Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Can intentionality be naturalized?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can intentionality be naturalized?
Date: 20th September 2011

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 10 September, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'Can intentionality be satisfactorily explained in naturalistic terms?'

My immediate reaction to your essay was, frankly, a bit negative. Not because I am aware that you have said anything wrong. On the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that my objections to the way you have surveyed the field of philosophical approaches to intentionality by analytic philosophers is as much an objection to the direction that debates have taken in recent years. I don't feel in the least bit gripped by the various competing 'positions', whether constructive or sceptical, as you have presented them.

You have deeply immersed yourself in this topic, as is evident from your bibliography as well as from the issues raised, or more often just alluded to, in your essay. Do you feel gripped by the problem of whether intentionality can be naturalised? Do you care?

Let's start with the question (as always). In this case, it seems on a first reading that the examiner is offering you an invitation to survey the field, as you have done, and make a judicious decision about which theory comes closest to giving an acceptable account. But you only have an hour to do this. How can anyone possibly do an adequate survey, given such tight constraints?!

As you know, on principle I don't look at examiner's reports, so you will have to check what I say against the examiners' account of what they were looking for. It seems to me that the question is intended in a foundational sense. What the examiners want, primarily, is an account of the problem which gives rise to all these different theories, as well as an account of the conditions for the acceptability of a solution.

The primary analytical cut I would make would be between different senses (or different levels of ambition) of 'explanation'. Apart from the very last paragraph -- where you offer an answer which I would tend to favour, of levels of explanation which are irreducible to one another combined with a supervenience thesis (although you don't state this explicitly) -- your working assumption seems to be that an explanation of intentionality would be a form of reduction of intentional idioms and explanations to naturalised science.

However, there is another sense of 'explanation' where what we are looking for is, in Kantian terms, an account for the 'conditions for the possibility of' the intentional.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant seeks an account of the conditions for the possibility of experience. The work of Wittgenstein, both early and late, can be described in analogous terms as an investigation into the conditions for the possibility of semantic meaning. (Wittgenstein doesn't address the question of intentionality as such: in the Tractatus, 'psychological' or 'epistemological' considerations are deemed simply irrelevant, while in the Investigations intentionality is assumed as the irreducible bedrock of 'forms of life'.) What would be an analogous inquiry into the conditions for the possibility of intentionality?

One promising lead, alluded to in your essay, concerns the relation between teleology and intentionality. The importance of Darwin's theory of evolution in the history of science is that it laid the groundwork for scientific naturalism. There was an explanatory lacuna which previously could only be filled by some kind of purposeful entity, a Creator. Evolution removed that lacuna. Dennett, in his very first book 'Content and Consciousness' (RKP 1969) offered a brilliantly original update on Darwin. The ability to support content is explained by a two-stage evolutionary process. There is the natural evolution of the human brain. However, the brain itself undergoes an internal process analogous to evolution, whereby competing functional structures are selected on the basis of their suitability for producing appropriate behaviour.

Of course, this can be taken in a reductivist way (as Dennett has indeed done). But it would be perfectly possible to be a connectionist, rejecting any idea that there is a Turing-style 'program' for the human brain, accepting that Dennett's account offers no route to the reduction of the intentional to the non-intentional. It merely explains how the intentional could have arisen in the first place. There is *room* for the intentional in the natural world. If there weren't, that really would be a kind of disaster, analogous to the discovery that Darwinian evolution was itself fatally flawed.

Nevertheless, I have residual doubts. The bottom line that connects all the different theories of intentionality, as you have presented them, is that the intentional is a form of relation. The intentional is not to be found in a special kind of 'object' (say, Cartesian mental events) but rather in functional relations between objects, which are themselves part of the natural world. ('Functional' as I have used it here would include 'functionalism' so-called as one of the candidate theories.)

The one thing that this doesn't explain is the fact that I have intentional states. This is the problem Nagel saw. All the theories necessarily stop short at explaining how it is that GK has intentional states. But I am GK. This is a non-relational fact, an absolute fact. A metaphysical fact, maybe? -- I don't know the answer to that question. It's a conundrum. It probably wouldn't be too good an idea to wave this in front of the examiners, as you are unlikely to get a favourable response, but I have to state my position just for the record.

All the best,


Moral facts and moral properties as secondary qualities

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral facts and moral properties as secondary qualities
Date: 15th September 2011 14:56

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 5 September, with your two essays for the University of London BA Ethics: Contemporary Perspectives module, in response to the questions, 'Are there moral facts?' and 'Critically assess the view that moral properties are best understood as like secondary qualities such as colours and tastes.'

Are there moral facts?

One way to read this very long (over 6000 words) essay is as an aide memoire for your own use, which covers a number of possible questions as well as the question you were actually asked. However, I think I can best help you by suggesting that you could have bracketed many of the issues you raise here, and pointing out issues which -- despite writing at such great length -- you seem to have glossed over or missed.

An examiner looking at this will read the last sentence of your first paragraph ('I am going to approach this discussion from the perspective of naturalistic moral realism'), then your final section 'Cognitivist Success Theories - Moral Realism' and conclude that you have simply ducked the question. Amongst the various 'flavours' of moral realism, do any succeed in meeting the challenge of accounting for moral facts? Your entire essay could have been written from this standpoint alone.

I liked best your statement about Ptolemaic epicycles. I don't agree with it, but it is arguably a valid approach to bootstrap an argument for cognitivism on the basis of a destructive critique of non-cognitivism. If our concern is with 'best explanation' in the context of philosophical theory, then the added burden of embracing moral truths or facts looks less daunting than the alternative, Heath-Robinsonian explanations which hardly do justice to our experience of everyday moral discourse.

But it isn't a clinching argument, that's the problem. Intuitions differ. Consider possible worlds. There are many philosophers (including yourself, probably) who would argue that any price is worth paying to avoid a Lewisian ultra-realism. Sure, Lewis gives a nice, elegant analysis of counterfactuals, while the alternatives (like Mackie) are complicated, full of epicycles. But maybe that's the best we can do. Counterfactuals look simple to unreflective intuition, but philosophical analysis reveals that they are anything but.

At the heart of the debate over moral facts is Hume's finger-pricking argument. There's room for discussion whether the fact/value or is/ought distinctions are ultimately the same problem or whether there are interesting differences, but the basic point is that knowing the facts leaves us with the choice of what to do, depending on what we value or want. Moore's 'naturalistic fallacy' is just a version of this.

You say, that my proposed course of action in doing X will harm lots of people in measurable ways, therefore it is a fact that it is bad. But I couldn't give a fcuk. Why should I care? I admit the 'facts', but for me they are just straightforward common or garden empirical facts. Millions will suffer horrible deaths as a result of my action. So what? I will benefit. I will enjoy the spectacle. I'll make a video.

Can you see the problem? You know the answer already, or think you know, so to you it looks like a pseudo-problem. But to make a convincing case that it is a pseudo-problem remains a tough proposition!

You might recall a question from Pathways Moral Philosophy, about George Kreisel's dictum, 'The point is not the existence of mathematical objects but the objectivity of mathematical truth,' or words to that effect. In the context, this is used as an argument against Mackie's 'queerness' objection. Moral objects would be queer (facts, knowledge of which entails the required action). But we are not looking for moral objects. The alternative -- a course pursued by Kant, and Nagel (in his 'Possibility of Altruism') and attempted in the program -- is to see moral laws as analogous to the laws of logic, as constraints on rationality, in some manner or other. I'm less confident than I used to be that this is possible. All I'm saying here is that this is a line of thought which you have already dismissed in your first paragraph.

Moral properties as secondary qualities

I had difficulty in following this. The point seems to be that at face value, the observation that moral properties are 'like' secondary qualities such as colours, could be used as an argument for realism, or for anti-realism about moral values, and only the slightest inflection makes the difference.

And yet, as you note, moral qualities are (defined as) intrinsically motivational. I think this point could have been emphasized more in your first essay. I think you could have also made more of it in this essay.

As it happens, the dispositional account is one which McDowell and I debated on more than one occasion when he was my D.Phil thesis supervisor.

On the face of it, there is a huge difference between, say, 'kind', and 'red'. The ability to discern red enables me to separate ripe tomatoes from unripe ones without having to taste them first. In general, the ability to discriminate objects can be used for any end. Whereas the ability to discern whether an action is kind or not intrinsically goes along with the motivation towards kindness. McDowell accepted this. Someone who had no inclination to be kind would, necessarily, be someone who simply couldn't 'see' the difference, often subtle, between being kind or not being kind in a particular situation.

I disagreed with McDowell. If you were the kind of person who would enjoy making the video (see above), and you also wanted to blend in as much as possible with 'normal' human beings so you could continue doing your dastardly deeds, you would want to be suitably armed with a 'people theory' that enabled you to discern the difference between kind and unkind acts with the same accuracy as those who are moved to kindness. To do this effectively, it would have to be 'second nature' to say to yourself, 'That's what human's call 'unkind'', while you twisted the knife.

McDowell's case, the case for realism on the basis of the analogy with secondary qualities depends, ultimately, on the idea that the person who, as a result of failure in social conditioning, is not moved to action necessarily 'misses' something which is there to be missed. One needs to tell some more or less fanciful story about 'people theory' in order to make good the difference. (See my paper, 'In pursuit of the amoralist' Because, as a matter of fact, the vast majority are moved, and those that are not, as a matter of fact (i.e. moral psychopaths) lack the ability to discern. This doesn't look to me a sufficiently convincing argument.

I suspect that as you worked on the essay, you were making moves (like the distinction between red-o and red-s) which you hoped would lead to a resolution of the question, but the deeper you looked the harder it was to see the point of the analogy. The very fact that the very same observation can be used as an argument for anti-realism or for realism about moral qualities, leads one to the conclusion that the analogy is not much use at all.

All the best,


Spinoza's view of mind as the idea of the human body

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza's view of mind as the idea of the body
Date: 14th September 2011 15:15

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 5 September, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, 'What led Spinoza to describe the human mind as the idea of the human body? Did he make an adequate case for this view?'

I find this a rather odd question. It looks as though we are being asked to answer two separate questions, rather than just one, but if so what exactly is the difference between them? Where does an account of 'what led Spinoza to describe' the human mind as the idea of the human body end, and an assessment of whether he gives an 'adequate case for this view' begin?

If we were talking about another thinker, there might well be room for a gap between an account of their motivation for putting forward a particular philosophical view and the reasons which they give -- including an assessment of the validity of those reasons -- for holding that view. But as your essay amply demonstrates, there is very little to say with regard to Spinoza's motivations, or the context in which he was writing, that isn't included in his highly structured and comprehensive arguments.

As a student of Descartes, Spinoza clearly saw that the problem of mind-body interaction was crucial. At the heart of the Cartesian philosophy is a surd, and nothing can be done to lessen the sense of incoherence: an outrage to reason. As a student of the Stoic philosophers, Spinoza inherited a powerful sense of the unity of nature, and of ourselves as an intrinsic part of nature, together with the logical consequence of that view: a strong version of fatalism. Knowledge, or 'adequate ideas' isn't just something useful for action, it is the very nature and core of human freedom, in the truest sense: hence the absolute need for determination as a precondition of freedom. Finally, as Jew, Spinoza inherited the strong distaste for anthropomorphizing God, which he took to the extreme of challenging conventional models of faith, actively proselytizing for his rationalist view to the point where the community saw no alternative but to excommunicate him.

To sum up, Spinoza inherited a list of problems, to which he saw his philosophy as the complete solution. As in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, once the structure has been laid out, there remains very little for the philosopher to do. Above all, it was the beautiful simplicity of his theory that acted as a powerful incentive for getting over one's reservations about the intuitive oddness of describing the human mind as the idea of the human body.

You rightly emphasize the role of rationalism and of Spinoza's version of the principle of sufficient reason. A point you could have made here concerns the relation between the Creator and his creatures. It was Descartes who saw that 'substance' as he defined it, whether material substance or thinking substance, cannot simply be created once and for all. God is everywhere and everything derives from God. The desk on which I rest my hands would cease to exist in a moment, if God did not continually exercise His creative power. Things have no 'existential inertia' to keep them going in existence, as it were under their own steam.

So the key argument, for Spinoza, is the point about the definition of substance. If this table depends on God in order to continue in existence, then it is no 'substance' according to Descartes' own definition of a substance.

Once that move is made, everything falls into place like dominoes neatly lining up in a row. If the question is whether Spinoza makes an adequate case, then the question arises whether we are simply trying to render Cartesian philosophy coherent -- fixing up Descartes' account of 'substance' -- or whether one is looking for proof in some absolute sense, which would require a defence of Spinoza's axioms. Spinoza would laugh at that. They're axioms. You can only criticize him for deriving invalid consequences from the axioms! (Which gives another twist to the original question.)

The pancreas objection is laughable. I can only see this as an expository device, not a serious objection which is liable to cause any problems for Spinoza. Similarly, the worry about the 'mind of the stove'. Of course, the stove doesn't have a mind, as we would describe it. There's more to being a mind than simply being a more or less tightly organized structural composite of ideas. All ideas are ultimately in the mind of God, as indeed is the entire universe, under the aspect of God's thought of all creation. The interesting question is how one 'clumps' together structures of ideas and structures of material objects.

Here, you say something very important to the effect that causal and rational explanation depend on identifying systems which function in the explanatory sense as wholes. The system of ideas which functions as 'the mind of AL' does so in virtue of its capacity, as a special kind of whole to initiate changes in the external world, and be effected as a whole by its perceptions, which the system of ideas which corresponds to the stove in God's mind does not.

That's not the last word. There are plenty of details which remain to cause puzzlement. But the trick is (as I think you have seen) to consistently follow Spinoza's interpretation, so that 'objections' (so-called) are simply seen as failures to grasp the whole picture. I have to admit honestly that I don't always see the whole picture: you have to get into a certain mood. But it is what makes Spinoza so mind-blowing.

All the best,


Nietzsche and existentialism

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nietzsche and existentialism
Date: 14th September 2011 14:05

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 31 August, with your fourth essay for the Associate Award, entitled, 'The emergence and positive application of the existential attitude: A Nietzschean based interpretation.'

There are good things about this. You have succeeded in getting into the swim of Nietzschean thought, especially with regard to the question of the relation between his doctrine of will to power and his perspectivism. I detected a nuance of the later Wittgenstein in the emphasis on the 'full context of the human condition', a point of contact between otherwise dissimilar philosophies.

Another point of contact between Nietzsche and the later Wittgenstein, perhaps, is Nietzsche's characteristic way of developing his viewpoint through 'indirect discourse', rarely stating explicitly what he thinks but hinting, contrasting different views, using multiple voices -- Kierkegaard is another example of this. But this sets a problem for the interpreter. It becomes all-too easy to justify a particular interpretation by selecting suitable quotes. You avoid the problem entirely by never once referencing the works of Nietzsche. Which isn't really a solution at all, because what it means, in effect, is that your essay reads as your 'take' on Nietzsche (I good take, I would say) but where very little is offered in the way of argument or defence.

Readings of Nietzsche typically emphasize his rejection of Christianity, his opposition to theism, Platonic ideals, the Kantian categorical imperative etc. -- the metaphysical moral absolutes which merely constitute, in his eyes, 'the last fumes of evaporating reality' (Twilight of the Idols). What is less often stressed is his case against science, and its attempt to describe reality -- including the reality of the subject and agent -- from a purely objective point of view. This point is essential for grasping the idea of 'perspective' in Nietzsche's philosophy. But if we were to compare the amount of words which Nietzsche expends on the first target -- religion and traditional metaphysics -- with the amount of words which he uses to critique the ideal of science, I would guess that the former considerably outnumbers the latter.

I have only quickly looked at Maureen Finnegan's paper, but I'm guessing that your argument here is quite heavily dependent on her interpretation. As evidence I would cite Finnegan's statement,

'As truth is not objective, in like manner, it is not subjective. Since thinking is not wholly rational, disconnected from the body, or independent of the world, the subjective perception, or conception, of truth through the intellect alone is impossible.'

Compare your,

'However although truth is not objective in turn this does not mean that it is a wholly subjective rational process either. An individual's truth is not simply derived from reason but is in addition to this a complicated combination of instincts, drives, passions and will situated within a context of life.'

When I read your essay, I underlined 'wholly subjective rational process'. This is an odd thing to say, given that the idea or ideal of rationality is generally associated with the objective, disinterested view. Now I can see (I think) the point Finnegan is making here. If you get rid of the 'objective', you simultaneously get rid of the 'subjective' contrasted with it. My intellect is not an isolated faculty, but part of my whole being, so in this sense individual human reason is always in a context of emotions and drives: there is no such thing as an 'objective view' even of my own self, because I am the viewpoint that I occupy.

Or something like that.

You can see the problem. I applaud the fact that you have done some research on this, looked and found suitable material. But in the complete absence of references it is impossible to tell where your thought or contribution ends and that of others, or of Nietzsche, begins.

So what I am going to say now applies to your other essays too. You need to mark clearly the parts of your essay where you are paraphrasing a view which Nietzsche expresses in his writings (modulo the difficulty I mentioned in the beginning), as well as claims about or interpretations of Nietzsche, such as Finnegan. In both cases, the device of footnotes serves well. Make it clear where you are stating what you have gathered from reading Nietzsche, what you have learned from reading secondary sources, i.e. the work of interpreters of Nietzsche, and where you are offering your own thoughts.

Your writing flows well. I've got used to this, but you seem to want to avoid the use of commas at all costs, which can make things difficult for the reader. I would advise a few more suitably placed commas to help the reader follow the structure of the sentences, shorter sentences and also shorter paragraphs.

In this essay, I did miss the comparison with other existential thinkers such as Heidegger (who has written extensively on Nietzsche). Your title announces that this is about existentialism. What about it? How else are we to assess Nietzsche's particular contribution except by contrast to, or in comparison with, the contribution of other existentialist thinkers? It is not necessary to radically revise the structure of your essay. Just a suitably placed sentence or two is all that's needed here.

All the best,


Saturday, January 25, 2014

The philosophical significance of zombies

To: Sean R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The philosophical significance of zombies
Date: 8th September 2011 13:37

Dear Sean,

Thank you for your email of 29 August, with your essay for the first three units of the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'What is the philosophical significance of the idea of disembodiment and/or the idea of a zombie?'

Although you perhaps did not see this yourself, the argument in your essay implies that there are in fact two notions of 'philosophical' zombie (in contrast to Night of the Living Dead type zombies). This was in fact a serious lacuna in the program, a point that I did not fully appreciate when I wrote the units.

The crucial stage in your essay is where you say, 'If we could identify a body, a zombie, which responds normally to outside stimuli, we would therefore seemingly have discovered a model that directly conflicts with the materialist's vision of the mind-body state...'.

Think about this for a moment. How on earth would such an experiment be possible given that, ex hypothesi, 'the zombie functions... as a 'normal' human being would by appearing to make conscious decisions...'? By hypothesis, everything I do or can do, my zombie double does or can do. There is no physical or behavioural clue which would enable an investigator to tell us apart!

Hence the point about the internal thought experiment which you go on to describe. Your account can be criticized on the grounds that what you have described would be fully consistent with amnesia. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon to wake up in bed wondering what on earth you did at last night's party because you can't remember a thing. Hence the attempted description in the unit of an experience of (semi-) zombiehood actually in process. I wouldn't like to say if this description is coherent or not.

In fact, it doesn't matter (as I go on to argue) whether or not the description is coherent because you can't argue for mind-body dualism merely on the basis of a description of a 'possible experience' (i.e. the experience of disembodiment or the putative experience of semi-zombiehood). That is because there will always be alternative explanations. We are looking for a proof, either a proof of materialism or a proof of dualism, and nothing less will do.

So far, so good. But there was something I didn't think about. I strongly suspect that philosophers who rely on the zombie thought experiment (such as David Chalmers) assume, possibly implicitly, that zombies would exhibit certain behavioural defects or inexplicable failings, perhaps quite subtle (not like Romero).

Now the argument moves over to an entirely different level. What the sceptic about materialism would be saying, on this new version of the zombie thought experiment, is that *we just don't know* at the present level of neurophysiological or behavioural research whether there might not be 'zombies' in the third, 'in between' sense, persons who apparently behave quite normally, but on closer examination lack certain vital albeit subtle features, features which only the possession of consciousness can explain.

The first, 'pure', notion of zombie which I describe in the program goes together, not with Cartesian mind-body dualism, but rather with a version of mind-body dualism known as 'epiphenomenalism'. With pure zombies, there is no process of interaction. Everything that the body does is fully explained in materialist, causal terms. However, according to the epiphenomenalist, the physical processes going on in the brain *also* produce, as a by-product, the conscious states that I experience. My zombie double is my exact physical duplicate, but in its case, no conscious states are produced. In other words, consciousness is an 'epiphenomenon', it has no causal role in the production of observable behaviour.

My argument against epiphenomenalism is that if I am persuaded (by whatever means) that epiphenomenalism gives the correct account of the mind-body relation, then my zombie double will claim (perhaps I should put that in scare quotes, 'claim') to be an epiphenomenalist also. This is not a knock-down refutation of epiphenomenalism, but it is pretty persuasive.

On the other hand, if we are dealing with the third, 'in between' variety of zombie, then there does arise a possibility of a genuine difference between myself and my zombie double, detectable by means of objective observation, a difference which can only be explained in Cartesian mind-body interactionist terms. Such a discovery would count as an experimentally based, scientific case for Cartesian dualism.

This is all empty speculation you would say. (I would say that also.) However, the mere possibility of such a discovery, which we cannot rule out a priori, is arguably sufficient the sceptic would say to cast doubt on materialism. You can't claim to know that materialism is true, a priori, if you are unable to disprove the possibility that there is *something* we-know-not-what which is required in addition to a fully functioning human brain, in order to be fully human.

All the best,


Socrates on doing wrong knowingly (revisited)

To: Ruy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates on doing wrong knowingly (revisited)
Date: 7th September 2011 13:23

Dear Ruy,

Thank you for your email of 28 August, with your second attempt an essay in response to the question from the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, 'Are there good reasons for Socrates' claim that no person commits unjust acts knowingly?'

It is a good question to ask, whether 'No person commits unjust acts knowingly' entails, or is entailed by 'Weakness of the will is impossible' (not quite the same as 'lack of will', a terminological point), and similarly for the proposition, 'Virtue is knowledge.' You also raise a good point when you consider the possibility of a range of cases of weakness of will which are not concerned with ethics but rather with prudence (what you term the 'individualist perspective').

Let's start with this. As it happens, the second unit of the Pathways Moral Philosophy program looks at the problem of weakness of will in the case of prudential reasoning, before moving on to consider the consequences for our view of moral knowledge. There is some advantage in doing this, because it avoids all those questions about what 'queer' objects (Mackie) moral values might be and how knowledge of these objects necessarily entails right action.

As you observe, we all experience weakness of will. I know that I will be sorry that I didn't heed my doctor's orders, but right now all I want is a stiff drink and to hell with the consequences. Is it plausible that when I sip my third glass of single malt whisky, the knowledge of the irreparable damage it is doing to my liver somehow becomes questionable, merely a view which someone (my doctor) holds but not one that convinces me?

Human beings are like this. You can know a thing but not really *know* it, if you allow your focus to wander, or allow yourself to entertain doubts, however fanciful in the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is not enough merely to 'know', you have to *focus* on the knowledge, take it to heart.

These are merely common observations from folk psychology, hardly a philosophical theory. But they lend some support to the Socratic idea that knowing, really knowing that I (prudentially OR morally) 'ought' to do X is sufficient for me to do X. If I didn't do X that was because I didn't really 'know'.

The point of starting with prudential examples is that if you can't make the case that prudential knowledge (e.g. that I ought to ease up on my whisky drinking) is sufficient for action, then there is no hope of making the case when we are dealing with examples of putative moral 'knowledge'.

Leaving that aside, we can look at the controversial argument from 'induction' which Socrates uses: 'The man who knows music is a musician... the man who knows justice is just.' I would not put much weight on this argument. It is a dialectical ploy or move, designed to *raise the question* how it could be that a man who allegedly 'knows' justice might not act justly. An expert lyre player can play the lyre badly, if he chooses, just for fun. You could be clever about this and argue that if he really is an expert then his 'bad playing' is done with great expertise. But it really doesn't help the case for justice. An evil tyrant can 'know' what justice is, can recite Plato's Republic and all the arguments for justice, and yet choose to be unjust. Why not?

Here is where the real reasons for Socrates' claim that no person commits unjust acts knowingly come to the fore. We are imagining an individual who knows, and sees, the damage he does to his own soul by acting unjustly, yet (allegedly) 'chooses' to be unjust despite this. Plato would need to show that this is flatly incoherent. Yet it doesn't seem to be.

Behind this is an issue which you don't mention in your essay, the theory of forms. There is a Form of Justice, which exists as an objective metaphysical fact. If you accept the arguments for the existence of the forms (a big 'if') and also accept that there is such a thing as justice, hence a form of Justice, then... what, exactly?

Moral forms are a special case for Plato. Knowing the form of a Horse enables me to recognize any horse when I see one. Why can't the tyrant say that knowing the form of Justice enables him to recognize any example of justice? This is very useful, e.g. if you want to defend your tyrannical regime by imprisoning or killing all persons who show a tendency towards acting justly. I won't labour this point because I talked about this in my previous email.

I think you would get credit in this essay for showing that you see the difficulty of the problem. Examiners are more impressed by this than they are by confident assertion, for or against.

All the best,


The essential mark of the mental

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The essential mark of the mental
Date: 31st August 2011 14:17

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 22 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'Is there a mark of the mental? What important implications follow from the answer?'

I liked this essay, and I also have a great deal of sympathy with your conclusion. There is something we do not know. Maybe, we will find this thing if we keep looking. It would be nice if we had it. But if we don't, well that's too bad.

I would take this further. I actually think there are philosophical questions which are 'conundrums' in the sense that the question is real enough, but it is possible that there does not exist an answer *in reality*. This goes further than McGinn's 'mysterianism' in that one is not talking here of a limit to our conceptual scheme (as if superior, alien beings could discover the answer while we cannot).

(I had a run-in with McGinn once. Did I tell you about this? He had come to talk to a group of graduate students at University College Oxford. The discussion turned to the question of the 'first person standpoint' -- Nagel etc. McGinn stated, quite dogmatically, that there is a problem about consciousness, but no problem about the first person standpoint. I think he's was wrong about this -- as my book attempts to demonstrate.)

So there is a question about the 'mark of the mental'. We use the terms 'mind' and 'mental'. We make theories, perform inferences to the best explanation etc. Eliminativism is always an option, but the onus is squarely on the eliminitivist to successfully eliminate -- which, to date, they have clearly failed to do. All they have is a program and slogans, which as you indicate are easily rebutted.

I have more sympathy with Hurley. Why not say that in talking of the mental we are talking about a 'family resemblance' concept in Wittgenstein's sense? This is always an easy let-out, but as you say it would always be better if we could find some deeper property which unified the various disjuncts under a single idea.

But let's take a step back. Shouldn't we first be asking *why we need* an answer to this question?

The assumption behind your essay is that a great deal of science (psychology, neurophysiology etc.) is done in the name of trying to understand this 'thing' we call 'the mind'. It's the philosopher's job to define, clarify, explicate to smooth the path for science (just as Locke claimed). If we don't know what we are really talking about when we talk about 'the mental' then a lot of this hard work and research seem to be in jeopardy.

Behind this assumption is another assumption -- maybe taken as an axiom -- that naturalism and materialism (in some form or other) is a precondition for progress in science.

Whereas I see the question of the subjective standpoint as one of the perennial questions of philosophy, possibly a philosophical conundrum which we will never solve. To make this claim, obviously I need to establish that there is such a thing in the first place: well defined, corresponding to our intuitive classification of things that are 'mental' or 'not mental' etc. Wouldn't that classify (I'm talking about 'Point of View') as one of your headings, alongside Incorrigibility, Intentionality, Consciousness?

The main objection would be that Leibniz's monads each have a 'point of view' but only certain monads (such as human beings) have anything recognizable as a mental state. I'm not worried by this because, for me, the question is primarily about *my* point of view. This applies to anyone capable of asking the question (which is not to say that those incapable of asking it lack a 'mind'.

All this is just to show that the question you are addressing is one which is 'relative to a research project'. It is contextual, and therefore has to be understood in its context.

Getting down to details, you give short shrift to Incorrigibility as a mark of the mental. I would make two points here:

First, for Rorty the incorrigibility is 'empirical' not 'logical' (which he somewhat clumsily attempted to articulate using the thought experiment of 'cerebroscopes' -- later repudiated). It is not a refutation of his view that my shrink can know that I really am intensely jealous of X, while I confidently assert the opposite. That doesn't contradict the observation that the state of jealousy is, primarily, something you consciously feel. When you feel jealous you know you are jealous, not by any inference. Thus, it is taken as a criterion of a correct psychoanalytic interpretation that the patient is finally capable of accepting the analyst's interpretation, and 'feeling' it to be true.

The lift which announces that the door is obstructed is not giving an incorrigible report. As someone who spends a lot of time playing with computers, I have learned that you never accept the error which comes up on the screen, 'Sorry, the program crashed because of X.' Error messages are written into the program (you can 'read' them if you open the binary file in a text editor). The error message can itself be in error. Often, disbelieving the error message is the first step to solving the problem of why the program crashed.

The other point I wanted to make was about the PLA. You say that the PLA 'undermines the qualia exponent's ability to argue, but she may still consider that the qualia skeptic is simply denying the obvious, namely that qualia exist'. Assume that I have qualia but my zombie double doesn't. In that case, if I object to the qualia skeptic's line, in whatever way I might do this, verbally or non-verbally, by hypothesis my zombie double will do exactly the same thing.

In view of this, the best line for the defender of qualia is to find some way of defining qualia in a way which rules out zombies (in this sense -- there are other varieties of zombie!).

All the best,


Temporal becoming and the B-series view of time

To: Zumar A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Temporal becoming and the B-series view of time
Date: 22nd August 2011 14:07

Dear Zumar,

Thank you for your email of 13 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, ''Time should be understood as a series of events ordered by notions such as BEFORE and AFTER, we do not need tense-invoking concepts like PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE.' Discuss.'

This is not a bad essay. In terms of length, if you managed this within anything like exam conditions (one hour) then you did very well indeed.

Your criticism of the A-series view of time follows closely McTaggart's original argument. However, I don't think that McTaggart necessarily gives the most illuminating critique. He relies heavily on the claim about 'contradictions', there's a lot of dialectical hocus pocus, but at the end I don't really feel that I understand *why* the A-series view is incorrect.

It's also important to note that McTaggart did not regard the B-series view as correct. (You allude to this point.) His argument is a step along the way to establishing his own theory of time, the C-series. Expositions of McTaggart often omit this. It's fair to say that the C-series view does not get much coverage these days.

What is the problem with the A-series? Here is a much simpler way to see the problem. I am now writing the second sentence of the sixth paragraph of my first email to Zumar. That is a fact. Except that, it isn't a fact, because I am no longer writing that sentence. While I was writing the sentence, the statement, 'I am now writing the second sentence...' was true. But it is no longer true. It is false.

OK, where's the problem? Following Mellor's analysis, the statement, 'I am now writing the second sentence...' was made at the same time as I wrote the second sentence. The statement I have just made is timelessly true. The problem is, that's not what I meant. I didn't mean merely to state a tautology. I meant to state a metaphysical fact, the fact that I was NOW writing it. The 'nowness of now' appears to us to be a act, yet there are no words capable of expressing that fact. Every time is a 'now'.

This is a problem which you do acknowledge, in the most interesting part of your essay where you distinguish between the 'metaphysical' question and the 'epistemological' question. A theory needs to 'save the phenomena'. It is not sufficient to offer a theory which contradicts what we seem to see with our senses, if you are unable to offer an explanation of why that 'seeming' is an illusion. Mellor's theory of time as the B-series contradicts the naive, intuitive belief that there is a unique and special fact about 'now', it's metaphysical 'nowness'. Mellor's response is, basically, to throw the onus back onto the A-theorist and challenge them to come up with the words necessary to account for this fact: something which of course they are unable to do.

Thus, 'I am relieved it is all over,' said after visiting the dentist, has truth conditions which account for the time difference between walking into the dentist's surgery and leaving the surgery. These correspond, as you point out, to the truth conditions for indexical statements. But that doesn't make the problem, or the illusion, go away. I just *know* that there is something special about NOW. But this is not epistemology. I don't exactly know what to call it. It's an intuition, it's what we are naively 'tempted to say'. Mellor rests content with stating the truth conditions, but fails to grapple with the temptation. He would say, that he just doesn't feel it. But I wonder about this.

It is an issue which I have also grappled with (in my book 'Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds' downloadable from the Pathways site). Contrary to what most A-theorists would say, I do accept that 'now' and 'here' pose similar problems. It is no less problematic that there seems to be a place, HERE, which is special (because I occupy it) although there are no words capable of expressing that 'fact' non-tautologically.

All the best,


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Socrates on doing wrong knowingly

To: Ruy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socrates on doing wrong knowingly
Date: 18th August 2011 14:15

Dear Ruy,

Thank you for your email of 6 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Are there good reasons for Socrates' claim that no person commits unjust acts knowingly?'

This is not a bad answer. You do (eventually) cover the main points, even though your initial analysis of the question could be challenged. The result is that the core of the essay -- where you should be getting to grips with the problem of weakness of the will -- is very thin. You don't really say anything to support the claim that, if I do wrong, then that proves that I didn't 'really' know what was the right thing to do.

The point here is that we need to say more, in order to justify the use of the term 'know'. If it is axiomatic that doing wrong proves lack of 'knowledge', then this is a rather uninteresting sense of 'know'. How does one acquire this 'knowledge' (in scare quotes)? Evidently, not simply by learning ethics, or even practicing how to live well, because each and every one of us at some time or other experiences weakness of will. One is left in the dark as to what more needs to be done to give a person the 'right kind of knowledge', knowledge which will never desert them at a time of great threat or temptation.

Your interpretation of the question is not quite correct, in my view. The question asks, 'Are there good reasons...?' This means, can YOU find good reasons, independently of whatever reasons Socrates gave. Perhaps Socrates (and Plato) failed to make the best case. In which event, you are being asked to elaborate, offer additional reasons, perhaps make a stronger case than Socrates made.

You also allude to Socrates' 'motivation' for holding that no person commits unjust acts knowingly. That Socrates was attempting to hold back the tide of relativism and shore up the traditional virtues and values in the face of the teachings of the Sophists, is relevant as background information, but it is not an answer to the question. Socrates may have had the best motivations in the world, but he could still have been in the wrong. We are only concerned with the reasons which could be put forward to support a particular philosophical position. Are there good reasons, or not? Why, or why not?

Having said that, it is relevant to the question that the problem of weakness of the will, and the claim that no-one does wrong knowingly, is associated with an 'objective' view of moral values. Here you could have said more. Hume's argument concerning the gap between facts and values is relevant here. Let's suppose I know some 'fact' about moral values. How is this different from knowing ordinary empirical facts? (''Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger' remarked Hume.)

As Mackie argues in 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong', the 'moral facts' of Plato and Socrates have a special quality not possessed by ordinary empirical facts: when you know the fact in question, you must act accordingly. What 'queer' entities are these? ('queer' is Mackie's term).

Here is the heart of the problem. An objectivist must hold that there is a necessary link between the thing known and appropriate action. How is that possible? Surely, one can always drive a wedge in between a fact or truth, as such, and the actions which we choose to do or not do, as the case may be.

However, I do think that your idea that Socrates is talking about 'techne' rather than 'episteme' is a worthwhile lead to follow.

Episteme of the Forms fails to answer Mackie's 'queerness' objection. I can 'know' the form of Justice, but why must I always be just as a consequence? Why can I not experience the shame and guilt of knowing what I ought to do, and yet failing to find the wherewithal to do it?

With 'techne', on the other hand, we are close to Aristotle's take on this problem. Right action flows from a virtuous disposition, a form of practical knowledge. This is knowledge that the merely 'continent' man (the man who has the wrong urges but succeeds in suppressing them) lacks. Here, it does look more plausible (contrary to what I said above) that failure to do the right thing 'proves' lack of knowledge.

Incidentally, I don't think that a lot hangs on the choice of 'just' rather than 'good' or 'virtuous'. The question isn't about Plato's account of justice, as such, although the argument in the Republic certainly illustrates (as you show) how Plato thought of the nature of our 'knowledge' of justice.

All the best,


Heidegger on Dasein and authenticity

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Heidegger on Dasein and authenticity
Date: 18th August 2011 13:38

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 1 August, with your third essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'Heidegger, Dasein and the Quest for Authentic Being-in-the-World.'

This is a first-rate summary exposition of Heidegger's notion of Dasein, Being-towards-death and Authenticity. The clarity and concision shows that you have spent a lot of time drafting this piece.

Of course, I have to assume that these are all your own words. I realize this should go without saying. However (to parrot Smiley in 'Smiley's People') I've reached an age (60) when I can ask such things. If you have inadvertently copied phrases from any books you have been reading, you should be aware that your portfolio, once accepted, will be archived permanently on the Pathways site.

There was one statement which a reader would identify as a howler, where you say, 'Death provides us with an existential awareness regarding the possibility of not-being and its proposition; the impossibility of one's possibility.'

The formula, 'impossibility of possibility' is generally associated with Emmanuel Levinas's view of death, embodying his critique of Heidegger's account of death as the 'possibility of impossibility'. I personally don't like these formulae or catch-phrases as they tend to stand proxy for serious thinking. However, the upshot is that you can't attribute 'impossibility of possibility' to Heidegger, even if there is a sense in which this might be true. That's just not what this phrase has been understood to mean.

For Heidegger, grasping death as something other than merely 'something bad that might happen in the future' or a mere 'misfortune' that we are aware of happening to other people, is realizing what death means as an absolute end and limit to my possibilities of action. Hence, 'the possibility of impossibility'. He could also have said, 'the necessity of impossibility', which would have made the same point, or, perhaps, the 'necessary possibility of impossibility'. Levinas is making a point against Heidegger; which I will leave you to investigate for yourself.

I don't have much else to say. The main criticism of the essay as a whole is that you have contented yourself with exposition, which, clear though it may be leaves the reader wondering whether you have any criticisms to make of Heidegger, see any problems, are aware of any alternative or competing views (such as those of Levinas). What you have written s the sort of thing one might find in an encyclopaedia article. In an essay, you are generally expected to raise problems, grapple with something, and not simply take a back seat (as it were) and act as a conduit for a particular philosopher's views.

Even if you agree fully with Heidegger (which would not be impossible) you should consider objections that a critic might make, and attempt to respond to those objections; or at least consider misunderstandings that a reader might fall into, and attempt to correct those misunderstandings.

As exposition, it is also noteworthy that this is restricted to a particular stage in Heidegger's thinking ('Being and Time'). You hint at one point at Heidegger's criticism of technological thinking, which develops out of the failure to come to grips with the primordial nature of Dasein. Contemporary materialism and naturalism are arguably the legacy of Cartesian dualism, lending support to the idea that the only real challenges man faces are technical ones.

All the best,


What is an intentional object?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is an intentional object?
Date: 10th August 2011 13:55

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 1 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'What, if anything, is an 'intentional object'?'

I appreciate the fact that you have sought to keep the word count down to a reasonable level. I'm guessing that your experience in the May exams may have had something to do with it. In a one hour timed essay, you have to keep to essentials, and this you have done very well.

Your point against Meinong and the ontological jungle are, of course, well taken. I'm no fan of Meinong, but it seems to me that there is a question being begged here, that somehow sheer numbers have something to do with it (a la Occam). Can this be true? Is it so bad that intentional objects are generated in their billions?

Numbers as such don't faze me, but 'unruliness' does.

Quine's point about the rhinoceros in the doorway identifies the key problem. It is a problem of identity conditions (cf. Strawson, 'no entity without identity'). It doesn't matter how elaborate your description, there will always be more than one possible way to satisfy that description. When you talk about the 'possible rhinoceros' you haven't *identified* anything.

But why all the fuss? This is what has me puzzled. I thought I saw a rhinoceros charging through the park gate. (It was actually a pony, it was dark, and I was tipsy.) In that case I believed/ thought it was the case that (Ex)(x is a rhinoceros and x charged through the park gate and I saw x). No 'object', just three properties which together give the truth condition for my belief. That is to say, my belief is true if and only if (Ex)(x is a rhinoceros and x charged through the park gate and I saw x). Job done.

If you want to get more elaborate, we can include the pony, and describe my false beliefs about IT. I believed that the pony was a rhinoceros, absurd as it may seem. In my agitated state, the coat hanging on the side of the cupboard in the darkened room becomes an intruder waiting to pounce. Similarly you can 'want' things you wouldn't want if you realized what they really were.

You say, 'Gorman's insight is that talk about intentional objects is talk about the satisfaction-conditions of intentional states. The intentional object is *simpliciter* the entity (object/ state of affairs/ property/ event) that would, if it existed or came about in the way the intentional state aims or claims, be the satisfaction-condition for the said state.'

Taken literally, this would seem to imply that there are certain 'objects' which either exist or don't exist. Whereas, if we are talking about predicates or properties, then there's no problem. The intentional 'object' is characterized by a description which is either satisfied by one or more of the objects that actually exist, or not. Talk of an 'object that would, if it existed...' is just shorthand.

One reason for finding the description view unsatisfactory is that it fails to capture the phenomenology of the mental state. Let's say I want an apple. There's far more to it than the truth of the statement, 'I desire that (Ex)(x is an apple and I eat x). I imagine the apple, I see it in my minds eye. I picture myself munching its crunchy flesh, enjoying the tangy taste, the feeling of satisfaction afterwards. We can run exactly the same analysis for each of the statements I have just made, but it somehow doesn't seem to do my mental state justice.

The objects in our mental life have a phenomenological quality, sometimes very vivid. The phenomenology is functional, not just an epiphenomenon, because we rely on it in forming intentions, controlling our actions. We discover more about what we believe, or what we want, by focusing on the mental object and discerning its properties.

I want a screwdriver which will work on every kind of screw. What kind of blade would it have? Large, small, tapering, adjustable? With a bit of effort of imagination, I can *see* that I really don't know what I want, so far as screwdrivers are concerned. As my judo opponent strides towards me I can see that the possible throw which I would have attempted cannot succeed, because our weight difference is too great, or because he is already moving to counter the throw, or because of a certain look in his eyes that tells me he is too smart to be taken in by my feinting move.

The magic wand. This is an interesting example, because it shows how varied are the ways in which we 'want' something quite specific. I want a wand like Gandalf's staff in Lord of the Rings. I want to make the angry motorist berating me for scratching his Jag disappear. I don't ever want to have to work for a living again. A magic wand can be something which looks like x, and/or does y, and/or enables me to be z.

You might say that this point applies quite generally, that there are any number of ways for, 'It is raining' to be true. But each of those ways is a specific way, which we can describe, in any amount of detail. And this takes us to the point where we came in: mental states are ultimately indeterminate, they don't have 'satisfaction' conditions in the same sense as the truth conditions for an ordinary factual statement. The phenomenon is real enough, but any description necessarily falls short. This isn't an argument for dualism, but it is an argument against reductionism.

All the best,


Truth vs empirical adequacy in a scientific theory

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Truth vs empirical adequacy in a scientific theory
Date: 9th August 2011 14:15

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 29 July, with your essay for the University of London Methodology module, in response to the question, 'Explain and assess the view that the acceptance of a scientific theory only involves a commitment to the 'empirical adequacy' of the theory, not to its truth.'

This is a well written essay but it leaves me feeling very puzzled about the focus of the issue between Van Fraasen's anti-realist and realist with regard to scientific theories.

Some background: My D.Phil thesis, 'The Metaphysics of Meaning' looked at the issue of realism vs global anti-realism in the philosophy of language, and specifically Michael Dummett's views about the need for an 'anti-realist theory of meaning'. According to Dummett, an anti-realist theory of meaning rejects truth as the 'central concept' of a theory of meaning and replaces it with something like 'rules of verification', that is to say, the rules that a speaker learns when they learn to use the language, rules which are 'manifest' in linguistic usage. This is what Dummett takes to be the cash value of the later Wittgenstein's assertion that 'meaning is use'.

This commits the anti-realist to doing something rather difficult, namely constructing an adequate anti-realist theory of meaning in terms of rules of verification -- something which no-one has actually done, and there are good reasons why it can't be done (see McDowell 'Truth Conditions, Bivalence and Verification' in Evans and McDowell 'Truth and Meaning' OUP 1976).

To cut a long story short, I came to the conclusion that the case for anti-realism is better stated by assuming from the start a Davidsonian-style truth-conditional semantics, accepting the law of excluded middle (the key axiom which Dummett's anti-realist objects to) and arguing instead that the realist is unable to *explain what they mean* by a statement, e.g., 'A tree stood exactly on this spot 100 million years ago' 'has' a truth value.

The statement is true *or* false. Either a tree stood here or not. But the assertion of the LEM doesn't get you any further. We don't know, we can't know. And simply enunciating the statement doesn't achieve anything either. All you have done is describe two alternate worlds. (I described the realist 'picture' as aiming an arrow at a target which is so far away you can never know whether you scored a bulls-eye or not.)

In an exactly similar way, I would argue, the scientific 'realist' has nothing to add to what scientists already do, which is perform experiments, enunciate theories, test them, revise the theories and so on.

The issue of hidden variables is an interesting case in point, because here it does look as though being a 'realist' commits you to something that merely settling for empirical adequacy doesn't. But that is an illusion. Of course, we'd like to find hidden variables. The Aspect experiment seems to show that there can't be any. But like any experiment, there's always the possibility of discovering new evidence we hadn't considered before. If your interest is empirical adequacy, then you should *consider the possibility* of hidden variables. If you conceive yourself as 'aiming at truth' then you should *consider the possibility* of hidden variables. As to whether there are any hidden variables, we can't be certain. We can only state the best theory we have to date.

I would strongly defend a minimalist view about the *use* of the term 'true'. That doesn't mean there is no metaphysical question about the nature of what is 'out there' or the nature of 'reality'. What it means is that if you say, after performing certain experiments, 'There are no hidden variables,' and your assertion meets the standards for making claims in science (e.g. your paper would be accepted by a respectable Physics journal) then you have asserted what you 'believe' to be a 'truth'. It is 'true' that there are no hidden variables, so far as you have been able to ascertain. That doesn't mean everyone has to agree with you. It doesn't mean you can't change your mind. There are disputes in physics just as there are disputes in history or astrology.

You could have said a bit more about the idea that realism 'explains' the success of science (a la Putnam?). Once again, it seems perfectly possible for the self-styled 'anti-realist' to take on board anything the realist claims about the possibility of a meta-explanation.

But where does this get you? My supervisor, John McDowell took (takes) this to be a clear argument for realism: if you can formulate an anti-realist view without incoherence, then the view can have no practical consequences. You're not saying anything. I took it to be an argument for anti-realism: the self-styled 'realist' is unable to explain what they mean by a statement (or theory) 'really' being true or 'really' having a truth value.

My present view would be agnostic. There is a metaphysical illusion lurking here about the nature of truth, but rejecting that illusion hardly qualifies for the label 'anti-realist'.

Van Fraasen would like to be able to find an issue over which there can be real disagreement between the realist and anti-realist about science. Just making claims about what we 'believe' cuts no ice at all. If you are prepared to defend a proposition, if you are prepared to act on it, then you 'believe' it. There is no further question about *how* you believe it (as a 'truth' or as being 'empirically adequate').

All the best,


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The idealism of Bishop Berkeley

To: Graham H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The idealism of Bishop Berkeley
Date: 5th August 2011 13:46

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 24 July, with your fourth essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, ''To exist is either to perceive or to be perceived.'; How would you explain Bishop Berkeley's idealism to someone who knew nothing about philosophy?'

This is a very nice exposition of Berkeley's theory, which focuses on Berkeley's motivation for adopting an idealist solution to the problem of perception as well as giving a brief account of his argument.

The motivation was, as you say, to combat scepticism. Not only is Berkeley concerned with the threat of scepticism posed by Locke's 'veil of perception' theory, but also sees the weak link in Descartes mind-body dualism.

This could also be described as a 'sceptical challenge', namely to identify the 'locus of interaction'.

How do we know that our thoughts cause actions, or that physical events in the outside world cause us to have perceptions? How can mind act on matter? The problem is acute for Descartes, precisely because he rejects the popular notion of mental substance as some kind of ghostly ectoplasm, table tapping ghosts etc. Mind has none of the attributes of body. It is not located, as body is. Descartes offers as a hypothesis that the interaction takes place in the pineal gland, in the brain. (We now know that the pineal gland has an altogether different function.) The point is, though, that any hypothesis will do, because any hypothesis is equally empty. Cartesian physics neatly avoids the problem posed by the conservation of energy as 'matter' is defined purely in geometric terms, so that 'movement' (momentum) rather than energy is conserved. But the explanatory gap remains.

The problem of interaction, as the problem of scepticism, were familiar topics of debate in Berkeley's time. In one fell swoop he solved both problems. Or did he?

As you don't say much about Berkeley's 'master argument', I won't either. Let's concentrate instead on the question of how good an explanation Berkeley offers, as an alternative to dualism.

What is matter? (Don't say, 'never mind'!). As you note, it is a notion with a long history going back to the Presocratics. But the Presocratics didn't have much to say about consciousness. (According to the atomists, as Aristotle noted, the atoms which compose the soul are very 'slippery' so they get everywhere, they enable a body to 'move' itself.) Descartes, in his sceptical mood, wonders whether 'matter' exists or not. But what difference would it make, exactly? An evil demon is a creator of an 'unreal' virtual reality world which we took to be real. A benevolent deity is a creator of a 'real' world. But Descartes also argues that a material object, no less than an immaterial substance such as a soul, only 'exists' for as long as God exercises his continual creative force. This isn't 'matter' as the atomists knew it, stuff that remains no matter what, and is incapable in principle of being destroyed. This table and this computer would blink out of existence in a moment if God relaxed his vigilance.

It doesn't take a genius to conclude that 'stuff' which only 'exists' for as long as God is making it exist, whose sole purpose is to 'explain' perception, can be taken out of the equation without loss. In Berkeley's theory, the 'object' exists as an 'archetype' in God's mind, of which our perceptions are 'ectypes'. Replace these words by 'matter' and 'perceptions' and the sense remains virtually the same.

It was Kant who saw the major weakness in Berkeley's position. Actually, two weaknesses, although arguably Berkeley could have happily accepted the first point:

1. In his 'Refutation of Idealism' (in the 2nd edition of 'Critique of Pure Reason') Kant argues that perception is only possible if experience takes the form of objects arranged in space. Not every sequence of mental events is a 'possible experience', only those which can be interpreted by a theory - the theory of an external world, and perceivers who occupy spatial positions in that world.

2. A criticism which Kant levelled at Leibniz, although arguably this applies equally to Berkeley, is that talk of God's 'experience' or the things in God's 'mind' is an illicit extension of a conception which applies only within the world of phenomena, the world of *our* experience. We are not in a position to say anything about how things are 'in reality' ('in God's mind'). Kant concluded that 'things in themselves' or 'noumena' are unknowable. Berkeley, in claiming to describe these 'things' is just talking nonsense.

Kant called his theory 'transcendental idealism'. His 'refutation of idealism' was a response to critics of the 1st edition of 'Critique of Pure Reason' who complained that his theory was merely a version of Berkeleian idealism. But the critics were at least partly right. Transcendental idealism (the theory of phenomena and noumena) is still idealism. 'Matter' is merely a concept we apply to experience, like 'hot' or 'red'.

Disproving that theory is (still) one of the great challenges of metaphysics.

All the best,


Why be moral?

To: Graham H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 7th July 2011 14:28

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 25 June, with your third essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be moral?'

This is a thoughtful attempt to answer the question, which does not avoid the difficulties facing any attempt to define what it is to be 'moral' or the various motivations which might lead one to acknowledge or reject the claims of morality.

There is, as you have seen, a distinction to be made between the question of how one decides a moral question -- whether as a deontologist, or utilitarian, or etc. -- and the question why one should consider the claims of morality at all.

Corresponding to utilitarian and deontological morality, you could contrast utilitarian and deontological prudence. In pursuing my self-interest, do I perform a hedonic calculation, or do I act on some principled ground? However, as a matter of historical fact, both Kant and Mill seek to give an argument why we should be moral deontologists or hedonists.

For Kant, the claim is that the categorical imperative is constitutive of human freedom and rationality. (But why care about being 'free' or 'rational' in Kant's sense?) For Mill, the fact that each person desires his or her own happiness leads us to acknowledge the importance of the happiness of others (although Mill is famously unclear about the status of this 'inference').

Interestingly, although Plato held that the forms embody objective moral values, he bases his argument for 'justice', in the Ring of Gyges thought experiment in Republic, on the desire, which he assumes that each of us possesses, for an 'ordered soul'. In other words, it is enlightened self-interest that leads us to be moral. This is really not so far away from the case of Hobbes, where our enlightened self-interest leads us to appoint a monarch who will enforce the rule of law.

Contrary to the popular picture, Hobbes does not assume the truth of psychological or moral egoism. In a way not so dissimilar to Hume, he recognizes that we have natural ethical impulses. But we also have other desires (the reasonable desire for self-protection, the desire for 'honour' or recognition from others) which lead us to compete with one another and fall into conflict. In other words, even if our first impulse was an ethical one, we find ourselves in a situation where you can't trust that the other person will act ethically if you do (the 'Prisoners' Dilemma'). The purpose of the rule of law is to establish a framework where trust and co-operation become possible.

The Good Samaritan is a nice example to use. In a real-life situation, the question is what would *be* the right or moral thing to do. And if I decide not to help, that doesn't necessarily show that I 'can't be bothered to be moral', but perhaps of my perception of the risk involved. Maybe the question should not be, 'Why be moral?' but rather 'How far should we put ourselves out to be moral?' You acknowledge this point when you talk about the need to recognize both 'the importance of egoism and what we intuitively believe is right'.

In other words, in a real-life situation, those who say (or seem to say) that that they 'can't be bothered' to be moral, are more likely to be questioning (a) whether the demands being made on them are fair or reasonable, in the light of their own legitimate needs, or (b) whether those who loudly proclaim what is or is not 'moral' have the right to legislate for the rest of us.

It could also be argued that in order to truly get the point of the question, 'Why be moral?' one needs to take a step back and recognize that, as a matter of fact, we *are* moral. (Even those who talk about 'not being bothered' have a moral viewpoint, a sense of what is right or wrong. There are things they would not do.) The only one who can raise the question is the amoralist (or 'sociopath', or 'psychopath').

In the story, Bill Clegg discovers 'what it is like' to be a psychopath but fortunately recovers from his episode. During the episode, the things we normally regard as sufficient reasons for acting morally lose all their force. Arguably, it is too strong a requirement to ask moral philosophers for arguments which would convince a psychopath. And yet, there is a sense that we are looking for a characterization of what it is that we *see* that the amoralist fails to see.

It is a further question whether 'looking for arguments to convince the amoralist' or 'seeking to characterize what it is that the amoralist fails to see' is the most fruitful way of pursuing an investigation into the foundations of ethics.

All the best,


On possibility and possible worlds

To: Alan L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On possibility and possible worlds
Date: 3rd June 2011 12:20

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your email of 26 May, with your first essay for the Metaphysics program, entitled 'Possibility and Possible Worlds'.

I liked the way you went about this essay. Talking about what might have been the case is something we do quite naturally, but the question is, exactly what are we doing when we talk this way? What do we mean?

You offer the example of the number of crows on your lawn. There were four crows on your lawn this morning but there might have been three, or five, or some other number.

First of all, we need to distinguish this from the mental act of imagining that there are a particular number of crows on your lawn. We can imagine things which aren't possible, and which we admit aren't possible. For example, I imagine bringing it about through an act of sheer will, that I pass the exam when the letter telling me that I have failed the exam is in front of me. As I concentrate, the words in the letter change before my eyes. And all the other things needed to make me 'have passed' the exam change too.

With these powers, I don't need to pass exams. I can beat Superman any day. As Superman is about to slug me, I imagine him weak and puny. Or I imagine that Superman never existed, or grew up on some other planet in another solar system.

Very nice, but it isn't possible. Not only not possible given what we know about the laws of nature, but logically impossible. Exercising these powers would entail the truth of a logical contradiction. E.g. 'The candidate GK actually scored 21 per cent and the candidate GK actually scored 77 per cent.'

I might seem to be labouring this a bit, but the point is that statements about 'things that might have been' are true, or false. And they are not statements about the content of some person's mental state. If true, they are objective facts. But facts about what?

You distinguish, correctly, between possibility as 'what might have been' and possibility as what you term 'expectation', things that might yet come to be, or fail to come to be. The possibility of expectation is actually one species of a more general phenomenon, epistemic possibility. There are many things consistent with what I know. Some of these things refer to the future. But others refer to the past. Homer might have been a single author. Or 'he' might have been several authors whose works were collected together over time. We don't know. Either is 'possible'.

However, you also introduce a third idea: the idea that 'a possibility is an event, or state of affairs, which we include in our implicit view of the world and how the world works.' To see that this really is a third idea, not simply a variety of epistemic possibility, consider the things that it is possible *for* you to do. You can write a good metaphysics essay. You can't run a mile in under three and a half minutes. Powers and capacities, whether of people, or things, are in a very real sense 'in' the entity in question.

Perhaps we could stretch this to cover the case of the crows on your lawn. There might have been a thousand crows on your lawn, if your lawn was big enough. Otherwise not. So we are talking about a power or capacity of your lawn, and also, perhaps, a power or capacity of crows. What things can, or are able to do or not do. Once again, this seems to be about the actual world.

Maybe, with sufficient ingenuity, we could extend this further to any statement purporting to be about metaphysical possibility. There might have been only seven planets. I might have had two heads.

You also offer an account of how we 'construct' possible worlds, by taking a true description and changing the truth value of one or more of the statements in the description. Here, by contrast, there is no need to explain possibility in terms of powers or capacities because we are not aiming for explanation. Our only concern is logical consistency.

But still the question remains what makes statements about metaphysical possibility true, when they are true. Perhaps we can get away with saying that 'A is metaphysically possible' is equivalent to 'The description "A" is logically consistent.' Problem is, we also make conditional statements of the form, 'If A had been the case then B would have been the case.' Here the truth seems much more 'meaty'. David Lewis, one of the foremost proponents of strong realism about possible words, argues in his book 'Counterfactuals' that possible worlds are *needed* in order to account for the truth conditions of counterfactual statements. So you would either have to deny that counterfactuals have truth conditions or accept the existence of possible worlds.

You offer what looks like a knock-down refutation of Lewis's view. 'The actual world exists as the world of our experience, while possible worlds exist as abstract concepts of our own creation.' But Lewis has an answer to this. Who are 'we'? A possible world is actual if, and only if, it is a world which we inhabit. But other possible worlds are inhabited too. The inhabitants of such a world call the 'actual' world, the world of their experience. From their point of view, our world is 'an abstract concept' of their own creation.

All the best,


Hume and Feagin on the puzzle of tragedy

To: William C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Feagin on the puzzle of tragedy
Date: 1st June 2011 12:32

Dear Bill,

Thank you for your email of 24 May, with your essay for University of London Diploma Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What puzzle about tragedy does Hume seek to solve? Does Feagin provide a better solution to the puzzle than Hume?'

This is an excellent piece of work, which delves eloquently into the issues around the question which Hume and Feagin grapple with, both, as you argue, somewhat unsatisfactorily. In relatively few words, you succeed in giving a fairly trenchant statement of both Hume's and Feagin's views -- which, as you argue, seem to be correct so far as they go but neither of which fully accounts for the facts.

I think a question that we need to ask is exactly what is the 'puzzle'? Why are we raising a question about tragedy? Couldn't you also ask why we enjoy adventure stories, thrillers, horror tales, love stories?

Consider love stories, say, a slushy Barbara Cartland romance. There are the familiar elements which you refer to: to make the love story gripping, the writer must carefully tease or trick our expectations. Just when you thought the hero and heroine would get together there is a foolish misunderstanding, or the hero does something stupid, or a third character succeeds in throwing a spanner in the works. But then, finally, love triumphs over adversity and the two live happily ever after. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl again.

This should lead us to recognize a more general question, which is why we are gripped by stories *at all*. There is a wonderfully funny sci-fi film Galaxy Quest (1999), a parody of Star Trek where the central characters are actors, mistaken by aliens for the real thing. The joke is that the aliens have no concept of storytelling, in fact the very idea of deliberately saying something false seems absurd to them. Placed in a real star ship, reconstructed from TV programs which the aliens believed to be 'historical documents' (belly laugh), the actors in desperate battle with another alien race finally discover their capacity for heroism.

It is true that tragedy has this additional feature, that someone suffers, and things are not all right in the end. In the traditional view of tragedy, there is a moral aspect, the 'fatal flaw' in the main character which leads to their downfall. But not always. (One can argue about the precise application of the technical term 'tragedy'.). Sometimes, things are just bad, all the way, there is no redemption, no moral lesson. Yet we still enjoy it. We are moved.

You are onto something when you talk about the rules of fiction (the lecture from the 'great modern writer' you refer to). For a narrative to work as a piece of fiction it must have a structure, one which is designed to involve us, to grip us. In a similar way, one might argue, a piece of music differs from a random collection of notes because it has the appropriate structure. The question that remains is why human beings (and not the aliens in Galaxy Quest) care about fiction. Maybe the aliens don't understand music either.

Neither Hume nor Feagin begin to address this question. As you note, Hume focuses on the question of the 'art' of the playwright, but clearly we can be moved by soap operas, where any claim to art is minimal. Yet, of course, there is 'art' in writing a good soap opera, but in a different sense, the art described by your writer lecturer.

There is a piece by Colin Radford reprinted in his unconventional introduction to philosophy, 'Driving to California', entitled 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?' (JSTOR, which comes closer to grappling with this issue. As it happens, I hosted a meeting of the Birkbeck College Philosophy Society many, many years ago when Colin Radford came to read his paper (I think it was around 1974 or 1975).

Getting back to the aliens, it is a common practice amongst philosophers to 'imagine aliens' who possess, or lack various capacities. It seems implausible that there could be aliens who simply cannot conceive of the point of lying. It seems less implausible that there could be aliens who don't enjoy a good story, ever. What's the difference?

It is a feature of the 'natural history' of human beings that we enjoy using our imagination. Perhaps this is the key. Could the aliens lack imagination, completely? Or do they have a capacity for imagination, which they never employ for its own sake (self-entertainment) but only in planning, designing, perhaps devising thought experiments in philosophy? I am tempted to think that if this question could be answered satisfactorily, then there would be nothing left for Hume or Feagin to get their teeth into.

All the best,


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Personal identity and body-duplication

To: Graham H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Personal identity and body-duplication
Date: 20th May 2011 12:53

Essay on personal identity
Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 8 May, with your second essay for Possible World Machine in response to the question, 'Imagine you are Mike Harding. As you lie injured on the road, you are told that a brain scanner is going to be used to map your memories and personality and the information used to program the brain of a new body cloned from one of your own cells. The moment the new 'you' gains consciousness the old 'you' will be painlessly destroyed. How do you feel about this prospect? Justify your answer by reference to one of the competing philosophical accounts of the relation between mind and body.'

I liked the way you pitched this, with a reference to the Don Siegel film, 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', because it raises an issue -- the question of qualia -- which seems to be central here: the question being whether Mike Harding's replacement *has* qualia, or, if he does, whether these are indeed the *same* qualia.

I don't actually think that this is the decisive question in the present case, but it is important because it reveals what we are tempted to say about the scenario.

You state that you are going to 'assume that the true nature of the mind-body problem is the one stated by the physicalists'. You don't say which version of physicalism or materialism you subscribe to: the 'eliminative' or the 'non-eliminative'. Eliminative materialists believe that all the truths about human psychology can, in principle, be translated into the language of physics, while non-eliminative materialists hold to a non-reductionist view according to which statements about human psychology are 'supervenient' on physical states, meaning, that there can be no difference in psychological state which is not reflected in a corresponding difference in physical state.

On either view, however, the very existence of qualia is problematic to say the least. This is obvious with eliminative materialism, but I have seen defences of the notion of qualia by non-eliminative materialists. I'm not convinced, but the idea would be very close to what I would describe as epiphenomenal dualism -- which denies the dualism. Physical states of the brain have a mental aspect which is not distinct from those states (identity not dualism) and yet cannot be deciphered or read or discovered by any amount of examination of those physical states.

Crucial to this notion of 'physical qualia' is the claim that it would be impossible, in principle, for the very same physical state (say, in me and my double on twin earth) to produce 'different' qualia. In other words, there is no question of speculating whether my double has 'my' qualia, or is a 'mutant' (to use your term) or indeed a zombie with 'nothing on the inside'.

I like Nagel's idea that there is something which I know, as the unique possessor of my brain, which could not in principle be known by any other subject. You'll find an elaboration of this idea in my paper, 'Truth and Subjective Knowledge' However, I don't see this as in any way defending the idea of qualia. Subjective knowledge isn't a judgement about some internal subjective 'object' (which would be a 'private object' in Wittgenstein's sense) but rather a way of being in relation to the world, which no other subject can share.

The problem with qualia is that they obey no rules whatsoever. I can speculate whether my double on twin earth has qualia like mine or different to mine, or has no qualia at all. But then I can ask the very same question about myself, when I started typing this letter. My present memory tells me nothing. 'Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes but that you do not notice because your memory constantly deceives you' (Wittgenstein). The point is similar to the argument that solipsism always shrinks to solipsism of the present moment.

My exact physical double would necessarily have my memories, according to the supervenience thesis (non-eliminative materialism). Could there be any difference, at all? You speculate that there is something unique about 'experience', such that the the very same memory state would be different in the two cases (say, Mike Harding and Mike Harding's replacement) because Mike Harding's memory is somehow connected to an experience which actually happened, whereas the memory of his replacement is not. But how would this difference be manifested, on a physical level?

One important point which is emphasized in discussions of personal identity is the role of causation. If I died and, through sheer cosmic accident a version of me appeared on twin earth, the causal link between my experiences and the memories of my twin earth double would be lacking. However, in the case of Mike Harding and his replacement we *do* have a causal link, in the process whereby Mike Harding's memories are recorded and uploaded into Mike Harding's replacement. Which makes the question whether there is, indeed, any difference between Mike Harding and his replacement very difficult to answer, for the physicalist at least.

In case you're interested, there is a very useful discussion of the question of personal identity and Mike Harding-type thought experiments in the last issue of Philosophy Pathways ('Parfit, Lewis and the Logical Wedge: Fusion-Fission's Challenge to Coextension' by Oliver Gill). I don't have a satisfactory answer to the puzzle. I share your intuition that I wouldn't want to be 'replaced', that this would be the same as death (without resurrection). Yet it is difficult to find arguments to back up this view.

All the best,


Jean-Paul Sartre: 'Hell is other people'

To: Paul M.
From Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Jean-Paul Sartre: 'Hell is other people'
Date: 20th May 2011 12:16

Dear Paul,

I am sorry to have kept you waiting so long for my response to your latest essay towards the Associate Award, ''Hell is other people' - Sartre and being-for-others' which you emailed on 5 May.

This is a really good piece of work, which lays out with reasonable clarity Sartre's complex and difficult views about the relation between self and other. There are a number of directions in which one could explore and develop these ideas, but you have sensibly concentrated on expounding the central issue concerning the idea of the self as both for-itself and in-itself, and the tensions and contradictions which this creates when the self enters into relations with other selves -- as it must do in order to be truly a 'self'.

There is very little that I would want you to change. The quote 'Hell is other people,' is from Sartre's play 'Huis Clos' ('No Exit'). I think you do need to reference this. I also found a useful quote from Sartre from a talk which Sartre gave around the time when the play was first published:

''Hell is other people' has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because... when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves,... we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else's judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else's judgment enters.... But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.'

Unfortunately, I don't have the original reference for this: I found the quote (unreferenced) on this blog:

As you note, there is an important connection to Hegel's master-slave dialectic. You give a rather long quote from Solomon (which needs to be formatted as a block quote), which isn't the most accurate exposition of the section on master and slave that I have seen. I do advise you to look at this section in Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit' ('Phenomenology of Mind' in Miller's translation) and try to form a view of your own. The essential point is about the need for 'recognition' which can only come, ultimately, from a relation of equality between self and other. Where Sartre sees a contradiction or conflict which cannot be overcome, Hegel more optimistically views the dialectic of self and other as one which has a satisfactory conclusion. That's a point that could be made.

The point that causes all the problems for Sartre is his very radical view of human freedom. To realize that I have a 'nature', that I have qualities of character and motivation which others may observe, conflicts with the principle that every free decision has no basis or precedent other than my own appreciation of the situation at this moment in time -- all that I have decided or done in the past, all the things that others know about me from observing my behaviour -- all that is just water under the bridge.

I see the point of this. I don't think any philosopher has come up with a really satisfactory response to Sartre. The Hegelian view -- which you can also find in a certain reading of Wittgenstein -- is that the very language which I use to deliberate and decide what I am to do now, is a language which I share with other people, a language which I inherited from my culture, where reasons for action are capable of being communicated, discussed, criticized. The alternative would be truly solipsistic, and indeed incoherent (I would have to speak a 'private language').

The problem with this response is that it only goes so far: language isn't a machine which does our deliberating and deciding for us. The concepts we share with others may be a common coin in which the rights or wrongs of actions can be debated, but there is no 'concept' for the particular situation which I find myself in, at this moment in time, for which there is no precedent. There is no such thing as being 'consistent' or 'inconsistent' in one's decisions because no two situations are identical.

To be truly human, truly free, is to recognize that living is an exercise in creativity, where new solutions, new directions must forever be sought. Sartre, as a writer was very keenly aware as all artists are of the dangers of repeating oneself, self-imitation, conforming to the expectations of others -- which becomes more and more difficult to resist when you rise to prominence and become 'public property'. This is the most anguished sense in which 'life imitates art'.

All the best,