Sasha asked:

To act morally is it necessary to fight against one’s desires?

Answer by Paul Fagan

This all depends upon what desires one has and what moral background we are comparing them with; but in general, I would say that one does not necessarily have to wrestle with one’s own desires to act morally. About a month ago I answered the question ‘What is a Moral Society?’ and I would reassert part of my answer: that it is a society or at a lower level a community, that sets a shared code of conduct, that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants, that we may term ‘morality’. As most of the inhabitants of a society would agree upon its values and live their lives by them, then it follows that the seemingly presupposed notion that persons have to restrain themselves to live morally would be fallacious.

I suspect that the majority of persons do not need to restrain themselves in society as they have a desire to be part of a community, or in other words a sense of belonging, which outweighs any other desires to better oneself through antisocial acts that harm others. Additionally, one’s conscience would ensure that one’s behaviour aligns itself with the prevailing morality. Either reason may be enough to ensure that most individuals behave themselves but the combination of both ensures all but the most errant individuals cannot be considered to be moral actors.

With regard to persons needing a sense of belonging, this may be a facet that has evolved as living in social groups has been beneficial to humanity’s survival; and without it society would undoubtedly crumble. I would think that there is a deep-seated, innate desire to belong to groups and this entails absorbing one’s community’s standards. Hence, most persons’ desires would coincide with others’.

Accompanying this, most persons also have a conscience and this facet is often called into play when persons are tempted to commit antisocial acts. In fact society exercises so much disapproval over persons who do not believe or adhere to its standards that this phenomenon alone may guide persons’ actions and ensure compliant behaviour; although disincentives are also provided by punishment established through criminal justice systems. Hence, persons with antisocial desires often align their behaviour with moral standards; and the more they align their behaviour the easier this process seemingly becomes.

The commonest schools of philosophy have realised that persons wish to live lives attuned to their society’s standards. Virtue ethicists wish to channel this phenomenon by educating persons from a young age to behave compliantly and rely upon heightening a person’s sense of belonging to ensure this; whilst deontologists or utilitarians may set boundaries by which persons actions may be judged and therefore seemingly place more reliance upon invoking a person’s conscience.

Hence, I would conclude that for the majority of persons, for the majority of the time, they do not have to restrain their desires as they either coincide with society or become aligned. Furthermore, in general, all persons in a society are judged by the same standards although there are times when the logic fails: for instance, those with prestige, talent or even illness may be offered more latitude when they are judged by others.

As a coda, I would add that there are always those who cannot comply with society’s morality and often must be punished. Hence, since the times of early Greek philosophy, much debate has occurred as to why persons intentionally refrain from acting morally and for further reading, one may seek entries in philosophical dictionaries concerning the conundrum of akrasia.

Dennis asked:

Why is life on Earth so precarious, with old age and death necessary?

As the truths of metaphysics and overcoming of aging is on the human threshold, it looks like that is what humans were designed to do — True?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

Let me make a confession, Dennis. I want to live forever. I really do. And I also want to know the ultimate nature of reality. I mean, really know. And do you know what? In my mind, somehow the two are inextricably linked. If I knew the ultimate nature of reality, I could not die. Death would be impossible. And if I found a way to escape death, now and forever more, I would surely know the ultimate nature of reality.

Actually, that’s not a new idea. That’s what Jesus told his followers. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ he famously says to Thomas (John 14:6). For many millions of people, the Christian (not only Christian) ‘family story’ IS the ultimate reality, and sincere belief is all you need — to live forever.

And if you are a philosopher, on the track of truth — or so you hope and believe — does that necessarily mean you have to be a sceptic, accept limitation and finitude, Heideggerian ‘being towards death’ and the ultimate nihilation of everyone and everything you have ever cared for?

If that thought makes you depressed, then maybe Plato is more your man. Actually, the Pythagorean idea of reincarnation — the Pythagoreans were one of Plato’s major influences — is not a million miles away from what the contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett preaches. The self is just a program (a Pythagorean ‘number’ — it could be a Gödel number, get it?). Logic and set theory are eternal, true in all possible worlds. The Dennis-program is eternal. All you need is suitable equipment to ‘upload’ it to and off you go. Again. And again, for ever.

All material structures are finite by their very nature. Nothing can escape the ultimate death of this material universe. But sets and numbers don’t need a ‘universe’, because they form a permanent universe of their own. Your fragile human body will certainly die, but the possibility that YOU will come back is logical, not physical. The ultimate nature of reality is just as Plato said: logical and rational. The eternal Forms. And you — a ‘soul’ — are another entity of a similar kind (‘akin’ to the Forms, as Plato claims in the Phaedo), logically indestructible.

I’m not going to attempt to fill the serious logical gaps in this story, because although you ask whether your idea is ‘true’, I don’t think truth is really the issue. (You weren’t seriously thinking that somehow technology will solve the problem of human finitude, were you?!) This is about what you and I want, deep down. Trying to understand what that is about.

As a matter of empirical fact, or, rather, speculation, it is conceivable that human beings and all life on Earth were designed — say, by a superior multi-dimensional alien race. Why not? Maybe the multi-dimensional aliens didn’t need to ‘evolve’. Make up any story you like. But, obviously, it’s not going to solve any problem if the aliens are, essentially, in the same predicament as we are, dependent on a long chain of contingencies that could alter at any time, leading to their total extinction.

That’s not what we want. That’s just another ‘story’. So all all that’s left is metaphysics. See if you can improve on Plato. So long as you are on the way to a solution, however long that way may be, there is always hope. — Better put that thinking cap on!

Reghu asked:

How far is Strawson’s theory of Persons a critique of Hume’s theory of Self?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was looking for my old copy of P.F. Strawson’s Individuals: An essay in descriptive metaphysics (1959) which discusses Strawson’s view of ‘Person’ as a ‘primitive concept’, in Chapter 3. Then I did a search on the internet and found his paper, ‘Persons’ published in the Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. II (1958) at This looks to be a fuller treatment.

Here’s a quote from the concluding section:

“What I have been mainly arguing for is that we should acknowledge the logical primitiveness of the concept of a person and, with this, the unique logical character of certain predicates [viz. psychological predicates]. Once this is acknowledged, certain traditional philosophical problems are seen not to be problems at all. In particular, the problem that seems to have perplexed Hume does not exist — the problem of the principle of unity, of identity, of the particular consciousness, of the particular subject of ‘perceptions’ (experiences) considered as a primary particular. There is no such problem and no such principle. If there were such a principle, then each of us would have to apply it in order to decide whether any contemporary experience of his was his or someone else’s; and there is no sense in this suggestion.”

In the five decades since those words were written, it is fair to say that not many philosophers have taken up Strawson’s idea that the concept of a person is ‘primitive’. Various approaches have been taken to the problem of identifying/ defining ‘self’, the most popular being materialism. According to materialists, there are not two ‘kinds’ of ‘basic particulars’ (to use Strawson’s terminology), spatio-temporal continuants and persons but only one: spatio-temporal continuants, i.e., material entities. Some of these material entities are so internally configured that they have the property of being conscious. The problem of accounting for consciousness is still a major topic of debate at the present time, as is the problem of accounting for the criteria of personal identity.

I have recently expressed scepticism about materialism (Philosophy Pathways 213 Special mind-body dualism issue) but for the sake of this answer I will leave the question open.

First point of disagreement: I don’t read Hume’s ‘perplexity’ as a failure on his part. He is being ironic, at the expense of the Cartesian dualist. When I look into myself (says Hume), no ‘self’ (no soul substance) is to be found. However, Hume has a perfectly workable (in fact, brilliant) alternative theory of how the self is constructed, as what one might term a ‘virtual object’ of knowledge. Here is my take on this:

There is no immaterial ‘self’, but there are ‘ideas’, conceived as discrete, incorrigible mental events. These events form ‘bundles’ according to the following logical principle: If mental event A is co-present with B, and B is co-present with C, then A is co-present with C. (Co-presence is the ‘primitive’ concept.) When are two mental events co-present? An example would be, if I currently have a mental picture of the Eiffel Tower, and simultaneously hear the singing (Humean ‘impression’) of a blackbird outside my window. Let’s say that at the same time, I also experience a twinge of back pain. The three mental events form a ‘bundle’.

Over time, new mental events are added to the bundle and other mental events are discarded. What we term ‘personal identity’ is just the continuity of the bundle — like a flock of birds growing and shrinking as birds join or leave the flock. Memory plugs the gaps of unconsciousness when no mental events are occurring. (Memories are just more ‘ideas’ on Hume’s theory.) That’s it. The self, and personal identity, are ‘virtual’ in the sense explained: they are merely logical constructions. There is no mental ‘reality’ beyond the flux of impressions and ideas.

The weakest link in Hume’s theory is the Cartesian notion that mental events are ‘incorrigible’, a notion critiqued by Wittgenstein in his argument against a Private Language in Philosophical Investigations. But Strawson doesn’t like Wittgenstein’s solution to the problem of explaining how self-ascription of psychological states (such as ‘I am in pain’) is possible. According to Wittgenstein, ‘My back hurts,’ is not a statement with truth conditions but merely an ‘expression of pain’. Strawson calls this the ‘no-ownership view’, which he finds counter-intuitive. Surely if I say my back hurts and you say, ‘GK’s back hurts’ we are saying the same thing about the same thing? We are both making statements with the same truth conditions.

How would Wittgenstein respond to this criticism? Say what you like, it makes no difference to what is actually taking place. There is a huge asymmetry between the first-person and third-person case, but if you want to paper over the crack and call it ‘saying the same thing (is in pain) about the same thing (GK)’ you can, and no-one will contradict you. That’s how we actually talk, that is our ‘conceptual scheme’ to use Strawson’s terminology. Wittgenstein would add that it is part of our ‘form of life’ that we don’t stop to puzzle over the asymmetry of the first- and third-person case — until we are tempted into doing philosophy.

Asserting that the concept of a person is ‘primitive’, in effect ruling out any further attempts at analysis or theory, achieves nothing of substance. The deep philosophical problem remains, how it is possible that there could be such a thing as ‘being in pain’ or ‘being a person’.

As I said, that’s just my take. It remains the case that P.F. Strawson’s Individuals is one of the most important works of 20th century analytic philosophy, which ought to be on every Metaphysics reading list.

Denver asked:

Can water turn into wine?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

That’s a tricky one, Denver.

Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. Wine contains alcohol which is made up of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. So the first question would be: Where did the carbon come from? (And also the extra hydrogen, if you’re a chemist and know the formulae.)

Suppose you asked me: Can a Ford 3 litre Essex engine from an old Transit van or Capri produce 500 horse power? The answer would be, Yes, but you’d have to spend a lot of money. The end result would be hardly recognizable, with the cylinders re-bored, a large number of engine parts replaced or upgraded. In my opinion, you’d get better value buying a second-hand Porsche.

There’s a step-by-step process describing the Ford engine upgrade. Each step is capable of being performed by a reasonably competent mechanic. But ‘engineering’ water to convert it into wine (and not simply cheating by mixing in alcohol and wine concentrate, or fermenting grapes to make wine) requires an altogether different level of ‘expertise’.

However, let’s ask a different question: In what sort of world would a transformation of water into wine be possible? It looks like it would have to be a world which allowed for genuine magic, and not merely ‘magic tricks’, a world where — to quote Morpheus in The Matrix — ‘the rules can be bent’. In popular culture, you might be thinking of a sword and sorcery or Lord of the Rings type world, whose workings are more like a computer simulation (as in a 3d computer game) than the world we actually inhabit, where the laws of nature are what they are, fixed and immutable.

It’s taken two and a half thousand years — since the first speculations of the Presocratic Philosophers of Ancient Greece — to realize just what sort of world we inhabit. Not so long ago, it was commonly believed that mice were generated from dirty rags. You know what a ‘mouse’ is? those little grey furry things with tails that scamper about. Now we really know what a mouse is, the very notion seems ridiculous.

So magic won’t do. What you need to turn water into wine — as in the New Testament story — is a miracle.

There are two types of miracles: those where God plays about with the laws of chance, and those where He deliberately breaks the laws of nature He as decreed. An example of the first would be my praying that I win the lottery and then my number coming up. The water-wine trick requires a miracle of the second kind.

And that’s where things get difficult. You can say that, ‘God can do anything, don’t worry about the details,’ but then you are really talking about a sword and sorcery type world. The details, the ‘step-by-step’ process, matter. The description of wine as ‘red liquid you get from grapes that makes you drunk’ is about on the same level as ‘little grey furry things with tails that scamper about’. The more you get to understand what wine IS the harder it is to see how it would even make sense to talk of water literally ‘turning into’ wine.

(Maybe you’re thinking of re-arranging the protons, neutrons and electrons? Good luck with that.)

A lot of the academic discussion of miracles seems to me like speculating about what God could or couldn’t do, or second-guessing what God would or wouldn’t do. As an exercise, I don’t find that very rewarding. But if you want to pursue the arguments, any good Philosophy of Religion text book will provide you with what you need.

Bottom line is: to quote Morpheus again, ‘Believe what you want to believe.’ At least be clear about what it is that you actually believe.

Julian asked:

Can we literally perceive ‘value’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

My first thought is, Why the qualification ‘literally’? What does it really add to the question?

The reasoning must go something like this. Of course, there’s a ‘sense in which’ we make many value judgements without first engaging in a process of ratiocination. We ‘see’ that a job has been well done, or that a person deserves our help. Or we ‘hear’ that a cover version of a well-known song adds or subtracts to the quality of the original. Moreover, these value perceptions are not random or arbitrary but given extra weight by agreement with others in a large proportion of cases.

The problem is that someone who holds a subjectivist view of value judgements can agree with all that. David Hume remarked on the way we naturally ‘project’ our subjectivist preferences onto things, giving raise to the illusion that our value judgements correspond to something real, in addition to the physical properties of the objects we ‘literally’ perceive.

Well? Is there something there? What would count as a good argument for the existence of an objective ‘something’ over and above the physical properties of objects?

Three disparate thinkers who come to mind in relation to this question are Iris Murdoch (The Sovereignty of Good, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals), Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Lila) and John McDowell (in his seminal article ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, 1978, responding to Phillipa Foot ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, 1972).

I’ve chosen these three because they present arguments that are substantive and challenging, rather than merely shuffling around ideas about what is ‘subjective’, ‘intersubjective’ or genuinely (‘literally’) objective. As a subjectivist about values, I am willing to admit the possibility that I may be wrong, that I may have underestimated the strength of one or more of the arguments presented below for the objective view.

First, Murdoch. In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch emphasizes the compelling phenomenology of value perception which totally at odds with what she sees as the only alternative to a Platonic, objective view: the existentialism of Sartre and Heidegger. The reader is invited to recoil at the horrors of embracing the existentialist position that we ‘create’ our own values through our own free, unconstrained choice.

I am moved by this, but merely alluding to the phenomenology (viz. Hume) is not enough to convince me. Psychologically, I am fully willing to admit that I could not stand back from my life and ‘choose’ any values I liked. But existentialism does not require this. All it requires is the logical possibility that a situation could arise which led me to reassess the value I had previously placed on something, for example, the value of human life. Maybe it would take a science fiction scenario that is very unlikely to arise in the real world. Thank goodness for that! is all I can say.

The merit in Pirsig’s position is that he is prepared to embrace the metaphysical view that what he terms ‘Quality’ is more real than mere facts. Right from the start, our very ability to discern objects or deal with our environment requires ‘quality perception’ or focus on what is essential or important, for example, an innate sense of what it is to perform an action well or badly. Factual knowledge and ratiocination come after.

In his Metaphysics of Quality, ultimate reality IS Quality, which Pirsig says is the source of both ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’. Here, Pirsig steps outside the American pragmatist tradition (Dewey, James) who would give cautious approval to the idea that ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ arise out of our sense of what works well or badly in practice. All I can say is that I am not convinced, either by the traditional pragmatist view or the metaphysical add-on. If Plato’s ‘Forms’ really did exist then we would surely have to be objectivists about values, and similarly with Pirsig’s ‘Quality’. But that is the very proposition that needs to be established. Failing that, all that one has to fall back on is the phenomenology, or what value perception ‘seems like’. That’s not enough.

McDowell’s case that moral values are a kind of ‘secondary quality’ like colours or tastes or smells has the merit of emphasizing our embeddedness in a Wittgensteinian ‘form of life’. Someone who was unable to agree with our moral judgements would necessarily lack the powers of discrimination that we possess. Ethically, they would suffer from the equivalent of ‘colour blindness’. In other words, there is something there, in reality, that they cannot perceive.

But must this necessarily be the case? The stakes have been raised, but the moral sceptic has a response. Grant that a true monster of moral nihilism, in order to function successfully in human society — undetected, hypocritically ‘agreeing’ and ‘disagreeing’ with our moral judgements without actually believing in them — would need to have undergone induction into our ‘form of life’, training in ethical perception. Having undergone the training, however, in principle they would be free to cast aside all they had learned without losing the ability to anticipate accurately what ‘mere’ humans would judge to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

As I said, I could be wrong in my assessment of any one of these three thinkers, all of them deserving of the greatest respect. Or, maybe I’m wrong about all three. Also, that is not to rule out that there may be other arguments that I have not considered. At present, however, my view is that we do not literally perceive values, even though it seems to us, phenomenologically, ‘as if’ we do.

Diana asked:

How does an appeal to Ockham’s Razor favor the materialist over immaterialism?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is such a preposterous lie, Diana.

Let’s keep things simple. According to the materialist, physical entities — or conditions, or posits — are all that is ultimately real. They exist as a fact. We needn’t enquire how such a ‘fact’ came about because facts end where science ends. Whatever ‘is’, is whatever is posited by the currently accepted physical theory.

The immaterialist (on the simple version) accepts all of this but then adds something on top: physical entities in space are not all that is ultimately real. They are merely ‘appearances’ (Kant) or ‘ideas’ (Berkeley). Appearances can’t just appear by themselves, they must be OF something. Ideas can’t just float free, they must be IN something.

So, according to Kant, appearances are ‘of’ something beyond the reach of human experience, something that we cannot even conceptualize: the realm of ‘noumena’ or ‘things in themselves’. According to Berkeley, the ‘ideas’ we experience exist as ‘archetypes’ in the mind of God. (There are over versions of idealism or immaterialism but similar points apply.)

Well, it looks like the immaterialist is committed to a hell of a lot more than the materialist is committed to, so doesn’t that mean that if you apply Ockham’s Razor — reduce the minimum the number of posits in a theory — that materialism wins hands down?

No, it doesn’t. For one very simple reason. William of Ockham intended his principle to apply to two rival theories that are assumed to be otherwise equal as explanations or ‘best explanations’. Theory 1 posits x unexplained entities, theory 2 posits y unexplained entities. If x is greater than y, then ceteris paribus or other things being equal, theory 2 is to be preferred to theory 1.

But other things are not equal. The materialist has completely baulked the question, Why is there anything at all? Why is there not Nothing? Facts are facts, existence exists, the materialist says, we don’t need to go beyond facts or physical existence. The immaterialist laughs at the materialist’s naivete. The immaterialist’s theory explains more, so naturally you’d expect it to assume more.

Now, you are perfectly entitled to say that you don’t accept or agree with the immaterialist’s ambitions. The notion that there is ultimately something ‘beyond facts’, something with the essential character of reason or necessity or purpose may leave you completely cold. That’s a ground for being a materialist. But in making that decision you’re not applying Ockham’s Razor, because the two rival theories aren’t comparable in that way. They’re apples and oranges, not two different varieties of apple.


Books by Geoffrey Klempner

=== Solve this riddle ===


November 2017
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