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Michelle asked:

What is materialism in metaphysics?

Answer by Tony Boese

Materialism is, in a very simplified form, a position arguing that all things are reducible to material components. My exposure to materialism is almost exclusively through the Philosophy of Mind, but I do find the Mind perspective the easiest to get one’s mind around (no pun intended) anyway. So, consider consciousness. The debate is between those that say consciousness is something beyond the basic substance and processes of the brain and those that say that consciousness is nothing more than (a) part and participle of brain processes or (b) (a weaker claim) that it is nothing more than a byproduct of the physical process. Granted both of these camps have numerous iterations, but this is a simplistic characterization.

One thought experiment that will illustrate the idea well (though perhaps not convince you one way or the other) is Mary the Super-Scientist (’s_room).

Beyond Mary, the general materialist position follows a similar if broader path aiming at showing there is nothing that is not material and the direct byproducts of material things. First it takes for granted such premises as (1) the conservation of matter, (2) that the universe is made of nothing but matter and void (if not only matter), and (3) the universe is finite in space and time. Then the argument advances, adding in (4) the mind cannot produce something with independent existence, and therefore concludes (5) matter is all that exists, and so there can be nothing non-material that can also be said to exist.

So, consider something like consciousness. The idea would therefore be that since consciousness only exists in/due to the mind, and the mind cannot be generating material things, yet it does seem to clearly be generating consciousness, then this consciousness must be nothing more than part of the processes, or at least a direct byproduct of the processes, of the mind.


Nigel asked:

Why do we think and feel that the physical and the spiritual cannot be reconciled?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

We humans have, on the whole, a heavily binary orientation on life and the world. Something is either dead or alive, black or white, here or not here, straight or crooked, yes or no, true or false. You can extend the list at your pleasure.

But you need only look at ‘true or false’ to see at once that it doesn’t work this way in some very important situations. Except in cases where the answer is clear cut (someone told a lie), the ‘truth’ has many colours and means different things to different people, in different cultures and religions, and so on.

Binary thinking has its virtues, of course. But the issue you have asked about is the one where it falls down absolutely.

Nearly 400 years ago, Descartes gave us a (binary!) definition: Physical things are res extensa – they are spatial, therefore they can be weighed and measured. Non-physical things are res cogitans, ‘thinking’ things. That definition gave (a) a clear cut notion of an object on which we can do research or use it some way for our benefit and (b) a clear cut idea of human souls or minds, angels, gods etc.

But res cogitans are not extended, they are not things. And so an answer to your question is possible in binary terms, and only in binary terms: spiritual things have no surfaces, corners, hooks etc. by which they can touch material things. Nor can they make themselves heard by vibrating, or seen by generating colours and shapes.

Millions of people continue to believe in spirits and spiritual states of mind. Now there is no possible binary reply to that! The only possible reply is: impossible!

Yet there is a hitch in this. If you asked the same people who cry impossible, ‘are you alive?’ they would reply ‘yes, of course!’ But life is not physical! So where does this leave them?

In short: it is a problem that rests on the manner in which we experience life. Sensory experience is immediate and deals with clearly existing things, facts and events. But when we look for explanations on things, facts and events that we cannot directly experience, we leave the physical world to itself and begin speculating on non-material aspects of existence. Science cannot deal with them, and so we have two options: to deny that they exist or else that everything spiritual can ‘ultimately’ be reduced to physical states.

But this is a matter of whether you choose to believe it.

You have the choice of believing in spiritual states and no scientist has the power to prove that you are mistaken. Conversely you may be a scientist who still believes in spirits or spiritual states. But you cannot prove they exist.

And that’s the essence of the predicament. We humans have a pronounced hankering for spiritual life, and we often downgrade the physical world because we think the former is ‘higher’. I think this is as bad a mistake as denying it. Humans have the capacity for both kinds of existence. Just being alive is the strongest possible argument. But again, that’s not something I can prove to you or anyone else. (I’m working on it!)

Kelly asked:

Heraclitus and Parmenides state contradictory views, both based these on their intuitions and then argued for them. It creates a crisis in ancient natural philosophy that the Pluralist attempt but fail to resolve. Ought we to give up on finding knowledge and follow opinion? Ought we to learn the skill of rhetoric to win the day for our point of view?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

When we look back at these few presocratic philosophers, we can see that their main preoccupation was with three principal ideas: substance, the One and the Many. What they thought and the ideas they put into the world, are still today considered fundamental.

Because they put all these questions in a form which we still recognise as binding on us. Who are we? What’s out there? What is everything made of? What is matter, and what is life?

They observed nature and asked those questions; and we continue to build on their questions. We also still accept many of their notions of how things work – for example the vortex of Anaximander is no stranger to astronomers who see spiral galaxies creating worlds throughout the universe; the ‘fire’ of Heraclitus reappears in the conservation of energy; the immutable substance of Parmenides is the idea of a quantum world in which our observations are ‘our’ world.

The Presocratics got rid of anthropomorphisms, because they believed that human reason could explain the world. In my opinion this is one the most important changes that ever happened in human history. It could be said that the Presocratics taught us how to think. So there is your answer about rhetoric. You don’t learn anything just by using fine words.

All three: Heraclitus, Parmenides and Pythagoras wrestled with the idea of nature and each came up with a different solution. And now it is extremely interesting and noteworthy for the whole history of philosophy that all three answers which these philosophers gave are still acceptable, in one form or another, to us today. So these are the true prophets of philosophy — as well as of science.

They did not solve their problems forever. But they opened the doors to a better understanding of natural processes. This is fundamental, in order to acquire knowledge. Knowledge never ends, it’s a continuing process of discovering the world and humans in it.

So don’t assume that these are merely opinions. The difference between opinions and real knowledge is every Tom, Dick and Harry can have opinions, but you’ve got to admit that most people’s opinions are just presumptuous and very few very people have opinions of their own. Most opinions are just what someone else said. And what do they know?

But ideas like those of the Presocratics are ideas on which the human world can build. The world does not stands still until we have discovered everything there is. But in the meantime we can acquire real knowledge, and carry on from there.

Preshus asked:

Mill claims that each person’s happiness is a good to that person. He then concludes from this that the general happiness is therefore a good to the aggregate of all persons. Is this a good argument?

Answer by Craig Skinner

No. It’s a bad one, showing an elementary logical fallacy. But Mill disclaims it. He is a better logician than some critics allow.

Let me elaborate.

The Argument:

The fallacy is the Fallacy of Composition: that something true of a thing is also true of an aggregate of these things.

For example: an atom is hard to break; porcelain is made of atoms; so porcelain is hard to break.

The aggregate of all persons is not itself a person and doesn’t have a good in the sense that a person can have a good.

The general happiness can be high without a particular person being happy at all.

Furthermore, the fact that my happiness is good for for me, and yours good for you, doesn’t logically entail that mine is good for you, or yours for me.

Mill’s Disclaimer:

Mill’s text is a bit unclear. But in a letter written some years afterward (1868), included in his Collected Works, he says he didn’t mean to imply that another’s good is a good for me, only that it is a good FULL STOP (a good ‘simpliciter’ as philosophers say). Thus, my happiness is a good, yours is a good, everybody else’s is a good. So the aggregate of all these is a good. Fair enough.

His position, using happiness as an agreed good, is similar to Kant’s position using rationality as an agreed good:

Kant assumes each sees herself as an end (rational nature being an end in itself). This commits her to the value of the ends of others (since they, like her, are rational beings).

Mill assumes each sees her own happiness as an end (happiness being a good in itself). This commits her to the value of happiness in others (since they, like her, view their happiness as a good).

Mill the Logician:

Mill’s System of Logic (1843) was the standard textbook on the subject. It is curious, therefore, that several accusations of elementary logical blunders were levelled against him. In addition to the one discussed above, two others were cited (with some glee) by Moore, an early 20th Century academic philosopher, then influential, now largely forgotten. These were:

1. The Fallacy of moving from fact to value, from ‘is’ premises to an ‘ought’ conclusion.

Mill has a notorious passage where he draws an analogy between ‘visible’ and ‘desirable’. Moore accuses Mill of sliding from ‘desirable’ meaning what people actually desire (fact; and here ‘desirable’ is analogous to ‘visible’) to ‘desirable’ meaning what people ought to desire (value; and here ‘desirable is not analogous to ‘visible’). But Mill is not guilty. The most he claims is that in deciding what ought to be desired, we should take account of what is actually desired. Mill was well aware that people sometimes desire bad things, and that what we desire is no sure guide to what we ought to desire. He says that what people desire is the ‘sole evidence’ and ‘all the proof the case admits’, he does not suggest logical entailment.

2. The Naturalistic Fallacy.

Moore, accusing Mill of trying to define ‘good’ in naturalistic terms, declares (correctly) that one can always sensibly ask of any such definition the question ‘But is it good?’ (the Open Question Argument). But again Mill is not guilty. He shows no interest in defining words, in naturalistic terms or otherwise.

The most that can be said is that Mill’s prose is sometimes not completely clear. But that is something of which most philosophers, great and not-so-great, are guilty, some very great ones notoriously so.

Chris asked:

Leibniz’s monads. He describes them as having perception and appetition but defines these in terms of nonconsciousness. Thus one presumes that there are ‘bare’ monads of what we would call inorganic substances.He maintains these are still some kind of basic soul though he retains this term for those monads with the ‘higher’ faculties of consciousness, memory and rationality. Yet in monadology (sections 66–69) he describes a remarkable fractal view of the world in which ‘there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe’. Now this could refer to the purported ‘soul’ like properties of ‘inanimate’ monads but in the relevant sections his description is solely of ‘living’ things as we would understand the term.

67. Each portion of matter may be conceived as like a garden full of plants and like a pond full of fishes. But each branch of every plant,each member of every animal, each drop of its liquid parts is also some such garden or pond.

68. And though the earth and the air which are between the plants of the garden, or the water which is between the fish of the pond, be neither plant nor fish; yet they also contain plants and fishes, but mostly so minute as to be imperceptible to us.

I cannot find any clarification of the question. Did Leibniz accept the existence of what we would call inanimate monads or did his description of unconscious monads refer to vegetative monads for example?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The first and biggest problem about understanding Leibniz is to get a proper context. Some of your remarks suggest to me that you missed the point altogether, although I have to add at once that you’re not alone.

Par. 1 of the Monadology gives you an unambiguous clue. Monads are simple substances. Therefore they have no parts, are not divisible. There is no bargaining with this definition, accordingly you must resist thinking of them as things in any way whatever (cf. Par. 2-3).

You should now consider where in the world you find such monads? Exactly nowhere. Because individually they are nothings and don’t actually exist. Leibniz tells you, after all, that they ‘strive for existence’. Consequently they represents a potential for existence. In order to actualise this potential, they must aggregate. Monads can only exist as a plurality, more exactly: a collective.

They are not souls either. Your terms you have used, ‘basic souls’ and ‘inanimate monads’ are self-contradictions, as you should now see. Leibniz says quite plainly that you can think of them ‘like souls’ if you wish (having his Christian readers in mind, specifically Remond and the Prince of Savoy); but when he speaks of them philosophically, he calls them ‘entelechies’.

So what is this potential and how can it be actualised? Fundamentally a monad (aka entelechy) is a point of FORCE either passive or active. Its properties are appetition and perception which represent agency. These properties confer on it the perception of other monads as inert or striving entities, but necessarily ‘other’. The actualisation proceeds by monads with varying degrees of agency (from zero to full) combining and as a collective ‘mirroring’ the perceptions of all other monads. This mirroring can be conceived as the beginning of actual perception, depending on the quality of the collective as a whole. All collectives initially form secondary matter (mass); and now it depends on the preponderance of active or passive force whether such an aggregate forms material substances with minimal agency (e.g. rocks) or maximal agency (e.g. animal bodies). The former give off phenomena and are characterised by inertia (their agency is resistance), the latter turn into organic machines and require a highly developed ‘dominant monad’ to organise them as living existents.

This is probably very confusing, but if you read slowly and try to grasp each point in turn, you may find the answer to your question in there. Unfortunately you don’t get such a description from the Monadology. Readers of Leibniz have been misled for centuries into believing that this work ‘is’ the philosophy of Leibniz. That’s like saying you need only to read ‘The Tempest’ to understand everything about Shakespeare. Untrue in both cases.

So pars. 67-68 have to be understood in the context of the infinite continuity of the world in the large and the small. Monads being zero-dimensional points of force, they construct a cosmos of infinite dimensionality. When you look through a microscope (Leibniz is telling you) you see a whole world of life and matter which is like your world. If those creatures looked into a microscope they would see yet another world throbbing with life and matter. And so on to infinity. Yes: it is a kind of fractal world. Leibniz understood this long before we discovered real fractals and it is not far-fetched to see the Mandelbrot/Julia Set unfolding in that imagery.

Now to conclude: Depending on how far you wish to take your studies, I would recommend that you put the Monadology away and peruse some other writings instead. If you’re doing Honours or a PhD, look into the Yale Leibniz, ‘The Labyrinth of the Continuum’ with an exceptionally fine commentary by Richard Arthur. The Leibniz-Clark Correspondence is indispensable, as well as the ‘New Essays’. Finally a self-serving recommendation is my own book on Leibniz, which comprises a new interpretation of the whole philosophy and includes much of the newly published manuscripts of Leibniz. Maybe your Library has a copy.

If your interest is more modest, there is Rescher’s ‘Student Edition of the Monadology’ which fills in every one of the 90 points with material from other sources and gives excellent commentaries on each. A good selection of Leibniz’s important papers appears in Ariew and Garber, ‘Philosophical Essays’.

One final note: Leibniz repeated himself incessantly, and always with minor variations. This makes it uncommonly difficult to get a coherent picture of his system without reading them all. That’s the main objection to concentrating on texts like the ‘New System’ and ‘Monadology’. Both of them put together give you barely 10% of the whole philosophy and if studied in isolation must inevitably give you a very distorted perspective. This explains why Rescher’s edition runs to 300 pages, while the Monadology could easily fit into 20 pages.

Lucie asked:

I have two questions.

1) What form of government does Confucius favor? What are the key, specific ways in which he thinks a virtuous government should operate?

2) Both Plato and Confucius emphasize the connection between education and proper governance. Explain the role that education plays for each of them and the similarities/differences between their accounts.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Much of Confucius’s teachings focused on the art of government and how a ruler should act. He developed a concept of a moral statecraft in which he advised the ruler how to appear just in order to gain the trust of the people. Plato does not ask the people to trust his governors.

Confucius argued for true justice and compassion on the part of the ruler and the ruled. Only by being a just ruler would the ruler enjoy the continued right to rule.

As with his social teachings, Confucius believed that the key to good governance lay in each man carrying out his duties as prescribed by his position within the hierarchy. He stated:

‘Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.’ Plato had a similar opinion, although it emphasised a different social issue. He wanted one man, one job to prevail, so that there would be no competition. E.g. if your soul was a baker’s soul, you would be obliged to be a baker. He did not consider that there might be 500 baker’s souls being born in his state!

For Confucius it was essential that the ruler possess virtue. Virtue would enable the ruler to retain the supreme position. ‘He who governs by means of his virtue is, to use an analogy, like the pole-star: it remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it.’

Remarkably Confucius believed that rulers should not have to resort to force or the threat of punishment to maintain power. He said: ‘Your job is to govern, not to kill.’

As in the case of social relationships such as those between parents and children, husbands and wives, Confucius believed that the rulers should observe proper ritual in order to maintain their position and right to rule.

He viewed education as central to achieving proper conduct both within Society and in Government. Confucius believed that people, because of their nature, desire to live in the company of other people, that is, in society. It is only in society that people reach their fullest development. Therefore, it is important for a ruler to know how to provide the opportunities for the people to follow their inclinations towards self-development.

This answer your first questions and half of the second.

Plato differs in being immensely more complicated in his philosophy than Confucius. So to simplify his doctrine is not easy. But you will get by, if you take notice of these two important points:

In Plato’s political philosophy, chiefly The Republic, the governors are a plurality. There is no king or prince or despot. All governors are equal to each other. They can come from any social level at all, e.g. a cobbler’s daughter can become a philosopher king (i.e. governor) if she has such a talent.

Their training is lifelong, and they are secluded from society, in order to prevent that they are corrupted by having personal interests and friendships.

Unlike Confucius’ ruler, they do not intervene in the affairs of the people. Their role is nothing other than to pass laws, to ensure that justice prevails in that society. But they also control foreign affairs of course.

Justice is the most important issue in Plato’s state. He believes that with appropriate education for the governors, they will be able to pass just legislation.

But you need to see this in a different light from Confucius. In a sense, the governors are like the invisible gods. Every so often a law comes down into society, without a name, completely emotionless and quite intellectual in its origin. The police is there to ensure everyone obeys. This is one reason why many of his critics don’t like Plato’s political system.

Sid asked:

Could I prove to a solipsist that I am not a figment of his imagination if he were to just stop imagining that I exist?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Yes, in principle.

First, let’s get the meaning of solipsism clear. If I define an imperceptible, for me, now, as anything not in my consciousness now, then solipsism results from the premise that no such imperceptibles exist. This means that (i) time does not exist because past and future are imperceptible hence (ii) change does not exist and (iii) my experience of passage of time and of change are illusions, and all my memories and expectations are false; also (iv) all my beliefs are false, since a belief is a perception substitute, a belief in the existence of an imperceptible; and (v) all explanations are false, since explanations are descriptions of imperceptible causes. Note that all explanations, beliefs, memories, illusions, etc. are only those that I am conscious of now, since all others are imperceptible and so do not exist. In particular, any explanation of why solipsism should be true is a false explanation.

So how can the you in my imagination prove to me that you are not just a figment of my imagination? (Notice, by the way, that if I am imagining you then I cannot stop doing so, since there is no time.) One way is to prove that the premise that no imperceptibles exist leads to a contradiction, in which case at least one imperceptible exists; and another is to prove in some other way that at least one imperceptible exists, such as by the ontological argument. Neither of these prove that you are more that a figment in my imagination, but they prove that you could be real, and probably are so.

Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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