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Robert asked:

Was Bishop George Berkeley the first person to maintain that matter did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that space did not exist? Who was the first person who maintained that time did not exist?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Berkeley was not the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter. That honour goes to the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides of Elea, who was indeed the first philosopher to deny the existence of matter, time and space.

According to Parmenides, the only thing that is, is the One. The only true statement one can make is, ‘It is.’ From that statement, various propositions follow:

The One was not, or will it be but exists altogether now, in the present. Hence, time does not exist. The One is not material, and it is not mental either. Any property P such that a thing can either be P, or not-P, such as ‘white’ or ‘square’, ‘heavy’ or ‘fragile’, ‘painful’ or ‘warm’, is disqualified from belonging to the One.

The One is finite, not infinite, because infinity implies something that ‘is not’. Parmenides describes the One as ‘like the bulk of a well-rounded sphere’. However, that doesn’t imply that the One is spherical in a literal sense. He is using an image.

So what about the world we all know, where things can be white or square or heavy or fragile, etc.? None of that is real, says Parmenides. Nothing we say about ‘our world’ can be true. (It is a problem with Parmenides’ theory that it is not at all easy to see how one accounts for the ‘reality’ of this on-going illusion. But that’s a problem we won’t go into.)

Parmenides’ theory of the One made a huge impact on the philosophers that followed. They couldn’t agree that the One was all there is, but the argument that Parmenides gave seemed to be compelling. So they made various compromises. Empedocles said that the world is made up of four unchanging elements. The Atomists Democritus and Leucippus said that the world is made up of atoms in motion, each atom being like a miniature unchanging Parmenidean ‘One’.

What was the argument Parmenides gave for his theory?

On the face of it, the argument is a blatant non-sequitur:

1. Take anything you like (call it x).

2. Either x is, or x is not.

3. If x is not, then x cannot be. The very idea of x is ‘unthinkable’.

4. By contraposition, if x can be then it is.

5. If ‘x is’ follows from ‘x is possible’ then x is necessary.

6. All that is, is necessary and cannot not-be.

As the very idea that ‘x is not’ is unthinkable, there is no place for negation in any account of ‘what is’. If there are two objects, x and y, then x is not y and y is not x, which is impossible. Hence x is necessarily One. If the One is white, then it is not black. So the One cannot be white or black or any other colour.

But why on earth should we accept step 3? There are plenty of things that ‘are not’. I do not have two heads. Sheffield is not on the Moon. The drink in my mug is not tea.

Parmenides’ response? Not cannot be part of what a thing is. There is no such thing, no such property as not-ness. ‘Not’ is a word we use for various practical purposes, but it does not refer, cannot refer, to anything in reality. Reality is what is, and only what is. Anything on top is something we have added, something that is not ultimately real.

Think about that for a while, and your head will start spinning.

You might, for example, consider that the very idea of things existing contingently — say, the Big Bang might not have banged, the solar system might not have formed, I might not have been born etc. — is absurd. If you are talking about what is real, then contingency can be no part of reality.

The God theory is just another example of an attempt to ‘customize’ Parmenides’ One, like the theories of Empedocles or the Atomists. Just like those theories, it requires a compromise, going back on what Parmenides considers that he has proved. There is only the One, and the One cannot be described in any way other than saying that, ‘It is.’

Give it time, and you will begin to see Parmenides meant. And then you will understand why he is considered one of the giants of Western Philosophy.

Lee asked:

Hello! I was wondering if there is any relationship between personal identity and Nietzsche’s ideas of eternal recurrence. I know that time and personal identity are two concepts that are constantly interwoven, but I wonder if there is a way to think of eternal recurrence in this frame as well. Thanks!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The best way I can answer your question, Lee, is to tell you a story:

Born in 1846, in Frankfurt, just two years after Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Schmidt was the son of a prominent banker. It is known that he wrote one philosophical work, whose title has been sadly forgotten. He gave up philosophy and joined the family business after the one and only manuscript was destroyed in a fire at his publishing house before the book went into print.

Friends commented that Karl appeared to show little concern for his tragic loss. ‘I feel no less sorry for all the other Karls than I do for myself,’ he is reported to have said. It was only years later after his death that a notebook was discovered, in which Schmidt described his theory of ‘Endless Duplication.’

According to Schmidt’s theory, the universe is one of an infinite series of identical universes, existing side by side in space. ‘All the other Karls’ refers to the infinitely many Karl Schmidts.

“Be glad! You are not alone in your suffering, you are not alone in your joy. Every action that you do is done an infinite number of times, each time with the same result. If you hit the target once, you always hit the target and never miss. If you miss the target, then there is no point in regret because you miss the target every time.”

Commentators have noted that Schmidt’s theory bears a remarkable resemblance to Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Recurrence. However, the date of the notebook entry is five years before the first mention of the Eternal Recurrence in Nietzsche’s published works. Could it be that Nietzsche adapted Schmidt’s idea, applying his ‘endless duplication’ to a series of identical universes in time rather than in space?

Though the supposition is initially plausible, the problem is that there is no record that Nietzsche and Schmidt ever met. Also, it is also known that the Eternal Recurrence was first formulated by the Stoics two thousand years earlier. Maybe, like Nietzsche, Schmidt was intrigued by the Stoic theory, but for reasons of his own replaced the temporal series with a spatial one.

Although Nietzsche attempts a proof of the Eternal Recurrence in his notebooks posthumously published as The Will to Power, the point of the theory is a test, a thought experiment: are you mentally strong enough to will that in the infinite number of times that you will get the chance to relive your life, you will make the same decisions every time, and everything that happens in your life will be the same?

But will it be you? What makes the two Nietzsches, or the two Schmidts, the same person, rather than someone exactly like the previous Nietzsche, or the previous Schmidt?

In his book Theories of Existence (1985), Timothy Sprigge in a chapter on Nietzsche admits that the question about identity or non-identity in the Eternal Recurrence is one where there is no convincing proof either way, although he would ‘like to think’ that if the Eternal Recurrence is true then he, Timothy Sprigge, will live the same life, over and over again.

Maybe Schmidt considered the implications of this embarrassing loophole, and decided to improve on the Stoic theory by substituting space for time. In the next universe along in the spatial series of universes, there is no possibility that the GK typing these words at this moment is ‘one and the same’ as the GK in this universe.

Using Schmidt’s ‘endless duplication’, a stronger argument can be made, that there is no reason why the ‘next GK’ in the infinite temporal series of universes should bear any closer relation to the GK in this universe than the ‘next GK’ in the infinite spatial series of universes. If there are an infinite number of GKs in Schmidt’s Endless Duplication, then there must be an infinite number of GKs in Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence.

There is a counter-argument, however. Although Nietzsche doesn’t explicitly state this — and it appears inconsistent with the argument sketch in The Will to Power which assumes a deterministic Newtonian Universe in infinite time — an alternative interpretation of the Eternal Recurrence would be a circular time. Time is finite and circular rather than infinitely extended in a straight line. If time is circular, then the ‘next GK’ is none other than me because the universe has gone back to a previous time.

Just in case I get accused of promulgating ‘false facts’, the story about Karl Schmidt is made up. Any resemblance to any actual historical figure is purely coincidental. The original version of my story can be found here.

Salah asked:

I am from Alexandria, Egypt, I was born as Muslim, I was, and I still, very devout, I lived a very beautiful spiritual experience. Now I am Sufi, or actually, I discovered that I am Sufi. Through my journey I had spiritual visions, Descartes says: ‘I think, therefore I am,’ this mean that he is sure of his existence, but he is not sure if the world really exist, or the world is real. Now I am pantheist or to be accurate, panentheist. like George Berkeley, through vision, I am sure that there is none other than God and his images, Humans, namely, that existence is composed of God and humans only, the universe is God’s manifestation, namely, universe is none but God. Descartes cogito ends that the world may be unreal, but Descartes thought later that the world is real.

Now through mystic vision, I think the world is unreal, since it is God’s manifestation, but according to presence of human minds, I think that parts of the world are real, namely, having human minds, while other parts of the world are unreal, namely, having no human minds. Humans in these parts are none but philosophical zombies, so from my point of view, some countries are unreal, other countries are real. For example EGYPT may be real, AMERICA may be unreal. Some provinces in Egypt may be real, others may be unreal.

So what is your opinion?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I agree that you say is consistent with George Berkeley’s theory of ‘Immaterialism’, although it is not something he considered. To be, according to Berkeley, is ‘to perceive or be perceived’. All that exists are spirits: God, the one infinite spirit, and finite spirits like you or I. The things we call ‘material objects’ or ‘bodies’ are just ideas in the mind of God. For Berkeley, if you are a human being then you are a spirit.

Though Berkeley would not have approved, within this framework it is logically possible that some of the so-called ‘humans’ that inhabit this world are associated with a Berkeleian spirit while others are not. Human beings lacking a spirit would be ‘philosophical zombies’ (in the sense considered, e.g. by David Chalmers). They act and talk and are in every way indistinguishable from non-zombies, or ‘human beings with spirit’ but for a zombie ‘all is darkness inside’.

We can debate about God’s plan for the world, or even in a scientific mode raise the issue of Occam’s Razor. Maybe I’m the only non-zombie, why do there need to be more? (Someone might think, ‘God made the world just for me, to by my playground.’) However, any such debate would be impossible in principle to resolve. Believe what you like, it makes no practical difference.

Then again, one advantage of believing that ‘all Americans are zombies’, or ‘all Egyptians are zombies’ is that you don’t take zombies into consideration when making a moral decision or formulating foreign policy. Zombies don’t count, period.

      You cannot kill me
      The creature said
      Because I am already dead
      I aimed my shotgun
      At the creature’s head
      And pulled the trigger
      A zombie kill
      Is still
      A kill

      Philosophizer ‘Contagion’

A supporter of Al-Qaeda can still observe with satisfaction as the Twin Towers fall, watch the so-called ‘zombies’ as they tumble to their ‘death’, but the pleasure isn’t the same. Zombies cannot be evil. Zombies cannot be punished, they cannot face the wrath of God. At best, a ‘nation of zombies’ might exist as a warning to those who are tempted towards evil, as a kind of ghoulish animation or tableau showing the worst side of human nature.

That’s a story that some ‘true believers’ might be tempted to believe. I don’t know whether such a narrative would be acceptable on some interpretation of the ‘holy texts’ because I’m not an expert on religion, least of all Islam. I suspect not.

I don’t have sufficient motivation to take an interest. I happen believe the opposite. I believe that religion — all religion — is a contagion every bit as threatening as a zombie apocalypse scenario, and human beings will not be able to live in peace and enjoy their humanity until all ‘true believers’ are extinct.

That’s just my personal belief, mind you. As a matter of high principle, I hold that those of all faiths and none can drink and gain sustenance from the ancient well of philosophy. I’m willing to dialogue with anyone — so long as you are not asking me for my approval of your beliefs. I’m not asking you for your approval of mine.

Shaun asked:

Regarding existential dread/ depression.

I am a big fan of being alive. I love life. And as such, I would like to never die. I’d like my wife and children to never die too. And you, and the person sitting next to you. The idea of a person, a mind, escaping existence, is horrifying.

And so, I feel this existential dread. I feel that all I’ve lived for, all I’ve valued, is without purpose, because in the end, I’ll die.

If I could, I would just accept it. I’m really good at accepting reality, even when it’s painful to do so. And that would more or less solve my problem.

However, given the successes of modern science and medicine; given my understanding of biology, the brain, and the mind; I don’t accept that death is inevitable.

I know, it sounds like denial. But look at the success of science and medicine. From cloning to artificial hearts. 1000 years ago, it would have been considered magical thinking. It would have been regarded as denial.

And so, that’s where I am today. Whether through biological or electronic, or some new technology, I believe that immortality of the MIND is possible. And so, I can’t simply accept that I’ll one day die. Which leaves me vulnerable to the despair I often feel.

How do I grow through this? I wish I could just accept death and be done with it, but I can’t seem to do that, when the potential for immortality is so incredibly close.

Of course, you may not agree with my assessment of technology and medical science, but, assume that I very much do, and that this is part of my problem.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I know exactly what you mean, Sean. To cease to be is a horrifying prospect, and yet it is a prospect we all face — or is it?

On this question, scientific speculation cuts two ways. According to one cosmological theory, the universe will end in a Big Crunch in which every finite entity will be destroyed. So, on that hypothesis, your life may be extended far longer than a natural human life, but you will most definitely die. Your prospects are no better according to the theory that the universe is inevitably tending towards a state of maximum entropy when all chemical processes will cease.

Theories can be wrong. Maybe these theories are wrong.

Leaving questions of cosmology, there seems to be no ‘in principle’ barrier to the indefinite extension of human life by some technical means or other. The problem is that the assumptions that you would need to make to allow indefinite life make it just as likely that there can be any number of ‘Shauns’ produced by a cloning/ copying process. To keep Shaun’s brain functioning, the information has to be copied and saved, maybe uploaded onto disk and downloaded into a fresh brain — or brains.

Maybe you are not the original Shaun but a copy (your home CCTV reveals the original Shaun being kidnapped and a Shaun-copy substituted in his place). By hypothesis, your mind is qualitatively indistinguishable from the mind of the original Shaun. You say you absolutely know that you are the real Shaun, but the other Shaun (or Shauns) vehemently contradict you — even your wife and children are unable to tell you apart.

The notion that, ‘I know where I will be’ is very powerful, and yet it succumbs to standard thought experiments on personal identity. You go into a body-splitter and two Shauns emerge. You say you ‘absolutely know’ that if you find yourself standing on the left then the Shaun on the left is the ‘real’ Shaun, but the Shaun on the right believes precisely the same thing. You can’t both be right!

If you can’t be both ‘Shauns’, then you are neither. Irrespective of whether body duplication ever becomes a technical possibility, there is no ‘mental entity’ that persists from one moment to the next, in the way that your body does.

‘But what if I have a soul?’ — What difference would it make if your so-called ‘soul’ came into existence one second ago? What difference would it make if there were a hundred ‘souls’ inhabiting Shaun’s body? Souls can’t be counted, you can say what you like about your ‘soul’ and not be wrong, because nothing can contradict you. Your subjective experience from moment to moment remains the same, regardless.

You may reply that no thought experiment or clever argument can convince you that your subjective sense of self or soul is not the same entity that began reading this answer a short while ago. But here’s the thing. If you really think that, against all argument, then everything is fine because even if the universe ends, it is still possible that you will survive. Maybe as a spirit floating in empty space. In infinite future time, anything can happen, right?

Stein asked:

Reminiscent of BIV…

I dreamt that only I am a brain in a vat and that I was chosen (due to some action of mine or thinking (of mine), perhaps, or perhaps only randomly).

Now, when I reflect on this, I cannot really say that my dream was just a dream, or that I dreamt at all. Perhaps I hit my head and am unconscious or whatever…

So, either I am a brain in a vat (perhaps in a museum for others to see and inspect) or I am not.

A very depressing thought. It’s like saying, either life has meaning or it has not.

What is the correct way to respond to this, to untangle the entangled or remove the nonsensical (to use Wittgensteinian Words). I mean, is the only option not to think about it, or can you be sceptical, where sceptical means that for all propositions p, we cannot know p (or not-p, for if you knew not-p, you would know the truth value of p), or… argh :-)

What is a proper philosophical answer to this problem, how can I easy my mind :-)

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You said you dreamt you were a brain in a vat. What is the experience of ‘being a brain in a vat’? The point of the BIV hypothesis is that it is impossible to tell whether you are a brain in a vat or not!

Well, suppose Morpheus comes to your front door and tells you, ‘Hey, guess what, Stein, did you know you’re really a brain in a vat?’ What has he got to do to convince you? How would you go about tricking someone into thinking they are a brain in a vat? Wouldn’t they have to be a bit gullible? (Maybe, maybe not.)

In the Philosophical Investigations, in response to the question, ‘Are you not shutting your eyes to doubt?’ Wittgenstein replies, ‘They are shut’ (PI II, p.224). The point being that doubt, like any other propositional attitude requires reasons. You doubt whether you really have a physical body because… what? simply because you can imagine that you might be a brain in a vat? (Imagining ‘being a brain in a vat’ is harder, for the reason I gave, that by hypothesis your experiences are the same either way, whether you are a BIV or not.)

There are persons who doubt, purely on the basis of things they imagine, and for no other reason at all. These doubts can be tragic or comic, depending on the circumstances. But such doubts are irrational. In the normal course of events, your eyes are shut to that kind of doubt. It doesn’t arise. That’s a pretty strong argument against global inductive scepticism, in my view.

However, the situation would be vastly different if you and I saw on the TV News that a successful BIV experiment had been carried out. More so, if body donation became feasible and there were unscrupulous operators around, kidnapping people and putting the victims’ brains in vats. Whoah!

So… do you and I know that we are not BIVs? If doubt on the question is irrational (barring the TV news announcement) then surely our belief that we are not BIVs counts as knowledge?

This is a trickier question because of contextual considerations. (I’m thinking of David Lewis’s contextual view of knowledge, see my Answer to Demetreus.) Normally, one wouldn’t talk of ‘knowing’ that P when the question whether P or not P doesn’t arise. On the other hand, if circumstances came about where it was necessary to reassure someone that you are not a BIV (say, in a telephone conversation, in the world of our imaginary TV News announcement) you might reasonably say, ‘Look, I know I’m not a BIV because I’ve taken precautions against body-snatching kidnappers!’

You could still be wrong…


John asked:

How ‘universalizable’ does the categorical imperative need to be, i.e. what counts as a relevantly similar circumstance?

Let’s imagine a woman who is in the middle of her Ph.D. and waist-deep in student debt. She discovers she’s pregnant and wants an abortion. The first categorical imperative seems to forbid this, since if every rational agent had an abortion every time, the human species would go extinct. But I’ve heard and read the first categorical imperative articulated such that it takes into account ‘relevantly similar circumstances,’ entailing, I assume, that we only need to universalize this rule to all rational agents who are in such-and-such a financial/ educational situation.

But how fine-grained should we get about this, given that no two situations are 100% identical? The extreme of this would mean that ‘rules’ would be ‘universalized’ only to particular people in particular places at particular times, e.g. ‘All rational agents with X DNA code at Y location at Z time should commit X action.’ Since this would entail cutthroat self-interest, we’d obviously want to disregard circumstances like these, but on what grounds?

So I guess my question really amounts to: how can one identify relevant circumstances, and thereby determine how general or specific the categorical imperative must be, and can one do this within the categorical imperative (i.e. without resorting to consequentialism, etc.)?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’ll stay with your example. Kant’s Categorical Imperative in its first formulation states, ‘Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.’ In this form it appears identical to the Universalizability Principle (see the previous post The ethics of immigration raids).

However, Kant interprets the Categorical Imperative in a much stronger way, as one can see from later formulations leading up to, ‘Act as a lawmaking member of the Kingdom of Ends’ which makes explicit a strong teleological element that is missing from the first formulation. As this is more controversial, let’s put this on one side for the moment and concentrate on the first formulation.

An error often made with the Categorical Imperative is thinking that it can be applied in the same way as a litmus test (pink for acid, blue for alkali). Just plug in your proposed course of action and see whether it is ‘universalizable’. As you point out, everything turns on what words you use to describe what you intend to do.

Kant talks about the ‘maxim’ of one’s action. It is important that your maxim includes the motive for your proposed action, and not simply a description of the action itself. So, for example, ‘I need an abortion because I don’t want to ruin my figure’, is a different motive from, ‘I need an abortion because I am waist-deep in debt and want to finish my PhD.’

Maybe both of these actions are right, or maybe both wrong. Or maybe one is right and one is wrong — how do we decide?

It is possible to make further distinctions within these two examples, but the point is that each increase in ‘fineness of grain’ has to be linked to a plausible reason. ‘I need an abortion because I want one and its Tuesday,’ will not do, nor will, ‘I need an abortion because I want one and my social security number is 12344321.’ Kant doesn’t state this explicitly, but there is a question of onus involved. You need to give a reason for undertaking the proposed action that is recognizable as a reason, and not just some arbitrary fact like the day of the week or your social security number.

Now we’ve got something to work with. I have no comment to make regarding whether ‘preserving one’s figure’ or ‘finishing my PhD’ are good reasons or not. I don’t recall any place where Kant explicitly discusses abortion but I believe it is quite likely that Kant would have viewed it in the same way as he views telling a lie: it is unjustified in any circumstances whatsoever.

The general point, however, is that rather than applying a litmus test we are challenging the agent, putting the onus on them to give a reason for the proposed action that is defensible as such. Kant was a supporter of the death penalty. So ‘I propose to take a life,’ is an action that is defensible if you are an executioner and the life belongs to a convicted murderer, because it’s your job. On the other hand, ‘I propose to take a life,’ is an action that is indefensible if you are pregnant and the life belongs to your unborn child.

Is that a reasonable view? On the face of it, a ‘defensible reason’ is in the eye of the beholder. What is the purpose of human life? Why are we here? Kant has an answer: we are rational beings and rationality is an end in itself. This leads to the final, teleological formulation of the Categorical Imperative in terms of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’. Without this further element, the Categorical Imperative is toothless on the abortion question.


Philosophizer by Geoffrey Klempner

'Philosophizer' by Geoffrey Klempner


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