When Dr Johnson kicked the stone

Doriane asked:

What did the person who hit a stone and said ‘I refute him thus’ while disagreeing with Berkeley mean by that?

Answer by Helier Robinson

The original is as follows:

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.'”(Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, quoted from Wikipedia.)

One of Berkeley’s philosophic principles was esse est percipi, or to be is to be perceived. So anything imperceptible does not exist, including, in particular, material substance, or matter. Descartes was quite wrong, according to Berkeley, in positing two substances, thought and extension, (mind and matter): there is only mind. Dr. Johnson thought he was refuting Berkeley by kicking the stone and showing it to be material. But they were at cross purposes. For Johnson all experience can be divided into mind and matter: the external world is material and the internal world is mental. For Berkeley everything perceived in the external world is ideal, mental, and nothing material exists.

There is a lot to be said for esse est percipi: most of the qualities we perceive in the external world are secondary qualities, manufactured in the brain, and so ideal rather than material; also, illusions are misrepresentations of reality, and as such are in the brain and so ideal. On the other hand, external objects seem to be real, in that they exist when unperceived: when you are in deep sleep your bed seems to continue to exist, as does your body, because they are still there when you wake up. And if external objects are real in this way then they exist independently of mind, in which case they are material, or at least something other than mind, which might as well be called material. Berkeley accepted this continued existence of objects by claiming that when they are unperceived by anyone they still exist because they are perceived by God. Not a very satisfactory explanation; but neither was Dr. Johnson’s refutation very satisfactory.


Answer by Craig Skinner

It was Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English writer and author of the famous Dictionary, who kicked the stone.

Boswell, in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) says that he and Johnson were discussing George Berkeley’s view that matter was nonexistent and that everything in the universe is merely ideal, when ‘Johnson answered, striking his foot with force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute him thus’ .’

I hope the following imaginary dialogue between Johnson (J) and Berkeley (B) will clarify the issue.

J. I refute you thus (kicking a big stone).

B. In what way?

J. Well, I felt the weight, hardness and solidity of the stone when my boot struck it. In short its substance or matter. So your talk of matter not existing is nonsense.

B. Not so fast Sam. You just said you felt the weight, hardness and solidity. But feelings are in your mind. The qualities of the stone are in your mind. And those you mention are what some call primary qualities, as contrasted with secondary ones like colour or smell. So all qualities are in a mind. They are ideas.

J. The qualities of the stone are ideas in my mind… mm… yes you could say that, I suppose, but the stone itself isn’t in my mind.

B. The stone itself you say. But what can that be. Take away all the qualities, like colour, weight, solidity, shape, texture, and what’s left. What can such a thing be that has no weight, solidity, hardness, shape or texture. How can it be a stone?

J. I see what you mean, George. A ‘bare particular’, as it were, devoid of any qualities whatsoever, would be a strange beast indeed. But hold on. can’t we then say that the stone is just the totality of its qualities, a ‘bundle of qualities’.

B. Yes, Sam, we can. That’s just what I do say. The stone is a bundle of qualities. Qualities are ideas. So, the stone is an idea composed of these simpler ideas. How else to explain what unites the qualities in the bundle if we have discounted a bare material thing that ‘bears’ the qualities or holds them together.

J. So you deny that the external world exists.

B. Of course I don’t. Any child knows there is an external world. I deny that matter exists. The world is composed of minds (including God’s mind) and ideas in them. Only these two. Minds and ideas. Simpler than your notion that there exist minds and ideas plus matter.

J. I’ll have to think about this George. If you say that stones, plants and planets are ideas in your mind, then surely other people are ideas in your mind too, and your position is solipsism, that you (your mind) and its ideas are all that exists. That’s even simpler than minds (including God’s) and ideas.

B. Ah well, no, you see. God exists, and I can prove it, and the external world is the same for all of us (finite spirits like you and me, Sam) because it exists in God’s mind.

J. It won’t wash, George. To assume God’s existence sounds like question-begging to me. And you can no more prove God’s existence than Descartes could, although you have to enlist God to make sense of other finite spirits (such as people) and an external world, just as Descartes enlisted God to guarantee the reliability of his clear and distinct ideas. No, the arguments you make against matter apply equally to other minds, and so you haven’t established idealism as opposed to solipsism.

B. (a little uneasily) Let’s leave it for now and pick it up another time. Fancy a beer?

J. Fine. Although of course we may be knocking back an idea rather than a cold, hoppy liquid.

Hume rightly said that Berkeley’s arguments ‘admit of no answer and produce no conviction’.

If you haven’t read Berkeley, do so. Begin with Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. The version edited by Dancy (OUP 1998) is very good. Berkeley’s prose is concise, clear, witty, and a delight to read compared with that of many other great philosophers.


‘The world is all that is the case’

Pearson asked:

‘The world is all that is the case’ (Wittgenstein). I am struggling to see the point of this. Isn’t it obvious? What is the case, is the case, and what is not the case is not the case. How things are in the world depends on what is the case. End of discussion.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Wittgenstein is not trying to make some deep philosophical point here. He does not expect us to lean back in our chairs and say ‘Wow man, the world is all that is the case. I never realised that before.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from which this quote came is a discussion of the connections between logic, language and the world. The point Wittgenstein is making here is roughly as follows:

1. Every language has a finite number of words.

2. Therefore the number of meaningful statements in every language is finite.

3. Statements about the world can be true of false

4. The set of true statements (which vary over time) are a complete description of our world.

So there is no point in trying to see the point of all this, it has no hidden depths. Wittgenstein was never trying to be deep. If you want to understand Tractatus then try to understand it as a whole and don’t agonise about the deep meaning of individual sentences. There is no deep meaning.

Of course in his later work he repudiated the ideas in Tractatus. As far as he was concerned it contained grave mistakes. He still kept to the idea that in philosophy the things that interest us are not hidden, they are always on the surface.


Geoffrey Klempner

End of discussion indeed. Wittgenstein’s ultimate conclusion is that, ‘The correct method of philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science… and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions’ (Tractatus 6.53).

What would be a ‘metaphysical’ (and therefore meaningless) proposition? According to Wittgenstein, any statement to do with values, aesthetic or ethical, for example. No meaningful statement, true or false, can be made about the value of a work of art or the goodness of an ethical action.

Less obvious, perhaps, is something that we believe about our experience, that it is a fact that I am here, or that the time is now, and not some other time. Any attempt to explain the meaning of such ‘indexical reference’ ultimately resolves into an empty tautology. (I challenge this view in my book Naive Metaphysics.)

Although few analytic philosophers today would count themselves as adherents to the strict semantics of the Tractatus, many accept, explicitly or implicitly, that the meaning of a proposition — of ‘something said’ — is given by ‘truth conditions’, i.e. the factual conditions under which what the proposition states is either the case or not the case. So you could say that, despite Wittgenstein’s later reservations, the core idea of the Tractatus has survived up to the present day.


Are all beautiful paintings good paintings?

David asked:

Are all beautiful paintings good paintings? If you answer Yes I would say that it’s impossible to view all the beautiful paintings in the world, so it would be impossible to conclude that all beautiful paintings are good paintings. If you answer No, if you view a beautiful painting how can you judge whether it’s good or not, if not all beautiful paintings are good paintings? What would your answer be?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The logical proposition you have hidden in your question is a worm-eaten fallacy. According to Plato, the good and the beautiful are virtual identities. Therefore his answer to your first question might have been ‘yes’. But then he denied that paintings can be good, therefore there are no beautiful paintings. To reach such a conclusion it is unnecessary to view all paintings in the world. Once you have demonstrated that beautiful paintings are impossible, the issue resolves itself.

Kant’s arguments are somewhat different, more lenient (so to speak). He says, for example, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; but unlike the common adage which makes the same claim, he exerts some ingenuity to prove it. But this also absolves you from viewing all the paintings in the world, because the viewer is the arbiter. He can call the one painting he owns beautiful, and therefore good. He can also make the other judgement you allude to you: that the painting is good, but not beautiful. This simply means that technically speaking it is a good painterly performance, but it isn’t agreeable to him as a visual object and consequently unbeautiful.

The underlying suppositions here differ from Plato, as I said. Still, the crux of the matter is that Kant’s whole philosophy revolves around experience, specifically aesthetic experience. It happens to be a common capacity of all human beings, except for colour-blind or tone-deaf or generally an-aesthetic subjects. Yet still a kind of ‘raw’ capacity until cultural conditioning has added good taste, expertise, discrimination, judgement and a few other desirable attributes that serve to empower you to pronounce a painting ‘good’ and/ or ‘beautiful’. The first point is, of course, that with these personal attributes in place, you can arrive at a judgement of any painting, as long as you’ve seen enough to enable an appropriate judgement. The second point is, that good need not be beautiful, and the beauty may not be good. It depends on the effect it has on you as the subject.

Which brings to the fore one relevant criticism of Nietzsche, namely his question on the sufficiency of the beholder. Is he or she fit to pronounce judgement on beauty and goodness? It is a question you should ask yourself, as you wonder about the goodness of beautiful paintings and the beauty of good paintings.

Meanwhile to your second fallacy. You seem oblivious to the fact that paintings are intentional performances. They convey a message. Now you may ignore this fact if you wish, and simply hang the picture to add colour to your room. But then it serves the same purpose as the paint on the wall. Good or beautiful are then mere expressions of an hedonistic response. But although a great deal of art encourages hedonistic responses, it is not the main reason why those works exist. Nor do deliberately ugly paintings serve only to provoke your repugnance. The arts of mankind do not primarily exist for the sake of beauty or goodness. Contrary to Clive Bell’s fatuous claim, a well-painted cabbage is not superior to an academic Madonna. A painting must speak. It has to address your inner self. All other questions come after this enquiry, and after your response has been included in the circuit.

Finally, so as to obviate a logical follow-up question, the same arguments apply to sculptures, poems, plays and music as well. You don’t need to hear every piece of music ever written to understand how and why any single one of them may/ may not satisfy the criteria.


Implications of the theory of infinite parallel universes

Alex asked:

Some physicists are currently supporting a new theory that there exist an infinite number of parallel universes beyond our own, some of which contain an exact copy of you and me, with every action we will ever or have ever done. What does this mean for uniqueness and legacy? Can you offer some optimistic mindset for someone worried about retaining some degree of uniqueness? Thanks a lot!

Answer by Helier Robinson

The theory is not new: J.B.S. Haldane, in his book Possible Worlds considered it nearly a century ago. He pointed out that if there were an infinity of them then not only would there be another one exactly like ours in every respect, but there would be an infinity of them, and another infinity which differed from ours by one molecule being different, and another infinity in which every one of your wishes came true. An infinity of infinities of differences.

In fact the physicists you speak of do not suppose an infinity, just a very large number of them. They do this in order to explain the fact of cosmic coincidences. There are a number of things in physics and cosmology which are unexplained by modern theories: the values of the strengths of the four forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force) and their ratios, the masses of the numerous of wave particles, etc. They could all have been different, but if any of them were we could not exist because stars would not form, or they could form but be very short lived, or they live long but would never go supernova. In any of these situations heavier elements would never form and life would be impossible. But, seemingly by coincidences, the values are just right and so life formed on our planet (and presumably on billions of other planets) and we are here.

One explanation of these coincidences is that of a huge number of parallel universes, in each of which all of the values are randomly determined. In a few of them the values will be just right for life. Ours is one of them, because we are here. This is called the Anthropic Principle.

It’s a very bad theory, in my opinion, for two reasons. One is because it disobeys Occam’s Razor outrageously. Occam’s Razor is the principle, as William of Occam put it, Do not multiply entities beyond necessity; or, in modern terms, do not invent more theoretical entities than are needed to explain the empirical facts. A huge number of parallel universes is far, far too much multiplication of entities. Secondly, in science a theory must be either verifiable or falsifiable experimentally, and there is no way such universes, which do not interact with ours, could be; so they are at best unscientific, just bad metaphysics.

There are two other points I would like to make. One is that infinity is an incoherent concept, invented or used by people who, not knowing the limit of something, declare it to have no limit. It is like the concept of chance, announced by people who do not know the cause or causes of something. Secondly, there are no degrees of uniqueness: something is either unique or it is not. To speak of something being nearly unique is as meaningless as saying that it is nearly infinite. So your main questions are answered: there are nor parallel universes and you are unique.

And by the way, if you are curious about cosmic coincidences, look at Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos, O.U.P. 1997. Or consider Leibniz’s claim that the world is the best of all possibles (in which the coincidences have to occur) and exists necessarily because it is the best, so no others exist.


Would the world be a better place without religion?

Chiedza asked:

I have a question on religion. It seems these days with the rise of the prosperity Gospel the idea of religion being a social construction is very visible. I’m a Christian, but I’ve never viewed it as a religion, in fact I find the idea of organized religion deplorable. My question is is it possible to envision a pure world free from human pollution? Before I used to think the world was determined purely by human nature now I realize that our existence also weighs heavily on us.

Do you think the world would be a better place without religion? By that I don’t mean atheism but rather if people pursued truth maybe in the we would realize that what drives us to look up is the innate emptiness we all feel inside. And if humans realize that we’re all knowingly or unknowingly searching for our origin maybe we’d all come to one conclusion. Or maybe That’s undermining the complexity of our experience as a race.

Answer by Henk Tuten

It is very well possible that your parents did raise you with Christian morals, without bothering you with the Christian religious rituals. Nevertheless those Christian morals around ‘good and evil’ are very cultural. Because Western Culture was Christian (read Catholic and variants like Protestant) people don’t see Christian morals as religious anymore. Humans apart from DNA driven behavior, are driven by their culture. I don’t grasp what you mean by human nature, but if it is DNA driven behavior then all humans on earth are practically ‘equal’. If by ‘our existence’ you mean ‘our cultural upbringing’ then you’re right that culture heavily influences our behavior.

Would the world be a better place without religion? Religious ethics means rules, or in other words ‘law and order’. Replace the word ‘religion’ with ‘culture’ than you might realize that a world without ‘culture’ is a paradox. Our behavior is always adapting to environment, to get the best survival chances.

But a world where people can accept and live with different sets of rules, certainly is possible. To give an example: Western medicine in many fields is powerful, but Eastern medicine offers a different approach. An approach that is effective in many fields too. Already both approaches are merging, though their basics (the rules) are very different, a dual approach dominated by medicines and a holistic approach.

Merging rules it a more effective approach than fighting for ‘truth’ or ‘good’. Than you end with practices like torturing, holy wars, wars on terrorism etcetera.

That we humans ‘are searching for our origins’ is too ‘spiritual’ for me. It supposes that there are ‘origins’ and that you can ‘translate’ these origins in clearly defined goals, that you can reach by following ‘rules’. That’s moralistic, believing in one set of morals. Be sure the only ‘moral’ in evolution is survival. If killing all competitors would lead to a stable environment for billions of ages, than evolution would have no problem in selecting the kill-behavior. But until now kill-behavior (seeking conflict) never worked, and resulted in unstable environments. There are effective ways that always involve some kind of cooperation.

You might call cooperation ‘christian’, no problem. Just like others will call it ‘muslim’, or ‘buddhist’. Its our behavior that adapts, whatever the name.

Chiedza, I think we both agree in general. I hope I made you wonder.


Question about Jeremy Corbyn and political philosophy

Gordon asked:

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are a spent force and Labour with the election of Jeremy Corbyn have made themselves unelectable. What would be a credible political philosophy that could serve as the basis for an alternative political party to the Conservatives?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

You are confusing many different things here. To start with this is a philosophy web site not a politics website. However I will try to answer your question. Any political philosophy would serve as an alternative to the Conservative since as far as I am aware they do not have a political philosophy. If they do perhaps you could tell me what it is. You claim that Corbyn is unelectable but you don’t know that. Let us wait and see.

Jeremy Corbyn has an understandable, creditable and ethical political philosophy although that doesn’t mean all of his ideas are well thought out. Perhaps you should think about voting for what is best for your country rather than just trying to be on the winning side.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In the arena of practical politics, a ‘political philosophy’ has as much in common with philosophy as a philosophy of soccer.

Say, you are a British Premier League soccer team looking for a new manager. You want someone who will help the team to win. Apart from deep knowledge of the game, this requires a range of skills, including those of the diplomat and negotiator. Broadly, all successful team managers share the same tried and tested ‘philosophy’.

The same principle applies to electing the party and their leader to govern the country. All the main parties broadly share the principles of Western liberal democracy. The key difference, however, is that, unlike soccer, there is not just one thing that counts as ‘winning’.

At the present time, the Germans are way ahead of the other European countries in the ethical competition, as shown by their brave approach to the refugee crisis. On this score, Germans have every reason to be proud of their government and of Angela Merkel.

What of Jeremy Corbyn? This is not a site for expressing political opinions. However, as with any new party leader, the first and most important test that Corbyn will have to face is whether, in fact, he is capable of leading his party.