Saturday, December 28, 2013

Moral dilemmas and Mill's greatest happiness principle

To: Lautaro B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral dilemmas and Mill's greatest happiness principle
Date: 3rd May 2011 13:38

Dear Lautaro,

Thank you for your email of 25 April, with your essays for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, on the topic of Dilemmas:

''The truth of Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle is incompatible with the fact that we sometimes face dilemmas'. Explain and discuss.

'What is Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle? Is it undermined by the fact that people face dilemmas?'

'In what way, if any, do moral dilemmas pose a problem for moral principles such as Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle?'

(Your essays on the topic of Equality are on my desk for tomorrow. On Thursday and Friday I have to edit and send out the two Pathways e-journals!)

The point which you make in all three essays is that the existence of moral dilemmas is a fact, which is consistent with the greatest happiness principle -- in at least many if not all cases -- because we lack sufficient knowledge to calculate the 'best' consequences of different decisions, in terms of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

I said, 'in at least many cases', because presumably there will be some moral dilemmas which you can solve by carefully thinking about the consequences in terms of human happiness. What Mill advises (in effect) is that when you feel pulled ethically in different directions, what you have to do is calmly calculate 'what would happen if', and then act according to the result of your calculation.

I do think that there is a point you have missed here. The crucial question is whether moral dilemmas are 'real' or only 'apparent'.

I would distinguish between two kinds of situation which colloquially we describe as 'dilemmas'. In the first kind of situation, the decision that you have to make involves competing considerations of the same kind: e.g. saving the life of A versus saving the life of B. Here, arguably, there is nothing you can do but draw straws or spin a coin. However, in the second kind of situation -- the true dilemma -- the considerations are not comparable. There is no 'common denominator' (contrary to what Mill says about consequences for human happiness). Here, it seems that the utilitarian is merely assuming what needs to be proved, that you can translate, or calculate any situation requiring a moral decision into a 'common coin'.

According to the greatest happiness principle, moral dilemmas are only apparent. As you state, it is our lack of knowledge which leads to indecision. But there is a 'right' answer, out there in reality, if only we had the capacity to calculate it.

At this point one needs to take into account a complicating factor: Mill's acceptance of the intuitive distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures arguably does render the idea of a 'sum' of happiness which can be theoretically calculated problematic. It would be necessary to give precise numerical values to each kind of pleasure, and it is hard to see how this can be done on Mill's theory, where higher and lower pleasures are literally incommensurable. If you know both, you can as Mill states judge which is better, but how much better?

Leaving that point aside, someone who takes moral dilemmas seriously (as I do) would be more inclined to argue that there *is no answer in reality* to a moral dilemma. We certainly have no right to assume otherwise. On the contrary, the more you go into the nature of a moral dilemma and the kinds of circumstances which generate moral dilemmas, the less plausible the idea of an 'answer in reality' becomes.

The big question here concerns the onus of proof. Where does it lie? Does the onus of proof lie with the one who claims that dilemmas are only apparent -- relative to our ignorance -- not real? or does it lie with the one who claims that there 'is' an answer in reality? What do you think?

Taking moral dilemmas seriously poses a problem, not just to Mill's utilitarianism, but to any ethical theory (such as deontological theories) which aims at providing some kind of theoretical basis or foundation for our moral reasoning. Imperfect creatures as we may be, there are moral truths to be discovered, or in whose existence we must believe even if we are incapable of discovering them.

I don't believe that. Moreover, I don't think that the impossibility of a 'moral theory' in this sense necessarily requires us to take a moral subjectivist view. You can defend an objective view of ethics, the idea that there is something which ultimately serves as the foundation of all moral judgements, without viewing this as something which can be used to generate moral judgements, by some ideal method of ratiocination.

All the best,


Descartes' arguments for the existence of God

To: Egor S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' arguments for the existence of God
Date: 3rd May 2011 12:57

Dear Egor,

Thank you for your email of 27 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume module in response to the question, 'Explain the strengths and weaknesses of Descartes' arguments for the existence of God'.

The most remarkable thing about this essay is that you offer no less than FIVE arguments for the existence of God which you attribute to Descartes -- God as origin of knowledge, God as cause of myself, innateness of the idea of God, God's existence as a necessary attribute of a perfect being, God as the guarantor of truth -- while I always thought that Descartes has essentially TWO arguments, the argument from the idea of infinity and the ontological argument!

However, I understand what you are doing here. There is a distinction between arguments deliberately put forward and flagged as 'arguments for God's existence' and arguments which can be extracted from the text, with a certain degree of charitable interpretation.

I think you need to state this, and support your claim with clear references. (To be fair, you do offer some references to Meditations, not not in support of each of the five arguments you attribute to Descartes.)

What would be proof of the existence of God? In Meditation 1 Descartes considers the possibility that all his experience is caused by an 'evil demon' who is far more powerful than he is. Clearly, it would not be sufficient to argue for the existence of 'some being more powerful than I' if this description is satisfied by the evil demon. That is not an argument for the existence of God. Nor is it what Descartes clearly wants: to prove that the ultimate source of his being and his experiences, is wholly benign, not deceiving, all powerful and not just very powerful.

But let's look at each of the arguments in turn:

God as origin of knowledge

My knowledge must come from somewhere. Maybe it comes from the evil demon? In that case it isn't 'knowledge' but merely a deceptive, albeit coherent dream. But that was the very thing that Descartes sets out to disprove! Why must the origin of knowledge be God?

The reply would be, 'Where does the evil demon's knowledge come from?' This is your point about the infinite (vicious) regress. There must be something concerning which we do not need to ask, 'Where it's knowledge comes from' because its very nature is such that it does not depend on some other being, i.e. God.

Does Descartes say this? where? This is an example where you must give a reference back up your claim. I don't think you can extract this from the formal reality/ objective reality distinction.

Leaving that aside, how good is the argument? Whereas there is no doubt that there IS motion, Descartes himself has raised the question whether there is any knowledge. I can see an argument to the effect that if there is knowledge then God must exist, as any other source of our experiences would not have sufficient reliability to count as a source of knowledge.

Arguably, the theory of evolution does offer an explanation of why we are beings naturally constituted to be capable of gaining knowledge necessary for our survival. This is a point made by contemporary innatists such as Peter Carruthers -- that you can be a good empiricist yet claim that our sense of what constitutes the 'best explanation' is in some sense innate.

God as cause of myself

Once again, the evil demon could have created me? Why not? The point about perfection is that, armed with the idea of different 'degrees' of perfection (as you state, based on observation of beings less perfect than me) I can conceive of something with greater perfection. But this could still be the evil demon. Only something infinitely perfect satisfies the requirements for being God.

However, I actually think that the idea of 'God as cause of myself' is very powerful as an incentive to belief (I state this as an atheist). In my book 'Naive Metaphysics' I argue that an all-knowing God cannot know one thing: that *I* exist -- because from God's perspective there is no difference between my existence and GK's existence. That I am GK (cf. Thomas Nagel's 'I am TN' in 'The View From Nowhere') is something God can never know.

But I can see how this argument could also be turned around. No scientific account (such as the Big Bang theory) could ever explain why *I* exist. At most, it can only explain why GK exists. I don't know how God could create I (given what I said in the previous paragraph!) but no natural cause would be adequate either, so it must be a 'non-natural' cause, such as God is meant to be, even though I cannot comprehend how this is possible.

Innateness of the idea of God

This is more recognizably Descartes' 'argument from the idea of infinity'. I accept that there is 'circular reasoning' in the claim that I HAVE the idea of infinity. This is a big question in philosophy, especially philosophy of mathematics. Do we have this idea? You can define an infinite set in terms of '1-1 correspondence with a proper subset' but this reduces the notion of the infinite to a kind of rule (such as the rule for constructing the series of natural numbers, 'plus 1').

The 20th century continental philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, in his great opus 'Totality and Infinity' makes a comparison between Descartes' argument from the idea of infinity and our idea of the Other, as something that goes beyond 'totalizing' knowledge. This is part of his project of constructing an 'ethical' basis for metaphysics in the existence of the Other -- a kind of parallel to Descartes' case for God.

I only mention this because I do feel that Descartes has latched onto a very powerful idea, even though, finally, I am not convinced.

God's existence as a necessary attribute of a perfect being

This is the ontological argument. I think that this argument can be given a better run for its money than you give it. In contemporary discussions the key feature emphasized is the possibility of God. What the ontological argument effectively claims is that if the notion of God is conceivable -- if it does not entail any logical contradiction, or if God exists in some possible world -- then God must exist in all possible worlds. In other words, it puts the onus on the disbeliever to prove that God does not exist in any possible world, i.e. that the very notion of God as defined is incoherent and contradictory.

God as the guarantor of truth

As with the first argument which you describe -- the argument from knowledge -- there is clearly a worry about begging the question. What Descartes is setting out to establish is that there is such a thing as knowledge, that it is possible to distinguish truth from falsity. Maybe I am being deceived by an evil demon in which case there is no knowledge and no truth.

However, this is an argument I have seen deployed by a contemporary philosopher: Michael Dummett, who is well known as an expositor of Frege and who has also put forward some very challenging arguments for an 'anti-realist theory of meaning' where the notion of truth is replaced by verifiability, has expressed the view that this could be the basis of a Berkeley-style argument for the existence of God, if we find the Protagorean consequences of an anti-realist view of truth repellant.

All the best,


Why should others count in my deliberations?

To: Nicola A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why should others count in my deliberations?
Date: 29th April 2011 14:03

Dear Nicola,

Thank you for your email of 18 April, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why must others count in my deliberations?'

First of all, we need to separate to very different senses in which others might 'count' in my deliberations.

At the beginning of your essay you say, 'Everybody in our deliberations must count, even people we may not like, as whatever choices we make will affect that person because otherwise they would not even be considered in our deliberations in the first place... We may not like someone but if we have thought about them in any way then they count.'

In this sense of 'counting' it is also true that, e.g., traffic lights, the labels on medicine bottles, wasps, the weather forecast etc. count in my deliberations. That is to say, I take them into account because this has consequences for me (getting knocked over, getting poisoned, stung, drenched etc.). What we are concerned here is with the prudential evaluation of consequences. The assumption behind prudential reasoning is that I am seeking the best outcome for myself, and I have to take account of how the world is, the things that I encounter or may encounter in the world, in order to do this.

Among the things I encounter in the world are people. From a purely prudential point of view I have to 'take them into account', because they have the potential either to aid, or to thwart, my intentions.

The question, of course, concerns a different kind of 'counting'. The question is why I should care about the consequences of my actions for other people, for their sake, rather than in terms of how their reactions to my behaviour might affect me and my plans. In other words, 'Why be moral?'

As you note, there are persons who behave as if 'all this world is their stage'. People who do this consistently are categorized as psychopaths. However, more people do this sometimes, when they fly into a rage and do things they would not do in a calmer state of mind. The philosophical problem is what reason can be found to justify our natural and for the most part reliable sense that the consequences of our behaviour for others is something that matters, something we care about.

Scanning through your essay, I find two arguments, although these are expressed rather briefly. I will examine each one in turn.

'Basically I think we should all treat and respect others as we would wish to be treated.' Superficially, this could be read as just an expression of your point of view, your ethical 'faith'. This is what you believe, but not everyone does believe this. However, it can also be seen as a compressed argument. Who am I? What makes me special? Insofar as I have attributes which no other human being has (e.g. currently sitting at a desk at 45 Wolseley Road), this is true of every living human being. Each of us is unique in our own special way. This idea that I am 'special' cannot be used to justify the conclusion that, e.g. a psychopath would draw, that the only thing that matters is what affects me. 'Because I want it' is not the only legitimate reason.

This argument relates to what we discussed earlier in the program in relation to the 'principle of sufficient reason' and the 'disinterested standpoint'. The problem is that, as it stands, it allows very callous behaviour. For example, suppose I believe in total self-sufficiency. Accepting food from you when I am hungry would violate that belief. Therefore I will not offer you food when you are hungry.

Your second argument is, 'You cannot refuse the existence of all the other 'I's... it would mean that you think you existed as an 'I', but nobody else did, but if this was true... then we wouldn't be affected by other 'I's. But we are affected by other 'I's, and so therefore, they must exist just as we do!'

In other words, the reason why others *must* count in my deliberations is simply that they *do*. This is a brute matter of fact. I am affected, I cannot feign indifference. I recognize here a view which the philosopher David Hume argued for, that the basis of ethics lies in 'natural sympathy'.

The strength of this position, which is basically a moral subjectivist view, depends on the perceived impossibility of offering any argument or justification for the natural belief that others 'must' count in one's deliberations. Philosophers who seek such an argument are in error. That's what Hume believed. Whereas Kant held that an argument can be found, demonstrating some kind of 'objective' and not merely 'subjective' basis for our moral beliefs. -- Both equally ethical philosophers, who differed on a fundamental point of principle, so far as ethics is concerned.

All the best,


Berkeley, Leibniz and common sense materialism

To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Berkeley, Leibniz and common sense metaphysics
Date: 29th April 2011 13:22

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 18 April, with your fifth and final essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Can idealism be reconciled with our common sense view of ourselves as agents in a material world? Discuss with relation to either Berkeley's immaterialism, or Leibniz's theory of monads.'

This is an excellent paper. I am impressed by the work you have done here, in struggling with the problem of the relation between ourselves and God, or between the finite plurality and infinite unity -- or however one wishes to express this.

You are also one of the few students who have fully grasped that the difficulty in making sense of our existence is just as much on the side of materialism as it is on the side of idealism.

As it happens, the problem of separation between the Creator and his creatures wasn't actually the point of the question, which I will explain in a minute, but that's a minor detail.

Regarding the relation between ourselves and God in Berkeley's philosophy, there are two issues that need to be addressed. You have concentrated on the question of our independence, our ability to act for ourselves and exert our free will, despite the assumption of God's foreknowledge. As you note, this was a prominent topic in Medieval theology.

The other issue, which you mention but don't have a lot to say about, concerns the difference between actuality and mere possibility. If we accept that in some sense the thought of all possible worlds is in the mind of God, as Leibniz explicitly claimed, and which Berkeley would certainly not deny, the question arises what God has to *do* in order to make one of these possible worlds, one of the worlds merely 'thought', into an actual world, a world that actually *exists*.

One answer would be that there is nothing God has to do, because His mere thought about a possible world suffices for its actuality. This is a heretical notion, according to any view of Christian doctrine (I don't know whether, as a matter of fact, there were heretics who held this view) because what it means is that God is equally responsible for the existence of every possible world, including worlds of the utmost horror and depravity. Whereas, as we know, Leibniz claimed that God out of His infinite goodness *chose* to create this world, the 'best' of all possible worlds. This world is actual, while all the other worlds -- including the finite subjects enjoying experiences in those worlds -- are merely possible, mere thought, not actuality.

The idea that all possible worlds are equally real, and that what we term the 'actual' world is merely a function of perspective -- in other words, that every possible world is 'actual' in relation to the subjects inhabiting it -- has been defended by David Lewis (see 'On the Plurality of Worlds') although there are not many contemporary philosophers who would agree with Lewises radical view. I attempt a kind of reconciliation in the final chapter of my book 'Naive Metaphysics' (downloadable from the Pathways site).

But the problem remains. You can't define actuality in terms of perceiving subjects, if perceiving subjects exist in other possible worlds too!

I said I would talk about the point of the question, which is somewhat at an oblique angle from these issues.

Suppose God had created a world in which there existed intelligent beings who had the freedom of thought, but were immobile, like trees. They could talk to one another, discuss the weather and the movements of animals in the forest etc. but their own freedom was the freedom of thought. You could still be guilty of 'bad thoughts' or be praised for 'good thoughts'. There would still be a question for tree theologians to discuss, regarding whether God's foreknowledge of every good or bad thought deprived the subject of their free will.

But this isn't (and I would argue, couldn't be) the way things are. We are physical agents, 'agents in a material word'. This was the point Dr Johnson was making when he kicked the stone in the church courtyard after listening to one of Berkeley's sermons.

Why can't Berkeley say (as you in effect do when you talk about rapping your knuckles on the desk) that what we innocently describe as physical actions, are merely sequences of experience arranged by God? Would that be so bad? Dr Johnson thought it would be, and I tend to agree although I think a lot more argument needs to be given to back up the physical demonstration!

All the best,


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Stages of doubt in Descartes' 1st Meditation

To: Egor S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Stages of doubt in Descartes' 1st Meditation
Date: 27th April 2011 14:38

Dear Egor,

Thank you for your email of 19 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume module in response to the question, 'Describe the successive stages of doubt that Descartes set out in the First Meditation. Do they cover all pre-existing beliefs or are some left untouched?'

This is a well written essay which focuses for the most part on the question being asked: whether the stages of doubt that Descartes describes leave some pre-existing beliefs 'untouched'. Possibly, you stray a little from the topic in considering objections to Descartes' account of sensory perception. In an exam, any discussion or critique must be shown to be relevant to the question you are being asked.

One question which you raise concerns Descartes' attitude to the belief in God. You consider the argument that Descartes doesn't have to assume God's existence, because he is merely constructing a sceptical hypothesis and putting the onus on the anti-sceptic, but you are not fully satisfied with that response. You say, 'to invalidate the deceiving God argument one has to prove its impossibility. Which in practice involves presenting an alternative and more convincing account of how the world came about. In our day, such an account is readily available: it is provided by natural science. But, again, not in Descartes' time.'

Well, I don't agree with you here. Let's say that the scientific account of how the world came about is more 'convincing' than the God theory. They are both theories. We don't *know* which one is true. We can't *assume* the truth of one theory in order to defeat the other theory. Because everything is up for grabs. As it happens, Descartes could be described as the founder of modern science, no-one believed as passionately as he did that a natural explanation can be given for the existence of the world. Except, of course, that he believed (as many still do today) that this is fully consistent with belief in God as ultimate 'creator'.

However, I do think that you are onto something. Descartes makes an assumption, which is more subtle than the assumption that God exists (either a 'good' God or an 'evil God). His assumption is that *something* exists apart from immediate subjective experience, which is its cause or source. There could not be a reality which consisted entirely of my subjective experience. In other words, he rejects the alternative of egocentric subjectivism. You might think 'who would want to be an egocentric subjectivist?'. Another term to describe this view would be 'transcendental solipsism'. Although no philosopher has explicitly defended this, there is a hint in the Tractatus that Wittgenstein was tempted by this theory. Or perhaps more than tempted. I talk about this theory in my book 'Naive Metaphysics'.

There is also something rather important that you have missed out. It is interesting that you describe State 2 of the method of doubt as 'Madness and dreaming', but then you go on to talk only about dreaming. What about madness?

Descartes says something very interesting here. He considers the possibility that he might be a 'madman' but immediately dismisses the idea. The thought that he might be mad, and all his thoughts the thoughts of a madman are beyond the pale, so far as he is concerned. He isn't going there!

Is he right to take that view? He is doing philosophy, and in philosophy you are guided by your sense of what is, or is not, a rational argument. If you couldn't be sure whether you were being rational or not then, arguably, there would be no point in the exercise at all. OK, but still we can ask, 'Where does rationality come from? how are the standards for rationality recognized and applied?' Here I think you are absolutely right to say that 'leaving language and communication out of consideration makes for a very deficient description of the cognitive process.'

This does seem to be a big question mark against Descartes' project. As you say, 'Can you base a general philosophical inquiry entirely on your own experience?' Consider someone who suffers from paranoia. Let's say I am convinced that I am being spied on by the KGB. I find 'clues' everywhere. When I came to my office this morning, one of my books seemed to have moved. The KGB were here last night searching through my things. You can't argue against paranoid beliefs, you can only offer treatment. We understand the difference in perspective between the patient, and the psychiatrist. There's another viewpoint besides my own. There are certain questions which I cannot ask for myself (and asking others doesn't help either). But that doesn't prevent it being a legitimate hypothesis, e.g., that I have lost my sanity. There are some hypotheses that you can't investigate for yourself.

I think that this line of thought connects with the idea of transcendental solipsism. In effect, Descartes assumes what needs to be proved, that transcendental solipsism is incoherent. It is incoherent because it would require the solipsist to verify his own rationality for himself.

All the best,


Nozick on redistributive taxation and forced labour

To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nozick on redistributive taxation and forced labour
Date: 27th April 2011 13:52

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 19 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'Is redistributive taxation on a par with forced labour?'

As someone with socialist/ distributionist inclinations, I would like to agree with you that Nozick is wrong to claim that redistributive taxation is on a par with forced labour. However, I disagree with your characterization of Nozick's project of 'seeking to base [a] political theory on a single value ignoring others.' That makes it sound as if Nozick is putting forward his views in the spirit of 'best explanation', as one might seek to base a physical theory on as few hypothesized unobservables as possible. The idea would be that if you can get your political theory to work, using just one kind of value as the basis for the theory, then that would be sufficient to show that appeal to any other values is redundant.

There are parallels in other areas of philosophy: if you can get a theory of meaning in terms of verification conditions to 'work' then, arguably, appeal to truth conditions is redundant. Verification conditions are 'manifested' in linguistic usage (as argued by Michael Dummett) and are therefore more respectable from an empiricist standpoint. Appeal to the idea of truth conditions is making a bigger, more 'risky' claim.

But Nozick isn't saying this. He is issuing a challenge to anyone who wishes to defend rights other than those based on contract or defined negatively as 'non-interference' rights. If you say that the hungry have a 'right' to be fed, Nozick can say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' Intuitions or gut feelings have no value in philosophical debate if you can't offer a persuasive argument. Contract and non-interference are two concepts which offer a persuasive basis for rights, *and nothing else does*.

In other words, the onus is on, say, the redistributionist to defend their view that the hungry have a right to food, etc.

But Nozick isn't content to leave things there. He offers some remarkably inventive thought experiments designed to help us let go of our insufficiently examined prejudices regarding the nature of rights.

You offer two arguments against Nozick. The first is designed as a wedge to get Nozick to accept that there are some rights which he cannot account for. Do children have a 'positive natural right to be maintained by their father'? You think it would be difficult for Nozick to say no, given the strong intuition that courts are right to enforce maintenance payments. Well, let's not challenge this intuition. Your example is of marriage, but let's make things more difficult for ourselves and consider the case of a man who makes a woman pregnant then leaves her. In these cases too (at least in the UK) courts can enforce maintenance payments. The basis for this has nothing to do with the belief that fatherless children have a right to support. The father, and he alone, has this special obligation.

You could argue that there is some kind of implicit 'contract' when a woman consents to sex, or alternatively, that to engage in sex with the intention of not contributing to maintenance if pregnancy results is a form of interference with the rights of the woman. Consider, e.g. the case where a man lies to a woman that he has 'taken proper precautions', and contrast this with the case where the woman has lied to the man. I won't deny that Nozick has work to do here, but this is beginning to look like a rather ineffective wedge, precisely because the rights of the offspring have arisen directly as a result of the man's knowing and voluntary action.

Your second argument concerns Nozick's example of forcing Smith to give up some of his leisure time to help the needy. According to Nozick, there is no difference in principle between this case and the case of taxation. Your objection is to the effect that a gradation or spectrum of cases between A and B doesn't show that B is 'really' A. Some 'principled' distinctions can be vague.

Nozick is arguing explicitly ad hominem. His target here, as you state, is someone who thinks that taxation for the purpose of redistribution is not forced labour, whereas being required to give up some of your leisure time against your will is forced labour. Suppose a government introduced a scheme whereby you could 'buy' your way out the obligation to pay income tax by undertaking a sufficient number of hours of community service. I would do it.

The term 'forced labour' is very emotive. Jury service is 'forced labour', in a sense, so is conscription. What Nozick would say is that everything depends on the *purpose* for which you are being required to give up your time. Some purposes are legitimate from the point of view of his theory of rights, and others -- those whose aim is redistribution -- are not. So I tend to agree with him on this point, that IF I am required to work extra time to pay the tax man in order to feed the hungry, then this is no different in principle from being required to give up some of my leisure time to help out in the community soup kitchens.

All the best,


Can we give a non-circular justification of deduction?

To: Atilio G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can we give a non-circular justification of deduction?
Date: 22nd April 2011 14:18

Dear Atilio,

Thank you for your email of 16 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Logic module, entitled, 'Can we give a non-circular justification of deduction?'

As you observe in your essay, there are philosophers who hold that logic needs to be justified, and other philosophers who hold that logic doesn't need to be justified, because 'it is at the core of thought itself'. I'm not sure I fully understand what this means, but presumably this isn't meant to be a kind of backdoor 'justification' of logic. What these philosophers are saying is that it is simply absurd to ask for a justification of logic.

So, if we ask these philosophers (the ones who think it is absurd to ask for a justification of logic) whether a non-circular justification of deduction can be found, the will say no. If it is absurd to ask for a justification then it is equally absurd to offer one, circular or non-circular.

We can leave this view aside, because it is not relevant to the essay question. Those who think that logic doesn't need justification haven't got anything interesting to say, so far as our question is concerned.

I don't really see that contrasting 'empiricist epistemology', 'realist metaphysics' and 'rationalist metaphysics' is helpful either. What we really need to do is concentrate on the issue of ways and means of justifying deduction.

Which brings us to Dummett and Haack (incidentally, it's Susan Haack in *her* article!). You state that Dummett contrasts suasive justification and explanatory justification, but disappointingly you don't offer any more detail about this. That question is really at the heart of this essay. What kind of thing is Dummett talking about when he refers to 'explanatory' justification?

This is the opportunity for you to offer an exposition of Dummett, and to comment on his claim that the explanatory justification of deduction is a legitimate kind of 'justification'.

In order to do that, you would need to modify what you say about justification at the beginning of your essay. 'Justification is an argument that proves some hypothesis.' That's not true. Not all justifications are proofs.

Consider empirical justification. You say to your friend, 'Why did you go out without your jacket? It might rain.' Your friend replies, 'I saw the weather forecast this morning, and it said that it would be sunny all day.' That's not a proof that no rain will fall. It's perfectly reasonable to decide what to wear on the basis of the weather forecast, but, still, we all know that forecasters sometimes get it wrong.

Even though it is accepted that there is no cast iron proof of the validity of induction, couldn't we say that logic is justified because it is tried and tested and has shown itself to be reliable? I would be more confident in the conclusion of a logical argument than in any weather forecast. Deduction works. What more could we want?

In his paper, 'The Justification of Deduction', Dummett raises questions about logic which can't be answered by this pragmatist response. Even though logic 'works', much of the time, that isn't an answer, e.g. to doubts about classical logic and whether classical logic ought to be replaced by intuitionist logic. Both classical logic and intuitionist logic 'work'. In fact, so long as we are confined to reasoning about things we experience, the empirical world, there is no real difference between the two systems of logic. It is only when one comes to mathematics, that the difference becomes apparent.

Dummett's view is that what 'justifies' a system of logic is a theory of meaning. This is not 'suasive' justification which would convince a sceptic who refused to believe in logical deduction as such, but it goes further than merely being 'explanatory', because it is concerned with resolving a debate in the philosophy of mathematics. The implication is that we have to make a reasoned choice, based on the correct theory of meaning. The question of which theory of meaning is the 'correct' theory is one for proof, even though at the present time the debate has still not been resolved.

You also talk about Kant's table of categories. I do think that there is an element here which is relevant to the question of the justification of deduction. Kant is describing basic ways in which we subsume experience under concepts, and what is most notable about this is that human knowledge is essentially inferential. As Kant argues in his 'Refutation of Idealism', there could not be a possible 'reality' which consisted purely of experiences. Our experiences are 'of an external world'. Logic has utility for the very same reason that the world is more than my subjective experience. To show that logic is not redundant but has a necessary role to play in human knowledge is a kind of 'justification'.

All the best,


Egoism and Aristotle's view of happiness

To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Egoism and Aristotle's view of happiness
Date: 21st Apr 2011 17:30

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 11 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, In pursuing his own happiness, is Aristotle's man an egoist?'

This is a good answer to the question. In an exam, it should score a mark in the high 60s.

You assume a particular definition of 'egoism', 'simply selfishness, as being ultimately concerned with one's own interest and using other people as a means to the end of self-interest and personal well being'. On the basis of this definition, you then distinguish between the 'dominant' interpretation of eudaimonia, according to which the ultimate goal of a human being is to enjoy a life of rational contemplation, and the 'inclusive' interpretation which 'recognizes that the nature of humans is composite', the importance of friendship and the social element in our nature.

I wished you'd said more about the point you make towards the end of your essay, where you seem to argue that the focus on rationality and reason is not a form of egoism because it 'transcends' the human individual as such. I think I can see what you are trying to say. To love rationality for its own sake, means that you gain the most enjoyment from exercising your capacity for reason. But how does this succeed in transcending egoism?

There is a possible argument here which alludes to Kantian considerations about the categorical imperative, strange though it might seem when we are talking about Aristotle. If the only thing that moves me is 'doing what reason demands', then it will seem simply absurd to seek to gain anything for myself, at the expense of others. There is nothing I desire for myself other than the necessary tools or environment to enable me to pursue a life of reason -- which so far as it results in knowledge benefits humanity at large and not just myself. I might have to behave in a way that seems selfish in order to achieve this, but my motivation isn't selfishness. I am not using other people, rather, Reason is using me (e.g. to discover geometrical theorems, philosophical theories etc.).

Thus, my rational side is 'godlike', as you describe. Reason liberates me from my egoistical concerns. Focus on reason is a form of self-transcendence.

But Aristotle just doesn't talk in this way. I don't find it plausible that he took this view of reason, which involves an ascetic view of the good for man which is seriously at odds with other things he says about what it means to live well.

Nor am I happy with this idea that there is a tension between a dominant and inclusivist view of the nature of eudaimonia.

Aristotle surely isn't saying that reason is very important but *other things* are important too, such as friendship and other pleasures. How are these two aspects to be compared with one another? More to the point, how can Aristotle take such a view when he has *defined* our nature as being 'rational'? But the alternative seems just as bad: the idea that reason is the only thing that really matters or counts, so that the 'best' life would be an ascetic one, focused exclusively on the activity of reasoning for its own sake.

There must be a better account than this.

Here is what I would suggest: At every point in his Ethics, Aristotle emphasises a *role* for reason. Finding or judging the mean is an exercise of reason. All the things we enjoy, our participation in the polis, the pleasures of friendship are all the activities of rational beings, reason is their element. The very idea of a virtue involves the capacity for judgement and reason.

For Aristotle, there is no part or aspect of human life where reason does not have a role. Consider sport. We don't just admire athletes for their muscles. We admire them for their skill and judgement, human attributes involving reason, as well as for other virtues such as courage or steadfastness -- which themselves have a rational component because they require an ability to discriminate and 'find the mean'.

One thing I haven't looked at is your definition of egoism. You have assumed that the question is talking about a certain 'narrow' egoism, according to which one uses others as a means to one's own satisfaction. However, it could be argued that Aristotle is not in the least bit worried that his account of the good life is meant to appeal to the individual as being that which they would find most desirable. This is in stark contrast to a Kantian view, where what we want, the things we find pleasant or unpleasant, pleasurable or painful, is completely irrelevant and the only question is what the categorical imperative demands. In other words, there's nothing wrong with calling Aristotle's view an enlightened egoism, by contrast with narrow, 'selfish' egoism.

All the best,


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Inference to the best explanation

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Inference to tbe best explanation
Date: 21st April 2011 18:28

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 11 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Methodology module, in response to the question, 'Is inference to the best explanation just a special case of more general forms of confirmation?'

I enjoyed reading this. You have a knack of explaining philosophical ideas in a way which is gripping and intuitively appealing. Your general strategy in this essay seems to have been to cast about for as wide a variety of examples of 'inference to the best explanation' as possible, looking for ways in which these might support the idea that there is something different about the notion of inference to the best explanation, something that is not reducible to 'more general forms of confirmation', i.e. induction.

Your conclusion, however, is that the way we decide between competing explanations is, ultimately, based on inductive grounds even if this is not immediately apparent. Typically, we make assessments of the probability of competing explanations or hypotheses, and these probability judgements are based on more general knowledge which we have gained from experience and induction. You also talk about the 'regulative principles' which guide our selection of the best explanation, which themselves are ultimately justified inductively by the fact that they have worked in the past.

As you note, inference to the best explanation is a pervasive phenomenon. It certainly looks different from induction. One can understand the enthusiasm of philosophers of science such as Peter Lipton. But how important or novel is this concept, really? How does the observation that inference to the best explanation differs from the process of induction bear on the questions of knowledge and justification, which are the main focus of methodology?

The question you have been given is typical of a range of questions all based around the alleged 'difference' between inference to the best explanation and more general forms of confirmation. It is worth making the point that the *best* explanations are not always the most *obvious* ones. If you just reasoned by standard induction, looking for similar patterns, using concepts or forms of explanation which have worked in the past, you might never get there, never make the necessary breakthrough.

It's a story which has been repeated again and again in the history of science. But it is also the stuff of popular fiction -- the detective who refuses to go 'by the book' and instead chooses to think out of the box, his creative imagination supplying the link between scattered clues that did not make any sense to his more plodding colleagues.

But aren't we confusing two very different things here? Take the example of mathematics. Some of the more interesting theorems in mathematics required genius to discover them. But once discovered, the proof is a schoolboy exercise.

When we talk about inference to the *best* explanation there are two components: thinking up possible explanations, and then testing or judging their relative attractiveness or probability. The 'inference' part isn't in the creative generation of possible hypotheses or explanations. There's no procedure of inference which will give you an original explanation that no-one else has thought of before. The inference comes where we compare explanations, appealing to the kinds of considerations which you talk about in your essay, assumptions about probability, general inductive knowledge, regulative principles etc.

Once we have a range of explanations, there can be rational debate, where all the considerations put forward refer to or imply knowledge based on induction. This is the 'method' of science. But there is no methodology for generating explanations. Some people have a gift for this and others have to rely on familiar patterns of reasoning, analogies with explanations which have worked in the past and so on.

When Popper talked about the 'Baconian myth' he was thinking along the same lines: that you will never come up with original explanations merely by extrapolating familiar patterns. There has to be an element of creative imagination. There's no mystery about this. Dennett talks of the 'generate and test' model for creative thinking. Undoubtedly, traits of character play an important role -- such as intellectual courage, an iconoclastic tendency, refusal to follow the conventional route. All attributes that a good scientific education ought to foster. But these are not, strictly, part of methodology, testing, confirmation -- all the things that determine our degree of belief or confidence in a given hypothesis. Here, the only thing that we can fall back on ultimately are methods and procedures that are tried and tested, and through their success have given us the confidence to apply them to new cases.

All the best,


Hume's account of our belief in external objects

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's account of our belief in external objects
Date: 19th April 2011 13:09

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 8 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosopher: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume module, in response to the question, ''It is in vain to ask whether there be body or not? That is a point which we must take for granted in all our reasonings.' Did Hume succeed in providing a satisfactory explanation for the belief in body?'

The section 'On Scepticism With Regard to the Senses' is one of my favourite sections from Hume, so I may be a little biased in my view about the various commentators such as Bennett, Pears and Stroud. I don't think that they have given him a fair run for his money. The problem is that they put too much stress on Hume's seemingly despairing conclusion, as well as the circumstantial evidence that this discussion is omitted from the Enquiry.

There is something Hume missed, something Kant saw. Hume didn't quite get there but he was very close. The main obstacle is his view of his own enterprise as doing for 'human nature' what Newton did for physical nature, offering a complete and adequate account of how we succeed in representing the world, forming beliefs, expressing moral and aesthetic judgements etc., in terms of the theory of ideas.

It is Hume's settled view, which he never altered, that 'bodies' are fictions. The term 'fiction' is somewhat misleading, or at least has the wrong resonances. Suppose we called them instead 'theoretical posits'. Instrumentalism is still a viable option in the philosophy of science. Hume, one might say, takes an instrumental rather than a realist view about the theoretical posits we know as bodies.

This makes Hume an idealist. There is a serious tension here with his view of himself as merely offering a theory of human nature. But there would have been a way to resolve that tension if he had taken the next logical step, which was left for Kant.

You spend a considerable portion of your essay discussing the question whether Hume is right to think that the vulgar fail to distinguish perceptions from objects. According to Hume, there are merely the subjective impressions and the fictions which we construct on their basis, while the vulgar think that these impressions are the very objects themselves.

Kant's brilliant stroke was to side with the vulgar, while retaining the essential assumption of idealism. The point of the Refutation of Idealism (from the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason) is to argue that the given of 'intuition' (Hume's impressions) can only be described in terms of concepts of external objects (the fictions or theoretical posits, from Hume's point of view). Only in this way can we give a coherent account of the identity of the subject of experience (remember Hume's difficulty with accounting for the identity of a 'self').

The essential point is rather easy to grasp. It is not, and cannot be, a mere accident that my stream of subjective impressions exhibits the character of 'perception of external objects'. If it didn't, I would not be able to describe it at all, indeed there could not be a way of distinguishing the self from its perceptions. My beliefs about an external world have the status of a *theory*. This is an internal representation, a framework, into which I fit every impression -- the impression of the fire at different times, the glasses, the squeaking door etc. etc. This view is inconsistent with any kind of 'sense datum' theory, because if you could describe your sense data, as they are, you wouldn't need a theory of the world, contrary to the Refutation of Idealism.

The best account of this is in a rather difficult book, 'Holistic Explanation' by Christopher Peacocke (1979). However, you might find some useful reviews if you do a web search. (In the book, Peacocke castigates Bennett, amongst others, for failing to grasp how this 'holistic' theory of experience is meant to get off the ground.)

The external world, in short, is a construction. This is what Kant calls the phenomenal world or the world of appearances. The next question, which we need not go into, is whether this construction could be 'all there is', how do you account for 'we' etc. Strawson in 'The Bounds of Sense' criticizes Kant for introducing a distinction between appearances and 'things in themselves', phenomena and noumena. Whether or not he is right in doing this, 'Kant without noumena' would be the closest to what Hume was trying to do, and very nearly achieved.

What Hume recognized, perhaps to a greater extent than Kant, is the difficulty in simultaneously holding an idealist metaphysical view about the nature of reality, and operating in the world as we all do, taking 'bodies' for granted. The despairing conclusion *is* ironic. Hume is struggling, but it is a struggle to find the appropriate *words* here to describe his momentous discovery. He can barely do it. We are illuded, all the time. Philosophy shows the truth, but it is very difficult to keep that truth in focus when the everyday world bears down on us so relentlessly. What a genius he was!

All the best,


In what sense was Parmenides a monist?

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: In what sense was Parmenides a monist?
Date: 19th April 2011 12:17

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 7 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Greek Philosophy: Presocratics and Plato module, in response to the question, 'In what sense was Parmenides a monist?'

You make the valid point that we are separated from Parmenides by 2500 years of cultural history, and also that the writings that have come down to us are merely fragments, copies of copies etc. There are serious and fundamental questions about how his words (in Ancient Greek) are to be translated. And so on. However, I think that there is a danger of making too much of this. The texts we have show a remarkable consistency and coherence. And while there is scope for competing interpretations, the differences are less significant then they might first appear. I will look closer at that question later.

But this isn't the main focus of the question you have been asked. The question of what kind of 'monist' Parmenides was, if any, isn't primarily a question about which interpretation of his philosophy you accept, but rather it is a question about *monism*. What is it to be a monist? According to your understanding of what monism is, how does Parmenides -- or how to the alternative interpretations of Parmenides -- measure up?

Consider a form of monism widely held today: material monism (or materialism). This is a view about the mind-body problem which rejects idealism and also rejects mind-body dualism. All that exists (at least, in a concrete sense if we leave out sets, numbers etc.) is 'material', or, more accurately the things described by physics.

Material monists face an obvious challenge: how to account for the phenomena of consciousness. There are various approaches, one of which is to characterize our beliefs about psychological states in terms of an error theory. This is known as 'eliminative materialism'. The challenge for eliminative materialists is to explain how it is, e.g., that Peter can worry about the pain in his left shoulder, even though in reality there does not a mental state of 'being worried' or 'feeling pain'. These are just words we use (in folk psychology) which gain any truth or validity they may have from facts about physical states.

Couldn't we say the same thing about Parmenides? The way of appearances in the second part of Parmenides' proem describes our pre-philosophical beliefs, and moreover does so in a way which goes one step further and accounts for them in terms of a rudimentary physical theory (as folk psychology accounts for our beliefs about our own and others' mental states). In other words, he recognizes the need to take account of the phenomena, even though, regrettably, the theory of the One offers no indication of how the phenomena are to be explained. In short, he can still be a strict monist.

But in what sense of 'monist'? Parmenides wasn't saying that everything is made of the same fundamental stuff or essence. His claim is that there are no 'things', no plurality. It actually doesn't matter whether you interpret the 'is' as 'exists' or in terms of predication ('is F' for some F). The crux of the argument, as you correctly note, is that any statement implying 'is not' cannot be true. So there is no change, no plurality, etc.

(One thing you miss is that according to Parmenides the One must be finite, because infinitude implies 'not' -- having no limit -- a point on which he disagreed with Melissus. This explains the image of a sphere, which you correctly interpret as being metaphorical rather than a literal description of the nature of reality.)

In some respects we might be tempted to compare Parmenides to 'block universe' theories of the 19th and 20th centuries such as McTaggart or Bradley, where time is an illusion. But these theories are not monisms in Parmenides' sense. The Absolute is one, but it is not just 'one'. It has an inner structure, albeit a structure which cannot be described using the normal apparatus of terms and relations which serve adequately for the description of the world of appearances.

So far as interpretation goes, I think the most interesting question concerns *what* is 'One' according to Parmenides. He was writing at a time when philosophers had put forward theories of appearance and reality, for example Anaximenes' theory that the entire world, all our variegated experience, can be accounted for in terms of condensation or rarefaction of a single basic material, 'air'. That's a kind of 'monism'. One can see Parmenides as taking the Milesians to task, 'You think you are describing the reality which accounts for appearances, but all you are really doing is talking about appearances.' Your primary substance fails the test for what is required to be 'real', because...'.

As with all the interpretations of Parmenides you will encounter, there are arguments for or against. If Parmenides is merely critiquing the One of Milesian cosmology, then the seemingly impossible task of saving appearances becomes somewhat easier. But you don't have to decide that question. It is sufficient to be able to say, 'IF that was Parmenides' view, then that would make him such-and-such a kind of monist.' What the examiner most wants to see is a discussion about the nature of monism, with arguments justifying your view that Parmenides was this or that kind of monist, depending on the interpretation.

All the best,


Mill's proof of the utility principle

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mill's proof of the utility principle
Date: 13th April 2011 12:31

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 3 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module in response to the question, 'In Mill's view, of what kind of proof is the principle of utility susceptible? Is it really capable of any kind of proof?'

This is impressive, as much for the questions it throws up as for the detail with which you go into Mill's considerations in favour of the principle of utility. For that reason, I found it rewarding to read. However, there is also an important lacuna, and a red herring.

The lacuna is easily missed because the point is made very early on in Utilitarianism. This is where Mill argues against what he terms 'intuitionism'. You would have thought that with his stress on the foundational aspect of 'what we desire' as being that which determines what is 'desirable', Mill would have given some credence to the evident fact that people do in fact have strongly held moral beliefs -- derived from religion, or their moral conscience -- which are, in effect, desires about how they and others *should* behave. Yet he is adamant that any attempt at basing ethics on such 'intuitions' is worthless. It begs the very question he is seeking to answer. If my moral intuitions differ from yours, there can be no argument or discussion, whereas the point of moral philosophy is to discover a common coin in which the questions of ethics can be rationally discussed.

This starting point leaves very little alternative to a consequentialist ethics. Although Mill ventures the hypothesis that his utilitarianism is close to what Kant intended by the categorical imperative (!) he does not make any attempt to assess the prospects for an a priori or logical basis for ethics in the manner of Kant. So I would call Mill's rejection of intuitionism, 'Step 1'.

The red herring is Mill's view about deduction. I sympathize a lot with this view. However, the way I would put Mill's point is that when we represent arguments in deductive form -- whether they be arguments in science or in philosophy, or in any other subject -- this necessarily obscures to some extent the *real* inferences involved. The point of deductive arguments in philosophy is not to arrive at new knowledge, but rather dialectical: to erect a structure which will enable a critic to see the points where a process of reasoning can be questioned or attacked. That is how Plato characterizes the 'dialectic'. That is what you have done, in representing Mill's 'proof' of the principle of utility.

I'm not saying that philosophers are never tripped up by logical fallacies. Only that what at first looks like a 'fallacy' or 'non-sequitur' is more often than not an inference for which the author has not offered sufficient inferential support.

The idea that deduction can never yield new knowledge is of course rubbish. You only have to look at mathematics, to discover a rich field of genuine discoveries which arise through following a logical argument. In 'The Justification of Deduction' Michael Dummett describes the challenge to any account of the philosophical basis of logic, of reconciling the utility of logic (yielding new knowledge) with the possibility of justifying a (given) system of logic (e.g. for Dummett, classical vs. intuitionist). But I would argue that Mill was to a large extent right about the use of logic outside the specialized arena of mathematics or set theory, or formal logic.

Coming to the proof itself, there is a much criticized point where Mill says, or appears to say something to the effect that if it is true that all men desire happiness, then a man ought to desire the happiness of all. However, you put it, it looks like a complete non-sequitur. Yet, there is a principle at work here which you express in the formula, 'Happiness is of value independently of whose happiness it is.' What Moore (in the quote from Principia Ethica) in effect argues, and what you have persuaded me that Mill believed, is that it is, strictly speaking, nonsensical to claim that my happiness is good *because it is mine*.

The question is: What should I do? The egoist replies, 'Pursue my own happiness.' Why only my happiness? 'Because it's mine.' But that's not an intelligible reason, any more than 'I am I' is an informative statement. (I would argue that this proof is only open to someone who has successfully refuted the transcendental solipsist: cf. the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, but that takes us too far off topic.)

However, this is not the only basis for Mill's claim. As you observe, Mill also says (a la Hume) that, as a matter of natural fact, the kinds of beings that we are lead us to desire happiness for others. And this is as 'foundational' as you can get.

So we have a choice: between what presents itself as an a priori proof, and the foundational empirical fact about what human beings are 'like'.

To this, you add a further consideration, which I think is incorrect as an exposition of Mill's case for utilitarianism. This is where he talks about those who are 'competent to judge' between two different pleasures. It is clear that in the context the question is not the justification for the principle of utility but rather a tweak to Mill's version of utilitarianism, which allows for higher and lower pleasures. I can see how you might think that the 'competent judge' idea could be brought in to bolster the argument for the principle of utility itself, but (to my recollection) Mill does not do this, and I don't think it is very persuasive anyway.

The point about a competent judge is that you need to know both sides. I know the pleasures of philosophy and pushpin while you only know the pleasures of pushpin, so I am the only one competent to judge that the pleasure of philosophy is greater. To make this effective as an argument for the principle of utility, one would have to say that I know the pleasure of increasing my own happiness and also the pleasure of increasing the happiness of others, while you only know the pleasure of increasing your own happiness. Therefore, I am the only one competent to judge that the pleasure of increasing the happiness of others is 'higher'.

Despite my criticisms, there is excellent work here. In an exam, you could probably obtain a mark of 70 or above.

All the best,


Friday, December 13, 2013

What is a law of nature?

To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is a law of nature?
Date: 11th April 13:30

Dear Scott,

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

You've covered the essential points, although I was a bit confused by your introduction where seemed to be talking about the concept of causality rather than the concept of a law of nature. Hume talks about causality and also about the uniformity of nature, but his argument against the accepted view of causation is not the same as his sceptical argument to the effect that induction cannot be justified: these are two different, although connected, lines of thought.

Hume's argument against causation is, as you state, along the lines of asking what 'impressions' our putative 'idea' of causation is derived from. When we see one billiard ball 'cause' another billiard ball to move, all we actually see is one billiard ball move, followed by another billiard ball moving. What Hume offers, instead, is an 'error theory', which seeks to account for our forming the mistaken belief that causes are real, while at the same time offering an alternative analysis of causation in terms of the truth of universal generalizations.

Hume's argument regarding induction is merely that inductive inference cannot be justified, either inductively or deductively. It's simply something we do. It is true that Hume has an explanation of why we reason inductively -- which interestingly involves both causation and induction (in terms of the natural operations of the human mind). It is a question which sometimes turns up in the Modern Philosophy paper, why Hume is not guilty of inconsistency here.

To see why the nature of causation and laws of nature are distinct questions, consider the theory according to which there is no such thing as 'causal influence' but there do exist objective laws of nature, obtaining by natural necessity. It is this natural necessity which distinguishes your example of 'metal expands when heated' and 'all Manchester United managers are non-French'. Conversely, it is also possible to hold the view that causation a real relation between objects, but that there are no laws of nature as such. Elizabeth Anscombe in her article on Causation argues against the Humean view that a causal statement entails a universal generalization.

However, it remains the case that one possible view of the difference between laws of nature and merely accidental generalization is that laws of nature involve causation whereas accidental generalizations do not. However, it is not open to someone to hold this view if they also want to argue (as, e.g. Hempel) that causation can be analysed by the deductive-nomological model, i.e. that talk of causation reduces to deductions of instances from scientific laws, e.g., 'The heat caused the metal to expand' is true because it follows from 'All metal expands when heated' and 'This metal was heated'.

The latter part of your essay is concerned with contrasting the Ramsey-Lewis (Humean) view of laws of nature with the Armstrong-Dretske-Tooley view, according to which laws of nature 'state necessitating relationships between the properties involved'. This sounds very grand, but I'm not convinced that is is so very different from the alternative, deflationary view.

What is a 'necessitating relationship' and how does one recognize such a relationship when it obtains? Consider the standard way we explain regularities on a macroscopic scale in terms of microstructural properties of the physical materials involved. For example, 'Water expands when frozen.' When a sample of water is cooled, its volume contracts until it reaches 4 degrees Centigrade, then it begins to expand. The explanation is in terms of the property of the 'hydrogen bond' in the H20 molecule. I recall this from my physics/ chemistry A-level days. You can explain the process on a blackboard. What do the A-level students 'see' when the see and understand this explanation? They see the (hypothesized) physical mechanism.

But this is no different in principle from 'seeing' that the white billiard ball moved because it was hit by the black billiard ball. In other words, right at bottom we are talking once more about things that always happen, regularities. If you keep pressing the question of the nature of the 'necessitating relationship', you find yourself back once more with regularities. Whenever we *can't* find the mechanism, we still assume that one can, in principle, be found. So I am sceptical about whether the two views that you contrast ultimately are so different from one another.

All the best,


In what sense if any is ethics objective?

To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: In what sense if any is ethics objective?
Date: 11th April 2011 12:38

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 1 April with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Contemporary Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'In what sense, if any, is ethics objective?

I will try to avoid the temptation to launch into an essay on my own views on the question of objectivity in ethics, and concentrate on what you say about the question of objectivity under your four headings, physical objectivity, mathematical objectivity, disposition to affect normal observers, evaluation according to agreed standards.

You've missed something under the heading of physical objectivity. What about sociobiology and evolutionary ethics? According to this view, the objectivity of ethics derives from the theory of evolution by natural selection. Of course, it is contentious to claim this, even if accepts the orthodox Darwinist view (as I do). I would accuse evolutionary ethicists of committing the naturalistic fallacy. As it happens, one of my BA students Stuart Burns is a strong proponent of evolutionary ethics, as you will gather from a number of his answers on Ask a Philosopher.

Also, under this head, what about metaphysical objectivity, a la Plato's forms? You do allude to this in your brief discussion of Mackie's argument from queerness, but I would have thought that the idea of objectivity as founded in an 'object' that exists independently of us covers both the physical and metaphysical kinds of existence.

The mathematician Georg Kreisel once remarked, 'The problem is not the existence of mathematical objects, but the objectivity of mathematical statements.' Michael Dummett quotes this in his paper on the 'Philosophical basis of Intuitionist Logic', reprinted in 'Truth and Other Enigmas'. (In fact, I suspect that it's his favourite quote.) Plato didn't think that the answer to the questions raised, e.g. by Thrasymachus in the Republic was that 'a Form of Justice objectively exists'. He sets about elaborating a proof, which proceeds via a conceptual analysis of the nature of the soul. In effect, that is Plato's answer to Mackie.

Which brings us nicely to your second heading, 'mathematical objectivity', that is to say, a priori demonstration. Kant is a famous historical example. An example of a contemporary philosopher attempting a similar thing would be Thomas Nagel in his book 'The Possibility of Altruism' where he argues that belief in the existence of other minds is the logical 'interpretation' of altruism (qua objective moral motivation) in the same way that belief in my personal identity is the logical interpretation of prudence. How plausible is this strategy? My doubts about this arise (at least with respect to my own attempts to 'prove' objectivity) from the gap between establishing objectivity as a principle, and deriving substantial moral precepts. If the general a priori argument can't do this, then we are entitled to question the interest of the project.

As to the precepts that you list, this isn't going to cut any ice with a sceptic. We were talking about a priori 'proof'. Why is it wrong to torture people for fun? Because that's what 'we' believe. That's not a proof but just a statement about what we believe. You can use it as an axiom, on the assumption that the aim of ethics is to ensure maximal consistency amongst our beliefs. Then there might plausibly be considerations which are in some sense a priori. For example, if it is wrong for Peter to do X then if it is wrong for Paul to do X if there is no significant difference between Peter and Paul. But the axioms remain 'unproved'.

Your precept, 'if it is wrong for one person to suffer X, it is wrong for two to suffer X' doesn't look like a good example of a consistency constraint. Imagine you and I are the only two people in the universe and I feel the pain of man's solitude while you do not. That's something bad (I won't say 'wrong'), which wouldn't be so bad, or maybe not bad at all if we both felt it and could talk about it. (Sorry, there must be better examples than this. Perhaps along the lines of 'A trouble shared...'.)

Dispositional objectivity recalls McDowell's important paper, criticizing Foot's views of morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives. My worry here is that too much weight is placed on the notion of being a 'normal' perceiver. In the case of secondary qualities, we have a scientific theory which explains what it is to be normal, and the conditions under which a perceiver departs from normality. But in the case of ethics, it all boils down to what you've been conditioned to believe. If I succeed in breaking free from my social conditioning, Aleister Crowley style, then arguably I still have the knowledge of what the rest of humanity understand by 'cruel' but I no longer feel any temptation to criticize an action on account of its cruelty.

Evaluative objectivity looks like the easiest standard to meet, but even here there are worrying aspects of subjectivity. Take diving competitions. Everyone is agreed about the rules on the basis of which dives are awarded marks by judges. That doesn't prevent bitter disputes breaking out, especially when there is a suspicion of chauvinistic bias.

All the best,


Why are philosophers interested in qualia?

To: Anna H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why are philosophers interested in qualia?
Date: 4th April 2011 13:10

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your email of 22 March, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Define a 'quale' giving some examples of qualia. What is the philosophical interest in the notion of a quale?'

This is a very good essay which shows a vivid appreciation of the philosophical question concerning the nature of subjective experience, which the notion of a quale is intended to answer. Are qualia real or are they mere figments of the imagination? From either alternative, consequences follow.

If qualia are real, then it follows that no-one can know what another person's experience is 'like'. As you state, 'Qualia are therefore totally private, individual experiences: idiosyncratic. My quale of red and my quale of sweet are distinguishable and distinct from anyone else's red or sweet quale.' In other words, I don't know what 'red' or 'sweet' are like for you. Maybe my 'red' is your 'blue' and my 'sweet' is your 'salty'.

But as you go on to observe, 'If we can further affirm that a quale can become inverted or that a supposedly same quale can be of a different nature at different times, does this make a quale more of a figment of the imagination?' In other words, we can repeat what I said in the previous paragraph about 'I' and 'you' substituting 'I at time time1' and 'I at time time2'. My qualia could keep changing from moment to moment, and I would never know the difference.

Rebounding from this, the alternative view would be that qualia are merely figments of the imagination. But now we need to say more. One might be tempted to say that, because qualia are mere figments of the imagination, there really are no such things as the experience of red or sweet. If that is the case, if there really isn't anything that is 'red' or 'sweet', then most of the things that we normally say about our experience are false. In fact, one could go further and infer that if there isn't anything that is 'red' or 'sweet' then it is false that we have 'experience'! Which seems an absurd conclusion.

So what is it to experience 'red' or 'sweet'? We have the scientific account: red objects are those objects whose surface reflects a particular wavelength or range of wavelengths of light which interact with the 'cones' in the retina responsible for the experience we call 'red'. Sweet substances are those substances whose chemical properties are such that, when dissolved in saliva, they excite the taste buds responsible for recognizing a food as 'sweet'. Wavelengths of light, chemical properties, retinal cones, taste buds are all physical entities. The world is a physical world. There is nothing red or sweet in the physical world. These are just terms that we erroneously use, as if they named something real, when in reality they do not.

That's a possible philosophical position with respect to the mind-body problem. The technical term is eliminative materialism. This is an example of what philosophers term an 'error theory'. Mental properties are 'eliminated' in favour of physical properties. One of the things that the error theory is required to explain, however, is why we make this error. It is necessary that we (falsely) believe that we have 'experiences', that there are things that are 'red' or 'sweet', in order for there to be language and communication. The existence of 'qualia' is a necessary illusion.

However, I don't agree that that's the only available choice for someone who rejects qualia. In the program, I take a less extreme line. I would define 'red' as follows. An object is red if and only if observers who are not colour blind viewing the object under normal light conditions agree in calling the object 'red'. A substance is sweet if and only if competent tasters tasting the substance under normal conditions agree in calling the substance 'sweet'. According to these definitions, it is true that some objects are red and that some substances are sweet.

The subtle point about these definitions is that there is no assumption about the physical story behind our experiences of red or sweet. In a possible world created by a benign deity, where there were no underlying physical explanations (because God does all the work), there would still be red roses and sweet chocolate. There would, however, be no way to do science (as we know it), because there would be nothing 'underneath' our familiar experience of the world for science to uncover. But there would still be truths about experience.

I have argued this point with philosophers who take a different line. They would say that in the world I have described, there cannot be any truths about experience. There has to be an underlying physical story, in terms of the microstructural properties of physical objects. Whereas in my story, all that is necessary is that there be intelligent, living beings who move, speak and behave as we move, speak and behave. I don't have a knock-out argument in favour of my view, but I also don't see that the alternative view can be proven either.

All the best,


Can you know that you're not dreaming?

To: Emelie G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can you know that you're not dreaming?
Date: 4th April 2011 12:10

Dear Emelie,

Thank you for your email of 22 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Epistemology module, in response to the question, 'Can you know that you're not dreaming?'

I agree with a lot of this essay, and in particular your criticisms of Nozick and Moore.

Nozick offers a definition of 'know' in which the closure principle is denied (possibly, you could have been more explicit about this, and talked about Nozick's notion of 'tracking truth'). But the question is why we should be interested in this (re-)definition, given the intuitive force of Descartes' evil demon scenario.

Moore asserts that he knows that he has two hands, and therefore (by the closure principle) he knows that he is not dreaming. But how is this claim of knowledge to be distinguished from a mere confession of subjective certainty? (which Descartes fully admits when he says that he is sitting by the fire etc.). You can be certain, to the maximum degree, and still be wrong. Arguably, we have all experienced this at some time or other.

Wittgenstein, in his 'On Certainty' (which I think is up there with 'Philosophical Investigations' in terms of quality and originality) offers a more subtle diagnosis, based on a critique of Moore's argument. The question of whether or not I am dreaming is not a 'proposition' susceptible of 'proof' or 'disproof', but more like the 'river bed' along which language flows, or the 'hinge' of a door. This has a very Kantian sound to it: the idea that certain fundamental propositions are the 'condition for the possibility of meaning', and therefore not susceptible to disproof (just as, for Kant, the principle of determinism or the belief in the existence of an external world are not susceptible of disproof).

I'm not totally satisfied with this, however.

I'm pleased that you *didn't* pursue the suggestion in paragraph 1, 'As a rationalist [Descartes] aimed to find some certain starting point from his own private consciousness. But certainty as such is a psychological state one is in and about whether one is right or wrong.' The next step would be to call up Wittgenstein's argument against a private language (where one cannot be 'wrong' one cannot be 'right' either). But all that shows is that Descartes should have been *more* of a sceptic, and doubted everything, including his knowledge of his own psychological states. So that doesn't help.

But what is Wittgenstein's *argument* in 'On Certainty' against the sceptic? He makes claims about 'meaning', but why can't the sceptic just reject all these claims. 'I don't know whether I'm not dreaming; I don't know whether my words have meaning.' All you can do is wag your finger.

I think there is an argument here, which can be extracted from 'On Certainty'. It's a dialectical argument, directed against the sceptic who says, 'I doubt whether or not I am dreaming.' The question is, what the sceptic means by 'doubt'. Let's say, I doubt whether the chair which I accidentally knocked over and damaged yesterday will hold my weight. So I sit down gingerly, rocking backwards and forwards, listening intently to any signs of the wood cracking. Finally, I'm satisfied, the chair is safe. Doubt is connected to action. That isn't to say that there is any specific action which one should take when one doubts; only that, along with my beliefs and desires, my doubts are 'explained' by the things I do, my physical actions in the world. There doesn't need to be a direct connection, an indirect one will do. Wittgenstein's argument against the sceptic is that there is no possible connection, however indirect, between the putative doubt whether I am dreaming and my actions in the world.

Unfortunately, in your essay, you allude to a fatal flaw in this argument. We've seen The Matrix. We can believe that this is a possible world, a possible experience that you or I might have. So let it happen. We wake up in our pods and join Neo and the other members of the resistance. Now, the very real possibility of 'doubt whether one is dreaming' arises. One morning, I wake up in my bunk in the Logos hovercraft, but everyone seems to be behaving oddly. Then it occurs to me that I'm being tricked, this isn't real, someone has inserted me into the Matrix. What *actions* would be appropriate in those circumstances?

You can extend this thought experiment various ways. I could kill Morpheus, Trinity, Neo etc. but the consequences will be just as they would be if I killed the real Morpheus etc. (which maybe they are). I can try various ways of 'waking up', but maybe I fail and this experience goes on indefinitely. How long would my 'doubts' survive? There doesn't seem to be any rational basis on which to decide. At some point I shrug off my original feeling, or maybe I don't. But the *question* is still real, whether I continue to dwell on it or not.

Although the makers of The Matrix trilogy don't pursue this plotline, it does feature in another movie eXistenz. I won't say anything more in case you haven't seen it!

All the best,


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Are possible worlds really 'real'?

To: Graham H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are possible worlds really 'real'?
Date: 1st April 2011 13:52

Thank you for your email of 23 March, with your first essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Are possible worlds really real?'

You focus on the question of the utility of talk of possible worlds. Although some contemporary philosophers talk disparagingly of the use of thought experiments as methods fo exploring truth, this criticism does not in itself bear on the question whether possible worlds are 'really real' or not. Even if possible worlds are linguistic constructions, it is at least arguable the exploration of the properties of these constructions could still provide knowledge, the kind of knowledge that the philosopher seeks. I happen to believe this, and in this program you will find a number of examples where this method is used.

So what would be an argument relevant to the question whether possible worlds are 'really real' or not? And, in any case, what exactly does that mean?

You talk about the 'multiverse', a notion which has come into prominence with the many-worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. I think there is an important difference between the multiverse theory and the strongly realist view of possible worlds. All the different 'worlds' existing in the multiverse came into existence through a process of branching. Whenever there is a quantum event, such as an electron going from a lower energy level to a higher energy level, two 'worlds' come into being, the world where the electron changes energy levels at that precise time, and the world where it does not change levels at that time. However, it would be consistent with the multiverse view to deny that *any* arbitrary possible world that I might think of belongs in the multiverse, e.g. the possible world where I have two heads, or, more soberly, the possible world where the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn are switched. We don't know whether or not there exists a possible sequence of branching events that would get you there. The point about possible worlds is that any world you can think of in a logically consistent way is a possible world.

You refer to David Lewis who is 'well known for his extreme position' According to Lewis, each possible world exists in its own space and time. The difference between what we term the 'actual world' and other possible worlds amounts to nothing more than a difference in local perspective, in a somewhat similar way to the difference between the perspective of GH and the perspective of GK (the same actual world seen from a different points of view) or the difference between a given historical fact, say the bombing of Hiroshima, as seen from the perspective of 1 April 1951 and the perspective of 1 April 2011. (You'll find some thoughts about this in the final chapter of my book 'Naive Metaphysics' downloadable from the Pathways site at

Lewis doesn't rest his argument on the analogy with the perspective of a given person or a given time, although these provide a kind of indirect support for the idea. If possible worlds were really real, then this is how we would be able to think about them.

So what is the argument? The argument, which is essentially the argument Lewis gives, is given a brief airing in the unit. Here's Brenda:
'Look, are we all agreed that when we say things about possible worlds, that is, when we talk about what might have happened if such-and-such had happened, we intend to say something true? Dr Phillips?'


'And, similarly, don't we sometimes make the claim that certain things or situations are, in themselves, possible or impossible, and intend such claims to be true?'

'OK. So what?'

'I don't see where this is going.'

'It's very simple, Derek. What we can or cannot imagine, or what we think about possible worlds, is not what makes those worlds real. Because we can be wrong. Our thoughts about possible worlds are true or false depending on something -- whatever it is -- that is somehow independent of those thoughts. What makes possible worlds real, in other words, can't simply be our thinking about them. Our minds discover something that has a reality independent of our minds.'
In more technical terms, Lewis's argument hinges on the question of the truth conditional semantics of counterfactual conditions, conditional statements of the form, 'If such and such had been the case, then so and so would have been the case.'

Counterfactual statements are used in science. 'If the temperature had gone below 0.002 degrees K, the conductivity of the sample would have increased by a factor of 30.' According to our best theory, say, this statement is true, even though we don't have the means to reduce the temperature to 0.002 degrees K. (I'm making these figures up, I don't know how realistic they are.) So what does it mean to state that this counterfactual statement *states a truth*? In his book, 'Counterfactuals' Lewis argues that his view is the only theory that adequately/ successfully accounts for the truth conditions of counterfactuals. The onus is on anyone who disagrees, to propose a better, ontologically more economical theory.

There is one other argument, which some find attractive: If it were really true that all possible worlds are real and that this world is nothing more than just another possible world, it would obviate any need to consider the question, 'Why does this world exist?' You don't need a Leibnizian God choosing which possible world to make 'real' if they are all equally 'real'.

All the best,


Locke's account of simple ideas

To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's account of simple ideas
Date: 1st April 2011 12:58

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 21 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume module, in response to the question, 'What kind of idea is a simple idea according to Locke?'

Reading your essay, I tried to imagine how sense I would be able to make of the distinction between 'simple' and 'complex' ideas, if I had never heard of Locke, or the idea of 'empiricism'. As you state, Locke didn't invent this distinction, it was widely accepted and has been used by many philosophers, before and since. But what is it's *point*?

This simple-seeming question invites two very different kinds of answer. You have gone into some detail in expounding what Locke says about simple ideas. He gives examples. He makes statements which are intended to enable us to categorize ideas under the headings 'simple' and 'complex' for ourselves. And as you also observe, a considerable part of this is problematic.

Take colours. I don't think that it is quite correct to equate the 'many different shades' of the rose with 'perception of different wavelengths of light'. We need to separate two different questions. One concerns the distinction between 'ideas' of colour as such, and the other concerns the best scientific theory that we have to account for our experience of colours. It turns out that according to that theory -- that visible light consists of electromagnetic radiation ranging in wavelengths -- the very same experience of colour, say, yellow, can be produced by a single wavelength, or by a combination of wavelengths. To determine whether or not you are seeing 'monochromatic' yellow (say, as produced by sodium light) you would need the appropriate instruments. You couldn't tell by the eye alone, because the same 'cones' in the retina are stimulated whether the yellow light is monochromatic or not. In another possible world, the explanation for the phenomenon of light might have been quite different, even though our experience of colours was the same.

What Locke is concerned with is the initially plausible idea that if you had never before seen yellow, say, you could not 'imagine' this colour for yourself by any 'quickness or variety of thought'. And yet, as Hume famously noted, we have no difficulty in imagining the missing shade in a range of shades of a given colour (Hume gives the example of blue). What we would now say is that in order to be able to form the idea of a given shade of blue, it suffices that you have the idea of blue as a 'determinable' concept, the given shade being one of its indefinitely many 'determinates'.

This saves the simple/ complex distinction from what seems at first a fatal counterexample. But we still have the problem of deciding which colours you have to experience in order to have an idea of, and which colours you can imagine for yourself. As you note, this isn't in itself a decisive objection because Locke is concerned with the point of principle.

Locke's distinction between simple and complex ideas has a point. The quote about 'quickness or variety of thought' is crucial because even though we can't use this directly as a criterion to decide whether an idea is simple or not, it gives the rationale for the distinction. As a matter of fact, we do possess an impressive ability to think up 'ideas' for ourselves. But this ability presupposes that other ideas, the 'building blocks' are given in experience.

However, this aim is overlaid, and somewhat confused, by another concern which you talk about in your essay, namely, the question of our 'certainty' that the ideas we experience represent something outside us. Surely, it is an obvious non-sequitur (I'm not saying this is a non-sequitur which you commit) to infer from the fact that I am experiencing an idea which I could not have invented for myself by any 'quickness or variety of thought', to the existence of a real object outside me which my idea represents, and which causes me to experience this idea. Obviously not, because an evil demon could have produced the idea in me. I don't believe that Locke commits this fallacy. His position is what you term the 'common sense' view. Doubts about evil demons are fantastical and don't need to be taken seriously. Now, lets get on to the important stuff.

So what is the 'important stuff'?

Right at the beginning of his essay, in his 'Epistle to the Reader', Locke explains why he wrote the Essay. He and a group of friends were having a discussion and couldn't agree because of a confusion about ideas. Such obstacles in the way of knowledge can only be cleared by the philosopher, who patiently unravels the source of all our ideas, their root in experience and the various mechanisms by which the mind compounds them. Although he doesn't exactly state this, the implication is that if this project could be carried through there would be no reason to disagree, ever again about anything except the scientific facts. At that point the philosopher bows out.

All the best,