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  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.org

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 5 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you asked a philosopher from April — May 2000:

  1. Intentions and jazz improvisation
  2. Did the universe create itself by instinct?
  3. Infinite infinities
  4. I'm 14 and worried about solipsism
  5. Simulation theory and theory theory
  6. 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'
  7. Who discovered that the world is round?
  8. Explaining human minds to an alien
  9. Did we create God?
  10. What is deontology and what use is it?
  11. When are two facts part of the same process?
  12. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
  13. The direction of time
  14. Determinism and fatalism
  15. Why philosophers love arguments
  16. Where determinism rules, free will is dead
  17. Plato and the 'third man' argument
  18. Protagorean relativism in Plato's Theaetetus
  19. Is the idea of God illogical?
  20. What makes a great philosopher great
  21. Descartes' argument for mind-body dualism
  22. Why are you a philosopher?
  23. What's wrong with basing your life on a lie?
  24. What if one of these questions shatters your beliefs?
  25. If there is no God, why are we here?
  26. Should we tell the truth at all costs?
  27. How to be the best philosopher you can be
  28. Can repentance cancel out your sins?
  29. What are 'qualia'?
  30. Russell's principle of acquaintance

Garry asked:

The problem I have concerns the content of intentions.

I am a saxophone player and the music I play is mainly improvised. For an improvisation to be creative, one necessary condition is that I intend the sounds that are produced by pushing down the keys on the instrument. It could be that my intention is just to press a key that I know will produce a merely correct note, i.e. one selected from the right scale, without knowing what sound will be thereby produced, e.g something like, 'Right I'll play a G now and then an A.' This is a sort of verbal as opposed to musical knowledge which I think is mechanical, mere technical proficiency and not very creative.

The question is, How can I know what my intention is at any particular time during an improvisation? It is tempting to say that intended sounds will be pre-heard internally, a sort of inner aural image. But we can ask the same question of the image, how did I know that was intended etc. and an infinite regress looms. It seems as though this will be a problem for any non verbal intention that is immediately acted on, there is no experiential or qualitative content to it that one can check to determine whether it is merely mechanical. Can you suggest a solution or relevant reading material?

This is a fascinating question. First, we need to get clear just where the boundaries of genuine 'creativity' in jazz improvisation are held to lie. One night, you might not feel very inspired, or perhaps the band is not playing particularly well, and you stick to well-trodden paths. You play safe. Still, there is an element of creativity in that you don't simply repeat previous performances note for note. I would argue that for the purposes of our philosophical question, that is all the creativity we need. You are following a familiar sequence of notes and come to a point where there is a choice. You can take direction A or direction B, and without a moment's hesitation you choose A.

I am not sure about your description of the 'merely mechanical' process which you say is not genuinely creative. Your thought seems to be this. The basic requirement for improvisation is that the musician should play notes in the right key. Otherwise, the result sounds awful. This is a rule that a proficient musician can do without thinking about it, without having their mind 'on the job'. And that is where intention comes in. But I don't see how the mechanical process could be described as 'verbal' as opposed to 'musical'. A better way of putting the contrast is that the mechanical process is musical only in the sense of conforming to music theory. It lacks a certain quality of musicality that you only hear when the player's attention is focused on the music qua music. (It is possible to improvise silently, in one's head, so it would not be correct to say that the difference between the mechanical and the creative approach consists in the fact that with the mechanical approach one does not need to actually hear the music.)

So we are talking about someone whose mind is on the music, by contrast with someone whose mind is not on the music. The difference has got to be that someone whose mind is on the music is making aesthetic judgements. Not, as you rightly point out, of the sequence of notes pre-rehearsed in one's head, but of the actual performance in progress. So, in a sense, you are looking backwards. Each new note is instantly judged in relation to what has gone before, so that the whole continues to make musical sense. You know how you have to go on. (I am reminded here of what Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations about language use and 'following a rule'.)

I think this is how one should understand the comparison that is sometimes made between jazz improvisation and abstract expressionism in painting. Consider Jackson Pollock on a good day and on a bad day. On a bad day, he merely splashes paint. On a good day, Pollock's mind is focused on the image coming into being before his eyes. Each change is 'instantly judged in relation to what has gone before'. One very interesting difference is that whereas one can improvise music in one's head, it is not possible to paint an abstract expressionist painting in one's head. In the painting, there is an ingredient that derives from the physical properties of the material that both limits the possibilities available, but also creates opportunities, for example, in the particular way paint dribbles or spatters.

There is an element of deflationism in this account, a charge which I accept. In an important sense, Charlie Parker, or Jackson Pollock, even when they are at their most creative, do not see where they are going. The act of creation is an act of discovery. The music, the unfolding image, make aesthetic demands which the jazz musician, or the abstract expressionist painter have to obey. Intention only reaches forward as far as the next note, the next brush stroke.

Geoffrey Klempner


Burt asked:

My instructor at Montana Tech made a comment about how no one can figure out what the first cause was, he said it could not be God because first we have no reason to believe God exists. Also if God exists what was his cause. This brings us to psychology, the reason it does is I just learned about ethology, the theory that Nature is instinctive. So if this is true (which has caused controversy in psychology) then maybe the first cause was instinctive and then went on to bring causes from different effects. For example, the universe was created by itself by pure instinct. This could also help psychology in effect that an animal is first instinctive and then it depends on the stimulus that happens after the first instinctive act(s) and learns and then all acts are behaviour.

I have puzzled over this question. It looks like a joke, a send-up. There is an obvious objection to the theory that says the first cause caused itself 'by instinct'. If the instinct is what gave the vital push that brought the universe into being, how did the instinct come to be? An animal's instincts are 'in' the animal, it gets its instincts from its genes, it is born with them. Or is your thought that the 'pure instinct' that set of the chain of causes and effects is different from biological instincts in that it doesn't have to be 'in' anything?

Then I remembered my motto, which I tell all my philosophy students:

Be prepared to consider the possibility that you might be wrong.
There is no such thing as a foolish question.

I might be wrong. I might be missing something. So what I am going to do is this. I am going to assume that I have missed something, and see where that takes us.

The first clue would be to look at what instincts are contrasted with. Say we observe apparently purposeful behaviour, the kind of thing that if human beings did it, they would be planning out their actions, deciding what to do first, and so on. For example, birds building a nest. My old philosophy teacher, Ruby, had a favourite example, the Bearded Tit. I don't know whether Bearded Tits are found outside the UK. But apparently they are extremely fine architects and builders when it comes to nest making. Bearded Tits are a problem for the 'instinct' theory of nest building because they don't just go through the same procedure every time. They go about their work with resourcefulness and 'intelligence'.

Well, maybe, maybe not. Right now, I don't want to get involved with that argument.

The point is that if you say something was done by instinct you are admitting it was purposeful, but also denying that there was any conscious sense of purpose. So, if the universe was created by instinct, then there was 'purpose' in its creation but there was no intelligent being whose purpose it was. Philosophers have a technical term for explanation which relies on the notion of purpose. They call it teleological explanation (from the Greek telos). A causal explanation talks about the conditions that made a thing come to be, a teleological explanation talks about the purpose or end that the thing's coming to be serves.

Now I have to get on my pulpit. One of the greatest educational scandals of modern times concerns the way Christian fundamentalists in the US have succeeded in forcing schools to teach so-called 'creation theory' alongside Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Many of the young people in the US looking at these pages will have been taught in schools that both 'theories' are fully consistent with the evidence. In a way that's true. God could have made the world 5,000 years ago to lookas though it had existed for billions of years, together with a fossil record that looked as if it was evidence of evolution. All that is logically possible. So what do we conclude from that? If the fact that something is logically possible made it a candidate for belief, then it would be perfectly rational for me to believe that Monica Lewinski is really Leonardo diCaprio in drag. I'm sure there's someone, somewhere who believes that.

Science is concerned with the best explanation. No one is claiming that the theory of evolution could not possibly be false. It is simply the best — by far — of all the available explanations.

Some years ago, I had occasion to review two books by an American professor of philosophy, Errol E. Harris. Harris proposes a third alternative in-between creationism and Darwinian evolution which sounds a lot like your 'instinct' theory. Actually, the theory is not his, but is based on Hegel. According to Hegel, the universe is fundamentally teleological in character. In Harris' words, evolution as Darwin described it could not possibly have taken place without a 'nisus towards wholeness and integration'. But the source of that 'nisus' doesn't have to be the traditional God, the Creator. It is simply the metaphysical fact that what is ultimately real is purpose.

- I'm afraid I was rather rude about Harris' objections to orthodox Darwinism in my review. But I am prepared to accept that I might have been wrong. It could be argued that Hegelian 'natural philosophy' holds out the only hope for an answer to the question, 'Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?' But who says there has to be an answer? I don't think you or I really understand that question.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

When I peer into the night sky, I can perceive infinity...Atoms are building blocks and I visualize an infinite number of building blocks compiling the atom...I draw a line from one to the other and along this line plot an infinite number of points with each point sprouting out into an infinite number of directions. From each sprout et cetera, et cetera. From this I picture my grid of infinity. I don't yet know how to label each point on this grid. If I could label one point I would allocate it as a memory location for all that our earth, galaxies, and knowledge represent. All of the other infinite memory locations are full of unknown infinite amounts of information.

My question is: in view of the above visualization, how can a Philosopher place so much emphasis on an arrangement of words (formed from a finite stockpile of words) allegedly presented by an icon of a past society (let's say Socrates for a start)?

What a picture! I hardly know where to begin. Let us agree that philosophy, and indeed all human knowledge and experience, is something very very small in relation to infinity. The thing is that we, you and I — or the human race — are also very very small in relation to the whole of space or the whole of time. So what is very very small in relation to infinity can still be big for us.

You will probably reply that the fact that the history of philosophy from the Greeks onwards looks big to us is merely an appearance, not reality. But what is the standard of size? Does the Earth, for example, only 'appear' big? How small would the Earth have to appear in order to appear as small as it really is? The answer isn't, 'Very, very small'. There is no answer to that question. And that is the point.

From a finite stock of words, it seems impossible that one could ever form an adequate concept of infinity. The mathematical definition of an 'infinite set' as a set that can be put into a one-to-one correspondence with a proper subset (e.g. pairing up all of the whole numbers with just the even numbers) does not seem to capture the essence of the concept of infinity. That definition merely tells us something about infinity. Some philosophers would conclude that the idea of an actually existing infinite — as opposed to a rule that can be indefinitely re-applied, like counting, 2, 4, 6 etc — is incoherent. It doesn't make sense. It is just a sound that we utter, not knowing what we mean by it. I am not saying that I agree with that hard-headed view. But how confident are you — seeing as you are stuck with having to use words along with the rest of us — that you know what thought you are attempting to express by the words you utter?

Reason and argumentation, the arrangement of words, is important because it is the best we have got. Forget infinity. In relation to the difficulty of the perennial problems of philosophy, the efforts of philosophers seem puny enough. OK, so we can't hope to make giant strides. We can only accomplish a little at a time. But there's urgent work to be done, all the same. Let's get on with it!

Geoffrey Klempner


John asked:

About a month ago, I suddenly started thinking about how completely impossible it is to ever know whether you are the only one who really exists, because one can't go into another's mind to see if they are a conscious being like you are. What if everyone else is just in your imagination or something like that? You can never know! I know this question seems strange, but the problem has been haunting me ever since I thought of it and I would really like an answer. It has really been consuming most of my thoughts during school (I'm 14) especially and is very distracting.

Philosophers call this problem 'solipsism' from the Latin solus ipse the sole self. There's two main kinds of solipsism. The first kind is easier to defeat then the second kind.

The first kind is sometimes known as 'scepticism about other minds'. It is a selective kind of scepticism, in that you don't question whether you are in a world of physical objects in space. That's a given. The problem is that amongst these physical objects are living human bodies that make apparently meaningful movements and utter apparently meaningful sounds. The question is, How do I know that there is anything inside the people I meet, how do I know that I am not the only real person surrounded by perfectly disguised zombies?

I think I have an argument which can be used to defeat that question. It's not quite a knock-out punch, but close. First, we have to set the scene. The person asking this question is a dualistwho believes that there are basically two kinds of 'stuff' in the universe, physical stuff and mental stuff. The physical stuff is all around me, but the only mental stuff I have direct knowledge of is my own mind, my own consciousness. I can't be certain whether other human bodies have mental stuff inside them or not, because the mind is something that can only be directly seen from the inside.

Descartes was a dualist. But he believed that my mental stuff, or rather my soul interacts with my physical body. A human body needs a soul to make it go. Without something 'in control' there would no speech or intelligible action. (He thought that animals didn't have souls.) Now, if that's true, then it provides a simple test for whether another person has a mind.

Today, dualists no longer believe in a soul that interacts with the brain. They hold that processes in the brain are sufficient to account for the noises people utter and the physical movements they make. But those processes also give rise to something inside, as a kind of by-product. Mental stuff is produced by a functioning brain in the way that a factory chimney produces smoke. The problem is that whereas everyone can see the smoke coming out of a factory chimney, I can only see the consciousness being produced by my brain. There's no way of telling whether other people's brains produce mental stuff too.

Here's the tricky part:

Imagine someone exactly like you, in every physical detail. Physically, you and your double couldn't be told apart, even using a microscope. Call him 'Jon'. Jon lives on Twin Earth in a Solar system just like this one on the far side of the Galaxy. The only difference is that Jon's brain merely accounts for his speech and behaviour. Jon's brain does not produce any mental stuff. For Jon, all is darkness within. Jon, in other words, is a perfectly disguised zombie.

But because Jon is exactly like you, and because Jon lives exactly the same life on Twin Earth, Jon has submitted a question to Ask a Philosopher about the problem of solipsism. It seems that Jon is just as troubled by the problem as you are, even though Jon doesn't have a mind! Whatever caused him to ask his question is the same as what caused you to ask your question!

Well, that was the first kind of solipsist. As I said, not a knock-down punch, but a points win. The second kind of solipsist says, How do I know that there's a world at all, outside my own mind? Everything in the universe exists only because I do, it exists for me. If I did not exist, then the universe would not exist either. Other people are merely characters in the story of my world.

That's a far tougher proposition. I give an argument against this metaphysical kind of solipsism in my book Naive Metaphysics. It is possible to be a metaphysical solipsist, but at the price of giving up the concept of truth. The trouble is, what do you say against someone who says that they are prepared to pay that price?

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

With regard to empathy, what exactly is the simulation theory? What are the major arguments in favour if it being the central method of understanding other people?

Greg Currie, at the Flinders University of South Australia has written an excellent short account of his research into 'simulation theory' and its rival 'theory theory' which you will find at http://wwwehlt.flinders.edu.au/philosophy/research.html.

According to Greg Currie, simulation theory 'says that I put myself in another's shoes by running my own mental processes "off-line", disconnected from sensory inputs and behavioural outputs. Instead of applying a (rough and ready) psychological theory to the other person, I take on pretend or imagined versions of the beliefs and desires I would have if I were in that situation, and then I just observe what decision I make.' Whereas, on the alternative view, 'we theorize about others, and about ourselves, on the basis of the behaviour we observe, and the theory we arrive at is a theory of mind. We then apply the theory to people so as to make predictions about their behaviour, just as we apply scientific theories to stones and planets.'

It seems to me that there is a third, more fundamental approach to understanding others which both simulation theory and theory theory presuppose. This is when I don't use any means or method of interpreting another person's behaviour. I don't formulate a 'theory' on the basis of 'evidence'. I don't first go through a routine of imagining what it would be like to be in their situation. I simply see their action for what it is. In the vast majority of cases, people would be very perplexed if you asked them how they knew about the mental states of others, or how they knew why another person did what they did.

I am not putting this forward as the overlooked 'third alternative' between the two theories which Currie describes. There are times when one has to make a positive effort to 'put oneself in another person's shoes'. Imagination is an intellectual capacity that needs to be exercised, and some are more proficient at it than others. It is the skill possessed to a high degree by the novelist, who succeeds in drawing us into an imaginary character's world. There are other times when the focus is rather on making sense of a person's actions in relation to their situation. The more we find out about that situation the more evidence we will have for our 'theory'. It is an empirical question at just what point empathizing ends and theorising begins or vice versa.

One of the characteristics which marks the autistic child is the lack of a capacity or concept of how things appear from another person's point of view. There are psychological tests, which most children are able to pass by the age of four or five, to determine whether they are able to attribute false beliefs to a real, or imaginary individual. 'Noddy has put his chocolate bar in the tin, but when Noddy wasn't looking, Lucy took the chocolate bar out of the tin and put it under the bed. Where will Noddy look for the chocolate? The child who answers, 'Under the bed' has not yet grasped the idea of 'how things are so far as Noddy's state of belief is concerned'. There is only 'how things are', full stop.

Exactly what capacity does the autistic child, or the child under a certain age, lack? Do they lack the emotional capacity for empathy? or the intellectual mastery of a psychology theory whose inputs are what another person wants and what they believe? This is a murky area.

But there is a prior, strictly philosophical question, concerning how it is possible to make sense of another person's actions at all. Suppose little green aliens landed from Mars. It does not seem impossible that we could learn to communicate, and to make sense of one another's actions. Yet there would be crucial areas where we simply could not see how things were for them, or they with us, with our radically different 'nature'. For all that, there would necessarily be something we had in common. There would be things we needed in order to live, even if they were different things, there would be things that gave us pleasure, even if they were different things, and so on. Most importantly, we would each possess a language where actions could be explained by giving reasons.

It is the capacity for language, for reason, that makes me, myself the instrument that perceives the meaning of another person's actions, just as the eye is the instrument for perceiving objects. In an important sense, what the autistic child lacks is a crucial constituent of rationality. To say that, however, does not make the phenomenon of autism any less puzzling, or go any way towards resolving the clash between 'simulation theory' and 'theory theory'.

Geoffrey Klempner


Jeremy asked:

John Keats wrote in his poem 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty.' I believe that beauty is not truth and that this is quite evident in modern society. What are your thoughts on this issue? Are there any philosophical greats who would agree with me?

When Plato called the Sophists 'panderers' and accused them of purveying appearances in place of truth, he was responding to the same fault that you see with modern society. 'Everything is style but no substance,' is a familiar cliche. Iris Murdoch has written a book The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists about Plato's low estimate of art in The Republic.

Why can't we value truth for truth's sake, and beauty for beauty's sake? To assume, as Keats apparently did, that the only way to defend aesthetic value is to equate it with truth is to concede the argument to Plato.

In my online notebook page for 16th April I challenge one half of Keats' assertion, focusing on the narrower claim that 'the value of pictorial representation in art is a species of truth'. Possibly, that's what prompted you to ask your question. I won't try to repeat the argument here.

Instead, I shall look at the other, more controversial half of the assertion, that 'truth is beauty'. Is that true?'

I could be clever and say that the fact that Keats' remark is 'beautiful', i.e. poetic, does not make it true. If I wrote, 'Every sentence consisting of eight words is true,' it would be reasonable for you to point out that, even if by its own criterion of truth that sentence is true, I have given you no grounds for believing that criterion to be true.

In science we seek the best explanation for a given phenomenon. What makes a hypothesis win out against all competitors is its elegance and simplicity. These are undoubtedly aesthetic attributes. Does it follow, then, that the most elegant and simple theory is true? It is reasonable to assign the higher degree of probability to the more aesthetically attractive theory, but that is all. Some times the long-shot wins the race. Ugly theories can be true.

I suspect that what I have just written would be judged superficial, and that there is more to Keats' remark. In that case, I wish someone would enlighten me.

Geoffrey Klempner


Yazeed asked:

Who discovered that the world is round? When and how did it happen?

I looked up the answer to your question in the Grolier 97 Multimedia Encyclopaedia. Here's an extract from the article, Earth, size and shape of:

The shape of the Earth was considered to be a sphere by ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras and Aristotle. The first accurate measurement of the Earth's size was made in the 3rd century BC by Eratosthenes of Cyrene. He knew that at the summer solstice, the first day of summer, the noon Sun was reflected in a well dug at Syene (modern Aswan). This fact indicated that Syene was approximately on a direct line between the Sun and the Earth's center. Simultaneously, Eratosthenes determined that the Sun as observed at Alexandria (which he assumed to be on the same meridian as Syene) was south of the vertical by about 1/50 of a full circle. Because the rays of the distant Sun striking Syene and Alexandria can be assumed parallel, the angle of shadow at Alexandria is equal to the angle between there and Syene, as measured from the center of the Earth. The Earth's circumference would thus be 50 times the north-south distance between the sites. No way existed then to determine this distance accurately, but Eratosthenes' value was correct probably to within 15 percent.

That's the historical facts sorted out. I'm still puzzled by how Pythagoras or Aristotle could have accepted that the earth was spherical, in the absence of a theory that accounted for the observation that 'Things generally fall down' in terms of a notion of gravitational attraction.

Children are taught in school that the earth is round, and most accept this, in the face of apparently conclusive evidence to the contrary. If the earth was round, then surely the people in Australia would fall off? Or, if some kind of glue is holding them on, why doesn't it feel to them as if they're hanging upside down?

Or suppose the teacher is sufficiently smart to discuss the round earth theory along with Newton's theory of gravitation, and how Newtonian mechanics accounts for the orbits of the planets in the solar system. Aren't they worried about how physical action can occur at a distance?

Then, of course, there are those — like a student I once taught — who have never 'learned' this lesson, who believe that the round earth theory is a gigantic conspiracy perpetrated by the scientific community.

In the name of free speech and democracy, isn't it time we insisted that children are given lessons in both the flat earth and round earth theories, so that they can decide for themselves which theory to believe?!

Geoffrey Klempner


Penny asked:

If a visiting alien were to land in your garden and asked you what it meant for human beings to have a mind, how would you answer? How would you decide whether the alien had a mind or that it exercised mental functions? Would you need to posit a mind-entity to explain its behaviour?

Ah! I must have been subconsciously thinking about your question when I responded to Mark's, above. But there are some interesting angles here.

The first thing to say is that if the alien succeeded in making it understood that it wanted to know 'what it meant for human beings to have a mind', then you would presume that it had a mind. Of course, there's always the initial possibility that you are listening to a tape recording, but if you manage to continue an intelligent conversation, that can be ruled out. Then there's the possibility that your 'alien' is merely a mechanical probe responding to instructions from real aliens in their orbiting space ship or back on Mars, and relaying their questions to you. In that case, you are dealing with real minds, at one remove.

However, that misses the real point of the question. With an alien being, we lack all sorts of basic evidential cues. We can't tell the difference between a 'smile' and a 'frown', or between different tones of voice. There's little to empathize with. Or we might be faced with the more extreme Star Trek scenario of a being made of pulses of incandescent energy. Does that pose an insuperable problem?

The mathematician Alan Turing proposed a famous test which could be used to determine whether an individual at the other end of a computer terminal had a mind. The test is to see whether you can keep up an intelligent conversation. In other words, there's sufficient evidence going by speech alone to make a decision. Going by that test, it is irrelevant how physically different the alien is from us.

For anyone who has doubts about the sufficiency of the Turing test — as I have — the question remains open. Suppose that someone suggested that the aliens were intelligent, but unfeeling machines. So it was morally acceptable to use the aliens as tools, enslave them, put them to whatever purpose we liked. The question is whether there is a philosophical argument to show why that attitude would be wrong.

Geoffrey Klempner


Allen asked:

Who said, 'Even if there is no God, it is a social necessity that we create one'?

I don't know who said it. My concern is rather with whether the proposition expressed is true.

There are two different things that you might mean by the claim that something is 'a social necessity'. You could be saying that as a matter of sociological law, that thing always obtains wherever human societies are to be found. Or you could be making the evaluative judgement that the thing in question is necessary for a society to attain some desirable feature, like order, coherence, stability.

It could be claimed that as a matter of psychological and sociological law, there will always be a 'god' or 'gods' wherever human societies are to be found. Success, power, money are the 'gods' that people choose in the absence of any other. One argument that has been given for religious belief, is that the 'One God' of the monotheistic religions is a far more suitable subject for worship. If we believe in the existence of a Deity, we may be self-deceived. But we are more self-deceived if we make success, power, or money our 'god'. — The question posed for the non-believer is whether it is possible for human beings to do without gods altogether.

'Even if there is no God...'. — One other thing that I would point out is that there is a pragmatic incoherence in the judgement, 'It is necessary for me to believe P, even though P is false.' And if that is true for me, then it is also true for 'we'. We cannot worship a Deity while simultaneously recognizing that it is only a phantom of our own creation. The judgement is therefore one that can only be made from outside, by an on-looker. 'It is a social necessity for you to create a God, yet in asserting that fact, I also recognize that your God cannot be a God for me.'

Geoffrey Klempner


Halo asked:

Could you evaluate the view that deontology has no practical value?

Deontology? What's that?

Here's how the Oxford Companion to Philosophy defines deontological ethics:

Moral theories according to which certain acts must or must not be done, regardless to some extent of the consequences of their performance or non-performance (the Greek dei= one must). According to teleology or consequentialism, as commonly understood, the rightness or wrongness of any act depends entirely upon its consequences. Deontology is seen in opposition to consequentialism in various ways.

In the light of this opposition, one question to ask is which view, the teleological or the deontological, is the correct view to take of the foundation of moral judgements, what theory best accounts for the validity of the moral decisions that we make. But that is not the question you have asked. Your question is whether deontology has practical value, in other words, whether an ethical theory setting out 'those acts which must or must not be done' can be of any use to us in making ethical choices, irrespective of whether or not that theory does in fact provide the correct philosophical account of the ultimate foundation for those choices.

I wonder if it has occurred to you that the very same question could be raised about consequentialism, or teleology. Suppose you believe in the consequentialist theory known as 'utilitarianism', according to which the best action is the action that leads to 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. Bernard Williams, a long-time opponent of utilitarianism, points out a very real dilemma for the consequentialist, that in order to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is necessary that people do not base their moral decisions on a utilitarian calculation. In other words, if you are a utilitarian moral philosopher, your view is that, while utilitarianism provides the foundation that accounts for the validity of our moral judgements, for the majority of persons the utility principle has little practical value.

By contrast, it seems to me that deontology has considerable practical value. It is true that general principles like, 'Never tell a lie' do not always help us resolve the moral dilemmas that we face in real life. When principles clash, as they often do, you have to make a judgement in the light of the actual circumstances, a judgement that is not guided by any particular principle. However, I believe that those children who have been taught by their parents, and at school, that there are things which are right and wrong, that you must, or must not do are still better equipped to make those practical decisions.

Geoffrey Klempner


Algimantas asked:

I am Deputy Chief of the Criminological Research Department at the Lithuanian Institute of Law. While writing my PhD thesis, I have faced one problem I am not sure I can solve myself. So maybe you could just advise me the way of analysis. The problem shortly sounds as follows: I have to prove that two facts are just elements of the same process.

How do we decide whether we are dealing with one and the same process or two different processes? I kick a tin can, and as I do so there is a flash of lightning and moments later a clap of thunder. Unless I credit myself with supernatural powers, I must assume that my kicking the tin can was one process, and the thunder and lightning was another process. It was pure coincidence that they happened at the same time.

On the other hand, science teaches us that in the case of thunder and lightning what seem to be two processes happening at different times, are in fact one and the same process. We are seeing and hearing the electrical discharge of millions of volts from storm clouds. The only reason we hear the thunder after the lightning is that sound travels more slowly than light.

Then we have to consider the case where one process causes another, different process. The process of lightning striking the roof of the house caused the process of the house fire. However, the house fire was not part of the process of the lightning strike. There is a clear dividing line between one process and the other.

If you asked me how, in general, one proves that two facts, or two processes are causally related, I doubt whether there would be anything that one could usefully say in purely general terms. Establishing causes and effects is a matter of discovering the true, or best explanation for a given set of phenomena. Here's a concrete example. A worker in a plastics factory develops cancer and sues the company for criminal negligence, claiming that his cancer resulted from his handling carcinogenic substances. In court, the company might try to argue that there is no proof that the substances used in their manufacturing process cause cancer, or they might admit that the substances are carcinogenic but deny that they could have been the cause of cancer in this particular instance. There are familiar ways to test such claims in the courts.

But that was not your question. You asked how one proves that two facts are part of the same process.

When are we likely to raise the question whether facts A and B are part of one and the same process, rather than merely being causally related to one another? Here is where I wish you had given me a concrete example to work from. Try as I might, I just can't think of a legally relevant case where it matters whether we are dealing with one and the same process or not! In law, what matters are causes and effects, how one attributes responsibility for a given fact, not how one individuates processes.

Geoffrey Klempner


Brooke asked:

Please help me answer this question: Identify and expound upon what effects Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have had on our lives within the past 50 years.

You haven't asked for much!

You have obviously been given this as an essay question. I can only guess at what sort of answer your instructor was expecting.

Take away Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and you take away the starting point of 2,500 years of Western philosophy. Imagine a possible world where philosophy met a dead end and the early speculations of the Presocratic philosophers were buried and forgotten. Or imagine a possible world where philosophy started out on an altogether different basis from the Socratic method, or the theories of Plato and Aristotle.

One can imagine these things in the abstract, the problem is that, as a working philosopher, it is simply impossible to subtract the influence on one's whole way of thinking that these historical facts represent, or imagine how one might have thought differently. Philosophers are always trying to think differently, trying to break out of the confines of starting points and assumptions. The difficulty is that one can never know how far one has succeeded, in the face of the suspicion that, given the historical point that we have actually started from, there may be ways of thinking that are impossible for us to comprehend.

Or you could be asking how important the influence of 2,500 years of Western philosophy has been in the West over the last 50 years. Undoubtedly, philosophical views are deeply ingrained in our culture. It is also true that over the last 150 years the increasing confinement of philosophical activity within the academic departments of universities has led to a situation where philosophy, as a branch of human inquiry, has had decreasing influence on our lives. Not so very long ago, a person who had not studied philosophy was considered uneducated. How little that is true today.

Geoffrey Klempner


Cloe asked:

What does it mean to say that time has a direction? Does time, as a matter of fact, have a direction?

I have identified the following: psychological arrow, causal arrow, law of thermodynamics. Concentrating on the causal arrow as possibly fundamental, can you offer me any support or constructive criticism?

That's what I like to see: You have made a start with the problem, and identified the considerations that you think may be relevant!

If one imagines standing outside the whole of time, from the Big Bang up to the present date, all that exists is a series of events, ordered by the relation, 'before-and-after'. These events are like points on a road map, or tracks on a CD, or words in a book. Looking down on the history of the universe one can retrace it's steps from the end of the journey to the beginning. It would be like starting at the last page of the book and reading backwards, or reversing the motor on your CD player. It makes no difference. The same events happen in the same relative order. The only difference is the events that you arbitrarily designate as 'first' and 'last'.

One of the events in the history of the universe was the time when as a schoolboy I accidentally threw a cricket ball through the classroom window. How does this look when played backwards? A cricket ball lying still on the grass jumped into the air in the direction of the broken window. As it did this, pieces of glass lying scattered about also took into the air, and, then, as the ball passed through the window frame into the class room, the glass pieces came together to form a window pane.

One thing you could say about this story is that it seems extremely improbable. But improbable things can sometimes happen. It is extremely improbable, but not impossible, that the molecules composing an area of ground would suddenly 'vibrate' in the same direction at once, giving the ball sufficient impetus to become airborne. And so on. The law of Thermodynamics is all about probabilities. 'You can't pass heat from a cooler to a hotter body' is not entailed by the laws describing the motions of material bodies. There is a finite, though tiny, probability that the reverse could happen on a particular occasion. If you allow this, then you must also allow that there is a still tinier probability that the reverse always happens. If you ignore questions of probability, it is consistent with the laws of nature that the universe is running in the opposite direction from the direction that we think (your 'psychological arrow') that it is.

This is all mind-boggling, isn't it?

But let's press on. What I have just said only makes sense if we have some independent criterion for the direction of time. To say that the universe is reallyrunning on the opposite direction from the direction that we think it is running implies that there is a real difference between reading the book, or playing the CD, backwards or forwards. What could that difference be?

This is where causation comes in. In reality, you might claim, it was the cricket ball that acted on the pane of glass, causing it to break. When the ball thumped down onto the ground, it caused the molecules in the ground to vibrate. The reverse did not in fact happen. The molecules in the ground did not cause the cricket ball to jump up into the air, and so on.

According to the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume's analysis of causation, in his Treatise of Human Nature, what I have just said has questionable validity. To say that event A caused event B is merely to assert that there is a lawlike constant conjunction between events of type A and events of type B. In other words, statements that describe causes and effects reduce to statements about instances that can be deduced from the laws of nature. But we have just admitted that, so far as the most general physical laws describing the motions of physical bodies are concerned, it is logically possible to reverse the time order in which events occur.

The conclusion is that if you want to use causation as the logical criterion which ultimately determines the direction of time's arrow then you need a richer account of the concept of a 'cause' than the 'covering law' model that Hume's analysis entails.

Over to you.

Geoffrey Klempner


Llinos asked:

Is logical determinism merely a form of empty fatalism? Please could you comment...I'm stuck!

The thesis of determinism — the thesis that every event has a determining cause — is usually held to be an empirical, not a logical question. I assume, therefore, that what you mean by 'logical determinism' is a quite different claim, concerning the nature of truth. The claim in question is that a statement possesses the value 'true' or the value 'false', irrespective of the time reference. If I assert, 'Labour will win the next General Election', my assertion has a truth value now, even though I cannot know what the value is. In a logical sense, it seems that the outcome of the next General Election is already decided. The Labour victory, or, alternatively, the Labour defeat, is a fact that exists now about the future, which we will discover — to our delight or otherwise, depending on our political affiliations — when the time comes.

The thesis I have just described is known as 'fatalism'.

In common speech, fatalism, or being fatalistic implies that the future will be what it will be, and therefore that nothing can be done about it. There is a fallacious argument that goes: 'Either it is true that I shall pass the exam, or it is false. If it is true that I shall pass, then I shall pass even if I don't study. If it is false that I shall pass, then I shall not pass, despite my very best efforts. Therefore there is no point in attempting to study for the exam.' Philosophical fatalism is empty because, unlike the fallacious argument I have just given, it is not meant to entail practical consequences. If the truth about whether I will pass or not is outside my control, then so for the very same reason is the truth about whether I will study or not. From this perspective, all action appears equally impossible.

- If the argument about the exam is fallacious, where exactly is the fallacy? Perhaps that is something you would like to think about!

Geoffrey Klempner


Stephen asked:

What is the primary goal of the philosopher, and to what extent is a mastery of the art of argumentation indispensable as a means to the end of attaining that goal?

Philosophers love argument. I don't just mean that they love arguing. I mean that philosophers are in love with the Platonic idea of argument. Plato invented a special name for it, dialectic.

Yet Plato, most famously in the Republic, also talked about the importance of philosophic vision. The ultimate aim of philosophy is to seek an undistorted vision of intelligible reality, made possible by the light of 'the Good'.

Plato's view implies that goodness is somehow part of the structure of ultimate reality. That's a hard position to defend. It might still be the primary goal of the philosopher to seek out The Good, however, even if there were no certainty of success.

I can't speak for Plato, I can only speak for myself. I cannot say with any confidence what the primary, or ultimate goal of philosophy is, or might be. I only know that I find certain questions gripping. I also hold certain tentative views. And because holding a view implies that one believes — however heavily one qualifies that belief — in a 'truth', part of my essential activity as a philosopher is seeking to persuade other philosophers of that truth. This is the purpose of the 'art of argumentation'.

The English metaphysician F.H. Bradley wrote in the Preface to his great treatise Appearance and Reality in 1893:

Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct, but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.

I have strong sympathy with Bradley's view, even though it might seem to be less true of philosophy in general, than the particular aspect of philosophical inquiry known as metaphysics. Yet no-one wishes to be deceived by fallacious reasoning. So it becomes a kind of goal in itself to sharpen and hone ones powers of reasoning. We do so even when all light is shut out and we cannot see what views are ultimately worth attacking or defending. Sadly, many contemporary philosophers find themselves in this predicament.

Geoffrey Klempner


David asked:

In a world where the determinist rationale rules, is freedom dead?

This question isn't what it looks. You are not asking whether human beings can be free in a universe where determinism holds, but rather about the 'determinist rationale', which is a quite different thing. Whether determinism holds concerns how things are in reality, irrespective of our beliefs. Whether the determinist rationale rules concerns our beliefs and attitudes. Let me explain.

If the universe is one in which determinism holds, then the following proposition is true. In a possible universe which determinism holds, which is identical in every physical respect to the actual universe up to the present moment, the action which my doppelganger in that universe does next is the same as the action which I do next in this universe. Given that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are the same, it is logically impossible for my doppelganger to do one thing and for me to do something else. If my doppelganger turns left, then I must turn left. If my doppelganger turns right, then I must turn right.

This seems to contradict the subjective experience of 'making a choice', where it appears, from my subjective standpoint, that whether I shall do one action or another is open to be decided either way. If I 'freely' do A in this universe, that implies that my doppelganger might not do A in the other universe. The decision, whether to do A or not, ultimately depends on the moment, it is not merely the determined result of what has gone before.

The view I have just sketched, however, is open to serious objections from philosophers, from David Hume onwards, who take a compatibilist view of human freedom. The 'freedom' to do A, or not-A which I have just described is not freedom at all but pure randomness. If my prior decision process does not account for the choice that I make, then what happens at the moment can have nothing to do with me, it cannot be anything I can take credit for. 'Free' action, correctly so called, results from my externally unconstrained, rational choice. It is action that reflects my appreciation of the situation, my character, my needs and desires. — That is not the last word by any means, but I am not going to try to adjudicate on this debate.

A world where 'the determinist rationale rules' is a quite different situation. It need not even be a universe where determinism holds. What is significant is that people widely believe that determinism holds, and, what's more, this belief leads them via a fallacious inference to take a certain attitude towards the explanation of human behaviour. A notorious example of this attitude would be the belief that no-one deserves punishment. The institution of punishment is merely a way of appropriately altering people's behaviour. Generally, persuasion and argument reduce to pushing and pulling levers. It is a world where the concept of a 'person' ceases to have any significance, a world where would be no such thing as human freedom.

It might seem paradoxical that the existence of a belief in unfreedom can be all that is required to make that very belief true. In fact, the case is no different in principle from other cases of self-fulfilling prophecies, for example, in the classroom, or on the stock market. Jimmy can't do his maths homework because that's just what his prejudiced teacher expects. The shares in a company plummet as a result of a respected analyst's prediction that the price will fall.

In short, the determinist rationale can never rule, so long as we refuse to grant it any credibility.

Geoffrey Klempner


Christan asked:

Can Plato's theory of Forms be rescued from the 'third man' argument? Gregory Vlastos in his article 'The Third Man Argument in the Parmenides' argues that the argument depends on two hidden assumptions, 'self-predication' and 'non-identity'. But these assumptions lead to a contradiction. Is this right?

I talked about the notorious third man argument back in January in my online notebook page 43 at the Glass House Philosopher site.

Here's what I said:

One issue debated amongst Plato scholars is whether Plato's Forms were 'self-predicating', e.g. whether the Form of 'Red' is red, whether the Form of the 'Horse' is a horse, etc. This comes up in a dialogue from his later period, the Parmenides, where Plato describes a fictional meeting between the young Socrates and the great Presocratic philosopher Parmenides. Plato's aim in writing the dialogue seems to have been to criticise his own theory, which he puts into the mouth of Socrates. In a few sharp paragraphs, Parmenides wipes the floor with it, leaving Socrates — and Plato — looking pretty foolish.

The argument — known as the 'Third Man'- goes like this. According to Plato's theory, if you take the totality of things that fall under the concept X, what makes them all instances of X is their participation in the Form of X. Over many instances, there must be a One. For example, men are 'men' are because of their participation in the Form of Man. But the Form of Man, according to the theory, is also a 'man'. It is indeed the perfect exemplar of Man-hood, just as the Form of Justice is the perfect exemplar of Justice. So now we have a new totality, all men plus the Form of Man. What makes them all 'men' must be a second, higher Form. And now one has started on an infinite regress.

If you remove the doctrine of 'self-predication' you tear the guts out of Plato's theory. If you reject the 'One over many' assumption' you take away its motivation. An impasse.

The 'non-identity assumption' Vlastos is talking about appears to be an integral part of the principle of 'One over many'. If you take all men together with the Form of Man, then there must be a second, higher-order Form of Man, over and above that collection, which is non-identical with the first-order Form of Man which is included in that collection.

I think this is right. Given that the Form of Man is held to share in something possessed by every individual man, so that the Form of Man is in some metaphysical sense a 'man', then we require reason, in formal terms, which accounts for what it is that these extraordinary disparate individuals, an abstract Form and concrete individuals, have in common that makes them all 'men'. It seems that any answer given to this isn't going to work, because the very same question reduplicates itself at the next level.

Thinking about this concretely, I wonder if that is really so. By all means, let's go along with the idea that an account needs to be given of how self-predication could possibly make sense, how the Form of Man could have anything in common with individual men. Once that's done, once you have constructed the conceptual bridge between the abstract and the concrete, then by all means call the result a 'second-order Form of Man'. Having done that work, however, you don't have to go on doing it again and again.

I see two alternatives. Either to say that there is not the same pressure to regard the second-order Form of Man as self-predicating as there was with the first-order Form of Man. Or to say that there is not the same pressure to posit a third-order Form of Man to explain what all men, taken together with the first-order and second-order Forms of Man 'have in common'. Either way, the result: no infinite regress, and Plato's theory of Forms is saved.

It is significant, though, that in none of Plato's writings is there any indication of how he proposed to respond to the third man argument.

Geoffrey Klempner


Thomas asked:

Could you give me some pointers regarding the refutation of Protagorean relativism in Plato's Theaetetus?

The great Sophist, Protagoras, is remembered for being the thinker who claimed that 'Man is the measure of all things.' Here is a more accurate rendition, courtesy of Jonathan Barnes The Presocratic Philosophers p. 541:

Of all things a measure is man — of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not.

In unit 14 of The First Philosophers I remark:

Any notion of a world beyond our ken whose nature we can only speculate about, or of a reality behind appearances is demolished in one stroke. To accept Protagoras' claim is effectively to consign all previous philosophical thought to the dustbin. It is what we human beings perceive with our senses, what we are able to establish from our limited access to things — on the basis of where we stand here and now — that 'measures' or determines how things are in reality.

It might occur to you that if Protagoras' view were accepted, one of the things that would have to be consigned to the dustbin is Plato's Theory of Forms! Many, though, would today agree with Protagoras' hostility to metaphysics. On my reading, Protagoras sounds like any good empiricist.

In his great dialogue Theaetetus, Plato suggests a more extreme reading. All human knowledge, according to Protagoras, is made up of judgements of how things seem or appear to this or that person. — What if that were true?

SOCRATES It sometimes happens, doesn't it, that when the same wind is blowing one of us feels cold and the other not? Or that one feels slightly cold and the other very?...So it looks as though things are, for each person, the way he perceives them.

THEAETETUS That seems plausible.
John McDowell tr. OUP 1973, 152 B.

Having gained this admission from the young Theaetetus, Socrates points out the patent absurdity of this claim: if the truths in which human knowledge consists are ultimately based on each person's subjective judgement of how things seem to them, the result is wholesale contradiction. — The wind is freezing, cold and not cold all at the same time! Alluding to the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, Socrates describes the result as a world in constant flux: 'nothing ever is, but things are always coming to be' (152 E).

Later on in the dialogue, Plato suggests another, even more radical, way of explaining Protagoras. In 'measuring' things all we are doing is seeking out good experiences and escaping bad ones. 'In education...a change must be effected from one of two conditions to the better one; but whereas a doctor makes the change with drugs, a Sophist does it with things he says' (167 A). We shall naturally prefer those Sophists whose influence leads us to have pleasurable experiences rather than those whose influence leads us to have painful experiences. The most successful of these teachers — as measured in the universal currency of pleasure and pain — will be the ones most deserving of fame and its financial rewards.

This extreme form of pragmatism comes up against the classic response. Whether or not a given belief leads to good consequences for the person holding that belief is a matter of objective fact, and not merely question of whether the belief that that is so leads to good consequences. If you are ill, you go to the doctor you believe is actually going to cure you, not the one who will only make you think that you have been 'cured'.

Finally, comes the knock-out punch:

SOCRATES Protagoras agrees that everyone has in his judgements the things which are. In doing that, he's surely conceding that the opinion of those who make opposing judgements about his own opinion — that is, their opinion that what he thinks is false — is true.
McDowell 171 A

In other words, by Protagoras' own doctrine, for the 'man' who thinks that 'Man is the measure of all things' is false, it is false.

As for pointers, I think we should be sceptical about Plato's understandably hostile reading. Today, one would describe Protagoras as holding an 'anti-realist' theory of truth. The anti-realist denies that we have any notion of a 'truth' that transcends human powers of verification. As one who has struggled with this question for a number of years, I can vouch that this is a pretty difficult theory to refute.

Geoffrey Klempner


Paul asked:

Why is God's existence not looked at as simply illogical?

The first point to make is that it's harder to prove a negative than a positive. It's harder to prove that God doesn't exist, than that he does. When you take into consideration our own feeble-mindedness, which is surely capable of making us judge that something is illogical when it is not, you can see that refuting belief in God's existence is not quite so simple as it might seem.

According to the 'problem of evil', the combination of properties traditionally attributed to God, being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, is inconsistent with the existence of natural and moral 'evils' in the world. Being all-powerful, God cannot lack the power to prevent evil. Being all-knowing, he knows whenever evil occurs. Being all-good, he cannot wish evil to occur. But this is not a knock-down argument. Theologians are well versed in strategies for dealing with this problem. I won't say anything more about this, as I have discussed it elsewhere. (See my reply to Miguel, Questions and Answers 1.)

But can any existing object be all-anything? I can see a legitimate question here regarding the very idea of an existing thing that possesses any property to an infinite degree.

Consider God's power. Logically, nothing an be more powerful than God. But here's an old objection. Can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? If God can make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it, then God's power is limited. Potentially, there exists a stone that God could make but couldn't lift. If God cannot make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it, then God's power is again limited because there is something he cannot make. Either way, God's power is limited.

I don't think that this is a good objection for the following reason. If one asked, Can God make a perfectly spherical cube? the answer is, legitimately, No. The description 'perfectly spherical cube' is self-contradictory. If you add up all the self-contradictory descriptions you can think of, that's an awful lot of things that God can't make. But let's not get involved in a fight over whether God is obliged to obey the laws of logic. If someone claims that God cannot exist because his existence is illogical, then they are presumably relying on the principle that no object can exist, whose existence conflicts with the laws of logic. If an object cannot exist, then it surely cannot be any meaningful limitation on God's power that he cannot create it.

Given that we have defined God as all-powerful, 'a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it' turns out to be just another example of a self-contradictory description. We have just established that it is no limitation of God's power that he cannot create objects whose description is self-contradictory. It is therefore consistent to hold both that God is all-powerful, and that he cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it.

What about God's other putative attributes? I have an objection to the definition of God as 'all knowing'. I'll leave you to consider whether or not you think that it is convincing. Being all knowing, God sees things from every point of view, including yours and mine. He knows what it is like to be you, and he knows what it is like to be me. But it seems to me that I know something God does not, and cannot know. What God knows is only what things are like for someone satisfying my total description. He knows, for example, what it is like to be struggling with this question. But what God cannot know is what it is like for the individual satisfying that total description to be I. From God's point of view, every individual is 'I'. From my point of view, only one is.

Geoffrey Klempner


Russell asked:

What makes a great philosopher great? Why is Descartes remembered more than Malebranche?

You suggest an answer to the first part of this question yourself. A philosopher is called 'great' when they are remembered more than other philosophers.

You also suggest a test for any definition of greatness. The definition would need to explain, or justify why Descartes is regarded as one of the great philosophers, but not Malebranche.

My question is, Who decides? Whose memory are we talking about here?

I am tempted to say, it is the students of philosophy, not other academic philosophers whose vote ultimately matters. The works of a great philosopher are more likely to inspire the student to become philosophers themselves, and that is what counts. There have been students of philosophy as long as there have been philosophers. (One of my Pathways students, Graham Nicholson has contributed a dialogue on the Presocratic philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes which wonderfully captures the spirit of the philosopher-student relationship.)

The works of great philosophers are perennial. They are not subject to the whims of fashion, in the way that the world of academic philosophy so often seems to be. I don't mean this as a criticism of academic philosophers. They know only too well the difference between the enthusiasms of the moment, and works which are destined to have more lasting value.

Let me speculate about Malebranche, about whom I confess I know relatively little. If I get my details wrong, then just say I am talking about an imaginary philosopher of my own invention. When Malebranche's works were published, they caused quite a stir. For a while, everyone was talking about his acute criticisms of Descartes, and debating the pros and cons of his Occasionalist theory of the relation between mind and body. In time, however, it became apparent that if you wanted to be stimulated into thinking about the problems of mind and body, you were better of reading Descartes than Malebranche. The next big thing that came along — the philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza — was a reaction to Descartes, not Malebranche.

The first time I read Plato, the first time I read Descartes, the first time I read Kant, the first time I read Wittgenstein are etched on my memory. I can tell you the date, where I was sitting, the other things that were going on in my life. Try as I might, in my own philosophizing, I cannot get away from the questions which they first raised.

Geoffrey Klempner


Mark asked:

I'm trying to understand the basic relationship between mind and body, using the terminology of Descartes and twentieth century philosophy. What are the arguments for and against the identity of body and mind?

If you want the argument against the identity of body and mind, you can't do better than get it from the horse's mouth:

1. Because I know that all the things I conceive clearly and distinctly can be produced by God precisely as I conceive them, it is sufficient for me to be able to conceive clearly and distinctly one thing without another, to be certain that the one is distinct or different from the other, because they can be placed in existence separately, at least by the omnipotence of God; and it does not matter by what power this separation is made, for me to be obliged to judge them to be different.

2. And therefore, from the mere fact that I know with certainty that I exist, and that I do not observe that any other thing belongs necessarily to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists in this alone, that I am a thinking thing, or a substance whose whole essence or nature consists in thinking.

3. Because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself in so far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and because, on the other hand I have a distinct idea of the body in so far as it is only an extended thing but which does not think, it is certain that I, that is to say my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from by body, and may exist without it.

Descartes 'Sixth Meditation', Discourse on Method and the Meditations F.E. Sutcliffe (tr.) Penguin, p. 156.

I've snipped out a little, and added numbering, to make Descartes' argument a little clearer. A lot of students get thrown by talk of 'separations' that God can, or cannot perform. Though Descartes gives the strong impression that his Meditations would be worthless if you rejected his proofs of the existence of God, it is possible to run points 1. through 3. without invoking the actual existence of the Deity.

So here's my version:

1. If A can exist without B, then A cannot be one and the same thing as B. This applies to the particular case where A my mind, or some part of my mind, and B is a body, or some part of a human body. For example, if the thoughts I am thinking now can exist in the absence of brain processes, then my thoughts cannot be brain processes.

2. I know with certainty the thought that I am thinking now, 'I wonder what I shall have for lunch.' But that certainty does not extend to my knowledge of facts about the physical world. I could be thinking that very same thought, even though there was no physical world and all my life was an experience produced by an evil demon. Being physical cannot, therefore, be part of the essence of my thoughts and feelings.

3. It follows that my thoughts and feelings can exist in the absence any corresponding physical processes. Therefore, my thoughts and feelings cannot be identical with any physical processes, neither can the subject of those thoughts and feelings, myself, be identical with any physical thing.

In the 50's and 60's — in the work of the 'Australian materialists' Smart and Armstrong — the idea arose that Descartes could be refuted simply by insisting on the scientific fact that the brain is responsible for conscious processes. The fact that my thought, 'I wonder what I shall have for lunch' arises from a brain process is sufficient to establish the identity of that thought with a brain process. Since the work of Saul Kripke in the 70's (see his influential article, reprinted as Naming and Necessity Blackwell/ Harvard 1980) that idea has gone out of fashion. If two things are identical, Kripke argued, they must be identical in all possible worlds.

Is that a vindication of Descartes? I would argue that we have to accept the validity of Descartes' argument but attack the validity of its main premiss, the idea my knowledge of my own thoughts and feelings is independent of any knowledge I may possess about the physical world. The idea, for example, that I know that I exist, even if the entire universe is merely my own dream. The rejection of Descartes' conception of self-knowledge is the upshot of Wittgenstein's argument against a private language in the Philosophical Investigations.

Geoffrey Klempner


Plamen asked:

What is it that makes you a Philosopher?

Select from:

- Education
- Predisposition
- Sorrows of the world
- The other's ignorance
- Fear of death
- Wesenschau
- Failed in science/music
- Cannot stop talking

Let me go through your suggestions, one by one:

Education From the ages of 13 to 18 I attended a prominent public school in Hampstead, North London, where I succeeded in gaining what was regarded as sufficient for university entrance without ever once hearing the word 'philosophy'. My physics Master, who was a member of the Christian Union, once asked the science sixth form whether any of us had ever wondered about the relevance of our studies to Life with a capital 'L'. That provoked an animated discussion which lasted at least five minutes. Over thirty years on, there is still a lamentable lack of awareness of the subject in British secondary education.

Predisposition You might think that to make a success out of a career in philosophy you've got to like it, and also be good at it. Neither of these things is true. There are philosophers who, judging by their work, hate the very idea of philosophy, and others who are no good at the subject but have managed to convince their colleagues and students that they are. I would prefer to be assigned the second category rather than the first.

Sorrows of the world No.

The other's ignorance Maybe.

Fear of death The first time I realized that I was afraid of death was when my mother died of lung cancer in 1991, nineteen years after I first became interested in philosophy. Prior to that time, I don't know what I really thought. Death wasn't on the horizon. Now, it's very much an issue to be reckoned with. I once wrote, 'My subjective world can never die, can never cease to continue, for with every new moment it is as if it had never existed, and will continue no longer than that very moment' (Naive Metaphysics 1994, p. 120). Knowing that the fear of death is irrational does not stop me fearing it.

Wesenschau In my mini German dictionary, I found 'wesen' and 'schau', and I am still none the wiser about the meaning of their combination. Can anyone help me?

Failed in science/ music It is true that if I had not failed in science, I would have become a Chemist. (See a philosophical life.) My brief career as a pub musician (online notebook page 51) never showed any real promise. Had I not given up when I did, I would have grown a very large beer belly.

Cannot stop talking Others may think that this is true. I know that I prefer silence to the sound of my own voice.

Geoffrey Klempner


Dian asked:

What's wrong with basing our life on a lie, knowing it's a lie? When it's too late for faith and too early for science then what?

Was Nietzsche an Antichrist, an atheist, a nihilist or an existentialist?

Why is philosophy so attractive though it offers no undoubted truths? Are we masochists to do philosophy? Are those who haven't noticed their ignorance and don't think happier?

If my illusions collapse, I'll have no purpose in life...nihilism awaits. They why endanger these illusions, why live so dangerously?

Your question happens to coincide with the subject of the Philosophy Now magazine undergraduate essay competition. based on the recent science fiction film The Matrix.

I discover that my familiar world, the whole of my life, has been a dream produced by an evil scientist. My body which has been asleep since birth awakes to a world reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A mysterious stranger offers me two pills. The blue pill will let me return to my comfortable world of illusion, eliminating all knowledge of the choice I have made. The red pill will allow me to remain awake to face the awful truth.

I would take the red pill, without hesitation. As a philosopher, I have to say that. But what's so wrong with taking the blue pill? Taking the blue pill means choosing a life 'based on a lie'. But at least I will have the complete confidence that the deception will never be uncovered. I will never live to regret my decision. That's why the essay question is so good. It focuses the problem much more sharply.

One of my philosophy teachers when I was an undergraduate once said she in God 'because the alternative would be too terrible to contemplate'. I would say that's not a legitimate ground for holding the belief, but only for wanting the belief to be true. If God doesn't exist that's too bad. But my teacher was not a fool. She thought that this was one of those few special cases where it was OK to close one's eyes to legitimate doubt.

More than any other philosopher, Nietzsche challenges us to examine the value that we place on truth. He was not a nihilist, but he did perceive and understood the threat posed by nihilism. The choice is either to embrace comforting illusions, or find the courage to create our own values. (As an undergraduate, long before I read Nietzsche, I was impressed by David Wiggins' powerful defence of this view of values in his British Academy Lecture, 'Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life', which has since been published in book form.)

A Nietzschean conception of values is the best chance for the religious attitude — I won't say religious belief — in a world where God has been killed by science and technology.

Nihilism is not a belief about the way things are, it is a psychological condition that anyone can succumb to. The nihilist does not see the world in its true colours. The world does not have any true colour — not even grey. The world is every colour we freely choose to paint it. Making sense of our life is an aesthetic, as well as a moral challenge.

Geoffrey Klempner


Eliza asked:

To the person answering our questions:

What if one of those questions shatters your set of beliefs? Can't this happen? May I assume you like losing your 'identity', you have no beliefs? Is it that your beliefs are so fixed they can't be shattered (being so absolute, not questioning, doesn't make you a philosopher). Or do you like shattering your beliefs? (Suicide could be better than this constant self-torture. Is it the self-destructive tendency within? Where does it emerge from?) Or you want to ensure by all means that all philosophic attempts to shatter you fail? (how selfish, struggling to prove you're a tolerant person knowing the truth but forgiving us for your ignorance). What are you anyway?

Sorry. If this seems like an attack, feel free to assume anything for my motives, don't answer me and I'll assume one of the above (after all who'd care what a complete stranger from anywhere in the world thinks?). Well if you have an answer for me, I'm longing to hear it (something about me: I like straight answers and not avoiding the subject!). If I'm in for a serious mind-attack, be my guest...

I have been thinking about this for a week now. Before I start — just so that you feel safe! — I want you to know that I don't go in for 'serious mind attacks'. That belongs to a different universe from the one I inhabit. We are all students of philosophy here. In philosophy, you attack the argument, not the person. (I realize that this will be a novel idea to some people.)

First, some necessary background. How did Ask a Philosopher start? Back in July last year, it was just an idea that came to me. I knew that if things didn't go well I could always pull the plug. Now, of course, I can no longer do that. The page is too well established, with questions coming in from all four corners of the globe. I have to stay to face the music. And the questions have been getting harder!

Let's look at some of your options.

What if one of those questions shatters your set of beliefs? Can't this happen? We all have beliefs that we cling to. Even the die-hard atheist or nihilist. There is a children's joke which goes, 'I'm glad I don't like spinach, because if I did, I'd eat it — and it tastes disgusting!' The atheist can't bear the thought that their resolve to disbelieve might weaken. The theist can't bear the thought that their faith might falter. The two cases are parallel. When it comes to foundational beliefs, beliefs that shape, and give sense to our lives, we are all in the same predicament. However carefully you build your boat, there is no absolute guarantee that it cannot be capsized.

Giving up one's previously held beliefs can be an occasion for joy, or sorrow. Perhaps you will be surprised to learn that there are one-time atheists, who reluctantly embrace theism with sorrow and foreboding, just as there are one-time theists who embrace atheism with joy and a sense of liberation.

May I assume you like losing your 'identity', you have no beliefs? Philosophers love to play Devil's Advocate These pages provide the perfect opportunity for me to do so. If you ask me to argue the case for mind-body dualism, I will argue the case for mind-body dualism. If you ask me to argue the case for materialism, I will argue the case for materialism. This is not sophistry. Investigating arguments, looking for flaws, looking for ways in which they might be strengthened against objections, is a way of gaining philosophical understanding. A philosopher doesn't always have to be defending their own views.

One of the greatest joys in studying philosophy is submerging oneself in the works of a great philosopher. It is the advice I give serious students who want to deepen their grasp of the subject. Choose one philosopher and study their major works. For a while one loses one's own identity. But at some point you have to come up for air, or suffocate. It is philosophical understanding that one is after, not someone to follow.

Do you like shattering your beliefs? Or you want to ensure by all means that all philosophic attempts to shatter you fail? How can I get across the idea that these are not alternatives? Let's say I have a theory. It doesn't matter about what. A considerable investment of time and mental energy was involved in coming to that theory. Perhaps years of my life. So, naturally, I want to protect my investment. Objections are welcomed because they give the opportunity, in refuting them, to demonstrate the strength of the theory.

Suppose one of these objections convinces me? That can always happen. I lose my investment, I am wiped out. But in its place I have something more precious. I have hold of the truth (as I now believe, but this qualification is redundant because it goes without saying!) instead of falsehood. That is a net gain, not a loss.

What are you anyway? I do philosophy. This is an example of what I do. I do not know of any other people doing philosophy who have thought of doing it this way, in a Glass House, but I have, and it works for me. Read the Glass House notebook, read these pages and draw your own conclusions.

Geoffrey Klempner


Justin asked:

I'm finally starting to come to terms with the fact that I don't believe in God. It's not the most pleasant realization to have in your life, especially after years of being a fairly devout religious person. Subscribing to an organized religion gives us an easy answer to the question, 'What's the point?' We exist because God made it so, and it's our purpose to carry out His word.

Without God, however, the problem becomes a bit stickier. You can no longer take for granted that there is some set reason for being. The only thing I can think of in philosophy that addresses this is existentialism, and the main conclusion is that we're all individuals who must make our own personal choices to carve out our own meaning in life, whatever that may be. I've come up with a few possible reasons. I was wondering if you could briefly comment on each of them, and tell me which one you subscribe to, if any:

1. We exist to help others. To the extent that we fulfill our role and aid others in their role along the way, we're succeeding.

2. We exist for our own sake. We should take what we can get while we have the chance. Every man and woman for him or herself.

3. We exist to acquire knowledge, to learn as much about the world as we possible can, and to help transmit that knowledge to others.

4. We exist to exist. There's no real point to it all. We're here because we're here, and searching for anything deeper is likely to give you a headache but not much more.

Personally, I'm leaning towards number 4 right now, and it doesn't sit too well with me. Dissuade me and derail an impending early mid-life crisis!

I'm sorry, Justin, but I don't like any of your answers! Here's why:

1. If it is true that we exist in order to help others, then why do they exist? Or do we exist to help each other? Help each other do what? — Anyone gripped by your question will feel that there must be some aim in life beyond taking care of the necessary basic conditions for existence.

2. The first point to make is that 'Help others' and 'Look after yourself' are not alternatives. I believe that we should do both. But neither supplies an answer to your question. Looking after myself must involve something more than merely 'taking what I can when I get the chance'. Any person gripped by the question, 'Why do I exist?' doesn't know what to 'take' from life, what goals to aim for.

3. Not all knowledge is worth pursuing, for example, the knowledge of the number of dust mites currently living in my carpet. Other forms of knowledge are pursued as a means to an end. An asthma sufferer needs to know whether the vacuum cleaner they intend to buy is efficient in removing dust mites. What is it that makes certain kinds of knowledge worth pursuing for their own sake? Entomologists would study the physiology of dust mites, whether they posed a threat to man or not, simply in order to understand more about the insect kingdom. That's fine, but no knowledge — not even knowledge of my own field, philosophy — is worth making one's raison d'etre.

4. If I thought that there was no point to my existence, then it would not matter what I did. That is clearly not true. How one lives, how one grapples with the problem of existence ought to matter to us. The thing to notice here — and this is where the temptation towards nihilism sneaks in — is that the question is never about a 'one'. The question is about oneself. There is no general recipe for how 'one' ought to exist. I exist in an actual situation. My life has taken me to this point in time, where I must face challenges that are uniquely my own, just as we must all do. Things matter to me — perhaps they will not always matter to the same degree as they do now, perhaps they will not always be the same things — but this is the point where contingent circumstances and past decisions have taken me, and I have to face up to the issues as best I can.

Geoffrey Klempner


Suzanne asked:

Can you tell me whether it is more morally correct and spiritually rewarding to tell your truth even if it hurts another? and is there anything within philosophy that tells about loyalty to particular people and not to others, e.g. is it ever right to tell a lie to protect another?

You're mixing two things up here. One question is whether, or under what circumstances, it is right to tell a lie. The other question is whether moral philosophy can justify partiality to a particular person or persons. If you are faced with a situation where you feel the need to tell a lie to one person in order to protect another, then you need to answer both questions. Let's deal with them one at a time.

Can lying every be morally justified? There is an excellent book which you should read by Sisella Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life Quartet 1980, in which she musters some powerful arguments against the view that it is all right to lie when it serves a better end. I won't try to summarize her arguments. Instead, I would invite you to consider how you would react to the following statement:

I sometimes tell a lie, when it serves a better end.

If you believe that it's all right to tell a lie when it serves a better end, then surely it must be all right to say what you believe. But nobody but a fool would say this. To admit to lying undermines other people's faith in one's word. Suppose you are known as a morally upright person who would never do wrong knowingly. In order to decide whether or not to believe you, a listener would first have calculate whether, in your judgement, the best ends would be served by telling the truth or a lie. An intolerable situation, don't you agree?

It is never all right to tell a lie, but some times we have to, all the same. You tell the axe-man pursuing his intended victim, 'He went that-a-way.' Very few real life situations are this clear cut. All the same, we sometimes find ourselves facing a dilemma in which it is impossible to do the right thing. Since we have to act, we cannot be blamed for choosing the lesser of two evils. But the fact that you had to make the choice that you made, doesn't make the action you chose 'right'.

Can moral philosophy justify partiality to a person or group of persons? I believe it can. Here, I am strongly in agreement with the line taken by Bernard Williams in his writings (see, for example, his book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 1985). Rights, for example, the right not to be lied to, are non-negotiable, but the claims that other persons make on us depend upon our commitments. These are matters to be negotiated through moral dialogue. There are no human beings who do not 'count', with whom I am not required to engage in moral dialogue, should the appropriate circumstances arise. It does not follow, however, that every person whom I engage in dialogue deserves equal consideration. It is acceptable, for example, under certain circumstances to put one's own family before others.

Interestingly, in both these questions, the question of lying and the question of partiality, the line I have taken is diametrically opposed to the line taken by the utilitarian philosophy of 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'. In utilitarianism, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with lying, apart from the bad consequences that would follow if it got around that your word was not to be trusted. On the question of partiality, faced with the life-boat scenario where I can either save my family, or fifty other people, the utilitarian would insist that I leave my family to drown in order to save the others. That is something I do not believe any of us is morally required to do.

What follows from this? If you lie to protect a friend, then you will be doing something wrong. If you are disloyal to your friend, then you will also be doing something wrong. I'm afraid there is no easy answer to this dilemma, you have to decide.

Geoffrey Klempner


William asked:

How can I become the best philosopher I can be? How important is it to keep up with the latest philosophers, like Donald Davidson, Michael Dummett, and Richard Rorty?

You should certainly read the works of the major contemporary philosophers. But concentrate on the best, don't fill you mind with mush. The three individuals you mention have all inspired me. I would single out two works, Rorty Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Blackwell 1980 and Dummett Frege Philosophy of Language Duckworth 1973 as books that reward close study.

You want to be the best you can be. Pardon me for saying this, but the best you can be might not be that wonderful! Improving one's form is important, but it is not the only important thing. Philosophy is a search, and that search has got to be rewarding for you. Whether it is done well or badly, philosophy must be something you can enjoy and gain some satisfaction from doing, otherwise it becomes sheer mental torture.

Don't stay stuck in your room. Take every available opportunity to go out and spend time with other philosophy students. It won't be wasted. Ask questions in seminars, put yourself on the spot. Being resourceful in face to face argumentation, being quick on one's feet is as important to a philosopher as book knowledge or writing well.

I admire you for asking your question. Aim to improve yourself in every way you can, but don't obsess about it. Don't fall into the trap of perfectionism.

Geoffrey Klempner


Sula asked:

If a sinful man decides to tell the truth does that make him good?

Talk of sinners and sinning puts your question in a religious context. So I will respond in a similar vein. It is never sufficient merely to repent your sins. You have to atone for them, and make reparation for any wrong doing on your part that has caused harm to others.

Atoning for your sins requires the sincere resolution not to commit the sin again. It may also require that you accept your just punishment, whatever that entails. Having shown genuine remorse, and paid the appropriate penalty for what you did, you now have the opportunity to strive for goodness, and succeed to a greater or lesser extent, depending on your efforts.

It is harder to draw limits on reparation. You owe a debt to the person or persons you have harmed, but if the harm is great, the debt incurred is one you may never be able to repay, a fact that you, and they, may have to live with.

My wife regularly attends Confession. As a Jew, I am given the opportunity to atone for my sins once a year. My God is a forgiving God, just like hers. But forgiveness has to be earned. Merely owning up to the truth is not enough.

Geoffrey Klempner


Gonzalo asked:

I'm a student of International Relations in Argentina, and I'm also writing a thesis. My scheme is 'the problem of qualia' and I would be so glad if you can give me some information about it.

I wonder what qualia have to do with international relations?

'Quale' (plural 'qualia') is the name given to the subjective quality of conscious experiences, which is held to be knowable only to the person whose conscious experience it is. I remember as a boy wondering how I could be sure that what I called 'blue' was the same colour as what other people called 'blue'. If we all subjectively experienced the colour of a clear sky differently it wouldn't matter so long as we agreed what colour to call it. Similarly, the 'sharp pain' I feel when stabbed by a needle might be the same or different from the 'sharp pain' other people feel when stabbed by a needle. That doesn't matter, so long as we agree about the name.

Doesn't it matter?

If all that ultimately exists is physical matter, then there could be no room in the universe for qualia. Some philosophers therefore consider the existence qualia to be a knock-down argument against materialism. Materialism cannot be a true theory, they argue, so long as there is just one aspect of the world that it cannot account for.

My own view is that qualia do not exist. There are such things as 'sensations of blue' or 'sharp pains', but these things do not satisfy the definition of a 'quale'. Nothing could satisfy that definition, because the very idea of a quale is incoherent.

Suppose, for the sake of reductio ad absurdum, that qualia do exist. My subjective experience of the blue sky at this moment is a quale. I can agree with anyone who happens to be looking up at the same sky that its colour is objectively blue. But no-one can ever know the 'blue' that I subjectively know, the blue hidden away inside my own consciousness. Call it 'my blue'.

The question is, Do I really know this? How can I be sure?

In order to know that what is in my consciousness at this moment is 'my blue', it is necessary to be sure that I am using the term 'my blue' consistently. The problem is I can only go by the way things seem to me now, at this moment. If the 'I' that existed a few moments ago together will all my other past 'I's subjectively experienced the colour of a clear sky differently it wouldn't matter so long as we agreed what colour to call it. — You will notice that all I have done here is apply the very same speculation about other people that I wondered about as a young boy to my own case. But in doing so, I have revealed its intrinsic absurdity. Q.E.D.

Geoffrey Klempner


Andreas asked:

I have some questions about British empiricism:

(1) How could Russell claim that 'Every proposition we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted' (The Problems of Philosophy p. 91) and in the same book claim that we are not acquainted with physical objects, for instance a table? How could Russell then claim that we could understand propositions of the external world?

(2) Why was Russell's principle of acquaintance in The Problems of Philosophy so influential when his only argument for the principle was, 'We must be able to attach some meaning to the words we use' (p. 91)?

Russell believed that we are 'acquainted' with particulars, such as a particular sense datum of red, as well as universals, such as red. The crucial premiss required for his argument for the principle of acquaintance is that knowledge of meanings must be invulnerable to sceptical attack. In other words, even if all my beliefs about the external world are false, I still understand what I mean when I state those beliefs. The meanings of my words are immediately present to me.

Because my knowledge of meanings must be invulnerable to sceptical attack, everyday names for objects in the external world must ultimately derive their meaning via 'logically proper names' for the immediate data of consciousness. I can be wrong about the external world in lots of ways, but I cannot be wrong about the way things seem to me here and now. So although we talk of being 'acquainted' with a place, or a physical object, or a person, that is not a case of genuine acquaintance. Our relation to these things is indirect. Russell does not consider it an objection to his theory that most of us have never attempted to 'name' our sense data.

So according to Russell, when I speak of 'my wife', or 'the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield', what I really 'mean' by my words is certain patterns of sense data, which I believe will be repeated in the future. That belief could turn out to be false. It could turn out that the whole of my life has been a dream, and neither 'my wife' nor 'The Meadowhall Centre' actually exist.

I would agree with Russell that our knowledge of the meanings of our words is not merely factual knowledge. The reason his principle of acquaintance has been so influential is that it is difficult to see a third alternative. If knowledge of meanings is not factual knowledge, then it looks as if meanings must be immediately present to consciousness, in a way that is completely independent of how the facts might turn out to be.

I think that Russell was wrong about this. As Wittgenstein showed in the Philosophical Investigations, knowledge of meanings is a practical ability that is made possible through a shared social life with other language users. There can be no 'private language'.

Geoffrey Klempner