Latest Entries »

It’s been a long weekend. And time is subject to perceptual variation. So bang on time is the promised homework.

The following four questions / tasks (the bullet pointed bits) MUST be done (even if you’re called Jake) by Monday 22nd February.

Seeing as you’re getting so good, have a go at these. They will require some thought, I had to think about them, but that means little as I have fewer brain cells than you.

  • What does a comparison of idealism and direct realism tell us about the difference between epistemology and ontology?
  • Why does solipsism threaten both idealism and representative realism? What philosopher(s) might we turn to for an escape from solipsism and how might he help us?

These are from the text book, p. 60, but are rather good: (I’ve got a bit of a hunch about Locke and primary / secondary qualities being in the exam – It is only a hunch and not inside information – unfortunately).

  • Say whether the following are examples of primary qualities, secondary qualities, both, or neither. Explain your thinking.

  • Describe and illustrate one epistemological distinction between primary secondary qualities and one ontological one.


Doing Well!

I have to say, I think you’re getting this Knowledge of the external world rather well, so far. But of course, I can’t be certain!

This understanding of the way we perceive the world tries to get around the weaknesses of direct / naive realism by positing the idea of ‘sense data’ as intermediaries between the external world and and our perception of it.
The ‘sense data’ allow us to form a representation of the ‘real’ physical world. The ‘sense’ data are ‘mind-dependent’ and ‘object-independent’ they can exist when we are not currently perceiving the objects we are having sense data representations of (like in dreams or hallucinations) and they vary according to our perspective (perceptual variation or relativity) and circumstances. So hallucinations are occasions when sense data occur without any corresponding stimulus in the physical world. Similarly illusions are simply examples of the ‘sense data’ being unable to match up with reality accurately. Perceptual variation, is explained in the fact that ‘sense data’ are mind-dependent’ rather than object dependent and therefore vary according the individual’s different perspective or point of view on the world.  
Although this theory seems to describe the way people experience the world more accurately than the clearly flawed naive realism, it has some very obvious problems of its own.
First of all it is not at all clear what the relationship is between the physical world and the ‘sense data’ that it seems to give rise to in us. If the sense data can be inaccurate as in the case of illusions, or entirely erroneous as in hallucinations, then how can we be sure that sense data actually represent anything at all?
Once the direct link between the supposed real physical world and our perception of it is called into doubt then the extent to which our representations of that world are accurate seems open to doubt, and a position of extreme scepticism (that the real world doesn’t exist at all) seems possible. Either that or you end up being an idealist like Berkeley, or mad like Scott. 
‘How the world looks to me is how the world is. It’s obvious. What I see out there is what’s out there.’

‘What about illusions?

‘Wot about them?’

Don’t they prove that how the world appears is not necessarily how the world is?

‘Do what, son? ‘s jus’ a trick o’ the light, or summint, innit?’

‘But, what about hallucinations or the problem of perceptual relativity. If you accept that even once your perceptions do not match ‘reality’ then subsequently it’s impossible to have ontological certainty, surely.’

‘Oo you calling Shirley? You cheeky muppet! I’ll give you homological (sic) certainty, you pranny, take that!

‘Ah, you are quite correct, sir, the impact of your fist upon my nose has caused me a direct and .. . to be continued …

A more coherent defence of a form of direct realism is given by J.L. Austin. The text book mentions him, but doesn’t do him justice. We must when we revise.

Explain as fully as you can how ‘Sense data’ theories attempt to resolve the problems of naive direct realism. (Draw a diagram if you feel it necessary)
You should probably use the following terms in your explanation:
intermediary / intermediaries, mediate / mediation, represents / representation, mind-dependent / mind-independent, perceptual error, perceptual variation, subjective, objective.
And read the rest of the Russell (especially the bit about his cat!)
I’m back on line and broadcasting from hick country! 
Hope you had a nice Christmas and will have a very happy and philosophically successful New Year! 
Here’s the happy homework in case you haven’t done it yet.

1. Explain Kant’s claim that ‘synthetic a priori’ knowledge is possible.  (plan below) 

2. Explain what is meant by a priori and outline one reason why the a priori is philosophically significant. (15 marks)
Here is the mark scheme to help you so your answer should be perfect!
Expect the following definitions:
A proposition or truth is a priori if it is known prior to and/or independently of experience.
A proposition or truth is a priori if it cannot be refuted without contradiction.
A proposition or truth is a priori if it is justly known through understanding one or more self-evident propositions. Descartes notion of ‘clear and distinct ideas’ may be used to illustrate the notion of self-evidence. 
And one of the following reasons why the a priori is philosophically significant:
A priori propositions or truths are philosophically significant because they are immune from sceptical doubts regarding the senses. Descartes’ methodological doubt and his deduction of the cogito could be used to illustrate this point.
A priori propositions or truths are philosophically significant because they constitute what we know innately and therefore are crucial in explaining capacities we possess that would otherwise be inexplicable.
A priori propositions or truths are philosophically significant because of what they reveal about the necessary structure of (our experience of) the world.
Unless a candidate answers both parts of the question they cannot achieve full marks.
3. ‘All ideas derive from the sense experiences which they copy.’ Discuss. (30 marks)
Expect the following discussion points:

• The claim sets a clear limit on thought and allows us to proceed without getting
distracted by empty metaphysical speculation.
• The claim reflects our experience of learning, where new ideas are acquired as we encounter new experiences.
• At least some ideas, (eg Hume’s example of a missing shade of blue, ‘4’) do not appear to derive from sense experience.
• Some ideas are best regarded as innate, (eg a Euclidean straight line, God).
• If all my ideas derive from my sense experience and all your ideas derive from your sense experience it follows that we can never share the same idea as we cannot have the same sense experience – reductio ad absurdum.
• If the claim is presented as a factual hypothesis then there is insufficient evidence to justify it.
• The theory implies that thinking involves the manipulation of mental images, sounds, smells, etc. This is psychologically implausible.
• The theory fails to appreciate the active power of the mind in shaping our experience.
• The theory inevitably degenerates into a solipsistic scepticism that it hasn’t got the resources to escape from.
• The theory has problems accounting for general terms or universals.
• The term ‘idea’ is ambiguous, (eg is ‘the cat sat on the mat’ one or more idea(s)?).

Candidates could usefully refer to individual philosophers, (eg. Hume, Locke,
Russell, Descartes) in order to illustrate their discussion.

Free Stuff!

If you go here, you can download loads of excellent summaries of all the stuff we’ve studied so far. Some of it I have given you (sometimes in edited form) but there’s loads I haven’t. Beware the powerpoints, some of which are a little confusing I think.

Here is the marvellous Kant plan. Sorry I haven’t added anything to it, but that’s your job! I’m too busy packing my life into boxes.

We learned (didn’t we?) that there is a strand of rationalist philosophy, that still just about persists, that wants to claim for philosophy, the kind of certainty that science and maths claims. It wants to be able to find the kind of ‘objective’ ‘a priori’, necessary truth that mathematical theories have, it wants to be able to do what science does and abstract universal‘ laws and principles from its observations. It wants to be able to say ‘this is how things really are!’ It wants to strip away appearance and uncover the ‘reality’ behind it.

Most of you seem to think that you think it can’t do this. Most of you seem to think that you think there is no objective truth, but I don’t believe you really think it. After all aren’t claims like ‘the Earth goes round the Sun’ closer to being true than the claim that ‘the Sun goes round the Earth.’? So doesn’t that mean that science is getting closer to the Truth?

Do you really think that the only measure of truth is agreement? I don’t think you really think that if we all agreed that eating custard creams prevented heart disease then it would be true that eating custard creams prevented heart disease.

I think you all really think that there is a ‘way things really are’. 

But I don’t.  So there.

Lots of new stuff!

I’ve put lots of new stuff on here this weekend so please take the time and trouble to read it carefully.  Some comments would be nice also.  Even if you think you understand something it is ALWAYS worth reading about it and going over again in your mind. 

We’ve had a little trouble with us, so I’ve written the following in order to think it through. I offer it here because sharing meaning is what it’s all about! 
It’s the idea of naming objects (naming sense impressions) that’s the problem. Because we can’t see into each other’s boxes/brains, then if we were to  name a sense impression we would do so on our own. 
Imagine this (it’s a little like my sausage example, but has less distracting comic potential): Sam and I are looking at a watch and I say, “Sam, that’s a watch,” and Sam says, “I agree.” So we both attach the name ‘watch’ to the sense impression inside our heads. 
Now, what we have done is EXACTLY THE SAME as both agreeing that we each have a ‘beetle’ in our matchboxes, without being able to see them, because we can’t see inside each other’s head anymore than we can see in each other’s matchbox. 
The point is difficult to grasp this because when Sam and I are both looking at the watch, when I see Sam seeing the watch, I ‘automatically’ assume he is seeing the same as me. (I’m almost certain he is, but that’s not the point here.) It’s the ‘seeing’ that misleads us. 

Imagine the same situation if we were both blind. Although we could both feel the watch, hear it ticking etc. I don’t think we would have anything like the same confidence that we both perceived the watch in exactly the same way. I think we would be much less likely to attach meaning to the object itself and much more likely to create that meaning in the language and behaviour that surrounded the object.
I think there’s something about the act of ‘seeing’ that makes it seem very powerful in the way we understand the world around us, (that’s probably why I draw so many diagrams.) 
The ‘meaning’ of watch is not attached to the object, but is in all the things we ever say and do with the watch. 
Imagine a society, perhaps in the future, where people have developed a pretty accurate inbuilt sense of what the time is. They are a very laid back relaxed kind of people and think that the few people who are still obsessed with time and still wear watches are at best old-fashioned and at worst insane. In such a place the meaning of ‘watch’ would be quite different. Wouldn’t it? Think how the question ‘Do you wear a watch?’ would be different. So the meaning of ‘watch’ is not attached to the object but to the language use that surrounds it. 
So the naming of sense impressions in our heads, the naming of beetles in boxes, is without meaning. We have to forget ‘naming’ sense impressions as giving meaning and see that meaning only comes about through language use. 

Does that help? Comments please.
We read a ‘characterisation’ of empiricism by R. F. Holland from his book Against Empiricism: on Education, Epistemology, and Value, in which he alludes to three potential problems with empiricism. He believes that the empiricist account of the origin of ideas involves ‘raw materials’ entering the ‘factory’ of the mind in which they are ‘processed and emerge cut and dried.’ 

The notion of the ‘mind ‘processing’ ideas seems to be beyond the explanations of empiricist theory; neither Locke nor Hume offer any detail on this ‘process’, but then how could they? Why would they? What does Holland want? Mmm..?
Holland also, perhaps more importantly, brings up what we might call the homunculus problem‘. He characterises the empiricist theory of the way ideas spring from sense data as requiring a ‘mind’s eye’ that ‘surveys the products of its own efforts’, as if a little man (homunculus) is required to look at the ‘processed’ sense impressions in order to make sense of them. This of course suggests another homunculus inside the first and so on into infinite regress. 
I think Holland is probably missing the point, but this is not the time to say why. His criticism is powerful. 
Holland also gently mocks Hume’s notion of the pre-established harmony’  by which ‘we find that our thoughts and conceptions have occurred in an order matching the order of events in the other works of nature.’  Holland is here referring to the apparent flaws in empiricist thinking that seem to lead to ‘solipsism‘. If we never ‘advance a step beyond ourselves‘ as Hume suggests then how come we can reach agreement about the contents of our own minds?
We saw how Hume, writing some 60 years later, builds on Locke’s empiricist foundations and develops many of his views. Hume also rejects innate ideas and believes that all our thoughts are given through the senses.
Hume believes that;
we can divide the mind’s perceptions into two classes, on the basis of their different degrees of force and liveliness. The less forcible and lively are commonly called ‘thoughts’ or  ‘ideas’.
For Hume, these ideas are pale copies of the more direct and immediate perceptions we have when we are actually experiencing something rather than thinking about it. He calls these more direct perceptions ‘impressions’, and explains that he uses this term to mean, ‘all our more lively perceptions when we hear or see or feel or love or hate or desire or will.’
So Hume thinks that ideas are got from the way we experience the world physically, emotionally and intellectually (although I’m not sure if he would approve of those divisions of our experience) but that all our ideas are ‘fainter perceptions of … our impressions.’ As he puts it, ‘all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.’

Hume’s Marvelous Method for Solving Philosophical Disputes!

As Hume believed that all ideas were faint ‘copies’ of the sense ‘impressions‘ that they originated in, he was able to propose a method for solving certain philosophical problems by tracing the ideas these problems involved back to their original ‘impressions‘. If an idea could not be traced back to its original sense ‘impression‘ then it must be empty, meaningless and not worth pursuing. 

I got you to try to apply this ‘method’ to the notion of  ‘a time when nothing happens’. This caused a lot of confusion and ‘debate’, but eventually we all agreed (I think) that because we could not have experienced a time when nothing happens, we cannot have a sense impression to base our idea on and therefore the idea was empty and meaningless. 

It is confusing because we ‘think’ we can imagine such a time, but we tend to imagine ourselves or someone ‘observing’ nothing happening, but of course the observation itself is something happening.

So we agreed that what we actually experience as ‘time’ is in fact change and ‘time’ as a ‘substance‘ separate from change does not exist if Hume is correct. 

We saw how Locke’s views on primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities emphasise his belief in the physical world as grounding the sense data that empiricism relies on.
Locke’s famous snowball has primary qualities of ‘solidity, extension, figure and mobility’, in other words it takes up a certain round space in the world, you can see it and if it hits you, you’ll feel it! These qualities are in the snowball itself and will not vary according to the circumstances of the person experiencing it: they are what we might call (although I don’t think Locke does) objective qualities.
On the other hand the secondary qualities such as colours sounds and tastes vary as the circumstances of the person experiencing the snowball vary: the first snowball to hit you feels colder that than the fifth, the colour and sound it presents to your senses varies according to when, where and how you experience it.
So, if Locke thinks that the objects in the real world have primary qualities that are independent of observers then he is a ‘realist’. He thinks the world is, and is in a particular way.

Homework for Sam (mainly)

How does Wittgenstein’s ‘private language argument‘ show the problems with Locke’s view of language as naming sense impressions/ideas in the mind? 
I believe I’ve answered this below! But you may disagree.
Some catching up is required – apologies – sometimes life gets in the way. 

So I’ve lumped together several things, all of which are very important and your grasp of them will be crucial to your success. They are quite difficult ideas because they are counter-intuitive – we’re not used to thinking them, and so they tend to slip away if you don’t keep going over the ideas in your mind. If my explanations aren’t good enough for you there are lots of excellent resources on the internet, in particular the podcasts available at …….

Lets start with Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein asks us to imagine that everybody has a matchbox with a beetle in it (init?). No-one can see inside anybody else’s box, but we all agree that what’s in the box is ‘beetle’. The point is that it doesn’t actually matter what’s in the box, we could all have different things, or nothing at all, as long as we ‘play’ the language game referring  to the things in the boxes as ‘beetle’ it doesn’t matter. The meaning of the word exists in the ‘language use’ about the things in the boxes; the meaning is dependent on this community of language users. The meaning of the word does not depend on what’s in the box, but on the language use in which it is referred to. The meaning is not in the ‘label’ that the mind attaches to the sense impression, it is in the ‘negotiation’ and interaction with other language users that the meaning comes about. 

This is most relevant for us because it sheds light on the empiricist idea that words name sense impressions that are ‘sealed’ inside the heads of individual observers, hidden away from everyone else just like the beetles. Because we cannot share the sense impressions, but we clearly share meaning, the meaning must be outside our heads in the use of language within our language community. 

The idea that we all name the same ideas inside our heads – that all our beetles just happen to be identical is clearly absurd. (well, when I say ‘clearly’ …) Nigel Warburton in his excellent book Philosophy the Classics describes it like this;  
I have privileged access to the contents of my own mind that does not extend to the contents of yours. It is as if I have special access to a private cinema in which my thoughts and feelings are displayed; no one else has any idea of what happens within my private cinema. My experience is private to me, and yours to you. No one can really know my pain or my thoughts. I can describe my inner experience to myself, and no one else is able to judge whether or not my descriptions are accurate.


Once you have fully grasped the notion of ‘sense impressions’ as things that exist inside the mind then it’s not difficult to see how empiricism falls into solipsism
Be certain you really get what is implied when Hume says,The mind never has anything present to it except the perceptions, and can’t possibly experience their connection with objects.’ 

Although Hume has little in common with him, it might be useful to think of this as a little like Plato’s ‘cave’ analogy. All the prisoners had were the shadows on the wall, they could not turn their heads or leave the cave to check the status of the shadows; it would never occur to them to do so because, to them, the shadows were reality. Similarly we cannot leave our heads to check how fully sense impressions mirror reality. 

Hume didn’t see this as problematic, but the kind of philosophers who want to find some objective ground, some ‘certainty’ beyond the particular circumstances of time and chance do. The kind of philosophers who want to escape the ‘cave’ and see the ‘reality’ behind the appearance, do. But Hume insists that, ‘We never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appeared in that narrow compass.’  For Hume, we just are inside our heads with the ideas that are ‘dimmer’ copies of the original sense impressions. 

So if we are locked into our heads with our own individual sense impressions then how do we come to attach any meaning to the ‘ideas’ that the sense impressions leave us with? 


Wittgenstein’s so called ‘private Language Argument makes  the point that a language that attempts to ‘name’ or give meaning to private sensations is impossible because it has no ‘touchstone’, no point of reference to keep its meaning consistent. This argument seems to rely on the very concept of ‘meaning ‘ being almost synonymous (meaning the same thing) with ‘sharing’.  If it isn’t then you wouldn’t need a ‘touchstone’.  

If language is an intrinsically public phenomenon, and language sets the limits of our thoughts then the contents of our minds don’t seem as private as we might have believed.  Certainly it seems to make the notion of solipsism illogical. How can we define ourselves as solitary and locked in when the very use of the word shows us to be part of a language community.

If a private language is impossible then simply knowing a language refutes solipsism. We cannot be locked in if we are part of a language community and simply knowing a language confirms us as members of a language community

I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll stop.

You should be aware that this interpretation of Wittgenstein’s views is known as the community view for obvious reasons, it is not the only view, but it is the one that makes the most sense to me. (And Nigel, I believe.)

Don’t watch this!

I think he’s losing his grip on Locke, consciousness and reality.

But he might be brilliant. If I can bring myself to watch again I’ll probably know. Probably.

I’ve done a little summarising of the Locke we’ve done this week, but I’m going to save the primary & secondary ideas stuff until you’ve done the homework!

John Locke ‘Primary & Secondary Qualities
  • Explain Locke’s distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities. 
  • Why does Locke feel it is necessary to distinguish between primary & secondary qualities?
  • Can you think of any problems or flaws in the idea of primary & secondary qualities?
  • Why does this distinction make Locke a realist? 
  • Could he justify or ground his ‘realism’ – if so how? if not why not?
  • What are the implications of Locke’s view in terms of constructing an epistemological theory?  
Have a good think about these things and say as much as you can. 
Due Wednesday 21st October
This week, amongst other things and many interesting philosophical ramblings, we read from ‘Book 2, Chapter 1’ of Locke’s  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and saw how he believed our minds come to be filled with ideas.  We saw that,  for Locke, all ideas come from two sources: 
   1. experience of ‘external objects’ received through our senses 
   2. experience of the workings of our own minds. 
As he puts it: 
Our understandings derive all the materials of thinking from [1] observations that we make of external objects that can be perceived through the senses, and [2] of the internal operations of our minds, which   we perceive by  looking in at ourselves. 
For Locke, those are the only ways that we get ideas. He says, ‘These two are  the fountains of knowledge, from which arise all the ideas we have or can naturally  have.’
    (‘Essay’ Bk ii Ch.1)
Locke goes on to distinguish between ‘simple‘ and ‘complex‘ ideas.
In Book 2, Ch 12, he says that the mind ‘exerts its power’ on simple ideas in 3 ways:

(1)  Combining several simple ideas into one compound one; that is how all complex ideas are made.
(2)  Bringing together two ideas, whether simple or complex, setting them side by side so as to see  them both at once, without uniting them into one; this is how the mind gets all its ideas of relations.

 (3)  Separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence; this is   called abstraction, and it is how all the mind’s general ideas are made.
He goes on to tell us that:
 ‘Ideas thus made up of several simple ones I call complex. Examples are ·the ideas of· beauty,  gratitude,  a man, an army, the universe.’
So, to make complex ideas we take simple ideas and mix them, put them side by side, or try to see them in isolation from other simple ideas that they may be muddled and confused with. 

Locke on Innate Ideas

We saw that Locke had several arguments against the notion of innate ideas and they went something like this:

If any idea were innate in all human minds then surely certain ideas would be universally accepted and agreed on. But they’re not.

Locke says that, 

to imprint anything on the mind without the mind’s perceiving it seems to me hardly intelligible. So if children and idiots have souls, minds, with those principles imprinted on them, they can’t help perceiving them and assenting to them. 

In other words it makes no sense to speak of an idea being in our minds without us being aware of it. How can we have ‘understandings’ that we don’t understand. Surely the whole point of an idea is that it is ‘had’. (As in, “I’ve just had an idea!” said Clive.)

Locke attacks saying this the argument that we only come to knowledge of these ‘innate’ ideas when we develop our ‘reason’, saying that it is non-sensical and seems circular’ because in order to know innate ideas we have to have reason, but the evidence that we have ‘reason’ is our knowledge of innate ideas. Doh!

This attack on innate ideas was revolutionary in Locke’s day and has profound implications: if a person is ‘blank slate’ then we can draw anything on it. This makes politics, education and the whole nature of a society fundamental to the kind of human beings it produces. This is the old nature/nurture debate which seems to rumble on forever without ever really getting anywhere, usually because the people debating it have political axes to grind and are not actually open to discussion. 

I wanted to remind you of the point of the stuff we’d looked at – why did Descartes bother to sit in his oven searching for certainty? What was the story? So we wrote  a little note that was similar to what follows except I’ve tried to improve and clarify it. And I’ve added a long rambling introduction. 

Descartes was working in a difficult period, (aren’t we all?), he was very keen on the new scientific thinking or ‘natural philosophy’ as it was called, which had begun to question the dominant religious ideology of the time. It was only 100 years since Copernicus had rather upset the church by demonstrating the ‘revolutionary’ idea that the Earth revolved around the sun, thus shifting ‘man’ from the centre of the universe where God had apparently put him. 

Descartes himself was big on maths inventing Cartesian coordinates by which you can identify the precise spot at which a fly is located on a ceiling!  Anyway, he wanted to apply the new ‘scientific’ way of thinking to the most fundamental questions like ‘is Scott right about the Matrix?’  He wanted to turn the rigour of rational thought inward and examine the contents of his mind. But we could also read his Meditations as a program for rebuilding society: Descartes wanted to sweep away superstition and received wisdom and replace it with rationally constructed principles.  He also wanted to show that he could prove a) the power of ‘men’ to use rational thought and b) that God existed. If he could use the power of rational thought to prove that God existed then he hoped the church might see the rational enquiring mind as less threatening and more helpful.

So, if Descartes was to challenge all the strange ideas of his time he had to have a strong foundation for his own knowledge claims. that foundation is of course provided by his ‘cogito’, and on this point of certainty that he ‘grounds’ his epistemology. The cogito is thus ‘foundational’. 

Having established beyond any scepticism the certainty of his existence as a thinking thing, Descartes can claim epistemological grounds for his subsequent ideas about the nature of the physical world that he perceives through his senses, (like the wax) but knows and understands through his faculty of Reason.

John Locke, some 50 years later, rejects Descartesʼ ideas as to how to ground knowledge. For Locke the mind is a blank slate – a tabula rasa, and all the ideas, all the knowledge that we come to possess comes to us through our senses. 

This dispute sets up a philosophical debate that has, in various forms, rumbled on into contemporary philosophy. 

The argument can be summed up in basic terms as a dispute about how the kinds of things that seem to go on inside our heads relate to the kinds of things that seem to go on outside our heads. Do we have accurate representational knowledge of the world? Is that even a sensible question? 

Three Minute Philosophy

Found a “Three Minute Philosophy on John Locke” on YouTube. Thought I’d post it on here…

Fisticuffs in Filosophy!

We examined the distinctions between logical and empirical truths and had a very stimulating debate! Joe and Jake were very reluctant to accept the idea that there was a clear distinction between the statements ‘All humans are mortal‘ & ‘Children are younger than their parents‘ or ‘Accepting the notion of linear time, children are younger than their biological parents.’ – as it ended up. Even if we accept strange experiments with genetic material no-one can ever be older than the genetic material from which they come. 

The point is that it would be possible to adjust the concept of ‘human’ to include the notion of immortality if we ever have empirical knowledge of such a thing, (and I accept the whole notion of infinity raises all sorts of problems), but it’s logically possible, whereas it is logically impossible to adjust the meaning of the word ‘child’ so that it doesn’t mean ‘of a parent’. 

In the opinion of the referee (me) Scott, Sam & Will (Georgina was lucky enough to miss the atmosphere of violence and intimidation) won at least 2 -1. 🙂

We finished off Descartes (the first 3 Meditations anyway, which is enough for our purposes at the moment) and then got to grips with some of the important concepts they involve. 

The term ‘a priori‘ which translates as something like ‘before experience’ doesn’t really mean ‘before’ experience which makes it confusing. What it means is ‘independent of’ or ‘outside of’ experience, but the easiest way to think of it is as knowledge that you don’t need to go and check by having a look at the world – you don’t need ’empirical evidence’ – you don’t need to use your senses. So, you can know that the internal angles of a triangle add up 180º without having to go out and feel, sniff, see, hear or eat any triangles. 

Think about a perfect circle. Because that’s all you can do: think about it, that is, because a perfect circle does not exist anywhere in the real world (honest, Joe!) So you can only know a ‘perfect’ circle in an ‘a priori’ way. A problem with this kind of knowing is that it doesn’t seem very different to ‘imagining’. I can imagine a perfect circle then set out to try and build one and I might end up with something very useful for wheels and things. I can imagine a perfect society where everyone values learning, art and fairness, and I can set out to build one. So what’s the difference?  Mmm … I’ll stop there. 

Although you should be aware, that the term a priori is not uncontentious (some philosophers suggest the term has no real meaning or content: see Michael Devitt’s ‘No Place for the a Priori’  at
Unfortunately our exam board still seem to take the notion as a given (see Paper One, Q. 1, May 2009). I hope to point out their ignorance at a forthcoming meeting. 

Big, Important homework!

Explain how Descartes’ thoughts about the wax help him to understand more clearly:
a) his nature as a ‘thing that thinks’
b) his ideas about the separation of mind and body into two distinct ‘substances’: body and mind / physical and metaphysical. (Cartesian dualism) 
Due Monday 5th October (plenty of time – no excuses!) 
Below is a revised, redrafted and extended (hurrah! they cry) version of the various notes I have written with you and last year’s lot on this wax business. It’s got quite long and I possibly repeat myself a little, but it has been useful to me to re-read and re-write it, so I hope it will help you.  I suppose it represents a kind of response to the wax essay question, but try not to rip me off too much. (You might be better off writing your response before you read it).
Anyway …

Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ are an attempt to find the foundations of objective (certain and unchanging) knowledge. Descartes believes that if he can find an Archimedian point – just one thing about which there can be no doubt then he will be able to ground all his other ideas. It is an attempt to construct a complete epistemology – a theory of knowledge – by building, piece by piece (brick by brick) on his foundation of certainty. (The cogito)

Having found his one point of certainty, that he exists as a ‘thinking thing’ Descartes tries to work out the status of the ideas that run through this ‘thinking thing’ that he is. His problem is that most of his ideas seem to come through his senses and he has already shown these to be unreliable and deceiving.

He decides that this thinking thing is a thing that doubts, perceives, affirms, denies, wills, does not will, that imagines also and which feels.’ These activities of the mind are the more certain the less they have to do with the physical world. Therefore the imagination, which seems to build its ideas from perceptions of the physical world is less trustworthy than, for example, the act of doubting, (Remember Descartes prefers geometry to geography for similar reasons.)

In his Second Meditation, having pushed his scepticism, his method of doubt, through arguments concerning illusion and dreams and on to the point of considering that a malignant demon might be feeding him illusions about the world, Descartes, finally arrives at his point of certainty, ‘I am, I exist‘, he claims, and goes on to say that this ‘must be true whenever I assert it or think it.‘ To be thinking the thought of one’s existence is, in itself, proof of that existence, he says.

Although Descartes is now certain of his existence as a mental entity he is still in doubt about the thoughts and ideas that he has as a thinking thing. (where do they come from? how trustworthy are they? are some more trustworthy than others?) He thinks again about the ideas that seem to come to him through the senses and begins to reconsider the physical world and the way he perceives it in order to understand how it is that he can be certain about his mental existence, but in doubt about the physical world.

In a famous passage he considers the way his senses give him perceptions of a piece of wax, and how those perceptions are utterly different and distinct depending on whether the wax is hard or melted. He concludes that although we normally understand our senses as providing us with understanding: to ‘see’ something is to understand it we believe, the example of the wax shows Descartes that ‘Something that I thought I saw with my eyes … was really grasped solely by my mind’s faculty of judgment.

Descartes discussion of the wax is central to understanding his notion of what it is to be a human being. It is his ability to conceive (have a concept of) the wax that, for him, demonstrates the power of rational thought. He concludes that because the information given to him by his senses about the wax is insufficient to allow him to know that the wax remains the same thing after it changes all its sensible qualities, it must therefore be his ‘reason‘, his faculty of judgement that gives him knowledge of the wax. It is as if through the power of rational thought the sum of his understanding is greater than the understanding his senses alone could provide. This ‘added power’ provided by ‘reason’ is the underlying principle of Rationalist philosophy.

Descartes believes that knowledge of the external world is gained through the mind’s understanding (judgement) of the information we receive through the senses. The faculty of judgement is a mental capacity (ability) that brings together the ‘raw’ and potentially incoherent information of the senses and allows us to understand.  This makes him a rationalist as opposed to an empiricist. (we’re doing them next).

For Descartes, this wax business confirms his belief that, he can know his internal world – his mental processes – better and more certainly than he can the external physical world. This emphasises the separation and the difference of the two ‘stuffs’ mental and physical and makes clear his dualism’. 

To Infinity and Beyond!

But surely that’s an incoherent statement, Buzz!

Yes, it’s time to clamber onto the shoulders of giants (Scott will help) and see new worlds (or at least the old world in new ways) ; it’s time to light fires of fascination and inspiration then cast buckets of cold doubt all over them! Vast lightbulbs of insight will illuminate in our small heads only for the fuse to go moments later, but …
… We will emerge much wiser, much more annoying and knowing far less than we knew before only in a much cleverer way:)

Welcome to ‘philosophybloglog’ the much anticipated sequel to the hugely successful ‘philsophylogblog’.

We saw how Descartes used a form of extreme scepticism: he doubted everything he thought he ‘knew’, even the evidence of his senses.

He gives examples of three different ways in which he may be wrong about how he perceives the world. Firstly he uses the argument from illusion; (the stick in the water) to show that his senses are not reliable. Secondly he suggests he could be dreaming: the argument from dreaming. And thirdly he considers that a malignant demon may be deceiving him deliberately about everything: the argument from deception.

We also learned the meaning of ‘epistemology’, it is the study of what it is possible to know: is knowledge of the world possible, if so what?

Results are coming in thick and fast: Sam & Georgie appear to have confirmed their status as rival intellectual giants of the MHS philosophy department! Nicola has struck a blow (small) for girl power, but the real interest now surrounds the rump of the remaining ‘students’ (I use the term loosely) … it’s all gone very quiet over there … Will … Luke … Connor … Victoria … Rebecca …. where are you? Let’s be having you!

Don’t worry / get over excited about your results, after all, who’s keeping score? (Apart from UCAS and potential employers that is.)

1. Research and explain the difference between substance and property dualism. (Use Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and others, do not simply copy and paste).

2. Summarise Ryle’s notion of ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ you could try this:

3. Explain why materialism and physicalism can be regarded as ‘reductive’.

4. Investigate the claim that Descartes’ substance dualism leads to solipsism.

5. Work out what P.F Strawson means when he claims that ‘the concept of a person is logically prior to that of an individual consciousness’.

6. Buy and read Daniel C Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Evolves

The HOMEWORK was to Define ‘qualia‘ and summarise Thomas Nagel’s ‘bat argument(in your own words) for Tuesday’s lesson. Don’t just copy and paste there will be a TEST!

This is a fairly difficult text and represents a plunge into the middle of the various arguments around contemporary philosophy of mind. I’ll attempt to summarise shortly. But bear in mind that reading this kind of text with care and concentration is like aerobic training for the brain/mind: it makes it fitter.

Today we embarked on a voyage to the centre of the mind!

In particular we read the opening of Searle’s ‘Minds, Brains & Programs’ which seeks to throw some light on the nature of consciousness, understanding and to some extent intentionality by attacking the claims of the proponents of AI (artificial intelligence).

The main thrust of Searle’s argument stems from his description of a thought experiment, ‘The Chinese Room’ in which a non Chinese speaker is apparently able to produce answers to questions about a story written in Chinese by following a code of formal symbols, along the lines of ‘if you see this squiggle then produce this sqoggle.’

Searle’s point is that although someone following such a code could produce the same answers as a Chinese speaker they would have no ‘understanding’ of the story themselves. This is, he claims, all AI ever does. And that to claim AI demonstrates understanding is wrong.



KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD is all about trying to understand the way human beings are in the world:
  • what is the relationship between our thoughts and the things we think about?
  • How do the things that seem to go on inside our heads connect with the things that seem to go on outside our heads?
  • What is this division between the internal (our minds) and the external (the rest of the world) really all about? Is there even a division at all?

Don’t be afraid to make these kind of points. They show you know what the point of all this stuff is.

FREE WILL & DETERMINISM is also absolutely fundamental to understanding what it is to be a human being living a life. Are we really in charge of ourselves in the way everybody assumes we are? Are we really autonomous beings?

If we’re not, and it’s hard to see how we are completely in control, then the important question is how much are we in control? and that’s when things get really complicated – compatibilism etc.

FINALLY: If you’ve run out of things to say it’s nearly always relevant to mention Wittgenstein and the idea that all meaning is socially constructed through language and therefore no meaning is ever fixed and certain. The meanings of words and ideas are constantly shifting and changing. It is quite possible that the meaning of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ will become changed or blurred together so that all the ideas discussed in KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD become outdated. Remember, some languages have no word for ‘me’, does that mean that individuals don’t exist in the same way in those cultures?

IF all meaning is constructed and constantly re-negotiated and changed then what we understand by idea of ‘free-will’ will change into something different. Hume said way back that the argument was all about the meaning of the words. And Dennett trying to change the way we understand free will.

Say these things: you need the technical jargon to say them, just sound fascinated by the ideas and you’ll score marks. Although if you can remember the proper terms that’s even better.

Good luck and remember the stones.

I thought the questions were on the toughish side of my expectations, although the ‘sense experience’ one was ok.

You probably don’t care, but I am very annoyed that they used a command term ‘critically discuss’ that was not in the list of command terms they published: I will be having words!

Also the first question ‘Explain two ways in which it is possible to have a priori knowledge’ is, to be blunt, cobblers! It suggests what I feared, that the kind of people setting the questions were taught philosophy by people who learned their philosophy in about 1930 from people who learned theirs in about 1880!

The notion of ‘a priori knowledge‘ is regarded as highly contentious: an awful lot of the best philosophers think it’s a nonsense. After Wittgenstein and the so called ‘linguistic turn’ any kind of knowledge is seen as depending on the language that ‘forms’ that ‘knowledge’, therefore even ‘analytic’ truths depend on ‘experience’ of the language that expresses the concepts, unless we think we can ‘know’ that the angles of a triangle add up to 180º before we have language.

So to write a question that suggests its existence is a fact is pathetic. And makes me angry! GrrrHHH!! Wait ’til I’m in charge!!

You must read the blog on Pink below and the article Thomas Pink on The ethics of humanity and its enemies – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill before you read this.

The main point of Pink’s article (certainly the one we might talk about in the exam) is that;given the almost universal academic scepticism about our possession of an actual ability or freedom to determine for ourselves’ there is a danger that the ideas promoted by science and many philosophers, about what a human being is and the rights they have, will be redefined in a way that, for Pink, is threatening and dangerous.

His point is that if we come to see human beings as not having free will, as not being autonomous, not having any control over the course of their lives, then their worth, their ‘value’ seems to be less. Pink fears that this will mean that the vulnerable, the less able, the less skilled, the less productive, will be treated badly.

He also fears that this view of humanity as just another ‘animal’, just another lump of physical stuff, will encourage what he sees as dangerous genetic experiments.

This is another example of how philosophy and science have huge political implications.

You must read the article to get this. There is a link to it in the Pink blog below.

It is important to understand that ideas around free will and determinism have enormous political implications. If human beings are not autonomous – in charge of their own lives – then it becomes difficult to talk about morality or any conception of praise or blameworthy behaviour. It also becomes very difficult to say why human beings should have human rights as the whole notion of what a human being is seems to be in doubt. (See Pink & the Animals)

Sartre had a largely deterministic or materialistic (materialism is very similar to determinism, but is associated with Marx which is why I use it here) view of humanity: his politics were based on Marxism, but he rejected Marx’s idea that ‘life determines consciousness’ believing instead that we choose our lives through the power of our free will: ‘consciousness determines life.’

The context of Sartre’s philosophy is key to understanding his position. Sartre lived through the second world war and fought the Nazi invasion of France. For someone who was aware of the horrors of the holocaust etc. a view that allowed a human being to excuse their behaviour on the grounds that it was determined – caused by prior events and outside their control, was unnaceptable. (Many Nazis attempted to excuse their crimes by claiming they were only following orders.)

Sartre’s comment that anyone who claimed their actions were determined was ‘scum’ is best understood in light of this historical context.

This should be read in conjunction with the handout Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Section 8: Liberty and necessity Part 1.

Hume takes a compatibilist position on the free will and determinism question. He believes that although human behaviour is utterly regular and predictable, but because Hume denies the absolute necessity of cause & effect (as a law) but claims all we see is constant conjunction, he seems to open up the possibility of some kind of human agency: some kind of ‘autonomy’ over our lives.

However, Hume does believe that are actions and choices are the effects of prior causes. He says that although some behaviour may be hard to explain, if we knew all the details of a person’s life we would be able to work out why they did what they did. He gives the example of how a ‘peasant’ could not explain why a watch had stopped but a clockmaker could.

Below is a series of notes that I haven’t worked into sentences yet, but I’m posting them anyway and I’ll sort them out soon.

We think we have free will because we do not feel as if our choices are determined in the same way as the events that occur with inanimate objects.

choices must be connected to motives / circumstances. If not what would they arise from?

choices form part of ‘causal chain’

We are determined by prior events but our choices form part of those prior events.

Because Hume denies the absolute necessity of cause & effect (as a law) he seems to open up the possibility of some kind of human agency.