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Federico asked:

Why is the nomological deductive model accused of ‘eschewing any account of causality’ when the general laws on which it is based are (apparently) causal ones (‘when the thread is loaded with a weight exceeding that which characterizes the tensile strength of the thread, then it will break’)?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Good question. Gets us into deep waters quickly.

The nomological-deductive model (covering-law model, DN model) of explanation (Hempel and Oppenheim, 1948) is so ‘accused’ because the model was formulated so as to deliberately avoid invoking causality. Hempel was influenced by Hume’s account of causation as constant conjunction without any evident connexion. In Hume’s view, we think we see causation in the world but all we really see is one event (the cause) followed by another (the effect), repeatedly, so that we come to expect the second whenever we see the first; but we never see a connexion between the two; or see how the first necessitates the second. So, in the absence of a good account of causation or causal necessity, Hempel preferred to stick with natural laws, construed as exceptionless regularities, which, along with the particular circumstances, allowed deduction of an outcome, thereby explaining it.

A problem immediately arises. The DN model is insensitive to the direction of explanation. Classical example: we explain the length of the pole’s shadow by reference to the height of the pole (plus the angle of the sun, and the law that light moves in straight lines). But we could equally well explain the pole’s height by reference to the shadow’s length. But of course this latter is no explanation of why a pole is, say, 20 feet tall (for that, we need to look into the habits and intentions of pole makers and buyers, and uses of poles). Ah yes, you say, but the shadow’s length is caused by the height of the pole, whereas the pole’s height is not caused by the shadow’s length. True, but now you have invoked causality, which is disallowed.

As well as this directional symmetry problem, the DN model suffers from:

* the explanatory irrelevance problem. Example: people taking contraceptive pills dont get pregnant; Mr Jones takes contraceptive pills; so Mr Jones doesn’t get pregnant.

* inability to deal with generalizations which are not exceptionless and/or cant plausibly be taken as natural laws (eg smoking causes lung cancer).

* inability to deal with everyday occurrences. Example: a caveman dropping his mammoth bone, shattering his wife’s prized shell, instantly understands her explanation that her ornament is ruined because of him and his carelessness, although neither has the notion of a natural law, far less of the DN model, nor could they or anybody else fit the cavewoman’s explanation into the model, without positing ‘hidden structure’ or ‘implied laws and circumstances’ somehow contained within this everyday explanation.

In view of the problems with the DN model, causal explanatory models were duly formulated. Notably Salmon’s causal-mechanical (mark transmission) model, Lewis’s counterfactual model, Woodward’s manipulative model. All have problems and limitations.

I incline to the manipulative model (A causes B if altering A, leaving all else unchanged, alters B).

First, we dont need the prior notion of a law.

Secondly, it’s in line with scientific and medical practice and research.

Thus, to know if drug A causes blood pressure (BP) to fall, the effect on BP of taking A is compared with the effect of taking a placebo in a patient group (patients and researchers ‘blinded’ as to who’s on what, and order of treatments randomized within the group, so as to factor out confounding variables, leaving only A and not-A as the comparison). We find BP falls when people take A, but not on placebo. Ergo, A causes a fall in BP.

Another example. ‘Smoking causes lung cancer’ is impossible for the D-N model to handle, difficult for some other models, smoking being neither necessary nor sufficient as a cause of lung cancer (most smokers dont get cancer, some people with lung cancer have never smoked). But the manipulationist view says that if we can reduce smoking in the population then lung cancer rates will change. And indeed, reduced smoking has been followed by falling lung cancer rates in Western Europe (but increased smoking has led to soaring lung cancer rates in developing countries)

Thirdly, manipulation is one way in which we acquire the notion of causation. The baby learns that her hand movement caused his drink to spill, the child learns that his shove caused the bully to fall to the ground. So that, whereas Hume (correctly) held that we get the idea of causation by observing succession, he omitted to say that we also learn it by experiencing success.

Note that the ‘manipulation’ doesn’t have to be due to human action or intention. It can occur naturally. Thus a big asteroid impact ‘manipulated’ the earth’s climate 600 million years ago causing the accelerated extinction of the dinosaurs.

Whether we ‘explain’ laws with reference to causality (as you suggest) or ‘explain’ causality with reference to laws, we try to explain the obscure with the equally obscure. So, Hume reduces causation to exceptionless regularity, Hempel adopts this as his notion of a law only to find that he cant come up with criteria which are necessary and sufficient to distinguish a law from an accidental generalization (this latter problem is still with us). On the other hand, we have no agreed account of causality, and often find that in answering a causal question (what causes an apple to fall) we fall back on invoking laws (gravity, spatial curvature).

Understanding causality is very much a work in progress.

Amel asked:

Following on the idea of universal grammar, is there such a thing as universal aesthetic?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Amel, this is question on an issue which interests me very much. Indeed, in a previous edition of the International Society For Philosophers e-journal, Philosophy Pathways, in an article entitled Philosophy, Science, and Consciousness I make a case that, in the same way that Kant argues that the mind possesses a priori, the intuitions of space and time and the concept of causality, and Chomsky a similar case for universal grammar, so too does the mind possess, a priori, what I call, the ‘instinct of equilibrity’. As you will see from the following extract from my article, I now concede that a more appropriate term for this feature would be what you call the ‘universal aesthetic’.

Consciousness privileges us with an awareness of our existence. Intentionality, as a feature of consciousness, privileges us with the wherewithal to contemplate affairs of the world. However, in order to order phenomena, nature, or natural selection, has furnished the mind/brain with another, equally important, feature which I will call the instinct of equilibrity: an innate sense of equilibrium which is essential in the making of judgement calls necessary for our safety and development. It is this essential feature or element that allows us to intuit that which may serve us best in our struggle of the survival of the fittest. It is in virtue of this feature that we recognise those qualities in others that are worth borrowing for our own evolutionary purposes. It is in virtue of this feature that we turn away from that which we feel may affect us negatively, and turn towards that which we feel may benefit us. It is in virtue of this feature that we have developed our sense of beauty, justice, goodness, and truth, and their opposites – qualities indefinable in themselves but essential in establishing an environment in which human beings can live and prosper.

It could be argued that when Keats said that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty! – that is all/Ye know and all ye need to know’ it was this sense of balance of which he spoke: at its most refined beauty is truth, and truth is beauty. But it is also justice and goodness; and together they are but manifestations, even interpretations, of the unique feature which I call the ‘instinct of equilibrity’.

As mentioned above, I now concede that a more appropriate term for the ‘instinct of equilibrity’ is that of ‘universal aesthetic’ as suggested by Amel.

Mark asked:

I don’t understand why philosophers sometimes call the mind, the soul. Just like the heart beat is a function or characteristic of the physical heart is not the mind simply a function or characteristic of the physical brain, and once the brain ceases to exist so does the mind?

Answer by Julian Plumley

The Greek word for soul, psuche, comes from the verb ‘to blow’ and literally means something like the ‘breath of life’. It referred to that which animates the body and makes us alive. Simply put, without soul, we would be just so much meat. Soul included everything we would today mean by ‘mind’ . So, for example, Plato’s theory included a rational, thinking part (closest to what we mean by ‘mind’) an emotional part and an appetitive, instinctive part. His theory doubles as psychology and as metaphysics. He uses it to explain our inner conflicts when we make decisions. And he takes the soul to be immaterial and eternal, and separable from the body.

This set the pattern for many different theories of soul put forward at different times. Not all of these have assumed that the soul is immaterial – Aristotle did not think a soul could existed in isolation, but that it was a substance that essentially animated a person’s body. But these theories generally share two assumptions: i. that what they are trying to explain is what makes us a living thing; ii. that the soul is the ground of our personal identity – what makes us an individual subject with its own viewpoint, rather than an object.

Religious groups have adapted the idea of soul to fit in with their belief systems. For example, some Christian theologians fit the soul into a tripartite theory of spirit (pneuma), soul and body. The soul’s functions are usually given as reason (mind), volition (will) and emotion. In addition, it is claimed that the soul (and perhaps also the body) may survive death and be resurrected.

In more recent times, life has been studied scientifically. The old assumptions are no longer the starting point. Firstly, in science there is no one particular thing that makes us alive. We are alive because of all the chemical and biological processes that go on in our bodies. Mind may be distinguished from body and studied under the various cognitive sciences. There are competing theories as to what a mind may be, perhaps a neural net, or maybe more like a computer program. But the methodological assumption of these sciences is that mind is generated by the physical brain, just as a heartbeat is the result of a working heart. This is backed up by observations using various types of scanning technologies that show our neurons working as we think. A consequence is that the mind could not survive the death of the brain.

Secondly, science does not deal with subjects or substances. The scientific assumption is that reality is objective (Searle). As Thomas Nagel pointed out, the methodology of science calls for objectivity, which abstracts away from understanding the subjective standpoint. And if you do turn out to be a computer program, then you are an item of information, not a person: one is a universal, the other is a particular – you cannot be both.

For both these reasons, science has no use for ‘soul’ in its vocabulary. Soul is an answer to questions that science does not ask. So a modern philosopher who talks about ‘soul’ is either: i. using the term in its pre-scientific way (perhaps talking about a historical viewpoint); ii. discussing religious concepts; or iii. dealing with metaphysical problems that are not scientific (although Nagel wonders whether science could be adapted to include them).

As a philosopher, the remaining question is whether you are satisfied with the questions and answers that science can provide. Leaving religion to one side, the question is whether you want to take metaphysics seriously. Science eliminates the metaphysical questions of subjectivity and personal identity, agency and free will. If you can live without these, then you have no need of the concept of the soul.

P.S. You might also like to read a previous ask-a-philosopher answer here:

Carlos asked:

What is Theism?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Given the confusion that often arises between Theism and Deism, this is a question to which a response is worth considering. Theism is the belief that there is one God, a personal entity with every perfection; creator of the world, manifested in the world, interacting with the world, yet, at the same time, existing separately from the world. It is the theory of the nature of god that is embraced by the majority of religious traditions in the western world. To reiterate, it is the approach that holds that there is a god, or Gods, who stand in some kind of personal or direct relationship with human beings, while at the same time standing removed from the world. In short, Theism is the belief that god is both immanent in the world while also being transcendent.

Deism, on the other hand, rejects the Theist approach. For Deists, following the Aristotelian view of god as the first Mover, reason rather than revelation provides the truth about God’s existence and nature. For Deists, God is understood to be the First Cause and supremely intelligent creator of an ordered universe that obeys the unchangeable divinely ordained laws of reason. For Deists God is seen as the ‘perfect watchmaker’, who created or regulated this mechanism according to the best rational principles, and then, having set the machine in motion, no longer played any role in the affairs of the natural world.

Answer by Eric George

Hi there Carlos, thanks for the question and I can see why you have asked it to begin with, definitions are very important within Philosophy and at times can seem a tad overwhelming with all the ‘ism’s’ and what not, especially within the specific realm of Philosophy of Religion. Let me try to approach your question by first clarifying some misunderstandings, this way, we can attempt to clear the fog-of-ambiguity, before it clouds our searching minds. More than oft, in western-society, when one talks of ‘Theism’ one usually confuses this with Judaeo-Christian Theism (which is Monotheistic in nature) – however, the term Theism in actuality is broader than this, it really means a worldview which is inclusive to one or many spiritual entities or deities. For example; what would be termed as a ‘Theistic Religion’ would be a religion which posits the acknowledgement of one or more deities, and bases its theological implications around such deities (such as ceremonial and ritualistic aspects). In this instance, Theism is dedicated to the belief of, at the very least; one deity.

Deism on the other hand is a far more recent expression of Theism, Deism is actually a form of Theism – where Theism is dedicated to (more than often that is) a personal or interactive deity or group of deities, Deism holds that there exists only a single ‘transcendent being’, a mind prior to the human mind, so to speak. Deism does not posit a personal-relational first cause. But it does indeed posit a first-cause to begin with, whether this cause of origin can be labelled as ‘God’ or not. It has been said that Deism is a religious philosophy, and rightly so, however by ‘religious’ we do not mean this within the context of an ‘organized religious philosophy’ such as a given Religion like Islam, Hinduism or the likes. Rather, we mean that Deism is religious due to its grasp of a metaphysical-first cause explanation of reality and all that it encompasses. Many of the founding fathers of America were Deists.

In conclusion then, we see that Theism is a far more broader term than most realise and that Deism although a tad more specific than Theism, exists actually as an expression and form of Theism, and not the absence of it.

Carlos asked:

What is philosophy?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Philosophy seems to be as far removed from the affairs of ordinary life as can be. But in fact all of us have some philosophical views, whether we are aware of them or not. You really can’t live as a free and independent person without embracing a philosophy.

This should remind you that philosophy was invented by the Greeks. The word is Greek, and it means ‘love of wisdom’. Something we forget is this: the Greks were free and independent people with their thoughts, just like we are. Actually we learnt it from them. So the important issue about philosophy, is that you have to be a free agent. People who live in dictatorships, or tyrannies, or theocracies, usually don’t philosophise because they are told how to live and think.

How we use it everyday is in our attitude to life. This does not mean: how you run your business, or the sport you pursue. It means, what do you wish to get from your life?

Now most people would say they want life to be interesting and fulfilling. That’s already latently a philosophical attitude. A philosophy might come out of it.

Then you might think that you wish to be treated with respect as a person. That’s also philosophical, because the moment you think like this, you will find that you must respect others the same way. As you move on, you might wish also to become insightful about the many things that go on in society. Or you might wish to learn about biology, or physics, or animal husbandry. In all these endeavours you are pursuing some goal that you should be able to formulate.

Once you start thinking this way, you’re on the way to philosophising. This is because such thinking is about you gaining an understanding and making rational decisions.

This is where philosophers can help.

I give you an example. Back in ancient Greece, Socrates used to walk the streets and ask people, what is life all about? He could ask us today the same questions. In the end he always said: the unexamined life is not worth living. This means that life must be lived with a conscious awareness of what is ethical in your dealings with others.

Later Aristotle, who was a systematic thinker, gave us the really golden rule to follow. He said: do everything in moderation, because every exaggeration is bound to make someone unhappy, including yourself. You can do too much good, as well as bad.

What you must not think now: oh, these were big men with big ideas, but they’re still only opinions. If you keep on this road yourself, you will come up against the same issues. And then, if you can’t work them out, these ‘opinions’ suddenly become important, because philosophers argue in depth. They don’t just give opinions.

Aristotle also said that we should watch over the goals we pursue in life. He said that most of us are mistaken about why we love doing certain things (common error even today): namely, we want to get rich, or famous, or powerful, or get married, have a home and children etc. and we think that when we have achieved it, we will be happy. Big mistake! What all of us really want, at bottom, is to be happy. And now he observed that people are really happy when they strive. If you strive for fame, that makes you happy. If you’re in love and are loved in return, you are happy. Once you’ve achieved all the good things you want, you might get bored or depressed, or get a sense of deja vu. Then you will have to start all over again. So, Aristotle says, don’t mistake the end for the means. The means are happiness, the goal is only a temporary station in life.

The only goals that can be permanent, he says, are love and friendship. And he adds, that although it is nice to have plenty of money, love and friendship are more important.

So philosophy makes people think about the basic issues of life – which is really life in society – and about the value of knowledge and beliefs, of love and friendship, of success and failure, and how important each of these may be. It makes us inquire into reasons for what we accept or reject, into the importance of ideas and ideals, as well as our hopes and aspirations. Philosophy is the best way of ensuring that your opinions and convictions will be rational, not just whimsies.

This is just a smattering, of course. People who like to think, will generally go on and study deeper and further. Consider, for example, that science could not work at all, if there was no philosophy underlying it, about what science should investigate. But at the beginning this is aiming to high. The best thing about philosophy in a practical sense is this: that it teaches us how to think and how to be aware.

You only have to look at the three greatest philosophers among the Greeks to see that their first concerns were: the individual, society, politics, ethics. Of course, modern philosophers show the same concerns.

Philosophy is also about knowledge, of course. But this comes later. First, as humans, we must learn to live. And because humans don’t live alone, it means we must learn how to live with each other. All the problems we have in society come about because people don’t think about them. So not having a philosophy is really bad news. There is no philosophy of racism, for example, but people are racists because of ignorance about ‘what it is to be a human being’.

So ultimately, this is what philosophy is. A way of learning to think, to understand and to respect life. We all needs this. Maybe we are in such a bad state today, because we think, we’re so clever and scientific we don’t need to think anymore. Science will solve our problems! But everyone who learns to think philosophically can tell you that this is nothing but a grand delusion. So not having philosophy is like not having any friends, or father and mother, who can tell you when you go off the rails!

Answer by Tony Fahey

Philosophy, as any student of Philosophy will tell you, means ‘love of wisdom’. In its truest sense it is a desire to challenge, to expand and to extend the frontiers of one’s own understanding. It is the study of the documented wisdom – the ‘big ideas’ – of thinkers throughout the history of humankind. However, even in our most respected institutions, Philosophy is often presented as theology, psychology, spirituality or religion. Indeed, many exponents of these respective disciplines seem to have no difficulty in identifying themselves as ‘philosophers’ when in fact they are ‘dogmatists’ (sic). What can be said, however, is that Philosophy is all of the above and none. ‘All’, in the sense that it will certainly engage with the views advanced by the exponents of these disciplines. ‘None’, in the sense that Philosophy can never be constrained by views that do not allow themselves to be examined, challenged, deconstructed and demystified in the realisation that ‘wisdom’ or ‘truth’ is not something that can be caught and grasped as one particular ism.

For those really interested in Philosophy, it is important to draw a distinction between ‘a philosophy’ and ‘Philosophy’ itself. There are abroad today many colleges, institutions, societies, ‘schools of philosophy’ (and, for some reason ‘schools of philosophy and economics’), groups, cults and sects promoting the view that they ‘teach’ Philosophy, where in fact what they are doing is promoting a particular worldview that they claim is superior to other worldviews or ‘philosophies’. What has to be said is that when a body claims that its philosophy has the monopoly on other worldviews it cannot be placed under the rubric of Philosophy – it is dogma. It is for this reason that those institutions that promote a particular religious ethos cannot, by their very nature, be said to teach Philosophy in any real sense: they are constrained by their own ‘philosophical’ prejudices to treat other worldviews impartially – particularly where these other approaches run contrary to their own. Moreover, by indoctrinating their students into a mindset that holds that it is their way or no way, these institutions show that their interest is not primarily in that which is best for the student, but that which is best in ensuring their own perpetuity. This approach (of using others as a means to one’s own ends), as Kant reminds us, is repugnant to Philosophy – the search for wisdom.

What this means is that Philosophy cannot condone any body of knowledge that advocates a closed view on wisdom or truth – one cannot take an a la carte approach to Philosophy. As the Dalai Lama, in the prologue to his book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality advises, where scientific discoveries are made that expose weaknesses in long held traditional beliefs, these beliefs should be abandoned, and the new discoveries embraced (would that all spiritual leaders or ‘philosophers’ were so openminded!). Philosophy, then, must operate on the premise that its conclusions should ever be open to what Karl Popper calls, ‘the law of falsification’. That is where its conclusions are found to be questionable, it is imperative that these views are revisited, re-evaluated and, where necessary, either re-formulated or abandoned. Unfortunately, as history shows, many systems of belief either will not entertain such an approach, or, if or when they do, it is often so far in time removed from the initial discovery that much harm has occurred in the interim.

What should be realised is that the wisdom to which Philosophy aspires is not attained by the practice of uttering self-hypnotising mantras or prayers, nor by being initiated into some select group, sect or cult that promises that its ‘road less travelled’ is the one true road. Philosophy is not love of ‘a truth’ or ‘some particular approach to wisdom’, but a love of truth and wisdom. However, this wisdom or truth does not come pre-wrapped and packaged as one ism or another, rather it involves the courage and preparedness to engage with, to challenge and to expand the boundaries of one’s own knowledge and experience. – one’s own wisdom.

Isabel asked:

Did Berkeley accept or reject solipsism?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Isabel, whilst George Berkeley did attempt to avoid or reject accusations of solipsism by arguing that all things exist in the form of ‘ideas’ in the mind of God, in this response I will show that his theocentric world-view still falls under the rubric of solipsism – albeit it solipsism of a rather unique kind.

According to Berkeley there is no such entity as a physical world, or matter, in the sense of an independently existing object. Rather it is that all that we ordinarily call physical objects are actually collections of ideas in the mind. The appearances we experience are the very objects and the appearances are sensations or perceptions of a thinking being. His most famous saying is ‘esse est percipi’ – ‘to be is to be perceived’. According to the ‘esse is percipi’ thesis, all the things surrounding us are nothing but our ideas. Sensible things have no other existence distinct from their being perceived by us. This also applies to human bodies. When we see our bodies or move our limbs, we perceive only certain sensations in our consciousness. Using a series of arguments, often called by philosophers as the ‘veil of perception’, Berkeley argued that since we never perceive anything called ‘matter’, but only ideas, the view that there is a material substance lying behind and supporting these perceptions is untenable. For Berkeley everything was mind-dependent: if one cannot have an image of a something in the mind, then it fails to exist – hence his thesis ‘to be is to be perceived’. Berkeley’s response to those who argued that if there were no material substrate behind our ideas, how is it that things persist when no one perceives them, was to argue that all our perceptions are ideas produced for us by God. As he himself says,

‘Whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other Will or Spirit that produces them’ (Berkeley Principles #29).

Thus, by arguing that things exist through God’s perception of them, and not merely through one’s individual perception, it seems that Berkeley succeeds in his attempt to avoid accusations of solipsism. However, because his thought falls into the category of what could be called divine solipsism: there is nothing much else than God himself in Berkeley’s universe, it seems that the esteemed Irish Bishop’s attempt to reject the said label may not have been as successful as he had wished. Ultimately, by presenting a concept of God in this way, Berkeley is in point of fact, creating within his own mind an idea of a God within whose mind all things exist as ideas: God as a solipsist. Moreover, because his concept of God is an idea formed within his own mind (effectively making him the God of God), and because, by his own admission, he agrees that all things are merely ideas which arise within the mind of the individual, we are forced to draw the conclusion that Berkeley was indeed a solipsist.

Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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