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Richard asked:

I was wondering if you know how to give a good reaction on arguments like these, when debating over the claim that scientists need philosophy to interpret their data.

1. Philosophy is great at asking questions. Science is great at answering them. (From Lawrence Krauss.)

2. Philosophy is dead. (From Stephen Hawking.)

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Professor Stephen Hawking is on record as stating, ‘Philosophy is dead.’ I’m not sure whether your statement in 1. is a direct quote from Krauss. Maybe, it’s some commentator’s gloss on what he claims. (The quote was not in Google when I searched.)

On the face of it the two claims seem to be in flat-out contradiction. If philosophy is dead then surely it can’t be ‘great’ at anything, or for anything. However, the distance between these is less than first appears. Science is the place you go to answer questions, not philosophy. The notion that philosophy can be a source of knowledge has, in Hawking’s view, been exploded. Whatever questions they may raise, Philosophers don’t discover new knowledge. Ergo, philosophy is useless. In other words, dead.

If you are looking for places where interesting questions are raised, science fiction has always been a great resource. No need for philosophers there. (Although some of the best writers had a strong inclination towards philosophy, e.g. Philip K. Dick.) Anyone can raise a question, can’t they? Why are philosophers even needed, if that’s all they’re good at?

Philosophers of science would say they are not attempting to do science from an armchair. Their questions have a different character. While physicists and cosmologists formulate theories and discover laws, they ask what is a ‘theory’ or a ‘law’. Philosophy makes progress, not by discovering new ‘facts’ but by deepening our understanding, clarifying the concepts that pass as common currency in the pursuit of empirical knowledge.

— Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is the still popular conception first expressed by John Locke back in the seventeenth century, when he said in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ‘It is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish which lies in the way to knowledge.’

The problem is that it’s not much fun being a lowly underlabourer. I don’t think Locke really thought that of himself. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a classic contribution to the foundations of empiricism, a bold, epoch-making theory about the scope and limits of human knowledge, which has things to say about the foundational building blocks of existence itself: how we are to conceive of the very nature of reality. In other words, a metaphysic.

As a metaphysician, I can appreciate the empiricist Locke. I can also appreciate the contribution of the physical sciences to our knowledge of our world and its innermost workings. But, for me, there are other questions that simply do not fit in this picture. Seemingly unanswerable questions, but no less important (to me, at any rate) for all that.

What is the point of asking unanswerable questions? What does the term ‘unanswerable question’ even mean? I could say, ‘read my books’, or watch my first YouTube video, Why am I here? But maybe you would be more impressed if I told you, simply that this is my life. The unanswerable questions are the only questions that really grip me. Everything else — philosophy of science included — is merely humdrum. Just waiting.

Jeff asked:

I am 65 years old and still struggling with philosophy.

I started with Father Copleston’s volumes on The History of Philosophy — struggled.

Thinking about taking a course with the University of Edinburgh — time is running out to decide. Please help me with a book that will help me to understand and help me progress with other books or courses. Please help!!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Every student starting out with philosophy is different, so I am not going to recommend a specific book for you to read. Age is not an issue. (Craig Skinner , one of the members of the Ask a Philosopher panel, gained his Philosophy BA in his 70s.) However, you could start by looking at our Pathways to Philosophy Introductory Book List. Use the comments as a guide and look up the reviews on Amazon — just to get a sense of a selection of books you might like.

I have never attempted to read Copleston, although this evening I did look up the article in Wikipedia which states:

“Throughout the eleven volumes Copleston’s Roman Catholic (Thomist) point of view is never hidden. All the same, it seems generally accepted that Copleston’s treatment is fair and complete, even for philosophical positions that he does not support.”

It’s not that I have anything against Jesuit Priests. Life is too short. Eleven volumes! But I totally understand the desire to tackle something ‘big’. I started off hunking Benjamin Jowett’s Collected Dialogues of Plato and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from Swiss Cottage Library, London.

I didn’t read the tomes. I dipped. I picked things that looked interesting. They gave me a sense of what an incredible, huge subject Philosophy is. Endlessly deep, seemingly impossible to master.

As I seem to recall, the first book I actually read all the way through was A.J. Ayer Language, Truth and Logic. It’s a young man’s book, published when Ayer was just 26. I was 21, so there was a connection there. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a book for you, but you might see it in a different light. (Still worth a look, though.)

But why even make the effort to tackle a subject, if you know in advance (or fear) that you will be struggling with it? Maybe you won’t be the best philosophy student or get a First Class BA, but would that be so bad? I have interests that I pursue, knowing I will never ‘get good’. But that doesn’t deter me from enjoying the challenge.

Take the University of Edinburgh course. You will not be the only one struggling, I promise. What you will gain is a sense of cameraderie that only philosophy students know. There is nothing better or more worth doing than philosophy. Without philosophy, all the learning in the world would not be worth a damn. (That was said by some famous Greek — I don’t remember who.)

Whatever philosophy book you pick, you will struggle. You had better struggle, because otherwise it’s almost a foregone conclusion that you’re missing something. That’s why books that seem easy to read can sometimes be the hardest. You skate over the ideas, but none of them really grabs you.

As time is short, I would pick a shorter rather than a longer book. Something you can read in a week or two, if you make the effort. — Go for it!

Hubertus asked:

In view of Hitler or Trump, by what criteria — if any — would you call a person or its ardent followers sane or insane? Or don’t you see any difference between, say, Jesus and his followers and Hitler and his followers? Are there no valid criteria?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

First off, allow me to decline your invitation to share my views about Hitler, President Trump, or Jesus Christ. Except to say that there are readers of this page who are neither ardent or fanatical, who think that Trump is a good guy, and there are also readers of this page who think that Jesus was actually not such a good guy.

Seven decades after the end of WWII it is still politically incorrect to say anything good about Hitler or his followers. Few would doubt that Hitler was evil. But what is really scary is that many of his followers were ordinary people, decent folks who helped their neighbours and were kind to animals.

Sanity/ insanity is a much abused distinction — witness the Soviet treatment of dissidents. Anyone who objects to communism must be insane, mustn’t they? I would be very careful bandying that label!

Charles Manson, who died just a few days ago, would be a better example. Were his followers insane? If the answer to that is, No, then you really couldn’t have a better case. Were they brainwashed? Is being brainwashed a form of insanity? Certainly, if the result is that you become a jibbering idiot (as in the movie The Ipcress Files, 1965). But if it’s just another name for indoctrination, then you would have to call a large proportion of the human population ‘insane’.

Being ‘ardent’ or ‘fanatical’ isn’t a form of insanity. It’s one of the normal ways in which human beings express themselves. Normality is a spectrum. It is normal to be what some would term ‘irrational’ about some person or topic. Having the power of reason doesn’t entail that an individual is particularly good at reasoning, or that they are what you or I would call a ‘reasonable’ person.

And even if you are a ‘reasonable’ person who is ‘good at reasoning’, there may still be particular things — in fact, there probably are — which you are irrational about. (Call me irrational, but I won’t listen to any argument, however persuasive, for the view that Eric Clapton wasn’t the greatest rock guitarist of all time.)

What is the difference between the people who followed Jesus and the people who followed Hitler? Do I have to say? We admire those who preach love, and despise those who preach hatred. But don’t you hate Hitler and the Nazis? At least you can say you hate what they did, even if you are willing to extend to them Christian ‘love’.

If you are looking for criteria for sanity, there’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Evil isn’t listed in the manual because it isn’t a form of insanity. There’s a lot of evil about. Sad to say, evil and malice are natural human tendencies, a place on the spectrum of normality.

Reghu asked:

How far is Strawson’s theory of Persons a critique of Hume’s theory of Self?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was looking for my old copy of P.F. Strawson’s Individuals: An essay in descriptive metaphysics (1959) which discusses Strawson’s view of ‘Person’ as a ‘primitive concept’, in Chapter 3. Then I did a search on the internet and found his paper, ‘Persons’ published in the Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. II (1958) at http:mcps.umn.edu/assets/pdf/2.7_Strawson.pdf. This looks to be a fuller treatment.

Here’s a quote from the concluding section:

“What I have been mainly arguing for is that we should acknowledge the logical primitiveness of the concept of a person and, with this, the unique logical character of certain predicates [viz. psychological predicates]. Once this is acknowledged, certain traditional philosophical problems are seen not to be problems at all. In particular, the problem that seems to have perplexed Hume does not exist — the problem of the principle of unity, of identity, of the particular consciousness, of the particular subject of ‘perceptions’ (experiences) considered as a primary particular. There is no such problem and no such principle. If there were such a principle, then each of us would have to apply it in order to decide whether any contemporary experience of his was his or someone else’s; and there is no sense in this suggestion.”

In the five decades since those words were written, it is fair to say that not many philosophers have taken up Strawson’s idea that the concept of a person is ‘primitive’. Various approaches have been taken to the problem of identifying/ defining ‘self’, the most popular being materialism. According to materialists, there are not two ‘kinds’ of ‘basic particulars’ (to use Strawson’s terminology), spatio-temporal continuants and persons but only one: spatio-temporal continuants, i.e., material entities. Some of these material entities are so internally configured that they have the property of being conscious. The problem of accounting for consciousness is still a major topic of debate at the present time, as is the problem of accounting for the criteria of personal identity.

I have recently expressed scepticism about materialism (Philosophy Pathways 213 Special mind-body dualism issue) but for the sake of this answer I will leave the question open.

First point of disagreement: I don’t read Hume’s ‘perplexity’ as a failure on his part. He is being ironic, at the expense of the Cartesian dualist. When I look into myself (says Hume), no ‘self’ (no soul substance) is to be found. However, Hume has a perfectly workable (in fact, brilliant) alternative theory of how the self is constructed, as what one might term a ‘virtual object’ of knowledge. Here is my take on this:

There is no immaterial ‘self’, but there are ‘ideas’, conceived as discrete, incorrigible mental events. These events form ‘bundles’ according to the following logical principle: If mental event A is co-present with B, and B is co-present with C, then A is co-present with C. (Co-presence is the ‘primitive’ concept.) When are two mental events co-present? An example would be, if I currently have a mental picture of the Eiffel Tower, and simultaneously hear the singing (Humean ‘impression’) of a blackbird outside my window. Let’s say that at the same time, I also experience a twinge of back pain. The three mental events form a ‘bundle’.

Over time, new mental events are added to the bundle and other mental events are discarded. What we term ‘personal identity’ is just the continuity of the bundle — like a flock of birds growing and shrinking as birds join or leave the flock. Memory plugs the gaps of unconsciousness when no mental events are occurring. (Memories are just more ‘ideas’ on Hume’s theory.) That’s it. The self, and personal identity, are ‘virtual’ in the sense explained: they are merely logical constructions. There is no mental ‘reality’ beyond the flux of impressions and ideas.

The weakest link in Hume’s theory is the Cartesian notion that mental events are ‘incorrigible’, a notion critiqued by Wittgenstein in his argument against a Private Language in Philosophical Investigations. But Strawson doesn’t like Wittgenstein’s solution to the problem of explaining how self-ascription of psychological states (such as ‘I am in pain’) is possible. According to Wittgenstein, ‘My back hurts,’ is not a statement with truth conditions but merely an ‘expression of pain’. Strawson calls this the ‘no-ownership view’, which he finds counter-intuitive. Surely if I say my back hurts and you say, ‘GK’s back hurts’ we are saying the same thing about the same thing? We are both making statements with the same truth conditions.

How would Wittgenstein respond to this criticism? Say what you like, it makes no difference to what is actually taking place. There is a huge asymmetry between the first-person and third-person case, but if you want to paper over the crack and call it ‘saying the same thing (is in pain) about the same thing (GK)’ you can, and no-one will contradict you. That’s how we actually talk, that is our ‘conceptual scheme’ to use Strawson’s terminology. Wittgenstein would add that it is part of our ‘form of life’ that we don’t stop to puzzle over the asymmetry of the first- and third-person case — until we are tempted into doing philosophy.

Asserting that the concept of a person is ‘primitive’, in effect ruling out any further attempts at analysis or theory, achieves nothing of substance. The deep philosophical problem remains, how it is possible that there could be such a thing as ‘being in pain’ or ‘being a person’.

As I said, that’s just my take. It remains the case that P.F. Strawson’s Individuals is one of the most important works of 20th century analytic philosophy, which ought to be on every Metaphysics reading list.

Julian asked:

Can we literally perceive ‘value’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

My first thought is, Why the qualification ‘literally’? What does it really add to the question?

The reasoning must go something like this. Of course, there’s a ‘sense in which’ we make many value judgements without first engaging in a process of ratiocination. We ‘see’ that a job has been well done, or that a person deserves our help. Or we ‘hear’ that a cover version of a well-known song adds or subtracts to the quality of the original. Moreover, these value perceptions are not random or arbitrary but given extra weight by agreement with others in a large proportion of cases.

The problem is that someone who holds a subjectivist view of value judgements can agree with all that. David Hume remarked on the way we naturally ‘project’ our subjectivist preferences onto things, giving raise to the illusion that our value judgements correspond to something real, in addition to the physical properties of the objects we ‘literally’ perceive.

Well? Is there something there? What would count as a good argument for the existence of an objective ‘something’ over and above the physical properties of objects?

Three disparate thinkers who come to mind in relation to this question are Iris Murdoch (The Sovereignty of Good, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals), Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Lila) and John McDowell (in his seminal article ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, 1978, responding to Phillipa Foot ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, 1972).

I’ve chosen these three because they present arguments that are substantive and challenging, rather than merely shuffling around ideas about what is ‘subjective’, ‘intersubjective’ or genuinely (‘literally’) objective. As a subjectivist about values, I am willing to admit the possibility that I may be wrong, that I may have underestimated the strength of one or more of the arguments presented below for the objective view.

First, Murdoch. In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch emphasizes the compelling phenomenology of value perception which totally at odds with what she sees as the only alternative to a Platonic, objective view: the existentialism of Sartre and Heidegger. The reader is invited to recoil at the horrors of embracing the existentialist position that we ‘create’ our own values through our own free, unconstrained choice.

I am moved by this, but merely alluding to the phenomenology (viz. Hume) is not enough to convince me. Psychologically, I am fully willing to admit that I could not stand back from my life and ‘choose’ any values I liked. But existentialism does not require this. All it requires is the logical possibility that a situation could arise which led me to reassess the value I had previously placed on something, for example, the value of human life. Maybe it would take a science fiction scenario that is very unlikely to arise in the real world. Thank goodness for that! is all I can say.

The merit in Pirsig’s position is that he is prepared to embrace the metaphysical view that what he terms ‘Quality’ is more real than mere facts. Right from the start, our very ability to discern objects or deal with our environment requires ‘quality perception’ or focus on what is essential or important, for example, an innate sense of what it is to perform an action well or badly. Factual knowledge and ratiocination come after.

In his Metaphysics of Quality, ultimate reality IS Quality, which Pirsig says is the source of both ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’. Here, Pirsig steps outside the American pragmatist tradition (Dewey, James) who would give cautious approval to the idea that ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ arise out of our sense of what works well or badly in practice. All I can say is that I am not convinced, either by the traditional pragmatist view or the metaphysical add-on. If Plato’s ‘Forms’ really did exist then we would surely have to be objectivists about values, and similarly with Pirsig’s ‘Quality’. But that is the very proposition that needs to be established. Failing that, all that one has to fall back on is the phenomenology, or what value perception ‘seems like’. That’s not enough.

McDowell’s case that moral values are a kind of ‘secondary quality’ like colours or tastes or smells has the merit of emphasizing our embeddedness in a Wittgensteinian ‘form of life’. Someone who was unable to agree with our moral judgements would necessarily lack the powers of discrimination that we possess. Ethically, they would suffer from the equivalent of ‘colour blindness’. In other words, there is something there, in reality, that they cannot perceive.

But must this necessarily be the case? The stakes have been raised, but the moral sceptic has a response. Grant that a true monster of moral nihilism, in order to function successfully in human society — undetected, hypocritically ‘agreeing’ and ‘disagreeing’ with our moral judgements without actually believing in them — would need to have undergone induction into our ‘form of life’, training in ethical perception. Having undergone the training, however, in principle they would be free to cast aside all they had learned without losing the ability to anticipate accurately what ‘mere’ humans would judge to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

As I said, I could be wrong in my assessment of any one of these three thinkers, all of them deserving of the greatest respect. Or, maybe I’m wrong about all three. Also, that is not to rule out that there may be other arguments that I have not considered. At present, however, my view is that we do not literally perceive values, even though it seems to us, phenomenologically, ‘as if’ we do.

Diana asked:

How does an appeal to Ockham’s Razor favor the materialist over immaterialism?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is such a preposterous lie, Diana.

Let’s keep things simple. According to the materialist, physical entities — or conditions, or posits — are all that is ultimately real. They exist as a fact. We needn’t enquire how such a ‘fact’ came about because facts end where science ends. Whatever ‘is’, is whatever is posited by the currently accepted physical theory.

The immaterialist (on the simple version) accepts all of this but then adds something on top: physical entities in space are not all that is ultimately real. They are merely ‘appearances’ (Kant) or ‘ideas’ (Berkeley). Appearances can’t just appear by themselves, they must be OF something. Ideas can’t just float free, they must be IN something.

So, according to Kant, appearances are ‘of’ something beyond the reach of human experience, something that we cannot even conceptualize: the realm of ‘noumena’ or ‘things in themselves’. According to Berkeley, the ‘ideas’ we experience exist as ‘archetypes’ in the mind of God. (There are over versions of idealism or immaterialism but similar points apply.)

Well, it looks like the immaterialist is committed to a hell of a lot more than the materialist is committed to, so doesn’t that mean that if you apply Ockham’s Razor — reduce the minimum the number of posits in a theory — that materialism wins hands down?

No, it doesn’t. For one very simple reason. William of Ockham intended his principle to apply to two rival theories that are assumed to be otherwise equal as explanations or ‘best explanations’. Theory 1 posits x unexplained entities, theory 2 posits y unexplained entities. If x is greater than y, then ceteris paribus or other things being equal, theory 2 is to be preferred to theory 1.

But other things are not equal. The materialist has completely baulked the question, Why is there anything at all? Why is there not Nothing? Facts are facts, existence exists, the materialist says, we don’t need to go beyond facts or physical existence. The immaterialist laughs at the materialist’s naivete. The immaterialist’s theory explains more, so naturally you’d expect it to assume more.

Now, you are perfectly entitled to say that you don’t accept or agree with the immaterialist’s ambitions. The notion that there is ultimately something ‘beyond facts’, something with the essential character of reason or necessity or purpose may leave you completely cold. That’s a ground for being a materialist. But in making that decision you’re not applying Ockham’s Razor, because the two rival theories aren’t comparable in that way. They’re apples and oranges, not two different varieties of apple.

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