Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Does Plato's ideal of love downgrade persons?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does Plato's ideal of love downgrade persons?
Date: 29 October 2008 11:37

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 23 October, with your University of London essay for Greek Philosophy: Presocratics and Plato, in response to the question, 'Plato's ideal of love not only downgrades bodies but persons also.' Discuss.

This is an excellent piece of work, although marred somewhat by (what seems to me) a fallacy in the second paragraph of your introduction. I'll deal with this first, in order to get it out of the way.

You say, 'what gives a body its dignity, and thereby makes its degradation (sic) possible is purely the fact that it is the corporeal manifestation of a person.'

In other words: a necessary condition for downgrading the human body, is that the body is the corporeal manifestation of a person. It is only in relation to the bodies of persons that the question of downgrading (or not) can arise. A chair does not have 'dignity' because it is not the body of a person.

It is true that a chair or a table are merely items from the phenomenal world, and as such 'downgraded' in relation to the Form of the chair or the table. But what we are talking about is an attitude which Plato is advocating towards the human body over and above the observation that all material bodies are merely shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.

Second premiss, 'Plato does not downgrade persons.' (To be proved.)

Your conclusion: 'Plato does not downgrade bodies.'

I don't see how this follows. Superficially, you seem to be assuming that if X is the manifestation of Y, then anything one does to Y, one also does to X. Here's a counterexample to this form of inference: An angry face is the manifestation of anger. However, you can suppress the angry face (hide your anger) without suppressing the anger. That is because there is more to anger than an angry face. Similarly, there is more to a person than his body. If one's view is that what is most important about a person is their non-bodily aspect, their mind, then one will say the kinds of things that Plato says about the body.

It is all the more puzzling that you make this claim, given what you say later in your essay about Plato's determined attempt to distract the lover's focus away from the body and towards the mind of his beloved. To a modern reader, the idea that sexual interest is a distraction is indeed correctly described as a 'downgrading' of the body.

However, having said that, I can see a possible argument that would go along the following lines: The person who has 'escaped the prison house of the body' is a purely intellectual entity, no longer capable of affective states. The philosopher 'loves' the Forms because the philosopher is still imprisoned. Set free, there is no longer any gap between desire and the desired which could give any meaning to the notion of love. So in a very real sense, the body is absolutely essential for Platonic love. In this sense, the idea that we would be better lovers if we didn't have bodies is absurd. It is necessary to be embodied, in order to practice the restraint on sexual desire which Plato advocates.

Getting to the main argument of your essay, I like your use of the distinction between utility love, mutually beneficial love, selfless love and self-sacrificial love. Your case, in a nutshell, is that Plato's view that love for a person is ultimately a means to gain a vision of the Form of Beauty, and ultimately the form of the Good, is not a 'downgrading' because a person can be viewed, simultaneously, as a means and an end. Indeed, as part of this process, the beloved also gains this vision.

I find your arguments against Vlastos convincing. And yet I can't help feeling that there is something seriously amiss with Plato's account, and that it does have something to do with the *way* the beloved is used as a means. Let's assume from the start that it is OK to gain benefits from loving a person which are not, thereby, benefits for the beloved. The beloved also gains benefits, so the balance is restored.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the closer the lover gets to attaining the ultimate object of his desire, the vision of the Forms of Beauty and the Good, the less *important* the beloved becomes in relation to this philosophical quest. To use Wittgenstein's metaphor at the end of the Tractatus, you discard the ladder after you have climbed up. Continuing to care for one's ladder after one has made the ascent is mere sentimentality. For the true philosopher, philosophy and the Forms are the ultimately lovable thing. In short, Plato puts knowledge, episteme of the Forms, above relationship.

This is not to dismiss the important insights shown in the Symposium which you emphasize, as well as Plato's remarkable understanding of human psychology. The setting of the Symposium itself tells us a great deal about the importance which Plato attaches to human love and friendship; his concept of the philosopher is very far from the ascetic ideal embodied in the figure of Diogenes who spurns all material comforts. But this serves merely to heighten the contrast between the enjoyment of life, good company, good wine and the incomparable thrill of philosophical enlightenment.

All the best,


Michael Dummett on anti-realist theories of meaning

To: Michael Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Michael Dummett on anti-realist theories of meaning
Date: 28 October 2008 13:52

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your email of 21 October, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What do you understand by Michael Dummett's idea of an 'anti-realist theory of meaning'? Give an example illustrating how such a theory of meaning would be applied to one particular class of statements,' your email of 22 October, with your notes on unit 10 and your email of 23 October with your notes on unit 11.

Dummett does in fact consider a multiple world version of anti-realism in 'reality of the past', distinguishing it from genuine anti-realism. However, he doesn't consider the possibility of a 'global' multi-worlds theory. In general, Dummett would be hostile to the approach to the realism/ anti-realism debate taken here, although given his great regard for Wittgenstein, one would have thought that he ought to be prepared to consider a 'dialectical' approach.

According to my anti-realist, what we term the 'actual world' is not a world, but an indeterminate *subset* of all possible worlds, namely those worlds which are consistent with possible knowledge. This preserves a distinction between 'actual world' (as a subset) and 'non-actual world' as the remainder when the subset is removed.

Truth as evidence and verification

You have taken on a very difficult topic, and also a difficult writer. In addition to that, there are issues which Dummett assumes his reader to be familiar with, and therefore doesn't attempt to explain.

In his article 'Truth' Dummett is doing several things. First, he considers the problem of empty reference and also the problem of conditionals with false antecedents (the paradoxes of material implication), in relation to the idea of bivalence. His intention here (which I think you have misunderstood) is to defend a Russellian analysis. Russell's theory of descriptions was famously attacked by Strawson in 'On Referring'. In that article, Strawson argues that in cases of reference failure, a condition which was 'presupposed' by the making of the assertion fails, and therefore we can't speak (as Russell wants to do) of the assertion being false.

Dummett's reply, in effect, is, 'If presupposition failure isn't a kind of falsity, what is it?' In other words, the principle of bivalence is too important and central to our understanding of truth, to give up merely on this basis.

A similar argument (perhaps more controversially) applies in the case of material conditionals. In the conditional P->Q, according to the truth table for '->', the statement is false when P is true and Q is false, and true otherwise. Giving up bivalence is too high a price for reconciling the paradoxes that result from this.

In other words, Dummett's strategy is to defend the principle of bivalence against unjustified attacks, before attacking the principle by raising far deeper worries about the role of the concept of truth in relation to an account of the nature of a speaker's understanding of his/her language.

It is this argument that is crucial. In 'Reality of the Past' Dummett attacks the attempt to use the systematic linkage between the truth values of statements uttered at different times to defend realism about the past. For example, suppose you ask me what it means to say that it is true that an oak tree stood here one million years ago. I reply, 'It means that if the statement, an oak tree stand here' had been asserted one million years ago, it would have been true.' But this isn't how we *understand* statements about the past. It doesn't explain (according to Dummett) how it is that we grasp the very idea of a 'truth' which is not here and now.

We have a picture in our heads, say, of an oak tree standing there, but this picture doesn't suffice to account for the actual knowledge of how to *use* the statement in question. To quote Wittgenstein, it is a 'wheel that turns, although nothing turns with it.' Looking at the actual way in which we learn language, and manifest our understanding of language, the crucial thing is the *rules for use* of the terms in question, which cannot be derived from truth conditions.

I don't accept that Dummett is committed to making the statements you make about the example of the '150 people shot by the Chinese secret police in January 2008.' Any judgement about truth is a judgement made now. If we say what 'will be' true, or what 'was' true, we are still talking from the present point in time. You can speculate about what people will say in the future, in this or that circumstance, but this isn't the same as speculating about the truth value that the statement 'will have'. What I am saying here is just a corollary of the principle of truth value linkage which Dummett accepts. What he is denying is the realist's attempt to use the truth value linkage to defend realism.

All the best,


Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge

To: Alex V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge
Date: 28th October 2008 11:18

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your email of 22 October, resending your University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives essay which you originally emailed on 20 October, in response to the question, 'How defensible is Socrates' claim that virtue is knowledge?'

This is an excellent piece of work which raises a number of important issues. I liked your use of an original thought experiment (the peanut butter factory), intended to raise a difficulty about the relationship between virtue and prudence, which I shall discuss in a moment. I was also impressed by the fact that you were able to link up what Plato/ Socrates says about virtue in different dialogues.

There is a fundamental problem here, however, which you touch on, although it is not the main focus of your essay. This has to do with the 'is-ought' dichotomy and the idea that knowing what is the ethically right action in a particular situation is sufficient, by itself, to motivate ethical action -- without requiring, in addition, the desire to be ethical.

If one needed a desire to be ethical, in addition to knowledge of what is the ethically right action then your 'evil but shrewd' person Q is all that is required for an effective counterexample to the 'virtue is knowledge' thesis. Q knows all about virtue. He knows exactly what an ethical person would do in any situation; that is how Q is able so successfully to mimic the ethical person, and also how he is able to predict what we will do, in order to manipulate us successfully.

This kind of argument would sound very strange to Socrates, however. His view of virtue=knowledge is not the Kantian idea that reason suffices for ethical action (so that a person like Q is acting 'irrationally' and therefore demonstrating lack of knowledge in the sense of a failure of reason), but rather a view which Kant would decry as mere 'prudence', the idea which you explain of doing actions 'for the good of one's soul'.

What is good for the soul? I don't think it is possible to discuss this without explaining Plato's conception of the 'order' of the soul and its relation to the order of society. An ordered soul is more important than life or death. The courageous soldier is prepared to lay down his life for his comrades for 'self-interested' reasons, because dishonour is worse than death. This is something that was ingrained in the Greek concept of 'virtue'.

Is virtue a 'techne' or 'episteme'? Apart from combining techne and episteme, I think that there is another possibility which you have overlooked, which is emphasized again and again in the Socratic dialogues. Socrates repeatedly fails to define virtue, or courage, or temperance, etc. Yet he does not deny that there are persons who are virtuous, courageous or temperate. The moral that Plato/ Socrates draws from this is that we have a kind of recollected 'knowledge', sufficient (in some sense) for right action and also sufficient for our being able to *judge* when a purported definition is inadequate.

From this perspective, we seem to have a choice between saying that no-one is *really* virtuous, although persons can come close to virtue, because they have not achieved the end goal of the Platonic dialectic, which is 'episteme' of the Forms. We can form adequate judgements on what is ethically good or bad, or what is good or bad for the order of our souls, and yet these judgements are not fully knowledge, and therefore have the treacherous tendency to 'run away' that Socrates explains in the Meno, when talking about the road to Larissa.

In that case, perhaps Plato/ Socrates would reply to Kant that if you really *knew* the Forms, as the philosopher aspires to do, then you would find yourself incapable of acting anything other than virtuously. In that case (in some mysterious way, yet to be explained) knowledge does suffice for action.

I want to focus on the peanut butter factory example, in the light of this. I am not persuaded that 'Socrates assumes a virtuous person would sacrifice themselves'. Yes, if the upholding of virtue itself was at stake then sacrifice would be necessary. The virtuous man can never once allow virtue itself to be overturned. (Think of situations where this would be on the agenda: for example, resistance to an evil dictatorship.) However, in the present example, we have yet to decide what is the 'virtuous' thing to do. Socrates is not an 'altruist'. He does not require, of the ordinary citizen or the warrior, that they count themself as nothing in relation to the needs of the other. However, for the virtuous person, the good of others is worth risking one's own good, provided that the risk is a fair risk.

This is indeed how most persons would view the peanut butter factory example. You don't know that you will die from an allergic reaction. You fear that you might, but this fear has to be balanced by the knowledge that if you do nothing your acquaintance might die as a direct result of your inaction. It is a difficult judgement call. In this case, as in many real life situations, we are acting under conditions of uncertainty. We are not being asked to trade our good for the good of others, but rather to take a risk, and the only question is whether it is a reasonable risk. (This applies even in war, even though the notion of what is a 'reasonable' risk is very different: consider the contempt with which Allied troops viewed the Japanese suicide pilots.)

You also raise an issue about freedom. The view that virtue is knowledge, or that to know what is the ethically right thing to do is sufficient for ethical action, goes along with the Spinozist idea that 'freedom is the capacity to be determined by reason'. This is not what the ordinary man thinks of 'freedom' and yet we do have real life examples, as when someone says, 'Don't ask me to do that, I can't do it.' For the man or woman of virtue, there is no choice to make, no sense of 'freedom' to do good or evil. Maybe such persons are few and far between. The majority of us struggle along trying to discover what we should do, or what we should be.

All the best,


Deflationist view of the role of the truth predicate

To: Shan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Deflationist view of the role of the truth predicate
Date: 24 October 2008 11:22

Dear Shan,

Thank you for your email of 22 October resending the University of London essay which you originally emailed on 19 October, in response to the Logic question, 'Deflationists claim that the predicate 'true' does not stand for any property. What do they claim is the role for this predicate, and can this claim be justified?'

Coincidentally, I responded to the very same essay two days ago. My student, however, took a different line entirely, concentrating on whether the role deflationists generally attribute to the truth predicate can be justified in the face of alternative views about the nature and importance of truth.

There are two alternative ways of reading the question: (a) What according to deflationists is the role for the truth predicate and how good are their arguments for saying that it has that role? (b) What according to deflationists is the role for the truth predicate? Is that the only possible role for truth, or are there other roles which they have not considered?

You have given a very good, well researched answer to version (a). As a rule, I don't look at the examiners' reports, so I am genuinely uncertain what they are looking for in this question. As far as I can see, a good answer to the question might be an answer to (a), or (b), or both.

It is worth noting that asking about the 'role' of a particular predicate or concept, is a comparatively recent development in analytic philosophy. If you picked up a text book from 30 years ago, all you would read about are purported 'definitions' or 'analyses' of truth, where a definition of truth is a formula which gives necessary and sufficient conditions for the statement, ''P' is true,' or for the statement, 'It is true that P.' Talking about 'roles' rather than definitions gives the philosopher a certain amount of latitude.

You mention objections raised to the substitutional and objectual interpretations of propositional quantification, e.g. (P)(Percy asserts that P -> P), or (EP)(Percy asserts that P & P). (Incidentally, the latter would be a better reading of 'What Percy says is true' in a normal context of discourse. It is rare that we say, of a particular individual, that *everything* they say is true.)

However, the problems with substitutional or objectual readings isn't just a picky point. It could be argued that quantifying over propositions is absurd, it doesn't make any sense at all. That is because propositions aren't 'things'. The prosentential theory works well enough on the surface of language (you emphasize that the question is one of 'deep structure') but it can't be used to derive a strict definition of truth in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

On the other hand, if the question is not one of deriving a strict definition but merely 'illuminating the role' of truth, then different considerations can be brought to bear.

On the deflationist side, it can be said that the introduction of the truth predicate significantly increases the representational power of a language. A term that is merely 'redundant' has no effect on the representational power of language. It is a piece of discardable baroque. You don't want the term to be too easily definable, for that would be the same as showing that we didn't need the term in the first place.

My sympathies are with the deflationists. Yet I think that there is a danger of missing an important point. Dummett argues in his seminal article 'Truth' (reprinted in 'Truth and Other Enigmas') that an essential aspect of the concept of truth is that we 'aim at making true statements'. This seems on the face of it rather trite, but it is in fact a profound observation. To ask about the 'point of truth' is to raise a fundamental logical and metaphysical question about what it is to 'consider a statement' or 'make an assertion' in the first place. What is judging, or stating or asserting? The debate between the realist and the anti-realist, which so intrigues Dummett, is a debate about the nature of truth which (as I would argue, though Dummett would not) is consistent with a deflationary stance yet at the same time demonstrates the depth of the questions that the philosopher is able to raise, once armed with the truth predicate.

In other words, it is philosophers who need the term 'truth', more than anyone else. Outside philosophy, we rarely use the immense power of generalization that the truth predicate embodies to its fullest extent.

That is how, paradoxically, one can state that the question of the 'nature of truth' is relatively trivial -- a matter of simply giving the equivalence formula -- while at the very same time, one of the deepest questions in philosophy.

All the best,


Friday, October 26, 2012

Is knowledge a form of justified true belief?

To: Graham C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is knowledge a form of justified true belief?
Date: 24th October 2008

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 14 October with your University of London Epistemology essay, in response to the question, 'How should one respond to apparent counterexamples to the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief?'

I don't need to tell you that this is an excellent piece of work, and I can well understand how it took you a considerable length of time to write.

I have problems with this question. As a matter of principle, I don't look at the examiners' reports, so I may be being over-picky here. But to me, 'the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief' is consistent with the view that knowledge is justified true belief which meets some further condition, e.g. Goldman's. However, the question asked for your response to counterexamples to the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief. If knowledge is a form of justified true belief, then justified true belief is necessary for knowledge. Nothing has been said about sufficiency. Gettier's examples are intended as a counterexample to the view that justified true belief is sufficient for knowledge.

If I'm right, then a picky examiner will simply draw a line through all the stuff about Gettier and Goldman.

However, you have picked up on what I see as the main point of the question: which is looking for a general response to all apparent counterexamples, in the form of a strategy for 'having one's cake and eating it', that is to say, accepting that (maybe) a lot of the time, knowledge is justified true belief, but there are also correctly described cases of 'knowledge' which don't meet this definition: so much worse for the philosopher's attempts at strict definitions in the form of necessary and sufficient conditions.

Which leaves a puzzle: why are we doing this, anyway?

The apparent counterexamples to the necessity of belief provide a good way to explore this question. As you show, from one point of view the nervous schoolboy certainly knows his stuff. The cheat, who knows this, knows that his answers are correct, and therefore she knows the answers.

One point to make here is that an examination is a peculiar setup which does not normally occur in everyday life. I've walked out of an exam before (a maths exam which I hadn't prepared for), but generally the rule which most examinees follow is, 'Give each answer your best shot even if you're not sure: you might be lucky.' (On second thoughts, this probably wouldn't work for maths.)

The schoolboy is giving it his best shot. But out there in the real world, there are serious choices to make and someone who acts without knowledge can end up in a ditch, or in hospital. Do you take the pills from the pill bottle with the missing label? If there is room for doubt -- even if, from an observer's point of view, it is pathological doubt -- aren't you taking an unacceptable risk? How can you 'know' if the state of your belief is such that it is risky to act?

Another thing you could have talked about in the essay are whether justification is needed for knowledge and the whole issue of reliabilism as well as externalist alternatives to the traditional, internalist concept of 'justification'.

Which brings us to the main part of the debate. You remind the reader of the things that are usually said at this point: about Wittgenstein's notion of 'family resemblances', suspicions about answers which are pitched at 'too high a level of generality', Russell's warning about knowledge 'not being a precise notion', etc. But we still have the basic question, What is knowledge?

Do you have to be a sceptic (of any variety) in order to question the value or importance of the concept of knowledge? In the real world, when we argue and debate, or investigate the world and form theories about it, the question at issue is, most of the time, 'Is this true?' rather than 'Do we know?' There is more point in raising the question of knowledge about *someone else*, on the assumption that we are sufficiently satisfied that the proposition in question is true. Do they know?

Putting the question this way, emphasizes that there is something worth investigating about another subject's cognitive relation to the world. Their state of certainty is one issue, which affects the way they will behave in different possible situations. Their state of knowledge, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Whether they 'know' or not turns on our assessment of their potential usefulness as a source of information about the world. It is a question, not of how the world appears from their point of view (belief and certainty) but rather how they and the world conspired to put them into this state in the first place, how the facts whatever they may be express themselves through them.

Or something along those lines.

Towards the end of 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein muses that the use of a piece of notation is not just governed by more or less arbitrary rules: 'So I am inclined to distinguish between the essential and the inessential in a game too. The game, one would like to say, has not only rules but also a point.' (564)

I would argue that asking about the point of knowledge is a different way of approaching the question from the traditional 'necessary and sufficient conditions' view. Yet it is still connected with the idea of definition. It is still worth while proposing definitions and considering counterexamples, provided that we don't forget what these definitions are 'for'.

All the best,


Strawson's claim that Cartesian souls cannot be individuated

To: James V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson's claim that Cartesian souls cannot be individuated
Date: 23rd October 2008 11:33

Dear James,

Thank you for your email of 14 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy Essay, in response to the question, 'Strawson states the principle: 'If we are to talk coherently about individual consciousnesses or minds we must notice the difference between one such item and two such items.' Is this principle correct? Does it create a problem for Descartes' account of the mind?'

You have gone all around this question, but I am not sure that you have answered it adequately. The main virtue of your essay is your stress on the positive, and valuable aspect of Descartes' insistence on the special nature of introspection. This is important, because whatever we say about the mind, we don't want to be forced into a conclusion which denies the reality of introspection, or its value as a source of genuine knowledge.

The question is in two parts. In the first part, you are asked to say whether you think 'this principle' is correct. Which principle? On the face of it, the principle is the one stated in the question, 'If we are to talk coherently about individual consciousnesses...'. However, the *general* principle in question is, 'If we are to talk coherently about F's, for any thing identified as being 'an F', we must notice the difference between one F thing and two F things.'

Well, is the principle correct? Towards the end of your essay, you say, 'Even if we were to look at two roses, for example, while they might look and seem the same, their innate cells might differ somewhat.' However, this is not the kind of 'identity' Strawson is talking about. There is no logical reason why there could not be two roses which were *qualitatively* identical in every respect. (The philosopher Leibniz famously denied this, but that is a separate issue which relates specifically to Leibniz's philosophy of 'monads': more below.) What makes the two 'identical' roses two, is simply their different spatial location. That is all we require to count roses, or indeed any material entity.

In other words, the 'identity' in question is numerical identity, or being 'one and the same F'. Suppose there is a twin James Vanstone on twin Earth, he is not you, even if he is thinking the very same thoughts, doing the same actions as you are doing now. By hypothesis, 'twin earth' is somewhere out there in space. There are two Earths, earth and twin earth, and hence two JV's, JV and twin JV.

Now, you might think that this principle is too strict. Surely there are 'things' we can talk about, which don't have clearly delineated 'criteria of identity'. For example, clouds or mountains. When do you have one mountain with two peaks, or two mountains? So there is a question here whether the identity principle allows any margin of vagueness.

However, Strawson's case against Descartes is not undermined by worries about vagueness. Strawson's argument is that qualitative identity is not sufficient for 'being one and the same'. In addition, we require spatial location. But souls by definition are not located in space. Therefore souls do not have criteria of identity.

The problem isn't only, as you seem to suggest, that I might legitimately speculate that 'James Vanstone' is two or twenty souls, all thinking their thoughts in unison. When I look into myself, nothing that is presented to my consciousness tells me that there is one GK rather than twenty GK's.

The same point can be made about the identity of a soul over time. You give a good example of how we can speak of the identity of a person, say Hitler, over time, despite considerable physical and mental changes. However, if the concept of mind or soul is cut loose from the physical, as Descartes claims that it is, then there would be no difference, in reality, between the hypothesis that JV or GK 'dies' every second and is replaced by a qualitatively indistinguishable JV or GK, and the hypothesis that GK or JV continue. (This point was made by Kant in his 'Critique of Pure Reason'.) Again, it makes no difference whether you are talking about me, or me about you, or each of us is gazing inwards trying to 'track' our own identity through time. There is nothing to track. The phenomena in themselves do not point to identity or non-identity, for the very reason that things would phenomenologically *appear* just the same either way.

Why space? I remember as a student at Birkbeck long ago answering this question (or a similar question) thinking that Strawson is simply assuming from the start the very thing that Descartes denies: that the only time we can speak of numerically different entities is when we are speaking of spatio-temporal particulars. Why can't Descartes just lay it down, as an absolute metaphysical principle, that even if we allow that there can be 'qualitatively identical' physical things, it doesn't follow that we have to allow that there can be qualitatively identical mental things. So the criteria of identity for a soul or mind is simply its unique mental properties, which no mind, in principle, can possess.

There is one possible way in which one might defend this objection, or at least a version of it. That requires denying the reality of space altogether, and hence denying Cartesian dualism, in favour of a Leibnizian view, where reality as such is constituted by unique points of view, or 'monads', each point of view being uniquely characterized by its subjective qualities. This is not good news for Descartes, although in the absence of any alternative he probably would have preferred Leibniz's mental monism to Hobbes' physical monism.

All the best,


Marx's claim that profit equals exploitation of the proletariat

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Marx's claim that profit equals exploitation of the proletariat

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 13 October, with your essay from the University of London Politics paper, in response to the question, 'Does Marx show that the source of all profit under capitalism is the exploitation of the proletariat?'

Starting an exam essay with one word, 'No' (or, for that matter, 'Yes') will not fail you, but examiners have seen it all before so it will probably raise a yawn - which is something you don't want to do.

Leaving aside the Marx's antediluvian terminology, the issue as you have correctly perceived, boils down to the question whether workers are exploited by the mere fact that the products of their labour are sold for a profit. Whatever money is raised by selling the things produced by the workers -- the value of the product as determined by the current state of the market -- should go to them and not to someone else who didn't work to produce them.

This seems so obviously nuts, that it is hard to imagine why anyone could have believed this. As you point out, capitalism is an inherently risky affair. To be a successful entrepreneur requires not a little skill. If anyone could be a successful capitalist, we would all be rich. The capitalist is a 'worker' too, and according to the skill scale, deserves more for his time than a factory worker or cotton picker, don't they?

And yet, it is also very obviously the case that we all recognize the concept of 'exploitation' in a broadly Marxian sense. The American philosopher Robert Nozick in 'Anarchy, State and Utopia' argues that any arrangement freely entered into cannot result in an 'unjust' outcome. Despite Nozick's defence of radical libertarianism, most people would accept that if no-one will employ you because you are disabled, or black, or a woman, and I offer you a pittance which because of your economic circumstances you have no choice but to accept, then that is exploitation. It is unfair and unjust, and something should be legislated for.

In the reality of today's global capitalism, there are plenty of such 'injustices', but the activities of companies are limited not only by government regulation (for example, minimum wage legislation) but also increasing consumer awareness.

But this is all besides the point; the question says, 'all profit'. A fair employer who gives a decent wage is as much an exploiter as a sweatshop owner, so far as Marx's point of principle goes.

It is not going to cut any ice in response to point out that workers now share profits, through company schemes and profits from their insurance policies. It doesn't matter how much distance you go towards increasing worker involvement and compensation, at the end of the day, labour is treated as something to be bought and sold. What *is* so bad about that?

Marx's strongest argument -- and what underlies all the dubious economic arguments, and from which they derive any force they may have had -- is the one he first put forward in the Manuscripts of 1844. Work should express our creativity and connect us with our fellow man. You can't 'sell' your work. That's prostitution. As soon as money comes into the equation, we all become prostitutes.

This is extreme, and yet it is not so extreme that we cannot readily find echoes in our own experience, and in copious novels and literature written around the subject. When Marx talks about 'the worker' he has his own work as a model: the fulfilling life of a writer and thinker.

The key element, as you have pointed out, is that of gameplay and risk. That is the essence of the market, and the thing that Marx hates. In the market, there are winners and losers. You get the best deal you can, which in the prevailing conditions may be a very poor deal. It is no use pointing out how well the system 'works' (despite the current financial crisis) and how badly the alternative has fared, every time and every place that it has been attempted. That merely shows we should try harder to make the alternative succeed.

If you take gameplay and risk out of the equation, then all that remains is the socialist's, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.' We all need to work and we all need to eat. Work should be its own reward; the amount and quality of the food you receive in return shouldn't be dependent on mere 'economic' considerations. That is, to a large extent, how things are in a happy family. It does seem amazing that Marx thought that we could all live happily as 'brothers' and 'sisters'; perhaps less so when you compare this with a certain view of Christianity (which makes Marx's remark about the 'opiate of the people' particularly ironic).

I have written something that glances on this point: see my article 'The Business Arena' in issue 5 of Philosophy for Business There, I write:

'It would be possible -- and this was the young Marx's vision of a communist society where everyone lives by the rule of brotherly and sisterly love, just as Christ preached -- to abolish business, trade and money altogether. Just because an activity is natural, inevitable does not mean that human cultural creativity and ingenuity cannot find a way to eliminate it. Should we wish to? To me, that's a meaningless question. Because (contrary to what the older Marx of Capital thought and generations of Socialist governments have taken on trust) we have not the slightest clue how that end state would be achieved. We have no conception of the price that would have to be paid in permanently altering human culture and behaviour in order to reach that idyllic end state.'

I agree with you, profit is not equivalent to exploitation. Yet we live in a world which is rife with exploitation, and many of the evils in it have to be laid at the door of capitalism. Which only goes to show that either we need a new model, or we need to do what we do a lot better than we have been doing up to now.

All the best,


Deflationism and the role of the truth predicate

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Deflationism and the role of the truth predicate
Date: 22nd October 2008 11:44

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your University of London BA Logic Essay in response to the question, 'Deflationists claim that the predicate "true" does not stand for any property. What do they claim is the role of this predicate, and can this claim be justified?'

This is a good essay. However, I have to be frank, and say that I am not sure what this question is asking. There are two possibilities: (a) What according to deflationists is the role for the truth predicate and how good are their arguments for saying that it has that role? (b) What according to deflationists is the role for the truth predicate? Is that the only role for truth, or are there other roles which they have not considered?

You have answered version (b). You criticize to some extent the explanation of truth as equivalent in representational power to generalizations about propositions, but the main focus of your attack is on the idea that this role exhausts the significance of the truth predicate. You need to be aware that there is a lot more to say about the equivalence claim: for example, that the very idea of 'quantifying over propositions' is nonsensical (on both 'substitutional' and 'objectival' interpretations).

However, I would tend to defend the deflationists on this point, on the grounds that the representational 'power' of the truth predicate makes it possible to say things which we could not otherwise do given that sentences and the time we have to assert them are both finite. In other words, the idea of 'representational power' should not be construed in terms of the old (and questionable) concept of analyticity, where two expressions occur on opposite sides of an equivalence sign.

I share your intuition that leaving aside the resolution of question (a) there is 'something more' to truth. The problem, however, is to state this coherently.

Let's start at the beginning. If I wanted to invent an operator N, which I shall call the 'null operator' which when applied to any proposition P gives a result with the same truth value as P, then the assertion N(P) would have exactly the same effect as 'It is true that P'. I am not talking about truth. I am just asserting P. However, if you hear the assertion, 'N(P)' then you at least know that P is intended as an assertion. (Compare 'I do not command that P' and 'I command that not-P'.)

How different is this from your, 'The statement that "Caesar was murdered" is true'? We need to be exact. In the sentence I have just quoted, the term 'that' is redundant because what follows is a quotation. Removing the 'that', we have a statement about words (as you point out) rather than just a statement about Caesar. So it is quite plausible here to say that when we invoke the predicate 'true', we are saying more than we would be saying if we did not invoke it. 'Caesar was murdered' is about the world. 'The statement, 'Caesar was murdered' is true,' is about words and the world.

But how important is that observation? To assert a truth, you need language and words. That's all this seems to be saying.

However, you want to go further and argue that there is an additional issue: truth is what you can rely and act upon. This is reminiscent of Michael Dummett's claim (in his seminal article 'Truth' reprinted in 'Truth and Other Enigmas') that the essential thing about the concept of truth, what makes truth something that is not merely redundant, is that 'truth is what we aim at in making a statement.'

However, I don't think you have succeeded in making this point convincingly. Suppose you ask me, 'Was Caesar murdered?' and I reply, laconically, 'Caesar was murdered.' My reply doesn't satisfy you. 'But *was* he murdered? was he *really* murdered?' 'Yes! Caesar was *really* murdered!' I reply. You can see here that all we have added in the second exchange is increased emphasis. This is in fact a claim made by deflationists; that in one of its everyday roles 'it is true that' is merely a device for increasing emphasis.

What this misses is a metaphysical question, or rather a question at the intersection of metaphysics and the philosophy of language, namely, 'What is it to state something?' or 'What is the point of assertion?' In answering that question, the philosopher needs to use the concept of truth, precisely because it is the philosopher who raises questions which in ordinary language we do not consider, namely, 'What is this mysterious relationship between words and the world which makes it possible to say things?'

It is that this point that a philosopher like Dummett will come in and claim that 'truth' does not have the centrality that philosophers have claimed for it, on the grounds that it invites false metaphysical claims about the nature of linguistic meaning (I am talking now about Dummett's arguments for an 'anti-realist theory of meaning' which attempts to articulate Wittgenstein's claim that 'meaning is use'). Yet here too, the philosopher needs to talk about truth in order to express their view dialectically, 'Truth isn't what you think it is,' or 'An assertion is a move in the language game, not an arrow aimed at a potentially unreachable target.'

This is just one possible angle, which illustrates the indispensability of the concept of truth within philosophical discourse and which (in a way) accepts that in ordinary, non-philosophical discourse by contrast, truth is redundant, or at best a mere device for abbreviation or emphasis.

All the best,


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Anaxagoras: all things have a portion of everything

To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaxagoras: all things have a portion of everything
Date: 12th September 2008 13:21

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your email of 3 September, with your fourth essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''All things have a portion of everything.' - Describe the logical steps that led Anaxagoras to assert that paradoxical claim. Is his view coherent?'

You have had a really good go at this question. Starting from the premise that Anaxagoras accepted Parmenides' view about the impossibility of change, yet also accepted the evidence of our senses, you arrive had his theory of 'a portion of everything in everything' through a series of deductions.

A key stage in the argument is the recognition that a specific property, e.g. the property of 'dirt', cannot come into existence from 'what is not'. Whatever changes water undergoes, for example, it will never become dirt. You can't take out what you didn't put in. To get the property of dirt, you have to mix properties which have aspects of the dirt property -- its darkness, graininess, etc.

On any theory which identifies one or more substrates -- air, or water, or (as in Empedocles) air, fire, earth and water -- we have to accept the 'miracle' of new properties appearing when these elemental substances combine and recombine. But how can that be, if Parmenides is right that any existing property X cannot ever cease to be X? Such a view is unacceptable to Anaxagoras.

You are right when you say that Anaxagoras resists making the kind of 'appearance-reality' distinction that his predecessors made. We fully accept today that a table is 'really' made of 'colourless' subatomic particles, so that its 'real' properties have little or nothing in common with the properties we perceive. This is what Empedocles and the atomists in different ways both held. Combination and recombination of the basic stuffs produces new properties. The stuffs do not change but the properties do.

But Anaxagoras doesn't accept this, because it goes against the spirit of Parmenides. If stuffs cannot change -- if we accept that whatever stuffs exist must always have existed -- then the same must hold of properties: any property that exists must always have existed, in some form.

Dirt is a composite property, as we have seen. This implies that there are simpler properties which are the true basis of all composites, although it is not clear exactly what Anaxagoras thought these were. The examples he gives, 'flesh, blood, bone' all seem to be composite properties.

Leaving that problem aside, the crucial question concerns the 'particulate' view of matter. Here, there seemed to be some unclarity in your essay. If the particulate view is correct, then this surely contradicts the view that there is a 'portion of everything in everything', since when you get down to the particles themselves, you would encounter the 'pure' stuffs which are unmixed. The alternative is to deny that there exist particles, which implies that the possibility of division goes on forever. There are no smallest particles of matter, which is diametrically opposed to the view taken by the atomists.

The result is the theory you describe as 'a proportion theory and not a particulate theory'. The world is not made of elements or entities, however small, but rather of properties -- blackness, blueness, hardness, softness etc. etc. -- as many properties as are needed to describe the multifarious things we see. Everything has every property (so no property goes in or out of existence) but things differ in the proportions of each property that they contain.

As you note, the role of mind presents a problem in this view. Anaxagoras did not want mind to share the fate of all the other properties, which leads him to embrace a form of dualism.

You also note that, 'The idea of force, mind in his theory, was a leap from the theological and mystical as a theory of origin to a natural theory. At first blush this seems a great leap forward and a powerful aspect to add to the coherence of his theory.'

There is an important point here about how we conceive of 'mental causation'. In the normal way of talking, 'A did X because he wanted Y' implies a teleological form of explanation, in terms of the 'end' of an action, the end state at which it aims. 'God created the universe to be the best of all possible worlds' would be another example of a teleological explanation.

However, as contemporary philosophers such as Donald Davidson have argued, if we accept that mind is active in the world, then we have to see a person's intentions and desires not only in teleological terms -- in terms of a future state at which they aim -- but also as efficient causes. So that in the example, 'A did X because he wanted Y',' the desire Y is an efficient cause of A's doing X.

In these terms, Anaxagoras' Nous is not just a teleological principle but an agent in the world capable of brining about effects through efficient causation. How exactly it does this is of course another question. It is the same problem that Descartes faced, in his mind-body dualism: how something non-physical can exercise a causal influence on something physical.

All the best,


Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites

To: Paul B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites
Date: 12th September 2009 12:13

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 2 September, with your essay in response to a question from the University of London Greek Philosophy paper, 'Explain the content and importance of Heraclitus' principle of the unity of opposites'.

This is an impressive first essay, which shows mature judgement and a good understanding of the texts, as well as an appreciation of the problems in interpreting Heraclitus.

As you have correctly grasped, the question is asking for two things: an exposition of Heraclitus' doctrine of the unity of opposites, as well as an account of the place of this doctrine within his philosophical system. Generally, when you get a 'double barrelled' question such as this, you can assume that the examiner is looking for an equally substantial answer to both parts.

It hardly needs stating that the question of the importance of Heraclitus' doctrine of the unity of opposites depends very much on how one interprets that doctrine, which in turn depends on the account which one gives of the various examples cited by Heraclitus as supporting his case.

You mention Heraclitus' predecessors. A good question to ask is how Heraclitus advanced, or thought he was advancing the argument; what innovations his theory introduces. The Presocratic philosophers talk a lot about 'the hot' and 'the cold', 'the wet' and 'the dry', 'the heavy' and 'the light' etc. almost as if they are entities in themselves. To us, the idea seems merely quaint, but at the time the idea that you could separate out these aspects as if they were separate entities or elements was taken seriously.

The first step towards undermining that idea was made by Anaximenes, in his theory of condensation and rarefaction. On Anaximenes' theory, the difference between 'the dense' and 'the rarefied', 'the hot' and 'the cold' etc. is merely one of degree, of different positions on a scale of condensation-rarefaction. We can see that he was indeed well on the way to appreciating Heraclitus' point that what we term 'opposites' are not separate entities but rather aspects of a whole.

In these terms, what exactly did Heraclitus add, if anything? Has he, indeed, seen something that Anaximenes missed?

As you show, the examples of opposites considered by Heraclitus go well beyond the range that Anaximenes considered. Take the point that the same thing, e.g. mud, presents different aspects depending on whether you are a man or a pig. You call this example 'dubious'. But what point do you think Heraclitus thought he was making? This seems to be about value judgements. We think in terms of things that are 'good' and things that are 'bad' but on the basis of this example, that is merely an illusion. Nothing is 'good' or 'bad' in itself but merely in relation to the entity which makes the evaluation. That's a pretty radical idea which goes far beyond anything that Heraclitus' predecessors considered.

Is that what Heraclitus wanted to say? How does that fit in with his monism and his theory of flux? Heraclitus strikes us as a man who is not afraid to make value judgements. It is 'good' for a soul to remain dry (so drunkenness is 'bad'). Indeed, 'most men are bad'. Are we more right in our judgement about mud than pigs? If not, does that mean that all value judgements are thoroughly subjective?

On the question of flux, you argue for the more conservative reading, according to which Heraclitus did not hold the theory of 'Heraclitean flux' attributed to him by Plato. I'm not fully convinced of this although you make a good case and a significant proportion of scholars would agree with you. If we are asking the question of how Heraclitus went beyond Anaximenes, it seems to me that the conservative view, according to which all things are subject to change, some more quickly and some more slowly, was not such a novel idea. Whereas if there is no 'stuff' that changes, contrary to Anaximenes belief that everything we see IS more or less condensed air, then that would be something new. When we see a flame, we imagine that we are looking at 'hot stuff' whereas in reality a flame is just a stable image produced by constant change, in exactly the same way as a river. You don't need 'stuff'.

The 'scary' part, of course, is the leap from this to the idea that if there is no 'stuff' but merely 'process', then a chair or a table is just like a flame or a river. However, it's not my role to try to persuade you to change your opinion. In any case, there are probably more scholars who would support your interpretation. For a long time, the 'heraclitean flux' interpretation was the orthodox view, but on admittedly scant textual evidence.

All the best,


Zeno's paradoxes of motion

To: Shan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Zeno's paradoxes of motion
Date: 29th August 2008 12:04

Dear Shan,

Thank you for your email of 15 August, with your University of London Ancient Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Critically assess Zeno's paradoxes of motion'.

This is a competent piece of work, with which I have few disagreements. In what follows, I will mention issues which you might like to think about further. I would appreciate (in future) if you could include a bibliography of works consulted as well as authors mentioned.

In an exam, you will get credit for mentioning names and giving citations, although it is not necessary to overdo this.

In general, for the Ancient Philosophy paper you need to show that you are aware of where the text (fragments or testimonia) comes from and also, therefore, the question of authenticity. With Zeno we have the testimony of Plato and Aristotle which is pretty solid. Even so, we only have Plato's word for it that Zeno's motive was defending Parmenides.

On the Dichotomy, the first thing that needs to be said is what you mention as an 'other argument' namely that an infinite series can have a finite sum. Is it conceivable that Zeno, or his contemporaries, did not realize this? That seems hard to believe. The point, however, is as you say in the distinction between 'events' and 'tasks'. Granted that there are, e.g. an infinite number of events of Achilles getting ever so slightly closer to the Tortoise, it doesn't follow (as Aristotle indeed points out) that this involves an infinite number of tasks.

However, one can raise the question whether Aristotle is right in going so far as to distinguish 'potential' and 'actual' infinity. Don't we want to say that, given the hypothesis of infinite divisibility of time and space, that there IS an actual infinity of points traversed which occur in finite time? If not, why not?

This leads us to the question whether indeed we are entitled to the assumption that space and time are 'infinitely divisible'. Here, you could refer to Zeno's paradox which deals with the composition of an object out of its parts (as Barnes shows, not a problem if you consistently hold that space is infinitely divisible, or that it is finitely divisible).

The moving rows paradox is also relevant. On the face of it, as you remark, it looks pretty feeble. However, one is led to wonder whether there is an initially plausible assumption about the nature of space and motion which would lead to a genuine sense of paradox in the case of the moving rows. If time and space are both quantized, then we do seem to have a paradox between the idea that a quantum of matter in row B passes a quantum of matter in stationary row A in one quantum of time, but passes two quanta of matter in row C in the same quantum of time. In one quantum of time there can only be room for one event, not two.

Your point about motion being 'the more natural state' relates to Russell's insistence on the reality of relations, in the face of the ontological tradition, going back to the Greeks, were objects and their properties (predicates) are taken as paradigmatically 'real'. Leibniz, who Russell wrote an excellent book about, is one example of a philosopher who attempted a comprehensive description of reality in which all relations are analysable into predicates of 'monads'. It makes Zeno more interesting, if we realize that the move to a genuinely relational ontology is difficult, not easy (not just a matter of asserting that there are truths of the form aRb). In this context, Heraclitus might be seen as the one philosopher who genuinely appreciated the difficulties and challenges of acknowledging the reality of relations.

Regarding the paradox of the Arrow, the nineteenth century French philosopher Henri Bergson gave the most radical critique of what he termed the 'cinematographic' view according to which we can view motion as a sum of infinite instants, so that, in effect, a moving arrow IS at rest. Just as the frames on celluloid only 'move' when the film is projected, so according to the cinematographic view the objects which we observe 'moving' merely appear to move but do not move in reality.

As in Russell's defence of the reality of relations, Bergson in his account of time as 'duree' is concerned to show how radical a shift is needed in order to give a coherent description of spatio-temporal reality. In other words, Zeno's paradoxes are significant precisely because the force this question.

Writing in the 1920's John McTaggart in his 'Nature of Existence' produced what is still regarded by many as the definitive argument against the reality of time (see, e.g. Mellor's 'Real Time'). Physicists happily work with the idea of time as being just another dimension, in addition to the three dimensions of space, so that spatio-temporal objects are, in reality, 'space-time worms'. In a world made of space-time worms, there can be no paradoxes of motion because motion itself is apparent, not real. Zeno would have felt vindicated.

All the best,


Are possible worlds really real?

To: Patricia A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are possible worlds really real?
Date: 18th August 2008 12:51

Dear Patricia,

Thank you for your email of 5 August, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Are possible worlds really 'real'?'

How does one tackle a question like this? The first thing one needs to do is to explain what the claim amounts to. As you state in your opening paragraph, the claim that possible worlds are 'really real' amounts to the claim that corresponding to each possible way the actual world might have been, there exists an actual world, in its own space and time which are discontinuous from the space and time of the actual world.

It follows that the quality of 'actuality' is reducible to perspective. Any possible world is 'actual' to the inhabitants of that world; as our world is 'actual' to us. It also follows that the world we call 'actual' is no more 'real' than any other possible world.

This is, as you state following the OED definition, a claim that each possible world possesses 'existence in fact and not merely in appearance, thought, or language'.

In order to answer the question, there are various lines that need to be considered: first, what are the arguments which have been put forward for the claim in question? are they valid, or can you see a loophole? Is the claim in question coherent, does it make sense? (if it doesn't make sense, then, logically, there can't be a valid argument). Is there an alternative way, an alternative theory, to account for the considerations adduced in favour of the claim in question?

You don't mention the argument for the real existence of possible worlds. The argument goes like this:

1. Whenever we hold that a statement P is true, anything whose existence is implied by the truth of P must exist.

2. In order to account for the truth of 'counterfactual' statements, of the form, 'If it had been the case that P then it would have been the case that Q', it is necessary to recognize the real existence of possible worlds. Statements about the actual world are made true by facts about the actual world. Statements about other possible worlds are made true by facts about other possible worlds.

Although you don't say what you think is wrong with this argument, you offer an alternative account of possible worlds in terms of the human ability to conceive of the 'fictive or the imaginary' which implies an objection to the above argument.

The objection would go like this. When I make a statement about how things might be in another possible world, I am not describing a fact but rather mentally manipulating things that I know about the actual world.

Consider, for example, 'If gravity had been weaker human beings would have been able to jump higher.'

On the first theory, this statement is true by virtue of the fact that the possible worlds which are most similar to the actual world where gravity is less (i.e. because the earth is smaller) are worlds where human beings are able to jump higher. (I am following the analysis of counterfactual statements given by David Lewis, foremost defender of the 'realist' view of possible worlds, in his book 'Counterfactuals'.)

The concept of 'similarity' is crucial here. In describing the relevant possible world(s), we are assuming human beings as they are and merely changing the size of the earth, because this is, or seems, more 'similar' to the actual world than a scenario where human beings have evolved with less strength because gravity is weaker and therefore can only jump as high as we can jump. This is a point on which Lewis can be challenged: it seems there is no way to resolve this kind of argument except by appeal to 'intuitions' concerning what we understand by 'similar'.

On the second, fictive, theory, the statement is true by virtue of, what exactly? What kind of fact are we stating? Or is it not a fact?

Before you give in to the temptation to say that we are not 'stating a fact', remember that we make counterfactual statements all the time, and in many circumstances important consequences follow from our decision regarding their truth or falsity. Consider, for example, the use of counterfactual statements in a court of law where the prosecution and defence are arguing over the motives of the accused. Or the use of counterfactual statements in the context of performing a scientific experiment.

I hope that you can see that there is a problem here. There is no denying that human beings have a power of imagination, and that when we make counterfactual statements, we consult our imaginations or represent possible states of affairs to ourselves in our imaginations. However, this is only the subjective aspect. After all, we also use our imaginations when we make ordinary factual statements too.

By contrast, the objective aspect is concerned with truth and falsity, existence or non-existence. If some counterfactual statements are true, as they seem to be, we need an explanation of the kinds of 'fact' by virtue of which they are true. I am not saying that I agree with David Lewises theory. In fact, my sympathies are more in line with the view that the notion of 'possibility' is 'sui generis' and incapable of being analysed, as Lewis attempts to do, in terms of the 'real' existence of possible worlds. But I am also aware that it is very difficult to come up with an alternative explanation for the 'truth conditions' of counterfactual statements.

All the best,


Friday, October 12, 2012

Divine hiddenness and revelation

To: Daniel P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Divine hiddenness and revelation
Date: 18th August 2008 12:00

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your email of 4 August, with your second essay towards the Associate Award, 'Hiddenness and Revelation' on the topic of Divine hiddenness.

This is a very well written essay, coherent and well argued. However, I have to say from the start that I find this a very curious debate. Two issues -- or assumptions -- stand out for me as needing further scrutiny. (I'm not saying that you have to do this if you feel that you have worked on this topic enough.)

The first assumption concerns the nature of free will: a person only exercises free will when it seems to them that they have a realistic or meaningful choice between A and B. Is that true?

The second assumption is that God is, logically, capable of 'revealing' himself, in some form, that is to say, capable of providing sufficient empirical or rational grounds (both have to be considered) for belief in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being.

I will start with the first assumption. The 19th century British metaphysician F.H. Bradley in 'Ethical Studies' gives an argument which I find compelling: suppose you found a high value banknote in the street, and handed it in to the Police Station. A friend remarks, 'I'm surprised you didn't keep the money, no-one would have known!' and you reply angrily, 'You should have known me better than that!' The man in question does not consider that he had a choice. There is only one thing to do. And that is how we sometimes feel when we do right. But surely his action is the paradigm of a free action, that is to say, an action performed by an individual of their own volition, not under any coercion, in full possession of their faculties etc. etc.

You give the interesting scenario of a person who has 'known' God since early childhood. The individual in question must surely know, not only that God wants him to do A rather than B, but also that it is right to do A rather than B, that A is good and B is evil (let's keep it simple). How can one fail to choose A in such circumstances?

Of course, one can still suffer 'weakness of will' in the face of overwhelming temptation. You might think that all God has to to is provide sufficient temptation in order for there to be a real choice, or real experience of choosing. But this confuses free with with strength of will. How can you be more free if you successfully overcome temptation, than if you were never tempted in the first place? In Aristotle's view, indeed, the merely 'continent' man, who resists the temptation to do evil, is less morally praiseworthy than the man whose good actions flow naturally from his character. (One doesn't have to agree with this, but it is a defensible view.)

Freedom of will is a good, indeed one of the most important human attributes. What characterizes such freedom, is the power of rational choice. A God who gives human beings the power of rational choice is *powerless* to prevent the evil which necessarily follows, in the same sense as he is powerless to create a stone which is too heavy for him to lift. This is the basis of the theist's 'free-will defense' to the problem of evil.

But this brings us to the second question, which is indeed crucial for your essay: why can't God, in addition to giving human beings free will, provide them with sufficient grounds to motivate them to always choose good, i.e. by 'revealing' himself?

We can quickly discount any empirical 'revelation'. Anything which God can do in this world (e.g. appearing as a man) is consistent with 'God' being a very powerful finite alien being. 'If Christ appeared to me I would do my very best to kill him,' is a perfectly reasonable attitude. I am not going to surrender my autonomy to any superior worldly power (this echoes something you say in your essay). God has to be infinite to be God, that is to say, to be a being worthy of worship rather than Russell's Moloch before whom we prostrate ourselves (see Russell's essay, 'A Free Man's Worship').

There is no logical necessity (at least, none that we are aware of at the present time) that, if God exists, then there exists a rational argument for God's existence. Yet discounting the empirical, nothing else will do. In mathematics, there are very difficult proofs, and maybe the proof of God's existence, if it exists, is very difficult. Which, for the theist, would explain why we have not yet found it, and, hence, why at the present time atheism is a reasonable position. That doesn't make theism unreasonable, but rather consigns the question of God's existence (as Kant believed it must be consigned) to the realm of faith.

So now the issue would have to be formulated as follows: *suppose* that there exists (although we have not yet found it) a rationally compelling argument for the existence of God. It is within God's power to reveal this argument to man, without compromising man's free will. Nor would the consequences (as I have argued) compromise man's free will. (You wake up one morning and the proof is there, as indeed many proofs have been discovered.) So why hasn't he done so? What possible benefit can accrue from allowing the human race to remain in darkness and uncertainty?

From this point on, the argument is familiar. You can just as well ask what possible benefit are earthquakes. The best possible world is one in which the best qualities of human character are displayed, and it is this, rather than free will as such, which the theist will argue is inconsistent with God's revealing an incontrovertible proof of His existence.

All the best,


Descartes' case for doubt in the First Meditation

To: Neil G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' case for doubt in the First Meditation
Date: 13th August 2008 11:43

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your email of 31 July, with your essay in response to a question taken from the University of London Modern Philosophy paper, ''There is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised' (Descartes). Does Descartes succeed in showing this in the first Meditation?'

This is a very good piece of work.

You raised one question -- about how fish or insects perceive the world -- which I have not seen in an essay on this topic before. One possible response from Descartes would be to say that a God who is not a deceiver makes sure that the way in which we perceive the world is suitable for beings placed in the world with the bodies and powers that we possess. Had we the sense experience of insects, then this would be appropriate if we had the bodies of insects, and similarly for fish living in the sea. However, the wider question is whether indeed points of view or forms of perception in this sense limit the possibilities for gaining knowledge about the world.

One response would be to observe that, armed with suitable equipment which we are able to construct for ourselves, the limits of our sense perception are indeed overcome. Descartes' view of scientific knowledge is reductionist, to the extent that, say, the perception of red is merely a subjective indication of a property existing objectively in reality which we are able to detect with our sense organs. A merely mischievous demon, who gave us sense organs which were unsuited for gathering knowledge, could make things difficult but not impossible. We could strive to overcome our limitations, as indeed we do in the real world.

I wasn't totally happy with the claim which you made right at the beginning of your essay that Descartes is assuming a concept of knowledge according to which the slightest possibility of doubt is inconsistent with the claim to know that P. If that were true, then an objector could simply turn round and say, 'You can say what you like about Knowledge with a capital 'K', but my interest is with knowledge. I accept that you can think you know and be wrong. But that is consistent with holding that even though I cannot be 100 per cent certain, I can make justified judgements of probability, which can be high enough for knowledge.'

I have seen the claim about infallible knowledge in text books but I think it is incorrect. The argument goes, 'Descartes wrongly infers that knowledge must be infallible, from the statement, 'If X knows that P, then P must be true'. What he fails to grasp is that the 'must' here merely has the force of a logical inference.'

However, even if Descartes did make this error, his sceptical arguments would still deserve to be reckoned with as arguments against knowledge with a small 'k'. If we assume the possibility of an evil demon, then we cannot make judgements of probability, because probability is relative to given evidence. If we are not allowed to take anything as 'given', then we can't say, for example, whether it is probable or improbable that an evil demon itself exists.

I don't think he did make this error. Remember, that Descartes is seeking to re-establish our ordinary, everyday knowledge claims on the basis of the proposition that God is not a deceiver. That is indeed certain knowledge, but our everyday knowledge claims remain open to the possibility of doubt, just as before, and Descartes must surely have realized this. Indeed, in the 6th Meditation he goes to some lengths to explain how, even when we make the best use of our judgement and sense perception, nevertheless errors occur.

Another claim which I would dispute is where you agree with Descartes that casting doubt on individual knowledge claims would not be an effective argument for scepticism. Isn't it? Consider the man and the tree. You tell me that you saw a man standing in the garden and I ask you whether you are sure that it wasn't just a shadow. Well, maybe you are sure but are you sufficiently sure for knowledge? Suppose your life depended on it. Then, maybe not. But we can do this with any ordinary knowledge claim. There is always the possibility of a fluke or a wild coincidence. OK, you say, but what happens occasionally can't happen all the time. However, if in *any given case* this argument can be constructed, then, in effect it does become a global argument for scepticism. You may 'know' that a disjunction of all your beliefs is true (P or Q or R or...). But that 'knowledge' is not very useful.

This is serious for Descartes, because if we accept this argument then, given what I said above about a God who is not a deceiver, here we have an argument for scepticism which Descartes is powerless to refute using the strategy which he has chosen. (I have to add that I don't think that the argument I have given is a valid argument for scepticism, but that's another question.)

On the reliability of sense experience, just before the point about the fish and the insects, you remark that Descartes recognizes the limits of arguments based on examples such as seeing something far away (Descartes gives the example of seeing a tower in the distance) because 'we have just one, particular, example of our senses deceiving us'. Given what I've said above, this would be an effective argument if, for any given perceptual claim, such a doubt could be raised. What Descartes in fact says is that we make the judgement that we have been deceived *on the basis of sense perception*. It follows (or so Descartes thinks) that one cannot argue from particular examples to the unreliability of sense perception as whole.

On dreaming, you make an interesting observation about the difference between dreaming and waking experience. Suppose our dreams were as coherent as our waking experience. What then?

This is a possibility which has in fact been investigated, by Anthony Quinton in an often-cited paper, 'Spaces and Times'. Quinton is arguing against Kant's claim, in the first part of the Critique of Pure Reason, that there is necessarily one space. Quinton asks us to imagine that when you go to sleep you wake up in an idyllic fishing village where you have a wife, friends and family. When you go to sleep there, you wake up here. This pattern is repeated indefinitely. On the basis of coherence, one would have to judge that both experiences were equally veridical and that therefore you inhabited two different worlds. (I won't say any more about this because it takes us off topic!)

It is true that Descartes is relying on our experience of dreams. If you have never had a dream, you might find the idea that you could have experiences which bore no relation to external reality fantastic. But, strictly speaking, the argument doesn't depend on this contingency. The point is that it is possible, in principle, to have an experience whose source is other than what it purports to be. The evil demon is indeed such a source. All that the evil demon adds to this hypothesis is the deliberate intention to deceive.

On the evil demon, Descartes explicitly says that a being with God-like powers could deceive us even when we are making simple additions. This does seem rather implausible with an example like 2+2=4, but still an argument is needed. It is a contingent fact that our judgements about such matters are reliable. So, even though the judgements themselves are not about the external, contingent world but rather the realm of logical or mathematical truths, there remains the possibility of undermining sceptical doubt.

All the best,


Essays on Santa Claus, proper names, and truth

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Santa Claus, proper names, and truth
Date: 12th August 2012 14:11

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 31 July, with your first three essays in response to questions from the University of London Logic paper.

Essay 1. 'Is there a satisfactory account of the truth of the sentence, 'Santa Claus does not exist?''

My first thought about this is, Why does the question ask for an 'account of the truth' rather than an 'account of the meaning' (i.e. in terms of truth conditions)? The examiner's thought here was that someone might be led to give a theory of meaning according to which the sentence can be false but cannot be true. So the question is whether an account of the meaning of this statement has to allow for the possibility of truth as well as falsehood.

Of course, we *say* things like, 'SC does not exist' but if you are sufficiently confident in your theory that 'SC does not exist' cannot be true, then you will have some way to explain this away, an 'error theory' of everyday discourse. Anyone who rejects any form of description theory of proper names has to bite the bullet and take this option, on the assumption that 'Santa Claus' is indeed being used (or, we are attempting to use it) as a proper name. 'No object, no thought.' The fact that you *think* you are expressing a thought doesn't entail that you are doing so.

So, I would object to your associating the Searleian theory you put forward with Kripke's view here. On Kripke's view, or any similar theory which rejects a descriptive account, empty reference = no meaning, no thought, no truth or falsity.

Contrary to what you say, Frege did not put forward the sense/ reference distinction 'as a response' to the problem of names with no referents. Frege did hold that the possible non-existence of a referent was a fault of natural language, and made no attempt to explain how a sentence can still have meaning (= possess truth conditions) in this case. (Russell does, however, use Frege in his 'On Denoting' as a contrasting theory to his own theory of descriptions. But this is Russell, not Frege.)

What you are confusing (and Russell deliberately conflates) with the sense/ reference distinction is Frege's account of second-order concepts, and of existence as a second-order concept, according to which 'SC does not exist' or 'unicorns do not exist' can be analysed in terms of the existential quantifier and the property ' SC' or ' a unicorn'.

However, for Frege (as Dummett argues) there is no necessary assumption that sense can be explained in conceptual terms. Gareth Evans says more about this in his 'Varieties of Reference'. Knowing where to find the hut in the forest is a perfectly good sense = mode of presentation which cannot be explained in terms of descriptions. Sense can be 'knowing how' as well as 'knowing that'.

(P.S. Don't mention a 'Randian' theory of this or that without at least stating what the theory is, or what you take it to be. The examiners have probably never read Ayn Rand, and more likely than not hold that she has not said anything worth reading on this or any other topic. But if you want to enlighten them, go ahead.)

Essay 2. 'Defend what you think is the best account of proper names.'

OK, so now we have Rand's theory of concepts. This looks to me like a version of Locke's distinction between 'nominal' and 'real' essence. For example, I may believe that gold is a 'yellow metal' but I am prepared to allow for the possibility that the yellow colour is due to impurities. My intention is to refer to that which integrates with our knowledge of the physics and chemistry of the element gold, knowledge which is continually expanding.

However, 'Aristotle' differs from 'gold' in that we are making a very specific assumption: the existence of a spatio-temporal particular. Suppose that there were two philosophers in ancient Greece who were responsible for the body of work which we associate with 'Aristotle', but that this fact has been lost over the course of time. So, 'There was a philosopher called Aristotle' is false (because it implies that there was one individual) yet 'Aristotle put forward a theory of four causes' is true (understanding 'Aristotle' to mean the Aristotle team, or partnership).

I don't see that it is enough to say that names are just an example of a concept word: we need to explain the assumed uniqueness the bearer of a name. Did Ayn Rand even attempt to put forward a theory of proper names? I would be surprised if she did. (It is a pretty hard problem to explain as anything other than scholastic quibbling to someone who has not previously studied philosophy).

An important point needs to be made here: we can use a name or concept word without fully understanding it -- in the manner of a 'tape recorder' (see Dummett's appendix on Kripke in 'Frege Philosophy of Language'). We are interested in what full understanding consists in. Putnam's so-called 'division of linguistic labour' obscures that fact. This is the basis of Evans' critique of Kripke and of his own previous causal theory. The fact that I can use the name 'Feynman' without knowing how to distinguish Feynman from Gell-Mann merely shows that I am not fully competent with the use of this word. You can be a link in the transmission of knowledge without fully understanding the information that you are transmitting.

Your reference to pigeon holes looks like something I once heard in a paper given by Strawson, according to which names function as cards in a card-index system. This may be true of the way we collate much of our knowledge of individuals, but we still have to explain how it is that we come to know *objects* at all.

Although you have taken some pains to explain Rand's theory, I don't really feel that I have a firmer grasp of it. The quotes didn't help me at all.

Essay 3. 'Can there be a satisfactory account of the notion of correspondence employed in the claim that 'a proposition or statement is true if it corresponds to the facts'?'

I liked this essay more, although it is not clear to me that you have really succeeded in identifying what is crucial to the notion of 'correspondence'.

Tarski, as you know, claimed that his semantic account of truth is a 'correspondence theory of truth'. However, what is most significant about Tarski's formal definition is that the notion of a 'fact' never gets a look in.

In Tarski, connection 'to the world' is accounted for in terms of assignments of objects to names and satisfaction conditions to predicates. End of story. The 'correspondence' in question is purely formal, as given by the Tarski schema 'P' is true if and only if P. The correspondence is formal in the same way as Aristotle's definition of truth: To say X when X obtains or not-X when not-X obtains is to say something true. To say X when not-X obtains or not-X when X obtains is to say something false. (End of story.)

One of the bones of contention between Austin and Strawson was precisely over this conception of correspondence -- i.e. a 'fact' for every true proposition. Austin not only wanted to reject Strawson's claim that the term 'fact' is eliminable in favour of 'true proposition', but also didn't like the idea that there the correlation between facts and true propositions is 1-1, which would imply that we have to admit, for example, negative facts (a problem which seems to have bothered Russell) or general facts. (See Austin's subsequent paper, 'Unfair to Facts' which is included in his Philosophical Papers OUP.)

You seem to side with Strawson over the second point but want to say (as many would) that a fact isn't *just* a true statement. A fact is out there in the world. A statement is something we say. It is true *because* of the existence of the associated fact, and for no other reason.

But the problem is still, what you are actually claiming when you say this. I agree that the issue is, ultimately, about the truth of realism (as contrasted with anti-realism). In Dummett's characterisation of realism, correspondence is only mentioned as a metaphor or picture which we are gripped by, not a constituent part of a realist theory. According to Dummett, realism is just the view that truth and not verification is the 'central concept in a theory of meaning'.

However, I think Dummett is wrong about this. An anti-realist has as much right to a Tarski-style definition of truth/meaning as a realist.

The bottom line is that belief in 'correspondence' reduces to belief that 'something out there makes our statements true, when they are true', as the realist believes, but every attempt to explain the alleged 'relationship of correspondence' reduces to things an anti-realist would, apparently, accept as happily as a realist.

All the best,


Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It is'

To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It is'
Date: 7 August 2012 14:07

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your email of 27 July, with your third essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Analyse, and give a commentary on Parmenides' argument for the proposition, 'It Is'.'

I am impressed by the amount of work you have put into this, not only in terms of research but also thinking about Parmenides' argument and the question of what he meant by the proposition, 'It is.'

You remark at the beginning that Raymond Tallis 'suggests that the principle notion of Parmenides' 'It is' rests in the concept that truth lies outside direct experience,' and then you go on directly to connect this two what I say about Metaphysics as that 'which investigates the nature of reality and includes that which is beyond the human senses and therefore beyond human science.'

However, we seem to be dealing with two different distinctions here. The first distinction concerns the very idea of a difference between appearance and reality. You are travelling along a dusty road on a hot summer's day and see water shimmering in the distance. The reality is that you have seen a mirage.

We are all conversant with the appearance/ reality distinction. Indeed it can be said that a grasp of this distinction is necessary in order to have a grasp of the very notion of judgement, a grasp that we can think that something is the case, yet be wrong.

The activity of science takes our common sense grasp of the appearance/ reality distinction a stage further, by allowing us to infer explanations which cannot be directly verified through experience. The table appears solid, but 'in reality' it is mostly empty space. We understand what the physicist is saying, even though, in a sense, the table surely is solid.

However, it is a further step to claim, as happens in metaphysics, that all that we can know through experience, reasoning upon experience and formulating scientific hypotheses itself counts as merely 'knowledge of the world of appearance' by contrast with a reality beyond experience, beyond science, a reality of 'things in themselves'. Kant's theory of phenomena and noumena, or Bradley's theory of the Absolute are classic examples. As indeed is Parmenides' theory of the One.

However, if all Parmenides was doing was trying to give expression to the idea of an appearance/ reality distinction, surely there was no need to say what he goes on to say about the One.

The question is, is Parmenides' argument valid? And to answer this, we need to decide exactly what Parmenides was arguing for.

You will come across interpretations which try to give a relatively easy gloss on Parmenides. The problem is, you come up crunch against the claim that anyone who believes anything which implies 'it is not' -- anyone who believes that there exists space, change, colour or any of the other features of reality -- does not know, has not grasped the truth. None of this is real. There is only the One.

When you remark, 'If you add one substance to another it can take on different characteristics,' you are giving the response to Parmenides which he himself forswore. Empedocles, Anaxagoras, the atomists all thought they could preserve a Parmenidean element, that which remains unchanging, while explaining what we all believe, that change does happen. In these thinkers, all change reduces, as Jonathan Barnes notes, to locomotion. Unchanging bits of Parmenidean Being rearrange into different combinations producing the appearances that we perceive. But this is emphatically not Parmenides. Motion is banned, along with any concept that implies differentiation. Parmenides makes this perfectly clear in the text.

As you note, Parmenides seems to have wanted to say, not only that there is no such thing as time -- a claim which you will find in contemporary physics, or indeed in metaphysicians like John McTaggart who argued against the reality of time in 'The Nature of Existence' -- but also that the one IS present now. The idea of a perpetual 'now' found its way into traditional theology via Plato, who arguably got the idea from Parmenides. There is a much-discussed article by the Greek scholar G.E.L. Owen which you might come across on the net, 'Plato, Parmenides and the Timeless 'Now'' which offers a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of the notion of an all-knowing God for whom all is 'now'.

But, still, we haven't got to grips with the main question: Is Parmenides' argument valid, and, if not, where is the fallacy?

There is a temptation when studying a historical philosopher to want to find a way of interpreting what they say in a way which makes it true. The technical term philosophers use is 'The principle of charity'. It is worth while taking every effort to find important insights, avoiding having to say that the thinker simply went down the wrong track. In my interpretation of Parmenides, I have done this to some extent too. But still, we get to the point where we have to make a decision. I don't believe in Parmenides' One and neither do you. So, once again, at what point in the argument can we say, 'Hold on there, that's not true'?

Parmenides seems to have wanted things both ways. He wants to say that only the One is real, and yet he admits that there exists the appearance of change etc. An appearance is not reality, we have established that, but insofar as appearances appear, insofar as we can say, 'It is true that it seems to be the case that P', they are *part* of reality. But how can they be, when the One has no parts? - I don't know the answer to that question, and, I suspect, neither did Parmenides.

All the best,


Monday, October 8, 2012

Hume on the nature of miracles

To: Daniel P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on the nature of miracles
Date: 1st August 2008 11:46

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your email of 22 July, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'An Account of Hume's "Miracles".'

This is a very promising piece of work, which I enjoyed reading. I agree with your conclusion that all Hume has shown -- or could possibly show -- is that the occurrence of miracles defined as breaches of the laws of nature is highly improbable. However, your argument is weakened somewhat as a result of a misunderstanding of Hume's definition of a causal law.

I will start with this point, because it is important. As you relate, Hume argued that there cannot be an a priori defence of induction, concluding that it is 'custom' -- our innate tendency to form beliefs on the basis of the association of ideas -- which is the ultimate bedrock of all empirical knowledge. We believe what we believe. The only room for rational argument is within the context of the evaluation of experiences and reports of experiences, and the rules under which we subsume experience, all of which presupposes that belief formation is itself merely a matter of cause and effect.

Talk of what we 'ought' to believe (a point that seems to have bothered you) has to be understood within the context of the observation that it is part of the very concept of 'belief' that belief is not subject to the will: all that we have the power to do is attend to the arguments and the evidence to the best our ability, and form our beliefs accordingly.

Hume also, famously, attacks the traditional metaphysics of causation, arguing that there is no ultimate metaphysical link in virtue of which a statement of the form, 'A caused B' is true. A caused B, if true, is true by virtue of the fact that it instantiates a universal generalization. It is in this sense, that Hume provides a causal analysis of the process of belief formation itself.

What does this all add up to? No-one can ever be certain of the truth of a proposed 'law of nature', e.g. Newton's Law of Gravitational Attraction. The law can only be believed with a degree of probability which increases the more positive evidence we have for the law, and the continued absence of observations which appear inconsistent with that law.

However -- and this is the point which I think you have not seen -- the law, if true, is true for all times and places, in other words, it is 'an exceptionless regularity'. That is what Hume substitutes for the metaphysical link. The idea of a universal law is indeed extremely powerful. As a Humean about causation, I would be perfectly happy to accept that the only sense we can make of the notion of a 'cause' is in terms of the truth of universal laws.

There are still very considerable problems with this, the most notable being the problem of defining 'ceteris paribus' conditions. You can't derive a causal law from a statement like, 'The stone broke the window' because not all windows break when stones are thrown at them. If you tried to state the law in question, it would be very difficult if not impossible. The stone has to be such-and-such a weight, thrown with such-and-such force, against a window of such-and-such strength, in such-and-such atmospheric conditions, and so on.

Consider now Dr Frankenstein's claim that the bolt of electricity from the lightning strike brought the creature made from exhumed human body parts to life. According to our best scientific knowledge, this can't happen. Could this be a miracle?

Let the experiment be performed in an auditorium, filled with renowned scientists from every country. Hume would simply say, 'Well, it hasn't.' His argument against miracles unashamedly appeals to what we know from experience, not, in the sense that you suggest -- that Hume is merely talking about his own experience -- but rather in the sense that he would expect any reader, including religious believers, to allow: that in fact, the one thing all reports of miracles *to date* have in common is that they have not been performed in such an auditorium.

(Remember that science as an institution has not existed for that long. It is only recently that human beings have devised such things as university departments of physics, learned journals, scientific conferences etc. etc.)

What we have, so far, is an argument about probability. I think we are both agreed that this argument stands up. The question at issue is whether Hume has gone too far, in 'begging the question' over miracles by assuming that any reports of miracles to date must be false.

I don't think that he has. Let's start from scratch, Hume would say. Let's take all the reports of miracles of human beings of being brought back from the dead that have ever been made, or, rather, that we can get our hands on. All this is evidence. Likewise, we have medical evidence for beliefs such as, 'Brain death is irreversible', as well as evidence for underlying explanations for this observation in terms of brain biochemistry. Hume's claim is that the argument from probability overwhelmingly supports scepticism about such miracles.

To repeat the earlier point, IF we suddenly found ourselves in a 'Dawn of the Dead' scenario, we would rapidly change this assessment. But, as a matter of fact, we haven't. (Interestingly, zombie films always throw a sop to science, offering quasi-scientific explanations of how the zombie 'virus' operates. But they can also be taken literally: As the Pastor says in the Dawn of the Dead remake, 'When Hell is full, the dead will walk the earth.')

One issue I haven't addressed is whether Hume's aggressive raises suspicion about his motives for the very reasons Hume gives. Curiously, I didn't hear a 'bitter, caustic' undertone in the quote that you gave. My impression is that Hume's attitude was very different from, say, a contemporary militant atheist like Richard Dawkins. But in any case, Hume would say, 'Ignore my tone, just consider my arguments.'

All the best,