Thursday, February 28, 2013

Do some persons have more free will than others?

To: Luisa K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will as the opportunity to exercise choice
Date: 29th May 2009 10:42

Dear Luisa,

Thank you for your email of 21 May, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, on the topic of Free Will.

I liked the way that you attempted to relate the philosophical problem of free will to your own situation and to the situation of the people that you work with. It is a good question to ask how it can be that people who apparently have little choice with regard to the possibilities for living their lives can be said to have 'free will'. Yet at the end of your essay you say, 'there is free will in every act we do, from the standing up in the morning to going back to bed at night' and I think this is the important point. Free will is the capacity to exercise choice. This capacity can remain the same, while the range of available choices alters. If you are rich, you may have more 'freedom', for example, you can take a holiday anywhere you like without worrying about the cost. But this is not greater 'free will' in the sense of a capacity to exercise choice.

But that begs the question whether in fact all human beings do have the same capacity to exercise choice. Could it be that some persons have a greater capacity to exercise choice in any given situation than others? Having more knowledge is one way (because you are more aware of the possibilities that the given situation presents). But let's suppose that this is kept constant too. Then the only thing that distinguishes, say, Sally and Harry, is that Sally is mentally more flexible than Harry, more able to break away from past patterns of behaviour, or the conditioning of parents, school, society etc. So, in a situation where both Sally and Harry have the same knowledge, Sally has more real choices than Harry, simply by virtue of her character, her 'psychological makeup'.

I am interested in this aspect of freedom, by virtue of which we can say that some persons, in themselves, are in a sense 'more free' than others. But I am also interested in the metaphysical problem of freedom: the challenge presented by the philosopher who argues that no human being has 'free will', even to the smallest extent. This is the argument which considers the hypothesis of determinism, and the alternative hypothesis of indeterminism (or, rather, a universe which is not wholly deterministic) and concludes that free will is impossible either way.

When you mention determinism and indeterminism in your essay, it is in the context of knowledge of the future. However, the primary meaning of 'determinism' relates rather to 'what comes from behind'. The entire history of the universe has led to this point. On the determinist view, there is only one thing that can happen next, whatever that thing is. If you ran the history of the history of the universe again from the Big Bang, it would be the same in every respect, with no possibility of deviation. Well, if that is true, then every decision you have ever made was already 'decided' when the Big Bang banged. The only sense in which you have 'free will' (e.g. to decide when to get out of bed) is not knowing what the course of events leading up from the Big Bang necessitates.

On the indeterminist view, by contrast, if you ran the history of the universe again, there would be many deviations because not every event is necessitated by a prior cause. Would that give freedom? The problem is that 'not necessitated by a prior cause' means that an action can't be the result of an intention or a desire. In other words, you can only be 'free' when you do things completely at random, without thinking beforehand. That's not the kind of 'freedom' most people would want.

If, as you say, 'we knew beforehand what consequences our choices would evoke' that would only imply lack of freedom if you knew everything, down to the last detail. If you had a God's-eye view of your own existence, lying in bed in the morning, you would 'know' exactly what time Luisa gets up, because you would know everything about her. But if you know exactly when Luisa will get up, you can't make the 'decision' to get up. All decision, all deliberation, is taken away -- a frightening prospect. However, this view of the problem leads to a useful definition of 'free will' which is compatible with determinism, namely, that we have 'free will' insofar as we are not aware of all the things that we will do.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel refers to this as the 'penumbra of ignorance'. Human beings are to all intents and purposes 'free' (that is to say, they have a 'free will' which is compatible with determinism) provided that they have a penumbra of ignorance regarding their future actions.

The 64 thousand Dollar question is, Is 'compatible' freedom what we want? Are you happy with the thought that every move you make is necessitated by the way the Big Bang banged? Or, if that seems too remote, by the total physical state of your body ten seconds ago? If not, then what is the alternative? We've seen that denying determinism doesn't give the kind of freedom we want (because we don't want our 'free' acts to be merely random deviations).

-- I have to confess at this point that I don't know what the alternative is. It is one of the unsolved problems of philosophy.

All the best,


What leads Descartes to posit an evil demon?

To: Cynthia G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What leads Descartes to posit an evil demon?
Date: 21st May 2009 09:51

Dear Cynthia,

Thank you for your letter of 10 May, with your essay for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy Diploma module, in response to the question, 'I shall suppose that... some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.' What leads Descartes to make this supposition?

This is without doubt an excellent piece of work and possibly the best essay I have received on this topic. I don't too much like the 'notes' style, but I think you could get away with this in an exam, especially since it enables you to lay out Descartes' arguments so perspicuously.

Regarding the content, I think you give more than the question asks for, although there is room for debate over how one interprets 'leads to'. On my reading, the question is asking you to give the logical sequence of steps which necessitate the evil demon hypothesis. You have done this, but you have also offered background information which explains Descartes' motivations in setting out the argument in this way. I don't think that the question asks for this, although another question might.

(A general observation: When commenting on essays I will always stress the issue of relevance. However, as these essays are also a way for you to assimilate the material, you may feel the need to give more than the question asks for -- especially since you don't know how the exam questions will be worded. You might consider writing notes for your own use, and then using these as a basis for writing essays which are sharply focused on the question.)

There is an important sense in which Descartes is forced to have recourse to the evil demon. He needs this device in order to establish the conclusion that he wants to establish: namely, the identification of knowledge which is immune from doubt and which therefore can serve as a foundation for 'science'. So how does he get there?

In laying out the sequence of sceptical hypotheses, there is something which arguably you have missed and which is essential to explaining how the evil demon hypothesis arises.

Superficially, the structure of the 1st Meditation seems to be this: Descartes tries an argument (argument from illusion, senses are unreliable). There is a response to that argument. So Descartes is forced to go further and consider the hypothesis that he is dreaming. But that still leaves a loophole: the sheer improbability that the experience I am having now is a dream, given belief in an omnibenevolent God. The evil demon plugs the gap.

However this may work as a clever heuristic device, one might still ask why doesn't Descartes just cut to the chase and give his strongest argument straight away?

The answer is that he has established something of importance, which is required in order to give coherence to the evil demon idea. That is the nature of 'experience' as something which exists in us, subjectively, independently of how things are in the external world. I seem to see a square tower in the distance, therefore I have the subjective experience of a seeming-square-tower, regardless of whether the tower is in fact round or square, or indeed whether there is anything out there at all.

In your essay you do make two important points which are relevant, although these are just noted rather than explored. That Descartes assumes logic and the reliability of memory; and the connected claim that he (and the reader) is sane, not a madman. These assumptions point to what many would regard is the fatal weakness in Descartes' position, which is connected with his conception of subjective experience, whose indubitability is the cornerstone of his argument in the 2nd Meditation.

If we take the argument from illusion to its logical conclusion, then memory is just another experience. Memories can be wrong. This isn't just a sceptical worry; the very notion of a difference between 'true' and 'false' memory dissolves. Moreover, the idea that I have sound judgement itself comes into question when one considers that from the Cartesian perspective I am the final authority on whether or not I am correctly following the rules for the use of the words in my language -- a language Descartes assumes would remain meaningful even if none of my beliefs regarding the external world are true. Whatever seems 'right' to me IS right, so the very notion of truth dissolves. (This is the bare bones of Wittgenstein's argument against a 'private language'.)

In your conclusion you state, 'there is evidence of suppressed assumptions which he thinks the reader shares -- for example, in his arguments he presupposes that he actually exists and is thinking'. You go on to accuse Descartes of 'circularity' in his claim regarding the Cogito. I think this is too strong. It is true that Descartes doesn't raise the question, 'Do I exist?' Given what I've said about memory, it could be argued that he cannot assume this. However, this does not undermine the validity of the argument, 'If an evil demon deceives me, then I exist' (or, at least, I exist now).

All the best,


Leibniz's claim that this is the best possible world

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Leibniz's claim that this is the best possible world
Date: 14th May 2009 13:08

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 14 April, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant paper, in response to the question, 'Does Leibniz make a convincing case for his claim that this is the best of all possible worlds?'

You have indeed missed out a step. The first step in Leibniz case is his proof of the existence of God. I would have thought that was rather important. The proposition to be proved is not, 'This is the best of all possible worlds, IF God exists.'

The second thing you need to say is that both the argument for the existence of God and the argument that this is the best of all possible worlds come from the same source: the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

There has to be a sufficient reason why there is a world rather than no world. Indeed, the same is true of the tiniest detail about this world. There has to be a sufficient reason why I am writing this email to you today. Every explanation that one could give merely pushes the question back to the explanans: there has to be a sufficient reason why that is the case rather than not the case.

God is the only possible entity which is or contains a sufficient reason for its own existence.

Obviously, there is room for objection along the lines of criticism levelled at the cosmological argument. Using the language of 'sufficient reason' rather than cause and effect might make the argument seem more persuasive. We are not assuming that there is an entity, God, which caused another entity, the world, to come into existence. But however you cash this, in the end we are pushed back to the ontological argument, as Kant argued. It requires the ontological argument to license the claim that there can be, logically, an entity which is or contains a sufficient reason for its own existence.

The world exists rather than not existing because of God. And the world is arranged this way, rather than some other way it might have been arranged because God only does things, by definition for which there is a sufficient reason.

So, why can't there be an evil god, who creates the worst of all possible worlds? We have to appeal to the ontological argument once again: God is infinitely perfect and therefore can only do good, not evil.

As critics argued, it seems that we can imagine many ways in which the world might have been better. Leibniz has a blanket reply to this which is that we are only finite and cannot fathom God's purposes. But this invites a further, lethal criticism. The argument just given can always be applied, in any circumstances. It doesn't matter how bad things get; the hypothesis that this is the best of all possible worlds is irrefutable by any possible course of human experience. In that case, one might argue, it has no content at all. There is no reason to marvel at God's creation, no reason to find comfort or inspiration in the grandeur of nature, or great works of art, or saintly or heroic deeds.

This is different from the point which you address, an objector who says that this is the 'best' possible world only because God says it is. We can accept, for the sake of argument, that God chooses between worlds by some suitable criterion of 'better' or 'worse', and his nature being such as it is, there is no logical possibility that God could ever make any decision for which there is not a sufficient reason. But all that is irrelevant, because the claim in question is meaningless.

Imagine the most evil disgusting world -- the world of DOOM where you are the only human being left alive, heavily wounded, defending yourself with a chainsaw and shotgun against a relentlessly spawning army of monsters -- and Leibniz's argument would still apply with exactly the same force. What have you got to complain about. You're still alive, aren't you?

The stark truth is that there is no limit to how bad things can get. We go around imagining that we are in a kind of protective bubble. Leibniz's language strongly supports that illusion. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. (To which Voltaire ironically responded in his novel 'Candide', '...and everything in it is a necessary evil'.) But that claim has no empirical cash value. If the Nazis had won World War II, it would have been for the best. If and when the sun explodes, devouring the earth, it will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

All the best,


Kant on belief in God, Rousseau on the General Will

To: Pearl K
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on belief in God, Rousseau on the General Will
Date: 13th May 2009 11:32

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 12 May, with your essay for the University of London module on the philosophy of Kant, in response to the question, 'For Kant, in what sense should we and in what sense should we not believe in God?', and your email of 13 May, with your essay for the UoL module on Political Philosophy, in response to the question, 'Rousseau's use of the term General Will covers up the fact that he is unable to show how human beings can remain free even when they are ruled. Discuss.'

Kant on belief in God

I am impressed with much of this essay. You have managed to give a clear exposition of some very difficult material. However, despite this, I wonder whether you haven't missed the main point about Kant's notion of faith, and what exactly this entails.

The sense in which we should not believe in God is relatively straightforward. Here we stand on the same ground as the atheist. None of the proofs of the existence of God -- the ontological, cosmological or teleological -- is valid. Many regard Kant has having given the definitive judgement on these arguments. Whether or not that view is correct (thee are still philosophers prepared to defend the ontological argument) there is no doubt that Kant's view is that no proof of the existence of God is possible. He has considered (or so he thinks) all the possible kinds of proof and rejected them all.

At this point, if one were not going into this too deeply, one might think that this still leaves open the possibility that God exists. And so long as it is possible that God exists, there is room for faith in God's existence -- all the more worthy for not being based on proof.

But this is not an accurate account of what Kant says. He takes the proposition, 'God exists' and subjects it to deep analysis. It isn't like the proposition, 'The golden mountain exists.' There is no possible course of experience, however far extended into the future, which would verify or falsify the proposition that God exists, because it isn't an empirical proposition. Empirical propositions relate to parts of reality which we focus on in our investigations. If there are seven continents, then the golden mountain, if it exists, is in one of them or none.

As you explain in your essay, according to Kant God is an 'ideal of pure reason'. It serves as a 'regulative principle' which governs our empirical investigations, as well as representing our notion of a 'summum bonum' which yields a 'regulative principle of morality to which we must judge and reform ourselves to bring us closer in line to his moral perfection'.

You offer the example of the Stoic concept of the 'Wise Man'. No human being will ever attain this 'ideal of virtue and wisdom', yet the conception serves a valid purpose in representing a goal of human self-development.

But this is where I have a problem. The Stoic 'Wise Man' does not exist, except in our minds. But that is surely not what Kant's view of God is. If it were, then there would be no sense in which we should 'believe' in God. What we should do, on this view, would be to act 'as if' God exists, which is very different from belief.

(One kind person offering condolences for the death of my wife, advised me to 'keep talking' to her. Of course, I can have an imaginary conversation with June in my mind, but that is not in any sense to 'believe' that she still exists. What remains of June is only her memory.)

Recall Kant's three questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? On the view that we should merely act 'as if' God exists, there is nothing to hope for. In this world, good men die before their time, while evil men flourish. Human justice hardly scratches the surface of what human beings deserve as reward for their moral efforts. For Kant, the point of faith is that, ultimately, there is something to hope for. Maybe not sitting on clouds in heaven as depicted in Sunday school, but something beyond mere cessation of consciousness, something more than the brutal 'Where I am death is not, where death is, I am not' of the Stoic Epicurus which is what the atheist believes.

True to his critical project, Kant avoids engaging in speculation about an afterlife. Nevertheless, there is something for hope to latch onto, even if we cannot state this in language which applies to the world of our experience. According to one author, in Kant's work, 'Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone' Kant refers to the 'blessed and cursed eternity' of the righteous and the wicked. This is something to hope, or fear, even if that is all the critical philosopher can justifiably say.

Rousseau on the General Will

One third of my way into this essay I was asking, 'What about positive and negative liberty?' I'm glad you got there, even though it was only on the last page.

There is a basis for a good answer to this question here. It could perhaps be improved by saying more about what 'positive' and 'negative' freedom are, or are meant to be.

You mention Locke. I think Mill would be the most appropriate philosopher to cite in the context of negative liberty and pluralism. In Mill's terms, the picture which Rousseau gives of our acquiescence to the General Will is the 'tyranny of the majority'. Rousseau's vision of society, taken at face value, invites the evils of paternalism and intolerance.

Consider your example of listening to heavy metal music after 9 pm. Mill would say that it is perfectly acceptable to have a law limiting the amount of noise which you produce at certain times or places, because this is encroaching on public space. You are free to indulge in your love of heavy metal music to your heart's content, provided that this does not cause harm to others. Mill further makes it clear that this 'harm' must be real, and not merely the subjective feeling of offense at tastes or life styles which are different from one's own.

You find that heavy metal music helps you study. Your next door neighbour might prefer the quiet tones of a string quartet, or pure silence. By indulging in your musical preference, you deny others theirs. On the other hand, if your neighbours are outraged by your pink punk hairdo and studded leather biker jacket, cringe in horror whenever they hear the faintest sound of heavy metal music wafting from your earphones, then that is entirely their problem, not yours.

This is reasonable, according to the liberal view. It is irrelevant what others think about your musical preferences. By contrast, in Rousseau's society, if it is decided by the General Will that heavy metal music is morally corrupt and harmful, then the state would be fully justified in banning it altogether, imprisoning anyone who plays it or listens to it.

The idea of 'positive liberty' finds its most articulate expression in Hegel and Bradley. But Rousseau too believes that somehow acquiescence to the General Will can 'make us free' by giving us worthwhile aims to pursue. This runs in the face of liberalism. We don't need to be 'given' worthwhile aims. We can discover these for ourselves, by learning all there is to learn about the wide world of possibilities, and conducting what Mill terms 'experiments in living'. So what if some of these experiments fail -- so long as it doesn't harm anyone else.

Having laid out the two positions in heavy primary colours, the next step would be to see if something could be said, after all, in Rousseau's defence. It could be said that the General Will is such a nebulous idea anyway, that one could interpret it in a manner more favourable to the liberal case. After all, in a society which embraces liberal ideals, surely this would be reflected in its General Will. (Perhaps a little work would be needed here, in justifying the claim I have just made: can Rousseau simply appropriate Mill? why? or why not?)

Now (if I'm right) it looks as if Mill is the one who is intolerant, not Rousseau. The latter is prepared to allow that liberalism might not be the ideal solution at all times and places. Certainly, it is very far from ideal from the point of view of theocratic states, where, e.g. Islam gives meaning and purpose to the lives of the citizens. Are you prepared to state, a priori, that theocracy can never be an acceptable form of political organization? That seems a rather dogmatic view.

(My impression is that theocracy is quite a hot topic in political philosophy at the moment, so if you can find a way to squeeze it into a political philosophy essay you might gain an extra mark or two.)

All the best,


Monday, February 25, 2013

Aristotle on slavery, Plato on individual and state

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on slavery, Plato on individual and state
Date: 12th May 2009 11:58

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 11 May with your essay for the University of London module in Political Philosophy, in response to the question, 'Can Aristotle adequately defend his view that some people are slaves by nature?', and also for your email of 12 may, with your Political Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'How compelling is Plato's analogy between justice in the individual and justice in the state?'

Aristotle on slavery

The first thing I notice about this question is that it asks you to come to Aristotle's aid: can he adequately defend his view on slavery? So it is asking more than merely an evaluation of the arguments which Aristotle explicitly gives for the view that some people are 'slaves by nature'. What arguments *can* Aristotle muster, consistently with his own views, in particular with his views on what constitutes the 'nature' of something?

There is a danger, which you have succumbed to to some extent, in getting bogged down in the nature-nurture debate. You infer from Aristotle's statement, 'from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule' that being a natural slave is 'a matter of genetics rather than development'. Yet, by the end of your essay you conclude, 'The natural slave is properly a developmental failure rather than a genetic one'.

I can't quite see how you managed to make this transition. However, I think that in terms of Aristotle's own theory of 'nature', it can be justified.

In your essay, you try to unpack what Aristotle means by a 'slavish' mental set, whether or not this is a natural endowment. It has something to do with the incapacity for deliberation, or, rather, a certain kind of deliberation. What you might expect Aristotle to say is that the difference is that a slave can only deliberate about means to given ends, whereas a non-slave is also able to exercise 'practical wisdom' in deliberating about ends. That would make sense. Are you sure Aristotle doesn't say this?

If there is such a thing as a slavish mental set or mentality, then there would as you say be the potential for a 'symbiotic relationship' between a human individual who has the mentality of a master and one who has the mentality of a slave. One question to ask here is whether this kind of relationship might exist, even if there is no such thing as a 'natural' slave, that is to say, if slaves are made rather than born.

On the face of it, this is a different question from asking whether it is right or wrong to enslave persons who do not have a slavish mentality, although the line becomes a little blurred if you consider the possibility that a conquered people (say, if the Spartans conquered the Athenians) might over time accept the role of slaves, in which case according to Aristotle's account it would no longer be wrong to enslave them.

You can see what a slippery slope we are on here. It seems there must be natural slaves, otherwise Aristotle's defence of slavery falls apart. If there are not natural slaves, than any people can enslave any other people, because over time the conquered will in their own self-interest acquiesce to the conquerors' desires to make slaves of them.

This is the point where we have to go back to Aristotle's account of what it is for something to have a 'nature'. The notion of genetics would mean nothing to Aristotle, given his hostility to microstructural explanation (e.g. the theories of the Greek atomists). The nature of a thing -- be it animal, vegetable or mineral -- can be discovered through observation of its characteristic functioning in its natural environment: the way it grows, or interacts with the things around it etc. Aristotelian explanation, which we find rather quaint (indeed tautological) takes the form: Entity A X's because it is part of A's nature or essence to X. When the substance water freezes, the ultimate explanation is that its potentiality to freeze is activated by the cold.

Aristotle would defend his view that some persons are slaves 'by nature' by pointing out the evident fact that slaves do indeed behave like slaves. They are unable to pursue an intelligent plan of action without the direction of their master. However, if this were taken as the last word, then surely it would be very cruel to free any slave. Yet, as you report, according to Aristotle 'freedom should be offered as a reward for their services'.

Can we say then, that when we are talking about the 'nature' of different kinds of man or woman, we are talking about something which, although constant for the most part, has (given enough time) a certain tendency towards plasticity. Conquered people can become slavish. Slaves can in time learn enough from their masters to be able to be set free. The view of human nature as plastic rather than set in stone would be consistent with the claim that some persons are, in fact, 'marked for subjection'. Aristotle's view that this is determined 'from the hour of their birth' would apply if they are are born into a household of slaves, or amongst a subjected people. But it is also consistent with the view that some persons who are, in fact, slaves were not 'slaves' from birth.

All of this does not of course constitute a defence of Aristotle's view that slavery is an acceptable practice. Arguably the best critique of the seductive idea of two human beings happily existing in the symbiotic relationship of master and slave is Hegel's famous section of the Phenomenology of Spirit on 'Master and Slave' ('Lordship and Bondage' in the Baillie translation), which reads like a critique of Aristotle.

Plato on justice in the individual and in the state

I can see the point about circularity which you mentioned in your email, or, rather, what you seem think is a potential criticism of Plato on the grounds of circularity. You also make a valid point about 'n-order desires' as an alternative to Plato's tripartite analysis of the soul (more on that below). However, if I was marking this as an exam paper, my impression would be that there is quite a bit of waffle here.

Your idea regarding circularity seems to be this: we understand justice in the individual by considering the makeup of the ideally just state. The ideally just state has three classes. Ergo, the mind of the ideally just individual has three parts. However, if we ask what kind of persons are required to successfully fulfil the roles or functions of the classes in the ideally just state, it turns out that they are persons possessed of 'justice' defined in terms of the functioning of their tripartite souls.

If there is circularity in this account, it would be completely irrelevant that the just state and the just individual both 'partake of the form of Justice'. The whole point is to offer an analysis. it is assumed from the start that to be just is to partake in the form of Justice. The question we are trying to answer is what it is to participate in the form of Justice, i.e. what justice *is*.

However, you suggest a way to test the circularity criticism: 'If Plato's state had a fourth class, e.g. a priestly class with the virtue of piety, would the definition of justice in the state change?' In other words, would we then conclude that a just individual has a soul consisting of four parts instead of three? Well, that's a good question. Why not have a fifth part, consisting in the entertainers -- film stars and pop musicians (actors and lyre players if you insist)?

Plato's answer to this is that you judge the account by the appropriate criteria. Socrates goes to some lengths in the Republic to describe why a successful state made up of three (and only three) classes is the ideal state. One question we can ask is, How good is that account? are we convinced? if not, why not? *Another* question we can ask is, supposing we were convinced, would the conclusion that Plato/ Socrates is seeking to establish necessarily follow, i.e. that the soul of the just individual has three parts, corresponding to the three parts of the ideal state?

The conclusion would follow, if the arguments which apply to the state can also be applied to the individual; that is to say, if the reason why an ideally just state would have three classes who perform their designated tasks is also the reason why the just individual has a soul whose three parts perform their designated tasks.

There isn't anything about this in your essay (hence, the worry about 'waffle'), although I have the feeling that this could be the most important aspect of the question.

As mentioned above, I think you do have a valid point to make about n-order desires. The self or soul is not tripartite or bipartite but a unity. However, we can give a fully adequate explanation of cases like your debating over whether or not to eat the cheesecake in terms of 'reasons for action' (X satisfies my hunger, X is tasty, X is fattening etc.) and the appropriate n-order desires.

You do need to say more about how this works. If every time you see a cheesecake, the tastiness reason overrides lack of hunger or worries about your waistline, with consequent feelings of depression and self-recrimination after you have demolished the sweet, then you might form the second-order desire not to give in to temptation in the future. Two components of this process are the intellectual apprehension of the harm that eating cheesecake is doing to your health, as well as the strengthening of habit (in the Aristotelian sense) required to resist. Arguably, there are your three parts.

A further finesse occurs to me, however. If the analysis just given in terms of second-order desires is correct (we can ignore higher order desires, which would be pretty rare) then in a way it does constitute a vindication of Plato's account of the soul, not as the literal truth, but rather as a valid myth or picture. The analysis just offered gives the cash value of that picture. If someone believed that their 'soul' had three parts, their belief wouldn't be false, it just wouldn't be the most perspicuous representation of the actual truth.

In an exam, you can still use the point about circularity. You just have to preface it with, 'one might be tempted to think that...'. Or, you might still think that given what I've said, your point is valid, which is OK if you can find a clinching argument.

All the best,


Necessity, possibility and possible worlds

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Necessity, possibility and possible worlds
Date: 6th May 2009 10:11

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 29 April, with your timed examination essay in response to the University of London Logic question, 'A statement is necessary if it is true in every possible world, and possible if it's true in some possible world.' Discuss.

The topic of this question is the semantic interpretation of modal logic. The pioneer in is Saul Kripke (in an early paper, 'Semantical considerations on modal logic'), a name conspicuous by its absence in your essay. In considering the vexed question of trans-world identity, you do talk briefly about the question whether individuals have 'essences' which would enable us to identify the 'same individual' in another possible world. However, you could have said more here. The notion that things have essences which determine the criteria for their identity over time is an Aristotelian idea which fell somewhat into disrepute amongst analytical philosophers, before being famously resurrected in Kripke's seminal paper, 'Naming and Necessity'.

To your credit, you also mention Lewises point about identity over time, as a way of easing our intuitions over the theory of counterparts. However, this observation is available as much (if not more so) to the Aristotelian/ Kripkean. It is very plausible to argue (following David Wiggins' influential account of identity in his book 'Sameness and Substance') that our notion of 'identity under a covering sortal concept' (e.g. 'same man') can be extended across worlds. This effectively is what Kripke does, in identifying the essence of an individual with his/ her origin (a given event of conception).

To get back to the main question: why do we need a semantic interpretation of modal logic? A point you could have made here is that consistency and completeness proofs play an important part in the development of logical systems. For this purpose, a semantic interpretation is essential. We can just employ possible worlds as a technical device; we don't have to go too far into the question of what possible worlds really are. But the latter question is inevitable if we are approaching modal logic as philosophers. We want to know what it means to say that such-and-such is 'possible'. Is there a notion of metaphysical possibility distinct from epistemic possibility? What do we mean when we state that it might (metaphysically) have been the case that P?

What are possible worlds? You credit Lewis with avoiding the 'circularity' of defining possibility in terms of 'possible' worlds, on the grounds that for Lewis possible worlds are indeed 'real'. But if they are real, where are they? It is not enough to say that possible worlds are real but 'not actual': Lewises idea is that actuality is relative to a space and time; so other possible worlds are in spaces and times unconnected with our space and time. In other words, actuality is a matter of local perspective. That's a pretty mind-boggling idea.

Lewis puts forward his account of possible worlds as a solution to the problem specifically of providing truth conditions for counterfactual statements (rather than the general need for a semantics for modal logic), and claims that an argue in favour of his approach is the inadequacy of alternative accounts. Well, maybe there just isn't a coherent truth-conditional analysis of counterfactual statements, because they just don't *have* truth conditions.

If we baulk at Lewises 'real' possible worlds, and consider another idea that you mention, that possible worlds are in some sense constructions -- e.g. sets of propositions or sentences -- the question arises whether the construction will do the work it is intended to do. The problem with sets of sentences, defined as linguistic entities, is that it is impossible in principle to give an exhaustive description of the world. Reality is not just infinite but non-denumerably infinite (e.g. the points on a line cannot be counted).

Another point -- which counts both against Lewis and the constructivist approach -- is that in both cases the special sense of 'possible' as contrasted with 'actual' has been lost. When I state something that might have been the case, I don't intend to describe something that is the case (somewhere else, or in a construction which I have created). Possible world semantics set out in these terms arguably loses the very thing we were aiming for: an understanding of what it is for an individual, or a truth, to be possible but not actual.

The impression I gained from your essay as a whole was that it was a reasonably good response to the question, although there were points which could, perhaps should have been covered -- which would gain more marks. As it stands, I would give this a mark in the lower 60's.

All the best,


Is any justification of deduction circular?

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is any justification of deduction circular?
Date: 5th May 2009 11:31

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 27 April, with your essay for the University of London Logic module, in response to the question, ''Any justification of deduction is bound to be circular.' Discuss.'

You have canvassed lots of different ideas here -- Goodman's idea of 'entrenched' deductive practice, Quinian holism, inductive and pragmatic justifications of deduction. You have also considered the question whether, given that a justification of deduction would be in some sense 'circular', such circularity is benign or vicious.

Dummett's British Academy lecture, 'The Justification of Deduction' is one of the key texts here. You criticize Dummett (calling his distinction between explanatory and suasive arguments 'deeply flawed') on the grounds that there are 'many forms of deductive rule systems'. I think this is a bit unfair. The distinction between explanatory and suasive justification is Dummett's first word on the question of justification, not his last. It seems there might be room for a 'justification' which does not persuade those who need to be persuaded -- the deductive sceptics, supposing any to exist -- but rather helps us understand better how deduction works, how it can lead to knowledge.

What Dummett goes on to do is explore the dispute between classical and intuitionist logic, where the question of semantic interpretation becomes central. (Admittedly, this was not the focus of original critics of classical logic like Brouwer, whose interest was in the mode of being of mathematical entities, as 'free creations of human thought'.) In Dummett's view, a 'justification' of deduction turns out to be a theory of meaning in terms of a central concept. If the central concept is truth, then the theory of meaning yields a semantic interpretation of classical logic. If the central concept is that of, e.g. verifiability or criteria, then that yields a semantic interpretation of intuitionist logic. The former theory of meaning is 'realist', the latter 'anti-realist'.

In short, you can determine whether someone is a realist or anti-realist about meaning, by seeing whether or not they accept the classical 'law of excluded middle' (LEM). Intuitionists do not reject that law, but rather refuse to assert it, substituting instead the double negation of the LEM. A consequence of this is that it is no longer possible to prove theorems using reductio ad absurdum.

I don't actually accept any of this -- I think that a global anti-realist about meaning and truth is fully justified in embracing the LEM -- however, I thought it was important to set the record straight.

Now, it looks superficially as if the principle of bivalence -- which according to Dummett requires a realist notion of truth -- is just a restatement of the law of excluded middle. Indeed, any semantic interpretation of an argument which shows its validity, e.g. using a truth table to show that a given formula of propositional calculus is a theorem, merely repeats the same rules, but at a 'meta' level. Dummett accepts this. This is the sense in which a justification of deduction is merely 'explanatory'. However, contrary to initial impressions, a certain amount of persuasion is involved, namely, in the dispute between the realist and anti-realist regarding the proper form of a theory of meaning. And this dispute has consequences (according to Dummett, at least) in our actual deductive practice.

On a more technical level, proofs of consistency and completeness are important in logic, especially when the powers of the logic in question exceed our ordinary intuitions (e.g. various systems of possible world logic). These are 'justifications' in a sense which goes beyond merely telling us what we already knew.

Your point about 'visual translation' is interesting. I wonder what you would say about Cantor's famous (or infamous) 'diagonal argument' proving the existence of a non-denumerable infinity (the sequence of cardinals aleph null, aleph one, aleph two etc.). Imagine (for the sake of reductio) that all the real numbers have been 'counted'. Then we can display them in a table (row 1, row 2, row 3 up to infinity). Now add one to the first digit of the first real number (if 9 then make it 0), add one to the second digit of the second real number, and so on. The result is a real number which *cannot* by definition be in this list.

Cantor's proof raised great controversy when it first appeared. Many students coming at it for the first time have the impression that it is just a 'trick'. How do you decide? Do you 'see' it or not? If the final criterion is what we 'see', then it looks as if we are back in the situation described by Goodman, where there is no independent criterion for the validity of our deductive vision.

All the best,


Justified true belief without knowledge

To: Max B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Justified true belief without knowledge
Date: 5th May 2009 10:40

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 28 April, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'Can you have a justified true belief that you are sitting an exam without knowing that you are sitting an exam? What consequences does your answer have for the analysis of knowledge?'

A situation in which you believe falsely that you are sitting an exam might be one where, e.g. you go into the wrong room by mistake where students were taking a practice exam (by coincidence, in the same subject). Even though you are doing exactly the things that a student who is genuinely sitting an exam would be doing, you are not 'sitting an exam' because you have, in fact, missed the exam that you were scheduled to sit. Further elaboration of this example can be used to describe a hypothetical situation where you are, in fact, in the right room but only by sheer luck. So although you are, in fact sitting an exam at this moment, you don't 'know' that you are.

I must admit that I first thought that you had interpreted the statement, 'You are sitting an exam' to mean, 'You will be sitting an exam [at such and such a date].' As you must realize, knowledge of propositions about the future is in itself problematic. As it stands, the statement can be read two ways: 'Your exam has been scheduled for such and such a date' (which does not describe a fact about the future but rather informs you of a decision that has been made concerning when you are to sit the exam), or, 'It will come to pass that you sit the exam on such and such a date.' I don't think that the latter can be known. Students fail to turn up for examinations for all sorts of reasons.

However, I then realized that the structure of your example was rather this: You are sitting in the correct exam room, writing your script. However, the information which you previously received which accounts for your belief that you are sitting an exam in fact came to you by accident. If the email had reached only its intended recipients, you would not have received the information. A serious error was made by the administrators, but fortunately this was cancelled out by a second error. The information shouldn't have reached you, but it did.

Isn't this a case of knowledge? I actually think it is. At any rate, it is a matter on which intuitions differ. You might want to say that any false assumption in the reasoning leading to the belief in question invalidates the knowledge claim. But this seems overly strict. Surely, knowledge can leak out by chance, even though the recipient doesn't realize how lucky they were to get it.

Apart from worries about your example, I had some difficulty following what you want to say about truth and time. There is an important difference between knowledge and belief in relation to the future, which we recognize when we exhibit caution in making knowledge claims which relate to events that have not yet occurred. That is not to say that one cannot have knowledge of the future. If I jump of a building, I know I will hit the ground a few seconds later. We know (and do not merely believe) what we will do through knowledge of our intentions. As I lift my hand to scratch my nose, I surely know that my nose will be scratched.

Interpreting belief in a quasi-Kantian way, however, any belief can be interpreted as implying falsifiable beliefs about the future. This is the situation that the sceptic standardly exploits. I believe that I am sitting an exam -- I received the email, followed the directions, found the table with my number -- then just as I start to write everybody turns round towards me and starts laughing: it was all an elaborate hoax.

One way to read this leads to an anti-realist conception of truth, where there are no given 'facts', because every statement implies non-falsifiability in all future time. Yet this is consistent with a notion of truth which accounts for the validity of logical inferences. If I am sitting the Epistemology paper then, necessarily, I am sitting the exam.

You mention solipsism at one point: this is apt, because it can be argued that Kant's view of truth and experience implies transcendental solipsism. The world is the world of 'my possible experience'. As experience extends indefinitely, I may repeatedly revise my picture of the world, but no statement that I make can be the final word.

If you answer a similar question in an exam, be aware that examiners don't have endless time to mark scripts. You need to explain your idea clearly and simply, and signal to the examiner early on that you are proposing an original solution to a problem. There may indeed be something original (and important) in what you say. But it will pass the examiner by, just as it has (largely) passed me by, because you have not expressed yourself with sufficient clarity.

All the best,


Monday, February 18, 2013

Porphyry against the sacrifice and eating of animals

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Porphyry against the sacrifice and eating of animals
Date: 2nd May 2009 11:05

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 1 May, with your essay for the University of London Post-Aristotelian Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'How successful was Porphyry in arguing that a Platonist philosopher should not sacrifice and eat animals?'

I am responding to this quickly, as you told me you are taking your exam on Tuesday, 4th May. Please make sure you send your remaining essays for this module to me by Sunday evening (UK time) at the latest, so that I can assess them on Monday morning.

(In answer to your question, I am a meat eater. However, I would become a vegetarian if someone presented me with sufficiency convincing arguments.)

I like this essay. You have correctly noted that the question does not merely ask how successfully Porphyry argues against the practice of sacrificing and eating animals, but rather whether he successfully argues that a Platonist philosopher should not do this. In other words, the question invites you to say what it is about the commitment to Platonism which requires that one does not sacrifice or eat animals.

There is an interesting point to make concerning the belief in a 'soul'. Descartes notoriously argued that animals do not have souls, and that the motions of their bodies are just a kind of clockwork. It was Hume who, in denying the soul theory, emphasized the continuity between man and non-human animals.

Another point concerns the emphasis on rationality. Although you observe that Porphyry also says that animals have feelings and emotions, experience pain and terror, he goes further than a modern defender of animal rights or vegetarianism in arguing that they are also 'rational'.

His arguments for animal rationality look less convincing to us today. Jonathan Bennett, in his book 'Rationality' argues that the key difference between humans and non-humans revolves around the capacity for human language to represent beliefs about other times and universal generalizations. What corresponds to these features in animal behaviour is merely inculcated habit (stealing food from the table is associated with a smack).

In response to Porphyry's observation regarding the purposive behaviour of animals, a contemporary philosopher would argue that the theory of evolution by natural selection explains much of the 'teleological' aspect of animal behaviour. Actions which would be planned if they were undertaken by human beings, merely manifest evolved instincts when observed in animals.

There is more to 'language' then merely the transfer of information. The often cited example of dolphins 'communicating' information about objects in the water (not something Porphyry knew about, but I'm giving arguably the most remarkable example of sophisticated animal 'language') should be seen as instinctual rather than intentional, a natural extension of the dolphin's powers of perception, which has evolved over millions of years.

As you present it, Porphyry's argument seems to go like this. Anything which has a soul should not be sacrificed or eaten. Anything which has a soul, is rational. Animals are observed to be rational. Therefore, animals have a soul. Therefore, animals should not be sacrificed or eaten.

There is a slight problem with this, however, as a key step in the argument commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent. It is consistent with animals being observed to be rational that they don't have souls. In other words, there could be two kinds of 'rationality', the kind that arises from possession of a soul, and the kind that arises through the workings of nature. This is in effect what I have argued. The 'rationality' of animal behaviour is merely a reflection of the fact that we are able to take the 'intentional stance' (Daniel Dennett) towards them, and the reason we are able to do this is because they have been 'designed' by evolution.

In defence of Porphyry, it could be said that he is not reasoning deductively but inductively. The 'best explanation' for apparently rational behaviour in animals is that they have souls.

There is a second line of argument which I have not yet discussed: the case for abstinence on ascetic grounds. Here Porphyry has a plausible case (on the very best authority, Plato in the Phaedo) for arguing that the philosopher should resist the demands of his animal nature so far as this is possible.

I'm not convinced by this. I find the image of the 'ascetic philosopher' repellent. (Nietzsche gives a devastating analysis of 'ascetic ideals' in his book Genealogy of Morals.) However, if I were a Platonist, maybe I would be. As a Platonist, my view of myself would not be that I am a 'rational animal' but rather that I am an intellectual entity trapped in the prison house of a body, and while we live on this earth intellectual freedom can only be found by strenuously resisting the demands of the body.

All the best,


Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities
Date: 28th April 2009 11:15

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 21 April, with your essay in response to the University of London Modern Philosophy question, 'Why did Locke think it important to distinguish between primary and secondary qualities?'

Although the question doesn't state this, implicit in the question is the defensibility or otherwise of the primary/ secondary quality distinction as such. While you give a reasonably clear account of the arguments which Locke gives for making this distinction, what you don't state is how well these arguments stand up if we leave aside Locke's theory of ideas and qualities, and the problems which it gives rise to such as the 'veil of perception' and scepticism about an external world, as well as issues about the coherence of the corpuscular theory as Locke presents it.

Your account of Berkeley's criticisms of Locke further raises the suspicion that you are unnecessarily restricting yourself to the primary/ secondary quality distinction as it appears in Locke's theory, rather than examining the distinction as such on its own terms, and the arguments which Locke gives for the distinction, whose validity can be assessed independently of Locke's theory.

I hope that the distinction I am trying to make is reasonably clear. Let's start with Locke's theory.

You state that 'Locke possibly thinks that minute particles do not have secondary qualities.' This seems to follow, if we think of secondary qualities such as colour, taste or smell arising from a complex interaction between the corpuscular structure of an object and the corpuscular structure of our sense organs. A single corpuscle can only interact with another single corpuscle, according to Newton's laws of motion. In other words, on the level of corpuscles there cannot be such a thing as 'perception'. Locke at one point (I've searched for this passage in vain) imagines what it would be like if we had the senses of 'angels'. It seems that if you were small enough and could get up to a corpuscle, there is no mechanism whereby you could 'see' it. Perhaps you could grab hold, and give it a push. In which case, the single available mode of perception is proprioceptive feedback. On the other hand if 'angelic perception' does not depend on physical laws, then corpuscles can be any colour you like.

Another point to stress is that although Locke uses the variability of sensations to a perceiver (warm water feeling cold to one hand and hot to another) as a way of getting leverage on the idea of secondary qualities, he does not want to say that 'red' is a different 'colour' to every person who perceives it. Your example of the red coat which you like but your wife does not is not an example of two persons seeing different 'reds' but rather two persons having different likes/ dislikes regarding a particular quality of red.

As a matter of fact, there is wide agreement amongst human beings regarding what colours, smells, tastes things have. If I find that a particular brand of cheap supermarket cola 'tastes like chicken', I expect others to be able to make the same judgement. I don't mean that for some idiosyncratic reason it tastes like chicken to me, but rather I assume that there must be something in this particular brand of cola which produces the same taste effect as chicken, or, rather, more likely artificial chicken flavouring.

The uniformity of human colour judgements is very striking. There are standard tests to tell whether individuals are 'colour blind' and the variations of colour blindness.

Consider the angels again. The 'power' to produce sensations of colour has, Locke seems to have believed, a physical explanation in the corpuscular theory. However, this hypothesis is not strictly part of the primary/ secondary quality distinction as such. You can believe if you like that God directly intervenes in the process and gives us the appropriate sensations for any given object. That a tomato has the power to produce the sensation of red could be a matter of brute fact so far as we are concerned. All we know is that human beings agree on labelling the tomato (and similar objects) as 'red'.

More controversial, however, is Locke's belief that the primary qualities of objects are the ones which we identify as 'solidity, shape, extension, motion, number'. From the perspective of modern physics, we no longer live in a universe where apparently solid things are made of much smaller solid things. When you go all the way down, there's nothing 'solid' at all, indeed it is extremely hard to make any intelligible statement about what things are 'really like'. Should we then abandon the primary/ secondary quality distinction, or at least draw it differently? On the basis of modern physical theory, ought we to say that Locke was wrong that solidity is a primary quality, and that it is in fact a secondary quality?

Locke has a response to this, which is to insist that regardless of the truth or falsity of the corpuscular theory, it remains the case that the square shape of the table is part of the explanation of how it comes about that we see the table as being square (OR oblong). The explanation of perception does not assume any particular physical theory. Whereas primary qualities are correctly attributed to external objects, regardless of their ultimate constitution, secondary qualities are defined in terms of human agreement and disagreement in perception, regardless of one's theory of how perception arises.

All the best,


Stoics on eternal recurrence, Epicurus on sensations

To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Stoics on eternal recurrence, Epicurus on sensations
Date: 30th April 2009 12:01

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your two emails of 29 April, with essays for the University of London module on Post-Aristotelian Philosophy, in response to the question, 'What motivated the Stoic doctrine of eternal recurrence? Were the Stoics able to solve the philosophical problems it implied?', and the question, 'Evaluate Epicurus' claim that all sensations are true.' I am responding quickly, as your exam is very soon.

Eternal Recurrence

This is a great topic. If I were answering this question, I would probably found a way to mention Nietzsche who famously took up the Stoic doctrine of eternal recurrence, offering (in 'The Will to Power') an admittedly somewhat specious argument based on the assumption of determinism together with the assumption that the universe is composed of immutable atoms. According to Nietzsche, it is inevitable that at some point in the future the precise configuration of atoms will repeat a previous configuration. According to determinism, the entire history of the universe must repeat from that point onwards.

Nietzsche's interest is (arguably) the same as that of the Stoics: to provide a powerful statement of fatalism, the ability to embrace the eternal recurrence being a test of a certain kind of individual.

A fatal objection to Nietzsche's argument for the eternal recurrence, however, is that granting determinism there is no mathematical necessity that the 'same state' will ever repeated, even given infinite time. This is a more effective criticism than the one you give, based on mere empirical considerations (the theory of Relativity). In evaluating a philosophical theory, one is allowed to consider possible universes where the theory might have held: in the present case, a Newtonian universe, rather than an Einsteinian one.

However, it is important to note that the question doesn't ask for 'criticisms of the theory of eternal recurrence'. In an exam, this would be marked as 'irrelevant'.

What motivated the Stoic doctrine? I said that one motivation is the same as the reason that motivated Nietzsche, namely the desire to give powerful expression to belief in fatalism. This it undoubtedly does. Of course, it does not follow that if you are a fatalist you have to believe in some version of the eternal recurrence. Indeed, you can be a fatalist and reject determinism. If the universe just IS the way God intended it to be, at ever moment of historical time, then belief in determinism is not required. Things happen, as God decrees.

Another possible motivation which you don't mention (admittedly somewhat speculative) is that the Stoic doctrine of eternal recurrence reconciles belief in a finite cosmos with the infinity of time. Quoting Milic Capek, you comment on this in relation to the Leibnizian principle of the identity of indiscernibles. For the Stoics, it is history that is repeated, while time goes ineluctably on. This entails, as you state, an 'absolutist' rather than a 'relational' view of time. The idea of 'cyclical time' is a philosophically more sophisticated notion, which is not required and is (arguably) inconsistent with the doctrine of recurrence.

Another point you discuss is the Leibnizian principle that this world is the 'best of all possible worlds'. If God is going to make the world again, there is only one way to do it, namely the best possible way. So the result must be the same as before. However, this looks at face value to be a very suspect argument. If variety is considered a valuable attribute of any universe, then surely you could just as easily argue that the 'best of all possible worlds' requires an infinite sequence of infinitely variegated cosmoses.

This is what Leibniz would say. The crucial difference between Leibniz and the Stoics is that for Leibniz, the deity is *outside* the world, whereas the Stoics held a view much closer to pantheism, where the deity is a necessary constituent of the world itself. Having the essential nature that it has, the deity cannot alter from one cycle to the next.

(For this reason, I think you need to look again at your statement, 'remember, God is the epitome of reason and wisdom, therefore he always chooses the design of the 'best possible world' each and every time'.)

As you state, the Stoic doctrine of eternal recurrence creates a problem analogous to the 'problem of evil' in theology: how to reconcile God's 'goodness' with the existence of evil in the world. Seneca's response is comparable to the view of theologians that God chose a universe which would create the 'best possible souls', by creating the necessary conditions of adversity and moral challenge. (It is worth noting, as an aside, that this is of course a problem which did not worry Nietzsche, who has no interest in defending the 'best possible world' view.)

I don't understand your objection regarding eating a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. If you chose peanut butter last time around, then you can't 'change your mind' this time. In a determinist universe where would such a change have originated? Take a more extreme example. Let's say that you are a good person and would never push an old lady in front of a bus for fun. Might you, in a future universe where you had 'free will'? Surely, we WANT it to be the case that our actions proceed reliably from our character. That's what the Stoics believed, hence the enormous emphasis on the development of 'virtue'.

All sensations are true

The main question that you need to address here is what is meant by the 'truth' of a 'sensation'. At face value, the claim, 'all sensations are true' would be read by a modern philosopher as a classic statement of the belief in 'private objects', or 'Cartesian mental events' in the sense attacked by Wittgenstein.

On this reading, I cannot be wrong about the content of my present experience, because there is no room for a 'gap' between my mind and the 'object' in question. In ordinary language, we accept that if someone says, 'the sky seems orange to me', then they cannot (if they are being truthful and not intentionally lying) be making a false judgement. Whereas, if they say, 'the sky is orange' their judgement can be false. (E.g. the subject has just taken a tab of LSD.) This common sense distinction, refracted through a false philosophical theory, is the basis for the sense datum theory of perception.

On this questionable theory, it makes perfect sense for me to give a special name for the colour that the sky has for *me*, say, 'BlueGK'. It would be possible for the subjective quality of my experience to change overnight, so that what looked 'BlueGK' today looked 'RedGK' tomorrow, even though everyone still agreed that the sky was 'blue'. (I am describing the 'spectrum inversion' hypothesis.) You have done enough philosophy by now to recognize that we are dealing here with the tricky issue of 'qualia'.

I used the term 'Cartesian mental event' because it could be argued that this idea traces back to Descartes' claim that statements about how things seem to me (e.g. 'I have a sharp pain', 'I see a red patch') are incapable of being doubted.

It is possible that Epicurus' thinking on the nature of sensation anticipated Descartes here, that is to say, he was indeed tempted by the idea of incorrigible 'private objects'. However, other things you say contradict this picture. At the beginning of your essay, you describe Epicurus' theory of perception -- surprisingly modern in its structure, and a great advance on Empedocles' theory -- where sensations are regarded not so much as 'Cartesian mental events' but rather as physical events resulting from a repeatable causal process. Whether an object is red, or round, or smells or tastes a certain way, or makes a certain kind of sound is a reliable (because repeatable) consequence of the physical way that object is. That's why we regard the sensation as a 'datum', a piece of hard factual knowledge, and the starting point for making judgements about the nature of that object, on the basis of our conceptual knowledge.

Similarly, one might argue, an ear, an eye, a nose is a physical entity with a structure which is reproduced many numbers of times, so that it is hardly surprising that what looks red or round to one eye will also look red or round to another eye.

Given this starting point, however, there are still ways that perceptual judgements can go wrong, and the question is how Epicurus is able to account for this. As you report, Epicurus discusses the question of possible 'movement connected with the perception of images but distinguished from it'. Your example of the flash of light doesn't really do this idea justice. We are not just concerned with error in identifying a horse as opposed to an ox. That is a matter of judgement, and it is accepted that judgements can be false. The question is how a sensation can be 'false', that is to say, not look the way it is supposed to look.

Here, I would interpret 'movement connected with the perception of images but distinguished from it' as referring to background conditions of perception. In saying that the process of perception reliably produces the same sensation each time we view the same object, we are assuming normal conditions of perception. However, if, e.g. the quality of the light is altered, or something happens which affects the normal functioning of one's eye, then the process of cause and effect will result in a sensation which does not have the quality that it 'ought' to have.

Much of what Epicurus says seems to be a reasonably coherent version of the principle of empiricism. Knowledge of the external world is impossible unless you have some reason to trust the data. We should be prepared to let nature prove our judgements or theories wrong by accepting the evidence of our senses. However, there will inevitably arise occasions where we have to override our perceptual judgements -- for example, in the situation just outlined where we have reason to believe that the 'background conditions' for perceptual are not normal or ideal.

Given all this, Epicurus' claim that reason cannot refute the senses because it depends on them is exactly what one should say. Here is what amounts to a direct rebuttal of claims made by, e.g. the Presocratic atomists, who held that philosophical reason demonstrates that the beliefs arising from the senses are false (e.g. the belief that there exist colours). To say that reason cannot refute the senses is not to make the extravagant claim that we can never be wrong in what we seem to perceive, but rather to state that in the process of gaining knowledge of the external world, reason and perception have to work together.

All the best,


Russell on 'The baby has been sick all day'

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Russell on 'The baby has been sick all day'
Date: 28th April 10:03

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 23 April, with your essay written under exam conditions in response to the University of London Logic question, 'One can understand the claim, 'The baby has been sick all day', without supposing there is one and only one baby in the world. So Russell's theory o definite descriptions is wrong.' Discuss.

On the question of topic selection for revision, your strategy seems as sound as any. The most important thing is not so much 'very focused preparation' (it is a matter of luck if you happen to have been reading something which has particular relevance to that very question) but rather your willingness to think on your feet and engage with whatever question they throw at you. In other words, stay loose.

I know that's easy to say. But it is a strategy which worked for me. Your mood when you go into the exam room is an important factor. Know that you are a good philosopher and that you will give a good account of yourself.

This essay is rather short (three pages would be fine, four would be excellent, but pushing it). However, in terms of content you have everything essential for a decent answer to the question.

You have correctly identified what the problem is (I have had essays which missed the point and talked about Donnellan).

You have mentioned Strawson's distinction between sentence and statement (although more could have been said here about the relevance to this problem, and the contrast between the responses that Strawson and Russell would give).

You have shown that you are aware that simply regarding the context as 'implicit' or capable of being stated in principle comes up against awkward counterexamples (though, once again, if you'd had the time to do more than simply give your 'the book is on the book' example this would also gain more marks).

One way to think about this problem is to turn it on its head and ask whether ANY statement containing a definite description could be sufficiently 'explicit'. Consider a universe where Nietzsche's 'Eternal Recurrence' is true (there's a beautiful reference to this at the end of the movie K-Pax with Kevin Spacey, and also in Kundera's novel 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'). Make your description as precise and explicit as you like. You have failed to indicate which of the eternally recurring worlds the object in question is located in. Indeed there is no way to do this because you are relying on an irreducible indexical element: we are talking about this world, this 'Mount Everest', this 'Barack Obama' and so on, not any of the Everests or Obamas which exist in the other infinitely many worlds which have been or will come to be.

The problem doesn't arise in maths. And it could be argued that Russell's response would simply be to say that this is one of the intractable aspects of empirical reality. If you are attempting to give a theory of meaning for a natural language on the model of Tarski's definition of truth (in other words, along broadly Davidsonian lines -- something which of course Russell never attempted) then there are inevitably going to be difficulties of 'fit', the only question being the pragmatic one of which of the competing theories does the work in the most lucid and intelligible way. A criticism levelled at Strawson's theory of presuppositions is that it is messy (because it admits truth value gaps) and consequently harder to formalise.

If I was answering this question, I would also be tempted to pick at this particular example. 'The baby' could just as easily be read as 'our baby'. Problem solved. If we had more than one baby (say, twins) under what circumstances would we (in real life) speak of 'the baby'? It would be odd, to say the least. You'd use the baby's name. Obviously, just picking at one example doesn't get you very far. But there is a suspicion that this problem has been overblown, and that looseness of talk and colloquialism aside, when we say 'the' we mean 'the', the context being obvious to anyone who is in on the conversation, and perfectly capable of being stated if one were being pedantic.

As it stands, the essay deserves a mark in the mid-60's despite its short length. I'd give 65.

All the best,


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Parmenides on the nature of reality

To: Cornell J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Parmenides on the nature of reality
Date: 21st April 2009 10:33

Dear Cornell,

Thank you for your email of 3 April, with your third essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'Parmenides on the Nature of Reality'.

This essay topic is an occasion for a trip down memory lane: Christmas/ New Year of 1972-3 when I spent a month labouring over an essay on Parmenides Way of Truth for my professor D.W. Hamlyn. It was my first year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck. Up until then, my work had not been spectacular. This time, I was determined to push the boat out.

For a month, I lived and breathed Parmenides. The big issue for me then -- as it is for commentators now -- was how seriously to take Parmenides' claim that there can be no statements concerning 'what is not', hence no statements which imply change, differentiation, temporal or spatial distinctions.

From what you say in your essay, it is difficult for me to discern exactly what your view is. Here are the alternatives: Either Parmenides is talking about Reality with a capital 'R', as distinct from what we know as 'the world' or 'what exists' in an empirical sense; or Parmenides is talking about the world, existence, anything that 'can be said' as such.

In my essay on Parmenides, I chose the latter horn of the dilemma. My conclusion, 'I really think Parmenides believed in his 'One'.' In other words, he isn't challenging us with a paradox (like Zeno), he isn't talking about two worlds, the 'real world' and the world of 'appearances' (like Plato). The 'Way of Opinion' is just that, an account of what human beings erroneously believe, and the kind of muddle-headed 'philosophy' one is led to if one accepts those beliefs. It is not a description of something which is 'true' or 'exists' in any sense. It is simply false.

This leaves a massive problem of 'accounting for the phenomena'. If time is 'unreal', then how is one to account for the fact that it 'appears' to us that there are events in time? If there is no differentiation of any kind, then how does one explain the given reality of our differentiated experience? Parmenides leaves no clue.

What about the first horn of the dilemma? In your first three paragraphs, you seem to be veering in this direction, but you don't follow this up or draw the conclusions that one would be expected to draw.

The Milesians (sic) distinguished between the world as we perceive it (trees, houses, men, animals etc.) and the One of which everything is composed, the 'arche' -- water, or air, or the 'apeiron'. Parmenides is responding dialectically to these theories, arguing that the One cannot be anything *specific*. If the One is water, as Thales believed, then it *is not* fire. But that which 'is' in a pre-eminent sense, the ultimately real, cannot be 'not'.

Then what about Anaximander's 'apeiron'? wouldn't that do? It passes the test of not having one quality 'rather than' another. But it fails for a more profound reason: the very definition of 'apeiron' is 'a peiras', *not* having a limit.

On this deflationary interpretation, Parmenides comes over as a mere sceptic about physics as an attempt to describe reality. Any theory that we put forward can only concern appearances, not what 'is'. You can still have physics (such as the theory of 'night and light' described in the 'Way of Opinion'). But physics isn't a description of reality. (At the risk of anachronism, physics isn't metaphysics.) When you probe the world of appearances and formulate theories or 'inferences to the best explanation', you just get more appearances.

It would be nice if this were correct: Parmenides would be seen as the forerunner of the great metaphysical systems -- e.g. Spinoza (who you mention) or, even better, Kant (the theory of phenomena and noumena). But I don't buy it.

(One clue you give that you are not convinced by the deflationary interpretation is that you accept that 'It' refers to 'any object of inquiry', rather than more specifically, the 'one' or 'arche' of the Milesians. Unless of course one reads 'inquiry' in a very narrow sense, as 'philosophic' or 'metaphysical' inquiry, precisely the kind which searches out what is ultimately 'real'.)

The only remaining question -- assuming that we are not persuaded by Parmenides deduction of 'It is' -- is where he 'goes wrong', diagnosing the logical fallacy. In the unit I tried to show how the prohibition against saying 'what is not' is not as crazy as it seems. There is a genuine philosophical problem concerning the nature of negation which I think Parmenides is onto. Only he doesn't solve the problem; he merely succeeds in highlighting it.

If you can't make philosophical sense of negation, then the only conclusion is that nothing can be said, other than 'It is'.

Some years later, Hamlyn made a comment in response to something I had written (an early draft of 'Naive Metaphysics') which was very revealing. He couldn't help thinking that sometimes I took Plato's injunction to 'follow the argument wherever it may lead' beyond reasonable limits, i.e. the point where most people would say, 'There must be something wrong with the argument.' But what I admired so much about Parmenides was precisely that he refused to take this easy way out.

All the best,


P.S. You asked me about Logic. I have looked at Copi's 'Introduction to Logic' which you mentioned. It is a big book which has the virtue of emphasizing the role of logic in evaluating the validity of arguments in ordinary language. The book which was used for some years at Sheffield is 'Languages of Logic' by Samuel Guttenplan, which would be useful if you want more insight into systems of symbolic logic. The book I used as an undergraduate was E.J. Lemmon 'Beginning Logic' which goes one step further and gets you proving long theorems in symbolic logic -- good if you have a taste for maths. On infinity, see the excellent book by Adrian Moore 'The Infinite' (Routledge).

'Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core'

To: David N.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core'
Date: 20th April 2009 11:40

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 26 March, with your fifth and final essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core' -- What is the alleged paradox? In your view, is the paradox real or only apparent?'

Well done for completing the program. I am impressed by the fact that although you found parts of the program difficult, you persevered and saw it through to the end.

Your answer to the question is that the paradox is not real but only apparent. On the face of it, it looks as though the liberal, in seeking to prevent the intolerant imposing their views on others, is forced to be 'intolerant'. The response, in the words you quote from Anthony Grayling is that whereas 'anyone can put forward a view, no one can be forced to accept it. The only coercion should be that of argument, and the only obligation that of honest reasoning.'

The case for free and open debate seems open and shut. And yet, this is not the only problem.

Let's take the Catholic religion as a case in point. Richard Dawkins, author of 'The Selfish Gene' and 'The Blind Watchmaker' has expressed himself very forthrightly on the way in which religious 'memes' are inculcated: insisting that your child prays the rosary and goes to confession or risk going to Hell is the surest way of bringing it about that they will do the same with their children. In Dawkins' view, making a child pray the rosary is evil. Is that view illiberal?

The child of Catholic parents is not in the happy position of being able to 'debate' whether or not to pray the rosary or go to church. Mill explicitly states in his essay 'On Liberty' that the Liberty Principle applies to adults, not children (and, more controversially, not to 'primitive people' who are to be treated like children by their cultural superiors).

Why should an upholder of liberal views be prepared to tolerate religious orthodoxy? Mill makes it clear that he is for liberty of thought and expression -- indeed, that speech should be *more* free than action, because whether a view is true or false, we benefit from free and open debate. In Catholic schools, should there then be 'free and open debate' on questions of Christian dogma? The idea of asking someone who is religious -- whether a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim -- to 'prove their case' seems preposterous. We don't demand this of religious belief because such matters are beyond proof or disproof.

Not only should religious 'extremists' not be given a platform, on this view, their should be strict limits to what they are able to teach their children -- or have taught to their children. All schools should therefore be non-denominational.

This isn't an argument for extending the Liberty principle to children. A child and an adult cannot debate on equal terms. However, it is a case for severely limiting the power of those who do not subscribe to the principles of liberalism, with the seemingly laudable aim of bringing about the kind of society which the liberal seeks to achieve.

I have problems with this view, which I express in the program -- notwithstanding my great sympathy for Dawkins and my extreme dislike of religious fundamentalism in any form. That's why I see traditional liberalism as involved in a paradox. Preparedness for free and open debate is not sufficient to bring about a society where free and open debate is genuinely possible.

There is a reply open to Mill, however. And that is to stick to his guns, and insist that he is *only* concerned with debate between 'adults'. Let each family bring their children up as they will. Every decision of consequence will be made through free and open debate, in which those who have not imbibed the principles of liberalism at their mother's knee will be forced to learn those principles, on pain of having only a marginal part to play in the discussion.

All the best,


Counterexamples to knowledge as justified true belief

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Counterexamples to knowledge as justified true belief
Date: 17th April 2009 11:40

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 3 April, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'How should one respond to apparent counterexamples to the view that knowledge is a form of justified true belief?'

I am somewhat puzzled by this question. I can't believe that the examiner seriously wanted you to consider three sets of possible counterexamples -- to the view that belief is necessary, or that justification is necessary, or that justified true belief is sufficient. Each of these would more than justify an essay to itself. Nor can I see any useful general question of methodology concerning how one might approach counterexamples to definitions of knowledge, without going into specifics.

Considered as three essays, you have done well to say as much as you have, given constraints of space.

I wonder: in discussing the third question (whether justified true belief is sufficient for knowledge) you mention theories which add a fourth condition in order to meet Gettier counterexamples. Surely, any theory which *adds* a fourth condition accepts that knowledge is a 'form of justified true belief' (namely, justified true belief which meets some as yet unspecified fourth condition) in which case Gettier arguments are not 'counterexamples' to this view, but rather to the view which holds that knowledge *is* justified true belief.

(I seem to have mislaid my copy of the 2007 examiners reports. I don't normally check on these but it would have been useful in this case.)

My initial reaction was that this question is about Gettier. However, given what I've just said, I'm not so sure now.

Things are complicated because philosophers who opt for more radical solutions to Gettier counterexamples (e.g. Nozick on 'truth tracking') *do* question whether knowledge is a 'form of justified true belief'. In other words, in tackling the problem of the sufficiency of the three conditions combined, one is led to question the necessity of the first and/ or second condition.

On an externalist, reliabilist view for example, justification (conceived as an argument you could give to an interlocutor if challenged) is not necessary. All that is required is that the route through which the relevant information was acquired is one that accurately transmits truths. Your chess example is a possible candidate, although for reasons which you give it is somewhat questionable. If you are good enough to make accurate judgements of a position, surely you are good enough to give the required analysis if challenged. (That's what chess players do.) Otherwise, the strong suspicion is that you are playing a hunch. In chess, a single overlooked line can destroy what would otherwise have been considered a 'well judged' move.

A better example might be someone who is a good judge of character who can't explain why they thought a particular individual had something to hide -- appearance, voice, body language all play a part. The standard (somewhat humorous) example is chicken sexers, who can't explain how they are able to reliably sort male and female chicks (the theory is that it has something to do with the smell of the chick, not the appearance as the chicken sexers seem to believe).

Is belief necessary for knowledge? You give a decent answer here. The question we need to answer is just what sort of thing a 'belief' is. It can't be correct to say that a belief is necessarily something you are in a position to avow as a belief. Leaving aside odd cases like the nervous schoolboy, we do talk ourselves into things, giving specious arguments and justifications. And yet when push comes to shove we show by our actions that we never really believed what we said we believed.

On the 'Davidsonian' model (from Donald Davidson who has done seminal work on the analysis of action statements) an action is explained by a combination of the agents beliefs and desires. Knowing what the agent wanted, and what they did, we can infer their beliefs. We normally expect beliefs so inferred to correspond with what an agent would avow; but there is no logically necessary connection.

I would go further and point to a fundamental difference in the 'point' of the concepts of knowledge and belief. The point of the concept of belief is in the explanation of action. Whereas the point of the concept of knowledge is to identify subjects as reliable sources of truth. Occasions will arise when we will confidently act on the testimony of a subject who (for whatever reasons) would not consider themself a reliable authority. On this view, individual human subjects are just links in the chain of transmission of knowledge.

All the best,


On the methods and subject matter of metaphysics

To: Simon K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On the methods and subject matter of metaphysics
Date: 17th April 2009 10:46

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 1 April, with your first essay for the Pathways Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What is metaphysics? Is there anything special about the methods of metaphysics, or about its subject matter? Illustrate your answer with one example of a metaphysical problem or controversy.'

This is a knowledgeable essay, which gives a fairly accurate account of the philosophical specialization, 'metaphysics' as it would be studied by any undergraduate in a department of philosophy following a broadly analytical tradition. This is reinforced by your references to M. Loux and Van Inwagen. The answer would possibly have been different (although there would be some overlaps) for, say, an undergraduate in a department where process philosophy (Whitehead) or Thomism (at a Catholic University) was the dominant tradition, or, say, in France or Germany where Heideggerian phenomenological ontology was considered the paradigm of metaphysics.

All traditions agree that 'the nature of existence' or 'the nature of reality' are questions which the metaphysician studies, but there is considerable disagreement about the problems which fall under these headings and the philosophical methods which are considered appropriate.

On the question of 'method', you emphasize the difference between metaphysics and science; you could have equally emphasized the difference between philosophy and science. But what (if anything) is special about the methods of metaphysics, as *contrasted* with philosophy generally? An analytic philosopher would say, 'none'. The method of conceptual analysis works as well in the subject area of metaphysics as elsewhere.

This is where I have serious reservations. As you will discover in working through the program, I don't have any allegiances to any particular tradition. Although trained as an analytic philosopher, I am acutely aware of the limitations of the analytic approach when applied to the question of defining reality (defining truth, defining existence). Students in former days who cut their teeth on Hegel and Bradley arguably had a better, more open view. (Russell was a Hegelian in his youth.)

(I was lucky to have studied metaphysics under D.W. Hamlyn at Birkbeck who got us reading Kant and Bradley.)

You describe ontology as 'one of [the] many sub-disciplines' of metaphysics. An analytic philosopher today would consider, e.g. Donald Davidson's analysis of action statements as requiring an ontology of events as a contribution to ontology as well as being a contribution to the philosophy of mind. The idea here is that the best (indeed only) approach to ontology is via the philosophy of language: an ontology is what you are committed to in taking a particular approach to the analysis of a given form of discourse.

Another example would be the analysis of counterfactual statements by David Lewis, which requires an ontology of possible worlds, conceived as differing from the actual world only in a perspectival sense.

The debate between realism and anti-realist views of truth, according to British philosopher Michael Dummett, is a debate between rival conceptions of a theory of meaning; between a theory of meaning which regards truth as the central notion, and one which makes verification or 'criteria' central (as in Wittgenstein's later philosophy).

As I said, my view of all this is non-committal. I don't accept Dummett's claim that there is no 'direct' route (i.e. a route bypassing the theory of meaning) to metaphysical conclusions. Which is not to say that the philosophy of language is irrelevant. Rather, we have to tackle each problem as it comes up with the best tools we can.

Aristotle is the paradigm ontologist, categorizing the different ways in which one might use the term 'be'. A substance 'is' in a different way from its accidents. Form 'is' in a different way from matter. Davidson and Lewis are arguably working in the same tradition. However, there seems to be a broader question still, which I term 'defining reality', which is not about the 'correct' list of categories, whether e.g. events or possible worlds are 'real' or 'constructed' but rather concerns our conception of what it is for anything to 'exist' or for any statement to be 'true'.

That is why I would doubly endorse the remark you quote from Aristotle at the end of your essay. Even within metaphysics, as you have indicated, there are sub-disciplines which study particular problems and issues which broadly come under the classification of 'the nature of being'. However, there is also a foundational question, a question about the 'ultimate' nature of reality, which arguably comes before this. That is what we are pursuing in this program.

All the best,


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?
Date: 16th April 2009 12:14

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 28 March with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Are moral assertions merely expressions of emotion?'

In response to your question about time-management, the most important advice I can give is to NOT attempt to reproduce practice essays. Assume that you are able to come up with ideas and arguments that you have not thought of before. Examiners can tell when a candidate is thinking on his/ her feet. You will always get credit for this, even if you make slips (even better if you can correct them).

Knowing (a lot) more than the average candidate, you have more to say and this does present a problem. That is why taking time to think and plan before you write (whether you actually 'write a plan' or not) is so vital. In those five minutes you have time to order your priorities. There might not be time to investigate every aspect of a question so you have to select. If you have an original 'take' on the problem then you need to think about the best way to present this so that it doesn't get buried as an afterthought (or worse, not expressed properly because of lack of time).

When choosing questions, 'Do I have something original to say?' should take priority over, 'How much do I know?' You need additional time for this selective process too.

Your essay on emotivism is very thorough and I have few real disagreements. I don't like emotivism, but I also don't think that any of the arguments you consider are strong enough to defeat this view of ethical judgements.

To express disapproval is clearly different from stating (as a piece of self-knowledge) that you disapprove, although it is clearly possible to do the former in doing the latter. 'I disapprove of your doing X' is (also) an expression of disapproval, while, 'If you were to do X I would disapprove' is not.

My intuitions on the Frege-Geach problem is that Blackburn is basically right and that (never mind the details) there will always be a plausible way to explain the combinatorial aspect of ethical judgements interpreted as expressions of emotion.

The moral attitude problem is more tricky. Let's say that I enjoy eating meat but feel moral repugnance towards doing so. Here we have a 'pro' gustatory attitude battling it out with an 'anti' moral attitude. It is irrelevant how 'strongly' I feel in either case. The most powerful desire for meat must (logically) give way to my genuine recognition that it would be wrong to do so. The label 'moral' simply signifies that the approval/ disapproval in question is final, overriding, the end of the matter.

It could be argued, therefore, that we don't need any additional 'non-circular' criterion for what makes a moral attitude moral. 'Moral judgements are overriding' is all that one needs to say. It is a matter of fact that we do regard certain considerations as overriding: hence there is such a thing as ethics. If we didn't have this view, then there wouldn't be a question to answer. This looks circular, but I don't think it is.

Another point that could be made is that 'good' is a very bad example of a moral judgement because it is so 'thin'. The majority of moral concepts have various grades of 'thickness' which involves descriptive criteria with consequences for action. There has been lot of discussion of the 'thickness of moral concepts' (with Blackburn expressing general scepticism regarding this approach).

This doesn't solve the problem of 'where the motivation comes from'. However, a cognitivist could argue that we are looking in the wrong place. My commitment to moral dialogue arises from my 'respect for the other' by virtue of which the other's needs/ desires become motivational for me. To accept a given moral vocabulary, and its implications for action, is to accept a priori the possibility of reasons for action which are not based on my own desires but rather on the desires of the other.

This is not an objection to emotivism but rather an argument against the arguments for emotivism (specifically, number iii, the 'argument from moral internalism' although it also has implications for the other arguments). We can accept that moral judgements involve emotion, indeed, that it is part of what it is to have the moral virtues -- being the kind of person who makes reliable moral judgement and acts upon them -- that one feels the kind of emotion it is appropriate to feel (as in Aristotle's view that failure to feel or express anger in circumstances where anger is appropriate is a moral failing).

All the best,