Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hallucination and the disjunctive analysis of perception

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hallucination and the disjunctive analysis of perception
Date: 7th January 2010 14:33

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 17 December, with your second attempt at the question for the University of London Epistemology module, 'You cannot distinguish between a case in which you see the exam paper before you and a case in which you undergo a perfectly matching hallucination. Therefore the difference between seeing and hallucinating is not an experiential difference.' Discuss.

Your revised essay is a model answer to this question. It is actually quite difficult for me to find any faults with it (a pretty unusual occurrence).

Obviously, given the constrictions of time you would not be expected to go into the whys and wherefores of cognitive externalism. But apart from questioning the wider theoretical basis for the disjunctivist view, is there any plausible objection which one might mount against disjunctivism about perception?

You hint at a possible objection when you say, 'The difficulty with the idea of disjunctivism though is that I would not be able to tell which particular disjunct I am experiencing. Should I be hallucinating or subject to an illusion, it would appear to me as if I actually perceived the actual state of the world. I would therefore [not] be in the same perceptual state that I would be in if the world was exactly how I perceive it to be. As a result, I would be deluded not only about the state of the world but also about the state of my own mind.'

The objection is that if I were to be subject to a hallucination that there is an exam paper in front of me, then not only would I be wrong about there being an exam paper, but I would also be wrong about the kind of *mental* state I was in. I thought that mental state was 'enjoying a perception' but I was wrong. But how can I be wrong about the mental state that I am in? Aren't I the best authority?

Wouldn't the disjunctivist reply, 'Well, yes, that is exactly what I am saying. You are not an infalliable authority about the mental state you are in. So where's the objection?'

The knowledge or belief that I am in a given mental state is not itself a datum. It involves an act of reflection, what one might term a 'theory'. I see the exam paper, and, reflecting on this experience, I form the judgement, 'I am currently in a perceptual state whose content is, There is an exam paper in front of me'.' According to the disjunctivist, therefore, if in fact I am not perceiving an exam paper but undergoing a hallucination, then my judgement that I am in such-and-such a perceptual state is false. That is to say, it is a false theory. That's what the disjunctivist has to say, in order to be consistent.

I liked the thought experiment of removing the exam paper and instantaneously commencing brain stimulation causing a hallucination of the exam paper which segues seamlessly with the original perception. Here, the potential objection seems to be that a mental state cannot transform into an entirely different mental state without the subject's knowledge. Again, that is simply what the disjunctivist has to say to be consistent. Strange as it may seem, your mental state can unknowingly transform in this way given suitably bizarre circumstances. ('So what? do you have a problem with that?', the disjunctivist would say.)

But what about doing the same thought experiment in reverse? Suppose we start with the hallucination then seamlessly transform this into veridical perception. If you don't know that you were previously hallucinating, then you can't tell when the hallucination has ended. In that case there does seem to be a (mildly) stronger intuition that there is something 'wrong' with talking about perception. Things are very far from 'normal'. Yes, there is an exam paper, and, yes, technically, you are now perceiving it. But in this case the whole setup seems a bit too fragile to call 'perception'.

I don't know where to take that thought -- maybe you can do something with it.

That's pretty much all I have to say. As for further improvements, there are probably more marks to be got if you put in a few more references -- e.g. to back up what you say about the intentional view, or the disjunctivist view. But that's just icing on the cake.

I am pleased to see that your efforts have paid off. Well done!

All the best for 2010,


Counterfactual analysis of causal connection

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Counterfactual analysis of causal connection
Date: 7th January 2010 13:50

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 18 December, with your essay for the University of London Logic module, in response to the question, 'What might or might not have happened does not explain what had to happen. So we cannot rely on the former to give a satisfactory analysis of causal connection.' Discuss.

You have written an excellent answer to what is, in my view, a rather indifferent question. The statement, interpreted as an argument against the counterfactual analysis of causation, doesn't even look plausible. What reason is there to think that you can't explain the necessity of P (it's not being the case that it might have been the case that not-P) in terms of 'what might or might not have happened'? A basic ground rule for composing this kind of question is that the 'So...' has at least a prima facie claim to plausibility.

As always, my strategy would be to focus on the question. Why would anyone think the claim was plausible? or even made sense, for that matter?

However, I would probably end up saying more or less what you say. You organize your answer into two separate sections. The first deals with obvious counterexamples to the simple counterfactual analysis of causation and responses to those counterexamples. The second section (which I wish had been longer) raises the more foundational objection that our intuitions regarding the truth or falsity of counterfactual conditionals depend on our prior grasp of causation.

Regarding the details of the counterfactual analysis, there does seem to be a basic methodological problem -- which, being charitable, one might regard the question as hinting at -- of distinguishing causes from background conditions. How do you pick out 'the' cause? If all sorts of conditions, both large and small were needed in order for e to occur, why pick on c? Why not c' or c''?

Cases of overdetermination, pre-emption etc. are additional problems, but the fundamental difficulty is that our intuitions tell us that a 'cause' is more than a 'condition'. The driver was distracted by his mobile phone a second before the pedestrian walked onto the road. It's obvious who is to blame, and what caused the pedestrian's death. The death could have been avoided if the mechanic at the last service had paid more careful attention to the brakes, but that doesn't give us the slightest motivation to point the finger at the mechanic.

It's tempting to say, as you do, that the notion of causation is 'primitive' but I think that's far too easy a solution. Moreover, for all the cases where it is clear how one identifies a cause, there are just as many others where it is far from clear. Causation is something we need to understand, just as much as it is something that enables us to understand other things (like counterfactual conditionals).

Which brings us to the second section, and your claim that the counterfactual analysis of causation is circular. I would have said more here, in particular about Lewises total reliance on an unanalysed notion of 'similarity'. Goodman in 'Languages of Art' mounts a devastating critique of the idea that we know what it is for some thing to be 'similar' to or 'resemble' another. Similarity is useless as a logically primitive notion, especially so in the possible world analysis of counterfactuals.

There is a solution, but it requires going back on the model of analysis which you give at the beginning of your essay. If A is 'analysed' in terms of B, then what we expect is a biconditional, where A is on the left hand side, and the right hand side refers only to B. This is the model of 'reductive' analysis.

A possible alternative in the case of causation would be to see causal relations and counterfactual conditionals as co-primitive. To analyse a causal statement, 'c caused e' in terms of counterfactuals is, in effect, to analyse it in terms of other causal statements. To analyse a counterfactual statement in terms of alternative causal chains, is to analyse it in terms of other counterfactual statements.

You mention the contextual dependence of counterfactual statements. It is the context which tells us which are the relevant factors to vary when we consider the possible world where the antecedent is true. Explanation is relative to interest (Putnam). So is causation, for exactly the same reasons.

Meanwhile, if the earlier Davidson is right (as I think he is) in claiming that events are individuated by their causal relations, then what counts as an 'event' is similarly contextual.

Our intuitions about counterfactuals are messy. I don't want to say that counterfactual statements, or statements about causal relations can't be 'true', or have 'truth conditions'. Which only goes to show that 'truth' is not a simple notion -- not all truths are the same, or have the same status. At one end of the spectrum is pure make-believe, while at the other end are theories considered worth publishing in a scientific journal.

All the best,


Explaining possibility by means of possible worlds

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Explaining possibility by means of possible worlds
Date: 22nd December 2009 12:56

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 12 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Logic module, in response to the question, 'Are we justified in using the notion of possible worlds to explain the notion of possibility?'

Thanks also for your excellent answer on causality, which will be posted on the new page of Questions and Answers, some time before the new year. I just wish I'd had the idea of inviting my UoL students onto the panel sooner!

The answer to, 'Why is there NCA rather than AN?', if there is one, would look rather like Anaximander's explanation for the world remaining suspended in the centre of the cosmos: that is to say, the answer is given in purely logical terms (e.g. considerations of 'symmetry') but the account as such is abductive, or inference to the best explanation, as we already have the fact (we assume) that we are seeking to explain. (In Anaximander's case, this required making a number of ad hoc assumptions about the sun and the moon, etc.)

In this context (the question 'why is there something rather than nothing') you could have mentioned realism about possible worlds, which appears to dispense entirely with the need to explain, 'why there is something'. Every possible world behaving according to every possible set of laws of nature exists, including the world of absolutely nothing, so there is nothing to explain.

I remember being thrilled by Lewis's 'Counterfactuals' when I was an undergraduate. In the last chapter of my 'Naive Metaphysics' I develop an analogy between the place of 'my world' in the objective order, and the place of the actual world in the universe of all possible worlds (a la Lewis).

In your essay, you have given a clear and concise argument for the view that only Lewis's account offers a 'rigorous' explanation of the notion of possibility. At one time, I would have agreed with you. However, I have begun to have doubts.

Let's start with the question 'what kind' of possibility we are interested in. You say that 'distinguishing these various kinds', i.e. logical, analytic, metaphysical, nomological and epistemic, 'is not central to the question'. However, let's start from the point of view of someone who is genuinely puzzled about how there can be such a thing as 'possibility'. How can anything BE, other than what IS?

Let's start with something easy: It's possible that my package from eBay was delivered today. There are two scenarios: the scenario where I arrive home to discover that the postman delivered the package, and the scenario where no package was delivered (Let's ignore other possibilities, like the world ending.) This is easy: to say that it is possible that the package arrived, is to say that it is consistent with what I know that the package arrived. In other words, epistemic possibility is just a variety of ignorance (or, IS ignorance).

What about logical possibility? This is harder for technical reasons, because there is room for real dispute over just what counts as 'logical'. However, it would not be too controversial to say that the terms, 'logically necessary', 'logically consistent', etc. apply to propositions of a given language. In propositional calculus, there is a simple test (truth tables) which reliably sorts sentences into those which are logically necessary, consistent or impossible.

I'll spare you the complete survey. The real problem comes (as I think you'll agree) with metaphysical possibility. Is there such a thing? I have the strong intuition that I might have decided not to come into work today, had the weather been worse, and that this is a fact. But what kind of fact? A fact calling for philosophical analysis. Lewis argues, quite convincingly, that the only way to deliver truth conditions for this counterfactual statement is in terms of possible worlds.

(I think here your essay would have been improved if you had been explicit on this point. There are alternatives to viewing counterfactuals as propositions or statements with truth conditions: Lewis needs to make the case that none of these alternatives -- e.g. the theory proposed by J.L. Mackie in his article 'Counterfactuals and Causal Laws' -- is adequate.)

But this is where I have a problem, and it is similar (or possibly the same) as the problem Kripke raises. Possible worlds actually exist. Indeed, towards the end of your essay you suggest possible physical theories which could accommodate the Lewis view. (Of course, there remains the problem that the number of actually existing physically alternate worlds must not fall short of the number of all possible worlds, otherwise the interpretation fails.)

Here's another theory which could be true. Forget quantum mechanics. Let's just say that, in time, which is infinite, every possible universe with every possible set of laws of nature has existed, or will exist, an infinite number of times. There are an infinite number of universes in the past and also in the future in which 'GK' stays at home on 22nd December because of a blizzard. But who cares about that?

In short, Lewis gives truth conditions for counterfactual statements, but at the cost of reducing possibility to actuality. His view is 'actualism' about possible worlds. There is no such thing as metaphysical possibility, in the intuitive sense. Perhaps he's right. But in that case, the cost is not just ontological extravagance about 'possible worlds' so-called, but also the elimination of our intuitive sui generis notion of metaphysical possibility, or possibility as such.

All the best for 2010,


Locke's argument against innate knowledge and principles

To: Christine W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's argument against innate knowledge and principles
Date: 18th December 2009 12:47

Dear Christine,

Thank you for your email of 10 December, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Descartes et al. module, in response to the question, 'What is Locke's strongest argument against innate ideas and principles? Is it strong enough?''

This is a well argued essay which clearly shows the effort you have put into it. I'm also glad that you looked at Leibniz as well as Descartes' Objections and Replies.

There are two approaches to this question, as demonstrated in your useful reference to Chomsky. The first approach is to consider the objections to Locke that could conceivably -- or were -- mounted at the time (e.g. Leibniz). The second is to consider other possibilities which (understandably) Locke and his contemporaries had not considered: e.g. the empirical research of Chomsky and the 'poverty of stimulus' argument.

Under the second heading, however, one should also consider the role of evolutionary arguments in epistemology: Quine in his essay 'Epistemology Naturalized' laid the basis for this, arguing that 'there is no first philosophy' (hence traditional Cartesian epistemology is redundant). On the contrary, the human capacity to acquire knowledge of the world is something that can be empirically explained. Human cognitive faculties are the product of millions of years of evolution.

This opens the gate to forms of innatism which Locke had not considered. Despite this, how well do his arguments stand up?

The classic innatist claim is Descartes' argument for the existence of God from the 'idea of infinity'. Descartes is aware that he has this idea which only God could have given. Because God exists, we know that innate ideas are necessarily true. If Descartes had instead succeeded in proving the existence of an evil demon, then the fact that an idea appeared innate would be a reason, if anything, for doubting it.

In a similar way, sociobiologists have argued for a particular view of ethics on the basis of Darwin's theory of evolution. Human survival proves the validity of those ideas/ beliefs which we have an innate tendency to form. However, ethics if anything gives the best case against this kind of evolutionary view: the fact that we have evolved certain dispositions does not make them ethically right (cf. Moore's 'naturalistic fallacy').

You put your finger on the essential point: Locke's strongest argument is the argument from lack of universal consent. However, what is more interesting is the way Locke deals with potential objections to the argument. The claims of dispositional nativism are pushed back and back until the claim becomes trivial.

Regarding this point, I was puzzled by your statement, 'Leibniz adds that nothing is inborn in the understanding except the understanding itself. Contrary to Leibniz, Locke's argument ignores the question 'how understanding is possible', 'what understanding is', or 'how truths can be regarded as 'self-evident' to the human mind, which are considered important questions for dispositional innatists.' -- Locke accepts that understanding is a capacity which all human beings are born with. To make the case for anything deserving the tag 'innatist' there has to be a stronger claim, and it is not clear to me from what you say what the stronger claim is.

The problem for the contemporary interpreter is that the dispositional innatist's claims don't seem trivial. Given the perception and the capacity to reason, human beings can discover through ratiocination those principles which are necessarily true. To say that my knowledge that 123+456=579 is 'dispositionally innate' on the grounds that I am able to verify its truth through reasoning says no more than I have the capacity for reasoning, which Locke of accepts. However, Chomsky demonstrates the gap in this argument: the possibility that Locke overlooked. The rules of deep grammar are not 'necessary truths' discovered by reasoning. They are rules which govern the production of speech. And, evidently, there is at least the potential here to discover that knowledge of these rules cannot be accounted for inductively. So it would appear that they must be in us, in the 'hard wiring' of the brain.

If dispositional innatism isn't trivial, is there in fact dispositionally innate knowledge? Was Locke wrong? One could say that Locke succeeds in laying out the broad criteria that an innatist theory must meet in order to be non-trivial. However, he doesn't resolve the issue whether or not there is (dispositionally) innate knowledge.

All the best,


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Free will, determinism and the justification for punishment

To: Dian C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will, determinism and the justification for punishment
Date: 17th December 2009 15:00

Dear Dian,

Thank you for your email of 9 December, with your first essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'In light of the critique of free will can blame and punishment ever be rationally justified? Consider hard cases, such as brainwashing, crimes of passion, the influence of drugs, medical or psychological conditions etc.'

Your answer, which gives prominence to Locke's view of liberty as 'the power of doing, or forbearing to do according as the mind shall choose or direct', lays out the ground rules or criteria by means of which we should approach the 'hard cases'. You have done this clearly and articulately, and I have no substantial criticisms to make of what you say.

However, I think that there is still more that can be extracted from this question.

The American criminal justice system, like the British, recognizes that there can be 'extenuating circumstances'. Most persons, who have not studied philosophy, understand well enough what kind of thing an extenuating circumstance might be. If a person was not in their right mind, or overcome by overwhelming passion, or mentally subnormal, or under the influence of drugs, or unwillingly bullied into doing what they did (or etc.) then they do not deserve the same punishment who someone who was not in this state would deserve.

What is the philosophical principle behind this? That is the first question that we need to ask. What kind of test do we apply in these cases?

One way to approach this is through consideration of the effect that knowledge that the action is wrong is capable of exercising over the mind of the agent. (This obviously doesn't cover the case where the agent genuinely doesn't 'know' that they have broken the law or done wrong, but we can deal with that issue separately.)

As you state, 'The system takes into consideration, as much as possible, the offender's own rationality.' Punishment and blame are measured not just in relation to the crime itself, but also taking into consideration the agent's state of mind, what they intended to do and the degree of deliberation beforehand.

(Interestingly, the law is not only interested in the agent's state of mind but also in what actually resulted. The only difference between murder and attempted murder is in the consequence of the agent's action for the intended victim. The term sometimes used for this is 'moral luck'. A drink-drive motorist who kills a pedestrian and is sent to jail was 'unlucky'. Anyone who drinks and drives is potentially in the same position, but if no-one is hurt the punishment is less.)

Blame and punishment presuppose freedom to act. As the hard cases show, this is not an all-or-nothing matter: there can be degrees of freedom, degrees of accountability.

This leads on to the next philosophical question: what is punishment for? There are strongly opposed theories of punishment: on the utilitarian or consequentialist view, punishment can only be justified either as a deterrent, or as a means of changing or 'rehabilitating' the behaviour of the offender. On the 'retributivist' view, punishment is justified because it is what the offender deserves. These differing views have the potential to lead to different judgements about hard cases.

However, there is a deeper question still. And this is what the essay question was ultimately searching for: we are prepared to consider things that have an effect on 'the offender's own rationality'. What is it to be rational? Consider the mind of a suicide bomber. Take someone apparently intelligent, not a victim of brainwashing or under the influence of drugs, whose belief system has evolved into a world view where it is perfectly rational and justified to murder hundreds of innocent people. The law does not consider this to be an 'extenuating circumstance'. Why isn't this seen as a case of insanity?

If we are tempted to waver at this point, it seems that we are on the edge of a slippery slope. The hardened criminal who sees bank robbery as a perfectly rational way to make a living, has a belief system, a 'world view' which has somehow become fatally skewed from our perspective.

Here is where the utilitarian/ consequentialist view of punishment sharply deviates from the retributivist view. The utilitarian would say that in meting out punishment we are merely seeking to produce the 'best' consequences. The principle behind every case is the same. In effect, this views criminals and terrorists merely as 'suitable cases for treatment'. If a cure cannot be effected, and the danger is considered to be sufficiently high, then the only recourse is to keep the offender locked up for the safety of society.

On the retributivist view, by contrast, serious crimes merit equally serious punishment. There will still be 'cases for treatment', where a court is prepared to accept a plea of insanity. However, for the rest -- and allowing for greater or lesser extenuating circumstances -- the punishment must 'fit the crime'. The harm that the criminal has done to his/ her victim and to society must be 'paid back'.

All the best,


Knowledge, belief, rationality and truth

To: Brent S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Knowledge, belief, rationality and truth
Date: 16th December 2009 12:05

Dear Brent,

Thank you for your email of 8 December, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, entitled, 'A brief summary of the nature of knowledge'.

The task you have set yourself -- summarising what you have learned about the issues around belief, truth, rationality and knowledge -- is very modest. Even so, there are errors/ unclarities in what you have said.

What is true belief? You say, 'In epistemology the notion of TB is simply recognized as any cognitive content an agent may hold of which it is believed by that agent to be true.' But earlier, you said, 'It is not necessary for a belief to be true. One can believe that the moon is made from cheese, but this doesn't make it true.'

Let's say Tim believes that the moon is made of cheese. Tim believes that his belief is true. But the belief is not true. Tim is wrong. But suppose Tim says, 'I believe that the moon is made of cheese. Of course, it is not true that the moon is made of cheese, but I believe it anyway.' Does that make sense?

In what sense is it axiomatic that to believe that P is to believe that P is true? I can make myself cry when the circumstances are not appropriate. Why can't I make myself believe that P when the circumstances are not appropriate (because it is not true that P)?

You say, 'The significance of JTB being of more value than mere TB, is that we are in a better position to rule out instances of luck'. Is that the only reason? Plato gives a different explanation in Theaetetus: beliefs which lack 'an account' have a tendency to 'run away'. In other words, the problem Plato seems to be talking about is subjective, relating to the mind of the knower, rather than objective, i.e. concerning the degree of reliance that anyone might place on the belief in question. In other words, it is good to have 'an account' because you are less likely to change your mind later (=the belief 'running away'). Plato is talking about the sense of certainty rather than the probability of truth.

You mention Gettier, but there is nothing about responses to Gettier, so I have nothing to say about this.

You also look at epistemic rationality, which doesn't strictly come under the heading of nature or definition of knowledge. You are actually the second student recently to raise the 'problem' of trivial beliefs. I assume you were both reading the same epistemology text. I am at a loss to understand how this could even look like a problem, as you have posed it.

Of course we want to ensure that as many of our beliefs as possible are true rather than false. But it would be absurd to equate this with 'having as many true beliefs as possible'. What is rationality? There are competing definitions. The question is especially problematic when we consider moral rationality by contrast with prudential rationality. But let's stick with prudential rationality. It is prudentially rational to apply a cost-benefit analysis to proposed courses of action. Included in this analysis, of course, are the potential costs and benefits of prolonging the amount of time you give for deliberation or shortening it. Some situations demand immediate action. Among the courses of action that one may apply a cost-benefit to, are investigating the world or looking for justification for our beliefs.

True beliefs are useful. Why? Why is it useful for me to know that Sirius is approximately four light years away? Well, one day I might be lucky and the question will come up on University Challenge (say, I keep a score of the number of questions I am able to answer each week). Or, one day, I may need to leave Earth and travel to the nearest star, and it would be useful to know how much rocket fuel to put in my space ship.

Well, no. A cost-benefit analysis says that we ought to gain as many true beliefs as possible for the purposes of possible action. If I don't want to spend too much time waiting at a bus stop in the cold wind and rain, it's a good idea to know when my bus is due to come. On the other hand, it would be potentially useful to know the entire bus timetable, but the cost in terms of effort of memorisation would outweigh the benefit.

My other student also explained 'deontic' rationality. But he came up with the objection that accepted norms of justification which are internalised by the subject might not be valid/ justified from the point of view of a more knowledgeable observer, which seemed plausible to me.

Is knowledge valuable? We've established that true belief is valuable (for the purposes of action). We've also established that if you have 'an account', then you are likely to be more confident in your belief (Plato) and that, as a rule, justified beliefs have a greater probability of being true than unjustified beliefs. But we haven't said yet what knowledge IS. That was the point of responding to Gettier.

It makes sense to say, 'Is knowledge valuable?' or 'Why is knowledge valuable?' if you have a given definition of knowledge (=response to Gettier). Then you can ask, of the definition in question (call it K) 'Is K valuable?' or 'Why is K valuable?'. In fact, one can go a step further and say that it is a condition on the adequacy of a definition of knowledge that it has the consequence that knowledge is valuable. (This bears a very superficial similarity to Tarski's convention T: It is a condition on the adequacy of a definition of truth that it has the consequence that 'P' is T if and only if P for every sentence P of the language.)

I would really like you to do more. I would like you to pick exam questions rather than write on a general topic as you have done here. You will learn more about how to write a good essay (i.e. one that will score good marks in an exam) and also give me more material to critique (rather than leave me to spin a lot out of relatively little as I've done here).

Also, I would like you to aim for a word count of 2000-2500 words. The aim of that is to make you 'dig deeper'.

All the best,


G.E. Moore's argument against hedonism

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: G.E. Moore's argument against hedonism
Date: 15th December 2009 14:30

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 7 December, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Critically assess Moore's argument that if good were identical to pleasure, the claim that pleasure is good would be no more informative then the claim that pleasure is pleasure.'

There's is a lot of good stuff here, so I would give this a mark in the upper 60's, say, 67.

On the face of it, Moore is making a preposterous claim, which (as you observe) would render any attempt at philosophical analysis or explication futile.

Let's say I'm a Humean, and I hold the theory that causation is constant conjunction. Then applying Moore's argument, all I am really saying is that constant conjunction is constant conjunction!

Although I think you are right to consider this in a Fregean-Kripkean perspective, as question about different routes to reference, it is worth asking (as this is a moral philosophy essay not an essay in logic) what a hedonist might mean by the claim that the good 'is' pleasure.

One attraction of this view is that you can measure degrees pleasure: it is an objective, natural feature of the world. If the good is pleasure, then you can measure the amount of good by measuring the amount of pleasure.

Moore is surely correct in identifying a 'fallacy' here. The fallacious step concerns the relation between criteria and consequences. The criteria for pleasure are given naturalistically. The consequences, however, involve what human beings ought or ought not to do. To raise the question, in Moore's terms, 'But is pleasure good?' or, 'But is this particular pleasure good?' is to raise a legitimate question about what we ought to do, given certain facts.

However, in response to this why can't the hedonist say, 'Yes, I own up, I am making a substantial claim. I assert that we ought to choose the action which gives rise to the greatest surplus of pleasure over pain, and I assert this on no other evidence than that pleasure is something everyone (or almost everyone) wants and pain is something everyone (or almost everyone) hates.'

The problem with this, in Moore's view, would be that it commits the naturalistic fallacy all over again. The fact that nearly everyone wants pleasure is just a fact. We can still intelligibly raise the question whether this is a good thing, that is to say, whether we ought to want pleasure.

That leaves the hedonist in the position of having to say that the truth of hedonism -- that the good IS pleasure -- is not based on 'empirical evidence', that is to say the observation or measurement of facts about the world. It is simply an ethical axiom which any reasonable person must accept. It is a consequence of this axiom, that the good can be measured empirically.

At this point we can look again at Moore's claim that to say this is to say no more than that 'pleasure is pleasure'. Surely that is wrong. The hedonist is making a very substantial claim. In Moorean terms, the hedonist 'intuits' the good in pleasure and nothing but pleasure, while Moore intuits the good differently. A stand off.

However, having got to this point, I would say that there is another, more subtle, aspect to Moore's objection. Philosophers are less willing to talk nowadays of 'philosophical analysis'. The prefer to talk about 'proposing theories'. There is greater recognition that many fundamental concepts are 'sui generis', not in the sense that nothing informative can be said about them, but rather in the sense that they are irreducible to other concepts. (Moore was fond of quoting Bishop Butler's remark that 'Everything is what it is, and not another thing.')

There may be all sorts of opportunities for 'regimentation' (in a Quinian sense) of our ordinary language. It seems quite plausible, for example, that knowledge can be defined in terms of conditions relating to belief: knowledge IS a species of belief, belief which meets further conditions. On the other hand, there seems little chance of analysing the concept of possibility, or existence, or truth into other concepts. That doesn't prevent the philosopher from putting forward theories of possibility, existence or truth.

The same applies to the moral notions of 'good' and 'ought'. Even if it seems unlikely that a reductive analysis could ever be applied to the concept of 'good', that still leaves the moral philosopher with plenty to say about 'good', in the form of moral theories which connect together different moral concepts in an illuminating way.

All the best,


Ontological status of events

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ontological status of events
Date: 15th December 2009 13:31

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 7 December, with your essay for the University of London Metaphysics module, in response to the question, ''A stone is a particular, but a stone's falling is not.' Discuss.'

I am impressed by the research that you have done for this essay. One worry, which I may have expressed before, is that it might prove difficult to reproduce all this in an examination. However, I have another concern, which is that an examiner may feel that you haven't really tackled the question head-on.

If I was answering this question, I would start off explaining what it is for something to be a 'particular'. Is a particular anything you can refer to with a proper name or descriptive phrase? Or (given your example of 'the average Australian') do we first need to distinguish cases of 'genuine' reference from those which are to be analysed in such a way as to remove the implication that the item in question is a 'particular?' (in other words, distinguish apparent and real logical form).

Is a particular necessarily linked to spatio-temporal location? Are particulars located? That doesn't seem to be necessarily true: consider Frege's claim that numbers are 'objects' -- i.e. abstract particulars. Or maybe this should be put to one side for the purposes of this question: i.e. define 'particular' as 'concrete particular'.

A concrete particular is an 'entity with an identity': as a matter of logic, we must have some conception of what it is to refer to the same particular on different occasions. Particulars can be distinguished by spatial and/ or temporal location.

You consider three challenges to the view that events are particulars: the recurrence challenge, the grounding challenge and the individuation challenge. This is a good way to start. However, much of your essay is concerned with specific positive responses to the third challenge. As a consequence, all the theories you give appear to be accounts of events as different kinds of particular. What would a theory which entirely rejected the notion that events are particulars look like?

Why isn't it indeed ontologically more 'parsimonious' to reject particularhood for events? Suppose that the world is 'all that is the case', and what is the case is objects (let's say, Strawson's individuals) having different properties at different times. Causal statements are to be analysed as concerning propositions. 'That Jeeves ironed the newspaper with a red hot iron at 8.30 brought it about that the newspaper was burned to a cinder at 8.35.'

Davidson considers and rejects this kind of analysis: it would surely be relevant to the essay question to say why.

What you focus on instead is the different ontological status of spatio-temporal particulars and events, both conceived of particulars, and here I am fully in agreement that 'ontological conceptualism... may be more suitable for events' than for material objects.

The identification of events clearly depends on our explanatory interests in a way that the identification of spatio-temporal objects does not. In addition, events are theory dependent in a way that ordinary spatio-temporal objects are not. These are of course different points: if the theory is refuted then the event and its 'causal relations' don't exist and never did. (That is also true of theoretical entities such as quarks.) On the other hand, our explanatory interests can lead us to identify all sorts of events which (assuming that we do not go so far as to make false claims, i.e. put forward false theories) can nevertheless seem like more or less arbitrary cuts in the flow of experience.

If we ARE going to go the ontological conceptualist route, then Davidson's account looks to me the most satisfactory. Causal relations are not objective parts of the fabric of space-time but merely the distillate of our explanatory schemas, whatever these may be -- historical, physical, even spiritual. The event of LW 'being saved' was caused by LW's reading of Tolstoy's book 'My Religion'.

You consider a potential objection to Davidson's account, about which comes first, the causal relation or the events. In response, you offer two strategies: 'Suppose that entities other than events could be causes or effects' (i.e. human agents) and 'suppose the universe began with a set number of uncaused events'. The first strategy can be modified, however, in recognizing that it is because of our interests as agents that we have a notion of a 'cause', through our capacity to intervene in the course of nature. Any point in the 'flow' where you can, as it were, throw -- or imagine throwing -- a spanner in, is a 'cause'.

There is another consideration which you haven't mentioned, which is that the identification of causes and events is holistic. We apply a schema which simultaneously determines a way of identifying events and causes, based on some theory. If causes and events were thought of as being 'out there' in the same manner as spatio-temporal objects, this would be problematic. But as we are merely working with a conceptual/ explanatory framework whose suitability is ultimately determined by pragmatic criteria, there is no worry on that score.

All the best,


Friday, April 19, 2013

Rationality and mechanisms of belief formation

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rationality and mechanisms of belief formation
Date: 8th December 2009 12:58

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 30 November, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'What if any connection is there between the rationality of a belief and the reliability of the mechanisms or processes responsible for forming the belief?'

You commented that you found this topic 'confusing'. I can see here that you have been doing plenty of reading around the topic of epistemic rationality (by the way, I would appreciate references at the end of your essay!) but were uncertain exactly which parts of the discussion were relevant to the question. The result is that you go into a number of issues that aren't directly relevant: for example, the question whether, if the aim of epistemic rationality is the formation of true beliefs, whether it is more rational to have more beliefs regardless of their content or importance. That would be relevant to a question along the lines of, 'What are the criteria for epistemic rationality?' or, 'How would you define epistemic rationality?'

What the question asks for is an account of the connection between two notions: rationality of belief, and reliability of belief-forming mechanisms. A lot of what you say is relevant to this question, but this is made less obvious by the confusing structure of your essay.

It is always a good idea, when considering a question about 'connections', to look for plausible claims about necessity and sufficiency. Later, one can complicate this picture by considering, as you go on to do, different notions of 'rationality' such as 'deontic' rationality.

If I go about forming my beliefs in a rational way, is that sufficient to guarantee that my methods of investigation will lead reliably to truth? What assumptions are built in to the idea that thinking rationally is a good way to get to the truth?

Descartes considers this problem in Mediations. You are familiar with the use of the evil demon scenario to cast doubt on the existence of an external world. But there is also an equally important application to the reliability of methods of investigation. Imagine an evil demon who has created a world where coin tossing (your example) is a better way of discovering the truth than evaluating evidence. What this shows is that there seems to be an assumption that the world itself is 'rational', that things happen in a rational, predictable, orderly way, rather than randomly or by magic.

Pursuing this further would take us off-topic, into the justification of induction. But you can see how it is a substantial question why it is 'better', for someone seeking truth, to go about truth seeking in a 'rational' way.

Is rationality of belief formation necessary for the reliable formation of true beliefs? You give the example of a child forming the belief, 'There are horses in that field'. (Actually, you get this wrong: If there are no horses in the field but only advertisement hoardings that look like horses from a distance then the child's belief is false, and so can't be 'knowledge'. I guess what you meant to do was construct a Gettier-type example. But why?) You also give the example of seeing a dog in the garden and immediately forming the belief, 'There is a dog in the garden.'

This raises two issues: The first issue concerns the beliefs of young children, which have not been formed by rational deliberation because the child is incapable of anything but the most rudimentary rational deliberation. If I hold up a red rattle to a three year old and ask, 'What colour is it?' and the child says, 'red', or ask, 'What is it?' and the child says, 'rattle', is that knowledge? What is the minimal requirement? (A computer image recognition program capable of identifying red objects or rattles doesn't have 'knowledge'.)

A second issue concerns all the ways in which we form beliefs (like the one about the dog) which don't explicitly involve rational deliberation. What is the connection with rationality? Arguably, our *unreflective* beliefs are no less rational for not being formed as the result of reflection, because we are capable of bringing rational considerations to bear at any time. E.g. what I saw in the garden can't be a horse (better example than a dog) because there is no way a horse could have got into the garden. So that's a good 'reason' for looking again, more closely.

This still leaves the issue that you address, concerning 'deontic' rationality, where one follows the norms (right or wrong) accepted in your society, and notions of rationality according to which it is (in some sense, to be explored) a priori true that processes of rational belief formation reliably lead to truth, of which there are both 'internalist' and 'externalist' varieties.

All the best,


Disjunctive analysis of perception

To: Stephen B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Disjunctive analysis of perception
Date: 2nd December 2009 14:01

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 25 November, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology paper, in response to the question, 'Is there a compelling argument to hold that a veridical perception and a perfectly matching hallucination have an experiential element in common?'

You asked me whether you 'need to understand' intentional theories of perception. This is a rather difficult question for me to answer. One point of view would be that it is necessary to make a 'cost-benefit analysis' of your exam preparation. If it requires too much effort to grasp a particular theory or topic then a better use of your time would be to avoid it. However, it's your call.

In your essay, you defend a version of 'disjunctivism' according to which a veridical perception and a perfectly matching hallucination do not have an experiential element in common.

In order to do this you need to make the case that the 'compelling argument' for a common experiential element, the so-called argument for illusion, is invalid. What this requires in practice is an account of veridical and non-veridical experiential beliefs which supplies a sufficiently plausible explanation for the fact that we can be deceived by a hallucination.

I get your point about Austin and your example of not being aware of the sign, 'Cafe de la Paix' even though it is in your visual field. Daniel Dennett uses a similar argument to shake one free of the idea that imagining is contemplating a mental image. If I tell you to imagine a tiger, and you do just that, it doesn't follow that you can count the number of stripes on 'your' tiger. The imagined tiger doesn't have a specific number of stripes unless you deliberately set out to imagine it having that number of stripes.

According to this account, a hallucination, like a mental image, has content which can be expressed propositionally but lacks something which we find in genuine cases of perception, namely, the possibility of attending to features of the presented scene which one had previously not attended to.

Although you consider this argument in order to put Austin's objection to the idea of 'perfectly matching hallucinations' on one side, i.e. grant the proponent of the argument from illusion the premiss that there can be perfectly matching hallucinations, I think more can be made of the Dennett/ Austin point as a basis for the disjunctive view.

As you go on to argue, what is common to veridical perception and hallucination is a propositional content. For example, 'I perceive that there is a pink elephant in the room,' vs. 'I seem to perceive that there is a pink elephant in the room but there is no pink elephant in the room.' The 'disjunctive' aspect comes in where we explain the source of the content, 'There is a pink elephant in the room'. In perception, the source is an experience, whereas in the case of hallucination, there is no experience even if the speaker 'believes' that there is.

You mentioned Ryle's argument about counterfeit coinage. This is actually intended as a *refutation* of the argument, 'If there are illusory perceptions then there must be veridical perceptions' (the so-called 'argument from polar opposites'). Ryle argues that, for example, it is perfectly possible that all the coins in circulation are counterfeit (e.g. because 'bad money drives out the good'). It is true that in order to *conceive* of a 'counterfeit' coin we need to grasp the distinction between a case of a 'genuine' coin and a case of a 'counterfeit' coin. But it does not follow from this that there must exist, at a given time, examples of genuine coins. Similarly, in order to conceive of an 'illusory' perception, I must grasp what it would be for a perception to be veridical. But it does not logically follow from this that there are any veridical perceptions.

Later, you make the point that it is not necessary to take the 'externalist view of reliabilism' in order to give a direct realist account of perception. What I take you to be saying is that we can be direct realists, offering a disjunctive analysis of perception and hallucination, without begging the question on the topic of scepticism with respect to an external world. 'The individual may be mistaken, or could perhaps never be certain that any particular perception is veridical.' For example, in the Matrix scenario, no objects are 'perceived' because my external senses are inert. Yet it remains true that an account of my false perceptual beliefs does not require that I 'experience' the things I seem to perceive in the same sense in which someone who is not in the Matrix enjoys 'experiences'.

Regarding your final point, Leibniz' 'Identity of Indiscernibles' is not an epistemological principle but a metaphysical principle. The fact that a particular individual cannot discern a difference between A and B does not entail that there is no difference between A and B. According to Leibniz, if A and B have the same properties (whether we are able to determine this or not) then A=B. I get the point, however, that the basic fallacy of the argument from illusion is, in a sense, an argument from ignorance. 'I am not aware of a difference between the two cases, therefore there is no difference.'

All the best,


Varieties of social and political opposition

To: Corinne M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Varieties of social and political opposition
Date: 1st December 2009 13:27

Dear Corinne,

Thank you for your email of 23 November, with the second draft of your first essay in your projected series of four essays entitled, 'A Philosophical Consideration of the Practices of Opposition' for the Associate Award, together with the first draft of your second essay.

The second essay, with the key example of the legal action against Jehovah's Witnesses in Quebec helps me to see a little better -- with the benefit of hindsight -- what exactly you are trying to do in analysing the concept of 'opposition' as a form of conflict or struggle between parties who are by definition 'unequal'.

However, I am still stuck on the question of basic principles: what I termed the 'real essence' of the concept of opposition, if it has one.

The 'honourable member of the Opposition' according to the Westminster model of democracy is not an example of opposition because within the House of Parliament, all members meet as equals, bound only by the rules which make debate possible (e.g. the list of banned insult words). Even though the party with the majority has almost a guarantee of victory, we can still describe what goes on as 'debate' rather than 'oppositional activity' in your sense.

Jehovah's Witnesses are annoying, but only people convinced that the 'defence of the faith' overrides considerations of liberty and free speech would consider that it was acceptable to use the weight of the law to suppress their activities. Point made. But still the question arises in exactly what sense this is 'opposition'.

Any relatively small religious group whose moral views run counter to accepted mores and customs of a given society rightfully regards its activity as oppositional, even if the activities of that group are not suppressed in any way, and the group are given full legal rights to put their view across. The inequality arises from the fact that the majority simply don't feel threatened or challenged but complacent.

On the other hand, take the case of Scientology, an organization which has become very powerful, with celebrity converts, a team of high powered lawyers to pursue litigation against anyone who publically criticizes their activities. Although the Church of Scientology seeks converts -- indeed, it's business model requires a continual influx of new recruits -- it does not promote 'opposition', on the contrary, they want to be accepted, seen as responsible citizens. An example is their 'anti-drug' program, which has grown despite concern about their motives and methods.

In this example, all the oppositional activity comes from those who want to restrict the activities of Scientologists, not from the Scientologists themselves.

It seems to me that there are different aspects which need to be clearly distinguished: one is the question of free speech and the possibility of criticizing accepted beliefs or mores, or the ruling political order. The other is difference as such, whether this involves 'abnormal' moral views or behaviours, or divergent sexual practices, or religious beliefs which go against the Judeo-Christian model, such as Wicker, Satanism etc.

We feel challenged, not only by those who set out to challenge us, but also by those who behave in a way which challenges our assumptions about what is a good way to behave.

Mill has this covered in his essay 'On Liberty'. So the question is, in what way we need to go beyond Mill in recognizing a specific phenomenon -- 'oppositional activity' -- which his Liberty Principle does not cover. That's what I am still looking for.

Another way of looking at it is this: What is 'playing fair' in this context? The authorities in Quebec were not playing fair in their battle against the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses, but they saw this as justified by a greater good, defence of the faith. Mill is all for fair play. But we know that there is a way of using the demand for fair play as a weapon against minorities, as in opposition to the setting up of faith schools where the various possibilities for belief are not presented by the teacher in an even-handed fashion as Mill would demand.

This leads to the paradox that opposition which is allowed, tolerated, or even promoted for the greater health of society is not opposition. It is just part of the political/ social process, a way in which the social/ political organism adapts in order to survive. What we are really looking for is the threat which cannot allowed to stand, which must be suppressed for the greater good.

The idea that there could be some kind of 'perfect' society which was above or beyond any intolerable threat is a mirage. Today, in the UK, the rise of the British National Party is seen by many as such a threat. The standard argument is that the BNP, if given power, would not allow the freedoms which they now exploit. There are limits to how far a tolerant society can tolerate intolerance.

I hope that these thoughts are helpful. I haven't said a lot about your two essays. There are some fruitful lines of thought here, but I don't yet see a line of argument, or anything that looks like a philosophical analysis of the notion which you are pursuing. But there is still plenty of time for that.

All the best,


Metaphysics of identity and constitution

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Metaphysics of identity and constitution
Date: 26th November 2009 12:48

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 20 November, with your essay for the University of London Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Is an object identical with the parts that compose it?'

As someone who hovers between nihilism and deflationism (according to your five-fold classification) I need a lot of convincing that there is a deep question at issue here (a 'metaphysical' question) and that we can't just 'say what we like'.

You have done a good job of motivating and defending the standard account according to which a statue and the lump of clay that composes it are two distinct entities, even if in the actual world their histories coincide. It suffices to distinguish them that the modal properties associated with the concepts 'statue' and 'lump of clay' differ.

This is actually (although you don't mention him) the response given by David Wiggins in his monograph 'Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity', later expanded as 'Sameness and Substance' (both Blackwell). What the account which you have adapted from Einheuser adds is an assumption which I suspect Wiggins would not fully support: 'that the world... lacks mind-independent ontological structure'.

In putting forward and defending a metaphysical theory, or a solution to a problem, one has to beware of giving 'hostages to fortune'. The idea is to construct your theory or solution with as few assumptions as possible. As you gloss Einheuser's idea, 'a Martian may well carve its world into 'tablestatues' and 'inclays''. How far is this carving allowed to go?

According to Kolakowski, 'In abstract, nothing prevents us from dissecting surrounding material into fragments constructed in a manner completely different from what we are used to. Thus, speaking more simply we could build a world where there would be no such objects as 'horse,' 'leaf,' 'star,' and others allegedly devised by nature. Instead, there might be, for example, such objects as 'half a horse and a piece of river,' 'my ear and the moon,' and other similar products of a surrealist imagination' ('Karl Marx and the Classical Definition of Truth' in 'Toward a Marxist Humanism').

(I chose this quote for the Follydiddledah web site: see http://www.follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_4.html.)

Of course, it all depends on exactly what you mean by 'mind independent'. There wouldn't be 'statues' if human beings didn't have any sense of aesthetic appreciation or any interest -- e.g. aesthetic or religious -- in making them. Manufactured objects whose persistence criteria are determined primarily by their function presuppose creatures who have an interest in exploiting that function. But then again, the world itself has created us, and a vast range of natural kinds which human beings discover, or seek to discover, rather than make. (But then again, would these kinds exist if human beings lacked any scientific curiosity? What's the difference between art and science in that respect?)

I found one slip, where you mention the 'relative identity' thesis defended by Geach in his 'Identity' article (and also in his book 'Reference and Generality'). According to the relative identity thesis Goliath is the same lump of clay as Lumpl but is NOT the same statue as Lumpl. Both Wiggins and Geach agree that 'it makes no sense to ask whether Goliath is the same as Lumpl simpliciter' but Wiggins rejects Geach's view on the grounds that it contradicts Leibniz Law. However, there is a reply available to Geach along Quinian lines: what we term 'objects' are the end result of distinguishing everything that we have the concepts to distinguish. So instead of 'pluralism' you effectively get 'alternative monisms' depending on which way you decide to make the cut on a particular occasion. Hence (I suppose) your 'A relative identity theorist relativizes Leibniz's Law'. (The 'dispute' admittedly begins to look a bit trivial.)

Which brings us back to the original challenge: why is this a deep problem? When you have delved into the complex contributions of 'human interests' and 'the world', admittedly an exercise which is not done in a day, you have all 'the facts'. How you go about describing them is merely a verbal question.

This is the bit I don't 'get', and where your essay, as fine as it is, doesn't really help me. The 'well-known' philosophical questions which you list seem barely gripping. OK, I can see something of interest in the bicycle example, because here you do have a problem of identifying 'function'. A disassembled bicycle is not a bicycle because it doesn't perform the function of a bicycle. On the other hand, if I design a super-collapsible bicycle that can be fitted into a briefcase and assembled in a minute, then the pieces of metal and plastic in my briefcase do have the 'function of a bicycle', in exactly the same sense as a folding knife has the function of a knife whether folded or unfolded (you allude to this with your reference to 'operating principles' and 'normal configurations').

What would spark my interest is a real paradox -- there are plenty of those in philosophy -- why can't we find one here? Doesn't that say something about the whole issue of identity and material constitution?

All the best,


Monday, April 15, 2013

Mind-body problem and the definition of identity

To: Joe H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mind-body problem and the definition of identity
Date: 25th November 2009 12:54

Dear Joe,

Thank you for your email of 18 November, with your second essay for Pathways Philosophy of Mind, in response to the question, 'What is Identity? What is the relevance of a definition of 'identity' to the problem of the relation between mind and body?'

I understand your frustration with the 800 word limit. This was actually created as a liberating device, to enable students who would otherwise have difficulty 'composing an essay' to set themselves an achievable target. However, I also happen to believe that 800 words is -- or can be, when effectively deployed -- a beautiful format. It is no accident that the target length for my replies is the same 800 words.

You have tried to pack in as much as possible, but you could have helped yourself by focusing more closely on the question itself. We are not concerned with evaluating particular mind-body theories but rather with laying out the ground rules for the debate over the question of identity.

What is identity? I know that Leibniz Law is often trotted out as 'the' definition of identity, but it has an inherent problem. The biconditional x=y <-> (F)(Fx <-> Fy) splits into two principles, the Identity of Indiscernibles (reading right to left) and the weaker reading of Leibniz Law (reading left to right). On the weaker reading, if x=y then all and only properties of x are properties of y. Whereas the Identity of Indiscernibles is only remotely plausible if we include spatial location as a 'property', which effectively begs the question.

What does this mean for mind-body identity theories? We can only use the weaker version of Leibniz Law, which merely gives the consequences of an identity statement. However, consider Kolakowski's statement about my ear and the moon (you can find the quote at Follydiddledah http://www.follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_4.html together with a nice illustration).

I claim that my ear IS identical with the moon. 'How come,' you say. 'What I mean is that in 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on my-ear-and-the-moon, the annoying hairs which grow on my-ear-and-the-moon need trimming regularly, and so on.'

This is really no different from what Armstrong and Smart are doing, metaphysically speaking. Two things are always two things, however hard one tries to push them together. Using the magic word 'identity' gets you nowhere.

So the next question is, What more is needed to explain identity, if Leibniz Law (on the weaker reading) won't suffice? This is where one gets to talk about the nature of particulars, the role of identity over time, and the difference between existing particulars and events.

We also get to look at so-called 'property identity': are we still talking about identity here? Properties can be co-extensional, determining the same set, or (in some sense) necessarily co-extensional. For Armstrong and Smart, the attraction of type identity (property identity) is that it entails token identity. If earache IS 'stimulation of c-fibres' then THIS earache is an actual, physical process going in in my brain, nothing more.

I've heard it said that you can have a kind of property identity, in a weaker sense which does not imply token identity of either particulars or events. So if you are keen on preserving intuitions about qualia, you can keep these and also sound respectably 'materialist' in your talk of mind. This looks like a cop-out to me.

So we are back to the question, what IS identity? If Leibniz Law only gives the consequences of identity then we need to focus on how particulars are picked out and identified, at a time or over time. And this is where the whole issue of 'qualia' or 'private objects' arises because if you have gone so far to 'pick out' a quale or a private object then (as I would argue) it is too late to make claims about identity.

Some would object to this as inserting an unacceptable epistemological bias into logic. But logic has to be applied to the world otherwise it is toothless. (For more on this topic see David Wiggins 'Sameness and Substance' Blackwell.)

Kripke is central because he identifies the key aspect of the notion of qualia which is relevant to the mind-body question: the idea that my knowledge of my quale is 'de re' rather than 'de dicto'. It is direct, unmediated by a description; in any possible world it could not be anything but what it is.

On the general topic of types and tokens in relation to the mind-body problem, I would advocate abandoning the confusing terminology of 'types' and 'tokens' and concentrate on the question of identity.

Consider the world of abstract objects. Is the five, as Frege believed, an entity? Does 5 exist as an abstract object? That's a meaningful question. It is clear what the difference is between regarding 5 as a second-order property defined in predicate calculus, and regarding 5 as existing in its own right as an entity with an identity. Talk of 'tokens' and 'types' has a role only in relation to mathematical symbolism -- names for numbers -- not for numbers in themselves.

All the best,


Hume's argument against the self/ soul

To: Annabelle C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's argument against the self/ soul
Date: 24th November 2009 12:52

Dear Annabelle,

Thank you for your email of 17 November, with your first essay for the Pathways Introduction to Philosophy program, 'Possible World Machine', in response to the question, 'The philosopher Hume remarked that when he looked into himself, he never succeeded in catching sight of his 'self', but only of particular thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Is that a valid argument against the idea of a soul?'

I gather from your essay that you believe in the existence of a non-material soul. As with many issues and questions that you will come up against in philosophy, the question whether a given argument for or against X is valid can be considered independently of whether you happen to believe in the existence, or non-existence of X, regardless of what X may be.

For example, an atheist and a theist can debate the question whether a particular argument for the existence of God, or a particular argument for the non-existence of God is valid. It is perfectly possible for the atheist to conclude that the argument for the non-existence of God is invalid, or for the theist to conclude that the argument for the existence of God is invalid.

I hope you're with me so far. Because this is about what it means to do philosophy, or what is involved in investigating a philosophical question.

Philosophers are interested in arguments, in the same way that doctors are interested in anatomy and biology. You can still cure people, but if you don't understand about human anatomy or biology then any medical cure you come up with is a lucky guess.

In a similar way, if your belief (in, say, free will, or the soul, or whatever) is just a belief, then it might be true or it might not. If it is true, then lucky you. However, what arguments enable you to do is discover the truth, sort out what would count as being in favour of the truth or falsity of a given belief.

You actually come up with a valid objection to Hume in the first line of your essay. This is really what the whole essay should have been about. Instead, you give various reasons for believing in the soul which have nothing to do with the argument which Hume gave.

Hume isn't just reporting on his own experience. He is issuing a challenge to anyone who believes in the existence of a soul: and first and foremost to Descartes, who in his Meditations gives the classic philosophical argument in favour of the existence of a non-material soul.

It was Descartes who claimed to be aware of his 'I' as a 'thinking, non-extended substance'. Was he reporting his experience, as he claims, or merely giving a theory to account for his experience? If he was just giving a theory, then the existence of the soul does not have the same 'indubitability' as the existence of my present feelings and experiences.

That's what Hume claims. If you are just stating what you know, based on your experience, then a 'self' or 'soul' is not given in experience. It's a theory or something you believe in order to explain or account for your experience.

Your objection -- which in fact was developed much further by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, in possibly the greatest philosophy book ever written, the 'Critique of Pure Reason' -- is that the very act of recognizing something, such as a momentary fragment of memory, a tickle, a smell, a sound, logically implies an 'I' which does the recognizing. Kant gave this the grand title, 'the transcendental unity of apperception'. Human consciousness is a logical unity, not just an accidental 'bundle' of experiences as Hume seems to imply.

However, as Kant went on to argue, you can't define the soul in terms of the 'unity of apperception'. To do so involves a logical fallacy. He put forward the following ingenious argument, very much in the spirit of Hume. Let's say that you are watching the clouds go by, or thinking about some philosophical problem, or meditating. You are aware that you exist now. The very next moment, you are aware that you exist now. The very next moment, you are aware that you exist now... You assume, or believe, that these awarenesses are produced by a soul or self which continues over time. However, *exactly the same experience* would arise if each momentary state existed only for that moment, and communicated its mental contents to the next like a line of colliding pool balls.

According to Kant, the truth, so far as the philosopher is able to ascertain, is that *we don't know* what the ultimate explanation for the unity of apperception, the 'I-feeling', is. Kant's view was that this is one of the questions which must be left to faith. It is beyond the range of philosophical proof or disproof. The aim of the philosopher, he said, is to 'set limits to the bounds of reason to make room for faith'.

All the best,


Does Anaxagoras have a good response to Parmenides?

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does Anaxagoras have a good response to Parmenides?
Date: 24th November 2009 12:11

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 18 November, with your essay for the University of London Greek Philosophy: Presocratics and Plato module, in response to the question, 'Assess whether Anaxagoras has a good response to Parmenides.'

The main challenge of this essay question is to give plausible views of Parmenides and Anaxagoras, which represents Anaxagoras as giving a decent response to Parmenides (which succeeds, or nearly succeeds, or fails but in an interesting way). In other words, as an interpreter you are called upon to use the 'principle of charity' twice, or possibly three times: once for each philosopher, and once for their 'debate'.

As you point out, one difficulty is that Anaxagoras never mentions Parmenides or his argument (as indeed do none of those who are represented as 'responding' to him) which makes the whole exercise even more conjectural.

First big question: Is Parmenides responding to the Milesians, and if so in what way? That the 'One' is the one of Milesian cosmology has been debated by interpreters. My view for what it's worth is that the beauty of Parmenides' argument is that it doesn't matter what you take 'it' to refer to. Take any x, and the argument applies. Similarly, it doesn't matter whether you take 'is' to be the 'is' of existence or predication. The only thing that is assumed is that we are discoursing about Reality, with a capital 'R' just as the Milesians intended to do. Hence the distinction between the 'way of truth' and the 'way of appearance'.

What Parmenides felt, rightly or wrongly, is that when you are dealing with Reality, there is a basic problem with the very idea of negation. How can Reality be 'not' anything? His solution is simple and drastic. No truth can be asserted of Reality which has the logical implication that something is 'not'. In the proem, Parmenides is quite explicit about the consequences of this austere view.

How does Anaxagoras respond to this? I think an examiner would feel that a major fault of your essay is that you don't give an account of Anaxagoras' view of 'basic things which neither came into nor went out of existence' which is sufficient to distinguish Anaxagoras from Empedocles. As you know, according to Empedocles, there are four such 'things', Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Why have more? What real or imaginary objection is Anaxagoras responding to, when he says that (apparently) every quality that we are able to distinguish -- e.g. bread, hair, gold, flesh -- is such a 'basic substance'?

Empedocles tried to 'accommodate' change by 'ascribing all change to rearrangement of basic things'. His view allows qualities to come into existence (as we would observe salty white crystals coming into existence from sodium and chlorine). In asserting that there is a 'portion of everything in everything' Anaxagoras is seeking the only possible alternative to such a compositional view of the world of appearance. Salt is the substance in which the salty quality predominates, and the same for gold, flesh etc.

You remark that Anaxagoras was 'the first to correctly grasp the notion of infinite divisibility', but it is much more than this. His solution depends on the fact that there is no smallest entity in fact (and not merely in conception, as one can infinitely divide in thought a Democritean atom).

I like the fractal idea: this is a good analogy insofar as things are complex all the way down (to infinity). However, there is no suggestion in Anaxagoras of anything corresponding to our idea of 'structure' (or as commentators have attributed to Empedocles -- Aristotle's 'bricks and mortar' analogy). Instead, the case is more like the idea of different concentrations of a gas or liquid. You can keep on halving the amount of gold in a given volume of flesh but never remove it entirely.

Parmenides' response to Anaxagoras (or Empedocles) is, or ought to be, that any theory which requires locomotion fails by his strict logic. To say that x, which is was at point A, is now at point B, implies that x 'is not' (at point A). However, Anaxagoras scores higher than Empedocles because at least he recognizes that flesh, gold or hair cannot come to be when previously they were 'not'.

On second thoughts: if there are no 'things' to be 'located', would that mean that in reality nothing 'moves'? We see 'movement' in the 'soup' which constitutes reality, but that is just like observing the movement of shadows or light beams.

However, even if Anaxagoras escapes the criticism which fairly targets Empedocles, there remains the fact that if you take any given location, there will 'be' different concentrations of basic stuffs at different times. In which case, at time t there is more gold than flesh, and at time t+1 there is more flesh than gold, i.e. it is not the case that there is more gold than flesh.

The only question remains whether Anaxagoras' failure is an interesting failure or not. What do you think? Is there anything worth preserving or respecting in Parmenides' original insight?

An examiner would place a big 'R' (for relevance) next to the parts where you go on to talk about Socrates in the Phaedo, as well as Anaxagoras' view that Nous has a key role in the world. (Regarding your final remark, this begs the question why Democritus and Leucippus failed to get natural philosophy 'back on the rails'.)

All the best,


David Hume's account of causation

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: David Hume's account of causation
Date: 19th November 2009 22:16

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 1 November, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Descartes et. al. module, in response to the question, 'What was Hume trying to do in his account of causation? How successful was he in attaining his objectives?'

Apologies for the delay. I 'replied' on 9 November but for some reason failed to send the email.

There are some pertinent criticisms in your essay which relate to the narrowness of Hume's radical version of empiricism. However, I think that an examiner might feel that you have missed the bigger question: namely, whether or not we should be 'Humean' about causation. A relatively contemporary exponent of the Humean approach would be Carl Hempel's 'deductive-nomological' account of explanation. G.E.M. Anscombe, in her article 'Causation' (in OUP 'Causation and Conditionals') represents a notable attack on the idea that causation can be analysed in terms of deduction from a universal generalization.

The problem stems from the assumption which you make at the beginning of your essay, that Hume's primary objective is to 'give a genetic account' of the causal relation. Hume offers a genetic account, because this is the only methodology which he will accept as being consistent with empiricism. (By the end of your essay, however, there are hints that you recognize this point.)

In other words, the genetic account is offered as a means to an end: to determine the semantics and epistemology of the causal relation. It is in relation to these questions, that we should be asking whether or not 'Hume succeeds'. (Of course, it is possible that we may be led to conclude that he fails *because* of his assumption that the correct methodology is to conduct a genetic analysis.)

The 'big' question about causation is whether it could possibly be true that, e.g. when a tap of one of these keys causes a letter to appear on the computer screen, *all* that it is true to say about this evident fact is that a certain universal law holds, and that the particular case can be derived from that universal law. There are two aspects to this: first, the negative idea that there is *nothing* at all to the 'causal fact' that I have described, apart from the truth of a causal law, together with the observation that this instance falls under that law; secondly, the idea that when I assert that the key-tap caused the letter to appear, I am implicitly invoking a law which relates to all places and times, now and in a potentially infinite future, where a 'relevantly similar' key-tap and letter-appearance events occur.

Of course, Hume doesn't talk in this way (about 'potential infinity') but it is implicit in what he says about the difference between non-lawlike conjunctions and lawlike conjunctions.

The big problem with the law theory, as you point out, concerns the notion of 'relevant similarity'. The term usually used for this is 'ceteris paribus clauses', or 'other things being equal'. Not every key-tap is followed by a letter-appearance. The problem is, however hard we try to specify the exact circumstances in which one will always follow the other, there will always be something left out. Hume seems to have been unaware of this problem.

You also invoke the possibility of a 'nativist' account of the concept of a cause. Suppose it could be proved, through some kind of 'poverty of stimulus' argument, that human beings are born with the more or less implicit notion of a cause, without which we would be unable to learn how to make sense of our experience? Actually, some would argue that this has been done very successfully -- by Kant in the first part of his 'Critique of Pure Reason'. Causation is an 'a priori' concept, and Kant 'proves' this by means of his transcendental deduction of the categories. Or, more briefly, experience would be impossible if we were not equipped from the start with the idea of causation.

As P.F. Strawson argues in 'The Bounds of Sense', we can detach Kant's claim that determinism is true a priori from the conclusion of the transcendental argument: that we necessarily have an idea of cause would still be true in a universe where for some reason the thesis of determinism did not hold.

Regarding the two alternative definitions which Hume offers, in terms of the truth of a universal generalization, and in terms of the psychology of the formation of causal beliefs, one could argue either that the second is redundant, or that they are both (as Hume claims) aspects of the same theory. All that is necessary to say about the semantics of the causal relation is the deductive-nomological account. However, that still leaves a question unanswered regarding how causal beliefs are formed. Here, it does seem that Kant saw the point that Hume missed. Hume imagines a subject having all sorts of experiences, then 'learning' to identify 'causes' and 'effects': this is an impossible scenario, for the same reason as the scenario of a subject experiencing 'impressions' who has not yet 'learned' to interpret these impressions as perceptions of objects in space. In both cases, we can say that the fault lies with Hume's radical empiricism.

I need to pick you up on one point you make, in relation to Quine's denial of the analytic/ synthetic distinction. Quine accepts that we can make stipulative definitions. 'Henceforth, whenever I describe a man as a 'bachelor' I am stating that he is unmarried.' However, your objection that it is an 'empirical question' how the term 'bachelor' is actually used in a linguistic community makes Quine's objection look trivial. As if the assertion would be falsified if some ignoramus thought that 'bachelor' meant a man who makes cricket bats. Contemporary arguments over the analysis of philosophically or scientifically problematic concepts illustrate Quine's point better: that the question isn't 'what we mean by X' but rather 'what concept of X do we want' where the question is to be settled by appeal to logic and experience.

All the best,


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Is a belief formed by a reliable mechanism justified?

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is a belief formed by a reliable mechanism justified?
Date: 19th November 2009 13:57

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 16 November, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'Critically assess the claim that any belief formed by using a reliable mechanism is justified.'

This is an excellent answer to the question, which offers a credible critique of the reliabilist theory, in favour of a view of knowledge as an achievement brought about by the exercise of the knower's 'epistemic virtues or cognitive facilities'.

At the core of this critique is a plausible counterexample to the reliabilist model. A broken thermometer which gives fluctuating readings unconnected with the actual temperature serves as a 'reliable means' of determining the temperature of the room, because someone is secretly altering the temperature of the room to match the thermometer.

As reliabilism has been considered as a strategy for overcoming 'Gettier counterexamples' to the thesis that knowledge is justified true belief, it is certainly a blow to the reliabilist that a Gettier-type of counterexample can be found to reliabilism.

I would like to discuss this point further, as it is the heart of your argument. First, is your example of the broken thermometer correctly describably as a Gettier case? I have doubts about this. In each of Gettier's counterexamples, and also the many other examples offered by epistemologists making the same point, the intuition being appealed to is that a justified true belief cannot be knowledge, if it turns out to have been true 'by accident'.

However, in the case of the broken thermometer, you admit that it is no accident that the temperature of the room matches the reading on the thermometer. Someone (or some thing, such as a thermostat controlled by the thermometer) is reliably adjusting the temperature of the room to match the thermometer reading.

You say that this contradicts *another* plausible principle, that the intention of a belief is to reflect how things are in the world. If things are set up so that the belief is rendered true by changing the world (=temperature of the room) then this violates a condition for knowledge.

In that case, it isn't a Gettier-type counterexample. At best, we can say that it has a family resemblance to Gettier cases.

But I'm not convinced anyway. Let's take the variation which I proposed, that the temperature of the room is controlled by a central heating thermostat, which is itself controlled by the thermometer readings. The advantage of this is that we have eliminated the aspect of 'trickery' (your mischievous daughter). Our intuitions tell us that something can't be knowledge if it is the result of trickery. But that's not really what is at issue here. We are assuming, for the sake of argument, that the process (whatever it is) is reliable, and therefore discounting, e.g. the possibility that your daughter will eventually get bored and fail to make the appropriate adjustments.

Let's say I move into a new house which has 'thermometers' in every room. Every time I care to look, I am reliably informed about the temperature of that room. What I don't know (and which would annoy me greatly if I did know it) is that the 'thermometers' are not acting as thermometers. They are set up to give random 'temperature readings' which arise from an internal computer chip generating random numbers. However, I don't see that this false belief invalidates my knowledge. I get on the phone to the central heating service engineer to complain that the central heating system is running way too hot. 'What temperature is the room now?', he asks. 'It's 28 degrees Centigrade.' This is knowledge for the central heating engineer, so surely it is for me also.

What I do think your example counts against is the response to Gettier along the lines of, 'Knowledge is justified true belief, which does not involve any false assumptions'. This is surely too strong. In fact, I suspect that if followed through consistently, this definition of knowledge would lead to total scepticism. Any belief, if examined in sufficiently meticulous detail, will reveal false assumptions somewhere or other.

As for the view of knowledge as an achievement of someone who exercises 'epistemic virtues or cognitive abilities', people differ in how cognitively 'virtuous' they are. Maybe I should have been more suspicious when the temperature which I set on (what I thought to be) the central heating 'thermostat' had no discernible affect on the temperature of the house. But knowledge is a sufficiently robust notion to survive inefficient or unvirtuous approaches to knowledge gathering. Undoubtedly, being less cognitively virtuous than, say, my neighbour, it is not surprising that my neighbour knows a lot more than me and has far fewer false beliefs. But what I know, I do *know*.

All the best,


The case for self-justifying beliefs in epistemology

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The case for self-justifying beliefs in epistemology
Date: 19th September 2009 12:55

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 12 November, with your essay for the University of London Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'In order to amount to knowledge, a belief must be justified. So, unless some beliefs are self-justifying, there is no knowledge.' Discuss.

Regarding your comments on my response to your essay on Hume and causation, the point about Hume's position on causation vs the 'Humean' view of causation is that in assessing the adequacy of Hume's account, one needs to distinguish between failings which are the fault of Hume's radical empiricist starting point, and failings (if there are any) of any Humean view.

You asked why I said that your statement, 'From a rationalist viewpoint we are asked to accept cause and effect as innate knowledge' told me nothing. Suppose you asked me how chicken sexers are able to know whether a chick is male or female and I replied that the knowledge needed to do this is innate. That doesn't tell you what you needed to know. What kind of knowledge is it, innate or otherwise? Is it, as chicken sexers themselves believe, subtle differences in the appearance of the chick? or maybe something to do with their smell?

As I pointed out, Kant does in a way vindicate the rationalist view, in arguing that seeing objects as causally related is an a priori condition for the possibility of experience. This is an answer to the question of 'the kind of knowledge' knowledge of causation is.

Your example of statistical mechanics is a good way to loosen the hold of our pre-reflective notion of causes and powers. However, a case can still be made for the utility of talk of powers, at a higher level of description. (But that's all it is -- talk.)

About revision strategy: I think it is good not to be completely ignorant of one (or more) of the Modern philosophers covered in the Modern Philosophy paper. However, you are right that you will make better use of the study time available by making strategic choices of topics/ philosophers.


You have chosen to respond to this question by offering a review of the various positions in epistemology defined by the problem of justification. Just last week another of my students adopted the same strategy to a similarly worded question. You have offered a useful survey of the 'logical space' of the problem with which I can find little to disagree. However, I wonder whether there isn't something more in the question than this.

The various options and strategies could easily have been covered in less than a page. This is just background knowledge which anyone taking the Epistemology exam is expected to have. To your credit, your account is informative and eloquent. But it looks more like you were using the question as the occasion to give a short lecture on the problems of epistemology, rather than as a target for analysis and critique.

You do offer a critique of the notion of 'self-justifying beliefs', mentioning Sellars and the 'myth of the given'. This could be expanded upon. For example, isn't there a more common-sensical alternative to the traditional sense datum epistemology? G.E. Moore offered the example, 'I have two hands' (in his 'Refutation of Idealism'). Why can't there be a category of basic beliefs which are not indubitable in the Cartesian sense, but nevertheless in practice are sturdy enough to support our other beliefs?

The question is in two parts, so after a short introduction describing the options available I would answer it in the same fashion.

First, Is it true that in order to amount to knowledge a belief must be justified? You give an answer to this towards the end of your essay: reliabilism is one alternative to the view that justification is necessary for knowledge. You could also have mentioned some of the counter-examples discussed in the literature, such as chicken sexing (!). What is justification anyway? You don't make any attempt to define that notion beyond stating that the justification for a belief is itself a belief (is that always true?, can you think of exceptions?).

There are various possible conclusions you could draw. One might be that justification is not strictly necessary for knowledge, but the exceptional cases can be dealt with separately.

Secondly, what exactly is wrong with a chain of justifications which does not end with a self-justifying belief? You say very little about the options available to the coherentist or the infinitist. As an alternative to Klein, I would offer a more Wittgensteinian take. It is not that 'we can find a justification' if we search hard enough, but rather that at some point, 'my spade is turned'. There's nothing more to dig, not because we have finally found the rock bottom indubitable foundation but rather (in a Kantian spirit) we have reached the conditions for the possibility of there being such a thing as justification or knowledge (as Wittgenstein believed 'forms of life' to be).

Coherentism takes different forms. Quine, the naturalized epistemologist, is also a kind of coherentist but this is coherentism without any ambitions for being 'first philosophy'. You can (e.g.) be a traditional coherentist who goes all the way, and regards perceptual beliefs as having no special status, or a modified coherentist who privileges perceptual knowledge.

In short, you can keep much of what you say, but give a better answer to the question by structuring your essay around it, offering more argument and taking up less space with historical exposition.

All the best,