David Hume and the sensible knave

Michelle asked:

Discuss Hume’s response to Glaucon’s challenge

Answer by Craig Skinner

In brief:

Glaucon’s challenge is ‘Why should I be moral, if I can be immoral when it suits me, and can get away with it without loss of reputation?’

Hume has no better answer than Socrates does.

To enlarge:

In book two of Plato’s Republic, telling the story of Gyges who finds an invisibility ring and, using its powers, kills the king, marries the queen and takes all the riches of the kingdom, Glaucon asks Socrates which of us would act differently if we had this kind of power. He challenges Socrates to prove that it is always better to be moral (‘just’), rather than to be immoral even if the latter goes undetected and brings great benefit. Socrates spends the rest of the Republic trying to do this. He claims that immorality always brings psychological damage, and even claims that a moral person who is reviled, rejected, and unjustly regarded as immoral is still happier than an undetected immoral person who is rich and well-respected. Readers of Republic find Glaucon’s question more compelling than Socrates’ answer, and moral philosophers have struggled ever since to better it and to come up with a good argument that will convince an egoist to be moral.

Hume’s response notes the problem, endorses Socrates’ view that immorality damages a person’s integrity and peace of mind, makes the point that in practice immorality risks loss of reputation and future trust, but confesses to no good answer to the determined, careful egoist.

Thus, he says (An Enquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals, Sect. 9, 22-25).

‘…a sensible knave….may think that an act of iniquity….will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union…. That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions: and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions. I must confess that, if a man think that this reasoning much requires an answer, it would be a little difficult to find any which will to him appear satisfactory and convincing.’


‘Inward peace of mind, consciousness of integrity… these are very requisite to happiness… knaves… have sacrificed the invaluable enjoyment of a character for the acquisition of worthless toys…’.

We are not asking why people in general should be moral. As Hobbes said, life in a society with no morality would be solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short. No, the immoral person wants to live in a generally moral society but to take advantage of it in her own self-interest. We are asking why an individual should herself be moral.

Suggested justifications are:

1. God commands it.
2. Makes for fulfilling life.
3. Irrational to do otherwise.

1. God commands it.

Even assuming there are any gods, obeying them for fear of punishment or hope of reward smacks of self-interest. No, just as a (good) god would command the rules because they are good, so we should follow them for this reason. But the egoist disagrees and we are no further on.

2. Makes for fulfilling life.

This is Socrates’ view, later Aristotle’s, Hume’s and modern virtue ethicists’. Virtue is necessary for eudaimonia (flourishing) according to our nature as rational, social, child-rearing mammals. I have sympathy with this view, that the ruthless, wealthy mobster is ignorant of what

constitutes real happiness. But I accept that the sensible knave can simply say it’s crazy to deny Gyges had a good life: he married a queen and ruled a kingdom, what more do you want?

3. Acting immorally is irrational.

This is one strand in the eudaimonic argument (2. above). But is famously the Kantian view, that the moral law is what we legislate for ourselves as rational autonomous beings, so that, being rational agents, we follow it, and to do otherwise is irrational. But again, the egoist can simply

say that she formulates maxims for her own interests and rationally follows them.

For completeness, more recent attempts by Nagel, Parfit and Alison Hills to cast doubt on the rationality or coherence of the egoist position, are, in my view, unconvincing.

In conclusion there is no knockdown argument that can convince a determined egoistic, immoral, ‘sensible knave’ to be moral, no Holy Grail of moral philosophy as it has been termed. But here we are no worse off than we are trying to convince the determined sceptic that the external world exists. I think, with Aristotle and the virtue ethicists, that we have reason to be moral: it is the best way to a fulfilled life, although luck, both good and bad, also plays a big part.


Who will check my claim about alternate electricity?

Adam asked:

Who checks physical ‘laws’ and claims in science?

Who can I ask that will check my claims of alternate electricity and revise the law if need be?

Because despite my desperate attempts to explain them away, my experiments have seem to not just altered, but blown current electrical Lenz Law and electromagnetic theory, and also energy theory out of the water.

Answer by Craig Skinner

The answer is: the scientific community at large.

One of the strengths of science is its robust system of peer review, public discussion, criticism, and repeated testing of ideas against the world. In this way, bad ideas get weeded out, however eminent their advocate, and good ones get accepted even if at first they seem crazy. It may take time, and there may be no agreed view for a long period. Also ideas are sometimes accepted because they work, even though the overall theory has problematic features which, it is hoped, will be sorted out by later work.

A couple of examples to illustrate.

Wegener’s theory of continental drift languished for years – how could any sane person believe the Earth’s land masses were shifting all the time ? But eventually the evidence built up and now it is one of the really secure theories, highly unlikely ever to be thought incorrect.

Newton’s theory of Universal Gravitation was accepted because of its power to predict movement of planets, moons, comets and cannon balls, even though it incorporated a mysterious force acting at a distance through millions of miles of empty space – how could the moon, say, know that the Earth was there, would it still go round in a circle if the Earth were suddenly removed, complained those who supported Descartes’ rival vortex theory. And Newton agreed, saying he merely described what happened mathematically but ‘framed no hypothesis’ as to the real nature of gravity. And it remained a mystery till Einstein concluded that there is no such force, things just move freely in curved space (but whether curved space is less mysterious than action-at-a-distance seems debatable). Although Einstein’s theory has passed every test made of it, it is incompatible with quantum mechanics, another fantastically successful theory, so eventually one or both of these theories will have to be amended to give a good theory of quantum gravity. String theory and loop quantum gravity are on the table, but their claims are speculative, so far untestable, and hence not generally accepted. And so science gradually advances our understanding.

As regards your own claims and experiments, the way forward is clear. Select an appropriate Physics Journal (list on Wikipedia), consult its advice as to preferred style, write up your work and submit it. If it’s considered nonsense, or not nonsense but flawed, or ideas already known, or new but unimportant, you’ll be told right away. If considered more than this, it will be sent to a couple of referees for comment, and thereafter may be accepted, accepted with amendments, or rejected – you will generally be shown referees’ comments. It’s hard work and often disappointing, but this system of public scrutiny and criticism by the scientific community is a good one despite human frailty and prejudice, and occasional research fraud.


Meaning of an artwork to the artist

Christopher asked:

Do you think a piece of art is more meaningful to the artist, or the person experiencing the artwork, most often? I’m specifically thinking about music. A musician can write a song that just expresses some idea and has no personal meaning to the artist, but a person can then listen to the song and relate to it in such a way that it becomes personally meaningful to him/her. I think this happens a lot, but I think a lot of the time an artists true meaning is lost or not communicated to the listener/ viewer. Also, having an ‘aesthetic experience’ which I’ve seen some philosophers write about may or may not occur for the artist.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let’s start from the end of your question. You say you’ve seen some philosophers writing about aesthetic experiences, and I wonder why you didn’t ask them your question while you were watching them?

It could have been valuable for you, because as they were writing, they might have told you that thinking and writing is a different experience from reading another writer’s book. And your question would never have been born, because you would have realised that writing a song is not having an aesthetic experience, because the song doesn’t yet exist.

But you are entirely correct that the audience of a song, or play, or painting, or symphony will find it a meaningful experience, whether in the positive or negative sense. Whereas the composer, painter or poet may (at least sometimes) be quite indifferent and regard it as a piece of hackwork, done merely for the pay.

And so we arrive at the beginning of your question. Art is quite plainly of greater interest to an audience than to an artist, because there are many audience-people and very few artists. So you’ve already nailed it down from the quantity angle.

The other angle is that artists are rarely objective judges of the value of their own work. Some overestimate their own talent; some are very casual about it; others might pursue an obsession for their whole life and sacrifice health and happiness for it. But this is usually quite irrelevant. In the end, the people who pay to watch or hear are the ones who make the final decision. This is because art is not something artists dreamed up for their own pleasure, but the people and communities who have a need for this kind of entertainment, edification, ritual or commemoration. So the need comes first, the artist later. Necessarily the thing he or she makes must be needed and to meet that need. And artists who supply that need well, and often, might finish up as ‘the greats of our culture’ and sometimes even as millionaires.


Free will versus determinism

Zizipho asked:

Is determinism true or false? Do we have free will or not?

Answer these questions with reference to the Dilemma of Determinism.

Justify your answer and defend it against some possible objections.

Beverly asked:

From a philosophical point of view do you think human is determined or free?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

As I recall, the Dilemma of Determinism was espoused by William James. It goes along the lines that if determinism is true – an effect is the necessary consequence of a prior cause – we do not possess free will. If determinism is false, then indeterminism follows. Indeterminism rules out free will as there is a nebulousness of events which occur in the absence of cause and effect.


One objection to the dilemma could be to deny James’ implicit assumption in the first horn of the dilemma that cause and effect are deterministic leading to the conclusion that either determinism is true or it is false.

If we retain cause and effect (and as David Hume demonstrated, these could be nothing more than a cultural custom, an anthropomorphic assumption and not objectively real) then a position not of determinism but of compatibilism is reached. Namely, there may a willing of a cause which leads to an effect or consequence. The relation between will and effect is not necessary in the sense that effect had to and could not, not have occurred; the person could have willed otherwise. Hence free will is compatible with causality. It has to be or the position of indeterminism ensues.

However, at the moment a ‘choice’ is made, the factors for that choice (if indeed we are consciously aware of them) might have varying degrees of compulsion. For example, I can freely choose to answer or not answer this question. Yet as someone interested in philosophy and its problems, as a panel member of ‘Ask a Philosopher’, that I haven’t answered a question for some time perhaps suggests there was a higher degree of probability that I would have answered this question. This highlights the larger relation between freedom of will and probability.

Of course, an immediate objection is that probability is only probable, it is not deterministic. As not deterministic, free will still obtains and the person does make a choice. However, it is unlikely/improbable that being interested in philosophy etc, I would not be answering questions for ‘Ask a Philosopher’.

Yet again it will be retorted ‘You can still choose not to’, nothing stops you from doing otherwise for you possess free will’. The person can quite easily reflect upon his/her intentions, actions and in so doing become aware of alternatives and, aware of the possibility of willing them or not. Compatibilism is compatible with free will. Determinism is a survival from a Theological weltanshauung where Gods foreknowledge of what choices his creations believe they make, determines how they act and behave.


Answer by Stuart Burns

The idea of the human will being ‘determined’ comes from the physical sciences. In the physical sciences, every physical event has a physical cause. Since our doing anything is a physical event, then it must have a physical cause. What happens must be determined by the cause. Given the cause, then the effect is inevitable. Hence the notion that our choices are ‘determined’.

‘Free Will’ on the other hand, is an idea that comes from the Humanities. If we do not have free will, we are not free to choose our path in life. If we do not have free will, we could not have chosen other than we did choose. If our choices are not freely taken, then we cannot be held responsible for the choices we have made. The notion of being morally responsible for our choices (and their consequences) demands that those choices are within our control, and that we could have chosen otherwise.

These two ideas might seem to be at odds with each other. The notion of determinism seems to be claiming that our choices and actions are the result of some cause. The notion of free will, on the other hand, seems to be claiming that if our choices are not our own, then we are not responsible for the consequences.

But what would constitute our will being ‘free’? What would really make our choices our ‘own’ choices? What does it really mean to say that you could have chosen otherwise?

If you are free enough that you could have chosen otherwise, it still has to be *your* choice. It cannot be someone else’s choice. Nor can it be the result of random processes in your mind/brain, or the result of your consciously choosing to flip a coin (or some such). If your choice is not *yours*, then it is not an expression of your free will.

So what is it for a choice to be unequivocally *yours*? Does it not have to stem from your character, personality, experience, goals, desires, values, knowledge, beliefs, and the reasons and justifications you perceived at the time? How could it possibly be otherwise? But this is what *you* are. And given who you are and what you are made of, in any particular circumstance the only way that you could choose other than how you do choose, is if something external to *you* forced the issue. In many cases, your friends can predict the way that you will choose, because they know who you are. And if you were to choose other than you would normally choose, your friends would look for some unusual reason for this unusual choice.

But all that is no more than saying that you are the product of your past history. Which is all that Determinism is saying. The only difference is that this second description is couched in language from the Intentional Stance. Whereas the first description is couched in language from the Physical Stance.

Determinism is not incompatible with Free Will. The two notions only seem to conflict because they are talking about the same situation from two different perspectives. Determinism speaks of the event of your choice being caused by some physical factors in your past. Free Will speaks of the event of your choice being caused by the moral, esthetic, or valuational attitudes you have learned. Same event, same cause, different descriptions.


Big bang holds steady

Adam asked:

Your panel replied:

‘I don’t think we need to consider the big bang. Textbooks tend to lag far behind current doctrines and your textbook on physics is evidently unaware that he inventors of the big bang hypothesis have long ago abandoned it.’


I’m gonna need some more info on this, as this is the first I’ve heard of this EVER and I’m about to get an Associate’s Degree.

What about Hubble’s Law and dark energy?

What other rewrites of famous hypotheses/theories are they not putting in the textbooks?

Have they already proved perpetual motion?

Or electrogravitic UFO propulsion?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Rest easy. The Big Bang hypothesis is alive and well (more on this below).

Funnily enough though, perpetual motion may still have legs so to speak: in most theoretical models of dark energy, its density is constant, so that as the universe expands, the total amount of dark energy increases. Far from running out of steam as 19th century thermodynamics had it, the universe seems to be a perpetual motion machine, expanding because of dark energy, and thereby creating more dark energy as it does so.

As regards UFO propulsion, I have nothing to report, but suggest you can trust the textbooks here.

The Big Bang hypothesis (originally called the primaeval atom hypothesis) was advanced in 1927 by Father Lemaitre. He said the idea fell out naturally from Einstein’s equations, and explained recent redshift findings (the universe was expanding). Einstein didn’t accept it, saying the mathematics was brilliant but the physics abominable. If true, there should be cosmic microwave background radiation, and in 1948 Gamow calculated that such an ‘afterglow of creation’ would now have a temperature just a few degrees above absolute zero.

In 1951, before the theory was accepted by science (most favoured an eternal, essentially unchanging universe), the Pope endorsed it, saying it supported Christian doctrine as to God creating the world. Many scientists opposed it because of this endorsement, one even said it was a conspiracy to shore up Christianity. Fred Hoyle, one of the authors of the rival Steady State Theory, referred to the primaeval atom idea derisorily as the ‘Big Bang’ in a 1949 radio programme, and the name stuck.

In 1964, the cosmic background radiation was detected, just as Gamow had predicted, and the theory was secure. Further evidence for BB and against SS was the radioastronomy data as to distribution of young galaxies (BB and SS predicted differently, the observations supported BB).

The initial Big Bang idea couldn’t solve the monopole problem, flatness problem and smoothness problem. But these were solved at a stroke by hypothesising a brief epoch of enormous expansion (inflation) in the Universe’s earliest moments. And so was born the Inflationary Big Bang hypothesis which is the standard model accepted by virtually all cosmologists.

It’s uncertain whether the Big Bang is

* the start of the one and only universe that exists

* the latest rebound in an endless Big Bang/Gnab Gib cycle

* one of a vast number of quantum fluctuations producing universes in an inflationary multiverse

* one of many collisions involving higher dimensional branes (M theory)

but these are simply further enquiries and developments within a well-established paradigm.


Answer by Eric George

I don’t think one should throw away a tear drop and then say one has removed the ocean. That certain answer given to you in reply, doesn’t speak for the entire panel. Furthermore, I take the answer itself to be in the context of certain scientific theories which attempt to do away with the absolute beginning of the universe a finite time ago (most estimates express this to be 13.7 billion years), postulated in the classical representation of the Big Bang cosmological theory. ‘The standard model’. This model posits, simply put, that since the universe is expanding (metric spacial expansion) – then theoretically by rewinding the past series of events backwards the universe becomes more dense and more contracted. That is, both time and space contract to the point of singularity, an extremely dense state from which the universe as we now know it, came to be.

But this early phase of the universe is open to speculation, because under the standard model, once the universe contracts and breaks down to the sub-atomic level, the introduction of GUT (Grand Unified Theory) propositions have to be affirmed. And to this end, nothing of the sort has been affirmed to be anywhere near as convincing in being viable to explain this early phase of the universe. This is where hypotheses underpinned by quantum mechanics are theorized, such as the multiverse or world ensemble theory which suggests that this universe we inhabit is just one of many randomly ordered universes.

Or the self-causation principle theory proposed by erudites such as Daniel Dennett which theorizes that the universe brought itself into being, or that another universe gave ‘birth’ to this current universe. The list goes on and on, however I take it to be that the Big Bang theory which is inclusive to an absolute beginning of time and space is commonly held and widely accepted within the scientific academia. The problem is not what, but how. How exactly did this all came to be – from the very early phase of the universe till now, this is a completely different matter and is open to speculation. In this way at least, an abandonment of certainty has taken place.


Answer by Shaun Williamson

I think you are deliberately misunderstanding things, possibly for comic effect. The panel do not answer questions. Certain panel members may choose to answer your question but they do not consult each other on the content of answers, so there are no panel answers.

What are you getting an associates degree in, veterinary medicine or cosmology. You don’t tell us so it is difficult to see the point of this remark.

Cosmology is a difficult and rapidly evolving subject so it is unwise to be dogmatic about anything. However it has become apparent that the original (simple minded) big bang theory is not enough to explain all the things we now know about the universe. This doesn’t mean that it has been abandoned any more than Einstein’s theories meant that we had abandoned Newton’s theories.

I would bet that any recent textbook you can buy would not contain Stephen Hawking’s latest ideas on black holes, nor would they contain the latest ideas on the nature of dark energy. The reason why we have research departments in universities is that the textbooks are never up to date. Even out ideas about quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle have recently been questioned.

You should also keep in mind that we have still failed to match our Einsteinian cosmology up with quantum mechanics and until we do this all our theories are provisional and open to question.


Confused about Leibniz’s theory of monads

Vicky asked:

I am confused at Leibniz’s concept of matter and monads and their relationship to one another. So from what I have got so far, and is confusing me, is that bodies are the repetition of monads, simple substances, since nothing else exists. Therefore in order to have an extended body, something extended must exist, the repetition of which will give us extension. But this contradicts the properties of monads which are unextended, without size, shape, dimension, virtually out of existence, so how can the repetition of that which has no extension give extension?

On the other hand, the infinite divisibility of matter means we can never arrive at the ultimate unit of our division. How can that which is continuous be made up of discrete parts? If the division were finite we should find that our ultimate unit would be extended entities and not monads.

Hence the concept of the infinite divisibility of extended matter denies the possibility of ultimate units; we can never have monads out of which matter is said to be made.

The unlimited, or the ‘continuous’, cannot be composed of units however small and however many.

So if we begin with monads as unextended units we can never get extension; and conversely if we begin with an extended body we can never arrive by division at the monads which are supposed to constitute the body.

Why is Leibniz called an idealist when he talks of matter?

Any clarification or help would be much appreciated!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

No need to be ashamed on being confused about Leibniz’s monads. There is a long history of confusion about them, even among scholars. In part this problem arose because of the publications history of his works and also because some of Leibniz’s explanations are in (apparent) conflict with each other. Above all the problem lies with acceptance of his ‘Monadology’ as his central statement of the theory, which was not Leibniz’s intention. But for 300 years, we believed it on his posthumous editor’s assurance. Hence all the ambiguities.

So to start with: The monad is not a thing that exists. As Leibniz says, it is a simple substance, which means it cannot be divided. It follows that ‘The Monad’ is a purely theoretical construction. But as a creation by God, it has certain attributes that lend themselves to making monads (important to note the plural!) real existents.

Those attributes are force (two kinds: active and passive), appetition and perception. In modern language, quite permissible, you can think of a monad as a field of force either positive or negative, meaning its force may expand or be inert. Appetition is their desire to exist (in German ‘Daseinstreben’). But since one monad has no existence, it must congregate with other. This is where perception comes, which is the recognition of itself in relation to others. You need not assume this to be consciousness. It means nothing other than that monads, being zero dimensional, cannot intermingle, but they can attach. It is not as outrageous as it sounds. In fundamental physics there is a veritable zoo of particles with zero dimension, zero momentum etc. But in experiments they leave traces of their force that we can detect. Which is why the monad theory seems such a curious premonition of things Leibniz could know nothing about.

Now I’m going to ask you to imagine such particles. For convenience, let them be four kinds of marbles. If a million of inert marbles stick together, they will generate an impression that they are dense, rigid, solid – in a word ‘matter’. If a million active monads stick together, they will generate the impression of being an ethereal thing, such as a ‘mind’. Since there is an infinitude, however, each unique, you never get 100% solid or 100% etherial, but always something between these limits. You are therefore entitled to say that any collection of monads in which a preponderance exhibits inertia, will be perceived as ‘matter’.

Now take notice that ‘perceive’ is the operative word. This is where things become very difficult. Since all this monadic stuff is zero-dimensional, it cannot be hard, solid, rigid etc. in any objective sense. It is hard, solid, rigid etc. to a perceiving agent. The way you need to understand this is as follows: When you start your day in the morning, you are starting motions of your body through a colossal obstacles course: furniture, trees, houses, cars etc. You can’t just walk through them. On the other hand, a dust mite lodged in your clothes might well see nothing to stop it from crawling through most of the material impediments that force you to go around them. A neutrino might go right through all of it in a straight line!

This is the basis of the estimation of Leibniz as an idealist. I propose to you this is wrong.

Although perception is the key, it perceives something real, namely the collective FORCE inherent in all these things. So when the collective monads of your body try to go through a glass door, they are physically repulsed by the inert force of the glass. In other words: Leibniz’s monadic theory is a sort of ‘pointillist’ theory of forces in the world, each point endowed with the aforementioned attributes. In order to actually exist, they must collectivise in their millions to make up a perceivable force.

Infinite dimensions enter the picture as per the example I just gave. Leibniz assumed that in a dimension below the one we live in, another universe could exist. Not the same, but again created by monads. To them we don’t exist, and they don’t exist for us; and we have no means of communicating. In his day, microscopic cells were first discovered, which gave him that idea.

One more step: As monads form collectives, you will understand from the four attributes (or ‘laws’ as Leibniz prefer to style them) that the possibilities for different kinds of things is also infinite. Therefore Leibniz assumes that God played in his mind all these infinite possibilities to see which is the richest of all these possible world, and in the end gave the nod (permission to actualise) to those collectives which now comprise our universe. Logically therefore ours must be the best possible world!

There is much more to it, but I hope this answers at least your most pressing and immediate needs!