Joe asked:

Hi, I was wondering what Descartes view of the body is after death? Does he believe in resurrection of the body as in the Christian doctrine?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What did Descartes believe? who knows? Threatened with torture by the Inquisition, Galileo was forced to recant the Copernican doctrine ‘the Earth moves’. It was a lesson not lost on Descartes, writing just a few years later. In the seventeenth century, it was no easy thing to be a man of science — a seeker after truth — and a ‘true believer’.

We can get a clue to Descartes’ religious beliefs from his enthusiastic young follower Spinoza, who wrote his first book on the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (1663). In the spirit of Cartesian rationalism, Spinoza actively challenged the accepted Jewish view of God that had come down from the Torah and through centuries of Rabbinic commentary, arguing instead for a religion based on reason alone. He was rewarded with solemn excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

The subtitle to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is ‘In which the existence of God and the real distinction between the soul and the body of man are demonstrated.’ That would have been enough to placate Inquisitors who didn’t think too hard about what it meant to possess a Cartesian soul. Perhaps they did not realize that the older, Aristotelian view of the soul as the ‘form’ of a living body is far more conducive to the Christian doctrine of Resurrection (a point noted by David Wiggins in his book Sameness and Substance 1980).

For Aristotle, the notion of a soul (in Greek psuche or ‘breath’) existing apart from a living body is unintelligible. For Descartes, on the other hand, although needing a body in order to perform physical actions, the soul is a non-physical substance in its own right. The more philosophical Inquisitors might well have reasoned (perhaps some did) that this could be considered the basis for a charge of heresy. As the idea wasn’t taken further, the point is moot.

Why insist on resurrection? Because without a body, the notion of ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ is all but meaningless. If there is no reward or punishment, in any real sense, then the idea that God has ordered the world ‘for the best’ is no longer believable. The guilty who escape punishment in this world must be made to pay for their sins. The innocents who suffer will be compensated by a blissful afterlife. Meanwhile, the majority who have sinned but not sufficiently for eternal damnation, can look forward to a few hundred or thousand years in Purgatory examining in detail each and every time they strayed from the path of Christian virtue before they are finally released.

As an atheist, I value the philosophy of Descartes for the questions it raises our conception of the mind and its relation to the physical world. This isn’t about belief but about logical argument. It remains the case that the Cartesian view of the soul is compatible with resurrection of the body, so if you are a Catholic then you do not have to feel that your beliefs have been challenged at the root. That was perhaps enough to save Descartes from the grasp of the Inquisitors.


Lecho asked:

Are Psychology and Materialism compatible?

Answer by Danny Krämer

This question boils down to the question of the relationship between psychology and the other natural sciences. Descartes famously argued, that body and mind must be two very different substances. But since the scientific revolution, it is difficult to defend some form of dualism. How should the two substances interact — and they for sure do, because I can consciously move my body by thinking about it — without contradicting the natural laws like the law of energy conservation? But it is also a difficult question how a materialist worldview can explain the mind. I will talk now about some materialist proposals. I start with the theories that I find rather unplausible and end with the one I think is the most promising.

First, there is eliminative materialism. This form of materialism argues, that the predicates of our folk psychology, like belief, wish or desire are empty. When we talk about the behaviour of other people, we explain their behaviour by reference to their beliefs and desires. The eliminative materialist says, there is nothing like a belief or a desire that can be identified by neurobiology. These concepts are like the concept of phlogiston. They are concepts of a bad theory and when we have a better theory we can drop these concepts altogether. So materialism is not compatible with folk psychology but with a psychology to come, the eliminativist argues. I think that is just a very bald speculation about the future of science. Today there is no reason to believe, that our best psychological explanations will not contain the concepts of our folk psychology. Most of psychology is belief-desire-psychology and neurobiology is not even close to explain the complex behaviour of human beings without the concepts of beliefs and desires.

The reductive materialist is something more liberal. He thinks there will be a theory reduction. Psychological predicates will be reduced to predicates of neurobiology and in the last instance to physics. What does this mean? Let’s take the predicate “pain”. The reductive materialist thinks that the predicate “pain” will be identified for example with the predicate “c-fibres firing”. Every time someone is in pain her c-fibres fire. Do this reduction with all psychological predicates and you have a reduction of psychology to neurobiology. Psychology and Materialism are compatible because the predicates of psychology are coreferential with some predicates of physics. But there are some problems with this proposal too. For example, pain may be realised in humans by firing of the c-fibres. But what about an octopus or a martian? They do not even have c-fibres but they may still be in pain — the octopus shows clearly pain behaviour if you hurt him. That is the so called argument from multiple realisations.

How to solve the problem? The most promising form of materialism is, I think, nonreductive materialism. That means you believe that everything supervenes over the material, i.e. if you destroy all matter there will be nothing left. But you do not think there must be some theory reduction to make this claim true and you can bring good reasons why some predicates cannot be reduced to physical predicates. I think the reason for that is, that most of the predicates we use are multiply realisable. Take the predicate “money”. Money can be made of paper, metal and even bits on a computer. Most of the money nowadays is virtual money. But if you destroy all computers and all the cash, there will be no money any more. Or take “pain”. Pain is realized in humans, let’s pretend, by firing c-fibres, in martians maybe by some organ made of silicon. These are predicates that are more abstract than for example a predicate of physical science. “Electron” only refers to electrons. But “money” can refer to paper, pieces of metal or bits in a computer. What counts here is not the material but the role the thing plays in a wider context, or like Aristotle would say its form. But still: destroy all matter and there will be no money and no pain whatsoever.

So all these forms of materialism argue that Psychology and Materialism are compatible, and I think, some form of nonreductive materialism is true.


Jeremy asked:

What, if anything, do we owe to future generations? And, far more importantly, WHY?

Answer by Paul Fagan 

In 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission published Our Common Future and was one of the first international organisations to popularise the term ‘future generations’. This occurred within an explanation of the notion of sustainable development, pithily defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (my italics) (United Nations WCED 1987, p. 43). The United Nations’ guidance would indicate that humanity should adopt a path that preserves the goods that people enjoy today for the enjoyment of future persons. The underlying rationale is that poverty, whether suffered by persons today or tomorrow, is considered to be immoral and should be prevented. Warning that we are using our resources too rapidly, whilst couched in the language of commerce, the  United Nations  advised that we ‘may show profits on the balance sheet of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses’ (United Nations WCED 1987, p. 8).

However, the prospect of considering future generations is fraught with difficulties. One commentator, namely Ernest Partridge, in his article entitled ‘Future Generations’, has provided a slew of arguments which may lead one to reject considering the needs of our descendants (See Dale Jamieson (ed.), 2001, A Companion to Environmental Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 377-389).  For example, future persons do not have rights and cannot as they do not exist. Furthermore, we cannot possibly anticipate who the future people will be as any actions we take now will cause a different set of persons to be born in the future; which logically confounds any planning we may make on their behalf. Additionally, the consideration of future persons forces us to deal with an abstract, unnumbered and undifferentiated concept. Also, the question arises as to who matters more, ourselves or future generations? There seems to be no justification for favouring one generation over another: for instance, if an attempt is made to spread resources evenly over generations, then it might not leave current persons with the resources they need to prosper. Finally, we cannot know where future people will place value, and therefore cannot plan for this: future persons may prefer desert to rainforest and would implore us to act to bequeath this situation. Hence, some may conclude that it is an impossibility to cater for future generations and therefore we should not attempt to do so.

Nevertheless, two strands of reasoning are now provided to demonstrate why, in the minds of some, future persons should be considered.  Firstly, a communitarian may argue that if we are part of an ongoing community, whereby persons alive today link the persons of the past and the future, through concepts such as identity or morality, then it is a natural consequence that the needs of future persons should be anticipated. Furthermore, the argument may be deemed to be strengthened, if past generations have anticipated our own current needs an acted to ensure our wellbeing (Partridge pp. 380-1).

Secondly, a more individualistic argument may be provided by questioning what comprises righteous conduct in the present.  To explain, most people wish to have children and grandchildren, and wish for them to live in decent conditions. Therefore, from a personal viewpoint, the concern for future generations should include our own immediate descendants; and as immediate offspring would wish to procreate and leave decent conditions to their direct descendants, it may be concluded that an ongoing consideration of future generations will perpetuate. Hence, it should not be an unnatural or impossible intuition to consider the needs of future generations for as far as one can anticipate.

Even if one agrees that we should attempt to cater for the needs of future persons, the question of which goods should be bequeathed elicits differing opinions. Often debates focus upon whether ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ forms of sustainable development are preferred. The ‘weak’ variant may be characterised by policies that allow natural goods, such as raw materials, to be converted into man-made goods, such as infrastructure; with the latter good providing an inheritance for future generations. The ‘strong’ variant may be characterised by denying the interchangeability of both types of goods and placing natural goods above any concepts of substitutability: for some, natural goods, such as climate-regulating oceans and rainforests, may be crucial to humanity’s survival and therefore precluded from conversion to man-made goods (See Connelly et al, 2012, Politics and the Environment (Abingdon: Routledge), pp. 238-241; for a more detailed discussion of the differences between the strong and weak variants).

To conclude, the relatively new concept that living persons have the capacity to impinge upon the lives of future individuals has brought forth a notion, via the UN, to refrain from impoverishing future generations because it is morally unacceptable. If the debate was more widely aired, then a consensus may emerge to more formally and more completely answer the questions posed.


Mahmoud asked:

“Socrates: So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps once upon a time you knew, before you met me, but now you certainly look like someone who is ignorant. Nevertheless, I want to put my head together with yours, Meno, so that we can figure out what this thing is.

Meno: How will you look for it, Socrates, when you don’t have the slightest idea what it is? How can you go around looking for something when you don’t know what you are looking for? Even if it’s right in front of your nose, how will you know that’s the thing you didn’t know?” (Meno’s dialogue)

In this dialogue, Meno is presenting Socrates with a fundamental problem in Greek epistemology. Can you characterize the problem presented here? What was Plato’s solution to that problem? Critically discuss one contemporary solution for that paradox.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

A widely accepted view of Meno’s paradox among Plato scholars is that the paradox concerns the acquisition of ‘a priori’ knowledge, that is to say knowledge gained through reasoning rather than through  empirical investigation. Plato encourages this view with his slave boy experiment, where a young lad, ignorant of geometry, is helped in following the steps of a simple geometrical proof. (The original influential article was by Gregory Vlastos — you can look it up.)

In recent times, the paradox has been taken as a challenge to the activity of philosophical analysis. How is it possible that one can give a philosophical analysis of some problematic concept — say ‘free will’ or ‘person’ or ‘knowledge’ — if we don’t already know in some sense what these are? How are you able to judge that the purported analysis is correct or incorrect?

One suggested solution is that we ‘implicitly know’ what a person or what knowledge is, or what it is to have free will. We know this because we are competent speakers of the language. The problem with that is that it assumes that our unexamined notions of these things are broadly correct — ruling out the possibility, say, that no-one has free will, or that there is no such thing as a ‘person’ (impossibility of giving a coherent definition of personal identity — e.g. the influential work of Derek Parfit), or that there is no ‘knowledge’ to be had: philosophical scepticism.

Plato had a different take: these ideas are implicit in us because our soul is ‘akin’ to the Forms (as he states in the Phaedo). As partners in Socratic dialogue, we are helping one another to ‘recollect’ the knowledge which our souls once possessed but have since forgotten.

What did he mean by this?

The idea that Plato had a ‘Theory of Recollection’ is a fairy tale, a travesty of his metaphysical view. Plato is using mythical language which he doesn’t intend to be taken as the strict literal truth. It completely ignores the very special nature of the subject under discussion in the Meno — the nature of virtue.

Virtue is the lynchpin not just of Socrates’ ethical teaching (‘virtue is knowledge’, the ‘unity of the virtues’) but of Plato’s metaphysics. This isn’t some homely discussion of ‘what it is to be a good person’, or how we judge this or that act or person as ‘virtuous’ or ‘unvirtuous’.

“… gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of this world by the name of order, not of disorder or dissoluteness. Now you, as it seems to me, do not give proper attention to this, for all your cleverness, but have failed to observe the great power of geometrical equality amongst both gods and men: you hold that self-advantage is what one ought to practice, because you neglect geometry.” (Gorgias 508a)

The question of human virtue is about nothing less than the order of the universe. The ‘cosmos’. Plato and Socrates were not the first to say this: the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus claimed that the cosmos is ruled by Logos which is also the essence of the human soul. In investigating the universe we are investigating the nature of the geometrical relation between the cosmos and the soul. In investigating the soul, we are investigating the nature of the geometrical relation between the cosmos and the soul.

The two questions — about the cosmos and the soul — are ultimately one and the same.

To ask about virtue, from Plato’s philosophical standpoint, is to ask the biggest question that there is. There is nothing bigger or more important. How can we possibly hope to make progress, when there is so much that we don’t know? The young aristocrat Meno is quite justifiably baffled. Following the advice of Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato believed that the answer is to ‘look into yourself’. The clue to this whole conundrum is in me, it is in you. We just have to faith that an answer is there to be found through diligent inquiry.

As an illustration of this, Socrates takes a young slave boy, the very last person whom you would expect to be able to conduct a geometrical proof. Even he can do it, he just needs to have the knowledge ‘brought out’. Plato isn’t saying that knowledge of virtue is similar to knowledge of geometry, although as we see in the Gorgias there is a respect in which he thought, like the Pythagoreans, that geometry had something to do with the philosophical question about the nature of the soul and the cosmos. As described in the Republic, the ‘mathematica’ — numbers, triangles etc. — are merely a clue to the nature of the Forms. Yet they remain fundamentally different. Dialectic does not work in the same way as mathematical proof.

The whole of Plato’s philosophy can be seen as a progressive working towards the solution to Socrates’ puzzle about virtue, a conundrum which he never succeeds in solving although of all the thinkers in Western philosophy, his work stands out as one of the greatest attempts to solve it.


Frem asks:

What do you call ‘mental sanity’? Would anyone dare to answer?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Here’s an answer, although I dont feel daring.

“Sanity” means “health” (Latin sanus=healthy) so that “mental sanity” means “mental health”. However,the term is rarely used when speaking of physical health, so that “sanity”/”insanity” refer to mental health/disease (and some physical diseases eg syphilis, can also produce mental disease).

The notion of “insanity” is narrower than “mentally ill” Most mentally ill people are not insane. “Insanity” implies that the disease is bad enough to cause loss of reason, inability to tell right from wrong, and is a term used by lawyers rather than doctors these days, as “not guilty by reason of insanity” is a common defence to a murder charge. Among doctors and nurses, the terms “delirium” and “psychosis” are respectively used for fleeting and persistent loss of reason. Delirium can be due to feverish illness, drugs or alcohol, and psychosis is usually due to schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder.

In short, sanity implies mental health, or mental illness insufficient to cause loss of reason. The term is often used loosely to express praise in other contexts (eg sane policies).

There is a tendency for lawyers to extend the insanity defence beyond the conditions I have mentioned, to include, for example, genetic variants known to be associated with aggression, or people with damage to the amygdala causing lack of emotional response to another’s suffering, the “my brain made me do it” defence. One difficulty for the defendant here is that if the defence be accepted, and nothing can be done to change the brain, he is liable to be locked up for at least as long as if he plead guilty.

I wonder if your mention of anyone “daring” to answer, reflects the view that there is no real sanity/insanity distinction, just labelling by the regime in power of their views and those expressed by opponents. It is true that some regimes have labelled troublesome “dissidents” insane and locked them up, and this still goes on. But this is abuse of psychiatry, and shameful activity by doctors involved. It doesnt mean that mental illness is an arbitrary social construct. Tell that to my sister with schizophrenia or my cousin with bipolar disorder whose lives were ruined by their illness, although greatly helped by medication and ECT.


Ruth asked:

I’ve been watching the Supreme Court Brexit case and after two days I’m completely confused by all the lawyer-speak. Can you help?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

From what we’ve seen so far, and ignoring all the complications and side issues, it’s safe to say that:

According to the ‘Appellant’ — the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union — the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was intended to ‘hand over’ the decision of whether or not to leave the European Union to the British electorate, requiring no further Parliamentary debate on the question whether to formally commence the process of leaving.

According to the ‘Respondent’ — Miller and Dos Santos who originally won the case against HM Government in the High Court — the force of the Referendum Act could only have been ‘advisory’. A Minister of the Crown does not have the legal right to bring about the repeal of legislation which bears on the rights of British citizens without authorization from Parliament.

What both sides agree on is that the Act didn’t specifically say what should be done in the event of the country voting to leave the EU. This was a banana skin waiting to be stepped on. The Government were confident of winning the Referendum. On a charitable view, they wanted to keep the wording of the Act as simple as possible to avoid having to debate the question of exactly what the process of leaving would involve.

Meanwhile, many members of the public see the question in much simpler, starker terms. Forget about the precise nature of the British Constitution, or the respective roles of Parliament, the Crown and the Judiciary. These issues may be important to resolve but they don’t apply in this case.

Why? Because the European Referendum Act 2015 has a very simple and easy to understand structure, which can be represented in formal logic as a conditional statement:

If A then B.

If the outcome of the Referendum is a vote to Leave (A) then the UK leaves the European Union (B).

What happened? The Government lost the Referendum. The outcome was a vote to Leave.

1. If A then B.

2. A.

3. Therefore, B.

The name of this ancient rule of logic is Modus Ponens.

But how is this supposed to happen? There is a set procedure for leaving — ‘triggering Article 50’ — but the nature of the procedure isn’t important. It’s completely irrelevant. It could just have easily been pressing a red button on the Prime Minister Theresa May’s desk at Number 10 Downing Street. Click, and we’re gone. Any bargaining about future deals can come later. (That wouldn’t be a great idea, but again it isn’t a relevant consideration.)

Then, as both sides are agreed, it would be up to Parliament to pass a ‘Great Repeal Act’ removing EU law from the UK statute books, and clearing up the legislative mess which could possibly take a decade or more.

The excruciatingly simple point is that when Parliament passes an Act which is conditional in nature, it is the job of the executive to implement or not implement the consequence depending on whether the relevant condition is met. It’s got nothing to do with whether or not you think referendums are a good idea, or whether the wishes of the majority ought to be respected, or what should be the limits of the Crown Prerogative.

In passing the 2015 Act, Parliament has already made its decision. It has effectively removed itself from the decision making process in this particular case, regardless of how it may be involved in the future.

Is that the end of the story? Well, no. Because the other side can argue that on this analysis Parliament went wrong in passing this Act with this wording. They effectively surrendered a responsibility that according to the British Constitution they ought not to have surrendered, in the same way — to take an extreme case — as it would be against the British Constitution for Parliament to pass an Act making Theresa May Dictator and permanently dissolving itself.


Ethical Dilemmas by Geoffrey Klempner

'Ethical Dilemmas' Kindle eBook by Geoffrey Klempner


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