How much intelligence does a philosophy student need?

Velvel asked:

How intelligent do you need to be to study philosophy?

Answer by Peter Jones

This is a great question. Not particularly would be my answer.

It may seem obvious that the more intelligent we are the quicker we will make progress and the further we will go. But it is possible to be too clever for our own good, and then to go very quickly a long way in completely the wrong direction.

The problem is that the more clever we are the better we will be at defending our prejudices with sophistry. We see the evidence for this all the time in the literature. Better to be a bit simple-minded but dispassionate and honest. Then we forced to simplify the issues to the point we can understand them, and cannot distort them to our own ends by fancy footwork.

In the end the answer would probably depend on what sort of philosophy we want to do, and what exactly we mean by ‘intelligence’. I would say that we don’t need to be above averagely intelligent to succeed at philosophy, just as long as we are sufficiently intelligent to be able to see the essential simplicity of the issues. Being highly intelligent may lead us to make the issues more and more complicated and put any understanding forever out of reach.

The advantage of not being particularly intelligent is that we are more likely to go slowly and cautiously, and thus to naturally follow Descartes’ rule for philosophical progress, which seems to me very good advice.

‘We ought to give the whole of our attention to the most insignificant and most easily mastered facts, and remain a long time in contemplation of them until we are accustomed to behold the truth clearly and distinctly.’
Rene Descartes – Rules for the Direction of Mind Rule IX

Very intelligent people tend to ignore this advice, and the result is that philosophy is made to seem like we would have to be equally intelligent to understand it. It’s like asking how intelligent we would have to be to understand a steam-train. It would all depend on what sort of understanding we want, and whether we would prefer an explanation from the driver or a theoretical physicist. How intelligent we would have to be to understand the explanation would depend on who we ask.


Kant and free will

Lisa asked:

What was Kant’s position regarding free will. Was he a libertarian or a soft determinist?

Answer by Craig Skinner

He was a libertarian, although neither term was used in the context of discussion on free will in Kant’s day.

Hume had argued that free will and determinism are compatible, indeed that without (internal) determinism there could be no free will, only chance and caprice: my actions are internally caused (determined) so that I can do what I want to do, but what I want is determined by my character, ambitions, plans etc., and no doubt there are deterministic goings-on in my brain corresponding to these. Of course at the moment of my free choice, there is only one option, the one I wish and choose, there are no alternative options, I could not have done otherwise. This view was later dubbed ‘soft determinism’ by William James (as opposed to honest hard determinism which says we don’t have free will at all).

Kant felt that this Humean ‘free will’ without alternative options was a ‘wretched subterfuge’. He felt that, to be morally responsible, we need (and have) a more radical free will whereby at the moment of choice we can choose, by an act of will, to do (or not to do) any one of a range of things, irrespective of the deterministic goings-on in our brains at the time.

Kant, like Hume, was an admirer of Newton and the new mechanical philosophy of nature, and regarded the natural world or world of appearances (the phenomenal’ world) as deterministic. So how did he square this with his libertarian view?

Modern libertarians postulate fancy brain activity involving quantum or chaotic microevents which somehow (they say) get round determinism without amounting to randomness. I am completely unconvinced. It seems to me that however subtle the brain activity, the outcome ultimately is either deterministic or random (neither of which supports a libertarian version of free will), or both.

Kant took a different tack. He agreed that we (including our brains) are creatures in a phenomenal world knowable to us through our senses, and bound by deterministic natural law, and as such we can have no free will. Since free will ddoesn’texist in the natural world, we can’t know of it by observation. But we are also agents who transcend the phenomenal world, and act in the ‘noumenal’ world or world-in-itself, knowable a priori by the intellect. As such, we are not bound by natural law, and can act freely according to our will, so that we can have full-blooded free will with alternative options.

Few people go for Kant’s two-world metaphysics, and I ddon’tthink a ‘two-viewpoints’ or ‘two-perspectives’ approach to one world does the trick.

My view is that we are stuck with Humean free will. And that’s good enough for me. I want my choices and actions to be determined by ME, whether we think of this in terms of events in my brain or of my motives, reasons and intentions.


Philosophy and the nature of knowledge

Smith asked:

Is the question whether or not a particular true belief counts as ‘knowledge’ merely vague or a matter of degree? If you think it is, what problem does that solve?

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Smith,

I find your question difficult to disentangle but here’s a few thoughts.

Philosophy does not explain how we know things. Russell considered the question of how we know things to be the most difficult in philosophy but I feel this was mistake. Philosophy (as he did it) cannot answer this question. It has to be answered by self-examination.

What you do know is that nobody else can know if you know something. So you are the only person who can decide what you know. All this stuff about justified true beliefs is a red herring in my opinion. If we do not know that a belief is true then we do know that it is not knowledge.

In response to your first question I would answer that ‘matter of degree’ and ‘vague’ are not different things. We either know something or we don’t. For the second I would say that an approach to knowledge via the idea of ‘true belief’ solves no problems.

I do not believe it is possible to understand ‘knowing’ by analysis. Rather, I would agree with this ancient sage.

‘All men desire to know, but they do not enquire into that whereby one knows.’ Kuan Tzu (4th-3rd century B.C.)


The Glass Bead Game and philosophy

Gershon asked:

Herman Hesse in ‘The Glass Bead Game’ describes a game which is played only by individuals of the very highest intellectual attainment. There is no point or purpose to the game other than the game itself and its aesthetic beauty.

What is the difference between philosophy and the Glass Bead Game? Is there any difference, ultimately?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Except that you used Hesse’s novel as a foil, I would have ignored your question. If you re-cast it by saying that ‘higher mathematics is a game only played by individuals with the highest intellectual attainment …’ etc., you would see at once that comparing it with philosophy will make anyone who reads your question wonder what you think philosophy is!

However, the background to Hesse’s novel touches on a particular issue of philosophical thought that goes back to Bacon and Leibniz and their endeavours towards an efficient compartmentalisation of knowledge. Bacon promulgated the idea in his Great Instauration that knowledge must be organised according to a hierarchy of related subject matters. E.g. biology as the science of life might first be subdivided into organic and inorganic, then each of these into further branches and so on through as many specialisations as may be necessary. The end result is an enormous tree with many branches that is basically the sum of our knowledge in that branch of science. Once such a hierarchy exists, it can always be added to, even new branches formed.

Leibniz took this one step further by showing that all studies would benefit from such compartmentalisation. In his Ars combinatoria he argued that the ultimate goal would be to collapse the tree into a single symbol which represents all the knowledge incorporated in any one of these trees. The convenience of this, he felt, was that no-one would have to analyse assured knowledge again, but just use the symbols in various combinations for the purpose of discovery and innovation. According to him, it would give us the certainty that all knowledge can be reduced to calculation. He once said, there is no need to argue about science, art, religion, sociology etc. Let us take our symbols, sit down and then, ‘gentlemen, let us calculate!’

The last step was taken by the French philosophers around Diderot, who implemented this programme in their Encyclopaedia. Since then we have become so used to it, we can’t imagine any more how hard it was in those days to get hold of exact knowledge.

Leibniz undoubtedly got the idea of symbols integrating complexes of knowledge from the way we write down simple equations which include implicitly many complicated prior steps that no longer have to be worked out, because the formula already presupposes their results.

No you can see that Hesse used precisely the idea of Leibniz’s symbols in his novel. It doesn’t matter how we depict the symbols. Formulaic symbols, playing cards, glass pebbles – whichever takes your fancy! As a mathematician, Leibniz was aware that mathematicians derive great aesthetic pleasure from the effort of reducing many arduous steps of calculation into one elegant formula. The change made by Hesse is, of course, that his game is played with glass beads which represent the values of these symbols to the civilisation; and the point of the game is that shuffling them around in a competitive manner as in a game of chess, can yield surprising juxtapositions. But you should nonetheless take note that as a game it does not purport to enrich those symbols (aka values), but only to play with them.

A game, therefore, pure and simple. Hardly a philosophy! Moreover ultimately a bit on the silly side. I would question whether Hesse’s glass bead game has any aesthetic component at all. Creativity is not re-arranging values; and aesthetics is not an intellectual pastime, but an experience that should uproot you from precisely the lazy ‘taking for granted’ of cultural values that is implied in Hesse’s game.

When you walk into a museum full of paintings, sculptures, ancient artefacts from death masks to weapons, musical instruments and laundry bills, you are in the presence of an exhibition planned with the same care and ingenuity as Josef Knecht’s fancy games – a game of relations, analogues and indeed values in juxtaposition. But you would not walk around the gallery and claim for the organiser that this is philosophy, would you now? Nor would you take home with you an aesthetic experience of the gallery. Values as such have no aesthetic component! Only works themselves, as individuals, can do that for you!


Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal recurrence

Gideon asked:

What do you think of Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal recurrence?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

As a Cosmological Doctrine, the Eternal Recurrence would entail a cyclical conception of time and ontology. Everything that is, will repeat and recur ad infinitum. There appears scant evidence for this in Nietzsche’s writings, only speculation. Further, if everything is to be as it is, this would detract from Nietzsche’s criticism of modernity and his prescriptions to change it. Namely, the overcoming of Christian and crypto Christian thinking and valuations by the New Philosopher creators – formally the Ubermensch. Activism would give way to fatalism. So the Cosmological reading of the Eternal Recurrence would appear too problematic to be sustained.

An alternative reading is that of the Eternal Recurrence being a type of Existential imperative. Life should be affirmed and lived as if it would be repeated ad infinitum. Thus the prescription of eternal recurrence would correspond to the ontological doctrine of Will to Power. Affirmative, creative, assertive activity is to be encouraged as if it were to be repeated over and over again. In so doing, one loves one’s fate – amor fati.

Another take on this doctrine is that promulgated by Gilles Deleuze in his Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962). Here, the Will to Power is continually configurating strong active and weak reactive forces into qualities of Noble (Active) and Slavish (Reactive) types. These are in a flux beneath existing structures of reality as it were. They are synthesised into existence by the Eternal Return. Either a replication of existing reality and its valuations is performed in which case, the slavish typology has not been overcome by the strong drives. Or, the strong drives triumph and the existing structures of valuation are subject to irruption. In Deleuze’s terminology, the Identity of existing reality with itself is irrupted by the strong drives of Difference.

‘In this synthesis – which relates to time – forces pass through the same differences again or, diversity is reproduced. The synthesis is one of the forces, of their difference and their reproduction: the eternal return is the synthesis which has as its principle, the Will to Power’. [P. 46 ibid]

Hence reality for Deleuze would not be replicating strict identity with itself – as with the Cosmological understanding of the Eternal Return. Instead, reality is subject to change on many levels due to the genesis of the Will to Power.


What is your favourite paradox?

Jones asked:

What is your favourite paradox and why?

Answer by Craig Skinner

A paradox starts with acceptable assumptions, proceeds by apparently acceptable reasoning, and reaches an unacceptable conclusion.

Resolution therefore requires rejection of an assumption, finding a flaw in the reasoning, or accepting the conclusion after all.

The ‘paradoxes’ standardly studied in philosophy include:

* liar paradox
* set-theoretic paradoxes
* Zeno’s paradoxes of motion
* ravens (Hempel’s paradox)
* grue (Goodman’s paradox)
* prisoner’s dilemma
* Sorites
* unexpected hanging

Some are puzzles rather than genuine paradoxes (Zeno, ravens, grue, hanging, dilemma); some (Sorites) have suggested resolutions that require non-classical logic (3-valued; fuzzy; supervaluation).

The liar paradox (and other semantic paradoxes) and set-theoretic paradoxes are sometimes classed together, both involving self-reference, but some logicians think there are principled differences between them.

The liar paradox (‘All Cretans are liars’, said by a Cretan) is my favourite because it very old, simple to grasp, and (in my view) has no solution other than accepting that there are true contradictions.

A simple formulation is the statement ‘This sentence is false’.

Is it true or false?

If it is true, then what it says is correct. Hence it is false.

If, on the other hand, it is false, then what it says is incorrect. Hence it is not false, it is true.

So, if it’s true, it’s false, and if it’s false it’s true. Either way we have a contradiction.

Suggested solutions include:

1. Just ban self-referential sentences and say that comment about a sentence must be in a higher-level metalanguage. This is akin to Russell’s Theory of Types ‘solution’ to the set-of-sets-which-are-not-members-of-themself paradox. It seems to dodge the issue. In any case you can avoid the self-referring sentence by the following amendment:

* The sentence below is true.
* The sentence above is false.

2. Abandon true/false bivalence, admit a third truth value of neither-true-nor-false, or both-true-and-false, or a null value (truth gap).

3. Accept that there is a genuine contradiction. The sentence IS true, and the sentence IS not-true (not some new category embracing both, but a full-blooded contradiction) and the world therefore contains true contradictions.

My preference is for 3. Some people go wild at this, suggesting that if we accept a single contradiction, then ANYTHING can be proved (the ‘explosion’ problem). I don’t think this is so, but wont go into why. Those interested should read Graham Priest ‘In Contradiction’ 2nd ed OUP 2006.

Hegel, incidentally held that there are true contradictions, but based this on acceptance of Kant’s antinomies (which are fallacious) and on arguments of his own which are incomprehensible (to me at any rate). However, I think he was right.

Logic containing true contradictions is called dialetheic logic or paraconsistent logic, and its proponents say that dialetheic logic is to classical logic as Einstein’s theory of gravity is to Newton’s – both get it right in ordinary circumstances, but the newer view is more correct and also gets it right in extreme circumstances.


Answer by Peter Jones

I have two if that’s okay. The first would be the Something-Nothing problem, the problem of which came first. I like this because it is simple and yet if we can solve it we have solved metaphysics. I also like Russell’s paradox. This is because if we can solve it we have solved the Something-Nothing problem.

In my view, however, all metaphysical paradoxes would be the same problem, (just as the two I’ve mentioned are the same problem) and so it wouldn’t really matter which is our favourite. I cannot explain this idea in an answer here since it would take too long, but it is not a novel idea. All metaphysical paradoxes take the same form and would require the same logical resolution, so which one we decide to work on would be a matter of taste. I like the two I’ve mentioned here because they are very approachable, while some are pretty fiendish and difficult to clarify.

It may be helpful to add that the Something-Nothing problem became a favourite of mine thanks to Paul Davies’ book The Mind of God. I would recommend this to anyone interested in metaphysical paradoxes.


Chess and philosophy

Gideon asked:

What is the value of chess to philosophy?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

It is occasionally referred to in philosophical literature, but in most cases by philosophers who don’t play chess with adequate mastery, or else by players with insufficient philosophical background. Moses Mendelssohn once wrote that as a game it is too serious; as a serious pursuit too frivolous. Nevertheless the Soviets put it as one of the cornerstone of their whole culture, and they had some good reasons for this. They saw it as character building, promoting mental toughness, inhibiting lies and hypocrisy, promoting creative engagement with ideas etc. The practical end was that they produced grandmasters by the dozen; but this has no bearing on philosophy.

The sole exception was Emanuel Lasker, a world champion and trained philosopher. In 1907 and 1925 he published work on chess with philosophical merit. His point of departure was that chess is an ideal struggle – a struggle between two minds in the process of generating ideas. Since, however, in the actual struggle at the board, the whole nervous system of the combattants is involved, it is feasible to extract from this form of contest a system of ethics. It is not a socially or politically dominated ethics, as e.g. Aristotle or Hegel, but rather of a Darwinian cast, with the struggle for survival imposing its imperatives. For Lasker this represented a value stronger and more enduring than the artificial systems of school philosophy, which (as even Marx said) tend on the whole to apologise for the states and nations that exist than to pose genuine ethical issues.

If you are interested, the relevant text is accessible in Lasker’s “Manual of Chess”, Section IV, or in his book entitled “Struggle” (Kampf).

However, there is a further relevant aspect not mentioned by him, nor (as far as I know) by any other philosopher. This has to do with the creative aspects. The essence of chess are the ideas that are actualised in the course of the struggle. For aficionados who keep scores of master games the result is usually immaterial; for them the contest of ideas, problems and solutions is an aesthetic experience. There is, so to speak, a highly inventive story being unfolded, not unlike a symphony or sonata; and this consanguinity with music invites us to consider the analogous possibilities of chess. The sense of beauty is entangled; personalities step out of the web of incidents; the choreography of the pieces exhibits a kind of ever-changing mosaic made up of expectations, anticipations and surprises.

I have often had occasion to draw attention to this last-named as a feature chess shares with some works of art. A joke (i.e. a kind of surprise) stales in the repeated telling. A surprising turn in music delights an audience; the surprise never stales, but is sought out by music lovers as the very thing that gives them the greatest pleasure. Likewise with many incidents on the chess board that are called combinations. Lovers of combinations can’t get enough of them, no matter how old they are. But a philosophical treatise on this aspect has not been written. What little there is in the chess literature that bears the name philosophy, is usually mistakenly so called, and nothing other than one or another method of strategic management.

Yet so many university students are passionate chess players. I can’t help wondering why none ever seems to get their philosophical head around the aesthetic component with enough interest to write something about it!