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Sunday, 30 August 2009

where i've been

sorry for the long gap between posts...

its been a busy time moving house and i have been busy on some other projects.

in the pipeline are some transcripts of teachings i am doing from some mini-discs i have on Buddhist Tantric practice...unfortunately these are only going to be available to those who have recieved the necessary initiations.

Also on the backburner at present is a kind of open letter to the people of earth, in which i try to put the world to rights by way of a "to whom it may concern" type compaint letter....i see it more as an ongoing project, since the section on religeon, atheism, religious conflict and the middle east ran to about a chapter in length. its going to take heavy editing and im trying to avoid it being just a rant; ideally if i put a few simple well thought ideas out there that make a difference then it's done its job. i don't intend it to be a serious piece of social political philosophy but i would like to integrate some of my own philosophical perspective into it. In essence i want to force myself to examine where, what i see as problems in mainstream western philosophy, have engendered an outlook that is at the very root of many of the problems experienced by many of us during our short time on this tiny lump of rock orbiting the sun....and more importantly to apply what little understanding i have of buddhist philosophy to providing some simple things we can all do to make those around us and thereby ourselves, a little happier. Don't worry i know how presumptuous all that sounds but its just something i want to try mainly in order to think it all through myself. it may never see the light of day...

none of that has anything to do with reviewing crap movies in a comical fashion but maybe i'll get round to that at some point too

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Can we give a good explication of what scientific method is?

Can we give a good explication of what scientific method is?

A well known answer to this question is proposed by Paul Feyerabend in his text “Against method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge” (1975) published shortly after his brief tenure as a visiting lecturer at the University of Sussex. In it he answers with a resounding “No” and argues that there is no specific scientific method that, if strictly adhered to, would not at some point have prevented significant advances. This claim is not entirely baseless. What I intend to show in this essay, is that at least two attempts to refute Feyerabend’s controversial views, whilst having some merit, still fall short of giving us reason to believe that a good explication of the scientific method could ever be possible.

It would not be unfair to describe a good ‘explication of scientific method’ as the Holy Grail for philosophers of science. There is good reason for this; as Feyerabend puts it:

“ if science had found a method that turns ideological contaminated ideas into true and useful theories, then it is indeed not mere ideology, but an objective measure of all ideologies” (Feyerabend. P. in Newton-Smith, 1981 p.144)

The logical positivists attempted to provide such an explication by demonstrating that ‘science is derived from facts.’ Due to the problematic nature of facts, in so far as they are theory dependant and fallible, this attempt proved unsuccessful. Falsificationism had similar difficulties in giving a complete explication of scientific method because whilst it provided some account of a method for distinguishing science from non-science, it failed spectacularly in any real situation to provide a method for determining decisive falsifications, much as logical positivism had done when seeking to provide decisive confirmations. Such failures prompted some thinkers of the time to conclude that such a method was impossible to find.

Kuhn’s paradigmatic model of science opened the door to relativism and one thinker to leap through it enthusiastically was Paul Feyerabend. Both Kuhn and Feyerabend coined the term ‘incommensurability’ independently to describe the impossibility of basing theory choice on experimental evidence where there was no shared theoretical framework. Where Kuhn sought to rescue science from absolute relativism, (restricting the non-scientific decision making to times of paradigm shift, whilst leaving periods of normal science wherein some form of scientific method would be followed) Feyerabend, conversely, embraces the idea of relativism. His view is that because in such situations of paradigm shift, theory choice is determined not by any special scientific method but by passion, belief or other socio-political factors; ‘it is very difficult to find wish-independent arguments for their acceptability.’(Feyerabend in Newton-Smith 1981. p.126)

For Feyerabend, relativism applies not just to theory choice but to the entire epistemic practice of science; to Feyerabend the times of normal science would base their methodology on the dominant theories of the paradigm and therefore be as contaminated with beliefs and superstitions as the theory choice itself. Additionally he argues that “…there is not a single rule, however plausible, and however firmly grounded in epistemology, that is not violated at some time or other.”(Feyerabend in Newton-Smith 1981, pp128) He refutes the idea of a system of rules, or universal scientific method that guide scientists in their theory choices.

“According to him no such system of rules can be found and to adopt any particular rules or methodology can only have the effect of impeding scientific progress” (Newton-Smith 1981 p.126).

He argues that universal rules governing scientific method, if there are any, can only be phrased so loosely so as to rule nothing out. Feyerabend’s view is perhaps best stated;

“the only principle that does not inhibit progress: anything goes.” (Feyerabend in Newton Smith 1981 p.126)

This is far from an explication of scientific method. It is however a bold claim and his arguments for epistemological anarchism do merit some attention.

There is little doubt that his arguments in Against Method make for compelling reading and provoke interesting questions, but do they stand up to scrutiny, and more importantly, do they satisfactorily rule out the possibility of an explication of scientific method? One thinker who feels this is not the case is W.H. Newton-Smith, writing in his book The Rationality of Science (1981) (Chapter VI - Feyerabend the Passionate Liberal). He finds Feyerabend’s account to be inconsistent and ill-founded and takes issue with several points. At times Newton-Smith’s criticisms do little more than cite one of Feyerabend’s conclusions (e.g. witchcraft and acupuncture should be given equal status as science) and claim it is ridiculous by appealing to the same sensibilities in the reader that Feyerabend seeks to free them from.(e.g. because that wouldn’t be rational to give them equal status, because science is based on fact) Feyerabend’s point is that it is rational; and it is when Newton-Smith looks at his reasons for claiming this, that Newton-Smith’s objections move beyond mere rhetoric and address some salient flaws. The strategy he employs to greatest success in this endeavour is to try and find contradiction within Feyerabend’s writings.

One argument posed by Newton-Smith is along these lines;

“The considerations that incline Feyerabend to view that science is ideology would equally incline him to view that philosophy as ideological. Consequently one is inclined to ask what can possibly be the force of his arguments about the science of nature” (Newton-Smith 1981 p.127)

It is my feeling that this is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Feyerabend at no point says that ideologies have no epistemic value. What he is claiming is that as an ideology, science has no purely objective grounds wherein it can measure either itself of other ideologies precisely because it lacks this special method for turning ideological views into true and useful theories that would distinguish it from other ideologies, as in the opening quote of this essay. He is therefore not using his (philosophical) ideology ex hypothesi to refute another (scientific) one as Newton-Smith claims. Feyerabend of all people would admit freely that there is a reasonable degree of incommensurability between two such ideologies. What he instead highlights is that science has no grounds upon which it can base a claim to be more than mere ideology. True; there is no basis for one ideology to make objectively valid criticisms of another ideology but Feyerabend’s criticisms are based not on such as false comparison. He is pointing out that science itself is unable to make such criticisms of ideologies and demonstrate its inherent superiority precisely because it is merely an ideology. Feyerabend makes no claim to have some philosophical objective measure of the value of conflicting ideologies. He makes no claim to the superiority of any ideology, even philosophy, precisely because he already understands that for anyone to make such a claim requires “a method that turns ideological contaminated ideas into true and useful theories…(so that it can become)…an objective measure of all ideologies”. Feyerabend does not claim to have such a method. He is simply indicating that neither does science. His reasons for this need not be philosophical. The failure of scientists, working within their own ideological frameworks, to find such a universal method leaves science without a means of positing its own superiority to mere ideology. Feyerabend needs to make no such argument because science’s own failure to deduce an objectively valid universal scientific method, is all he needs to cite when he claims it is no more than an ideology.

Another attack on Feyerabend is the accusation that in looking for an exceptionless method, he is asking too much;

“Thus Feyerabend’s easy defeat of a straw man (the rationalist who believes in infallible exceptionless rules) is construed by him as a victory over a real man (the rationalist who believes in general guiding fallible principles of comparison) who is in fact enlisted in the battle with the straw man!” (Newton-Smith 1981 pp.134-5)

I think this is actually the point at which Newton-Smith unwittingly concedes the argument in Feyerabend’s favour. Why? Because infallible exceptionless rules are the only sort that are going to give absolute guarantees of the validity of their outcome, and more importantly for the purposes of this question, are the only sort of rules that could be employed in an explication of scientific method. Anything less than infallible and exceptionless rules are only sufficient for an explanation; without a set of meta-rules governing the times when such rules need to be considered fallible or to be exceptional cases there is nothing approaching the required degree of rigour to qualify as an explication, rather than a more general explanation. Newton-Smith’s concession that there are no exceptionless rules pays into Feyerabend’s hands.

For an explication of Scientific method to be possible, in my view, it would have to be possible to give an account of the rules of investigation that can be applied in any situation, i.e. be universal. When Newton-Smith accepts that science has no such universal rules all he is left with are guidelines with no explicable superstructure to indicate where and when to follow which advice. The exceptions that Newton-Smith permits become the open door through which Feyerabend’s claims of subjectivity and personal preference manage to thrust their foot. Once that foot is in the door, Newton-Smith seems unable to provide us with reason to believe that an explication of scientific method is possible. At best he leaves the door open for a general explanation, but to explicate requires a universal means of determining what exceptions are to be made and when. Newton-Smith gives no reason to believe this is possible and therefore can only be said to concede that no good explication of scientific method is possible.

Feyerabend’s attack on method when viewed through Newton-Smith’s critical eye does not rule out the possibility of giving an explanation of scientific method but such an explanation could only ever be a general one and certainly not universal. Furthermore, Newton-Smith does not offer an explanation or explication of scientific method he merely challenges Feyerabend’s arguments against method while failing to show a method or demonstrate that such an explication could ever be possible. A.F. Chalmers, in “What is this thing Called Science?” takes a slightly different approach;

“I have no problem joining the campaign that Feyerabend launched against method… provided method is understood as universal, unchanging method…However, universal method and no method at all do not exhaust the range of possibilities. A middle way would hold that there are methods and standards in science, but that they can vary from science to science and can, within a science, be changed, and changed for the better.” (Chalmers 1999 p.162)

He then rather puzzlingly gives an argument by John Worrall (1988) against such a middle way!;

“If I am to defend a change in scientific method in a way that avoids extreme relativism then I am obliged to show in what way such a change is for the better. But better according to what standards? It would seem that unless there are some superstandards for judging changes in standards then those changes cannot be construed in a non-relativist way. But superstandards takes us back to the universal method that is meant to yield such standards. So, Worrall’s argument goes, either we have universal method or relativism. There is no middle way.” (Chalmers 1999 p.162-3)

In the following chapter of his book, Chalmers attempts an explanation of his middle way, based on an idea of gradual methodical change. He bases his explanation around Galileo just as Feyerabend does, and in particular he focuses on the methodical change from using naked eye data to telescopic data. He considers the change to be both progressive and rational but it enables him to give little more than a general explanation of scientific method.

To Feyerabend, Popper’s ideas if employed were so restrictive as to slow the growth of, if not kill off entire areas of inquiry, and where Lakatos developed these ideas into the more sophisticated ‘methodology of scientific research programmes’ his work is seen by Feyerabend to contain unfounded value judgements about what qualifies as good methodical practice or conversely to provide guidelines so lax as to rule nothing out. It was for this reason that Feyerabend often jokingly referred to Lakatos as a fellow anarchist (much to the latter’s annoyance.) It seems that Feyerabend, like Chalmers, tries to find a middle way and quickly realises that such a middle way requires superstandards that make anything more rigorous than a mere explanation impossible. Whilst a good explication of scientific method may be possible there is little reason to believe such a view in light of Feyerabend’s work. What Newton-Smith and Chalmers do succeed in rescuing is the possibility of a general explanation filled with seemingly ad hoc exceptions, but this falls far short of the explication one would expect as a justification for science’s status as a measure of all ideologies for it is fallible and has no way of knowing objectively where exceptions to its general methodology will be found.


Chalmers, A. (1999) What is this thing called science? (3rd Edition). Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis.

Newton-Smith. W.H. (1981) The Rationality of Science (1st Edition), Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, London and Henley

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Critically assess Mavrodes’ solution to the paradox of the stone.

Jon Carberry

Mavrodes’ solution to the paradox of the stone is an argument that seeks to invalidate the paradox as a means of undermining the doctrine of omnipotence. Attempts have been made to refute the doctrine of omnipotence by finding examples of things God cannot do, for example drawing a square circle or creating a stone which he cannot lift (or in an episode of “The Simpsons”; “…microwave a burrito so hot that he cannot eat it”). The idea of God being able to draw a square circle is obviously and easily dismissible a priori on the grounds that it is a self contradictory idea. It is not possible for anyone to draw a square circle because such a thing cannot exist. The definition of a circle precludes any possibility of a circle ever being square, in the same way as a square, being defined by its four straight equal sides, joined at corners of precisely 90°, cannot be circular. The paradox of the stone is not so obviously contradictory; however there are contradictions within the paradox and Mavrodes correctly indicates some of these.

The contradiction of asking an all powerful being to create a situation which requires a limit of their power (namely, to create a stone that exceeds their (omnipotent) power to lift) is every bit as contradictory as the square circle. What is essentially being asked of God is that he not only creates the stone but surrenders his omnipotent power so as to render himself unable to lift it (omnipotence, implying that he can lift anything, and is unable to lift no thing) assuming he intends to create a stone which he cannot lift. Certainly for God to create a stone which he cannot lift goes no way towards proving his omnipotence because it would cost him his omnipotence in order to satisfy the demands of the argument.

What Mavrodes suggests, is that to say “God cannot create a stone so heavy that he is unable to lift it” does no damage to the doctrine of omnipotence. He seeks to demonstrate this by firstly setting down parameters; either God is omnipotent, or he is not.

Mavrodes assumes in the first instance that God is not omnipotent and on this basis, points out that “a stone too heavy for God to lift” is not necessarily self contradictory. My power to lift is limited as I am not omnipotent, so it is well within the realms of possibility that I could create something that is beyond my ability to lift. Therefore for a limited God, the ability to create a stone that is too heavy to be lifted is not contradictory. In fact, the only being that would be unable to make such a stone is a being that is able to lift anything. The paradox sets out a task that only an omnipotent being could fail! One could say it is a unique characteristic of non-omnipotent beings that there are things they are unable to do. This characteristic cannot be shared by omnipotent beings precisely because the one thing they lack is a limit to their abilities (other than the limit of what is actually possible and not self contradictory) by definition. As Mavrodes correctly indicates, if we start with the assumption that God is not omnipotent then whether he is able (to create the stone but unable to lift it) or unable to create such a stone, all that is proved is that he is not omnipotent which is the assumption that we started with. The argument is circular in the instance of a non-omnipotent god.

In the second instance, Mavrodes presupposes that God is omnipotent. He states;
“On the assumption that God is omnipotent, the phrase ‘a stone too heavy for God to lift’ becomes self contradictory. For it becomes ‘a stone which cannot be lifted by him whose power is sufficient for lifting anything’…” (Mavrodes, 1963)
demonstrating that for an omnipotent being there is no such thing as a stone they cannot lift, nor could there ever be. Although for a limited being, the idea of something too massive to lift is an everyday reality, this is not the case for those whose power is in no way limited. Because there is no thing that an omnipotent cannot lift, for an omnipotent, such a stone is contradictory and so under St. Thomas Aquinas’ solution to the issue of the square circle, the paradox vanishes in an instant because the doctrine of omnipotence makes no claim about God’s ability to perform self contradictory tasks. It should also be noted at this point that this argument also appears to be circular (a point Mavrodes seemingly misses);
(A) 1. God is omnipotent.
2. Omnipotent beings are capable of performing any task (other than that which is self contradictory).
3. For an omnipotent being an unliftable stone is self contradictory.
4. Therefore God cannot create a stone that God cannot lift because he cannot perform any self contradictory task.
5. Therefore God is omnipotent.
because points 1 and 5 are identical the conclusion that God is omnipotent depends upon the assumption that he is omnipotent!

One point of Mavrodes article that makes for entertaining reading is the objection that he pre-empts in paragraph 8. He supposes that an objector refuses to accept that the existence of a stone that an omnipotent cannot lift is self contradictory. In such a case the objection collapses under its own weight because if the notion of a stone that an omnipotent cannot lift is not self contradictory, then it is compatible with the existence of an omnipotent being and therefore, for God to create such a stone and be unable to lift it would pose no threat to the notion of his omnipotence because there exists the possibility of a stone that no omnipotent being could lift! Thus allowing God to be unable to lift the stone but remain omnipotent. This only further proves how contradictory the notion of the required stone is, rather than demonstrating anything contradictory about the nature of omnipotence itself.

As delightful in its simplicity as Mavrodes solution appears, a critique of it penned by C. Wade Savage four years later raises further interesting objections to Mavrodes. Although in principle Wade Savage seems to agree with Mavrodes it seems he finds his [Mavrodes] solution to be insufficient. Wade Savage argues that in proving the notion [of a stone that an omnipotent cannot lift] to be self contradictory, Mavrodes has side-stepped an important issue of whether or not the inability to create such a stone (self contradictory or not) implies a limitation on Gods power. Wade Savage restates the paradox in much clearer terms that make no allowance for the get-out clause offered by the idea of an omnipotent being unable to perform self contradictory tasks in (A2). He then offers his own solution to the paradox, best summarised as follows;
“Whether x=y or x≠y, x’s inability to create a stone which y cannot lift constitutes a limitation on x’s power only if (i) x is unable to create stones of any poundage, or (ii) y is unable to lift stones of any poundage. And since either (i) or (ii) may be false, ‘x cannot create a stone which y cannot lift’ does not entail ‘x is limited in power’…” (Wade Savage, 1967)
the interesting thing about this solution is that in the case of x and y being omnipotent (where x=y or x≠y) both (i) and (ii) are false and therefore Gods inability to create a stone that God cannot lift implies no limitation to his powers regardless of whether or not the task is self contradictory.

In his concluding paragraph Mavrodes is keen to point out that his solution makes no judgement on whether or not God is omnipotent or not. “All that I intend to show is that certain arguments intended to prove that he is not omnipotent fail.” (Mavrodes 1963) The paradox in its original form attempts to show that the notion of omnipotence is self contradictory, by unwittingly making a self contradictory demand of omnipotence. Mavrodes’ article makes a useful contribution insofar as it shows the task required in the paradox, to be self contradictory and thereby removes the threat to the doctrine of omnipotence posed by the paradox. I do however share the view of C. Wade Savage that Mavrodes solution does not go far enough to solve all forms of the paradox; however since Mavrodes stated intent was merely to “show that certain forms of argument…fail” he manages to do so adequately within the confines of his own stated version of the paradox.


Mavrodes, George I. “Some Puzzles Concerning Omnipotence”, Philosophical Review 72 (1963) pp. 221-23.

Vitti, J. “Weekend at Burnsie’s” The Simpsons, (2002) Season 13 Episode 11

Wade Savage, C. “The Paradox of the Stone”, Philosophical Review 76 (1967) pp. 74-79.

How does the “mathematization of nature” relate to the concept of the life-world?

The writings of Edmund Husserl, on what he perceived as the ‘Crisis of European Sciences’ contain his views on what he saw as a fundamental problem resulting from over-reliance on objective science, resulting in an overly dismissive attitude from mainstream science, towards the value of subjective experience. In Husserl’s view, science had lost its way. In the wake of the horrors of trench warfare, the first uses of poison gas and other technological advancements in the sphere of mechanised slaughter, the world had arguably witnessed a terrifying vision of what scientific progress could mean, when not used with wisdom. Knowledge of things, without depth of understanding had destructive potential.

Husserl argues in his Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, that many things understood in the ancient pre-scientific past had been forgotten. He claims that the objectivity, so prized in natural sciences, was undoubtedly a useful tool for developing our knowledge of the world we experience. He argues, however, that at some point along the way we forgot that the objective perspective was merely an epistemological tool, and due to the successes that objective-science achieved, it came to be widely regarded as a metaphysical truth; that is to say, the objective view became more than an analytical concept, taking on a reality of its own. The subjective, meanwhile, was relegated to not being objectively verifiable, and thereby not worth scientific consideration. Strict adherents to objectivist views even now argue that subjective consciousness is merely an illusion conjured by the objectively real brain.

Husserl rejects this eliminative reductionism as being inherently flawed. Whilst not dismissing the merits and achievements of objective-science, he wants to remind scientists that the objective viewpoint is a contrivance; that our objective viewpoint is derived not by seeing objectively, but instead by regarding subjective encounters in an objective way. He sees a contradiction in rejecting the value of the subjective when all of our objectively valid scientific principles are established through experiments whose objectively minded observers can only ever experience the results by means of being conscious, being a subject. The (objective) third person perspective is an artificial contrivance; one that scientists extrapolate from their (subjective) first person experience of the world.

The mathematization of nature is an important concept in Husserl’s thought. It describes a historical process that Husserl traces back to the Galileo and the ancient greeks.. It was Galileo who speculated that all things in the natural world could be understood in terms of mathematical formulae. This process of mathematization began with Ancient Greek arithmetic and Geometry; unlike the world which is imperfect, these areas of knowledge work with ideal numbers and shapes. The Greeks found use in these ideals for explaining relations of things in the non-ideal real world. At some point in time Husserl argues that this highly successful technique of applying ideals to the things in the world, became misconstrued. Rather than the ideal numbers and shapes being used merely as a tool, we took them to be a guide to the world of things as they are in themselves. This became the scientific ‘epoche,’ wherein that which could not be accounted for in terms of idealities, was neglected. What was not quantifiable became less real than what was measurable. Objective science became more highly valued than subjective-relative perspectives and over time, this distorted view was taken to be not merely a conceptual tool but an expression of the way things really are. Objective science found that its right hand had forgotten what its left hand was doing; or as Husserl states it:

“…merely subjective relativity is supposedly overcome by objective-logical theory, yet the latter belongs, as the theoretical praxis of human beings, to the merely subjective and relative and at the same time must have its premises, its sources of self-evidence, in the subjective and relative.” (Husserl, 1970, p.170)

Though developed from concepts observed in the life-world- the world that is to hand, the world as we experience it; the mathmatizing tendencies we devised allowed us to extrapolate from subjective experience and formulate an objective model that was useful for scientific progress. At some point we forgot that it was merely a model. The objective impostor usurped subjectivity’s claim to be authoritative. The life-world which Husserl argues is the most real for us as subjects, took second place to the ‘Real’ word which our sciences were now more familiar with. The model became regarded as if it were reality, whilst the reality of the life-world was neglected and dismissed as a metaphor.

“The contrast between the subjectivity of the life-world and the ‘objective,’ the ‘true’ world, lies in the fact that the latter is a theoretical-logical substruction, the substruction of something that is in principle not perceivable, in principle not experienceable in its own proper being, whereas the subjective, in the life-world, is distinguished in all respects precisely by its being actually experiencable.” (Husserl, 1970, p.167)

One may at this point be tempted to ask what the problem is with this misconception. If the objective-scientific model, substructed from the life-world , through the conceptual mathematization, has the greater universal explanatory power, then why does Husserl regard this view as mistaken and fundamental to the perceived crisis?

The answer lies in the domain of epistemic justification. Objective science has forgotten that the most fundamental premises of its arguments are derived not from the objective realm of things as the exist in themselves, but instead from our subjective experience of things as given to us in the life-world. In over-reliance on objectivity and the neglect of the importance of the life-world, objective science leaves itself without the ground upon which its theory-structures are founded. As Husserl expresses it:

“…while the natural scientist is thus interested in the objective and is involved in his activity, the subjective-relative is on the other hand still functioning for him, not as something irrelevant that must be passed through but as that which ultimately grounds the theoretical-logical ontic validity for all verification, i.e. as the source of self-evidence, the source of verification.” (Husserl, 1970, p.166)

Objective science that rejects the reality of the subjective, becomes tautological. It lets go of it connection to the world of experience. In addition to the objective or ‘naturalistic’ scientific attitude science has come to rely upon empirical verifications. Without acknowledging the reality of subjective experience, such verification is impossible. What Husserl is exposing is a double-standard; namely the logical inconsistency of rejecting subjectivity whilst positing claims that rely upon the experience of subjective beings for their verification. The mathematization leads us to take our theoretical metaphors and forget that they are metaphors (as opposed to ontologies):

“The visible measuring scales, scale markings, etc., are used as actually existing things, not as illusions; thus that which actually exists in the life-world, as something valid, is a premise.” (Husserl, 1970, p166)

This is not a rejection of the value of the objective-scientific viewpoint. Husserl is quick to point out that because science and the mathmetization of nature is grounded in the life-world, its insights and their results are experienced in the life-world. What is asserted by Husserl, is a need for re-contextualization of objective science as rooted in the life-world and therefore unable to affirm or refute the existence of such a life world. Science is abstracted from the life-world so it necessarily fails to inform us about that world. We need to:

“…free ourselves from the constant misconstructions which mislead us all because of the scholastic dominance of objective-scientific thinking.”(Husserl, 1970, p.168)

The life-world, (as opposed to the mathematized objective world posited by science as a conceptual tool) is the world in which we live and experience. The objective world, or ‘real’ world posited by science, is the world minus subjectivity, seen in abstraction therefore, from the life-world. Although sciences claims seek their verification in objective observations in reality these are subjective experiences. They occur in the realm of the life world. Objectivism leads one to believe that one is looking at the way things are in themselves, however it is markedly different from anything we have ever observed. As subjective beings it is impossible for us to experience anything as it is in itself. All we ever experience, we experience as subjects:

“The life-world is a realm of original self-evidences. That which is self-evidently given is, in perception, experienced as ‘the thing itself’, in immediate presence, or in memory, remembered as the thing itself; and in every other manner of intuition is a presentation of the thing itself.” (Husserl, 1970, p.167)

In Husserl’s thought, then, it is plain to see that he regards the life-world as the world as it is in itself (complete with consciousness and subjectivity) and the mathematized natural world as an abstraction from this. Objective science has bearing within the world of our lived experience precisely because it is abstracted from such a world:

“The concrete life-world, then, is the grounding soil of the ‘scientifically true’ world and at the same time encompasses its own universal concreteness.” (Husserl, 1970, p.169)

The life-world and mathematized world are intimately related whilst each represents the anti-thesis of the others foundational principles. What Husserl argues for in his work is a synthesis of these two, wherein science is given its due status and recognition, but once more under the auspices of a new revitalised metaphysics.

In many ways it can be argued that Husserl continues the work of Kant. The crisis of metaphysics that arose in response to Hume’s Discourse on Human Nature was a direct result of the mathematization and naturalisation of the life-world. It was in response to this that Kant was faced with the need to justifying metaphysical discussion as more than ‘mere sophistry and illusion’; transcendental idealism was his response. Husserl in many ways simply addresses wider implications of the transcendental aesthetic in such as way as to make the philosophical concerns relevant to positivistic sciences at the time. Therein, Husserl found a deceptively simple counter-argument to the positivistic reductionism that was born out of scientific arrogance. Without taking the life-world into account, the objectively ‘real’ world is an ephemeral non-entity, a phantom that we summoned into being from out of nowhere.


Husserl, E. (1970) The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Are mental properties identical to physical properties?

Last night after doing some preparatory reading for this essay, I went to bed. As I began to drift off, my mind remained on the subject of brain states, mental states, emergent properties and category errors. As my sleep deepened, I gradually became less aware that I was laying in bed thinking. The world familiar to me whilst awake disappeared and due, no doubt, to tiredness and my own inability to think clearly when tired, I completely failed to notice that the waking world had been replaced by a new very slightly different world. This dream world, although I was unaware of it as such, was entirely the product of my own mental states.

Still dwelling on matters dualistic I found myself in a position to conduct some research into the relationship between my brain and my thoughts. Working alongside some of the most brilliant minds (or perhaps ‘brains’) in the business it was decided that we should utilize MRI scanners, EEG’s and other tools to generate the most detailed images possible of my brain states at various points in time and in response to various stimuli. Very quickly, we were able to observe correlations between my state of mind and the corresponding brain states. Different parts of my brain would light up relating to different mental states. The more data we gathered, the clearer our understanding of correlations became. Eventually we developed such a detailed understanding of the relationship between what I was thinking and what my brain was doing, that we were able to conclude that all of my mental states were reducible to statements about brain states. This achievement would have been much more rewarding if we had not spent the whole time scanning the wrong brain.

We had never been able to prove which way around the causal relationship between brain and mind was operating and so, because the world around us appeared to exist objectively whereas my thoughts were merely subjective, we decided to assume that the brain was causing the thoughts. The problem was that in the dream, my real brain was nowhere to be found. It was in my head, which was resting on my pillow in my bed. We were busy at the imaginary lab working with an entirely imaginary brain that was entirely the result of my mental states. The changes in that brain were caused by changes in my thoughts; not, as we had assumed, the other way round.

Of course, the argument from dreams is not a new one. It has been raised before. My concern in raising it, is not one of radical skepticism so much as this; if my mind, or brain is capable of creating such a vivid private world that in no way, can hope to be expressed in its entirety through public behavior, such as language and so on, is Behaviorism justified to make the reduction that it does?

Within the context of such a dream, it would be perfectly reasonable to say that physical properties were identical to mental properties; properties of the physical world that I perceived were the contents of my thoughts. This is a very different claim than that which Behaviorists seek to make in claiming that mental properties are identical to physical properties.

Descartes’ substance dualism draws an ontological distinction between the mental and the physical, arguing that they are entirely different substances. He bases his argument primarily on what he perceives as differences between mental and physical properties. As he says in the sixth meditation:

“But nevertheless, on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, insofar as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of a body, insofar as this is simply a non-thinking, extended thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.” (Chalmers, 2002, p.16)

Descartes therefore, commits himself to an ontological separation of body and mind claiming that mind can exist without body. In the context of my dream it is quite plausible to argue that my mind can exist without my (dream) body; however it does not follow from that, that my dream body could exist without my mind; unfortunately for Descartes, outside of the dream situation it is difficult to argue that our thoughts can exist without our bodies. The analogy of a dream, or the ability to conceive of oneself without a body, (whilst fortunate enough to experience the benefits of having such a body, and brain) does nothing to deter the materialist from claiming that all of the appearances to my dreaming mind were simply the result of physical processes; namely those occurring in a brain. A brain, which, at the time I was dreaming, existed outside of the realm of my experience.

This raises a basic epistemological problem for the materialist; how can we ever know, with any certainty that we are looking at the right brain? It is fair to say that the reasoning applied by my fellow researchers and I (in the dream) was no different when it came to assuming the objective reality of our world, as it would be in this one.

Physicalist views, such as behaviorism and functionalism reject dualism and claim that mental properties are identical to physical behaviors or physical properties; thoughts are identical to physical processes occurring in the brain. Both views constitute a rejection of substance dualism, or see the dualist mind/matter distinction as a conceptual division as opposed to an ontological one, reducing statements about thought and inner life or dreams as a form of linguistic shorthand for descriptions of physical states. One such thinker is Gilbert Ryle.

He rejects the mind-matter distinction as a category mistake, referring to it contemptuously as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine”. (Ryle, 2002, p.34) He claims however, to do so without reducing mental properties to material ones or vice-versa, which he argues is to treat them as “terms of the same logical type”.
He claims that:

“…the phrase, ‘there occur mental processes’ does not mean the same sort of thing as ‘there occur physical processes,’ and, therefore, that it makes no sense to conjoin or disjoin the two.” (Chalmers, 2002, p.37)

Therefore saying that ‘mental and physical processes occur’ is equivalent to saying that ‘people and airplanes fly,’ or ‘hamsters and computers run.’ In each example, the verb is applicable to people, airplanes, mental processes, physical processes, computers or hamsters, but the sense in which the verb applies is different. Airplanes fly, but people fly in a different sense. Whether the hamster or the computer run faster, is hard to determine because what it means for a hamster to run, is very different from what it means for a computer to run. So, for Ryle, the sense in which mental processes occur is not the same as the sense in which physical processes occur. In summarizing Ryle’s views David Chalmers writes:

“The mind is not to be seen as something distinct from the body and steering it from the inside, but as an aspect of the body’s own activities.” (Chalmers, 2002, p. 3);

Also adding the view that:

“the mind is an aspect of behavior…. Thus mind is seen as a public aspect of human activity, rather than as a private inner aspect.” (Chalmers, 2002, p.3)

Ryle therefore, would consider that talk about mental states is really, talk about behavior. The fundamental problem with this reduction is that assumes too much. Although lessons about mental properties can be learned from behavior and language, the entire phenomenal aspect of our inner lives is so much richer than the mere behaviors that we exhibit. If properties of the brain and properties of the mind are one and the same, then the example of dreaming shows a situation wherein mental properties do not translate readily into talk either of brain states or behavior. It goes against common intuitions (not merely philosophical ones,) to conflate mental states and the behaviors we instinctively feel are caused by such mental states. Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature states the epistemological problem of making such a reduction as follows:

“The powers, by which bodies operate, are entirely unknown. We perceive only their sensible qualities: and what reason have we to think that the same powers will always be conjoined with the same sensible qualities?” (Kramnick, 1995, p.200)

We cannot make inferences with any certainty that similar behaviors are always caused by similar mental states. The subjective character of consciousness is not merely a pattern of behavior, but instead, is limited by a positivistic tendency to exclude all but that, which is verifiable. In doing so, a mistake far worse than mere category error, occurs. Though Ryle denies that he makes a materialist reduction, in this text, he does err on the side of only acknowledging the ‘real’ existence of the physical. This neglects an enormous amount of mental activities that although private and non-verifiable, are nevertheless very real to those who experience them. Ryle cannot exorcise ‘the ghost in the machine’ without first establishing whether the ghost thinks it is in a machine, or the machine is in the mind of the ghost and its existence is as equally ephemeral. To assume there is only the machine, and the tasks it performs, is overly nihilistic and raises serious concerns about the richness of humanity’s inner lives were such a materialist outlook ever to catch on. Whilst mental properties may indeed be identical with physical properties, the way in which behaviorism and other physicalist perspectives seek to bridge this conceptual gap is one that looses too much of our everyday experience of having a mind. Though conscious states and brain states or behaviors may occur simultaneously this does not give us license to infer such a counter-intuitive causal link or to assume the direction of such causation. In my dream, such assumptions were made erroneously, because physical sciences lack the epistemic foundation to make metaphysical claims.

The rejection of substance dualism is justified and perhaps even long overdue, but physicalism has the potential to constitute an equally dangerous category error. By reducing our mental lives to physical processes, so much more is lost than in the reduction of physical properties, to properties of our mental experience. Where the physicalist reduction costs us our inner lives, the opposite reduction re-contextualizes our scientific knowledge, leaving our laws and governing principles intact, and integrating them into a more holistic worldview that neglects none of what we all intuitively know about ourselves as thinking beings.


Chalmers, D.J. (2002), Philosophy of Mind: classical and contemporary readings, Oxford University Press.

Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy, excerpted in Chalmers, D.J. (2002), Philosophy of Mind: classical and contemporary readings, Oxford University Press, p.10-20

Hume, D. (1740) A Treatise on Human Nature, in Kramnick, I (Ed.) (1995) The Portable Enlightenment Reader, Penguin Books Ltd, London, p.195-202

Ryle, G. (1949) Descartes’ Myth, in Chalmers, D.J. (2002), Philosophy of Mind: classical and contemporary readings, Oxford University Press, p.32-38

The Ship of Theseus

“The Reconstructed ship is not Theseus’s ship, but would have been if the planks of Theseus’s ship had not been replaced.” Is this position coherent?

Coherent or not, this is the view espoused by E.J. Lowe as a solution to the famous paradox, drawn out by Thomas Hobbes, from the writings of Plutarch. For the purposes of this short essay, I will presume that the reader is already aware of the paradox wherein the original ship; Theseus’s ship is gradually repaired. Planks are replaced gradually whilst those removed from it are reassembled, eventually producing both a renovated ship and a reconstructed ship which seemingly both have claims to be one and the same as (or numerically identical with) Theseus’s ship. If this puzzle is unfamiliar then I refer the reader to Lowe’s ‘A Survey of Metaphysics’ pages 25-28 where he states the paradox more thoroughly.

Lowe’s solution is one of several solutions proposed and I believe that because it attempts to posit an objective fact-of-the-matter regarding identity, it quickly falls into contradiction. Lowe is not alone in making this error; indeed many critics of his view also make this mistake. I believe it is a mistake to regard identity as something objectively real; something that inheres in things, rather than as a concept that we as rational beings bring to bear upon the world. To regard identity as something intrinsic, rather than conceptual, necessitates contradiction.

I hope in this essay to demonstrate that Lowe and others who posit an objective notion of numerical identity have overlooked something fundamental about the nature of identity and perhaps reality as a whole. It is my view that a transcendental idealist perspective offers profound insight into the nature of identity, and that any view claiming either ship to actually be Theseus’s ship can only ever be partly correct, until the role of subject and context are given their due status in addressing the puzzle.

Kant’s notion of an antinomy, wherein reason leads us inexorably towards two opposite and contradictory views, seems to capture the very essence of the problem as resulting from our ways of thinking about things, rather than it (the paradox) highlighting anything problematic about things, such as ships, as they are in themselves. The solution also lies in the structures of our thoughts about things; this is why no philosopher feels the need to perform a practical experiment, or travel to Athens to better understand the problem.

Essentially all that Lowe is claiming, is that in cases where form constancy and matter constancy conflict, form constancy takes priority over matter constancy; where there is no conflict either criterion has the potential to be adequate criterion for numerical identity. He does this by proposing subjective criteria for what qualifies as a part of something and what does not. For example (italics are added for the sake of emphasis):

“…we must decide then to which ship the various parts belong at the time in question.” (Lowe, E.J. 2002, p.31)

or :

“Once the original parts of a ship have been appropriated by another, distinct ship, I suggest, they cease to be parts of the original ship:” (Ibid. p.31)

Lowe’s solution rests entirely upon agreement with this principle and not upon anything more concrete than that. These criteria are in themselves problematic. In his paper on the Ship of Theseus, Theodore Scaltsas lists eight criteria for what might qualify as a part of something:

“x is a part of y or of z if

(1) x is an attached and functioning part of y;
(2) x is an attached but non-functioning part of y;
(3) x has been removed from y but is not used as a part of any other object or for any other function;
(4) x has been removed from y but it has not been replaced by any other such part;
(5) x is a part that could be fitted to y but it has not been fitted yet[…];
(6) x is one of the original parts of y (when y was constructed);
(7) x is originally a part of y (in x’s first use as a part);
(8) x has at some point in its life span been functionally attached as a part to y;”

(Scaltsas, T. 1980, p.155)

His list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it intended to be. As he says:

“I am convinced that this is an incomplete list of the various senses in which x can be taken to be a part of y. Even now it would take a computer to figure out the possible conflicts of ‘being a part’ sufficiency conditions that can occur in various cases in which two or more of the above criteria would oppose one another;”
(Scaltsas, T. 1980, p.155-156)

The problem arises that it would be hard to argue for a hierarchy of such sufficiency conditions. There are numerous ideas we hold about what qualifies as a part of something, and in cases where y and z (or the reconstructed ship and the renovated ship) both have a claim on x we have no objective means of deciding which condition takes priority. This is precisely where the objective account fails.

For Lowe’s answer to have any objective validity, it must be self-evident to anyone looking at the situation regardless of any subjective opinions; yet, several times, Lowe makes appeals for the reader to form opinions about what constitutes a part of a ship and whether it remains so or not when removed, replaced and so on. It falls to each individual to decide whether form constancy or matter constancy have the greater bearing in such cases; when disagreement about these things arises, neither side can bring evidence to settle the matter decisively. To quote Scaltsas once more:

“There is simply the possibility of being differently inclined on the subject of condition hierarchy from your fellow-men, and there is no evidence they can bring to you or you to them to convince one another who is right.”
(Scaltsas, T, 1980, p154)

At least one person can object on perfectly solid grounds to Lowe’s claim that form constancy is more important for numerical identity. Consider the Archaeologist who wants to confirm the age of Theseus’s ship. Lowe cannot rightly say that he should go to the harbour to retrieve planks for carbon dating. In such a case, regardless of whether or not the removed timbers have been reassembled or not, our archaeologist should go to the museum. Lowe would be quite right to point a sailor to the harbour but what is underlined by this, is an issue of context that is overlooked in any solution that posits a fact-of-the-matter answer. How could either the sailor or architect ever agree which ship is numerically identical with Theseus’s? Both prioritise different sufficiency conditions for numerical identity; neither is able to offer the other the least bit of evidence, or proof, of the superiority of either view.

Another common objection to Lowe’s answer is that it violates “the only X and Y principle”. In brief, this principle states that whether X and Y are identical or not can only depend on X and Y, and not upon the existence (or lack thereof) of something else. In his solution, Lowe gives his reasons why he feels this is not the case, on the premise that in the two situations the reconstructed ship would be quite a different ship. To apply Scaltsas criteria, Lowe claims that in the no-renovation situation, conditions (3) and (4) obtain for continued part identity; conversely, in the renovation situation they do not. Therefore, in the no-renovation case the reconstructed ship is Theseus’s ship. In the renovation case, the renovated ship can claim numerical identity on the basis that conditions (1) and (5) obtain with regard to its parts, but problematically for Lowe the reconstructed ship can claim that conditions (3) and (6) obtain in the case of its parts. As demonstrated above he cannot claim either ship to decisively be the original in the renovation situation.

What qualitative difference there is, is indeed puzzling to me. The parts of the reconstructed ship in both cases are qualitatively identical, so how the difference in numerical identity of the whole obtains, is problematic for Lowe. It is hard to see what objectively is different about the reconstructed ship in the two cases. On the other hand, the concepts applied to the parts in the two situations are different. It is perhaps in this regard that Lowe falls foul of the “only X and Y principle”. Because concepts of part-hood are not features of things in themselves, there is no objective way to settle the issue of priority of sufficiency conditions; the subject determines whether X is the same as Y, in the same way as the subject decides which ship the parts are a part of. The only X and Y principle as stated above requires an objective fact-of-the-matter answer, that does not depend upon anything other than the original ship and the reconstructed or renovated ship for its validity.

In attempting to show that his solution does not violate the “only X and Y principle” Lowe clearly indicates his acceptance of its validity whilst basing his argument on concepts that are by their very nature, independent of either X or Y. This is not coherent outside of a more subjective framework; one that already rejects the “only X and Y principle” as it has been stated. The most that Lowe can hope to claim (without establishing an objectively valid hierarchy of part sufficiency conditions) is that, depending upon one’s views about the hierarchy of sufficiency conditions for parthood; there is a case for claiming either ship to be numerically identical with the original. Furthermore the subject plays a crucial role in determining the continuity of identity and the “only X and Y principle” needs to be modified to take account of this.

It would be entirely plausible to claim that, in strict terms, neither ship is objectively numerically identical with Theseus’s Ship. Numerical identity, as seen, depends upon our opinions as subjects and not entirely upon objective properties of things. As rational beings we can consent to either ship being regarded as Theseus’s ship, without it having to actually be the original ship; in much the same way as we accept that the new actor is still James Bond, without him having to be Sean Connery. Since both the renovated and reconstructed ship are merely regarded as Theseus’s ship (as opposed to actually being so,) and both, with commonly accepted (though not objectively valid) reasons, it is no longer problematic that there are now two ships. Neither ship is Theseus’s ship. Both represent the continuance of different concepts we have about numerical identity, but because identity is something we get to decide about, neither ship can be numerically identical in any more concrete sense than subjectively. Lowe’s solution may be coherent within his conceptual framework but, the argument he uses is symptomatic of the misunderstanding that gave rise to the paradox; that numerical identity is purely objective and that we discover it rather than determine it.


Lowe, E.J. (2002) “A Survey of Metaphysics”, Oxford University Press,

Noonan, H. W. (1985) “The Only X and Y Principle” Analysis, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 79-83, Blackwell Publishing [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 11/01/2009 02:40]

Scaltsas, T. (1980) “The Ship of Theseus” Analysis, Vol. 40, No. 3 pp. 152-157, Oxford University Press [Online] Available from: [Accessed 11/01/2009]

Friday, 3 July 2009

Is religeous belief a matter of practical commitment?

Within Philosophy of Religion there are two quite distinct strands of thought concerning religious belief. There are those who assert that God’s existence can be demonstrated decisively, and rationally, with appeal to reasoned argument (such as ontological, cosmological or teleological arguments). Alternately there are those who see such arguments as flawed, unsatisfactory or symptomatic of an overly simplistic conception of the divine, and opt instead for an account of God that goes beyond what can be empirically verified, favouring practical experience over mere discourse.

I would like to argue that whilst both of these approaches attempt to provide some basis for faith, in both cases authentic religious belief is grounded upon religious experience; no number of logical arguments can sustain us spiritually in the same way as we are nourished by those moments in which we directly experience something divine and transcendent. I intend to show that practical commitment is an essential basis for this kind of religious experience.

Furthermore, it would be pertinent to consider the possibility that practical commitment to strongly held beliefs may be a two-edged sword, capable of as much harm as it is good. I hope to suggest a way in which one can distinguish the kind of beliefs that harm and those that heal. I wish to suggest that where religious beliefs are forced onto people, such activity is at worst harmful and at best futile, but where belief is turned inwards it has great power to transform the believer in many positive ways and this has immense value; especially when addressing many of our human problems. It is practical commitment that makes this transformation is possible.

It is my intent to show a clear distinction between those religious beliefs that have real practical value and so-called religious belief that are charged with responsibility for so much harm in the world today. Where critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins exploit the short-comings of rational theology (such as creationism) and cases of extremist fundamentalism to justify their attacks on religion as a whole, it is my contention that they fail to distinguish properly between religious beliefs, and pseudo-religious beliefs whose real aims are political or worldly. Practical commitments to these pseudo-religious beliefs do not yield the same results because they are invariably motivated at least in part, by entirely different concerns and either mendaciously or ignorantly mistaken for, or misrepresented as, religious beliefs.

What is it about religious experience, or any other kind of experience, that demands practical commitment? Two examples illustrate this point quite adequately:

One can describe “lemon meringue pie” in infinite detail. Its chemical composition can be analysed and precisely detailed and yet no amount of description comes close to the actual experience of tasting it. Similarly God’s existence and good qualities can be argued for and described but none of this can come close to actually experiencing God, or the merits of religious belief, for ones self and this depends upon practical commitment in much the same way as one must commit to eating the lemon meringue pie for ones self.

How could belief in a doctor’s ability to heal you be of any benefit if you never commit to attending an appointment? Furthermore, if you do commit to attend the appointment, your belief in the doctor is strengthened by your experience (assuming the doctor is really as good as everyone says) and becomes not simply an intellectual opinion but an experiential understanding of the doctor’s good qualities.

Of course there is some inclination to distinguish beliefs about doctor’s and lemon meringue pie from beliefs about the divine (perhaps, depending upon ones priorities) and indeed to distinguish ordinary experiences from religious ones; however the point that this is supposed to illustrate is that purely rational theology does not yield more than an intellectual opinion. On its own it is insufficient to create the conducive conditions for religious experience that give rise to strong well founded belief. Such conditions are the natural result of practical commitment.

It should be noted that different beliefs motivate us differently and give rise to different experiences. Belief in a doctor’s aptitude, for example, directs a person very differently to their belief in the doctor’s incompetence. One belief, if it is to be meaningful, impels you to visit the doctor whereas the other, if it is to be meaningful urges you to stay away. These differing beliefs give rise to different experiences that will challenge or justify your initial beliefs. The question then is, what kind of practical commitment does religion require?

Examples of practical commitment to religious beliefs are widespread and differ tremendously; at one end of the scale is the family who commit to going to church on Sunday, or perhaps just for baptisms, weddings and funerals. At the other, those who chose to dedicate their entire lives in service of their beliefs. Ascetics such as the sadhu holy men of India, the celibate monastic communities of so many faiths, missionaries who travel the globe, organisations such as the Red Cross and a vast range in between.

Simone Weil is a writer who I feel captures, rather well, the type of practical commitment that a truly spiritual outlook should instil. In Gravity and Grace, the reader is presented with a concept of Human Mechanics; a dynamic in which humans, from fear of affliction and suffering, communicate their suffering to others or are forced to endure it. She compares this to a force like gravity.

Simone Weil was writing in a time when the horrors of human mechanics were all too clear. The Nazis were committing genocide with all the efficiency of a machine and the Second World War raged. She saw ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man’ at what was arguably some of its worst. She observed a dynamic at play, which she described in the following terms:

“Human Mechanics. Whoever suffers tries to communicate his suffering (either by ill-treating someone or calling forth their pity) in order to reduce it, and he really does reduce it in this way. In the case of a man in the uttermost depths, whom no one pities, who is without power to ill-treat anyone (if he has no child or being who loves him), the suffering remains within and poisons him.
This is imperative, like gravity. How can one gain deliverance? How gain deliverance from a force which is like gravity?” (Weil, 1967, p.5)

She describes suffering as leaving a void within us, which we find unbearable and are driven to fill. We try to fill this void by seeking pity. In doing so we succeed in filling that void with a sense of our own importance, but we leave the other person with an equivalent void; they suffer, so that we don’t have to. Alternately we try to dominate others; again filling the void in ourself with feelings of power or importance whilst leaving our victim with a void of their own to contend with, arisen from the feelings of helplessness engendered by our actions. Human mechanics is a system wherein suffering increases. Everyone seeks to avoid suffering and therefore inflicts it on those around them. Whilst this may seem to be an overly negative assessment of human relationships it seems hard to deny especially in the context of the world as she witnessed it.

What Simone Weil envisages as an alternative is unexpected, profound, challenging and shows great heroism of spirit. It has parallels in many of the great mystical traditions such as Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Gnostic traditions (as well as with notable contemporaries of hers such as Kahlil Gibran) whose aims are diametrically opposed to those of the materialism so prevalent in current thought. In Human mechanics one seeks rewards, be they material, imaginary or otherwise; where the desired reward is not obtained, one feels a void within oneself. Rather than endure this, one is ordinarily driven to harm others.

Where Simone Weil and the mystics differ from human mechanics and materialism is in seeking happiness and fulfilment from a different source. For materialists the reward is to be found in material gain. For those who seek power and to dominate others, high status or sense of importance is the reward they seek. For those following a spiritual path, the reward is not to be found within the world as we know it.

Instead of spending our lives struggling to maintain balance and transferring our afflictions to others, she offers a radical alternate possibility. Rather than seeking what we feel we need, we reassess what it is that we need in the first place. The results of this can be surprising:

“If we go down into ourselves we find that we possess exactly what we desire” (Weil, 1967, p.20)

When a smoker wants a cigarette what they desire is to stop craving a cigarette. The short-term solution is to smoke a cigarette; alternately they could put time and effort into overcoming their desire to smoke thus stopping the craving permanently. This example illustrates the view of the mystic and that which they seek. The smoker who quits has found the cigarette that actually works, the one that stops the craving permanently! Likewise the rewards that the mystic seeks are not the short lived imperfect ones of the material world they are the supernatural rewards of divine grace; perfect happiness rather than temporary imperfect rewards:

“The necessity for a reward…if, doing violence to this necessity, we leave a vacuum, as it were a suction of air is produced and a supernatural reward results.” (Weil, 1967, p.10)

This outlook is the very antithesis of our materialistic world and the human mechanics thereof. Someone who has the capacity to endure the void and find meaning within it will find that they already have what they desire within them, and no longer have need to fill that void with the suffering or pity of others. As the Buddha famously said “Who has contentment has the greatest wealth of all for with it he has all that his heart desires.” The human mechanics are replaced with ‘superhuman’ mechanics, which rather than being factors for social stability in a world with great social problems, are a solution to so much discontent and greed.

What she also shows is that religion should direct us in a very different way than we are familiar with behaving. What differs is that the latter emphasises short term worldly gain, whereas the former aims away from such hollow victories, seeking spiritual rewards instead. The religious worldview takes into account something bigger than our one short life and the happiness that we experience therein. It teaches us to aim beyond this fleeting existence towards a higher goal be it heaven (or at least avoiding hell), coming to know god, or achieving nirvana. What happiness one achieves in this world through religious pursuits, is a happy consequence but is not supposed to be an end in itself. In superhuman mechanics, rather than avoiding problems and hardship, the mystic finds meaning in such things. The refusal to pass on suffering coupled with the acceptance of it, entails a practical commitment to harm no-one that is to be found amongst the core beliefs of all religion.

In accepting our suffering rather than avoiding it or pushing it onto someone else, we experience it in a deeper more meaningful way. It opens our hearts and minds to the suffering of others. Human mechanics finds its very antithesis in the desire to take from others all their sorrow and give them all of ones happiness; this compassionate view similarly elicits a practical commitment from anyone who shares it. Compassion is a common theme in religion yet something that is frequently overlooked in favour of more esoteric topics of discussion (such as those of rational theology) yet it is absolutely essential to any religious view. A view of the divine that is grounded in experience, shows one that which is divine in others, and elicits non-harmfulness in a way that no rational theological argument can. Perhaps for this reason, the most important practical commitment of all, is that of doing no harm.

A religion that forgives you, teaches you to forgive others. Political leaders who seek revenge teach vengeance. It is lamentable that so often the two become confused; a situation barely helped by those with political aims who use peoples faith in religion cynically, or exploit oversimplistic accounts of religious belief to achieve worldly ends. It is hard to deny that the suicide bombers of 9/11 were practically committed to their beliefs, and while these beliefs contained religious terminology, such as the name of Allah and the language of martyrdom; it seems to me that the human mechanics motivating these acts were all too apparent. The introspection, willingness to endure hardship, and basic compassion that so characterise practical religiosity, were considered to be of less significance that sending a message that was intended to achieve worldly aims – the very antithesis of religion and spirituality’s aims. This led many without personal experience of religious faith to conclude that religion itself was responsible:

‘Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!’ (Dawkins, 2001)

This attack on religion has become a call to arms for many atheists in recent years. The danger of strong practical commitment to ones belief is undoubtedly dangerous but just as atheists were quick to condemn the attacks as immoral, so were those with religious belief. Dawkins as an evolutionary biologist is someone who was not persuaded by the arguments of rational theology. His field of study faces great difficulties in addressing a very particular brand of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism whose interpretation of religion is relatively primitive and simplistic. The more evolved views of practical theology and mysticism escape many of the criticisms that Dawkins levels.

Whilst what Dawkins attacks is strong practical commitment to beliefs, he fails to distinguish between ordinary worldly beliefs or ideals, and religious ones. Where one differentiates the two along lines such as human/superhuman mechanics, a clearer picture emerges of the motivating beliefs. The beliefs that Dawkins attacks are not religious; not all faith is revealed, religion puts barriers in place to prevent killing, politics removes them; where religion teaches fellowship and togetherness, or altruism, politics teaches partiality. I heartily agree with him that whatever makes people behave in such ways, is reprehensible in the extreme but where I differ is that I do not consider the motivating beliefs to be religious ones, because they are not based on practical experience of religious truths.


Dawkins, R.(2001) Has the world Changed?, The Guardian, available from ,
date accessed 16/05/2009

Weil, S. (1967) Gravity and Grace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London (ed)

‘Knowledge is true belief which …’ Can one satisfactorily fill in the dots?

For the purposes of this essay, I intend to look at some attempts to ‘fill in the dots’ most notably the tracking account developed by Robert Nozick, and contextualism as advocated by Keith DeRose. I intend to look at some of the difficulties faced by these accounts and consider whether they give any hope that a satisfactory resolution is possible.

Since the ancient Greek philosophers, a widely accepted definition of knowledge was as ‘justified true belief’. That is to say that:

S knows that p, if and only if:

1. It is true that p
2. S believes that p
3. S is sufficiently justified in believing that p.

On the face of it this seems straightforward enough and therein lays the problem. This tripartite account of knowledge went more or less unchallenged for over 2000 years and although there was perhaps disagreement over what qualified as sufficient justification (especially given the possibilities presented by radical scepticism) it enjoyed widespread acceptance. What happened next was as unexpected as it was overdue.

All was well until in 1963, Edmund Gettier published a three page long paper entitled “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” In this paper, it is widely agreed that Gettier provided two counter examples to the tripartite account of knowledge as justified true belief.

Gettier begins by stating three differing versions of justified true belief and formulates two counterexamples wherein p is true, S believes that p and is justified in doing so. Unfortunately, S does not know p because their reasons for believing p are wrong. Essentially, Gettier had shown that justification, truth and belief failed to be jointly sufficient and necessary criteria for knowledge attributions; something else was required. An explanation of knowledge that was generally accepted since Plato suggested it, had been shown to be flawed and was not easily repairable.

Many attempts to address the problem, address the question of what qualifies
as justification. One attempt to fill in the dots dispenses with justification entirely. In Philosophical Explanations Robert Nozick seeks to formulate conditions that are “jointly sufficient for knowledge so any case that satisfies all of them will be an instance of knowledge” (Nozick, 1981 p.23). What he argues for instead is the idea that when beliefs ‘track’ the truth they are instances of knowledge.

Nozick’s tracking account of knowledge is stated as follows:

S knows that p, if and only if:

1. p (it is true that p)
2. S believes that p
3. If not-p then S would not believe that p for the same reason
4. If p then S would believe that p for the same reason

Conditions 3 and 4 replace the traditional ‘justification’ requirement. In circumstances where all four criteria obtain, Nozick considers the subject, S’s belief to “track” the truth. ‘To know is to have a belief that tracks the truth’ (Nozick, 1981. pp.28). Part of Nozick’s intent here is to address the problem of scepticism and on this regard he has some sucesss, and in addressing Gettier’s counter examples the tracking account appears initially promising.

There are numerous Gettier-type counter examples and many versions of them are in circulation. For the purposes of this essay for the sake of convenience, clarity and my own familiarity I shall use the examples as quoted in Murali Ramachandran’s How Believing can Fail to be Knowing, mainly for the clarity of his presentation of these sample cases.

When testing such accounts against an array of Gettier-type counter-examples it becomes apparent that any such account of what it is to know needs to tread a fine line. On the one hand one wants to avoid ruling out cases in which a true belief that has been appropriately acquired, fails to qualify as knowledge; conversely, one wants to avoid classifying as knowledge those cases where an inappropriate belief has been inappropriately acquired, yet happens to be correct through chance. This is made clear in the case of NOGOT.


A colleague in S’s office, Mr Nogot, has given evidence which leads S to
justifiably believe (r) that Mr. Nogot owns a Ford, from which S correctly deduces (p) that someone in this office owns a Ford. But, unbeknownst to S, Nogot has been shamming and p is only true because another person in the office, Ms. Havit, owns a Ford.

In this situation Nozick’s tracking account fares well and produces the correct outcome. His first criterion is met because it is true that p (because, purely coincidentally someone in the office does indeed own a Ford) and the second also obtains because S believes p. Condition 3, however, is not satisfied because if no-one in the office owned a Ford then S would still believe p on the basis of r. It is obvious that since r is false, S’s belief that r is not adequate justification for knowledge that p. Because S’s belief in p is deduced from r, then we can conclude that whether or not p was true, S would believe p and so condition 3 does not obtain. The tracking account therefore produces the correct result. S does not know that someone in the office owns a Ford.

A possible objection is that without p being true, it would have been impossible for Mr. Nogot to provide the evidence upon which S justifiably came to believe r. This ambiguity is avoided in the following variation and the results are not so good for the tracking account:


Mr Nogot is mad. He decides that he will fool his gullible colleague S into believing (p) that someone in the office owns a Ford if and only if someone in the office does own a Ford. (Let us suppose that Nogot has the means to find out if someone does.) Nogot finds out that Havit owns a Ford and embarks on his plan. The rest is history—S comes to believe truly (p) that someone in this office owns a Ford.

The line ‘if and only if someone in the office owns a Ford’ is analogous to the objection that it would only have been possible for Nogot to engender S’s justified belief in p if someone in the office owned a Ford. In this variant Nozick does not fare so well. All four conditions are satisfied, so Nozick would say that S’s belief in p tracks the truth. S knows that p but that belief has not been acquired appropriately and so the desired outcome should be that S does not know p. Clearly, something gets overlooked, because it appears Nozick is committed to saying that in the case of DEVIOUS NOGOT, S knows that p. The four criteria as they are, do not differentiate between sound and unsound justifications such as the false lemma (r). Nozick’s four points capture the importance of there being a causal relationship between the truth of p and S’s belief that p, however they do not account for the possibility of some deception resulting from a less direct chain of belief.

The rescue for Nozick seems to come from holding the criteria up to r. Conditions 1 and 3 do not obtain for r, because it is not true that r and because S would believe r even if it were false; because 1 and 3 do not obtain for r we can say that r is a false-lemma or false-belief. If we add a fifth condition that S’s belief that p cannot rest on any false beliefs, then the Devious Nogot case is no longer problematic.

One significant problem for the tracking account was proposed in a lecture by Saul Kripke. It goes along the following lines.


S is driving in a region of the countryside where, unbeknownst to her, there are many papier-maché facsimiles of barns (easily mistaken for genuine barns from the roadside—indeed, we may suppose that S has mistaken many of them for barns in the course of her journey).S does not know it but none of the fake barns are painted red. As it happens, S stops in front of a red barn and believes truly (p) that there is a red barn in front of her.

The problem here is that all four conditions obtain. (It is true that there is a red barn in front of her; S believes there is a red barn in front of her, she would not believe that there wasn’t a red barn in front of her if there wasn’t, and she would believe it if there was.) Even with the extra modifications S’s belief that p tracks the truth and is an example of knowledge. What is hard to believe is that S does not know (q) that there is a barn in front of her because condition 3 does not obtain for q – it is quite likely that if she had parked in front of a fake barn she would still believe that q.

How is it possible to know a specific without knowing the generality of which it is a part, namely how can you know that what is in front of you is a red barn, but not know that it is a barn? What Kripke’s Red Barn highlights, as well as a paradox that arises from the denial of closure, is an issue of context.

Context is an issue that is considered to be of particular significance, especially with regard to closure and entailment. Contextualists propose a semantic solution insofar as they argue that what it means ‘to know’ varies in meaning relative to context. A classic example of this is borrowed from Fred Dretske, wherein two people are at the zoo. The first one upon seeing stripy horse like creatures claims to know they are zebras. Quite a reasonable claim to make; they know they’re zebras, however the friend says “So you are sure they’re not just cleverly painted mules?”

Before that question was posed the situation seemed unproblematic; normally knowing that a certain creature is a zebra entails that you already know it’s not a cleverly painted mule. To ascribe knowledge suggests S has exhausted all reasonable alternate possibilities. The problem now is that one is less eager to say our subject knows. In raising alternate possibilities such as deception, we see how S might have believed p even if it were untrue and condition 3 of the tracking account would not obtain. This is similar to the problem of the red barn insofar as knowing you are standing in front of a red barn but not knowing something entailed by that (that it is a barn); the subject knows it’s a zebra but doesn’t know something which that should necessarily entail- that they know it’s not a painted mule.

The standard of justification for knowing you are standing in front of a barn, is higher in a fake barn scenario than it would be in a situation where there are no fake barns. In a zoo where they couldn’t afford real animals it would require a lot more evidence to persuade you that you knew what any given animal really was. The contextualist would argue that saying S ‘knows’ means something different in the dodgy zoo and kosher zoo situations. They argue furthermore that conversational factors affect what it means to say somebody knows. Contextualism, therefore, allows that prior to the question about mules, one can say he knew; but still accept the possibility that he does not know after the question.

For contextualists; ‘Attributor factors…affect how good an epistemic position the putatative knower must be in to count as knowing’ (DeRose, 1992)

When S’s friend raises the possibility of fake zebras, what occurs is a raising of the requirements to attribute knowledge. Duncan Pritchard refers to this as ‘epistemic ascent’; and its reverse, which occurs when one forgets the possibility of a scam and epistemic standards return to normal, ‘epistemic descent’.

Pritchard uses an everyday example to illustrate the problem. In everyday conversation it seems fine to say that S knows p –the table is flat. However when someone raises the possibility that the table is in fact not flat, due to microscopic bumps and irregularities, it becomes nonsensical to maintain that S knows p because with higher epistemic demands, and different context, the statement means something different.

What I hope to have shown is that the tracking account demonstrates that an account of knowledge should require that belief be truth-sensitive (as is shown by the successes with some problem cases) but as shown by the Red Barn example, this is not sufficient. The essential difference between S not knowing they are in front of a barn, yet knowing that they are in front of red barn, is not because of any information they possess.

It is an attributor factor which makes the difference (the attributor’s knowledge about which colour barns could be fake, etc). The context, such as the possibility of there being fake barns or not, is something that knowledge attributions need to be sensitive to. The problem is that this contextualist view is not straightforward to state clearly and precisely in the form of a sufficiency condition for instances of knowing.

Additionally it opens the door to the threat of scepticism once more. In the context of a discussion about Brains in Vats (BIV) the epistemic ascent is such that no knowledge claim becomes justifiable; furthermore it becomes unclear why the reverse should ever occur once some time has passed.

It seems counter-intuitive that S could later make the claim to know that the creatures were not cleverly painted mules without going and checking, just because time had passed since the possibility was raised. Similarly, in the BIV scenario, it seems wrong to lower epistemic standards just because the conversation moves on. As Duncan Pritchard puts it;

‘It seems highly counterintuitive that one should both assert and deny knowledge of the same proposition whilst consciously remaining in the same epistemic position.’ (Pritchard, 2000, pp19)

With this problem of justification for epistemic descent, contextualism is unable to claim to be any more context sensitive than sceptical invariantism, since there is no justification for ever considering the BIV hypothesis to be irrelevant once it has been raised. Ones epistemic position in relation to the possibility goes unchanged.

Issues such as these have led more recent thinkers to argue along different lines, suggesting that justification, (which is still undefined) may simply be a shorthand for what it means to know. Such thinkers reject the justified true belief account. Instead arguing that knowledge simply denotes a certain kind of relation; one between belief and truth, or in the case of Timothy Wiliamson (in Knowledge and its Limits,) go one step further to argue that knowledge is irreducible and whilst it consists of justification, truth and belief, it is itself conceptually unanalyseable, or sui generis. What is interesting about this is that such accounts of knowledge have moved beyond the old formulation of true belief plus something, and are looking at knowledge in new ways.


DeRose, K. (1992) Contextualism and Knowledge Attributions, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52, pp. 1-51

Gettier, E.L. (1963) Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? (available online from accessed 19/11/2008

Nozick, R. (1981) “Knowledge and Scepticism”, extract from Philosophical Explanations. Reprinted in Dancy, J. (ed.) Perceptual Knowledge. Oxford University Press, (1988)

Pritchard, D. (2001) Contextualism, Scepticism and the Problem of Epistemic Descent, Dialectica 35, pp.327-49

Ramachandran, M. How believing can fail to be knowing, Theoria 56 (May, 2006) pp. 185-94

Philosophy Essays

I've decided to post some of my philosophical writings up here, mainly to share with those who know me and set myself up for some honest criticism and late night chats.

It also gives me something to put up here till i get around to writing some reviews.


Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Some ideas?

So i'm thinking where to begin...

what occurs to me is that i am about to embark on re-watching some horrible films; films i wish i'd never seen the first time around, and quite naturally this is a daunting prospect and its hard to know where to begin....when the choice is between "Matrix Revolutions" and "Malachi's Cove" or perhaps "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" (yup...that one's got it coming for sure!) Its hard to pick one...maybe i'll just stick on "Bring it on again" and hope the tedium puts me off the whole project altogether.

actually i'm in the mood for dinosaurs...its gonna be Jurassic Park III

hello =)

I was inspired to turn my talents to blogging after being inspired by the delightfully funny and sardonic ravings at

Whilst Sci-fi may not be everyone's cup of tea the author of these reviews is damn hope is to be half as funny but keep it to subjects with wider appeal. if you ever watched "voyager" check out some of his reviews...he gives credit where it's due but what is frequently required of him is to rip the piss, which he does with flair.

what i plan to put up here over the coming months are reviews of some of the most truly awful films i have ever seen or had inflicted on me. no offence is intended to any of the hardworking individuals involved in the creation of these monstrosities (unless they truly deserve it) we all have to make a living, it's just that not all of chooose to do so by making "Holllyoaks" or "Neighbours", or films like "Insanitarium" or the truly awful "Jurassic Park III".

As far as i'm concerned, those who earn a living making utter tripe like this are begging for it...