence of the problem of death.

As you may know, the question of the fear of death is one that has gripped me (I assume you have read my article 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?' at So I was very keen to find out what Rosenzweig's views are on this momentous topic.

Reading your essay, I learned quite a bit about the context in which Rosenzweig thought, felt a blush of pride in the great achievements of so many prominent Jews, but I struggled to find what is really essential in Rosenzweig's thought.

Maybe you did say it in your essay, but then it passed by me too quickly.

Let's start with the question of the necessity of death. Why is it necessary that we should die? If God loves us, surely he would not create this final crushing denial of all our hopes and dreams? Everything comes to an end. All achievement comes to nothing. All you love is destined to be lost -- either through your death or through the death of those you love. Is death not the most hateful and vile punishment that God could visit upon mankind? what have we done to deserve this?

In the face of this horror, what use is the rhetorical argument, 'Let's think if death didn't exist and we were forced to live forever! Our pains and sufferings would be without an end.' I'm not convinced by this. Why is suffering necessary? What about the traditional vision of Heaven as eternal bliss?

(Maybe you've seen the film, 'Death Becomes Her' with Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep -- two American society ladies who are seduced into taking a potion which makes them live forever. But their bodies are still susceptible to damage. Given unlimited time, think what that would mean. The final scene is truly horrific and wildly comic at the same time.)

Bernard Williams in his excellent essay, 'Reflections on the Makropoulos Case' (in his collection 'Problems of the Self') discusses a play where the central character is doomed to live forever. Williams argues that deathlessness would be an intolerable burden, not necessarily because it would involve endless suffering, but rather because the human personality is essentially finite, and eventually we would simply run out of things we wanted to do and face the prospect of infinite boredom.

This is a better argument, but still I am not convinced. Let us assume a God who has the capacity to make human beings according to any design of His choosing. Couldn't he design us to be capable of infinite improvement, as we progressed through our deathless lives? Why is that impossible? why wouldn't you want to be such an angelic being?

The idea that 'death is a necessary aspect of existence' is one explored by Heidegger in 'Being and Time', in his account of Dasein as 'being towards death'. From a theological standpoint, creatures are necessarily finite, necessarily capable of death (including angels). God cannot, as a matter of logic, create a being which He cannot destroy, and any being capable of destruction is ipso facto a being which faces the prospect of death -- however far off such death might be. Heidegger goes further even than this, however, arguing that it is impossible to *be* a 'self' (or, at least, an 'authentic' self) which does not recognize the necessity of its own death. Death, in Heidegger's view, is essentially linked to human freedom, to the capacity to take responsibility for one's own life, conceived as a necessarily *limited* whole.

My question would be: how does Rosenzweig's thought differ from Heidegger's? What has Rosenzweig seen that Heidegger missed? (or the other way round?) As Heidegger's views on death are far better known than Rosenzweig's, I would have thought that a discussion of Heidegger is essential. He is certainly not one of the philosophers who, like Schopenhauer, try to play down or deny the importance of the fact that we die.

I am tempted towards a thought which is strangely the reverse of Heidegger's. The very definition of death logically entails infinity: When you are dead, you are dead *forever*. But this notion is incomprehensible. There is no length of time during which you are not alive, which is the time sufficient to be pronounced truly 'dead'. At the very next moment, you might still return (as the dead rise from their graves on the Day of Judgement).

Imagine that you lie on your deathbed, happy that you have lived a good life and also glad that your suffering and striving is finally at an end. But then you remember Pascal's Wager. You cannot be certain that at the next moment you will not find yourself standing at Heaven's Gate waiting to be judged, and facing an eternity of either suffering or joy, but certainly not the 'nothing' that the secular notion of death implies.

So far as the Associate is concerned, you need to focus on Rosenzweig's arguments, spending much more time explaining exactly what his views on death and salvation are, and how they differ from the views of other thinkers. The litany of famous Jewish thinkers might be suitable for an article on Rosenzweig and his cultural context, but not for a philosophy essay where you are expected to get quickly to the point.

All the best,


Hume's argument against a substantial self or soul

To: Jeffrey D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's argument against a substantial self or soul
Date: 19th March 2008 12:02

Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for your email of 9 March, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'The philosopher Hume remarked that when he looked into himself, he never succeeded in catching sight of his 'self', but only of particular thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Is that a valid argument against the idea of a soul?'

One of the things I have tried to emphasise is that there is no 'correct' way to write an essay. What you have written, in my view, is excellent. The only thing lacking is your own appreciation of what you have done -- a mental model which places it within a certain genre of philosophical writing.

Descartes' 'Meditations' is an example of that genre. You are taking the reader along with you in a philosophical exploration, a meditation on a particular philosophical question.

Let me first say what I think is the point of Hume's remark. He is not just confessing personal ignorance. He is making a philosophical point against Descartes. According to Descartes, the one thing I cannot doubt is my existence. I know that I exist, and this 'I' is an enduring self, a mental 'substance' with attributes of thinking, perceiving, feeling, doubting etc.

In the Second Meditation Descartes presents his case for this mental substance, in effect, inviting the reader to perform the same mental experiment. And Hume's response is flat denial. What Hume's 'failure' to perceive his 'self' implies is that Descartes is not in fact reporting on his experience, or something that is directly presented to his subjective view but rather giving a theory.

In other words, Hume is presenting a phenomenological claim, a claim about how things *actually* appear. Sometimes we can be wrong about how things appear (odd as that might seem). We mix up appearances with prior beliefs and prejudices. That is the basis for the philosophical movement known as 'Phenomenology'. Before we can produce anything like a philosophical 'theory' we have to be clear about what it is that the theory is intended to explain, what the phenomena are *really* like. And that proves to be a much harder task than one first thought.

The key point, for me, in your essay is, 'I looked inside a car and I only see pieces that compose it.' Imagine someone who is totally ignorant of cars and how they work asking to be shown the engine. You open up the bonnet and say, 'There it is!' But they are still mystified. 'Is that the engine?', they keep asking, pointing to various components, the radiator, the cylinder head, the air filter. 'The whole thing is the engine!'

Gilbert Ryle makes the same point in his book 'Concept of Mind', using the example of a visitor to a university pointing at various buildings and asking, 'Is that the university?' In Ryle's view, the idea that there has to be a mental 'thing' which is the self is a 'category mistake'. Ryle would therefore approve of Hume's remark, even though Ryle would say that Hume had not fully succeeded in exorcising the 'ghost in the machine'.

Your view is that 'the whole thing' is the self, the various mental components which compose the system known by itself as 'self'. And that is Hume's view too. For Hume, the 'self' is a fiction, a convenient label for the mental system which according to his theory is built upon the principle of the 'association' and the 'bundling' of 'ideas'.

If there was a 'soul', it would have to play some role in this system. Maybe it does. But in that case the soul would be just one of the components of the system comprising the 'self' not the self as such. I think this is a point you seem to be making with your discussion of Aquinas.

Another point which comes out of your essay has a Kantian flavour: the idea that the system 'self' only comes into being in parallel with recognition of an external 'world'. It is through the proper functioning of the mental system -- taking experiences and forming a representation of an external world -- that the idea of the self as subject of experience arises, not as an immediate object of experience but rather as a necessary concept. We form the notion of a self through our interaction with a world.

What I would strongly suggest at this point is that you read some Descartes. Not the Discourse but the Meditations, or at least the first two Meditations.

I would like to see you try other essay formats, if only to convince yourself that you 'can do it'. After you have written your 'meditation' go through it and see how you would assemble the various points in an explanation, e.g. which you would give to a friend who was curious about philosophy. It's not that difficult. Try it and see!

All the best,


Schopenhauer on human freedom

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Schopenhauer on human freedom
Date: 12 March 2008 12:28

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 3 March, with your University of Londonessay entitled, 'How does Schopenhauer understand freedom?', based on Chapter 7 of 'Reading Philosophy'.

It is difficult to assess this essay because of the very general title. It doesn't look like an exam question to me (please correct me if I'm wrong). My guess is that in the face of Schopenhauer's difficult text you decided to attempt a synopsis of his argument, and as such it is not a bad job.

However, because your answer is so close to the text, some questions that one would really like to answer are left hanging: for example, Is Schopenhauer a compatibilist, or can his views be used in support of compatibilism? What exactly is the target of Schopenhauer's analysis -- considering that he goes to much greater length than philosophers like Hume, or Ayer, who have been concerned to defend a compatibilist view?

Nor does your essay exactly work as a introduction or summary of Schopenhauer's view of freedom. For that, one would need more distance from the text, as well as an awareness of approaches which contrast with Schopenhauer's, together with your view of what the problem is. Your essay is all exposition, without any commentary.

Let me try to describe in general terms the kind of thing that would work as an essay on 'how Schopenhauer understands freedom.'

First and foremost, why is freedom a problem? what are we talking about? Political freedom, which you mention in passing, is a significant topic in its own right -- witness J.S. Mill's essay 'On Liberty' where Mill takes pains at the beginning to distinguish the problem of political freedom from the problem of 'freedom of the will'.

Clearly, however, the main target here is freedom of the will. Schopenhauer is offering a solution -- of a kind -- although not the kind of solution that someone puzzled by the problem of freedom of the will is necessarily looking for.

Philosophers in the past have naturally assumed that the 'have' something, 'free will', and the problem then becomes how it is possible to have this 'thing' in a universe governed by deterministic laws. This leads, either to the fruitless search for the 'thing itself' that makes us free, or equally fruitless attempts to show how there could be sufficiently large gaps in the deterministic framework to allow free action, in the sense of action which is only determined by the will itself.

Instead, Schopenhauer offers a kind of 'error theory', similar in some respects to error theories in ethics (e.g. J.L. Mackie's defence of subjectivism in his book 'Ethics Inventing Right and Wrong'). It is part of the very nature of human deliberation that we are led down the false path of searching for the absolutely 'free will'. Even prior to engaging in philosophy, this shows in the way we convince ourselves -- like the man returning home from work -- that we are 'free' to do any number of things which in fact we will never do, and which are inconceivable given our character.

(Sartre, of course, would question this. The assertion, 'My character would prevent me from choosing to go to the theatre' would be diagnosed by Sartre as a classic case of 'bad faith'. The very fact that I am considering the theatre as an option gives rise to the possibility that I will make a radical break with what others would have predicted for me and jump off the bus at the theatre entrance.)

Schopenhauer investigates -- more brilliantly than I have seen done anywhere else -- the various illusions and logical traps which lead us to think that our freedom depends upon an 'unwilled will', or the capacity to will without any determining motive at all. He doesn't take the easy option of many compatibilists of simply offering a revised definition of freedom -- in terms of the absence of physical or psychological barriers to the normal process of deliberation and action.

Despite Schopenhauer great respect for Kant, he doesn't agree with Kant's view of the problem of free will and necessity. You mention something about Kant at the end, although I don't think (again, correct me if I'm wrong) there is anything about this in the extracts from Schopenhauer's essay. A comprehensive account of Schopenhauer's understanding of freedom would have to include this.

You do raise a question at the end, 'How can someone... be responsible for their own character?' How exactly is this meant to relate to Kant's theory of the 'thing in itself?' There is a perfectly good sense in which persons are responsible for their character which Aristotle investigated, namely, the importance of cultivating habits, the ability to form 'second order' intentions relating to the kind of person one would like to be, which gives rise to the possibility of moral improvement and also gives a sense to the notion of 'being responsible for one's character'.

To summarize: I've raised various issues which should have been the main elements in an 'expository framework' which would convey the significance of Schopenhauer's arguments, as opposed to what you have done which is to closely run through the arguments themselves.

Despite what I've said, on this evidence you should do well. You have managed to get to grips with a difficult text, and that is an achievement in itself.

Please, next time, send me an essay which I can argue with. I believe that is the best way that I can help you, and also the best way to prepare for the examination!

All the best,


Monday, August 20, 2012

Can you know you are not a brain in a vat?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can you know you are not a brain in a vat?
Date: 7th March 2008 12:48

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your University of London BA Epistemology essay in response to the question, 'Can you know you are not a brain in a vat? If you answer Yes, explain how you can know this. If you answer No, spell out the consequences of your answer for ordinary pieces of knowledge.'

In answer to the first part of the question, you reject G.E. Moore's anti-sceptical argument that he just *knows* that he has two hands. Your response to Putnam's argument that according to a causal theory of reference, a brain in a vat cannot have a concept of a vat, you argue that this state of affairs would be tantamount to a more radical scepticism according to which not only could we not know anything about an external world, we could not *mean* anything by our statements referring to an external world. It follows that I cannot know that I am not a brain in a vat.

As you will have gathered from my remarks in response to your previous Epistemology essay, I am in agreement with you on both these points.

As it is my job to pick holes and find angles that you haven't considered, it did occur to me that the question, 'Can you know you are not a brain in a vat?' can be understood in two different senses. You have taken it in the standard, sceptical sense as, given my situation here and now, is all I have experienced sufficient to rule out the hypothesis that I am a brain in a vat? The answer to that question is, No.

However, there is another sense of 'Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?' which means, 'Can we imagine circumstances in which it would be possible to know that you are a brain in a vat?' Imagine a scenario where some brains are envatted while others are not. Brains are routinely taken out of bodies and put in vats, or taken out of vats and put back in their bodies. By very careful attention to certain anomalies in your experience (e.g. repeating cats, rules being 'bent', as in the Matrix films) it might possible to tell with a high degree of accuracy whether you are currently envatted or not. No doubt Putnam would have something to say about this, but when I said above that I agreed with your dialectical response to Putnam I didn't mean to imply that I accepted his view of the causal theory of reference and its consequences. (This is in fact part of an argument I would mount against Putnam.)

In your answer to the second part of the question, you consider Nozick's account of truth tracking as an explanation of why the principle of closure fails, and also Contextualism which accepts the principle of closure but claims that there are different standards of 'knowledge' in different circumstances.

In both cases, your objection hinges on the intuition that knowledge is something absolute, an all-or-nothing concept. If I don't know that I am not a brain in a vat, then the knowledge that I have two hands, or that I am writing an email to you, isn't really *knowledge*, even if it is a belief which, say, is sufficiently reliable for practical purposes. 'I have two hands' can't be something which is 'true when out shopping, but false when discussing radical scepticism'.

In response to your first point, it seems that the anti-sceptic does have some room here to mount a defence. You say that you 'know' what you mean by 'knowledge', but how do you know this? Isn't the very least that follows, from your statement, 'I don't know that I am writing this essay', that there is room for *doubt* whether or not you are writing this essay? If there is no room for doubt, how can you not know? But what *is* doubt? To doubt that P, it is not sufficient to consider the logical possibility that not-P. In addition, there has to be something I can do, some way I can act, in order to make this *my* doubt. But that is something I cannot do. To say, 'I doubt', is not yet to doubt.

(Hence, Wittgenstein's cryptic response to the sceptic: 'Aren't you shutting your eyes to doubt?' 'My eyes are shut.')

In response to your second point, the question isn't about truth or falsity but knowledge. Your response to the sceptic is not, 'Even if I am in fact a brain in a vat, I still know I have two hands for the purposes of going out shopping.' That would be to relativize truth to 'truth in a world' (truth relative to the vat world, versus truth relative to the actual non-vat world). The sceptic is saying, 'Even if, in fact, I am not a brain in a vat, I still don't know this because if I was a brain in a vat I would think I was not a brain in a vat.' The contextualist response is to say that, if indeed I am not a brain in a vat then my belief that I have two hands is sufficient to meet the standards of knowledge in the contexts in which I normally use this term.

I liked your final parting short about Hume and the game of backgammon: 'The truth of a scientist's argument that being an ideal body weight is healthier than being overweight would not be refuted by his obesity, and the truth of his argument that it was healthier not to smoke than to smoke would not be refuted by his addiction to tobacco.'

In defence of Hume, I would argue that the point may be seen as being about the relation between knowledge and action (as above). Hume's project is to construct a 'theory of human nature' where the things we believe are founded, not on reason but on nature. In this 'context', scepticism is not a rejection of the possibility of knowledge but rather rejection of a false 'rationalist' account of the nature of human knowledge.

All the best,


Reasons for not opting for the best consequences

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Reasons for not opting for the best consequences
Date: 4th March 2008 12:32

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 25 February, with your essay in response to the University of London Ethics Contemporary Perspectives question, 'Can there sometimes be good reasons for not trying to perform the act whose consequences are better than those of any alternative open to one at the time?'

I accept your point that the question, 'Can there be good reasons?' can be understood in the sense of moral reasons or in the sense of non-moral reasons. However, the most obvious meaning of the latter would be, 'Is it sometimes rational to not take the moral choice?' (however the moral decision is made, either by evaluating consequences or in some other way). For example, someone who argued that self-interest has a valid place alongside morality would say that it is sometimes rational to prioritise your own self-interest over the 'moral' choice, as defined by some theory of morality.

This is a tricky point, because another understanding of 'the moral choice' would be the all-inclusive 'best' thing to do, taking account of the rightful claims of self-interest. (For more on this see the quote from Henry Sidgwick in my article, 'The Point of Business Ethics' in issue 41 of Philosophy for Business

A moral theory which rejected consequentialism in favour of a more inclusive view would not see the conflict that consequentialism sees between morality and self-interest. Strictly applied, consequentialism requires that one regards one's own self as counting for one unit in the utility calculation, which does not amount to very much in the big scheme of things.

The rest of your essay is mainly concerned with showing how actions which we resist doing despite their 'better consequences' -- sacrificing Jack who has come in for a medical checkup in order to donate his organs to five other people, or convicting an innocent man in order to prevent a riot and bloodshed -- can, in fact, be justified on a consequentialist view. As you so neatly put it, no-one would risk going into hospital for a checkup if they suspected that this might happen.

This is part of an answer to the question. You might have also considered an objection to this line, where we have a case where we can be confident that the secret would not be let out. E.g. one-time decision made by a man on his deathbed to which no-one else is privy, which involves an action we would regard as morally abhorrent from the perspective of our moral 'intuitions' but which has better consequences. At the least, one can say that the consequentialist is hard put to find explanations of why consequentialism can come up with an answer which corresponds to our intuitions in every case.

Bernard Williams has pushed this line one step further, in arguing that consequentialism is self-defeating, because for good consequentialist reasons we should not judge moral questions from a consequentialist standpoint. It is better all round if people do not believe the theory of consequentialism as a way of resolving moral questions. However, this still concedes the argument to the consequentialist. R.M. Hare, who has developed a theory of preference utilitarianism, accepts the view that there are effectively two 'tiers' in society, the philosophers who grasp that all moral questions are ultimately decided by evaluating consequences, and the rest of the populace who are taught moral principles and kept in the dark about their ultimate rationale.

Another point you make is that it is not clear how, in a real situation, one evaluates consequences. The point about causation is that we have to evaluate likely consequences as well as certain consequences. If you give a knife as a present to a young child, the likely consequence is that someone will get hurt, and therefore you am to blame if this consequences occurs. You are not to blame for consequences which could not possibly have been foreseen.

However, Bernard Williams (in Smart and Williams 'Utilitarianism For and Against' Routledge) also develops an anti-consequentialist line, using two examples:

1. On a visit to a South American dictatorship you are invited by an army Colonel to kill a rebellious villager, as a consequence of which the other rebels who have been rounded up will be allowed to live. Otherwise all will die.

2. You are a Chemistry BSc who after months of fruitless searching is offered a job at a chemical weapons facility. You desperately need the money to support your family. You consider the possible reason that if you take the job, the research will be conducted with less enthusiasm than if a supporter of chemical weapons research took it.

Williams accepts that it would be 'morally self-indulgent' to refuse to take the offered gun in 1. On the other hand, it does seem wrong to argue, on the basis of consequentialism, that you should accept the job in chemical weapons research if it goes against your deepest pacifist principles.

Williams uses this to develop a view of 'moral integrity' which, arguably, cannot be justified or explained in purely consequentialist terms. We are not, ultimately, expected to be 'self-sacrificing cogs in the utility machine'. It follows that there can sometimes be good reasons -- in terms of the requirements for not losing one's sense of integrity -- for not trying to perform the action which one evaluates as having the best consequences.

A famous argument which Williams also mentions is the 'Archbishop Fenelon' case, where you have the choice of saving Archbishop Fenelon, a very worthy man who has made many lives happier, or his housemaid from a fire. The housemaid is your mother. What kind of person could ruthlessly ignore the piteous cries of his mother in order to perform the action with the better consequences? Consequentialists will use this as an argument for the 'two tier' view I alluded to above, which is why it is not conclusive as an objection to consequentialism, as it has sometimes been taken to be.

I've mentioned Williams' view of integrity because it is one of the basic arguments that need to be considered. I don't think that it is sufficiently compelling on its own. It becomes more attractive when combined with the other arguments against consequentialism.

I did get a sense from reading your essay that you have worked out your answer to this question largely on your own, with minimal reading. Any reading that you can do on this question will help improve your chances in the exam.

All the best,


Are zombies conceivable?

To: Mike C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are zombies conceivable?
Date: 3rd March 2008 14:07

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your email of 19 February, with your essay towards the Fellowship Award entitled, 'Are zombies conceivable?'

In answer to your question about making a living from philosophy, this is a relevant question to me, as I have taken the unusual route of trying to make a living outside the academic world, effectively running a business marketing my philosophy courses. It is true that you will find philosophy graduates doing various things related to philosophy, for example Richard Lewis and his magazine 'Philosophy Now' so I am not unique.

You want to do serious research in philosophy. Outside the academic world, that is hard to do. I find it hard to find the time or energy to do serious research. Currently I am doing original work in the philosophy of business, but that is very much on the fringes of academic life. My main audience is non-academic.

My advice would be to get a job where you can do some good -- a job which you can bear doing -- and pursue philosophy as an independent philosopher. Maybe take a WEA evening class, as I did for many years and found very satisfying.

Your essay is clearly work in progress. The standard is well up to what one would expect from a graduate student.

You may have got a bit too bogged down in criticisms of the Churchlands' eliminativism. We are considering the question is 'are zombies conceivable?' Eliminativism would be one way of rejecting zombies. However, as you show, it is not the only way. What we are looking for is a dialectical hold on the zombie theory which identifies weaknesses in that theory. You are not asking what are the consequences of rejecting zombies for our conception of the mind-body problem but rather, simply, whether the zombie hypothesis itself makes sense, whether it adds up.

What is the zombie hypothesis? If we are assuming, from the start, a creature which is physically indistinguishable, say, from me, then so far as its physical properties and behaviour are concerned, the world in which it inhabits is nomologically and not just logically possible. The psychophysical laws which determine that my brain states are accompanied by 'something within' do not belong to the laws of nature which science investigates. Who is to say how 'lawlike' they might be?

I don't get why Chalmers thinks that the China brain thought experiment is relevant. Is it that it seems so far fetched to suppose that the entire population of China could, effectively, be a 'conscious self' that we are led to conclude that consciousness is an extra add-on? But doesn't that beg the question against the functionalist?

My argument based on blind sight is, in fact, intended to put the case for the possibility of zombies -- for the sake of reductio. In other words, I am trying to shore up the zombie theorist's position in order to have something more meaty to attack. Just as we can imagine an experience of 'disembodiment', so we can imagine an experience which would convince us that we had 'become a zombie' for a while. However, the point made in the Philosophy of Mind unit is that in neither case is the possibility of a certain kind of experience sufficient to establish the logical possibility of the hypothesis of 'mind separated from body'.

What you have done is combine that thought experiment with my argument that my zombie double would say just what I (supposedly a believer in the zombie theory) would say about the imagined experience, or about the possibility of zombies. 'I know I'm not a zombie!'

This isn't a knock-down refutation. A zombie doesn't 'say' anything. It makes noises which we hear as having a meaning, but which do not have any meaning for it. That is a possible defence, although I don't find it very convincing.

However, if this is right it puts paid to the idea that zombies would 'talk differently' from us, for example, telling another zombie to 'look out' as the bus approached. If they did, they would be zombies in a different sense from the one I thought we had assumed.

Suppose, however, consciousness is a feature of normal human brains. Defective brains still work in the main, but the lack of consciousness shows in behaviour -- in the things that the subject does and says. Then it seems that we are very much in film-zombie territory. Zombies totter around, or they talk in a monotone.

Isn't that a conceivable hypothesis? Yes, but then it is not clear how this relates to materialism. We have hypothesized a physical difference, so why isn't the physical difference enough to explain the different behaviour of humans and zombies?

The only way I can make sense of Chalmers' claim is in terms of the idea that consciousness is a kind of essentially non-physical 'stuff' that normal brains produce. How do we know this? Simply by virtue of the fact that I know that there is something 'in' me or 'about' me which science can never explain. There might be another subject physically very much like me which lacked the ability to produce conscious 'stuff', and no scientific investigation would be able to discover the physical difference between us, even though by hypothesis such a difference must exist, because it shows in behaviour.

That is a more difficult position to refute. My argument doesn't work, because I have assumed that there is *no* physical difference. However, in this case, Dennett has a plausible explanation in terms of the 'fine tuning' which distinguishes a working brain from a brain which is physically almost identical but functionally incapable of realizing conscious states the way normal brains do.

All the best,


Counterexample to Russell's theory of descriptions?

To: Graham C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Counterexample to Russell's theory of descriptions?
Date: 3rd March 2008 12:50

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 15 February, with your essay in response to the University of London Logic question, 'One can understand the claim, "the baby has been sick all day", without supposing there is one and only one baby in the world. So Russell's theory of definite descriptions is wrong.' Discuss.

I've taken you at your word and allowed this to remain in my in-tray for a little longer than it would normally do. I hope you enjoyed your holiday!

You give a clear explanation of Russell's theory, and you propose an initially possible refinement which would deal with the non-unique baby objection, namely to 'demote uniqueness from universal uniqueness to contextually relevant uniqueness'. You also explain the difference between refining Russell's theory and rejecting it, as Strawson and Donnellan do.

I'm not sure, however, about your second alternative for analysing 'The present King of France is bald'. The second, negative existential conjunct effectively states that for all y it is not the case that (if Fy then y is not equal to x), i.e. for all y it *is* the case that Fy and y=x, from the equivalence of P->Q and not-(P and not-Q). This states that there is one and only one object in existence and that object is the present King of France!

As I have rather a soft spot for Russell's theory of descriptions, I would at least like to have a go at defending the theory against the objections which you raise.

First, the question of contextual relevance. You say, 'Once the idea of contextual relevance is introduced, we no longer seem to be talking in terms of "denoting" but are back to referring (naming, pointing), which is precisely what Russell wants to avoid.' This isn't very convincing as it stands. Why does Russell want to avoid, 'naming, pointing'? Russell notoriously restricted demonstrative reference to objects whose existence has an epistemological guarantee, i.e. sense data, and he can well be criticized on this account (as Evans does in 'Varieties of Reference'). However, if we bracket that question and consider Russell's theory in combination with a more sensible account of indexical reference, then the question we have to consider is how statements including a definite article can have truth conditions.

The big objection to the alternative, i.e. Strawson, is that his initially more intuitive account of 'referring' is paid for by having to allow truth-value gaps, in cases where the presupposition is not satisfied. In the context of constructing a theory of meaning for a natural language, this is problematic.

If one could give a plausible account which did not have the consequence of truth value gaps, that would be preferable. Does contextualising definite descriptions do the trick?

Your second objection is that, 'The baby has been sick all day' would be analysed as follows:

1. There is at least one contextually relevant baby.
2. There is at most one contextually relevant baby.
3. Whatever is the contextually relevant baby has been sick all day.

The problem you raise is that the third clause uses 'the' and thus fails as an analysis as it contains the term that it was intended to analyse.

However, it is clear from 1. and 2. that 'the' in 3. is redundant. All you need is:

3. Whatever is a contextually relevant baby has been sick all day.

So I don't get the force of this objection.

Surely, there is a problem with contextual definite descriptions, as a way of resisting Strawson, in that this seems to give rise to the possibility of a failure of contextual relevance, analogous to Strawson's failure of presuppositions. If I write to you, 'I'm glad to tell you that the art therapy session went well' (e.g. as a result of mixing up email addresses) have I stated a truth, or is there a failure of reference owing to lack of relevant context? If the latter, then we have re-introduced truth value gaps.

This raises the question of the point of view from which we are analysing statements, i.e. the speaker/ writer or hearer/ reader. The idea of a theory of meaning in terms of truth conditions is based on the assumption that we can identify 'the' truth-conditional content of a statement, and yet clearly, the author and the recipient are not always in a position to agree on what this content is.

An alternative to contextualization which you might have considered is the much simpler explanation of ellipsis. When I say, 'the baby has been sick all day', I mean, 'the baby which (blah blah blah) has been sick all day.' The context gives the clue to what this is elliptical for, but reference to context is not part of the analysis of the statement concerning the definite description.

I think that this is the alternative which Russell would prefer. We often truncate the things we say because we know that the missing element will be supplied by the recipient. What we 'mean', however -- the content identified by speaker and hearer -- is given by the non-elliptical, non-truncated version. The hypothesis of ellipsis is not like claims about 'underlying logical structure', which raise difficult questions about whether the analysis is an analysis of actual language or a proposal for an 'improvement' on natural language (as, e.g. in Quine's account of 'regimentation'). We are all familiar with the practice.

The problem remains, however, that Russell's theory itself is precisely an example of such a problematic 'analysis'. Do we need it? Yes, some would say, if we are serious about the project of constructing a theory of meaning for natural language in terms of truth conditions; no, if one is sceptical about the prospects, or point, of a systematic theory of meaning in terms of truth conditions. (I'm not saying that these are necessarily the only alternatives.)

All the best,


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nature of metaphysics and the problem of evil

To: Benjamin A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nature of metaphysics and the problem of evil
Date: 29 February 2008 12:12

Dear Benjamin,

Thank you for your letter which I received by post on 19 February, with your first essay for the Pathways Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What is metaphysics? Is there anything special about the methods of metaphysics, or about its subject matter? Illustrate your answer with one example of a metaphysical problem or controversy.'

You have some interesting things to say at the beginning about the nature of metaphysics, that it deals with 'the hardest questions imaginable to the human mind' as well as 'the simplest'. A point you could have made here is that the simplest questions can often be the hardest, so there is not necessarily any real contrast here. For example, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is simple but also very hard question.

You also suggest that the reason metaphysics is a problem is that it is 'so very difficult to define'. However, this cannot be *the* problem of metaphysics, or even the main problem. Lots of things are very difficult to define. What distinguishes metaphysics is that it purports to be a method of inquiry and a source of knowledge, yet there is no agreement over its legitimacy.

In responding to this challenge, we may indeed find that we have to distinguish between different conceptions of 'metaphysics' -- the 'bad' as well as the 'good' -- and this is itself a difficult task. For example, one might hold, as Kant did, that 'bad' metaphysics attempts to prove ultimate facts like God's existence on the basis of logic alone, while 'good' metaphysics is concerned to delimit the necessary conditions for human experience, for example the necessity of the concepts of 'substance' and 'cause'. In this sense, I agree with you that one of the major issues that has been battled over is the 'definition of metaphysics'.

You have chosen as your example of a metaphysical problem, the Problem of Evil. Your main point here seems to rest on a relativist view of values. 'Good' and 'evil' are designations which different societies apply in different ways. Now, this could be contested. It could be argued that even if you and I would disagree with a Muslim fundamentalist about certain things, there are nevertheless other things that we would agree on, and that the disagreements can be traced, in part, to different factual beliefs as well as different religious beliefs.

Imagine a Christian arguing with a Muslim over whether it is 'right' or 'wrong' to stone women to death for adultery. Both agree that obedience to God's law is an absolute moral imperative. What they disagree over is the factual question of what God's law *is*.

However, behind the point about relativism is a more fundamental and more persuasive point about the difference between the human perspective and God's perspective. Metaphysics is, as you say, 'immeasurable'. If we suppose the existence of an absolute truth, and a God who knows this truth, a truth which we can never 'measure' or know, then the admission that values are a matter for *judgement* is sufficient to cast doubt on the claim that there is more evil in the world than a 'good' God 'ought' to tolerate.

How can anyone know this? It is difficult to argue with the claim that that the 'best of all possible worlds' in Leibniz's sense is likely to have some evil, simply because we accept that some goods, e.g. health, require a lesser evil, e.g. taking medicine. So now, the question resolves into, 'How much evil can God legitimately tolerate?' There is no possible way to answer that. Is the Holocaust 'too much' as some liberal Jewish theologians have argued? In that case, if God is good then He is not all powerful. God was unable to prevent the Holocaust. (This is in fact what my sister Elli Sarah, a Liberal Rabbi, believes.)

Maybe the Holocaust was 'necessary medicine' to prevent something even worse. There is no way one can debate that proposition, except in terms of what *we* can tolerate. Then the statement, 'There is too much evil in the world' becomes a statement about how we must necessarily view the world, rather than an objective judgement about God.

A related question which you pass over briefly is the point that 'moral evil' arises from the deeds of men, with the implication that God cannot be held responsible since denying human beings freedom to choose between good and evil would itself be a greater evil. Is this a good argument? It would have been interesting to know what you thought.

Finally, you suggest a radical solution to the problem of evil, that God is not 'omnibenevolent' as traditionally defined, but 'both good and evil'. This connects with two well-known 'heresies' in Christian theology: the heresy of pantheism which views God as ultimately identical with His creation, and the heresy of Manichaeism (or Manichaeanism), which holds that there are ultimately two forces in the world, represented by God and the Devil, and that God is incapable of defeating the Devil.

Pantheism does not solve the Problem of Evil, since we are still left with the question whether this is 'the best of all possible worlds' or whether God has fallen short in some way in allowing more evil than necessary. Manichaeism still attracts followers. However, if you are going to believe in a 'God' who has to share power, then why stop with two? Maybe the Earth was, as Douglas Adams says, made by super-intelligent mice.

The Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes (look him up in Google) produced what is still the most persuasive argument for the claim that *if* God exists, then there can only be one 'God', whose power is not limited by any other being.

All the best,


Prospects for an infinitist theory of knowledge

To: Christian M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Prospects for an infinitist theory of knowledge
Date: 26 February 2008 12:47

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 17 February, with your essay/ paper, 'Prospects for a Positive Motivation for Infinitism'.

Despite your intentions, you have succeeded in persuading me that Klein's theory is a strong prospect for a third alternative to foundationalist and coherentist theories of justification.

What I mean is that infinitism doesn't just appear as the only remaining alternative -- however implausible -- after foundationalism and coherentism have been rejected. There is a strong (for me) intuition at the basis of infinitism which connects with something which many would accept at a pre-philosophical level: namely, that the reasons for a truth are plentiful and inexhaustible, whereas the reasons for a falsehood require increasingly contrived and artificial 'justifications' which finally give out when one reaches the point of total absurdity.

As with any theory in the context of philosophical analysis, intuitions are not always easy to articulate and pin down, as the objections which Klein considers and the two objections which you look at in your essay demonstrate.

However, I am going to have a go at meeting your two objections, the objection of 'adequate truth theory' and the objection of 'convergence behaviour'.

Adequate truth theory

As you point out, coherentism naturally goes with a coherence theory of truth, although it is possible to be a coherentist who rejects the coherence theory of truth. Indeed, a coherence theory of truth is much harder to defend than a coherentist theory of justification.

Similarly, foundationalism naturally goes with a realist/ correspondence theory of truth, although once again it is perfectly possible to be hold a foundationalist theory of justification and yet be an anti-realist about truth.

So what about infinitism? If we view the infinitist as not holding that there 'exists' in some timeless sense an actually infinite chain of justifications but rather holding that justifications are inexhaustible, then the appropriate model for 'truth' would seem to bear a remarkable resemblance to what Popper says about corroboration.

Although Popper holds a correspondence theory of truth (Popper's 'third world') we can describe a 'falsificationist' theory of truth and meaning analogous to Dummett's 'anti-realism', which defines 'truth' negatively as a proposition which is falsifiable but resists every attempt at falsification. This is not the same as the possibility you consider, of an 'ideal observer' theory which defines truth as ideal convergence at the limit of inquiry. The 'truth' -- i.e. that at which judgements aim -- is that which has the potential to withstand every objection, that is to say, for every attempt to cast doubt on the proposition a suitable defence can be found.

This is a radical move, because in a sense it does away with truth in the traditional sense.

Having said that, I see no reason why the infinitist about justification should not simply help themself to a correspondence theory of truth, just as in Popper's own account of the methodology of scientific research.

Getting back to the quote from Ginet, 'inference cannot originate justification, it can only transfer it from premises to conclusions', the correct response should be that justification is nothing other than the process of weeding out beliefs which rest on false assumptions. The more thorough one's attempt at weeding out, the more confidence one is justified in having that the proposition in question is in fact true.

Convergence behaviour

I don't see that each proposition in the inferential chain must necessarily 'add to the total credibility' of the proposition in question. It must pass the test of being a recognizable reason for believing the proposition, and this assumes that in the background we already have a conception of what is or is not a 'good reason' for the case in question.

This is an important concession in itself, because it is not as if everything is up for grabs. We have rationality, our background beliefs about the kind of thing that looks like a reason or explanation for something.

There was a famous case in the last century of children who 'discovered' that they had fairies living at the bottom of their garden. The claim was never conclusively refuted. Well, suppose I made this claim. You ask me why, and I have to tell you something which has the capacity to function as a relevant reason. I can't say, 'Because the tomatoes are growing much better in the poor soil than I expected.' Any number of more plausible explanations can be given for the health of the tomato bush.

On the other hand, if I said, 'There are fairies at the bottom of my garden because there are pixies there, and where there are pixies you will always find fairies,' all I have succeeded in doing is create a bigger target to shoot down. Now I have to justify fairies and pixies.

A photograph of a 'fairy sighting' would be a possible justification. Now we have to look at reasons for accepting that the photograph is genuine and not just another example of the kind of thing UFO hoaxers concoct in the darkroom.

You can see where this is heading. There are three broad categories of potential reason:

1. Those which would be an adequate explanandum, like the tomatoes, but where we have any number of more plausible explanations.

2. Those where we merely succeed in increasing the size of the target, hastening the point at which 'total absurdity' is reached.

3. Those which offer genuine evidence which, however, rests on assumptions which themselves require further justification.

Realistically, therefore, I do not accept the objection that one could 'spin out a long enough chain of inference' for any belief. There are practical limits to what one can spin, and when those limits are reached, the falsehood is seen for what it is.

All the best,


Can you know you are not a brain in a vat?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can you know you are not a brain in a vat?
Date: 25 February 2008 12:51

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 16 February, with your University of London Logic essay in response to the question, 'Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?'

This is a well judged response to the question which succeeds in avoiding irrelevant side issues such as arguments against the principle of closure, and focuses on three plausible arguments for rejecting the claim, 'I cannot know that I am not a brain in a vat.'

Having said that, I was a bit surprised that you didn't plug in here your view about different concepts of 'knowledge' which might have led to an inconclusive, rather than a positive or negative answer to the original question.

Your train of thought might be reconstructed along the following lines: as you say, 'responses to scepticism may be concessive or dismissive'. However, the present question is not asking about responses which concede the point at issue. Therefore, only one concept of 'knowledge' is relevant, namely that in terms of which I am genuinely concerned to discover whether or not I really do 'know' that I am not a brain in a vat, thus dismissing the sceptic's challenge.

You consider three counter-arguments, Moore's argument from his 'Refutation of Idealism', the argument from externalism-reliabilism, and Putnam's semantic argument. However, the first two are clearly intended to reject the concept of knowledge which the sceptic assumes in posing the question. So your responses look less than convincing from a Moorean or reliabilist perspective.

A line of thought which clearly influences you is the argument, 'You would say that, wouldn't you!' 'You (Moore) say that you know you have two hands, but you would say that if you were a brain in a vat. Therefore, your assertion is not persuasive.' - Doesn't that seem rather odd? Isn't it making rather strong assumptions about the nature of knowledge?

Here's an argument you might use against me. 'GK cannot know that he is not suffering from paranoid delusions.' I say to you that I know that I am thinking rationally, and not suffering from paranoid delusions. You say, 'Ah, but that's just what you would say if you were suffering paranoid delusions.' My belief structure is sufficiently 'rational' to enable me to plan the week's household budget and comment on philosophical essays, but it is nevertheless paranoid. That's something I can't disprove. Why isn't that a good argument for scepticism?

The broadest 'context' for knowledge -- even broader, arguably, than the context of being in direct contact with an external world -- is rationality. Even Descartes was not prepared to consider that he might be mad, and the consequences that would then ensue for his project of reconstructing knowledge. This looks, possibly, like a wedge that Moore could use to establish a 'common sense' starting point for questions about knowledge.

How could reliabilism be of 'use to me in determining whether or not I am a brain in a vat'? The reliabilist should have got to this point in the first place. We are not in the business of convincing ourselves about what 'I do or do not know' but rather evaluating the knowledge claims made by another person, from our perspective, where we assume the truth in question and ask whether the other person's true belief meets the requirements for knowledge. This is what the concept is for, the reliabilist would say, to sort believers into those whose word carries some reliable authority and those whose hold on the truth is insufficiently secure.

Putnam is a different kettle of fish. Your strategy here is to concede Putnam's view about the causal reference theory, but turn his argument around so that far from refuting scepticism, we have merely deepened it. It is not merely the case that I do not know that I am not a brain in a vat. I do not even know that the words I use have the meaning I take them to have.

I am sympathetic to this line, but playing devil's advocate, I can see Putnam coming back with the following: The question was, precisely, 'Can you know that you are not a brain in a vat?' Putnam's answer is, 'Yes, if indeed you understand the question.' If I am a brain in a vat, then the words 'brain' and 'vat' in the question don't mean, to me, what the person posing the question means by them. The assumption is that, if you ask a question, then you are looking for an answer from someone who understands the question.

Admittedly, this looks a rather ad hominem, nit picking answer to the sceptic's worries. In defence of Putnam, one could see this as a dialectical move designed to shut the sceptic up. We all feel we 'know' what the sceptic 'means'. Only, it can't be *said* in that way. As a sceptic, you can't say, 'I don't know that I am not a brain in a vat', nor is there any other meaningful sequence of words that one can say which succeeds in expressing what one holds to be true.

My own response, however, would be to challenge Putnam's semantic essentialism. I don't think that concepts can be tied down in this simplistic way. The whole strategy is too similar to the 'bad' arguments based on Wittgensteinian criteria which Putnam rejects (see his critique of Norman Malcolm's Wittgensteinian arguments in 'Dreaming' (RKP), in 'Dreaming and Depth Grammar'). You can't lay the law down about meaning. Scepticism is one of the more interesting ways in which we discover new ways of 'meaning' familiar words.

All the best,


Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind

To: Adam F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Difficulties for a materialist view of the mind
Date: 22 February 2008 12:20

Dear Adam,

Thank you for your email of 15 February, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'What difficulties stand in the way of a materialist view of the mind, according to which thoughts, feelings and sensations are ultimately nothing more than processes in the brain?'

Your effort hasn't been wasted. This is a good piece of work, which clearly shows that you have done some research and thought hard about the significance of the question.

The question refers to the difficulties facing materialism, so, strictly speaking the fact that there are also difficulties with dualism or idealism is not relevant to answering the question, as stated. Maybe there are difficulties with every theory of the relation between mind and body. So what?

You are right to pinpoint Descartes 'depiction of the mind as being a non-physical substance' which to a large extent (though not exclusively, as we shall see) defines the problem faced by the materialist.

The problem of qualia is best illustrated by a provocative argument put forward by David Chalmers. I can imagine the existence of a duplicate of GK on 'twin earth', who is physically indistinguishable from *this* GK in every way, except for the fact that 'all is darkness within'. In other words, GK's zombie double. At this very moment, GK's zombie double is sitting at a desk writing an email to his student, AF, or if you like, AF's zombie double.

We may assume that the entire story about how the email gets written, goes through the internet and gets to you has a physical explanation (in other words, we have ruled out Cartesian interactionism on the grounds that it is inconsistent with current physics). And yet, there seems to be something extra 'in' me, which has no role to play in explaining this sequence of physical events, but merely 'exists' in just the way Descartes said: I cannot doubt that, at this very moment, I have experiences corresponding to the physical processes taking place. For example, a constant hum, tapping sounds, patches of light in my visual field and so on.

The problem with this argument -- effectively, an argument for a version of epiphenomenal dualism -- is that it relies (in my view) on an illicit notion of 'private object', as attacked by Wittgenstein in his 'Philosophical Investigations'. There has been huge debate over this. What seems hard to argue with, however, is that by hypothesis my zombie double will act in every was as if it 'believes' that it has qualia too, which is a very strange result if not an outright refutation of the argument.

There is a very useful discussion of Frank Jackson's knowledge argument in the Fellowship dissertation by Samuel Michaelides which you can find on the Pathways site at, so I won't say any more about this.

These both concern what has been described as the 'hard' problem of consciousness, the sheer inexplicability of the reality of subjective experience.

The problem of intentionality, on the other hand, seems more tractable because we are familiar with the idea that a physical system can embody 'content'. This is the idea that the human brain is, essentially, no different from a computer running a 'program', a view advocated by Daniel Dennett. Even if there is no 'program' as such for the human brain -- a view held by 'connectionists' who see the brain as best modelled by a 'neural network' -- there might still be a broader sense in which mental content has a 'functional' basis, albeit one which cannot be decoded in the way that one can analyse the structure of a computer program.

It is agreed on all sides that there is, in fact, an 'explanatory gap' as you describe it. The question, however, is whether this explanatory gap merely reflects the contingent limits of human knowledge at the present time, or whether it has a deeper significance.

Thomas Nagel, in his now famous essay, 'What is it like to be a bat?' gives an argument for questioning physicalism which does not rely on Cartesian intuitions about 'one's own case', but rather stimulates our intuitions about how we view subjects who are very different from us, such as a bat. According to Nagel, physics is essentially limited by its adherence to the 'objective view'. Any solution to the mind-body problem can only come about through a new 'science' -- which at present we can barely envisage -- which would somehow bridge the gap between the subjective and objective.

Colin McGinn and John Searle both offer variations on this theme, McGinn arguing that the very nature of the human brain and the concepts we are able to form prevents us from comprehending the nature of the relation between mind and body, while Searle allows that science might yet come up with a solution, but hasn't done so yet, using his thought experiment of the 'Chinese Room', to reject the popular AI route espoused by Dennett.

I hope that some of these remarks will help you pursue the question further, when you have the time. It is a vast topic, which continues to generate thousands of books and articles.

All the best,


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The 'hard' problem of consciousness

To: Katie H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The 'hard' problem of consciousness
Date: 21 February 2008 12:33

Dear Katie,

Thank you for your email of 10 February, with your second essay for the Associate program, entitled, 'The nature of consciousness and the explanatory gap.'

This essay has the potential to be a very useful survey of the current state of debate over the 'hard' problem of consciousness.

My main criticism is that it did read a bit like too much of a mere survey. A survey is fully acceptable in, say, physics, where you are collating a wide range of results and presenting a summary of the different positions for the benefit of a researcher who is looking for a fruitful topic to investigate.

The difficulty with doing this in philosophy is that the statement of the 'position' that a philosopher holds is not fully separable from argument about the nature of the problem. You do succeed in doing this to some extent, although not as much as I would have liked.

There is definitely something very interesting to say here, about different conceptions of the 'explanatory gap', its 'hardness' or 'softness', whether the gap is fundamentally ontological or merely epistemological. However, these possible views about the explanatory gap need to be related more closely to the different arguments for the existence of a gap in the first place.

Consider, for example, Chalmers' notorious zombie argument. First, I would question whether Chalmers is an interactionist. If there is no physical basis on which I can be distinguished from my zombie double, then any causation from the mental to the physical must be undetectable, having no observable consequences which differ in the case of my zombie double where causation is from the physical to the physical. This looks like epiphenomenalism to me.

The question, however, is, What is the zombie argument an argument *for*? We have two candidates:

(1) The view argued in different ways by Nagel, Searle and McGinn that physical science is incapable of grasping the nature of consciousness -- a view which is consistent with holding that mental events ultimately have a physical nature, but we just can't grasp it, either because physics as a method of inquiry is restricted to the objective view (Nagel) or because our present science is simply too primitive (Searle) or because of a fundamental restriction in the kinds of concepts that the human mind is able to form (McGinn).


(2) The view that the universe contains, in addition to physical entities, a second kind of entity which is not necessarily a soul as Descartes believed but is essentially non-physical, which one might call a 'Cartesian mental event' or CME in recognition of the fact that *I* know, without any possible room for doubt, when a CME is occurring while it occurs. I *know* what the colour 'blue' looks like to me at this moment, what a 'tickle' feels like and so on. You and I can agree in the 'public meaning' of these *words* but only the subject who is experiencing the CME can be aware of what the word refers to, at the time when the word is used. The definition of CME looks very much like the definition of a 'quale'.

Although Chalmers writes as if he is advocating option (1) it is difficult to read the zombie argument in any way which does not entail an argument for the existence of CMEs, in other words (2). How do I *know* that there could be a zombie physically indistinguishable from me? Only because I am aware of *this* event of consciousness which accompanies the word 'blue' as I remark on the blueness of the sky today, or the word 'tickle' as I implore you to stop tickling me.

The zombie argument is, indeed, highly paradoxical for reasons which you must be only too well aware. As I write my article defending epiphenomenalism and citing the zombie thought experiment as my main argument, my zombie double (on twin earth) is doing exactly the same thing!

The main argument, of course against CMEs is Wittgenstein's private language argument which Dennett repeatedly cites as the final, knock-down refutation of any attempt to introduce qualia.

My personal interest would therefore focus more on conceptions of a gap which are fundamentally epistemological rather than ontological. Dennett, for example, mounts a strong defence of the view that consciousness can, in principle, be 'explained'? What, if anything, has Dennett missed? What evidence is there for the existence of a fundamental failing in the very nature of physical explanation which discredits it from explaining consciousness, or in the nature of the human brain or human concepts which prevents us from grasping the nature of consciousness?

So far as my recommendations for changes go, I am not asking you to necessarily incorporate the points I have made. What I would like you to do, however, is to make the essay look a bit less like a survey. One way to do this would be by philosophically describing the problem *first* and then, gradually, introducing the various philosophical positions as the need arises rather than start by giving a long list of all the views that have been held.

Also, you are entitled to take a view. Which arguments do you find persuasive, which less so? What are the prospects, in your view, for a resolution of this debate? or is debate destined to go on for ever, without reaching a conclusion?

All the best,