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Lizzy asked:

Was Kant a naturalist or a non-naturalist? What is the best way of explaining Kant in relation to meta-ethics?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In ‘The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionist Logic’ (1973) Michael Dummett quotes the mathematician George Kreisel:

“As Kreisel remarked in a review of Wittgenstein, ‘the problem is not the existence of mathematical objects but the objectivity of mathematical statements’.”

One can speculate about what exactly Kreisel meant, but I see this as an important insight that goes beyond the philosophy of mathematics.

Kant’s meta-ethics is objectivist as opposed to subjectivist. He believes that moral statements are not merely expressions of feeling, or true by virtue of the way ‘we’ feel, or the conventions that we have agreed to adopt. They are true in a substantial sense. There is no room for choice about whether or not to act according to the Categorical Imperative, no dependency on our way of seeing or feeling. You either act from an ethical motive, with the aim of conforming one’s action to the Categorical Imperative, or not.

According to the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

In the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten Kant makes far-reaching metaphysical claims, which could be interpreted as being ‘about objects’. Kant insists on the necessity of the dualism of phenomenal and noumenal worlds in order to provide the proper grounding for the Categorical Imperative. However, as commentators have noted, the section on free will and the noumenal world is desperately obscure.

I would like to consider the possibility that Kant went further than he needed to. In order to provide an adequate meta-ethical basis for an objective view of ethics, the Categorical Imperative suffices. Let’s assume this.

In Kreisel’s terms, both the naturalist and the non-naturalist seek a grounding for ethics in terms of ‘the existence of objects’. According to the naturalist, these objects are such things as human nature, or biology, or, possibly, the virtues as conceived in virtue ethics. According to the non-naturalist, these objects might be Platonic Forms, or the Will of God.

Kant sees, or thinks he sees, a third possibility. As the formulation of the Categorical Imperative quoted above (from the James W. Ellington translation, Hackett 3rd edn.) implies, Kant sees ethics in terms of moral rationality versus irrationality. The laws of ethics are like the laws of logic. No-one would look for ‘objects’ with which to ground the laws of logic. If you examine the ‘maxim’ of someone who intends to do an action that conflicts with the Categorical Imperative, you will find a ‘contradiction’. Just as you would find in someone who, literally, wanted to ‘have their cake and eat it’. The proposed action doesn’t ‘add up’. It’s irrational.

It could be said as a criticism of Kant that he is too sanguine about the possibility of always finding a ‘contradiction’ in actions that people do every day (for example, telling ‘white lies’). But I think it is still a view to be reckoned with. We should always be suspicious of dilemmas in philosophy, and the alternative: naturalism versus non-naturalism is one that raises my suspicions.


Matthew asked:

In simple terms, could you explain the point that Strawson makes in his article ‘On referring’ against Russell’s theory of descriptions. Who’s right, Strawson or Russell?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Strawson made several points. I’ll deal with the most famous one.

Russell, after his success in marrying logic and mathematics, believed that formal logic could clarify ordinary language, helping solve or dissolve problems and confusions, and was a big advance as a method in philosophy.

Strawson thought formal logic had little to offer over ordinary language: logic took a narrow view – what the words mean (semantics) – ignoring speaker meaning and conversational implicature (pragmatics), and, in any case, got the semantics wrong.

So Strawson sought to show that Russell’s approach gave the wrong answers, whereas ordinary language considerations got it right.

The focus of the dispute was the truth-value of statements about nonexistent objects (statements which fail to refer). Example:

‘The present King of France is wise’.

Russell held this to be false, there being no present King of France.

Strawson felt it had no truth-value i.e. was neither true nor false. If we accept this, it is an affront to classical logic where every statement is either T or F, and would derail Russell’s programme.

Part of Strawson’s case was that nobody would make the statement if she knew that the King of France didn’t exist. To do so would violate a presupposition of statement-making so that no statement was really being made, and there was therefore nothing to be T or F.

Aside: others, mistakenly, said that if ‘The present King of France is wise’ is false because there is no King of France, then its opposite ‘The present King of France is not wise’ is also false for the same reason, so we have a statement and its opposite both F when of course the opposite of a F statement must be T. But this is just a logical blunder: both the statements are indeed F (according to Russell) but they are not opposites. The opposite of ‘The present King of France is wise’ isn’t ‘The present King of France is not wise’, rather it is ‘It is not the case that the present King of France is wise’, and this is clearly T.

In my view Russell is right. His theory gives correct and consistent results without any need to modify classical logic by introducing truth gaps. Also, ordinary language considerations, in my view, don’t favour Strawson. To me, statements such as ‘The present King of France cuts my lawn’ or ‘My sister is dating the present King of France’ are clearly false, not, as Strawson had it, lacking truth-value. Also, we do, knowingly, make statements about nonexistent things all the time (Santa Claus, Hamlet, Vulcan for example) and we do mean something by such talk.

However, Russell’s programme delivered less than he hoped for. His, and the early Wittgenstein’s, foray into logical atomism applied to ordinary language failed. As a logician/mathematician, like Frege before him, Russell concentrated on what the words mean, whereas Strawson, Grice, Austin and the later Wittgenstein saw that what the speaker means is wider than this, and may be different, that language is a public ‘game’ with rules, meaning is related to use, and there can be no ideal logical language.


Phil asked:

My name is Phil and I’ve been very recently wondering about very disturbing stuff (including death anxiety) and I think I’m past the worst of it, but I have some lingering questions. Here’s the background for one:

It seems when we examine real objects close enough, they become illusory (for example, at the quantum level).

Also, the self seems to be an illusion in the strictest sense, if by illusion we mean something that has no correspondence in reality (for example a mirage caused by a heated surface, when viewed from the correct perspective, seems to be a body of water. But there’s never any actual body of water there corresponding to it in reality, its just a hot surface. In the strictest sense, then, the illusion is generated by the brain, and doesn’t exist ‘out there’.)

In a very trivial sense, this property of being ‘only generated by the brain’ also applies to the self, therefore seemingly making it an illusion. And yet, the self is also real since it actually exists, for example I think, therefore I am… (I hope the self survives physical death, but I can’t imagine how since all we know about self is that it is generated by the physical brain. But I’m comfortable with the possibility that it does.)

So, in light of all of the above, what do you think is the difference between reality and illusion?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You are worried about nothing, although I admit that your question reflects a state of confusion that seems pretty widespread.

The way you harp on the word ‘illusion’ tells me that you have no clear grasp of its meaning. So my first suggestion is, clear your mind of the confusion associated with the word. Here’s how:

We humans all have the same sensory equipment. Hence by and large the sensory information we receive from the world is common to all of us. Moreover you can use suitably calibrated apparatus to ensure that what you discern is objectively discernible in exactly the same way to the apparatus.

Illusions arise either from deficient sensory equipment or from defective judgement. This applies equally to humans and apparatus. It indicates that information has been incorrectly apprehended-either because the equipment is ‘out of tune’ with the norm (defective) or else because circumstances prevail (such as bad lighting, noise, pain, or strange surroundings) which inhibit proper identification. The latter condition applies mostly to humans, of course. Apparatus cannot have illusions. Otherwise if the apprehensions of your senses and the apparatus match each other, there is no illusion.

In a word: We have a norm that decides when and under what circumstances a person suffers from illusions. Among humans, this norm is provided by the average Tom, Dick and Harry. Once you have accounted for the relatively few and clearly identifiable instances of illusion, there is no logical avenue from the notion of ‘illusion’ to ‘universal illusion’. Indeed logically the idea of a universal illusion is a self-contradiction. If everything is illusion, then nothing is illusion. If everyone has the same illusion, then the word illusion is meaningless.

Coming now to your example of the quantum level of reality, what is illusory here? Consider the weather in this context. We often get our forecasts wrong, because they seek to predict states with a high degree of uncertainty in their trends. But uncertainty is not illusion. Similarly the unpredictability of quantum wavefronts offers no license for the use of the word. You should make yourself aware that the phrase of the ‘observer participation’ in the collapse of a wavefront is a metaphor, not a statement of fact; and moreover the associated notion of infinite alternative universes does not hold as an account of any sort of reality, but is merely a kind of game we play with unrealised possibilities – like the moves in a chess game that were never played, although they were all of them possible and would in each case have altered the course of events. In fact this is a very good comparison. An unplayed move in one game may be played in another. Or it may never be played in any game. Whichever is the case, it is clear that uninstantiated realities is a self-cancelling supposition!

Consider further that the quantum level is nothing other than a huge magnification of the visible features of the world. It is peeking at a tiny detail of an immense swarm, since you cannot grasp the whole. It is exactly the same as looking at a speck of dirt at the foot of a mountain. Will you now pronounce the mountain to be an illusion, because all you can see is the speck of dirt?

Moving on to your worries over the ‘Self’. Every human being has a sense of individual selfhood. But we fall easily into the trap of thinking of the ‘I’ as something other than ‘I’-a confusion engendered by language, when we say (as I just did) ‘I have a sense of selfhood’, as if this selfhood were something other than ‘I’. What am I? Not my selfhood? Is selfhood something I possess or am? Is my selfhood something other than my body or are they a unity? We often shoot ourselves in the foot this way, and then proceed to draw illicit conclusions from the mere use of language, that some kind of illusion must be involved.

In a practical sense, this problem falls away the moment you realise that your ‘self’ is a boundary that encloses your subjective and objective existence as a body. Another person is another enclosed self. So your argument about ‘my self isn’t out there’ is completely false. You know without the slightest doubt that ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘they’ are objectively real and objectively instantiated selves. Moreover it is easily proved when you check on the means of your communication with another self. Since no-one can read your thoughts, you must employ empirically discernible means of projecting them, usually speech. You translate your thoughts into speech patterns and direct your vocal muscles to push a bunch of aerial molecules in the direction of the other person, who can apprehend those signals and translate them into thoughts again. You may be misunderstood in your meanings or intentions, but this is not illusion either!

I won’t comment on your notion of the self persisting beyond physical death. Since there is no positive evidence for it, this is just about the only case where lots of people indulge themselves-not in illusion, but delusion. A big difference!

So your question is answered by a proper consideration of the term ‘illusion’. Your examples don’t qualify as illusory. Illusions are misapprehensions of actual states of affairs, or faulty perceptions of facts in the world. They can also be pretenses and/or beliefs concerning states of affairs that cannot be shown to actually exist under the criteria that govern either the dead-matter or living objects and processes of the world. Regarding beliefs and pretenses, there is a choice between illusion and delusion, but these too can be objectively resolved, e.g with apparatus. You may have the hallucination (illusion) of seeing a ghost, and this cannot be validated by an apparatus. You may entertain the delusion that your soul is imperishable, but no-one has ever stepped forward with an empirical proof that this is possible.

Finally a word on the discrepancy between physics and sensed reality. The blue of the sky can be validated, although an apparatus may also reveal that in this case the colour is an effect of certain chemical interactions in the atmosphere. But to call this an illusion is stretching the notion too far again. Colour vision does not produce illusions, but enhancements of objective phenomena for the purpose of better discernibility. We can indeed reduce these enhancements intellectually back to their ‘factual’ state, and this is good for mathematical physics. But to survive in the real world, colour vision is more effective tool than physics for discriminating the world’s features. An organisms has need of discernment of real features, not numbers. This is where the question mark over the word ‘illusion’ returns with full force.

So we may now conclude that sensed reality is objectively real to the extent that the interaction between phenomena and our sensory equipment has resulted, over evolutionary times, in a necessary form of understanding. In contrast, physics reality is a luxury that goes beyond the imperative of survival and is not in direct contact with lived reality.

My last observation concerns the belief that lower strata of the material universe (such as the quantum realm) causally influence higher strata. But this again has not been proved; and I can’t see how it could be. It is just another intellectual construction which does not amount to a coherent theory because we have nothing remotely resembling a theory of dimensions of existence. On the contrary, to our perceptions, different dimensions seem to be self-integrated causal systems, perhaps nested holons. But in a nested holons, interaction is restricted to contact at peripheries, and this allows only minute causal exchanges.

For us humans, therefore, reality is what a consensus of all life forms experience as reality. The human intellect is not in direct touch with the physical world and prone to evolve unreal fancies, whether in the form of quantum physics speculations or invocations of divine authorities or the innumerable fictions in which we indulge. Some creatures have experiences denied to human beings. Reality for fish is the watery habitat; for some bacteria it may be volcanic vents. We do not credit them with any intellect, but if they had one, what would their judgements on illusion and reality be? Maybe a sobering thought! But none of this invites the suggestion that we suffer from illusions and that reality is anything other than what we know it to be!


Answer by Peter Jones

You would only need to examine Buddhist philosophy, in particular the ‘Middle Way’ philosophy of Nagarjuna, with its concept of ‘sunyata’ or ’emptiness’, to see how your questions may be answered. This link is to an excellent essay by Thomas J. Macfarlane titled ‘The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy’.

Macfarlane explains what the sages mean when they say ‘nothing really exists’, or, in respect of the conditioned and unconditioned realms, that ‘the two worlds are one’, by reference to Nagarjuna’s ‘Middle Way’ philosophy, and discusses ‘sunyata’ or ’emptiness’ as a cure for ignorance and suffering. Here ‘suffering’ would include death and fear of death.

For this philosophy you would be quite right in your suspicions, in that for an ultimate view all forms would be illusory, conceptual imputations, and this would include all corporeal and mental phenomena. It would not be correct to say bluntly that they do not exist, obviously not, but they would not exist in the way we usually imagine they do.

In regards to death anxiety you might see that this as a hopeful philosophy. This is because everything would reduce to an ultimate phenomenon and can never cease to be identical with this phenomenon. All division would be superficial. Thus for an ultimate analysis, or for the ultimate experience, we would be God, and not the distinct individuals we usually think we are. The word ‘God’, with all its endless meanings, is not one that everybody would use, and certainly it is not used in Buddhism, but it conveys the basic idea. The self would not survive death, as you suspect. According to the Hindu Upanishads there would be no intentional consciousness after death. But there would be some subtleties that save the day. Advaitans and Buddhists are not happy for no reason.

Here is a link to Macfarlane’s publications list. It is nearly all relevant and he knows his stuff.

The implication of this view would be that we may well have reasons to fear death, depending on our circumstances, but it would at least be possible to reach a state of knowledge for which death would be of no concern to us. Death and fear of death would be suffering, and for Buddhists suffering would be as unreal as subjective selves and objective objects. While this is a theory and not a realisation it will be of little help to us, of course, but even as a theory it allows us a little optimism.

As for reality and illusion, the situation would be as Francis Bradley describes in his Appearance and Reality, which I would recommend. Only one phenomenon would be truly real. This could never live or die, and you and I would be it. Two brief quotes may indicate that this is not an exclusively Buddhist teaching, or even just a result of Bradley’s kind of logical analysis, but also a central teaching for the esoteric tradition of Islam and Christianity, and that there would be a method of verification.

“There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.” (2, Peter I:4)

“Man can partake of the Perpetual. He does not do this by thinking he can think about it.” (Jan-I-Janan, Sentences of the Khajagan)


Ralph asked:

According to the ancient Greek philosophers what is Love (Eros) and Sex?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Would you be surprised to hear that Plato tells us the story of Socrates going to the priestess Diotima to ask the same question?

He went to Diotima asking about love, but she instead taught him about beauty and wisdom. This suggests that we attain wisdom and beauty through love.

However, to answer your question, I have to start with separating Love from Eros. I noticed you have Eros in brackets after Love. That’s a mistake – eros is not love! But the differences between them are subtle and not exactly what we understand today. This is because we have gone through 2000 years of Christianity, which changed the way we think about these matters.

So to start:

Eros according to Socrates is not a god. What then? Well, it’s difficult, as I said, but not impossible, We get help from Hesiod, who wrote a poem about the birth of the gods. When Uranos and Gaia (Heaven and Earth) copulated to produce offspring, Hesiod says that Eros was present. This means that Eros is prior, but not a personalised divinity.

Now in today’s world, the word we would use is ‘passion’. It is not restricted to what we mean when we say ‘erotic’. In fact, eroticism is just one of our passions. In the dialogue between Socrates and Diotima, she tells him that Eros is the passionate search for love, beauty, wisdom, truth, justice and many other things that can be summarised as ‘the Good’.

So in the first instance, Eros is the energy that drives artists, politicians, inventors, philosophers in their search for truth. But you might entertain a passion for football, or stamps, ants, stars, coins, gardening or any other worthwhile activity; and this passionate interest is also Eros.

In a word, Eros is the great energiser that gives us the will and the power to pursue what we are passionate for.

So Eros means passion, the intense desire for something you want to achieve in life.

Sex, on the other hand, is not associated primarily with Eros, because it is the prerogative of Aphrodite. She is the goddess of sex and everything that belongs to courtship, relationships, sex and marriage and children, as well as the sheer pleasure of intimate affection.

This again overlaps with Love. To the Greeks, love was not quite the explosive sort of relationship that you find in many modern novels, plays and movies. Rather it was focused on stable and mutually beneficial relationships. Aristotle is a good example. He had intimate friends, and he had a very close loving relationship with is wife. Evidently love is wider than passion or sex, because it includes the love of parents and children, sometimes even close friends, and perhaps even animals.

One more things needs to be said. Plato is often represented as promoting homosexual love, even pederasty. It’s a terrible misrepresentation. He was only interested in ideal love, and in the ideals for which we need the help of Eros. For him, sex was for the sake of procreation. It played no part in his doctrine of love. Accordingly he abhorred physical sex for any other purpose. Neither love nor eros (passion) should ever be diverted into the lower desires that we share with animals.


Stephen asked:

First of all, I want to apologize for my bad English.

My question is about free will.

I want to believe in free will, I think the assumption of free will is very important for ethical concepts like responsibility and I think it’s very important for the concept of human dignity that humans are able to decide about their fate and that they are not helpless bound into a strict causal chain.

But on the other hand, hard determinism seems logically true.

Physics works with determinism, and I don’t want to get into contradiction with natural science.

I am worried that I have no good, rational arguments for libertarian free will, If I want to hold on to the concept of libertarian free will.

Summarized, I want to hold on to the concept of free will, but determinism seems logically better to me.

What should I do? Should I accept determinism, or believe in some sort of compatibilist sort of free will? (besides, I find the compatibilistic free will not satisfying).

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The good news for you is that your wish can be fulfilled in any halfway liberal society, where the political powers grant you sufficient freedom to make your own choices. The difference between despotic and liberal laws is, roughly speaking, that the former direct you and inhibit the exercise of free will, the latter merely draw boundaries around it and prevent you from inhibiting the exercise of free will of others.

Now I understand that this is not the gist of your question. But it is the only proper philosophical way of looking at free will. There are just two ways in which your free will can be constrained: By other people and by the condition of life itself. Being a human animal restricts the exercise of your free will to the possibilities you have as a creature. The existence of political power structures may encroach further on your personal liberty. But even the most brutal of these cannot control the minutiae of your life and therefore will leave you with the ability to make day-by-day choices of your own.

The other problems – such as causal chains, fate, determinism, the supposedly logical truth of notions such as ‘it’s all in the chemistry/physics’, ‘it’s all in the genes’ and (religiously) ‘all is written’ are mere suppositions. You need to look at them closely to discover if they are proved or circumstantially derived – or even just say-so. The latter include fatalism, pre-destination, ‘all is written’ and cannot enter serious discussion. One would wish that the claims for genes and chemistry were under similar strict scrutiny, because they are also unproved and not validated. But even though they pose as scientific pronouncements, they are derived from highly insecure data that support them in a wholly spurious way, i.e. by the deliberate twisting of the data in that direction. But if a scientific statement cannot be validated, then probity should dictate that it be dismissed as either false or mere conjecture. We (the general educated public) are very much at fault for swallowing silly slogans and not demanding that they are backed with appropriate proofs.

The situation with causal chaining is not much better. We are altogether too besotted with Cartesian mechanism, materialism, mathematics and (reductive) method to keep our eyes and ears open for self-contradictions. For the problem that hovers in the background, without being acknowledged, is the belief that science is in possession of comprehensive theories of life and mind, genetic and evolutionary processes. But this is only an assumption, indeed presumption! The context here points to a confusion – held equally by the general public, philosophers and many (though not all) scientists – between a research agenda and established factual knowledge. You will have met with many examples yourself-such as scientists appearing on the public media with provisional and/or tentative findings, and not infrequently wild conjectures, which they discuss in terms strongly suggestive of certainty.

And so to come to the nuts and bolts: We assume today, without proof, that life is sourced wholly from chemistry. We assume, without proof, that mind and brain can be put into analogy with computers. We assume, without proof, that genes code for subjective characters. And finally we assume, without proof, that evolution is a fully-understood process of generating and proliferating life forms.

I have repeated here the words ‘without proof’ to underline the predicament in which we find ourselves. Namely that all these issues have a certain amount of evidence supporting them, but all of it is ambiguous and requires interpretation, which can only be done from the bedrock of a prior conception of what we are looking at. The trouble is, however, that the same evidence also supports the case for other interpretations. Accordingly we must choose – which is a wholly subjective feature of research! And so we have chosen, to stay with the example of genes, to interpret wholly inconclusive data from genetic research to push the notion of the causal chaining of subjective characters. I wonder of course how wise a decision it was, because the result has been a widespread resurgence of belief in quasi-supernatural powers and of ourselves as their victims.

Moreover, when I say ‘we’, I mean the modern scientific western civilisation. Yet science is not monolithic; and you could easily find points of view about genes, life, evolution and neurophysiology which differ from the current paradigm. For example,

a significant percentage of scientists in the life sciences (usually hands-on biologists and medical biologists) dissent from the fashionable biomolecular theories for precisely the reason that the latter thrive 100% on conjectures and are unable to clinch their propositions with proofs. But for reasons which I find difficult to explain, ‘we’ have for the time being chosen to give them our vote.

For you, in the throes of anguish about free will, this may be cold comfort. But I would urge you to develop a healthy mistrust of dogmaticism in your reading. You seem to have read too many texts all saying the same thing. Vary your intellectual diet – it’s healthier for independence of mind! For example, when you hear of criminals, gamblers, explorers or poets that their genes made them what they are, start thinking critically and rationally about what is being proposed here. Think of the recipe in your kitchen that shows you how to bake a cake with powders, sugar, essences etc. That recipe cannot help you with turning the baking powder into a snail. Genes are recipes in precisely the same sense. They specify the chemical products required to build a body. But now you are asked to believe that, somehow, intelligence is added to compounds of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen etc.! I hope you can see just how absurd an idea this is. Moreover, there is no code for life on the gene set, so how come the proteins and other chemistry end up being alive?

To summarise: There is no proved connection between any chemical product in your body and your wish to exert your free will. There is no proved connection between any code on your gene set and your thoughts and emotions. Moreover there is no proof that any physics cause whatever has a bearing on your will, emotions, desires, thoughts and ideas. The real causes are an interplay between empirical facts and your perception, which is essentially a process of internal evaluation of their meaning to you and may engender those subjective responses – from feelings to intellectual cogitation.

The physics/ chemistry supposition in contrast suffers from the starkly obvious facts that all chemical elements are utterly lifeless. Accordingly adding up two or two billion compounds does not change the picture. They may add up to a pebble, but not to a thought! So you are faced ineluctably with the problem of finding something other than a physics item that must be added to the chemistry to make it behave in a different way from the known behaviour of the same chemical products. This ‘something to be added’ is not known. It defines the moment of truth. Wittgenstein wrote that ‘what we don’t know we should not talk about’, but we babble about it endlessly. So now you understand why I stress the immense gulf between a research agenda and proof, and how easily we confuse the two.

My last comment concerns the psychological aspect of this issue. We have been brainwashed for thousands of years to the belief that divine authorities have complete knowledge and complete control over our subjective as well as objective lives. This is difficult to dispel in just a few generations. And thus, in our godless era, we have enthroned science instead. At least science has made an effort to awaken us to the need for proving such outrageous impositions; but the temptation for broadcasting ideas that cannot be proved, and for dogmatising about issues which ordinary people do not understand, remains a strong as ever. You may wish to take this with a grain of salt, but it has a lot of historical weight behind it.

If you feel up to it, I suggest you read my book–A-Philosophical-Quest1-4438-4071-8.htm,

which is devoted wholly to these kinds of problems. There is also an essay of mine about genes in the Pathways E-Journal

which you might find relevant to your worries.

My last word is: Free will is the defining criterion of the living state. Even a worm knows the difference between life and non-life and will enact appropriate choices guided by the random circumstances of its little life! Yet we humans pretend we have no choices? Well, ask for proof in future. Not for propositions, conjectures, hypotheses, syllogisms and circumstantial suggestions, but – for proof!


Answer by Craig Skinner

Your English is fine.

What are you to do?

Here’s what. Accept that there are no good arguments for libertarian free will, accept compatibilist free will, and be satisfied with it.

Arguments for libertarian free will.

1. Kant’s ‘two worlds’ account – in the phenomenal world we are creatures bound by the causal laws of nature, and as such can have no free will: but we are also agents who transcend the phenomenal world and act in the noumenal world, not bound by natural law, and can choose, by an act of will, to do (or not do) one of a range of things irrespective of the deterministic goings on in our brains at the time. Few accept this two worlds metaphysics, and a ‘two perspectives’ approach to one world doesn’t work.

2. Modern libertarians appeal to fancy physics in the brain to somehow get round determinism without lapsing into randomness – quantum or chaotic microevents. But however fancy, it boils down to determinism or randomness or both.

Compatibilist free will.

All the free will you need. You do as you wish. Your wishes are determined by your character, needs, ambitions and plans, all internal to you, so the decisions are yours, and no doubt there are deterministic brain states and events corresponding to these reasons. I agree with Hume that far from being blocked by determinism, free will requires (internal) determinism, otherwise we have only chance and caprice. You express concern that we may be ‘helpless, bound into a strict causal chain’. Try ‘helpfully bound into a strict causal chain’. How otherwise could we make anything happen at all in a physical world.

Being satisfied with it.

What are you missing out on that libertarian free will allegedly provides. Alternative options (AO). It is true that at the moment of my free choice, there is only one option, the one I wish and choose, there are no AO, I could not have done otherwise. But the deterministic internal process includes consideration of AO until all are rejected in favour of the one I want and choose. Why would anybody wish to do other than what she wants and chooses to do? It seems that libertarians would like, at the instant of decision, for a given state of the physical world, including my brain, that there be AO in the way things unfold. Back to Kant again. To me it is incoherent. Don’t worry that Humean free will gives you problems with moral responsibility. It doesn’t. The decisions are yours and you are responsible. As a compatibilist for years I have carried on making decisions as usual, some good, some bad, some making me ashamed and intent on doing better next time, which feeds back into the processes determining my future decisions so that (sometimes) I indeed do better, whilst continuing, of course, to freely make some new bad choices.


Answer by Peter Jones

I think you sum up the problem well. The difficulty of making sense of either Freewill or Determinism, as extreme metaphysical positions, are well known, and they lead most philosophers, theologians and even many scientists to some form of compatibilism. You may find this position unsatisfying, but it does at least satisfy logic.

Freewill Determinism is what Kant calls an antinomy. It is a pair of counterposed metaphysical theses where both can be refuted. Antinomies are undecidable. This would be the reason why you cannot find a good, rational and conclusive argument for Freewill. You will not find one for Determinism either. If you ever found one there would egg on the faces of a million philosophers.

You might like to examine the view of Erwin Schrodinger. He investigated this problem and concluded that the only sensible thing to believe is a form of compatibilism. This would be the sublation or reduction of the two categories Freewill and Determinism for a more profound view than either. Specifically, he endorsed the nondualism of the Hindu Upanishads, for which all categories of thought can be sublated for a fundamental view. Freewill and Determinism would become two ways of looking at a single phenomenon, each of which would be unsatisfactory and which would need to be combined (thus rejected) for a correct view.

This compatibilist view is difficult, but it works and cannot be refuted. It depends crucially on the idea that the universe is a unity. Here is an extract summarising Schrodinger’s view from the editors introduction to the book The Volitional Brain Towards a Neuroscience of Freewill (Ed. Libet, Freeman, Sutherland).

Schrodinger encapsulated the problem of consciousness in the form of two premises:

* My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the laws of nature.

* Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.

To avoid a contradiction here, he said, the only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt I am the person, if any, who controls the motion of the atoms according to the laws of nature. [t]his would lead you to say, Schrodinger provocatively suggested, Hence I am God almighty.

It is not possible to develop this idea here but in mysticism it would be the standard solution for this sort of problem. The problem is solved by appealing to the identity of all things. To see how it works you have to ask yourself, if you were God, omniscient, perfect, unlimited, then in what sense would you have freewill? Your actions would be completely determined by your identity, and they would be strictly determined precisely because they are wholly free and unlimited. The distinction between Freewill and Determinism would break down at the limit.

This form of compatibilism is the one we would have to refute in order to make a conclusive argument for Freewill or Determinism. It cannot be refuted, and so no such argument is possible. It is an antinomy. Note that Schrodinger sees no conflict between this compatibilist view and the natural sciences. Rather, it is his unwillingness to deny the scientific evidence that leads him to this view.


Mckenzie asked:

Does Aristotle’s doctrine of virtue as a mean relative to us imply that he really is an ethical relativist? Why? or, Why not?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

No, Aristotle is not a relativist. You must not confuse relativity with relativism.

In simple terms, Aristotle says that virtues, for example moderation in eating, are relative to a person. This means that “moderation” has a different context for different persons. For example an athlete such as a wrestler must eat more food than you or I. There is no offence to moderation involved.

The point is that this virtue, although it may change from one person to another, is part of his doctrine of the mean because the mean is at the bottom of good and ethical living.

With all the virtues on his balance of the mean, the same arguments apply. Bear in mind he is looking for what benefits people and society.

Immoderation is therefore a vice in the context of individuals who over-indulge. This is bad for them, but also for others because sickness may result and the person becomes a burden on everyone else.

Aristotle’s doctrine is essentially aimed at cultivating good social habits. The relativity here is based on nothing other than the different abilities of people to practise ethical living. It may depend on their skills, income levels etc.

But it is not the same as relativism. It simply says that good ethical practice has different levels of achievement depending on who is doing it.

Whereas relativism is something very different. It relates to the customs and traditions of different cultures. Let me give you an example:

In one community the religious dogma in force may result in the community practising ritual murder. For instance some tribes in India used to burn the widow of dead man alive. That was their custom. As far as the tribe is concerned, it is the right thing to so. It is, in a word, a cultural value for them.

In our modern enlightened society, we view this practice with horror. The cultural values in our community exclude ritual murder.

And now the upshot of this is that our community leaders would criticise the other community for their barbaric practices. They would say this is not a cultural value, but an unmitigated evil.

Relativism comes in at this point, when for example anthropologists try to remain neutral and not criticise the ritual murder. They might say: All moral values depend on humans; and therefore no single group has a genuine right to call another barbaric or evil. In the long run, all cultural values have the same source and are therefore equal

So relativism is actually an extremely dubious intellectual position, because in effect it removes the concept of value from social living.

However, Aristotle wrote his Ethics with the wishes and fears of every human being in mind, no matter what their tribe or community. No person wants to be tortured, raped, murdered, enslaved etc. So here is a foundation for social virtues that Aristotle rightly thought would be universally acceptable.

So you see that the aim of Aristotle was not to allow inhumane behaviour (relativism), but to promote humane behaviour at the highest level that a society may reach. In the course of his thinking about ethics he understood that some principles apply to all human beings alike.

His concept of virtue is for a common good in every community. The highest human good is happiness. The goal of the Ethics is to determine how best to achieve happiness. A central part of this doctrine is the doctrine of the mean.

I believe that Aristotle developed something really fundamental for the benefit of mankind in society. His ethics are primarily designed to make people conscious of themselves in what they strive for–why they have certain goals and aspirations in life; and just as importantly, what kind of good and evil must be known to achieve these goals.

So in conclusion, Aristotle is nowhere near relativism in his doctrine. In fact I think he would call relativism itself an intellectual evil that stands in the way of making humans more humane.


Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


January 2014
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