On truth and revelation

Jonathan asked:

I wondered if there was any rational and logical reasons in disbelieving stories of divine interventions that many religions pretend. Most certainly yes, as we do not have any reason to believe them in the first place. However, if such divine revelation were to happen directly to any one of us personally (you or me), we would certainly be obliged in believing it.

So my question is: What if such revelation were to happen to thousands of people at once, but you personally are not part of this group, should you believe it? What kind of credibility such event should have? I am asking this because I think it is the case with the (pretended) revelation found in the Bible at Mount Sinai, and wondered if any historian, theologist, or philosopher has ever thought of this. Thank you in advance for your help as this question does bother me for quite a while now.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This an excellent question that applies as much to epistemology — or ‘theory of knowledge’ — as it does to theology. The sense that something has been ‘revealed’ to us, when it comes, seems beyond all uncertainty and doubt. One example outside theology would be the sudden illumination that tells you your life’s purpose. You ‘see’ the way ahead. You ‘know’ what you have to do, from here onwards. There is no obstacle so great that it could block your path.

Yet even on the personal level, leaving aside other persons and whatever they believe or disbelieve, you may also recall that you have experienced more than one such episode in your life. And later, in the cool light of day, all you can do is wonder that you were so easily persuaded of the ‘truth’.

But let’s stick with theology. After months of anguish at my failures, or losses, one day I wake up with the absolute and certain knowledge that Jesus loves me. Human beings love to be loved. The emotion of divine comforting embrace banishes all questions and doubts. And yet, thereafter, doubts may return, and it becomes harder and harder to recall that moment when I ‘knew’. The words reduce to a mantra or magic spell that over time loses its efficacy, fades and dies from over use.

Or not. Human beings differ. Those who claim to have been ‘born again’ might yet succeed in shoring up their defences against doubt, especially — band this is the important point that relates to your question — while in the company of other persons who claim to have experienced a similar episode of illumination. Should we believe them when they say that they know, beyond all doubt, that they have been ‘saved’?

Human testimony can be a source of knowledge, but I doubt whether this is true in the case of the claim of revelation. Regardless of the numbers of persons involved, One would have to experience the revelation for oneself. That is my answer to your question.

There is something else, that relates to truth telling. If you’re going to tell a lie, be crystal clear and honest with yourself that you are lying. What do you hope to achieve by your lie? What are the likely consequences if you are found out? The worst kind of lie is when you give in to the temptation to believe. As if you could change the facts by your lying words. Ministers of religion, as persons looked up to by their congregations, are especially prone to this trap.

This isn’t a soap box and I am not going to call al religious believers liars. If you had a problem in engineering and then a sudden revelation of the solution, there would be a way of testing this out. The broken machine is now fixed, or not fixed. Knowing that God has spoken to you, or that Jesus loves you may make you a happier person, or drive away the fear of death, but that is not in itself a test of the truth of what you believe.

Justice and the death penalty

Iling Chen asked:

I have a question about the connection between justice and death penalty. There was once, our class was discussing if there is a justice behind “a life for a life”, the classmates who oppose such saying were much more than those who support. However, when the question changed to”Do you support death penalty?” The supporters were much more than those who opposed. But such a difference doesn’t make sense to me. If you oppose the former, how come you support the later at the same time? Do you have any explanation for such a result? Thank you.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question is an example of the kind which regularly puzzles producers of opinion surveys. At first glance it seems that your two questions amount to the same thing. However, in this case there is an important nuance. ‘A life for a life’ is a condensed argument. Is it always the case that you have to forfeit your life if you cause a human being to die? Consider, for example, death caused by dangerous driving.You are undoubtedly to blame, but you had no intention to case another human being to die. In the UK, as I believe in many countries, you would expect to spend some time in jail, even where there is a death penalty.

On the other hand, there are countries where you can receive a death penalty for theft, notably China. Is this deserved? In the time of Charles Dickens, you could be hung for stealing a loaf of bread. According to Wikipedia, ‘Although unused, the death penalty remained a legally defined punishment for certain offences such as treason until it was completely abolished in 1998’. The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1969, and the last hanging took place in 1964.

To some persons, there is something horrendous and frightful about the very act of judicial killing. I have an opinion on this but the Ask a Philosopher site is not a forum for expressing personal opinions. The question is whether there is an argument in favour of the death penalty for any offence, however severe, or whether, on the contrary, the death penalty is never justified, in any circumstances whatsoever.

So there will be persons who reject the simplistic, ‘a life for a life’ argument, who would nevertheless be willing in principle to support the death penalty, perhaps for mass murder, or rape and murder. I think that answers your question. I don’t have a compelling argument for or against the death penalty in principle, except to say that a supporter of the death penalty ought to be prepared to be the one who does the killing, the execution, rather than leaving this to a functionary of the state.

Ask a Philosopher by Geoffrey Klempner 2011-2021

Ruth asked:

When is your book coming out?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It’s here!

Here are 244 answers by Dr Klempner to questions submitted online to askaphilosopher org from 2011–2021. The ‘Ask a Philosopher’ service was launched in 1999 originally on the University of Sheffield web site and has been running continuously from that date.

This book covers everything that a person approaching the study of philosophy for the first time might want to ask, as well as frequent college essay topics. The questions range from the urgently practical to the metaphysical – to the absurd. In Klempner’s view, ‘There is no such thing as a foolish question. But be prepared to consider the possibility that you may be wrong!’

Klempner has written articles on metaphysics, ethics, practical philosophy, business ethics, science fiction and the philosophy of photography. While a graduate student at Oxford University, he supplemented his grant as a singer and guitarist at a popular bar and retains a keen interest in contemporary music. His wide range of interests illustrates his motto on the philosophos org web site, ‘Philosophy is for everyone, not just philosophers. Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’

Born in London in 1951, Klempner attended University College School. Hampstead, London. After graduating with First Class Honours in Philosophy from Birkbeck College London he went on to University College Oxford, gaining his D.Phil in 1982. In 1995 he founded the online distance learning program, Pathways to Philosophy, which has attracted students from over 90 countries.

Enjoy your reading!

If you liked Ask a Philosopher 2011-2021 please add a review on Amazon :)

Causation and personal identity

Michael asked:

I have a question about personal identity, specifically theories that rely upon causal continuity.

I recently came across an objection that I haven’t seen before and this is my attempt to reconstruct it.

1. Theories of Personal Identity rely upon causal continuity, specifically theories such as Psychological Continuity Theory.

2. We stand in causal relationships with other people as well. For example, causing them to feel emotions or remember events.

3. We bear no relationship with the people we are in casual relationship with. I.e. I’m not identical my dad whom I caused to remember his birthday.

4. Therefore, causal connections cannot ground personal identity.

This was a very brief argument I read in a paper, and I was trying to figure out its validity and how to respond to it. Thank You.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

To fully answer your question I would have to write a book — which I am not going to do! However, I will try to unpick the main strands of argument.

There is a theory, proposed in the 18th century by John Locke, which holds that psychological continuity is all there is to personal identity. Locke was a mind-body dualist, but argued in a thought experiment (the Prince and the Pauper) that you and I could switch ‘souls’ without either of us being aware of that fact. I am still GK and you are still Michael. In other words, psychological continuity is all that is necessary and sufficient for personal identity.

The main objection to this from David Wiggins (Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity, Sameness and Substance) is that Locke fails to distinguish ‘genuine’ memory from mere ‘seeming’ memory.

For example, I wake up tomorrow morning convinced that I am Napoleon. Under exhaustive questioning, amazingly I am able to ‘remember’ lots of things about Napoleon’s life that no-one could possibly know. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Well, maybe it is just a miracle, or possibly a massive fluke aided by my vivid imagination. What would make the difference, Wiggins would say, is if there is continuity in an organized package or bundle of ‘all that is causally necessary and sufficient’ for my seeming memories of Napoleon to be genuine memories. For that, I would have to possess Napoleon’s physical brain.

In common with many theories of personal identity, there is a problem of ‘splitting’, as in Sydney Shoemaker’s famous ‘split brain’ thought experiment. In a ‘Star Trek’ episode, one of the crew members, Riker, is ‘beamed down’ to a planet but owing to a glitch, two identical Rikers materialize. I’m happy to say that both persons are Riker. They share life histories up to the point when the transmitter beam was switched on. In principle, there could be a thousand or a million Rikers populating the planet, each and every one of them was born at the same time, in the same place, conceived from the same sperm and egg.

David Lewis argues for this view, but it is not that popular. Wiggins rejects it on the grounds that it makes talk of ‘identity’ almost meaningless, but we can bring in Locke here, arguing that personal identity is a ‘forensic’ concept. If Riker committed murder before being beamed down then both Rikers fully deserve to be punished, don’t they? It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the physical ‘stuff’ of Riker is preserved in the process of beaming down. Let’s say there are pots of ‘people stuff’ waiting to be used to make physical copies of Riker’s body. The body of the original Riker was destroyed.

Well, maybe the concept of personal identity is merely a convenience. Maybe the very idea that punishment is ‘deserved’ or not is questionable (an issue that also arises in connection with the free will debate). However, it would not follow that my causing you to have a belief that P would somehow entail problems with the causal account. I wake up in the morning hearing a familiar patter on the roof and form the belief that it is raining. You phone me up and ask what’s the weather like here. I say ‘It is raining,’ and now you believe this too. But the causal link in either case is completely different.

Up until a few years ago, I would have been happy to give a version of this theory. Now I am not. I no longer accept that the physical facts whatever they may be are sufficient for identity. Causation, conceived a physical instance falling under a causal law, is not sufficient. Why? Because ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place’ (as in my book of the same title). The thing I call ‘I’ might or might not have come into existence five seconds ago. If I came into existence five seconds ago, no-one, including me, would ever know. But there is an answer to that question — in ‘ultimate reality’.

On the difference between the truth and facts

Jaqueline asked:

What is the difference between the truth and facts? Is the difference shown more clearly in human science than natural science?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This looks like an essay question. The professor who set the question already has an idea of the kind of answer he/she is looking for. I will deal with this first, and then show why the question is actually of momentous importance.

The facts are the facts, whatever they may be. This is something we say. The facts are the facts, independently of language, or our interests in pursuing them. However, it is well known that in the human sciences there are multiple angles, interpretations, ways of approaching the facts. In historical explanation, or psychology, for example, there are multiple lines one can take, multiple interests in pursuing ‘the truth’. There’s no no single answer to what is the ‘real’ truth of the matter. But the facts are the facts.

In natural science, the distinction is less clear, if it exists at all. However, it remains the case that we never get to the actual facts. Natural science gives theories, and the theory we accept is merely the theory that works best at the present time. The theory of evolution, for example, as far fetched as it may seem to some, is at present the ‘best’ theory we have. To infer from this that it is the truth, or the one and only true representation of the facts, is to go too far. It’s on the table. We look for evidence from the fossil record, test the explanations for consistency, use the theory to classify species. It ‘works’. But it could still be supplanted by a better theory, should one come along.

However, this answer, for me, misses the real question. In 1950 there was a famous debate between the Oxford philosophers J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson (who, incidentally, much later in 1977 was my tutor for my Trinity Term as a graduate student). The debate took place at the Aristotelian Society. Austin was the chief representative of the ‘old guard’, the Oxford philosophers who believed that the key to solving philosophical problems was the careful analysis of ‘ordinary language’. On the question of the truth and facts, Austin pushed the line that according to ‘what we say’, it is the facts that make true statements true. It was a correspondence theory of truth, albeit nuanced. Strawson rebutted Austin’s account, arguing that there is no real difference between true statements and facts. A ‘fact’ is simply what a true statement states, nothing more.

Still with me? Strawson won the debate. At least, that is the accepted view. His victory marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of Oxford linguistic philosophy. Any talk of ‘correspondence’ is saying more that can meaningfully be said. Decades earlier, the German mathematician Gottlob Frege had argued against any notion of correspondence between statements and ‘facts’. Correspondence would merely be some relation between statements and some entity in the world, but any talk of relation raises the question whether or not it is true that the relation holds. Which immediately leads to a vicious regress. (There is an illuminating account of this in Michael Dummett’s seminal book on Frege, Frege Philosophy of Language, 1973.)

In my second year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College London, I grappled with this topic in an essay I wrote for David Murray (who died in 2016). I felt that Austin had been hard done by, and that there must be a sense in which the facts make true statements true, even if we can’t speak of correspondence. I remember Murray’s pencilled comment, ‘Facts, if they exist, must exist as a matter of necessity. But I would rather defend the necessary existence of God than the necessary existence of facts!’ The point being that even if nothing exists, it is a fact that nothing exists. The universe could be destroyed, leaving nothing behind but it would still be a fact that the universe was no more.

As I would now prefer to state this, there is, there must be, something Real. Whatever we believe, whatever investigations we undertake. We may never know what is Real, with a capital ‘R’, or ultimately Real, but the Real is the Real. — When, in philosophy, one is prompted to assert a tautology as if it expressed a deep and meaningful truth, that is cause for suspicion, a point Wittgenstein repeatedly made in his later philosophy. But I am not moved. For me, nothing is more important than recognition of the existence of the Real, the facts, or the real facts, regardless of it being the case that we may never, or perhaps cannot ever, know what the facts are. We make ‘statements’ we put forward ‘theories’ but these statements or theories, even when accepted as ‘true’, are not the facts.

There is something Real. To really think about this, and at the same time realize the impossibility of conveying any meaningful knowledge, or useful ‘information’ by that statement, is the first step towards metaphysics, a discipline that Austin and his disciples rejected with contempt, and about which Strawson was happy to offer his relatively tame, diluted account in Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics, 1959. We clashed over this in our tutorial meetings, but as one student had warned me in advance, ‘If Strawson says you are wrong, then you are wrong. Don’t attempt to argue the point!’

In answer to your question, emphatically yes, there is a difference between the truth and facts. But the issue goes way deeper than your teacher who set this question is likely to have considered.

Ethical limits to knowledge in the arts

Christine asked:

If we conclude that there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds, how can we determine the boundaries of acceptable investigation within the area of knowledge of arts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question takes the form of a conditional so the first thing we need to decide is whether it is in fact true that ‘there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds’.

I recall a few decades ago, when student protests were an almost weekly occurrence, the demonstrations demanding the resignation of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, Professor of Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London for his claim that the IQ of infants varies with race. Today, it would be unheard of to seek grant funding for research into the relative IQs of the different races, regardless of the expected result. On ethical grounds, we are told, one should simply not go there.

Is that true? I assume that few would challenge research into physical characteristics of different races, so why is intelligence, or more precisely, the ranges of intelligence — logical, visual, musical, emotional etc. — such an ethically sensitive subject? Is it wrong to ask volunteers for a research study to state their ethnicity in their application questionnaire? Or does ethical error only come in when the answers are collated?

To me, this seems like one example where it is somehow more ethical to have inconsistent views on ethics, as Leszek Kolakowsi argued in his brilliant essay, ‘In Praise of Inconsistency’ (Toward a Marxist Humanism, 1967). Nowadays, it is common to ask about ethnicity — in job applications, healthcare provision etc. — in order to guard against bias. How can a researcher avoid noticing differences even if he/she refrains on ethical grounds from putting biro to paper? I leave that for you to judge.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is or could be knowledge that one should not pursue on ethical grounds. What examples could one find in the domain of what you term ‘the arts’? How about the art of torture? One could argue that torture is not only a science but also an art. To be good at it you need talent, as well as factual knowledge. Judging from the offerings of Internet entertainment companies, viewers can’t get enough of murder and torture. Watching these played out in fantasy from our living room couches, we seem to be protected against such horrors. For a short while we are able to forget that we, too, are going to die some day, possibly in terrible pain.

But what about the methods of real life torture? The best place on the human body to put the electrodes, for example, how to judge the precise current to use, depending on one’s perception of the subject’s reaction? Of course, it would be unethical to actually torture people in order to get this knowledge, but much research can be done exploring the work of others, for example, by going through documents left undestroyed by the East German Stasi, or the Nazi concentration camp ‘doctors’.

I do want to know. I don’t want these things to be forgotten, erased from human memory as if they never happened, even though such knowledge can be put to bad use. That is because I value human freedom. That is not the only thing I value, but I value it enough to despise those who would limit freedom on the grounds that ‘it’s best/ safest/ more ethical not to know’. I know how to make nitroglycerine, having once studied Chemistry. As a teenager, I had a laboratory at home complete with glassware and fume cupboard. I’m pretty sure you can find all you want to know on Google, but perhaps in the future it will be made illegal to publish the information, in case it is used by terrorists.

But we are talking about the arts. Another of my interests is photography (see my web site Camera Dreamer or my Flickr feed. A photographer I admire is Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989). In another age, Mapplethorpe would be imprisoned for his sexually explicit black and white photographs. (He has also done wonderful photographs of flowers.) Today, the only examples one can think of where it is unethical to take an interest in photographs with sexual content, is where the subject has been exploited or abused. I accept that there will be some borderline cases, but this is a common problem in many ethical questions.

It is not unethical to take an interest in things that some, or perhaps most human beings find disgusting. The movie, Little Murders (1971), stars Elliot Gould as Alfred, a photographer obsessed with taking photographs of dog turds. However, one could imagine much worse. For example, depictions of human cannibalism. A photojournalist makes a photographic essay about a tribe who practice ritual cannibalism, with shots of a family sitting round a fire, biting chunks out of a recently deceased grandparent. A book has been published, and you are a librarian deciding whether it would be right to purchase this for your library.

One thing you can’t argue is that it is ethically wrong, on principle, to take a photograph of something that is ethically wrong, or wrong to view such photographs, or seek them out. It all depends on the circumstances. Taking photographs of someone being tortured, would be one example. The world needs to know that this has happened,’ is the classic defence of photojournalism, but not if the photographer was in a position to prevent the torture from taking place, or indeed if there is a trace of suspicion that the torture has been deliberately staged for the benefit of the press.

I would be reluctant to set any ethical boundaries to investigation into the arts. As Is stated before, I value human freedom, although that is not the only thing I value. Perhaps my imagination is just not good enough to come up with an example where it would be ethically wrong, in principle, to enquire, to seek out, to view some work of art by virtue of its content, leaving aside the cases I have discussed. Can you do better?