Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Anaxagoras' response to Parmenides

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anaxagoras' response to Parmenides
Date: 18th March 2009 12:02

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 8 March, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Assess whether Anaxagoras had a good response to Parmenides.'

As a one hour timed essay question, this is without doubt an excellent piece of work. If I was marking this I would give it a First. The mark would be on the borderline, however, reflecting the fact that you make an assumption at the beginning of your essay which can be questioned -- and therefore deserves supporting argument, which you haven't given.

You say, 'We can take it that ultimately reality corresponds to the 'One',' the task therefore being to 'give an account why and how we are deceived into believing in change and plurality'. However, later in your essay you admit that Anaxagoras' account is not just of how things appear to us but how they are constituted in reality. This is hardly consistent with the original task, as you have described it.

There is certainly an issue in Parmenides concerning the need to 'save appearances' (explain how we are deceived etc. etc.). Parmenides offers his own account of appearances in the 'Way of Opinion' where he describes a cosmos in a similar way to his predecessors, as constituted from an arche. However, it is difficult to see how his theory fares any better than the others with respect to the challenge of explaining appearances.

An alternative tack would be to view Anaxagoras (along with the other philosophers who came after Parmenides) as seeking to preserve what he thinks is valid in Parmenides' argument against change, while deliberately going against other aspects of Parmenides' theory of the One. At any rate, that is the orthodox view.

However, in these terms, strictly speaking Anaxagoras has a hopeless response to Parmenides. It is worth making this point. He doesn't criticize Parmenides' reasoning. He merely helps himself (as the other post-Eleatic philosophers did) to elements in Parmenides' theory which he wished to preserve while blatantly contradicting other elements.

That said, why is Anaxagoras' theory a better theory -- construed as a response to the challenge of Parmenides -- than that given by Thales or Anaximenes, or indeed Parmenides? Anaxagoras evidently sees the problem in terms of the impossibility of qualities coming into or going out of existence. So every possible quality is instantiated, and only the concentrations change.

You accuse Anaxagoras of offering a 'circular' definition of gold as that in which 'gold' predominates. I would have expected you to say a bit more here, given that you offer a remarkably coherent account of the theory of 'everything in everything', emphasizing that Anaxagoras rejects a view of reality as 'packaged' in discrete units.

There never is, and never was, a 'lump of gold'. What there is, is 'goldish', lumps of stuffs in which the gold quality predominates. We can mentally conceive of the quality in its pure state, but in the real world, this never occurs. We know what we 'mean' by 'gold' through exercising a recognitional capacity. Successful exercise of that recognitional capacity is consistent with the view that there never was and never will be an item that satisfies the mental template for gold 100 per cent. (So much for the accusation of circularity.)

Still, one could raise a question about how important it is for Anaxagoras that every quality be present in every sample. We have already established the principle that all qualities exist from the beginning, and no quality is created or destroyed. Why does it matter that every quality be instantiated everywhere (to some greater or lesser degree)?

Suppose that I have a lump of stuff that contains every quality except gold. Then, so far as this lump is concerned, gold *is not*. By Parmenides' principle (if we can call it that) there can be no portion or segment of reality however small in which F *is not*, for any quality F.

Given that responding to Parmenides is a 'hopeless' task, what this shows is that we can interpret Anaxagoras (as well as the other post-Eleatics) in terms of the extent to which they see something worth preserving in Parmenides' argument.

I agree with your assessment of Anaxagoras' introduction of Mind as 'ad hoc'. However, this counts as further evidence that he never really was concerned to 'respond' to Parmenides. It is more likely that he was taking a pragmatic view, offering a theory which included all the elements of the pre-Eleatic theories, but tightened up in order to present the smallest possible target for Parmenides' strictures.

Final point: I am aware that there could be a case for giving a more relaxed reading of Parmenides which would allow us to say that Anaxagoras *had* responded successfully. There is nothing wrong with pursuing this line, provided that one can find a way to reconcile the interpretation with what Parmenides actually says. (I can't see this, but I could be wrong.) Is Parmenides speaking literally or metaphorically when he describes his 'One'? Could Anaxagoras' theory count as a 'theory of the One'?

All the best,


The importance of Heraclitus' theory of flux

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The importance of Heraclitus' theory of flux
Date: 13th March 2009 12:01

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 6 March, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Explain the content and importance of Heraclitus' theory of flux.'

You have made an excellent case for a modest, as opposed to extreme (e.g. Platonic) reading of Heraclitus' theory of flux, which I find genuinely challenging.

To start with, you are absolutely right to discuss the importance of Heraclitus' theory (which you have construed, reasonably, as its influence on subsequent philosophers) first. As your deflationary interpretation appears to debunk traditional readings, however, a question does arise as to the 'importance' (construed, this time, in terms of its philosophical value for the contemporary investigator) of the modest/ deflationary reading.

You quote the principle of Charity: this is in reaction to Barnes accusation of incoherence. We don't want to attribute an incoherent theory to Heraclitus if there is equal textual support for a coherent theory. On the other hand, we also want to make Heraclitus say something challenging, and not mundane. (An example of a 'mundane' reading would be Kirk and Raven's view of fluxism as claiming that everything in the universe is undergoing a process of change, some things change quickly while other things like stones change slowly.)

Your reading is challenging; I think you could have said more about why this is so, and hence, argued for its 'importance' for us. The claim is that (a) there is no single fundamental stuff or substance (b) there are fundamental stuffs -- air, water, fire -- which change into one another through a process whereby one stuff literally disappears and is replaced by another stuff. There is no underlying 'something' which at one time takes the form of fire, and at another time takes the form of water, etc.

A stone, while it remains a stone, is not (contra Plato) 'flowing' like a river. It is just a stone. When the stone changes to fire, then you have something which is more like (?) a river, but then again its stable image unlike a river is not the result of an underlying motion, as a river is produced by the motion of water.

So, what is special about fire? Perhaps the error here is thinking of fire as just 'flame' whereas a real fire is flame, gas, combustible material, ash etc. -- the whole thing. And that's just what the universe is. 'Kindling in measures, and going out in measures.' A stone is fire which has been temporarily quenched. Lacking any chemical theory of combustion, it was perfectly reasonable of Heraclitus to suppose that anything can burn (whereas, as we now know, the product of burning is incombustible: there are just two processes: oxidation and reduction).

So far so good. But there is a whole tradition in philosophy which insists that there must be substance in the universe, as a matter of metaphysical principle. Modern physics has taken up the idea as a methodological principle; the demand that changes at the subatomic level are ultimately explained by the interaction of 'entities' of some kind. The physical universe ultimately 'is' quarks, or whatever your favoured theory.

Whitehead's metaphysics is predicated on the principle that there must be something that ultimately *exists*. You cannot have a universe unless there are 'actual entities' (from which everything else is logically constructed). If the actual entities are not spatio-temporal substances (because of insoluble logical problems which Whitehead perceives with the substance view) then the only remaining candidate is events.

Your interpretation of Heraclitus can therefore be read two ways:

(a) as an attack on the methodological principle in physics that motivates the hunt for ultimate particles: the view that when subatomic 'collision' in a cloud chamber we are (necessarily) seeing the effect of entities (however strange their properties) colliding with one another.

(b) as an attack on the metaphysical definition of 'substance' according to which, at the fundamental level, the universe is necessarily describable in terms of space-occupying substances.

I note in my Presocratics unit on Heraclitus that the popular science writer Fritjof Capra challenges the view that physics is about the search for ultimate particles in his book, 'The Tao of Physics'. The scientific value of this is admittedly questionable, because his thesis is little more than an expression of scepticism about the possible outcome of such a hunt. However, the substantive point remains that there is no logically necessary reason why there should exist ultimate physical entities.

The metaphysical theory that the universe is ultimately constituted out of events rather than spatio-temporal continuants has been vigorously challenged by P.F. Strawson in his book 'Individuals'. Strawson argues for a 'non-revisionary' metaphysic according to which spatio-temporal particulars are the basic individuals. His key argument is that the identification of events logically requires the prior identification of particulars. You can't build a universe starting with events, because you would lack the means to logically identify an event and distinguish it from another event.

One can only speculate what Heraclitus would have made of this. As you convincingly argue, he was merely describing a common observation -- a fire being kindled, a fire going out -- and drawing negative conclusions for the theories of his predecessors.

If I was answering this question in an exam, I would stress, as you have done, the textual angle and the case for the interpretation being the most reasonable in the light of the principle of charity. However, I think that there would also be room to say something about the contemporary interest of the Heraclitean view, as you have construed it.

All the best,


Why be moral?

To: Lillian K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 11th March 2009

Dear Lillian,

Thank you for your email of 4 April, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be moral?'

The question, 'Why be moral?' is admittedly vague, because one could either be asking, 'Why, in fact, are human beings moral (when they are)?' or, 'Why should a person be moral?' (or, more pertinently, 'Why should I be moral?').

I agree that the question of the definition of morality is relevant. If your idea of morality entails being teetotal and always going to bed before 10 pm then I have every right to question whether I should be 'moral'. The question, 'by whose definition' does indeed become crucial when, as you say, we consider the political dimension.

However, the main challenge -- as addressed in the program which you are currently taking -- is why we should do any action for a moral reason. You describe yourself as a person who believes in 'individual morality'. One can argue over what is or isn't 'moral' but there are certain things which no-one could endorse.

But why? This isn't a question about your upbringing or the kind of person you are, but rather about reasons which can be given to someone who lacks these endowments. That might seem a very strange question -- almost bordering on science fiction An alien comes to earth from a planet where aliens get on perfectly well without morality. It's a tough place, to be sure, but you learn to stay alert and well armed at all times. The alien world is ruled by despots. Misery and suffering are the lot of the many who are not strong enough to defend or assert themselves.

What are these aliens missing? Are they missing the opportunity to live an Aristotelian 'good life'? That would be one possible approach. The problem is that the aliens you are likely to meet in the street or the marketplace would laugh in your face. They lead a 'good life' all right. As for the poor disgusting unfortunates denied a good life, who cares about them?

As you would probably begin to suspect this point, the description is not so far off being a description of our world.

My starting point for a definition of 'moral' would be the Jewish injunction to always take care of 'the widow and the orphan'. The basic starting point is 'responsibility'. To see that leading the good life entails responsibility is by no means an easy thing to do. I personally don't think the argument works. So much the worse for Aristotle.

The alternative approach would be to argue that the individual who fails behave responsibly towards others (in the sense I have described) is missing something which is there to be seen, an objective fact or truth, a claim of reason. Kant believed this (hence, the 'categorical imperative'). And so do I, in a way.

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas -- arguably one of the most important 20th century philosophers -- held that metaphysics in fact requires ethics, the recognition of one's responsibility towards 'the other' as a starting point. Metaphysics without ethics -- the untrammelled worship of 'reason' -- was the recipe which led to the concentration camps. This turns the Kantian project upside down: not a metaphysical basis for ethics, but an ethical basis for metaphysics.

However, I am not so ready to give up on reason. In my view, someone who attempted to embark on the project of being an amoralist -- refusing to acknowledge any moral claim whatsoever -- is in fact denying the very thing that makes it possible to believe in a world outside one's own conscious existence, a world of facts and truths which are not made by me.

The view that 'the world is my world' and that 'truth is my truth' is the theory of solipsism. Solipsism has long since been a scandal in philosophical circles -- no serious philosopher would own up to being a solipsist. Yet (as I will argue) the solution is not to embrace a philosophical view in which we are all ultimately 'the same'. I am not 'the same' as anyone else. Each person is an 'I' confronting a world which is 'not-I'. The very uniqueness of the human predicament points to the need for a philosophy which recognizes (as indeed Levinas does) the 'absolute otherness' of the other as the only possible basis for their ethical inviolability.

All the best,


Essays on Russell's theory of descriptions

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Russell's theory of descriptions
Date: 11th March 2009 12:04

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 26 February, with the second version of your University of London Logic essay, 'Could the statement, 'The present Prime Minister might not have been the present Prime Minister,' be true? Explain your answer,' and your email of 2 March, with your Logic essays, 'One can understand the claim, 'The baby has been sick all day', without supposing there is one and only one baby in the world. So Russell's theory of definite descriptions is wrong.' Discuss,' and 'Can the sentence 'The man over there drinking Martini is a philosopher' be true even though nothing satisfies the definite description? Justify your answer.'

The question of the analysis of definite descriptions is obviously a problem which grips you!

The present Prime Minister

I can't remember what I said about the first version of this essay. If you had brought in Donnellan I would definitely have objected. The question how one analyses statements like, 'The present Prime Minister might not have been the present Prime Minister has got nothing to do with Donnellan's distinction between referential and attributive uses of descriptions (whereas this is very much the topic of the other two essay questions).

As I am writing this in ascii, I am unable to duplicate your first-order predicate calculus notation. However, I trust that you will readily recognize my version of, 'There is one and only one present Prime Minister':

(Ex)(Px & (y)(Py -> y=x)),

or, in English, 'There is an x such that x is the present PM and for all y, if y is the present PM then y=x.'

In 'On Denoting' Russell quotes the example of the man invited to his friend's marina who comments, 'I thought your yacht was larger than it is', to which his friend angrily retorts, 'Of course my yacht is not larger than it is!' This is an example of scope distinctions which analysis in terms of definite descriptions makes possible.

So, 'The present PM might not have been the present PM,' would be:

(Ex)(Px & (y)(Py -> y=x) & DIAMOND(not-Px))

While the self-contradictory reading would be:

DIAMOND(Ex)(Px & (y)(Py -> y=x) & not-Px)).

Your remarks on determinism seem to be a bit of a red herring. Assuming that determinism holds, we can still hypothesise that (e.g.) the Big Bang might have banged differently (the universe starts in a different state from the state it actually started in) so this would be fully consistent with the existence of other possible worlds. However, there is a view which is not entailed by determinism which holds that this world is the only possible world, because (e.g.) the Big Bang could only have banged in the way it did and in no other way.

Sick baby

As you state, the Russellian view would be that we can make the 'improper' description, 'the baby' proper by adding contextual factors.

However, there is a problem which you don't address, concerning Russell's belief that at least some definite descriptions are proper, or that improper definite descriptions can made proper. Who is 'the baby'? She is Mr and Mrs Brown's baby. Who are Mr and Mrs Brown? They are the couple who live at number 24 Garden Road, Sheffield. Their older child, Jill, writes the address, '24 Garden Rd, Sheffield, S Yorkshire, UK, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy, The Universe.' Clearly Jill has never heard of Nietzsche's theory of the Eternal Recurrence (and why should she?). But the point is that no description, however full, can secure reference without some non-descriptive element. All definite descriptions are contextual, to a greater or lesser degree.

This raises a serious objection to the project of inserting the necessary contextual elements in order to make the description 'proper'. However, there is an alternative approach which is to do your contextualising first. In the temporary universe of discourse which defines the conversation between Mr and Mrs Brown, there is, in fact one and only one baby.

The philosopher with the Martini

You give a good explanation of how the Grice/ Donnellan approach would allow us to say that 'The man over there drinking a Martini is a philosopher' can be (kind of) true, even if, as it turns out, the philosopher to whom you have successfully drawn your audience's attention is not, in fact, drinking a Martini but some other drink.

However, there is a problem with relying on the intention of the speaker. Let's say that you wanted to call your audience's attention to the fact that there is a philosopher at the party. How interesting is that! However, your audience is far more interested in the fact that a philosopher would drink a Martini. Aren't all philosophers teetotal? (They've obviously never heard of Plato's Symposium).

The problem is clear: when we evaluate the truth or falsity of uttered statements, we are not concerned merely with the information which the utterer intended to convey. A statement is a statement. Once stated, it is out there in the world. You are not the only judge on how your words should be taken (which is not to say you don't have a say in the matter).

In everyday communicative practice, we are very good in picking out relevant interpretations and deciding, on a given interpretation, whether what was said is true. However, this would seem to point to a distinction between the semantics of a statement, as something 'out there in the world', and the 'pragmatics' of how language is used to communicate information -- sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.

All the best,


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Can God commit suicide?

To: Victor J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can God commit suicide?
Date: 10th March 2009 12:14

Dear Victor,

Thank you for your email of 26 February, with your essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'Can God Commit Suicide?'

I think there is definitely a place for working non-stop into the night, when a problem grips you. And I can see that the question whether God can commit suicide -- or, what it would mean to assert that God will, or has committed suicide -- raises some genuine philosophical difficulties concerning the notion of a deity.

I don't think that the discussion of the fundamental laws of physics cuts any ice in this inquiry. By any accepted definition of God -- or at least any relatively modern definition -- God is not 'in' the physical universe but in some sense outside it. There are exceptions: a Spinozistic God is in some sense identical to the universe; Samuel Alexander's God (in 'Space, Time and Deity') is the final state towards which the universe is evolving. But these are heterodox conceptions.

Let's stick with a view of God according to which:

- God is a person, yet not limited by our subjective viewpoint
- God is outside time, yet is able to interact with the world
- God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent

You raise an obvious difficulty with the notion of the death of a timeless God. If God is outside time then the notion of the 'death' of God is meaningless.

However, there is a more subtle question one can raise about the deity: Assume a timeless God. I said that God is able to interact with the world (e.g. Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah). Assuming that God is a person (or, analogous to a person) and therefore that God has choice, He can choose to cease altogether to interact with the world, or in other words, cease to *do* anything. That would be a kind of 'suicide', the 'death' of God so far as we are concerned (and arguably sufficient for a Nietzschean).

Concerning what God has the 'power' to do, there are well-known fallacious arguments purporting to show that the definition of 'omnipotence' is self-contradictory: e.g. 'Can God create a stone which is too heavy for Him to lift?' The correct answer to this is that to be bound by the laws of logic is not a constraint on God's power, and that 'a stone too heavy for God to lift' is, by the definition of God, a self-contradictory idea.

You can run the very same argument with, 'Can God bring about his own non-existence?' By the definition of 'God', there is no time when God does not exist. Therefore in raising the question whether God can bring about his non-existence we are asking whether God can do something which is logically impossible. Enough said.

As an essay topic for the Associate, I have to say that I am not yet persuaded that this is a runner. I don't know of any philosopher or theologian who would entertain, for a moment, the question whether God is capable of committing suicide (however, that may just be my ignorance).

I do know that the question whether God is less than omnipotent has been debated: there is a famous story of the Rabbis facing death in a concentration camp debating whether God was to blame or whether he was incapable of saving the victims of the Nazis. I have a sister who is a Liberal Jewish Rabbi who would argue that the traditional conception of God as 'omnipotent' needs to be revised in the light of the history of the 20th century. (This is a radical take on the much discussed 'problem of evil'.)

Regarding the form of the essay, although you apologized for the lack of bibliography/ footnotes, there would be objections raised by the Board of the ISFP to any essay not written in the standard format (for guidance see the portfolios archived at My view is that this is no big deal because it is the content that counts -- this is where you have the chance to show that you have something worth saying on a problem or question -- and that it is not necessary to advertise this (as it were) by bending or breaking the standard conventions.

All the best,


Solipsism as a logical cul-de-sac

To: Anthony K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Solipsism as a logical cul-de-sac
Date: 10th March 2009 11:33

Dear Anthony,

Thank you for your email of 27 February, with your fifth and final essay for your Pathways Introduction to Philosophy program, entitled, 'The Logical Cul-de-sac' on the problem of solipsism.

I liked this essay. We both agree that there is something 'worth salvaging' in solipsism, although we seem to disagree on what exactly this is.

Let's start with what the worthy members of the Vancouver Island Philosophy Society have to say: 'the solipsist theory... offers nothing, gives nothing, but the knowledge that we can truly know nothing, and it remains there.'

As an argument for rejecting a philosophical theory, this is actually very bad. One of the basic rules of philosophical inquiry is that it is indeed the appeal to reason and logic which has the final say, and not the appeal to our likes or dislikes, or to how 'useful it is to believe' a particular proposition or theory. If reason and logic dictate that we embrace solipsism, then that would be very unfortunate. Philosophers world wide would have every reason to lament. But the only recourse is to a better use of reason or logic.

What I am saying is that in defending the value of the discussion of solipsism, the objections raised against you by the worthy members of the society carry no weight. However, it is perfectly reasonable and proper for members of a philosophical society to choose which topics they like to debate, and if they don't like to debate solipsism (for whatever reasons) then you can't force them to debate it.

What exactly is solipsism? You raise the question of solipsism within the context of the challenge of scepticism (scepticism about the external world, scepticism about other minds). However, it could be argued that such scepticism *presupposes* that we understand what it would be for an external world, or for other minds, to exist. To the diehard solipsist who denies that the notion of a world which is not 'my world' has any meaning, this would be viewed as a kind of faint-hearted solipsism. There might be a world outside me, for all I could ever find out or know, but I can never be sure. Whereas the diehard solipsist already *knows* that there is not, and cannot be such a world, because the very notion is meaningless. The world IS my world.

As a sceptical challenge, solipsism is vulnerable to the same arguments which apply to any form of global scepticism: for example, in setting the bar too high for what is to count as 'knowledge', the sceptic has merely changed the subject, is not talking about *knowledge* at all but merely some ideal construct. Real knowledge has a point, and a use. The subject who possesses knowledge is an agent in the world, not a disembodied observer. And so on.

This is definitely worth discussing, because meeting the challenge of scepticism is a fruitful philosophical inquiry. But what about diehard solipsism? This is worth discussing too. The diehard solipsist has thrown down a challenge which, for the sake of reason and logic, we have to meet.

I think that the diehard solipsist can be refuted. As a logical basis for such a refutation, I would appeal to Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. However, when all the argument is done, something remains: and that is the core realization that *I* am the person asking the question. Each of us is in the same position; each of us is in the same boat. Yet, paradoxically, because of this each of us must face the ultimately unanswerable question, what it means to say that 'I am GK' (or, in your case, 'I am AK').

This is the 'partial truth' in solipsism which I defend in my article on the Wood Paths web site and also in my book Naive Metaphysics. I am not alone amongst contemporary philosophers in seeing this as a significant challenge: Thomas Nagel discusses this in his book 'The View from Nowhere', chapter 4.

Finally, I agree with you that even when we are sure that we have successfully refuted a theory, we should be prepared to rehearse the arguments whenever called upon to do so. In philosophy, more than any other subjects, one is constantly reminded of one's fallibility.

All the best,


Does knowledge require existence of self-justifying beliefs?

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does knowledge require existence of self-justifying beliefs?
Date: 6th March 2009 12:48

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 25 February, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, ''In order to amount to knowledge, a belief must be justified. So, unless some beliefs are self-justifying, there is no knowledge.' Discuss.'

Regarding your comment on Quine being a 'philosopher's philosopher', he is in my view a very good writer (in the American tradition of crisp, pungent prose), or at least when he is at his best. The collection of articles, 'From a Logical Point of View' is a classic.

You've found a reading of this question which hadn't occurred to me, a reading according to which foundationalism would be an *alternative* to the view that 'some beliefs are self-justifying'. Your argument seems to be this: when a belief is formed in response to immediate experience -- say, a sensation of red -- the appropriate description would be in causal terms, rather than in terms of justification. That is true 'foundationalism' because we have found some thing (?) which operates in analogous way, e.g. to the foundations of a building. The foundations of a building are not part of the building, but rather the extra bit at the 'bottom' which you need to hold the building up.

On my reading, foundationalism just *is* the view that some beliefs are self-justifying, while the alternative view would be better described as a variety of externalism. On the alternative view, we form beliefs in response to the impact of experience, but these beliefs are not 'justified' because (in the normal case) there is no room for rational assessment. An observer, however, would conclude that so long as our cognitive apparatus is operating according to its design (by the theory of evolution) then it delivers up knowledge.

The classic example of foundationalism is Descartes' 'Meditations' where Descartes specifically identifies subjective experiences -- like the experience of 'red' -- as a kind of 'thought' which cannot be doubted. In other words, my experience of red *is* a self-justifying belief, 'I see red now'.

Incidentally, what I have described as the 'alternative' to the self-justifying view is fairly close to the account given by Quine in his essay 'Epistemology Naturalised' where Quine rejects traditional Cartesian foundationalism: in his often quoted statement, 'There is no first philosophy.' ('First philosophy' is the term used by Aristotle to refer to writings which are now known as the 'Metaphysics'. The full(er) title of Descartes 'Meditations' is 'Meditations on First Philosophy'.)

Naturalised epistemology would be one way to block the argument. It does so denying the demand for internalist 'reasons'.

One can be externalist about reasons (as you describe). Arguably, as you state, this merely pushes the problem back. The alternative externalist view would be to embrace naturalised epistemology. It is a matter of scientific inquiry and explanation how human beings are so 'good' at acquiring knowledge. The purpose of this inquiry is not to provide some kind of warrant or assurance that our knowledge is what it purports to be, for such warrant is neither necessary nor indeed possible.

Like you, I can't see any great attraction in infinitism. However, a variant on this theme would be 'indefinitism', where human knowledge gets stronger and more coherent, as we pursue the quest for reasons further and further back. This is the opposite of the picture of an infinite regress. It is also consistent with the line which you take at the beginning that justification can be fallible. There are different 'directions' in the pursuit of knowledge: we can learn about more things, and we can also learn more about how we know and why.

Regarding coherentism, almost as an afterthought you insert the remark that coherentism is improved with a 'whiff of foundationalism', which broaches a huge topic. Is pure coherentism coherent? The classic objection is that you can have two mutually inconsistent systems of beliefs, each of which is fully justified by the criterion of coherence. However, as soon as you inject 'experience' or 'contact with the real world' or whatever, you have re-introduced the very thing that coherentism was designed to avoid -- the appeal to foundations. It is merely truistic that coherence of beliefs increases our warrant for holding them.

-- Regarding all these distinctions, I have to admit that I feel somewhat the way you do, that the industry that has grown around epistemology is 'Byzantine', and, frankly, scholastic (in the worst sense). However, there are core questions about knowledge which are gripping and the thing to do is to explore the texts with the core questions constantly in view.

If you are looking for something 'gripping', I would suggest Barry Stroud's book 'The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism'.

All the best,


Problem of evil: logical and evidential versions

To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Problem of evil: logical and evidential versions
Date: 4th March 2009 14:40

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 23 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Religion module, in response to the question, 'What is the difference between the logical and evidential versions of the problem of evil? Evaluate one possible response to EITHER the logical version OR the evidential version.'

You have chosen to discuss the logical version of the problem of evil and the response which you consider is Plantinga's 'free will' defence.

I liked the idea of starting off with the example of 'Who broke the salad tongs?' As an illustration of the difference between the logical and evidential versions of the problem of evil, the example is spoiled somewhat by its complexity. A better use of the example would be to leave out the part about Jaimie, and concentrate on the argument from elimination: 'Either A or B or C. But not-A and not-B. Therefore C.'

An argument is only as strong as its premisses, however, and this is the weakness of the logical version. In fact, I would tend to regard the distinction between the 'logical' and 'evidential' versions as specious. The logical version claims that there 'is' evil in the world, but then as soon as one tries to make sense of this assertion it becomes apparent that the claim is that there is 'unavoidable' or 'unnecessary' evil. But then the whole question of what is or is not unavoidable or unnecessary hangs on empirical considerations.

As a response to the question, you give rather more than the examiner is asking for (in anticipating Mackie's anticipation of possible objections) but we can let that pass. The meat of your essay concerns the validity of the free will defence.

I liked the fact that you were prepared to seriously consider the possibility that God has given human beings free will but *could* if he had so chosen, have placed them in circumstances in which they always made the ethically right choice, or chose good over evil. Surely, every time a person decides between good and evil, there is a chance that they will choose good. Why can't something that happens sometimes happen always? Isn't that enough (however improbable) to establish the coherence of the hypothesis that God could, if he had so chosen, have created a world where human beings were free but in which there was no evil.

I actually suspect that there is something desperately wrong with this. It does sound superficially like the idea that if you gave a monkey a typewriter and enough time it would 'eventually' write all the plays of Shakespeare. You can even calculate the mathematical probability. Assume that there are n characters to choose from including caps and spaces. Then the probability is 1/n x 1/n x 1/n... m times, where m is the total number of characters in Shakespeare's collected works.

Could one do the same with free will? Just take every person, past, present and future, and every challenge requiring a decision, and then multiply the odds.

If that doesn't sound obviously incoherent, consider how the argument would run with false belief. Arguably, having a false belief about something is a kind of 'evil', although it is easier to argue that sometimes having a false belief can have good consequences. Could God so arrange the universe that no-one ever had a false belief about anything? Every time we exercised our judgement, or every time we strained our eyes at some object in the distance we always got it right.

Make things simple enough and it might be possible. But then again, what kind of life would human beings have, knowing only that *whatever they think* they are always right, or always do the right thing? Surely, in such a situation, one of the basic conditions for genuine 'freedom of choice' is lacking. The life they would live is just not a human life. There is no sense of risk or peril, no sense of urgency, hardly a sense, surely, of what it is to 'make a decision'.

However, we are talking about logic, and in response to a logical argument (or what purports to be a logical argument) you need a logically watertight case. What Plantinga ought to say at this point is that if you like you can call your ideal no-error world a world where human beings have 'free will'. But that isn't the kind of free will *worth having*. The kind worth having is the kind which is exercised knowing that errors do happen, that human beings sometimes do make the wrong choice.

On the question of natural evil, I do find the idea that natural evils might have resulted from the wrong exercise of free will by fallen angels simply ridiculous. Why not just blame fallen angels for everything? Why bother with all the rigmarole? Surely this is the kind of thing that brings philosophy into disrepute.

All the best,


Friday, January 18, 2013

Hume and Kant on causality - an undue scepticism?

To: Kaz K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Kant on causality - an undue scepticism?
Date: 27th February 2009 11:16

Dear Kaz,

Thank you for your two emails of 19 February with your first positioning essay towards the ISFP Fellowship Award, and the revised version of your essay, entitled, 'Hume and Kant on Causality - an undue scepticism.'

I very much like the topic as well as your focus on that topic: broadly, the question is how we can accommodate notions such as causality within an empiricist, naturalist framework, avoiding the extremes of Humean scepticism as well as the metaphysical danger of a Kantian two-world solution, which 'saves' the concept of causality for the empirical/ phenomenal world but then gives it up in the face of the unknowability of the noumenal world.

I notice that you have Bhaskar ('A Realist Theory of Science') as well as Rorty ('Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature') in your bibliography. These are right on target so far as your topic is concerned. A work which you might not have come across which is equally relevant is John Macmurray 'The Self as Agent' (as well as the second volume of his Gifford lectures, 'Persons in Relation'). Macmurray's aim is to replace the 'I think' of Descartes with the fundamental principle, 'I do', using this to lever the concepts of knowledge, causality, person etc. by means of arguments similar to Kant's 'transcendental deduction'. Macmurray broadcasted for the BBC, and is very much a 'communicator'. The down side of this is that his arguments lack the kind of rigour one looks for in academic philosophy. This resulted in his work being marginalised. Macquarrie recognizes his importance as the 'British Existentialist' (a not altogether accurate description).

Obviously, you haven't gone into too much detail. However, from what you have said, I can see some important questions relating both to Hume and to Kant. Assuming that you are right, the question is where exactly Hume and Kant make the fatal error, and how this comes about.

Hume's view of causality has been misunderstood. He has two, quite distinct, accounts of causality, the first concerning the truth conditions of causal statements, and the second giving an account of the mental processes whereby the concept of causality arises in the first place.

The truth conditions of 'A caused B' may be stated (at a first approximation) as, 'For all x, if A(x) then ceteris paribus B(x)'. Hume doesn't spend too much time on the question of how a causal law may be stated, but it is crucial and, arguably, the weakest element in his position. It is impossible, in principle, to completely unpack the ceteris paribus clause. The stone caused the window to break, agreed, and the truth of that statement depends upon the truth of a universal generalization that given a stone of sufficient weight and velocity and a window of sufficient fragility, etc. etc. a breakage will occur. But what exactly is 'sufficient'?

Such a generalization, referring as it does to all places and all times, can never be conclusively verified. But is that scepticism? It is not clear that it is.

Elizabeth Anscombe in 'Causality and Determination' mounts a fierce attack on Hume's position here, arguing that we can be more certain of a causal connection than we are of any generalization, and therefore that the truth conditions of causal statements cannot be given by any universal generalization, but I find her position bizarre. You might not.

Hume in the Treatise (in a section on rules for judging causes) in fact goes to considerable lengths to show how we are able to distinguish causal connections from accidental conjunctions. He doesn't see a problem, and I'm not sure I do either. This is basically Carl Hempel's view. Causal explanation consists in deduction from a law (the so-called 'DN model'). There is a lot more to say (Davidson on causes and events, Mackie on 'INUS' (=insufficient part of an unnecessary but sufficient) conditions. But all this is consistent with the view that the truth of a causal statement *is* ultimately a truth about a causal law.

On the other side, however, is the question exactly what is our 'concept' of a cause, how we acquire the concept in the first place. Here, Hume is unconvincing. Mere observation of regular connections between our experiences would never give rise to the concept of a cause if it were not for the fact that we are agents, capable of interfering with the course of nature. A 'cause' is identified as something you can change or control out of the many factors which all play a part in a given event.

Moving to Kant, if you read Strawson's 'Bounds of Sense' you will see that Strawson thinks that Kant's project can be saved, provided we just get rid of the stuff about noumena. Kant's view is not simply (as you seem to imply) that human beings have an in-built capacity to judge causes, or an in-built a priori concept of cause -- although this is part of his theory. He gives a 'transcendental argument' for the view that the concepts of cause, space and spatio-temporal continuant are necessary conditions for the possibility of experience as such: the hypothesis of a subject merely noticing patterns of subjective experiences is incoherent because the identity of the subject over time cannot be defined in the absence of an objective component, i.e. how things are in the spatial world which the subject perceives.

All well and good; but I think Strawson is wrong. (I had a memorable term of 1-1 supervision at Oxford by Strawson in Trinity Term 1977 where this issue was much debated!). Unless you start with the 'I do', the necessity of the self as agent and not merely a passive observer, all you get is a coherent dream world, and an ersatz concept of 'cause'. Unfortunately, Macmurray doesn't provide enough argument. In my Oxford B.Phil thesis I enlisted Wittgenstein's private language argument to fill the gap. The consequence of this is a peculiar (or maybe not so peculiar) reading according to which 'publicity' in itself is insufficient to establish meaning rules. The language users must be agents (hence, 'form of life'?). The illustration I gave for this was the hypothesis of a race of intelligent trees, who spend their time discussing the weather and the comings and goings of the various animals in the forest. On my view, this hypothesis would be incoherent. (When I say trees I mean totally immobile living creatures, not Tolkien's 'ents'.)

These are just some considerations to think about. As I said, we are broadly in agreement, but there is a lot of room for different lines of argument as well as some uncertainty about exactly what it is about Hume's or Kant's views that we should be attacking.

My view would be that you have your hands full looking at the concept of 'cause', without needing to bring in the other things you mentioned, like other minds etc. But let's see.

All the best,


Should possibility be analysed in terms of possible worlds?

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Should possibility be analysed in terms of possible worlds?
Date: 25th February 2009 12:41

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 16 February, with your essay for the University of London Logic module, in response to the question, ''We use the notion of 'possibility' to assess claims about this world, not about some other possible world.' Discuss.'

In response to your request to suggest further topics in Logic, my advice would be to pick topics that grip you -- but also topics that you feel you can *do* given the time constraints -- without worrying too much about second-guessing what might or might not come up in an exam. You have done well so far. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) I don't have any access to the examiners' deliberations on this matter.

Look at the responses you have received to your essays. Do they raise questions which prompt further research? Look to fill in gaps in your knowledge which enhance what you have covered already, as well as extending the coverage further. If you are careful in this, you will find that you have plenty to fill the remaining time you have available for exam preparation.

This is a well-written essay, which would be a good answer to a general question like, 'Discuss some of the problems and issues around the use of possible worlds in the semantics for modal logic.'

As an answer to the question, 'We use the notion of possibility to assess claims about this world...', you do say things which are relevant -- for example, raising the question of transworld identity for individuals and contrasting Lewis's counterpart theory with Kripke's theory of rigid designators -- however, you don't say enough to 'cap the point'.

For example: is Kripke's view of possible worlds preferable (as Kripke indeed claims in 'Naming and Necessity') on the grounds that, e.g. when I consider what might have happened to me or what I might have done, my concern is with the actual GK, and not some counterpart of GK resembling me in this or that respect?

I find this a very difficult claim to assess, because it is difficult to see what hangs on the question. I don't find Kripke's explanation of the difference between 'essential' and 'accidental' attributes very convincing. But, even if we accept the account, why can't Lewis simply take the explanation of the difference between 'accidental' and 'essential' properties and use it as one of the bases for judging whether a given possible world is sufficiently 'similar' to the actual world in the respects that interest the person asking the question?

However, having said that, I don't think that the dispute between Kripke and Lewis is the main issue here. Lewis has been criticized for giving an account of possibility which, in effect, reduces possibility to actuality. Other possible worlds (you don't quite make this clear) are as 'real' as the actual world. What makes the world actual is merely a fact of local perspective (the same kind of fact that makes GK 'me', or from your point of view makes AL 'me'). Every other possible world is 'actual' to the inhabitants of that particular world.

What the question raises, is the issue whether 'how things are in other possible worlds' is what we really what we are concerned with when we make statements about possibilities. The question is not about the utility of possible worlds as simply a device of logic, but rather about the claim that reference to other possible worlds is an ineradicable aspect of human discourse concerning the actual world.

Consider, for example, the statement that this ladder is reliable. It is possible to climb up the ladder safely, or, better still, it is not possible that the ladder will break when you have climbed it. What you are describing is a property of the actual ladder. Actual things possess powers and potentialities (in something like an Aristotelian sense). This is a primitive fact about the world, or, equivalently, a primitive fact about the way our conceptual scheme classifies objects not only in terms of observable properties, but also in terms of dispositions which can be tested by performing experiments.

So far so good. However, the argument on the other side would be that we *do* dwell on 'how things might have been'. If I had stuck with my original National Lottery numbers I would now be sunbathing in my Greek villa. I am not describing a mere fantasy or mental image of sunbathing in Greece. My feelings of remorse have an object which is not just a mental entity but something 'real'.

I am not sure how to respond to this point. Perhaps the least that can be said is, as you state at one point in your essay, that the notion of possibility is sui generis, not reducible to any other notion. The assertion that possibility is sui generis counts against Lewis's view that all possible worlds are actual (to the inhabitants of the relevant worlds), but also (and with the same force) counts against the view that statements about possibility merely concern 'claims about this world'.

All the best,


Hume's claim that justice is an artificial virtue

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's claim that justice is an artificial virtue
Date: 25th February 2009 11:49

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 16 February, with your essay for the University of London Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Why does Hume describe justice as an artificial virtue? Is what he says defensible?'

I found this essay very clear and well-argued. (Thanks for the bibliography.) I am also genuinely gripped by the first of the five challenges which you raise against Hume's account of justice as an artificial virtue.

In terms of strategy, in an exam when faced with a question like, 'Is so-and-so's account defensible?' I would tend to concentrate effort on the objections which I consider problematic, the ones which one can say something interesting (and possibly original) about rather than those against which the account or theory may be relatively easily defended. This isn't in any way a criticism of the essay: the essay is enhanced by the fact that you do canvas various objections, and this is genuinely instructive. However, given what you say about the first objection, this is where the real 'meat' of the essay lies, and it deserves more space.

Why am I gripped? This isn't just a question of the plausibility of claiming that a sense of justice is primitive rather than socially derived. It is plausible. As you say, 'Whether most humans would act like sensible knaves in dealing with strangers in a pre-social state is a moot point that cannot be answered by research now that all the world's inhabitants have been socialised.' But, then, how *is* this kind of question to be decided?

Notwithstanding Hume's claim to be giving a 'theory of human nature', his theory of ethics is not based merely on empirical observation. Having ruled out any possibility that ethics can be derived from reason, he is faced with the challenge of giving an alternative account, based on the *minimum* that one needs to assume about human nature. This assumption is, in a sense 'a priori' in that (in putatively Kantian terms) it is a necessary condition for the possibility of ethical discourse. Given the primitive motivations of self-love and benevolence, the complex apparatus of our system of ethical judgements may be logically derived, through philosophical analysis.

One can indeed challenge Hume on the need for benevolence: there are systems in which every virtue is 'artificial' in Hume's sense. Everything is ultimately explained by self-love.

The problem is clear: there doesn't seem to be any clear methodology, available to the moral subjectivist, for deciding between the various rival accounts: pure self-love, or self-love plus benevolence, or self-love plus benevolence plus justice, etc. etc.

The reason why there is ultimately no room for a Kantian-style 'transcendental argument' here is that this goes against Kant's strict rule: 'I have prescribed to myself the maxim, that in this kind of investigation it is in no wise permissible to hold opinions. Everything, therefore, which bears any manner of resemblance to an hypothesis is to be treated as contraband; it is not to be put up for sale even at the lowest price, but forthwith confiscated, immediately upon detection.'

(Sorry, I don't have the page reference to hand. See

It seems to me that this is the fatal weakness in Hume's account, and indeed in any similar attempt to reconstruct ethics on a subjective basis. What we get is not a philosophical theory concerning the foundations of ethics, but merely a more or less plausible (although ultimately untestable) psychological theory of human motivation.

There are two possible responses to this: The first is to simply admit that one's preferred theory has an ineradicable empirical element. So what? It is the 'best explanation', given the unacceptability of an alternative, and given the difficulty, or impossibility of gathering sufficient empirical evidence for or against the theory.

The second response is to attempt to give something like an a priori account of the genesis of the 'self' or 'person' -- the genesis of self-consciousness -- as a phenomenon which necessarily comes into being only through social interaction. I am thinking of the kind of account you would find in Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Mind' (e.g. the famous discussion of 'master and slave'). This is a route one might take if one were attempting to defend the view that a sense of justice is primitive. The problem with this is that, if successful, the resulting theory would amount to the very thing that Hume rejects: a rational basis for ethics.

I remember seeing a brilliant early 80's play by Tom Stoppard, 'Professional Foul' in which one of the characters, a persecuted dissident Czech philosophy student, has written a thesis arguing that (in Hume's terms) a sense of justice is primitive, and therefore not to be determined -- as the Communist party line claimed -- by considerations of what best serves the interests of the state.

All the best,


Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming that opposites are true?

To: Shan A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is Heraclitus inconsistent in claiming that opposites are true?
Date: 24th February 2009 12:48

Dear Shan,

Thank you for your email of 14 February, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'How should we understand Heraclitus's claim that opposites are true? Does the claim commit him to an inconsistency?'

This is in many ways a model answer to the question which gives me very little to comment on. There is nothing that you say which one might take exception to. You have covered all the main kinds of assertions about opposites and given plausible interpretations which show that Heraclitus is not involved in inconsistency, committed to denying the law of non-contradiction.

All of which leaves one wondering, 'Why all the fuss?' If we could transport Heraclitus in a time machine and persuade him to sit in on a logic seminar, can we envisage that he would have any objections to the account given of his philosophy of opposites, or to the seemingly plausible construction placed on his words?

I have a niggling feeling about this, and wonder whether you have too.

Heraclitus thought he was making statements that few men could understand, claims that were incredibly daring and paradoxical. And here we are, nodding our heads and saying, 'Of course, why not.'

It is worth at least trying to construct an alternative picture of a view that Heraclitus might have wanted to put forward, which he argued for indirectly by means of these seemingly anodyne examples, hoping that somehow the combined effect would eventually produce comprehension.

At any rate, as a matter of historical fact, subsequent philosophers have 'seen more' in Heraclitus, notably Hegelians and Marxists which at least gives one pause for thought.

Here is one possibility: We have seen Heraclitus observing that various qualities apply to things only from given points of view. Sea water is good for fishes but bad for men. The road is 'up' or down depending on which way you are going, and so on. What if he was not merely giving *examples* of how things can be seen from different points of view, but rather advancing the thesis that *every* property -- without exception -- is relative to a given perspective, in such a way that there will always be a perspective from which it has the opposite property?

On this hypothesis, Heraclitus is doing nothing less than attack the very basis of language itself. Nothing 'is' anything. Or rather, whatever a thing 'is' it also 'is not'. Not even when you get down to the basic constitution of matter. At rock bottom, there is 'fire' but the term 'fire' does not refer to an entity with properties but rather to the 'backstretched connection' itself, a live tension between opposites.

I may have mentioned to you before the 'principle of charity' which is a methodological rule for interpreting a philosopher requiring that (other things being equal) we put a coherent rather than an incoherent construction on their words. Rather than be quick to convict a philosopher of a fallacy, one looks for an interpretation according to which they are arguing for something valid and true.

However, it could also be argued that there are times when we should also be concerned with seeing something deep or interesting in a philosopher's vision, even if this results in attributing incoherence. I do think that there is a case for saying this with Heraclitus. He didn't want to say something anodyne. He wanted to shock his readers, stir them out of their complacency.

The thesis that 'there can be no language' was taken seriously enough by Plato, in his dialogue Cratylus. That is at least one piece of evidence that Heraclitus was indeed trying to stir things up, and Plato saw this.

I mentioned Hegel and Marx. A.N. Whitehead (collaborator with Russell on 'Principia Mathematica') in his treatise 'Process and Reality' argues for a metaphysical view according to which our everyday language, referring as it does to entities which persist through time, inevitably falsifies reality, that is to say hides its true ontological structure. In these terms, every statement that we utter is 'false', yet there is no way to convey the 'truth' other than in general terms. The metaphysician F.H. Bradley in 'Appearance and Reality', argues that ordinary language is condemned to self-contradiction because of its reliance on the apparatus of terms and relations -- notions which Bradley has proven (or thinks he has proven) to be self-contradictory. The only thing free from contradiction is the Absolute, in which all contradictions are resolved, yet we have no means of describing the Absolute in language. We can only know it negatively.

My hunch is that if we could put Heraclitus in a time machine, he would feel right at home with these thinkers, and scorn the laxity of the analytic approach which tries every means to defend our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking.

All the best,


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On what modes of existence there are

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On what modes of existence there are
Date: 24th February 2009 12:02

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 15 February, with your 'free' essay towards the University of London Logic paper, written to your own topic, 'On What Modes of Existence There Are'.

At 6300 words, this is more than double the length of pieces of work that I am normally prepared to accept. Please try to keep your work closer to the 2000-2500 word target length! There is a good reason for this restriction: work which my students send me is queued and allocated to time slots. There is a certain amount of leeway (for example, if I find a particular problem or issue difficult to grapple with and need to think about it). However, if it takes me twice or three times as long to read and digest a submission, the time available for a thoughtful response is inevitably reduced.

I wasn't convinced by your theory of A-existence, B-existence and C-existence. It is a brave try. However, I feel that you haven't sufficiently appreciated the importance of distinctions between the different kinds of entity that exist: spatio-temporal particulars, events, as well as the various grades of 'impure' abstract object, and 'pure' abstract objects. (The set of British Prime ministers since 1800 would be an impure abstract object. The set containing the null set together with the set containing the null set would be a pure abstract object.)

Let's start with the example you give of your dog. You don't give your dog's name, but let us call him Charley. Charley is a spatio-temporal particular. As you say, the criterion for the existence of entities like Charley is observability. However, this is not true of all entities that exist. The criterion for the existence of the null set is something like 'logical definability'.

According to your theory, Charley A-exists by virtue of the fact that we have available the term 'Charley' which might or might not denote anything, or indeed (in the case of self-contradictory descriptions) might not be capable of denoting anything. Charley B-exists by virtue of the fact that you have a concept of Charley, as an object of mental reference concerning which Charley's C-existence of full-blooded existence may either be asserted or denied.

However, we need to look more closely at the question under what circumstances Charley's C-existence might be denied.

Let's say you have a neighbour, Alice, who suffers from paranoid-schizophrenic delusions. Alice believes that she 'owns' a dog called Bruce who sits at the table and eats breakfast with her every morning. Bruce 'exists' for Alice but we would say that Bruce does not exist. What exactly are *we* referring to when we use the term 'Bruce'?

Russell and Quine (along with the vast majority of formal logicians) would say that we are not referring to any entity called 'Bruce'. We are denying the existence of an entity satisfying the description given by Alice: 'The dog who eats breakfast with me every morning.'

Why would there by any motivation to say that 'Bruce' refers to an entity which 'exists' in some weaker sense? To Alice's psychotherapist, Bruce is something very real, a presence in Alice's life which affects practically everything she says and does. 'Bruce wouldn't like me to do that,' Alice might say. 'I did it because Bruce told me to.' For the psychotherapist, 'Bruce' is a term which refers to an existing entity. But this entity is not the kind of entity which the name 'Bruce' purports to refer to, for Alice. Exactly what kind of existing entity this is, is something which one might debate in the pages of psychoanalytic journals.

Say, if you like, that when the psychotherapist talks to Alice about 'Bruce' they are talking at cross-purposes. That is the nature of much psychoanalytic discourse. There is a process of bracketing and interpreting through which the patient's statements are filtered, in order to enable something resembling dialogue.

Arguably, we need to expand our list of kinds of entity even further to include 'theoretical entities'. It seems somehow wrong to describe the psychotherapist's 'Bruce' as merely an 'impure abstract object'. 'Bruce' only exists if the theory in question is true. ('Phlogiston' is an example of an entity which doesn't exist -- when, knowing this, we refer to 'Phlogiston' we are referring to the Phlogiston theory, as an intellectual construct.)

The greatest mistake, however -- which I think you are very close to making -- is to think that you can somehow 'add' C-existence to B-existence.

Charley (your dog) is not a Bruce-type entity to which full-blooded existence has been added. Charley is not, and never was anything but a spatio-temporal particular.

Within the 'univocal' view of existence there is plenty of room for dispute about the ontological status of various kinds of entity. Quine is famously inclined to parsimony. According to Strawson, there is 'no entity without identity'. Gareth Evans has written sceptically about the ontological status of vague objects. Do possible worlds, or in general, possibilia, exist? We don't have to decide for or against parsimony in order to embrace the univocal view. So it is misleading at best to imply that the univocal view requires Quinian parsimony. These questions are up for grabs. What about the ontological status of events? Does the null set exist? Why insist that entities be countable? and so on.

One thing which I would go along with in your account is the idea of 'simulation'. Alice would be an example. When the psychotherapist asks Alice, 'What did you discuss with Bruce at breakfast this morning?' he is engaging in an act of mental simulation, putting himself in some sense in Alice's shoes, drawing conclusions from what she says on the basis of a continually refined and updated mental model. However, to repeat, this process is fully accounted for by allowing 'Bruce' to a theoretical entity, a psychoanalytic term of art. When he says (to a colleague) 'Bruce does not exist' he is not referring to this theoretical entity but rather denying that anything satisfies the description offered by Alice.

So I think there is room for developing the 'simulation' idea, along lines which are consistent with, rather than opposed to, a univocal account of existence.

All the best,


Mill's view that arithmetical knowledge is empirical

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mill's view that arithmetical knowledge is empirical
Date: 20th February 2009 11:59

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 12 February, with your essay for the University of London Philosophy of Mathematics module, in response to the question, 'Explain and assess Mill's contention that arithmetical truths are known by induction from the evidence of our senses.'

I liked your essay on Mill. If there is room for improvement, it would be around the analysis of the phrase, 'are known by induction'.

Let's say that I am doing my accounts and I get a figure for annual turnover which looks a bit high. On the third and fourth attempt, I get the same figure. Finally, I ask a friend who is an accountant to try, and he gets the correct figure. From experience, I know that my friend is never wrong, especially when he is this confident. So now I *know* what the figure is.

Is this knowledge therefore empirical knowledge? No, because the fact about what the correct addition is (modulo Mill) is not an empirical fact. This is a remark about the concept of knowledge rather than about the philosophy of mathematics. (There is room for debate over this example. Some epistemologists would reject the 'reliabilist' model of knowledge.)

In this light, it would seem that questions about how we 'learn' or have 'evolved' to make accurate arithmetical judgments based on perception are irrelevant to the question raised by Mill concerning the epistemological status of arithmetic. (Further to your point about infants, I saw a program where very young children were taught to recognize the numbers of surprisingly large collections and perform the 'addition' intuitively. An typical example would be 43 plus 86, represented as two cards with 43 and 86 coloured dots. The film 'Rain Man' with Dustin Hoffmann, is a beautiful illustration of how autistic savants can perform amazing arithmetical feats without, apparently, 'counting' or 'performing calculations'.)

So there is a distinction to be made here between how human beings acquire mathematical concepts and knowledge, and the epistemological status of the knowledge thus acquired.

Mill's claim about the empirical basis of arithmetic is a metaphysical, as well as an epistemological thesis. This is the point of his opposition to Kant's 'false philosophy'. What he is saying, in effect, is that there is no a priori requirement that the world conform to Peano's axioms. Conversely, there is a possible world in which arithmetic (as we know it) fails. That is a very strong claim, inviting speculation about what kind of world this might be.

When Quine suggests that even the truths of logic might come into question (citing the example of quantum mechanics) he wisely avoids attempting to describe what such a world might be 'like'. He is arguing a posteriori: we have already encountered problems in applying logic, and who is to say that there might not be more. Quine's view would be that the 'onus of proof' is on the philosopher who claims that arithmetic is immune from revision, rather than on the one who claims there is no area of knowledge where revision is not conceivable.

So, one question one might raise is, Is the onus on Mill to describe such an alternative anti-arithmetical world? A relevant point to make here would be about geometry. Kant was wrong about geometry. The geometry of the world is not Euclidean. We know how to describe worlds in which Euclidean, or in which non-Euclidean geometry holds. And, in fact, all the current evidence points to its being non-Euclidean. What exactly is the difference in the case of arithmetic?

For a start, there are no mathematical results comparable to the proof of the consistency of non-Euclidean geometries. If Frege and Russell are right, there couldn't be, because the truths of arithmetic are ultimately truths of logic.

On a point of detail: you mention Frege's claim that numbers are abstract 'objects'. As you probably know, the attempt has been made to reconstruct large parts of arithmetic without this assumption, using first-order predicate logic with identity, as explained by Frege in 'Foundations of Arithmetic'. This in itself is very strong reason for thinking that there just couldn't be alternative arithmetics, because the concept of a countable unit (which is equivalent to the concept of identity) is all you need.

A world where arithmetic failed would have to be world without 'units', without 'names' and 'referents', 'sameness' or 'difference'. The only example I can think of is the 'One' of Parmenides (which isn't 'one' in the arithmetical sense because it is logically impossible that anything could be 'added' to it).

All the best,


Hume on the problem of personal identity

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume on the problem of personal identity
Date: 18th February 2009 13:45

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 8 February, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy Descartes. et. al. module, in response to the question, 'Why did the problem of personal identity cause Hume such severe difficulties that in the end he admitted that he could see no way of providing a coherent account?'

What is so special about the case of personal identity, that it should have caused Hume to see a problem which his own theory of identity in terms of 'fictions' was not able to solve? That seems to me to be the key question here.

Hume has a theory -- the theory of 'fictions' -- which although it is (by implication) an error theory, implying that we have false beliefs, nevertheless does a lot of work in explaining how we as human beings form the concepts that we are able to form.

This essay is about personal identity; however, it is important to see the problem in the context of what Hume says in 'On Scepticism With Regard to the Senses' where he finds an insuperable problem in accounting for the 'continued and distinct existence of bodies'.

As you state, the account of the fiction of identity goes like this: You are looking at an unchanging object. Because there is no difference in the quality of your successive impressions, your mind forms the idea of an identity, each successive impression belonging to the 'same' object.

In the case of the self, by contrast, there is as Hume observes, no 'object' given in experience whose successive impressions would even be capable of giving rise even to a fiction of identity. Here is the crucial passage (which you quote -- in fact twice, on successive pages!):

'That action of the imagination, by which we consider the uninterrupted and invariable object, and that by which we reflect on the succession of related objects, are almost the same to feeling.'

-- The annoying thing here is that Hume as a solution here, although he doesn't seem to realize it. There are two mental actions: recognizing sameness, and recognizing difference. In both cases, at least two perceptions are involved. But there are many such actions, and every additional action brings in more perceptions to the 'set'. Hence,

'I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity...'.

The bundle theory. Why isn't this a perfectly good theory of personal identity, given the constraints of Hume's theory of impressions, ideas and fictions? There is no identity across time, for anything. However, there is something that does the job of identity, for the things we perceive, and also for the self that does the perceiving.

Contrast now the case of the continued and distinct existence of objects: All that our experience of the world could ever teach us is that perceptual objects come into existence and go out of existence. Their nature depends on our perception. And yet, we somehow form the idea that one of these objects can exist *unperceived* and *distinct* from the act of perception. This truly is a contradiction which Hume has no way to solve, other than to remark that this is the point where we just have to recognize that philosophy has its limits (and he goes off to play a game of backgammon).

So I don't actually think that Hume is caught in an inconsistency with regard to personal identity, as you claim. That is not to say that the account can't be criticized. Logically, the explanation goes like this:

1. Ideas/ impressions A and B are bundled together if and only if there is an awareness of A with B. (Don't ask for the 'what' that bundles them together because no idea or impression corresponds to this.)

2. Any two bundles, large or small, which overlap give rise to a larger bundle which contains the ideas/ impressions which constitute the union of the ideas/ impressions in the two bundles.

3. At any given time, the self 'is' the bundle of all 'its' ideas/ impressions. All the ideas and impressions in the universe are thus divided up into distinct, non-overlapping sets. Any idea or impression I am aware of is part of 'me', and otherwise not.

4. Amongst the ideas in a currently existing bundle are ideas which represent ideas belonging to bundles which existed in the past (memories).

5. The sense of identity over time derives from memory: the fiction of a 'self' is constructed out of an awareness of a temporal succession of bundles of ideas/ impressions.

But still we are left with the question raised by the title of this essay: Hume evidently did feel unsatisfied with the account that he had given, as you quote, 'I cannot discover any theory, which gives me satisfaction on this head.' My feeling is, for what it is worth, that Hume is seeing beyond the logic of the bundle theory, realizing that it is after all merely a label for the problem to be solved, viz. the explanation of that in virtue of which perceptions get sorted into bundles in the first place.

What Kant saw and Hume missed, was that we are not required to find some physical or metaphysical 'glue' that accounts for the existence of bundles. This gets things completely the wrong way round. It is because experience has the given structure that it has, that it becomes possible to simultaneously form a hypothesis about a world of external objects and a self (itself an empirical object, like the objects which it perceives) which traces a path through that world. Beliefs concerning a unitary 'soul' merely arise because the mind mistakes the necessary identity of apperception for the 'perception of identity'. ('Paralogisms of Transcendental Psychology'.)

-- This of course also solves the problem with the continued and distinct existence of objects.

This is a good, careful piece of work (apart from the repeated quote). Despite what I've said here, an examiner would accept that you have made a good enough case for the claim of 'inconsistency'. I would give a mark in the upper 60's.

All the best,


Case for doubt in Descartes First Meditation

To: Francis W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Case for doubt in Descartes First Meditation
Date: 17th February 2009 11:24

Dear Francis,

Thank you for your email of 7 February, with your essay for the University of London Diploma in Philosophy Introductory module, in response to the question, 'In his First Meditation, how does Descartes attempt to show that there is reason to doubt everything one believes?'

This is a well structured answer to the question, and you would get credit for your description of the overall strategy of Descartes' argument in terms of: 'argues something that should be doubted', 'finds a reason to eliminate the doubt', 'finds a new reason to push the doubt further', and so on.

One question you could have raised is why Descartes uses this strategy? If you have three arguments, the first which is just OK, the second which is much better, and the third which is a knockout, why not just go for the knockout? Why waste time rehearsing arguments which are less persuasive?

One obvious answer would be that Descartes' purpose is heuristic: he is not just trying to persuade you but trying to teach you; guiding you in easy stages to the final conclusion, so that you will understand that conclusion better than if you had been hit with the knockout argument straight away.

I don't think that's the whole truth however. The earlier arguments, in my view, establish conclusions which are needed for the final 'evil demon' argument. The argument from the senses is used to establish a sense of the term 'perception' which refers to a representation in our mind which either corresponds or fails to correspond with things in the world. For example, the perception of a tower in the distance which represents the tower as being square when in fact it is round.

Similarly, in the dreaming argument, Descartes establishes (or thinks he has established) that a coherent sequence of experiences is possible in the absence of anything in the world to which that sequence of experiences corresponds.

Under the heading of 'the senses argument' you say something rather strange, 'How could one [be] sure that the hands before him are the one[s] [which] belong to him [rather than] someone else?' (I've corrected your English here).

This is a very odd thought. I think you have misunderstood this passage. But let's ask the question, anyway.

Under what circumstances might I doubt that my hands are mine? For example, I try to write an email to FW in response to his essay on Descartes, and 'my' hands start typing something totally different -- a poem, or a stream of insults -- totally out of my control. I would conclude from this that another person (maybe a wicked witch) had 'taken control of my hands', so that they are no longer 'mine'. (On the principle that a limb 'belongs' to the agent who is able to move that limb.) One could imagine room for a neurotic doubt here. Suppose that as a result of my doubt I keep doing things with my hands to 'test' that they are still mine and haven't been taken over by a wicked witch. You can see the problem. However many times I succeed, the doubt remains that my hands might at any time cease to be under my control, proving that they weren't 'my' hands after all. The wicked witch was just letting me use them for a while.

This is not a scenario Descartes considers, although it is a perfectly good example of a sceptical hypothesis, leading to the alleged conclusion that no-one 'knows' that their body is theirs. (There are interesting conclusions to draw from this concerning the nature of the will, and how the will relates to the external world.)

Getting back to Descartes, it is significant that he dismisses the worry that he might be a madman -- but why? Wouldn't this be the ultimately irrefutable argument? You can't prove that you are sane, because if you were mad, you would think you were sane and find plenty of arguments to prove it. This shows that, for all his doubting, Descartes is not willing to let go of one key assumption: that he is capable of reasoning. If you give up this assumption, then any attempt at reasoned argument becomes impossible.

In your review of Descartes' arguments, you give three objections. The first objection is that he restricts 'the senses' to the sense of sight. Now, this I agree with: it is important to Descartes' strategy in the Meditations that he sees the subject as essentially an 'observer' cut off from immediate contact with the world. In other words, a powerful strategy for resisting Descartes' sceptical argument is to point out that the self is essentially an agent not a 'passive observer'.

However, you weaken your case by giving as an example meeting someone and romantically 'knowing' that they are the one for you. Descartes would say, 'How do you know that this intuitive sense is reliable?' The answer is that these judgements are 'tested' by subsequent experience (you live happily ever after with your true love). In other words, intuitive judgements like this depend for their epistemic credentials on our normal ways of accessing information about the world.

Your second objection is merely a version of one that Descartes gives to the dreaming hypothesis. It is not very strong. It is true that (as Descartes says) our dreams are made up of bits and pieces taken from our waking experience. But that doesn't help me if, for example, such strange things have begun to happen that I really begin to wonder whether I am awake or dreaming. Maybe I was awake once; maybe it was necessary to have been awake in order to have material to dream. But my (Descartes') worry is that I don't know whether or not I am dreaming *now*, and if I don't know this then I can't base any judgement on experience.

Your third objection is to the 'evil demon' hypothesis. You argue that there could not be an evil demon if there was no God. Well, that's your belief. But Descartes' isn't saying, 'I know that there is an evil demon', he is saying, 'I don't know that there is not an evil demon'. Maybe I don't know how there could be an evil demon unless God made it. I might also have the same view about the existence of the world. But that's all irrelevant because that's just another belief which I have. Descartes' argument for scepticism destroys -- or attempts to destroy -- the basis for all such beliefs.

All the best,


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Deciding how much others count: slippery slope argument

To: David N.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Deciding how much others count: slippery slope argument
Date: 12th February 2009 12:58

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 2 February with your fourth essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''Once you give up the principle that others should always count equally in our moral deliberations, you are on a slippery slope which ultimately leads to the morality of 'anything goes'.' – How good is that argument?'

The standard response to slippery slope arguments (e.g. as used against abortion) is to argue that many questions in ethics and outside ethics have parameters which allow a degree of vagueness. Here is a simple example of vagueness. If you tell me to put the saucepan 'on the table', your request leaves me the freedom to put it in the centre of the table, or on one side, or hanging over the edge of the table so that the slightest push would make it fall on the floor. However, if I were to do the latter, you could justifiably complain that my response to your request was perverse, and against its intention.

This response is possible only against a background of knowledge of what tables are for, why one would want to put a saucepan on a table, etc. etc. In other words, bearing in mind this background knowledge, there are principled reasons for putting the saucepan roughly in the middle of the table (where there is no danger of accident) without requring us to get out a ruler.

As applied to the ethics of dialogue, and the claim that 'some persons count more than others' the slippery slope argument does not raise an objection to the very idea of differential counting but rather claims that in this case there are no principled reasons which would limit how little some of those affected by my actions are to count relative to others affected.

You have restated the objection, and also correctly pointed out that Kantianism and utilitarianism (to name two theories) are not potentially susceptible to this argument because in principle, on these theories every individual 'counts' for the same.

However, what we are interested in is whether the defender of the ethics of dialogue has any way to limit the slippery slope by appeal to reasonable, non-arbitrary principles.

The motivation for allowing some to count more than others is examples like the famous 'Archbishop Fenelon' thought experiment, where you have the choice of rescuing the good Bishop (whose life is an inspiration to so many thousands) or his housekeeper from a fire. However, the housekeeper happens to be your mother.

The intuition which example like this provoke is that it is acceptable to allow those whom you love or are close to you to count more than strangers. This (it is claimed) is normal, acceptable human behaviour within the boundaries of morality.

The idea of an 'ethics of dialogue' is one possible attempt to justify this intuition, by providing something like 'principled reasons' for setting limits. In the example which you cite, a country like Australia which takes actions 'in the national interest' and in order to protect its economy, and the livelihoods of its citizens, while allowing those in other countries affected by the decision to 'count for very little' is a counterexample to the ethics of dialogue.

However, the original objection was aimed at the ethics of dialogue, on the assumption that an honest attempt is made to live up to what an ethics of dialogue requires, just as an objection to Kantianism or utilitarianism assumes that we are behaving (or attempting to behave) like good Kantians or good utilitarians.

What are the Australians missing? what are they doing wrong? From the point of view of the ethics of dialogue, their action demonstrates that they are prepared to simply ignore any protest raised on behalf of those adversely affected by their decision. This goes against the ethics of dialogue. But suppose they didn't ignore it. It doesn't follow that their policy on this particular issue will be any different. However, having taken the step of showing that they are prepared to behave responsibly on the international stage, there are potentially other political decisions which may go the other way -- if the protests are loud enough.

We expect our politicians to make decisions which are in the national interest, on the assumption that the leaders of other countries will do the same. However, it is fully consistent with this expectation that we should also be prepared to limit the pursuit of national self-interest when other issues are at stake such as threats to global ecology.

Like other countries, I assume that Australia allocates a portion of its economic resources to overseas aid. Why bother to do this? If Australia (or any other country) refuses to play the perfect altruist on the international stage, why not pursue a course of pure egoism? I would argue that the ethics of dialogue has an intelligible explanation to offer, where moral theories based on the assumption of the necessity of a disinterested view do not.

All the best,


Hume's claim that reason is the slave of the passions

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's claim that reason is the slave of the passions
Date: 12th February 2009 12:15

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 2 February, with your essay for the University of London Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'What does Hume mean by the claim that reason is the slave of the passions? What role does this notion play in his moral philosophy?'

I had a bit of a sense reading this closely argued piece of not being able to see the wood for the trees. This is partly because the essay reads like notes for a much longer essay. You could probably have written twice as much as you have written here (that's not an invitation!). Also (once again) I missed a bibliography.

One of the central issues is the role of belief for Hume. I don't think it can be correct to simply say, 'Hume regards beliefs as enlivened ideas that some situation or object holds pleasure or pain in store for the agent.' A belief is an enlivened idea which, as a result of enlivenment, acquires the same capacity to constrain our actions as our perceptions have. A belief that a lion is lurking in the bush and the perception of a lion produce the same behaviour -- conditional, of course, on what we want. (E.g. you are a lion tamer searching for the lion who escaped from the circus.)

How can belief, construed in these terms, ever cause an action? You refer to Hume's acknowledgement that our actions can be modified by our having prudential beliefs. Consider the following example: I may want an second whisky now, but I know that the breathalyser Police units have been very active in this area and the risk of being stopped on my way home from the bar is too great. However, the belief about the Police doesn't in itself motivate or create my desire to avoid having to take a breathalyser test when I am over the limit. If I didn't have this desire in the first place (say, I am a foreign diplomat confident of being able to avoid any charges for motoring offences), then the belief about the Police units would not deter me from having my second whisky.

Thomas Nagel in his book 'The Possibility of Altruism' argues that a hidden premise in prudential reasoning is the agent's 'belief in ones identity over time'. Assuming I care about failing a breathalyser test now, why should I care about failing a breathalyser test in two hours time? Or (a better example, since that seems a bit far fetched) if I care about avoiding a heart attack now, why should I care about avoiding a heart attack in ten years time? -- Because it will still be ME. It could be argued that this is one aspect of prudential reasoning which Hume simply doesn't consider. The apparatus of 'beliefs and passions' is not sufficient, in itself, to account for the possibility of prudential reasoning. Or, rather, it makes something look contingent (caring for what happens to one's future self) which is not contingent but part of what it is (in a constitutive sense) to be a 'rational agent'.

A starting point for any discussion of action (Humean or otherwise) is recognition that all action requires a combination of beliefs and desires. No desire on its own can motivate action without a relevant belief concerning how things stand in the world. I will not drink the glass of enticing amber liquid if I believe that it is brake fluid rather than whisky.

The crucial weakness in Hume's position is his assumption that passions are simply 'given'. This is the issue highlighted by Anscombe's criticism (the saucer of mud example). On the picture we get from Hume, any action requires a motivating passion, simply because we can imagine the very same state of affairs -- the same circumstances, the same agent -- minus the passion. This formula (illustrated, e.g. in the example of the merchant) is effective against any putative example of an action being motivated 'by reason'. As you state, for reason to play a motivating role it must be capable of 'formal causation', that is to say, determining the ends of action. Whereas for Hume, ends of action are always contingent on the passions.

There is a highly instructive critique of Hume's view of practical reasoning in a monograph by Richard Norman, 'Reasons for Action' (Blackwell) where Norman links Hume's assumption about the 'givenness' of passions to Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private language. It is only through acquiring a shared language that we come to 'know' what our desires are. Such knowledge involves the capacity to give intelligible reasons (in Anscombe's sense). In other words, reason is intimately involved in the very notion of a 'passion', not merely the external instrument for calculating relations between ends and means.

I haven't said anything about your answer to the second part of the question. I think it is an error to look for any attempted link between the 'reason is slave to the passions' thesis and Hume's 'sentiment' theory, as opposed to any other subjective view (e.g. egoism, social conventions etc.) The essential consequence is Hume's denial of the possibility of deriving an 'ought' from an 'is'. To get an 'ought' you need a motivating desire. ''Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.'

All the best,