Thursday, October 31, 2013

Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument

To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument
Date: 19th January 2011 13:03

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 5 January, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, ''But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right and that only means that there we can't talk about 'right'.' (Philosophical Investigations Para 258). How effective, in your view, is Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument in attacking the notion of a 'quale'?'

One issue here is who has the 'right' to define a 'quale' -- philosophers of mind who defend some notion of qualia, or those who reject the notion of a quale outright. But there is no right or wrong about this. I am quite happy with your story about the various stages of awareness up to full self-conscious awareness of the quality of an experience. The story is fully consistent (as you argue) with an enlightened materialism. However, I would argue that we don't need the term 'quale' for this purpose. I have a better use for that term.

I'm also happy to accept the point that 'criteria' are loose and open-ended. Many, or most of the terms we use in everyday language are vague or have fuzzy boundaries. The opportunities for precision verification are limited. To 'agree in judgements', all that is required is that we roughly go along in the same way, something which is possible (as Wittgenstein explains) because we 'share a form of life'. He would be the first to accept that there are many cases in between 'clearly right' and 'clearly wrong' where there is no determinate answer.

But that's nothing to do with the notion of a 'private language' which he is attacking. Or, rather, his target is something which we are *tempted* to believe about the nature of experience which does not belong to any story about agreement in judgements or forms of life.

A lot of people are confused by the diary example. Of course you can keep a diary. Of course you can note the occurrence of a strange sensation which you've never had before, but which on occasions returns after the first time that you experienced it.

Let's say you are not able to explain the experience to anyone else. It's a complete mystery. Finally, in desperation (the sensation is getting increasingly intrusive and unpleasant) you go to a consultant and have an MRI scan. Every time you feel the experience, a specific area of your inner ear changes from red to purple. Further investigation reveals a benign growth which among other things affects your sense of balance. (Wittgenstein gives the example of measuring your blood pressure, but this is more 'colourful'.) When the consultant explains this to you, you recognize something you hadn't realized before, that the strange experience was related to a feeling of loss of balance but to other things as well.

Let's say this is the first time this condition has ever been noted. The consultant, Dr Heinrich Blatter coins the term 'Blatter's syndrome'. And now we have a 'definition' of S. In your diary, you have been unwittingly noting symptoms of Blatter's syndrome.

The point about the private language concept, however, is that 'a definition of the sign cannot be given'. This is the assumption of the thought experiment. Not that we are currently unable to define it, which is something different, but rather that, as a matter of logic, nothing could count as an adequate definition for the precise reason that I would be able to recognize when S occurred irrespective of whether there were any associated physical changes (which could be tracked by an MRI scanner, or Wittgenstein's blood pressure gauge).

Why would anyone imagine this? Why would they think that the occurrence of S has no causal antecedents in the physical world? Because it seems (or I am tempted to say that) when I experience S I just *know* what I experience in a way that I could not, in principle, be contradicted by any physical test or by any other person observing me. That's the illusion of the 'private object' (or 'quale' as I am calling it) which Wittgenstein seeks to combat.

On the assumption of mind-body dualism, mental events, being immaterial or non-physical do not belong to the order of nature. Any causal relations or regularities between the material and immaterial realms are governed, not by physical laws but by 'psycho-physical' laws. Now the question arises about regularity. Why shouldn't psycho-physical laws be 'regular'? why can't we rely on them? (So, for example, I can be confident that the spectrum of my colour impressions cannot undergo an 'inversion', as described in the unit -- look up 'spectrum inversion' in Google.) Maybe they are and maybe they're not. The point is that they don't have to be. Everything would remain exactly the same, from the point of view of science, or our forms of life, either way (as Wittgenstein would argue). It's a knob which turns, even though nothing in the mechanism turns with it.

So I disagree with what you say about zombies. Yes, at the present stage of knowledge we don't know for sure whether materialism or physicalism will be able to offer a complete explanation of consciousness. Maybe there is another aspect to the nature of the universe of which we are at present profoundly ignorant. In that scenario, there could be zombies which have all that is physically required but lack 'something' necessary in order to behave like a normal human being. They walk around in a jerky way. They are not moved by love songs. Although they are very good (not easily distracted) as manual labour. But that's not the hypothesis we are considering. The hypothesis is that there something in me, a quale, that my exact zombie double (who is just as capable as me of being moved by a love song or writing this email) would lack.

All the best,


Hobbes on laws of nature and the state of nature

To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hobbes on laws of nature and the state of nature
Date: 26th January 2011 12:36

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 16 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What does Hobbes mean by 'laws of nature'? What role do they play in his argument?', and your email of 21 January, with your essay in response to the question, 'What according to Hobbes are the causes of conflict in the State of Nature? Are there adequate grounds for supposing his view correct?'

These are both very good answers with which I can find very little to disagree. As the questions are so closely connected, I will deal with them together.

What does Hobbes mean by 'laws of nature'? You suggest two readings which on the face of it do not seem to be consistent with one another, an inconsistency which is not fully resolved.

On the first reading, laws of nature are hypothetical imperatives, in Kant's sense. They assume rationality, or at least the ability to perform modus tolens. They also assume that the antecedent of the conditional, summarized by the formula, 'the desire for self-preservation', is a given fact of human nature. Given the desire for self-preservation, and given certain other plausible assumptions about the conditions necessary for achieving it, the 'laws' so-called follow.

The second reading, which you don't fully spell out, would be that the laws of nature are God's laws, which suggests some kind of 'divine command' theory of ethics. You do note that the fear of God's punishment (or, one might add, hope of reward) would be another, alternative candidate for the antecedent of the conditional. Indeed, given the prospect of an infinite time in hell, or heaven, the desire for earthly self-preservation would on this reading definitely take second place. But this doesn't seem to have been Hobbes' view.

However, there is a way to preserve the intuition that God is somehow involved in this, and that the laws of nature in some sense derive from God. The world and the human beings who inhabit it are God's handiwork. The hypothetical imperatives which derive from the conditions under which men live are valid in the same way as the hypothetical imperatives which govern, say, car maintenance. (Given the way a particular make of car was designed, certain maintenance operations are required to keep it on the road, e.g. 'the front suspension should be greased every ten thousand miles'.)

In a similar way, given the way man and the world are 'designed', certain patterns of behaviour are required. It is a remarkable contingent fact, for example, that human beings need to co-operate in order to achieve their goals. One could imagine a race of intelligent sharks, with endless supplies of all the nourishment they need to survive, who sought one another's company purely for intellectual stimulation and otherwise had no need of it, nor any fear of violence from other members of their species.

The one thing that complicates this picture is Hobbes recognition that the pursuit of honour and the high regard of our peers is also a fundamental feature of human psychology. Is this part of the design too?

In your second essay you suggest that Hobbes believes that the pursuit of honour, when it conflicts with self-preservation is somehow irrational or even the product of 'disease'. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me. It would make more sense if Hobbes had recognized that it is one of the marks of intelligence that men pursue loftier goals than mere survival; that indeed all the things worth pursuing involve, in some way or other, the regard of our peers (cf. Nietzsche on the 'will to power'). Life with dishonour is not a life, at least not a life worth living.

This bears on the question of just how bad a state of nature would be, whether indeed it would be a 'war of all against all', rather than merely a Wild West scenario of loose confederacies (Cowboys and Indians) oscillating between uneasy peace and outright conflict, which as you argue only requires a Lockean ruler to ensure the peace prevails.

It is a fact of human nature, which Hobbes can surely have not failed to observe, that although men value the benefits of peace, they also enjoy fighting and making war, and will risk everything for 'honour'.

Your point about the rationality of keeping contracts is well taken (indeed, you remark that Hobbes recognizes this in his answer to the fool). If you keep your side of the bargain then when it comes to my turn, I will keep my side bearing in mind the benefits of future co-operation. That's what makes it reasonable to expect that confederacies of mutually co-operating individuals would arise. So why, then, does Hobbes still insist on his pessimistic picture of the state of nature?

Hobbes would reply that the problem is instability. Undoubtedly, the 'irrational' pursuit of honour is one of the causes, but as I have argued concern for the regard of our peers is part of what it means to live a human life and not merely physically survive. When Hobbes asserts that the state of nature is a 'war', this is consistent with understanding the term 'war' in the sense, e.g., of the Cold War. It is not necessary that human beings be fighting all the time, in order to live in a permanent state of war. The state of war is, above all, a state of fear and distrust, which blights our capacity to enjoy our lives and do the things that best express our nature.

This suggests to me that underlying Hobbes' view is a value judgement about the quality of human life, and what is necessary to live a fully human life. Co-operation is possible, in the absence of a sovereign. But peace is an unstable achievement, which can disappear in a moment when the outlaws ride into town. (Are things so different today? We have 'sovereign states' and laws -- and villainy and wars. This isn't the life for human beings that God envisaged when he created this world of ours, Hobbes would say.)

In your second essay, you make a remark expressing a view which seems quite common: 'By an absolute sovereign Hobbes does not necessarily mean an absolute monarch. Other forms of government could instantiate absolute sovereignty, e.g. an assembly of citizens or an aristocracy, as long as the sovereign entity in question did not ultimately share power (either legislative, executive or judicial) with any other entity and if it had ultimate authority over all aspects of life.'

This is not my impression. Hobbes supported the idea of an absolute monarch, at a time when the traditional view of the 'divine right of kings' was under attack -- the time of the English Civil War. It is true that Hobbes' 'prisoners' dilemma' argument can be adapted for the purpose of making the case for the more moderate claim that a country needs a sovereign government -- who would deny that? The problem is that the very same problem which Hobbes diagnosed amongst people living in a state of nature breaks out again when we consider, e.g. members of a legislative assembly, or any group of persons holding the reigns of power, whose mutual co-operation is not capable of being enforced by a higher power, because they already represent the highest power in the land.

All the best,


Do universals genuinely exist?

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Do universals genuinely exist?
Date: 25th January 2011 12:56

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 13 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Only particulars genuinely exist.' Discuss.'

I found this very difficult, although I suppose that it is a virtue of your essay that it had me trying to think out the problem of universals from scratch. This sheet of paper is white and so is that sheet. What explains the fact that they are *both* white?

That's such an odd question, isn't it? Haven't I already explained why the sheets are 'both' white by saying that the first sheet is white and the second sheet is *also* white? But what does 'also' mean? Why are things 'also'? Why do we ever say the same thing (predicate 'white') of different things (e.g. the two sheets)?

I'm emphasizing this point because in your essay you make the claim that there is something that 'needs explanatory work', which, e.g. someone like Quine would deny. So let's get back to the beginning. You list four requirements for the 'best' ontology: a) best explanation, b) least number of unexplained categories or postulates, c) maximum economy regarding ontologically basic entities, d) least violation of our intuitions.

As you go on to say, 'the important thing is that particulars are uniquely instantiated items in space and time.' -- But what's so great about that? Why should we care? Why does that give particulars any privileged status so far as responding to requirements a-d is concerned?

I think you need to answer this question. It isn't good enough to say that our 'intuitions' surely tell us that particulars exist (genuinely exist) if anything exists, that particulars are the very paradigms of 'existence'. Intuition is important, but maybe in metaphysics it is just pure prejudice. Plato thought so. He thought that particulars aren't genuinely real at all, they're just shadows on the wall of our cave (see my latest Tentative Answer). I'm not going to go there now, but you can see the direction in which I'm pointing.

Back to basics: there are two fundamental human capacities which, whatever else one says about theories or intuitions seem impossible to deny: the capacity to 'identify' objects at a location in space and time, and then later 're-identify' them at another space and time, and the capacity to 'say things about' these objects, such that in principle the 'same thing' can be said of two such objects separated in space or in time. 'X is white and Y is white.' Two kinds of 'sameness', which require two closely connected kinds of recognitional capacity: the ability to *trace* an object through space and time, and the ability to notice recurrent *features* of those objects.

I'm here alluding to a project which P.F. Strawson undertakes in his book 'Individuals', an important work which marked the revival of interest in metaphysics amongst English-speaking analytic philosophers. Without Strawson, the present landscape in academic discussions of the problems of metaphysics would be vastly different. Strawson puts forward some powerful arguments, for example, that a 'feature placing' language not based on the identification and re-identification of particulars would not be possible. It could never get going, if one assumes (a big 'if' but difficult to deny) that we are dealing with a scenario where two speakers are trying to communicate with one another about 'the world as they find it'.

OK, but why would we want to say anything about anything? what good is that? What good is saying that something is 'white', for example? Here, I think we do need to go further and respond the the 'explanatory challenge' which you allude to. In Strawson's basic picture, it seems that our two speakers are just aimlessly pinning labels on things. 'That is white, and that is white.' Why are two labels ever the same? because that's what a 'recognitional capacity' implies. That point doesn't go without saying. The world has to be a certain way to make that possible, to make it possible e.g. that this sheet of paper is white and that sheet of paper is also white. But there's something else too: something has to follow from all this labelling. Black paper is no good for writing on (at least with black ink).

Where is this going? Instead of saying that one can identify examples of 'white' because 'whiteness exists', what we are saying is that the human activity of identifying things and saying things about them (i.e. describing things in language) has a) certain basic physical requirements in terms of worlds in which such an activity is possible in the first place, b) has consequences for the necessary form that any such activity can take.

With regard to the 'trope' theory, I am perfectly agnostic (though mostly puzzled). My intuition would be to say that this is an 'abstraction too far', which loses the thread of what ontology is about. You haven't convinced me that I'm wrong, as your essay merely reports on what philosophers have said. I'm sorry but I don't feel gripped at all at this point.

However, you will get marks for displaying considerable knowledge of the contemporary landscape of the discussion of the problem of universals.

All the best,


Berkeley's case against abstract ideas

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley's case against abstract ideas
Date: 25th January 2011 11:38

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume module in response to the question, 'How successfully did Berkeley argue against abstract general ideas? Why was it important for his project to do so?'

This is a well researched essay, and a good answer to the question. However, I did find that the essay in parts read rather like a report on your reading. Lots of questions and answers are thrown up, but in the process I felt that I was losing sight of the bigger picture. I don't want to discourage this approach because you are acquiring, and displaying, the appropriate skills. However, you do need to think about how you would answer this question in an examination, where you will be thinking on your feet (which is what the examiners want to see) rather than merely trying to reproduce something you have written beforehand.

I found myself grasping for essential threads. One is the connection to the ideas of the later Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations and the notion that to know the meaning of a general term (or indeed any linguistic term) is to be competent in following the rules for its use. Wittgenstein takes pains to distinguish his view from nominalism in the traditional sense, or the theory that all words are just 'names'. All the work needs to be done in explaining the differences in use and function between different kinds of words -- proper names, general terms, logical connectives etc.

How exactly does this relate to Berkeley? There is a book which is relevant to this issue, a short classic 20th century text by Peter Geach called 'Mental Acts' (in the Routledge Library of Philosophy and Psychology). The target of Geach's critique is the theory which he terms 'abstractionism', an essential component in Locke's theory of abstract ideas. According to the theory of abstractionism we form concepts by noticing the similarity amongst particulars. For example, a child acquires an understanding of the term 'red' by being shown a red balloon, a red crayon, a red apple etc. As Geach convincingly argues, this puts the cart before the horse: a raft of concepts has to be acquired at the same time -- such as the notion of a 'colour', a 'surface' etc. The process of abstraction cannot explain this, whereas Wittgenstein's account of rule following can.

Even on the most generous interpretation, Berkeley doesn't offer anything like Wittgenstein's positive account of how language is mastered and used. As you say, there is a strong suspicion that some of his attacks, at least, depend on the false assumption that knowledge must be represented in an imagist way. This is in fact the main target of Wittgenstein's critique (most clearly and instructively in the opening pages of his 'Blue Book') where in order to comply with the order 'bring me a red flower', I do not need to call up an image of red in my mind, any more than I need to use a physical colour sample. To know what 'red' is, consists in being able to do things like fetching a red flower when asked to do so. This is a practical ability which not only does not require a conscious mental 'sample', but also which cannot be derived from any number of examples.

According to Wittgenstein, language learning is a matter of 'learning how to go on'. The most clearly designed signpost is useless to me if I don't know how to 'read' signposts, that is to say, if I haven't mastered the associated practical ability of going in the direction in which the signpost 'points' (what is 'pointing'? how do we learn that?).

Apart from the charge of imagism, Berkeley's particularism manifests itself as a general scepticism about any kinds of imperceptible entity, for example the entities posited by physics such as (at the time) Newtonian corpuscles. This is instrumentalism with a vengeance. But what has it got to do with abstract ideas? Nothing much, if at all. The idea of the hypothetico-deductive method is one that excited Berkeley's strong hostility. This does weaken his case somewhat. The case would be stronger if Berkeley was able to say, 'I'm not against hypothetical entities as such. The defender of abstract ideas can't claim that they are like Newtonian corpuscles. A triangle which is every conceivable size is an impossible object, tout court, as is a horse which is every conceivable build and colour etc.'

Why was it important to Berkeley to attack abstract ideas? The suggestion that this is somehow the foundation of Berkeley critique of materialism, his case for an immaterialist metaphysic, does not convince me at all. I happen to think that a strong case can be made for Berkeleian idealism, requiring a great deal of work to combat, which has nothing to do with the critique of abstractionism. (Put very briefly, the case is exactly parallel to the Australian materialists' argument against dualism, but in reverse. According to the materialist, everything we want to say about mental items and events can be expressed in terms which only refer to material entities; according to Berkeley, everything we want to say about physical items and events can be expressed in terms which only refer to mental entities: see Foster 'The Case for Idealism'.)

Undoubtedly, Berkeley saw something that Locke missed. The example of proving theorems about any triangle -- such as Pythagoras' theorem -- by drawing constructions on an arbitrarily chosen triangle is very powerful, and it is easy to see how Berkeley could have thought that somehow this was the key to understanding how general terms work. At best, he was only partly right.

All the best,


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Aristotle on virtue and happiness

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on virtue and happiness
Date: 19th January 2011 12:08

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 6 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'What role does virtue play in Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia (happiness)? Is he justified in giving it this role?'

This is a knowledgeable and fair exposition of Aristotle's views on virtue and happiness, which captures the subtleties in Aristotle's account of the interplay between reason and emotion.

I note that the question says, 'virtue' and not 'the virtues', which implies on my reading at least that the question of whether Aristotle is 'justified' in putting forward his view concerns the general question of human virtue and its relation to happiness rather than the issue of *which* 'virtues' are properly so-called. But there is no harm in noting, as you do, that Aristotelian and Christian ethics show a marked disagreement here. It is true that the somewhat 'self-serving' nature of Aristotle's account, which you note, sits more easily with the claim about virtue and happiness. The Christian view requires a God of justice to set right the sufferings encountered in this world by the virtuous, and the unjustly earned gains of the vicious.

I am deliberately using the term 'happiness' rather than 'eudaimonia' which commentators often substitute, on the grounds that Aristotle didn't 'exactly mean' what we mean by happiness, but only something similar, or at least similar in some respects. But this is the crux of the issue isn't it?

Many mobsters and 'sensible knaves', you admit, are 'eudaimonic'. It is arguable whether this is true. Not by Aristotle's view of eudaimonia. Consider Joe who is the head of a powerful Mafia family, all-powerful, fawned on by his underlings, 'respected' by other heads of Mafia families. And hated. This seems closer to the reality of criminal life, the need for ignorance about certain matters in order to enjoy one's ill-gotten gains. (I'm not saying that robber barons or some Humean 'sensible knaves' couldn't be genuinely loved and respected but that's a different case.) This would be like the example of the blissfully happy cuckold, despised and laughed at who goes to his grave oblivious of the true state of affairs.

The question concerns what we *really* want. Is Aristotle right that what we want, the aim of all human life is eudaimonia? Or is it (subjective) happiness? Has he made his case, or is he to some extent begging the question by introducing a value-laden definition of happiness which fails to capture fully our untutored intuitions about the relationship between happiness and pleasure?

You also note that Aristotle's view is far more realistic than Plato's response to the Ring of Gyges. Your defence of Aristotle is, 'To argue that Aristotle's recipe for living well should be rejected on the grounds that it is neither sufficient or necessary is like rejecting advice that non-smoking benefits health on grounds that some lucky smokers live to be a hundred and a few non-smokers have the bad luck to get lung cancer.'

The problem with this defence is that it reduces the virtues to something like 'rules of thumb' for living the good life. General advice is just that, it doesn't take account of specific cases. If all you have is general information, then you have to go by your best judgement of probability. But if you know that you are the exception (unlikely in the case of smoking advice, admittedly) then the general advice is no interest to you.

I do agree with the point that counterexamples to the claim of necessity and sufficiency do not automatically defeat Aristotle's thesis about virtue and happiness. I just don't think that the smoking example captures the reason. Aristotle isn't making a claim about a mere empirical correlation. The basis for his position is a powerful theory in the area of the philosophy of mind. He is making a conceptual claim, albeit one which has its underpinnings in empirical observations of human nature.

I would be prepared to go the extra mile in defending Aristotle against at least some of the counterexamples. He never says that all we require is virtue. (I think you do note this.) On the contrary, according to Aristotle there are various sorts of additional empirical requirements bound up with the circumstances which enable one to exercise virtue, conceptually so and not just as a matter of chance. If through no fault of your own you are homeless, friendless and poor then that's just your bad luck, so far as the opportunities to fully exercise 'the virtues' are concerned. (No chance to be magnanimous, for example.) Interestingly, on this point Aristotle disagrees not only with Christian ethics but also with Stoicism.

All the best,


Are events universals, particulars, or neither?

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are events universals, particulars, or neither?
Date: 12th January 2011 12:58

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 4 January, with your essay for the Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Are events universals, particulars, or neither?'

Reading this, I had a welcome sense of clarity, as if everything just fell into place. Maybe this time, however, there are some niggling worries.

If you wrote something like this in an exam, I think that you would come under criticism for treating the whole topic at too high a level of generality. From that altitude, things do appear very clear. ('There are just these three possibilities, and if you say this, then you have to say this...' etc.) However, there has been a lot of debate on the question of events (which from memory you have discussed in previous essays). I think that mentioning more names (i.e. not just Davidson) would improve your answer, give it more 'grip'.

The level of generality also gives me some problems, in that I can see the possibility -- which you seem inclined to ignore -- that the rubric for what you term 'conceptualism' could be applied in different degrees to different subject matters. Suppose one accepts as an axiom that 'what marks the boundary' of a particular, or a universal, 'is our cognitive purpose'... boundaries can change as our cognitive purpose changes'. There is an extreme reading of this, which one finds in a famous passage in Kolakowski (have I mentioned this before? sorry if I have) where he states,

'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.'

This is from his essay, 'Karl Marx and the Classical Definition of Truth', in the collection of articles, 'Toward a Marxist Humanism'. I was so impressed by this quote that I dedicated a page to it:

You can guess the context. It is Praxis which in the first place defines the universals and particulars that constitute our conceptual scheme, not disinterested speculation or abstract theorizing. But Praxis is itself something which changes over time, with the dialectical progress of history. In other words, for 'our cognitive purpose' the Marxist might substitute, 'the requirements of history'.

I'm jesting somewhat -- in 2011, these ideas one can view with a certain amount of cynicism. The substantial point is that the idea that we have a 'cognitive purpose' is itself undetermined, so long as it remains unclear *what our purpose is*. And here, of course, I can guess your answer (survival of the species).

Even so (getting back to the point) I am tempted to say that Davidsonian events, dependent as they are on what we choose to identify as causes and effects, have a somewhat looser connection to reality than fundamental things like spatio-temporal particulars. Logically, I can put 'my ear' and 'the moon' together, but the two particulars just won't stick. On the other hand, my scratching my ear at the very moment that Neil Armstrong spoke his famous words, is memorable for me as an event because the absurdity of the moment sparked a complete change in the direction of the course of my life. I gave up astrophysics and applied to do a philosophy course.

In other words, we throw the cloth of event identification rather loosely on the more rugged landscape of bits of the world which we knock into and stumble over, the things which we had better 'draw a boundary around' if we want to live and reproduce. This does not contradict your conceptualist stance, but it does allow recognition of degrees of fundamentality in a conceptual scheme: not everything is up for grabs at the same time, or to the same degree.

All the best,


Locke on personal identity

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke on personal identity
Date: 12th January 2011 12:02

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 2 January, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'Describe and critically evaluate Locke's account of the identity of persons.'

This is a very good answer to the question and also an impressive piece of research that more than makes up for the deficiencies of your previous essay on this topic. If you could muster this kind of expertise in a one hour exam question, you would probably get a 70+ mark for this.

Personal identity is a fascinating topic which is still gripping today, as you state. Let's start with the question of substance which was the topic of most of my response last time. Locke is sceptical about substance, and expresses this scepticism in various ways. Probably the most accurate view of what Locke actually believed would be that Newtonian corpuscles are the true 'material substance'. Kant takes a stronger line, arguing for the a priori indestructibility of 'substance' in the Transcendental Analytic. However, from the perspective of Locke's 'historical plain method', if the question is about human understanding and the concepts which we are able to form, then the corpuscular theory is just a theory, not something that is bound up with the very possibility of deriving knowledge from experience.

Maybe we are complex arrangements of corpuscles, nothing more, or maybe not. Maybe there is an immaterial soul. But if the soul exists, we can't know that for sure or argue for its existence on the evidence of our experience.

This would be my defence of Locke's alleged 'inconsistencies' in his account of the relation between the concept of a person and the notion of substance. Following the path of strict analysis, his job as underlabourer-philosopher is simply to articulate our concepts. The concept of a person would be the same in a corpuscular world, or a Cartesian dualist world, though only in the latter can there be hope of a resurrection. (Dennett in 'Consciousness Explained' counters this with the account of the self as essentially a program, a mathematical entity and therefore capable of indefinite 'resurrection' in fresh brains/ bodies.)

However, the main question concerns the shortcomings of Locke's account of personal identity as such, and not the question of how he might have conceived of the relation between 'person' and 'substance'.

Here are some points you could have made (I'm not saying you should have made them!):

The first is one that (I think) I mentioned last time, concerning the criterion for the distinction between false and veridical 'memory'. One way to put the objection is in terms of Butler's charge of circularity, but that doesn't get to the heart of the issue. The issue concerns the nature of memory as such, and what is needed for a memory to be 'true'. Butler's point is taken that one needs to distinguish between 'my remembering my F-ing' and 'my remembering that F-ing took place', where in the latter case it might have been someone other than me who F-ed. But what makes it true that it was indeed I who F-ed?

In 'Sameness and Substance' David Wiggins argues that it is continuity in an organized material package of all that is required to causally account for the persistence of memory. This revolutionizes Locke's account because it logically forces us to bring in the material aspect. (Even if this is not a living human body, perhaps only the vital part e.g. the brain.) This is a failure on Locke's part with regard to the concept of memory on which his account is based.

On page 2, you note correctly Locke's 'purpose, which was to show that consciousness provided a forensic basis for identity'. However, I do think it is misleading to describe this as a 'further' purpose. On the contrary, the very idea that personal identity is a forensic notion motivates Locke's account from the start. He isn't saying, 'Here's a good definition of personal identity. And by the way, this works very well when one considers the forensic aspect.' Personal identity according to Locke IS a forensic notion. That is how we discover that what is essential to personal identity is consciousness.

As you and many commentators have noted, this gets Locke into all sorts of difficulties. However, my intuitions tend to deviate somewhat in Locke's favour. There are two aspects to this. The first is the possibility of loss of memory, amnesia. I think there is something morally worrying in the idea of punishing a total amnesiac for a crime which so far as they are concerned was committed by someone else. You have to think of cases. Some will favour punishment (as in the drunkenness scenario) while others do not (say, permanent brain damage after a car accident).

The second aspect is more controversial, and relates to the two notions of 'remembering' (remembering F-ing and remembering my F-ing). Leaving aside the question of the causal aspect to memory, it could be argued that Locke is wrong to regard continuity of consciousness/ memory as sufficient for personal identity because it ignores something which is in some sense up to the agent, namely, my decision to 'identify' with a past self. 'I am a different person now,' could perhaps in some circumstances be meant literally. Again, one has to think of possible scenarios. Consider the WWII concentration camp guard who for the last 30 years has lived as an devout priest, tortured by memories of what was done by an individual with whom he feels no meaningful sense of connection. 'That wasn't me.' As in the case of amnesia, there would be serious difficulties in proving this, but that shouldn't obscure the logical point that arguably an aspect of personal identity is the act of 'self-identification'. (It is a question on which I am agnostic at the present time.)

All the best,


The refutation of solipsism

To: Nicola A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The refutation of solipsism
Date: 11th January 2011 12:58

Dear Nicola,

Thank you for your email of 3 January, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''The solipsist's 'world' has no more substance than a dream, a story one makes up as one goes along.' - Discuss.'

You said one thing in your essay which I found very striking: 'I do not believe that there really is much moral difference in believing 'you' are the only one that exists and matters, than believing that 'God' is the only being that matters.'

Although the context of your remark is particular religious sects who see no problem in sacrificing individuals to their 'god', there is a philosophical counterpart to this claim in certain metaphysical systems. I'm thinking particularly of Hegel's theory of the Absolute (known as 'objective idealism') according to which the Absolute is the only thing that 'really' exists, and we are merely component parts of the Absolute. This vision reaches its strongest ethical expression in the ethics of F.H. Bradley ('Ethical Studies') where in one particular chapter, 'My Station and Its Duties' Bradley passionately argues that we should view ourselves as merely component parts of the 'social organism' (although later in the book he does consider objections to this view). The hymn 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' expresses this sentiment.

For the good of the social organism one may need to sacrifice the individual, just as a surgeon would amputate a gangrened leg or remove a diseased kidney.

However, the topic of this essay is solipsism. What is solipsism? It is the name of a theory and also characterizes an actual psychological condition (that of the psychopath). As a theory, it doesn't or shouldn't lead to random violence or abuse. It's just a theory which as a philosopher one happens to hold. Whereas psychopaths generally didn't get that way as a result of studying philosophy!

Let's look at the psychopath. You make the objection that if the psychopath's world 'has no more substance than a dream' then why do psychopaths languish in prisons or secure mental institutions? If we are talking about dreams, then it is a general observation that we can't control our dreams completely, although we can make some things happen in our dreams by wishing it. What makes the psychopath's world 'dreamlike' is the fact that only they and their interests are 'real' or 'count' for anything.

One has to be careful here, because many of those we label psychopaths enjoy torturing their victims. But if your victim isn't real, then their pain isn't real either. This just goes to show the danger of label-mongering. I suspect that there is no simple explanation or formula that covers all cases of criminal insanity.

What about the philosophical solipsist, who apparently lives a normal life, respecting the ethical claims of others, who believes (in his/her study) that 'the world is the world of my possible experience, and other persons are just characters in that world'? How do you refute this belief? If everything that will ever happen to me is just 'my experience', then what possible leverage could one get against this view? I won't put my hand in fire because it will lead to a bad experience.

The argument against the philosophical solipsist turns on the idea of truth. We all have the idea of truth. I don't mean the absolute Truth, with a capital 'T', just the way things are, however that may be. I think that there's enough petrol in my Scimitar to get me to Newark and back. As it happens, I'm wrong. My belief wasn't true. Experience teaches us (sometimes, not always unfortunately) which of our beliefs are true and which are false.

But how does the (philosophical) solipsist account for this? The aim is to give the 'best explanation' for my experience. If my car runs out of petrol, when I didn't expect it, I might suspect a leak. But I can't see anything wrong. Maybe a neighbour syphoned it off from my tank during the night. But that's unlikely. It's much more likely that I made a miscalculation when I last filled up, and the petrol gauge is faulty.

The problem is that according to the theory of solipsism there is no other way in which my beliefs can fail to be true, except by things that can turn up in the course of my experience. It's all down to me, and the explanations I am prepared to consider. But nothing in my experience forces me to give rational rather than irrational explanations. If I were becoming increasingly irrational, there would be no way to test this for myself.

The argument against the solipsist theory is that experience is not a hermetically sealed 'world'. There is another viewpoint besides my own, from which my behaviour can be judged independently of how I am inclined to view it. Your viewpoint, for example. That is the basis for the refutation of solipsism. The world of my possible experience is only half the picture. We need to recognize that we are subjects existing in a world which we did not make, potential objects of another person's perception and judgement.

All the best,


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What is a law of nature?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is a law of nature?
Date: 11th January 2011 12:14

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 1 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Methodology module, in response to the question, 'What is a law of nature?'

I haven't looked at the examiners' reports (as you know, I don't do this as a rule) but to my mind you haven't offered an answer to this question, but instead an answer to some question like, 'Evaluate the debate between the regularist and necessitarian accounts of the laws of nature.'

There is a possible clue that you have misunderstood what was asked for, in the fact that you offer a whole list of explanations of the laws of nature:

the methodological account (Cohen)
the inference-ticket account (Schlick, Ramsey)
the invariance account (Woodward)
the agency account (Menzies)
the capacities account (Cartwright)
the functional account (Lange)
the criterial account (Bird)
the dispositional properties account (Popper, Harre and Madden, Shoemaker)
('to mention only a few'!)

If the question were really asking for the *best philosophical explanation* for what makes a law of nature a law of nature, then surely you ought to consider every view and not just pick on the two favourites, or which most appeal to you. However, I don't think the question is asking this. It is asking, simply, What IS a law of nature? Having decided what a law of nature is, we can then go on to discuss explanations of what makes a law of nature a law of nature. You can say this, of course.

It is true that one has to go through some of the same moves. Generality, to take the most pertinent property, is one that surely belongs to laws of nature. But not all generalities are laws of nature. So what makes the difference? The point here, though, is to offer an analysis of 'what makes the difference' by looking at putative examples, and counterexamples. Having reassured ourselves that we have a good idea of what a law of nature is, then the next step is to offer a philosophical justification or explanation of this distinction.

It is also true that rival philosophical explanations will disagree over some cases of putative 'laws of nature'. This is a general feature of debates over explanations generally, not only in philosophy. You adjust the pool of data to fit the theory to some extent. In other words, a trade off. However, the first step is still to identify what we are talking about, what we are seeking to explain.

In my last email I talked about the idea of nature and 'putting questions to nature'. One aspect of the idea that nature is 'lawlike', or governed by or consists in 'laws' is the idea that answers to questions we put to nature will always be truthful. This does not go without saying. Why would the world be like this? Or why must it be?

According to my take on this question, your decision to 'focus on the laws of physics and chemistry' is a strategic error, because the question of what a law of nature is arises in its most acute form when we look at the 'special sciences', and what they regard (rightfully or wrongly) as 'laws'. Here's a test: suppose we are debating the question whether Freud's law of the 'return of the repressed' is a genuine law of nature. How is it helpful to have decided in advance that we are regularists about laws or necessitarians? (Maybe you have an answer to this: but I can't see what it would be.)

We have mentioned generality. What is generality? There are actually two questions here, which are highlighted in the way you lead into your discussion of Hume. There's the question how we decide whether or not a generalization is true, the grounds for asserting a general statement, and the question of what follows if a generalization is true, or what it's truth consists in. Humean scepticism about induction is based on the recognition that the statement that we make has consequences which far outstrip any grounds we have for making the statement.

This is a point I've made before: a generalization (or, at least an unrestricted generalization) makes a very strong claim. If I said that none of the the objects in my study contains over a kilogram of gold, that is a claim which is verifiable by exhaustive search (as if I didn't know it already). If I say that all objects in the universe attract one another with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, then there are all sorts of very good grounds which one could appeal to but none establishes the generalization exhaustively.

I don't know whether anyone has attempted to calculate the total mass of gold in the universe. I assume that an approximate figure could be produced by considering the relative distribution of various kinds of star. Then it is a law of nature that no lump of gold is more than n squared, where n is the maximum possible amount of gold that can exist, given the size and age of the universe, the mechanism for the creation of gold by nuclear fusion etc. If it just so happens that no lump of gold exists anywhere in the universe that weights more than 1000kg, then that deficiency could be rectified. There's a long time to go before the big crunch.

One particular point which you make in your essay which is relevant to the question, 'What is a law of nature?' (as opposed to 'What is the best explanation of what makes a law of nature a law of nature?') concerns instance-less laws and probability laws. These are examples of hard cases which we need to get clear about. But surely we don't need to decide on our explanation of laws of nature first: we know that there are instance-less laws and probability laws. You can't remove these from the pool of 'data'. If you defined a 'law of nature' in such a way to rule them out then (pace Quine) you'd just be changing the subject, talking about something that you've invented (schlaws of nature).

You asked me one question, with regard to your response to van Frassen's objection to Armstrong (p.8-9). The problem for me is that you haven't stated van Frassen's objection in a way that makes it look the least bit plausible. The Romeo example doesn't help. So, for all I know, you are just rebutting a straw man. If all cordates are necessarily renates then my being a cordate necessitates my being a renate, the two properties, in me, are causally linked. The are causally linked because of the kinds of property that they are. When you understand the properties that they are, then you understand why the causal linkage could not fail to be instantiated in any given individual, such as myself.

All the best,


Criteria of identity for persons and for human beings

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Criteria of identity for persons and for human beings
Date: 10th January 2011 12:06

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 31 December with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Are the criteria of identity for persons distinct from the criteria of identity of human beings?'

I was going to say that you managed to say a lot in one hour, then I noticed that this actually took you 1 hour 20 minutes. Still, not bad.

I agree that the question whether all persons are necessarily human beings is a different question from whether the criteria of identity for persons are the same as the criteria of identity for human beings. You are right to put the first question on one side and concentrate on the second. However, you spoil this somewhat by offering the inaccurate gloss, 'Is it necessary and sufficient for a person to be a human being?' on the question, 'Whether a person x1 at t1 is the same person as x2 at t2 in virtue of being the same human being at both times.' Assume that it is necessary and sufficient for a person to be a human being. So all human beings are necessarily persons and all persons are necessarily human beings. Even on this (questionable) assumption, it might still be the case that the criteria of identity for persons and human beings diverge. The same human being might 'become' a different person; or the same person might acquire a new human body.

You do make the important point -- which can easily get missed amongst all the examples and counterexamples -- that the notion of personal identity has two kinds of consequences: for our own sense of what it means to 'survive', and also for our political and legal practice.

The latter is relatively easy to deal with. The science fiction scenarios described by philosophers are extremely unlikely to arise. If they did arise, and become commonplace, then this would indeed involve a radical change to our moral, social, legal and political landscape. But this question is moot. There are very good practical reasons for treating newborn infants and those in persistent vegetative states as 'persons', and this is sufficient to justify regarding the criteria for personal identity as coincident with the criteria for the identity of a human being.

Abortion, on the other hand, is an issue which is contested: if foetuses were persons then abortion would be murder. But I don't think that your answer to the question about the criteria for personal identity and for the identity of human beings needs to decide this issue.

The question of 'what it means to survive' is much harder. Here, I wasn't fully convinced that the question really gripped you. Judith Jarvis Thompson makes an extraordinary claim about the head transplant case. (Although, I once asked two of my daughters when they were much younger 'who would be see in a mirror' if their heads were switched. Both unhesitatingly agreed that they would see their sister's face!) However, given all we know about the role of the brain I find Thompson's answer difficult to believe.

And yet, one only has to tug a little bit at the psychological criterion and it begins to unravel. Wiggins in an important discussion of personal identity (in 'Sameness and Substance') criticizes Locke for failure to recognize that we need a material basis for memory in order to be able to distinguish between 'true' and 'false' memories. Wiggins' own preference is to regard person as a 'natural kind' term (in other words, aligned with the concept of human being). The problem is that we can satisfy the requirement for causal continuity in a material substrate in ways which would allow the fission cases: the example of the 'split brain' is the simplest, but once we accept the idea that in principle brains can be 'programmed', then there is no limit.

Even with two, I think we have to say that I *survive* as A and I also survive as B. This is David Lewises 'intuition'. In that case, what A and B will both say is that, 'I wrote an email to CM on 10 Jan 2011', and, most importantly, each of them will speak the literal truth. (I.e. a 'person' on this view is effectively a 'life history', and life histories can branch -- a view Wiggins detests.)

Imagine a future society where fission was something that occurred fairly often, but not all the time. Various provisions would need to be made: you can't get away with murder, say, by going to a fission booth. If you do, then both A and B must stand trial. And so on. If you met A at a party, and later met B, and they both told you their life story, you would accept this. 'They' were indeed 'both' born at Bushey General Hospital on 17 Jan 1951, even though only one baby emerged from the womb on that day.

But this still doesn't deal with the 'first person view' problem: how I will view a future where A and B are both 'me'? The classic example is where A is sent to a lab to for grotesque medical experiments and B wins 50 million on the Euro lottery. It's something hard to get one's mind around. But, then, what does it mean to 'identify' with a future self anyway? What special kind of caring attaches to 'my own' self that does not apply to others? Parfit (your spell checker changed this to Parfait, as in the dessert!) has a point here.

All the best,


Plato's arguments for the immortality of the soul

To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's arguments for the immortality of the soul
Date: 6th January 2011 11:24

Dear Martin,

Thank you for your email of 26 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Does either (a) the affinity argument or (b) the final argument succeed in proving the immortality of the soul? If not how does it fail?"

Your essay contains some useful discussion of the relation between Plato's theory of Forms and his arguments for the immortality of the soul. As you point out, we have to grant Plato a number of premisses -- not least, the existence of the Forms -- before his argument even gets off the ground. However, I think that your answer to this question could be improved.

First, the most obvious point, if an examiner invites you to either look at argument (a) or look at argument (b) then the 'either...or' is understood in an exclusive sense, 'either... or, but not both'. By contrast, in formal logic, the connective 'v' (Latin 'vel') means, 'either... or... or both', i.e. the inclusive sense of or. This is not a picky point. You won't get extra credit for giving the examiner more than you were asked for!

To be fair, you do make the point that Plato's final argument depends on the previous argument from affinity. (I say more about this below.) So it would be relevant to discuss this dependence. However, it is not until the second paragraph on page 2 that you finally get down to doing what you said you were going to do, i.e. assess the validity of the final argument.

My second criticism, however, is that you miss the invalid step in Plato's proof. I'm stating this somewhat dogmatically, but it is one of those cases (comparatively rare in textual exegesis of Plato) where Plato does appear to commit a blatant non-sequitur.

The soul is the principle of life. As such, it does not 'admit' the opposite of life, i.e. death. Whereas a human body can be alive or dead. But what exactly does this mean? Being alive, for a human being, is having a soul, an active, fully functional life principle. On death, the soul departs and the body ceases all activity.

If someone suggested that a soul could die, this would be nonsensical -- or at least lead to an infinite regress -- as it would assume that the soul itself possesses its own life principle, the 'soul of a soul' which can depart, leaving behind a 'dead soul'.

So far, so good. But what exactly does that mean? When I die, my soul will depart from my body. My soul cannot die (because it doesn't have 'the soul of a soul'). It is the very principle of life. However, the one thing that Plato hasn't proved is that the 'deathless', that which is incapable of death because it is the principle of life, is incapable of being destroyed. He simply asserts it.

It would be fully consistent with what Plato says about the nature of the soul and the way it brings life to the body, to hold that the soul itself can puff out of existence any time, not dying in the way a body dies, by 'losing its principle of life' but simply by instantaneous obliteration. If it happens to be in the body at the time, then the body dies, but the soul can also be destroyed after it has been separated from the body. In other words, the only advantage of having a soul is that we face the prospect of ceasing to exist, twice.

Of course, Plato has an answer to this, but to get that answer we do have to look at his previous arguments, in particular the argument that the soul is 'like' the forms. (You make the point that the final argument depends on the affinity argument, but you don't specifically identify the gap in the final argument that the affinity argument purportedly fills.) The soul cannot be destroyed because it is like the forms, and the forms are eternal and indestructible. But, as you say, this is a weak argument because it doesn't follow from the fact that the soul is 'like' the forms in some respects, that it is like the forms in the crucial respect of being eternal.

You will sometimes see variations on this question such as, ''In the Phaedo Plato is concerned to prove the indestructibility of the soul, not its immortality.' Discuss.' It is fair to say that the dramatic form of the Phaedo obscures Plato's purpose somewhat. One can be reasonably confident that if this question was discussed in the Academy, then the need to fill the gap in the final argument would have been well understood.

All the best,


Hobbes' idea of a state of nature

To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hobbes' idea of a state of nature
Date: 5th January 2011 13:18

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 22 December with your essay toward the Associate Award of the ISFP, entitled, 'The State of Nature (Hobbes)'.

As you recognize in your essay, although according to Hobbes self-interest and the quest for 'honour' play a major role in accounting for our actions, the state of nature already includes the principles of morality. We are fully capable of recognizing the difference between 'right' and 'wrong', even in the state of nature. The problem is that anyone in the state of nature who attempts to live a moral life, respecting the interests and rights of others, can has no confidence or trust that others will do the same.

This problem has come to be known as the 'Prisoners' Dilemma'. The very same problem arises today, in relation to attempts to devise international treaties to limit global warming, or save endangered species such as whales.

The essential point about a state of nature, according to Hobbes, is not so much his pessimistic view of human psychology but rather the impossibility of solving challenges which require social co-ordination and co-operation, while human beings living in that state lack any means of enforcing such co-operation.

You are right to make the point that the state of nature is a myth. Even the most primitive homo sapiens living in caves must have had something analogous to a system of social rules or laws, a tribal leader or despot strong enough to take on all comers who the others accept as having the right to enforce those rules.

That was precisely Hobbes' case: that this is the only way, ultimately, to solve Prisoners' Dilemma scenarios. But was he right?

How would this work, in the case of attempts to make treaties about global warming, for example? Would Hobbes say that the only solution is a World Government?

Hobbes believed, not only that a State was necessary, but that the only way this could work is if there is a single, absolute Monarch, to whom we freely cede all political power in the trust that the Monarch will decide things for our best interests. The period of history which you refer to, the English Civil War, was one where the 'Divine Right of Kings' was invoked. The Parliamentarians under Cromwell rejected the Divine Right of Kings. Hobbes' case is that this is not some mere antiquated religious doctrine. Properly understood, the idea had a sound philosophical basis. That is what Hobbes sought to prove.

This would imply that according to Hobbes' case for the State, democracy is impossible. As soon as you allow two or more people access to political power and decision making, the Prisoners' Dilemma problem breaks out again. Each person pursues his or her own self-interest, and even if one wants to do the ethical thing they can't trust that the other will not take advantage.

The fascinating challenge is to see whether there are loopholes in Hobbes' argument which would allow for a democratic state, and, if so, how this could be achieved in practice.

All the best for 2011,


Thursday, October 17, 2013

J.S. Mill on utilitarianism and justice

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: J.S. Mill on utilitarianism and justice
Date: 5th January 2011 12:26

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 23 December with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Does Mill's utilitarianism take adequate account of our ordinary intuitions about justice?'

This is the second essay I have received on this topic recently. The author of the first essay spent all his time expounding Mill's account of justice in Utilitarianism, and failed to address the key challenges, in particular the problem cases where our intuitions tell us that a utilitarian calculation gives the wrong (because unjust) answer. For a while, I thought your essay was going a similar way, but fortunately you do raise the main issue, albeit in the very last paragraph.

Mill's account of justice has considerable subtlety, and your exposition gives credit to this. Greater utility is achieved because we have a legal system which enforces justice, ensuring that criminals get their just deserts, and adjudicating claims which arise when debts are not paid, contracts not honoured etc. However, as you point out, Mill also recognizes that the very fact that we have a concept of justice, intuitive though it may be prior to philosophical analysis, and even more important the feelings and attitudes associated with that concept, itself promotes the maximum utility.

This gives rise to a pattern of argument and counter-argument which is quite common in discussions of utilitarianism. It is pointed out that, on the basis of the principle that the best action is the one which gives rise to maximum utility, it would be acceptable to hang an innocent man (e.g. to please a rampaging mob, the standard example). The utilitarian replies that recognition that this action was acceptable would itself be to the detriment of society, and to the achievement of maximum utility. Following through the implications of this response, it appears that, on the very basis of the principle of utility, it is for the best that ordinary citizens do not make moral decisions on the basis of utility, but rather consult their intuitive sentiments of morality and justice. (This is a point made by Bernard Williams in various places, including his introductory book 'Morality'.)

Is that a valid point against Mill? Mill launches his Utilitarianism with a stinging attack on 'Intuitionism', and the idea that we are each of us fully equipped to make moral decisions. A moral theory is needed, and the principle of utility provides that theory. However, it remains open to Mill to accept the point but argue for a 'two tier' conception of ethics according to which those in the know -- the moral philosophers -- grasp the true basis for morality and justice, while the ordinary populace necessarily (for good utilitarian reasons) remain blissfully ignorant. This is more or less the position advocated by R.M. Hare in his defence of preference utilitarianism. In other words, we should not confuse the actual process of ethical decision making, and the abilities and knowledge required to make ethical decisions with the philosophical grounds for ethics. Theories which serve to ground ethics are not constructed to meet an immediate practical need but rather seek to defend the very existence of our moral framework.

Unfortunately, this won't do as an answer to those who object on the basis of intuition. The reason it won't do is that our intuitions, about justice, say, and the conviction of an innocent man for the greater good are according to the two-tier theory ultimately an illusion, albeit a necessary illusion. It is for the best that we feel this way. But those in the know, the philosophers, must make decisions on the basis of theory. And theory dictates that if you really knew, for certain, that you could get away with it, then it would be right to frame an innocent man for murder, in order to save the lives of many innocent people.

Well, maybe it would. The problem with examples like these is that they can get cranked up ad infinitum. If you baulk at judicial murder for the sake of, say, a dozen lives, how do you feel about a hundred, or a thousand, or a million? Where do you draw the line? There is a science fiction novel (by a female author whose name I can't remember for the moment) whose key premise is that the entire world is kept blissfully happy, but this requires the perpetual torture of one innocent child. Our moral intuitions rebel. (Again, I can't remember the moral philosopher who quotes this, but you can search on Google.)

The plot of the final series of the BBC series Torchwood exploits a similar scenario. (Spoiler alert!) Nasty aliens want one tenth of the world's children to exploit as a form of heroin (they get high feeding on the imprisoned child's emotions). The aliens are finally defeated, but this requires the deliberate and knowing sacrifice of one child who dies in the most horrible way.

Given these examples, one reaction would be to say that 'ordinary moral intuitions' are not the final court of appeal. Yes, they are important to some extent, but we can't rely on them, for the reasons that Mill gave. They lead us ultimately to inconsistency and incoherence. Only an adequate moral theory can save our ethical beliefs from crumbling in the face of an intransigent reality, and Mill's utilitarianism provides that theory. (I don't agree, but that's another story.)

All the best,


Hume's account of the self vs Cartesian dualism

To: Anna H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's account of the self vs Cartesian dualism
Date: 4th January 2011 13:10

Dear Anna,

Happy new year!

Thank you for your email of 22 December, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Do you agree with the philosopher David Hume that 'I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception'? Examine Hume's account of the self showing the main features that distinguish it from Cartesian dualism.'

In your essay, you show a well tuned appreciation of the mechanics of Hume's theory of ideas, and the difficulties which this raises for the notion of a substantial 'self'. As you argue, Hume's unsuccessful search for the self leads only to failure. Philosophy, it seems, is unable to justify by reason that which we are all fully conversant with, namely we are persons with an identity over time, subjects of experience who have thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

However, there are grounds for hope. As you argue, there does appear room here for a distinction between an empirically based notion of an enduring self, and the discredited Cartesian notion of a soul or non-material substance. In your last sentence, you suggest a possibility that Hume appears to have overlooked: 'that sense perceptions are only foundation stones and not the sole elements in the narrative of our existence'.

In other words, we can be good empiricists and embrace a notion of a self, not as a Cartesian soul substance, but as a construct based on and validated by experience.

How would this work, exactly?

In the program, I offer a kind of justification for Hume's theory, in terms of the 'flock of birds' analogy which you refer to at one point. From a purely logical point of view, if any two experiences A and B are 'present' another (a term one can use is 'co-present'), then any third experience C which is co-present with A is necessarily co-present with B and vice versa. In other words, the very idea of two or more experiences 'occurring' at the same time implies a kind of identity which is purely logical, the identity of a set or class.

At any given time, on this theory, I am aware of all 'co-present' ideas or impressions, the sum total of which logically constitute my present 'self'. (To the objection that we have illegitimately imported the notion of 'I' when all there is, is the set of ideas/ impressions, we can reply that a more accurate statement would be that 'There is awareness of all co-present ideas or impressions...'.)

The difficult part comes when we try to include the passage of time. On this theory, each co-present set of ideas/ impressions leaves behind a memory image, which is then gathered up by the 'next' co-present set, forming, in your words, 'links in a chain'. In the program I talk of 'weaving' overlapping strands together to create the story of a self. The self just 'is' the sum total of overlapping strands, just as a cloth is nothing but the threads the compose it.

At first sight, this seems defensible, and consistent. There is a 'self', not an object of perception as such but a logical construct of mental items. So Hume is right to assert that nothing is perceived apart from perceptions. Yet this theory would also allow him to speak of the 'self' as a legitimate construct.

I am reminded of the infamous remark by Margaret Thatcher: 'There is no such thing as society.' What she meant was that a society is just a collection of individuals, and is nothing apart from those individuals. (She didn't much care for 'sociology'!) However, the question at issue -- assuming the truth of the claim that a society is a class or collection of individuals from a logical point of view -- is whether there are useful things to say about that class or collection in addition to all that can be said about the individuals that compose it. The point here is about reductionism. Even if the objects of biology are the objects of physics (i.e. made of atoms and molecules) it does not follow that you can translate the laws of biology into the laws of physics.

Transposing this to Hume, one might argue that there is room for acknowledging Hume's premise, that all there is to the self is a collection of mental items, while denying the implication that there is nothing that one can say about the subject or self, that cannot be said about the individual items that compose it. In other words, the possibility one might see here is the idea of a 'narrative of our existence' which is more than just an account of all the items that make up the contents of consciousness. Such a narrative is provided by folk psychology. One talks of persons who have beliefs and desires, who feel pleasures and pains, who form intentions to act, who engage with one another in dialogue, offer justifications, praise, blame etc.

The unanswered question is whether the materials which Hume allows are sufficient to enable us to do this. Arguably, what Kant saw, and Hume missed, is that the very notion of a world of external objects, as well as the notion of a subject of experience which traces a path through that world, is a presupposition of our being able to describe our experiences. In other words, there is an a priori aspect to the very notion of a self, or a world, which cannot be reduced to what is empirically 'given' in an uninterpreted stream of ideas an impressions.

All the best,


Kant on our knowledge of arithmetic and geometry

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on our knowledge of arithmetic and geometry
Date: 4th January 2011 12:14

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 22 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, 'Explain and assess Kant's arguments for thinking that our knowledge of arithmetic and geometry is neither analytic nor a posteriori.

You have offered an account of Kant's general reasons in the Critique of Pure Reason for seeking to establish the existence of synthetic a priori truths, with particular reference to his claim that the truths of arithmetic and geometry are synthetic a priori, summarizing his views about the nature of time and space as 'a priori intuitions'.

What you haven't done is give any assessment of Kant's claims regarding arithmetic and geometry. However, this is a very difficult topic. I can imagine someone who has not studied Kant finding your essay useful and instructive.

But let's concentrate on the question of assessment. Is Kant right? You offer no opinion at all on this question.

Let's start by looking at some evidence. It was not until the nineteenth century that relative consistency proofs of non-Euclidean geometries were put forward. (Proofs to the effect that if Euclidean geometry is consistent then non-Euclidean geometry is consistent.) This appears directly to contradict Kant's claim that we know the truth of (Euclidean) geometry a priori. Modern physics and cosmology assume the truth of non-Euclidean geometry (the so called 'curvature' of space, which exhibits the properties of Reimanian geometry). We can't criticize Kant for his lack of knowledge. In his time, there was no evidence that cast doubt on Newtonian mechanics. Now, we know different. But shouldn't he have been able to *anticipate the possibility* that Euclidean geometry might not describe correctly the properties of physical space?

One argument which can be made in defence of Kant would be to say that, even if it is true that non-Euclidean geometry describes the properties of physical space, our 'a priori forms of intuition' require us to perceive space as Euclidean. In other words, we are incapable, owing to the constitution of our minds, of grasping the nature of space as it is in reality. However, for Kant, that would suggest that modern physics and cosmology are sciences of a noumenal world of 'things in themselves' of which we can have no knowledge. The only alternative would be to add a third 'world' in between Kant's phenomenal and noumenal worlds. Euclidean space is phenomenally real; non-Euclidean space is physically real; while the noumenal world lacks spatial properties entirely. That sounds a desperate fix.

Another attack on Kant's view of space -- this time, his claim about the a priori necessary unity of space -- was made by Anthony Quinton in his well-known paper, 'Spaces and Times' (look this up in Google). Quinton imagined a scenario where I fall asleep and wake up in an idyllic fishing village, where I have a completely different life. When I go to sleep there, I wake up in Sheffield. Quinton argued that my ability to describe my experience coherently does not require any assumption about the spatial relation between Sheffield and the idyllic fishing village. They could be on different planets, or even in different universes for all I can ever discover.

There are arguments that can be put forward against Quinton: the fact that my description of my 'double life' seems to make sense does not prove its coherence, in any deep sense. At any given time, say, when I am in Sheffield, all the evidence can gather, including reports of witnesses, is that when I go to sleep, I remain asleep in my bed, although evidently enjoying very pleasant dreams. Exactly the same applies, of course, when I am in my fishing village. In other words, Quinton has not 'described a possible experience', but merely described something which *seems* possible, but which he has not proved to be coherent.

You say something at one point in relation to Kant's argument for the a priori truth of causality which is relevant here. 'For instance, every event must have a cause because an uncaused event could not be experienced.' Really? According to current physical theory we can experience an uncaused event -- e.g. a random click from a Geiger counter. You hear the click, there's no doubt there. There doesn't need to be a causal explanation of why the click occurred just then in order for you to experience it. In fact, the Transcendental Deduction, the Analogies of Experience and the Refutation of Idealism Kant builds a case for determinism, on the grounds that an account of experience in a world where determinism failed would have fatal gaps, it would be deeply incoherent. But, once again, that takes some arguing.

Strawson in 'The Bounds of Sense' argues that Kant's account of the nature of space and time, and his transcendental deduction of the concepts of substance and cause only succeed in establishing the necessity for *sufficient regularity* in the world of our experience. We must be able to reliably identify causes and effects, and trace the paths of spatio-temporal particulars, identifying them as 'the same again' on different occasions. But this does not require the truth of determinism.

What we can say in Kant's favour, is that it is a priori true, as a necessary condition for the possibility of constructing a world on the basis of experience, that we must assume some form of space, which has some geometry, not necessarily three-dimensional Euclidean geometry. That's still an important result. Kant is right to reject the idea that we can 'abstract' space from our experiences, because there would be no experience at all if we were not able to regiment our data according to some objective conceptual schema. However, he has overstated the case in arguing for the synthetic a priori truth of geometry.

I haven't discussed the case of arithmetic. This is another lacuna in your essay. Here, the focus of argument is on Kant's belief in the connection between numbers and the 'a priori form of inner sense', i.e. time. In his 'Foundations of Arithmetic' Frege famously mounted a strong attack on Kant's view of arithmetic. Although Russell and Frege's 'logicist' program (the reduction of arithmetic to logic) failed to fulfil its promise, there are not many today who would accept Kant's view of arithmetic.

All the best,


Fairy tales and the coherentist account of knowledge

To: Emelie G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Fairy tales and the coherentist account of knowledge
Date: 31st December 2010 12:45

Dear Emelie,

Thank you for your email of 17 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Epistemology module, in response to the question, ''The fact that there are coherent fairy tales shows that one might have a coherent system of beliefs without those beliefs amounting to knowledge.' Discuss.'

For the first two pages of your essay, I seriously thought that you had completely confused a coherence theory of truth with a coherence theory of knowledge. This question is about the coherence theory of knowledge. However, finally, at the bottom of page 2 you remark, 'However it is possible to hold the coherence theory of knowledge without the coherence theory of truth.'

Having reached this point, you might have considered whether it might have been worth while to rewrite the essay, making the point about the difference between a coherence theory of truth and a coherence theory of knowledge in your first paragraph, then moving on to consider various formulations of the coherence theory of knowledge, definitions of 'coherence' etc.

It is *much* harder, in my opinion, to defend a coherence theory of truth than it is to defend a coherence theory of knowledge. Brand Blandshard's 'The Nature of Thought', first published before the Second World War, is still one of the main reference works for this theory. Contemporary philosophers who claim to believe in a coherence theory of truth, generally don't hold it in the strong form that Blanshard did.

You also need to consider what the question is asking. You are not being asked to list the various attractions of a coherence theory of knowledge (such as its rejection of dubious foundationalist assumptions, its congruence with our general understanding of the way we evaluate knowledge claims in the real world etc.). The question presents a specific objection to the coherence theory of knowledge, and you are being invited either to rebut that objection or confirm it.

In an exam, your time is limited. It is vital that you keep track of the question and focus all your energy in answering it.

The key issue here is one that you cover in your essay, although it is somewhat buried by irrelevant discussion (of the coherence theory of truth and the attractions of a coherence theory of knowledge etc.). Yes, the can be coherent fairy tales, but in order for this observation to confer the power of justification on the fairy tales in question, they would have to cohere with wider and wider interconnected systems of beliefs.

Moreover -- and this is perhaps the most important point -- not all beliefs are the same, even if they are ultimately all connected in a coherentist network. Quine's image in his famous essay, 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism', of the web of belief, with some beliefs nearer the periphery (so-called 'observational' statements) and other beliefs near the centre (so-called 'truths of logic') is helpful here. Observational statements are not 'privileged' in the sense in which the foundationalist or 'dogmatic empiricist' means this, but they do acquire special importance by virtue of their position near the periphery of the web of belief. In a way, this allows Quine (and coherentists who follow his lead) to have his cake and eat it; to allow observation a special role in the evaluation of the coherence of belief networks, without committing the 'sin' of foundationalism.

One issue which you do not mention at all is whether we are to be 'externalists' or 'internalists' about justification. This does have consequences for the way one interprets a coherentist theory of knowledge.

About the essay generally. I had the feeling (correct me if I'm wrong) that you had a pile of texts in front of you as you wrote this, and this partly explains why you spend too much time discussing e.g. the coherence theory of truth. When it comes to writing the essay, close all your books, put away your notes, and just get started. You can always tweak the essay draft later (for example, if there's something you meant to say which you have in your notes which you forgot about). Obviously, in an exam, you will need to be able to do this. Better to get into the habit now!

All the best for 2011,


Friday, October 11, 2013

Hume and scepticism about causation

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and scepticism about causation
Date: 31st December 2010 12:08

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 15 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley and Hume module, in response to the question, 'In what sense, if any, was Hume a sceptic about causation?'

(Yes, I'm here in my office, on the very last day of the year. However, you needn't feel sorry for me, I don't have too much to do today!)

This essay has given me some pause for thought. I have always held that Hume's first, 'philosophical' definition of causation is in fact a very strong claim, when interpreted in a realist manner (there is no evidence that Hume was anything but a realist about truth, in the contemporary sense of 'realism' as opposed to 'anti-realism'). If it IS true that the stone caused the window to break, then at all times and places, to infinity, ceteris paribus, stone throwing is followed by window breaking. This is something no-one can ever know. I can't think of any necessity that you'd want that was stronger than this. But that's because I agree fundamentally with Hume that there isn't anything *else* to causal necessity than the truth of a universal generalization.

The big catch in all this (as many have pointed out, e.g. Anscombe) is defining the 'ceteris paribus' clause. It can't be done without a residual fringe of vagueness. So what becomes of the alleged 'universality' then? My solution would be to go to the extreme: repeat the big bang (or the start of the universe, wherever you want to start it) an infinite number of times (as in Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, originally a Stoic doctrine). Every time, the stone breaks the window, the entire course of the history of the universe is the same. No ceteris paribus problem because *everything* is the same, modulo where we are in universal time. The only drawback with this is that you need to assume the truth of determinism; whereas arguably there could be causal truths even in a universe where there were occasional deviations from determinism.

I have yet to see any case made that there is something 'underneath' that makes universal causal truths true, the 'secret connexion' or whatever. Like Hume (or like my 'Hume', if that's not what Hume claimed) the idea still makes no sense at all to me.

I do understand, however, that there is lots of stuff we don't know about how objects are able to exert influence on one another, the unknown 'powers and principles' that I think Hume is appealing to. This is an empirical matter. Newton thought that gravity had to be taken as an ultimate, as you say, he has no 'hypothesis' to explain it. But that's no longer the case. There are (as I understand) several candidates for an explanation of why gravity exists and how it works.

All this is fully consistent with the universalist definition of causation. There isn't an extra 'super-power' which enables all the various powers and principles to do their work. Their working in the way that they do is just how the world works, how causation happens.

Another example which I have been thinking about recently: Descartes in the 'Meditations' argues that material objects continue to exist from one moment to the next only because of God's continual exertion of his creative power. I think Descartes saw something here that many have missed. You need an explanation of why an object which exists at t, also exists at t' no less than you need an explanation of why an object continues at constant speed in a straight line unless acted upon by a force, i.e. an explanation of the phenomenon of inertia. In both cases, this is a fact or law of nature, which could have been otherwise, and the physicist has the option of taking this as an ultimate (as in Newtonian gravity) or seeking a deeper explanation. 'Existential inertia' is not true a priori.

You say one thing which I definitely disagree with: 'First, an assertion that there definitely is no real connection is too dogmatic, too out of keeping with the non-committal scepticism he shows elsewhere, for example in his views about the existence of external objects.' I take it that you are referring to the section, 'On Scepticism With Regard to the Senses'. Non-committal? Hume despairs of his conclusion, his only recourse (famously) is to go off and play a game of backgammon. This is where philosophy leads you. Believe what you like when you are not doing philosophy.

I have something to say about this in my new blog Hedgehog Philosopher, Day 14:

As I see it Hume's agenda is to limit the pretensions of reason to make room for his theory of human nature. This was Hume's great discovery. He was to be the Newton of the mind. To say, for example, that a material object 'continues' to exist, 'distinct' from the act of perceiving it, IS to make a statement about human psychology.

Where Hume's treatment of causation differs is in the availability of two definitions, a philosophical definition and a psychological one. He badly needs a philosophical definition of 'continues to exist' but never provides one. However, arguably, Kant provided the missing account in his transcendental deduction of the category of substance.

All the best,


Truth value of 'Santa Claus does not exist'

To: Atilio G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Truth value of 'Santa Claus does not exist'
Date: 30th December 2010 14:01

Dear Atilio,

Thank you for your email of 14 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Logic module, in response to the question, 'Is there a satisfactory account of the truth of the sentence 'Santa Claus does not exist'?'

This is a good essay. It doesn't matter too much that it took you longer than an hour to write. That time has been well spent. The chances are if you came across a suitable question in the actual exam, your writing would be more fluent. (One must always be aware, however, that the nuances of the question in the actual exam might be different so you can't simply rely on memorizing an essay that you've written for practice.)

I would qualify what you say about Parmenides, with the observation that the view amongst scholars seems to be that his question about 'What is not' is not solely confined to 'what does not exist'. For Parmenides, the very notion of negation is problematic. It is equally problematic in the statement, 'x is not F' for some predicate F, or x is not y, where the 'is' in question signifies identity.

I am trying to recall where -- or whether -- Frege claims that in the case of a name lacking a referent, such as 'Santa Claus', we can make the true statement, 'Santa Claus does not exist.' Surely not. The statement, 'Santa Claus does not exist' is *not* the same statement as, ''Santa Claus' lacks a referent.' The first statement is purportedly about an object, while the second statement is about a referring term. The first is about the world, while the second is about language. Whereas in the example, 'Tom believes that Santa Claus came down the chimney last night', the term 'Santa Claus' refers to the sense of the term 'Santa Claus', which is different from the (alleged) reference of 'Santa Claus' and different again from the linguistic term 'Santa Claus'.

Frege viewed the possibility that purportedly referring terms lack a referent as a defect of natural language. His view is generally associated with the idea of 'truth value gaps'. If I say 'Santa Claus came down the chimney', the reference of my statement is neither to 'the True', nor 'the False' because the reference of a statement is a function of the references of its constituent parts, and, by hypothesis, the term 'Santa Claus' lacks a reference. However, this can easily be patched up if we stipulate that the reference of purportedly referring terms which lack a reference is to be some arbitrary abstract object, e.g. the null set. Then the statement, 'Santa Claus came down the chimney' is false because it is false that the null set came down the chimney.

Frankly, I think this is quite an elegant solution, and a lot more economical than Russell's theory of descriptions.

Your objection to Russell's analysis is be that it is 'not correct' to say that 'x is Santa Claus' is always false, i.e. in terms of first-order predicate logic, Not-(Ex)(x is Santa Claus). Or, if we are being more specific, Not-(Ex)(x wears a red coat and x lives at the North Pole and x brings presents to children at Christmas and...). On the contrary, we say and believe lots of things about 'Santa Claus'.

In defence of Russell, however, there is no inconsistency in claiming that a statement like, 'Santa Claus wears a red coat and lives at the North Pole' is false. However, what is not false is that this statement is often made or believed, in which case we have a true statement where the belief or claim about Santa Claus occurs in an indirect context, as in the case of little Tom. It is true that Tom believes that Santa Claus came down the chimney and also true that Santa Claus did not come down the chimney. Of course, that still leaves us with the challenge of analysing indirect contexts, but that is different from the challenge of accounting for the truth conditions for 'Santa Claus does not exist'.

There is, however, a problem which you do not mention, namely that is no clear consensus about which predicates are such that their joint satisfaction would entail the existence of Santa Claus. In other words, there seems to be an unacceptable arbitrariness about the definition of the predicate, 'x is Santa Claus'.

With regard to Gareth Evans' resourceful analysis. It is important to remember that if I state, 'Santa Claus does not exist', meaning, 'Santa Claus does not really exist' in Evans' sense, then I am making a statement about the things that exist (i.e. really exist), to the effect that none of them satisfy the predicates taken to be jointly definitive of the predicate, 'x is Santa Claus'. I am not making a statement about the fictional or mythical object 'Santa Claus'. (I'm not saying that you imply this.) If I were, then this would imply the possibility that the fictional 'Santa Claus' could acquire the extra property of 'real existence'. Or, correlatively, that some object in the actual world could lose the property of 'real existence'. And that is not (on my understanding) what Evans is claiming. If 'real existence' is a property which some Meinongian 'object' can either have or lack, then we are back with the old problem which Frege's analysis was designed to solve.

All the best for 2011!