Gilbert Ryle contra Descartes

Anoop asked:

What does Descartes mean by saying that ‘human mind is better known than the body’? How does Gilbert Ryle challenge Descartes’ mind body dualism?

Answer by Danny Krämer

Descartes’ aim was to find a foundation for the new emerging sciences. He wanted truths that are so certain that they can guarantee the truth of the superstructure of science. Therefore, Descartes used his method of general doubt. He questioned everything he ever believed in his life.

First he questions sense experience. Our senses can mislead us. There are illusions and therefore it is conceivable that everything we know by sense experience is just wrong. Just think about ‘Matrix’. The humans who live in the matrix think that they know a lot of things by sense experience. But in fact, they know nothing like ‘there is a cup of tea’. Everything is just an illusion. Descartes goes even further. Also our knowledge of mathematics and geometry — so to speak a priori knowledge — could be wrong. Maybe the matrix just lets us think that ‘2 + 2 = 4′ is a true proposition. Of course for Descartes an evil demon plays the role of the matrix. So if everything is an illusion — matter, mathematics, geometry, sense experience — then everything you know of your body could be wrong. In the matrix I could have blonde hair even though in reality I have brown hair and so on.

Then there is Descartes’ famous phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’ — I think, therefore I am. That is Descartes’ answer to the question what the foundation of all our knowledge is. Even though I doubt everything, I cannot doubt that I think.

Gilbert Ryle now writes in The Concept of Mind that Descartes was misled by the ‘ghost in the machine’ myth. Ryle uses the concept of a ‘category mistake’ for his critique. Take this famous example of a category mistake: A foreign student comes to Oxford and asks where the university is. You show him the class rooms and the library and all the stuff. Then he asks you ‘But where is the university?’ He just uses the category of a university like a category of a room.

For Ryle, Descartes makes the same mistake. He uses mental vocabulary as if it is the polar opposite of ‘body-talk’. Therefore, he buys in every problem that ever emerged out of dualism. (The question of the interaction of the substances etc.) Ryle suggests, that what we call the mind are dispositions of the our body. He is therefore a behaviorist. Sugar has the disposition to dissolve if you put it into water. Your body has dispositions to intelligent behaviour in certain circumstances. There is no mental ghost that steers the body. The mind are just the intelligent dispositions of your body.


Leibniz on necessity and compossibility

Stevie asked:

What does Leibniz mean by a ‘world’? What does compossibility mean? How does an adequate view of compossibility help Leibniz respond to Spinoza’s necessitarianism?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Compossibility denotes that certain things or processes in the universe can or could occur simultaneously. Hence the opposite, incompossibility denotes that, although all some of these things and processes could logically exist side by side, their actual existence may be impeded by the effect which their actions may have on each other. E.g. fire and water can co-exist, but in their interaction one destroys the other. But there will be some things and processes which deny co-existence to other things and processes absolutely. E.g. the universe cannot be rigid and fluid at the same time, though perhaps at different times.

So Leibniz’s understanding of the world is the present actual composition of the universe. It doesn’t mean much to us, as we can’t know the total composition of the universe, but God would know. Where this train of thought is useful, however, is in cosmology and metaphysics, where it can happen that some things and processes are logically possible at any time, but the concept of compossibility overrides logic if some of the compossibles cannot co-exist in actuality.

Accordingly, all phenomena are ruled by contingency. Compossibility implies inter alia that the actual existence of X is contingent on being compossible with Y. It is also contingent on prior conditions P that must have been compossible with Q in order to facilitate the existence of X. And so on.

Apply the full weight of this aspect of actuality and you will see that it rules out necessitarianism. In fact, it is one of Leibniz’ principles (so-called ‘minimax’) that the contingency built into the universe by God renders necessitarianism superfluous. To achieve the greatest conceivable variety by the smallest expenditure of means is tantamount to devastating necessitarianism, which requires infinite foresight and control and is therefore ‘labour intensive’ to a degree that (in Leibniz’ sight) would be demeaning to God.

Consider for comparison that you might write a mathematical formula which hides under its curt symbolism a long rat’s tail separate and very laborious subroutines, each of which may change the result of the symbolism by the insertion of specific integers. Leibniz therefore attributes the same skills of abridging huge cosmic events in a single equation, whose details He does not have to know as the equation will constrain any solution to its preset limits.

Finally, contingency ensures continuing creativity, not only by God, but by his creatures as well. In this respect, Leibniz makes the interesting observation that such an enormous clutter of detail as hard determinism requires, is completely unnecessary in a universe driven by contingency, which needs only the provision of boundaries at a preset minimum and maximum.


Ethics, epistemology and ontology of Buddhism

Bhupendra asked:

What is Buddhist epistemology, ontology, metaphysics and axiology?

I am a student of M.Phil of Trubhuwan University in Nepal. I am trying to understand the philosophical perspective to see the theories and other. But I couldn’t understand the epistemology, ontology, metaphysics and axiology of Buddhism.

Hope to get satisfying answer from you.

With regards,

Answer by Peter Jones

Hi Bhupendra,

You are expecting a lot if you want a quick way to understand the epistemology, ontology and ethics of Buddhism. What may be helpful to you is that all three would reduce to one in the end. That is, the axiology is explained by the epistemology which is explained by the ontology. Or you could start at the other end.

This is the internet age and there is plenty to read on these topics. It frightens me that a student at a Nepalese university would ask this on a public forum. Do you not have some experts around and a good library? Here are some thoughts in case not.

The world would reduce to or simply is a unity, such that all sentient beings would share an identity. When Schopenhauer explains altruism as the ‘breakthrough of a metaphysical truth’ this is what he is getting at, that while the truth of identity is for us often just an intuition, even so this would often be enough for it to have an impact on our behaviour. It was familiarity with what he calls his ‘better consciousness’ that allowed him to give this account of altruism. Buddhist practice would entail verifying this identity fully in experience. If it is unverified, not real for us, then our behaviour is guided by ignorance, while if it verified then it is informed by knowledge. Thus ethics would be solved by knowledge and ethical confusion caused by ignorance. ‘Sin’ would be ignorance such that, as Jesus says somewhere in the non-canonical gospels, ‘Sin, as such, does not exist’. Thus Buddhism has what Franco Varela call an ’embodied’ ethics and not a rule book. Erwin Schrödinger puts it like this.

“When you know by direct intuitive evidence either (a) that you are one with every sentient being or (b) that nothing substantial makes you distinct from the other sentient beings, being good with others is a matter of course.”

Schrödinger is always neat and tidy with his words and doesn’t waste many, so he may be worth reading. You can see that a knowledge of ontology would be the key to ethics. Likewise epistemology, the question of what we know and how, would be solved by ontology. By realising the ontological structure of the world we would, equivalently, realise the nature of knowledge and its source. If we go in search of a solution for epistemology then we will end up with ontology and ethics. They stand or fall together and must be understood together as three aspects of one knowledge or three derivatives of one fact.

I hope this vaguely helps. For ontology I would recommend Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. With work the ethics and epistemology can be derived from this. As for understanding it, this could be a life-time’s work, some would say more, and it would depend on practice as well as intellectual study. But getting the general idea is not so hard. On the ‘advaita’ view this would be the same axiology, epistemology and ontology as that of the Upanishads.

Good luck with a difficult topic.


Slippery slope principle simply explained

Valerie asked:

Hello. In groups of four, we have to teach 15 minutes about a philosophical topic. We got terms which we have to explain to the other students. My topic is ‘the Slippery Slope principle’. I cant find much comprehensible information in the internet etc. So I’d like to ask you. Id would be very nice, if you could give me some simple explanation. Maybe you also know, how I could teach it to my colleagues in form of game, video or maybe music. Thank you for your answer, I’m very happy and I’m sure, that I would get some good help!

Answer by Craig Skinner

You ask for a simple explanation.

Here it is with two examples to illustrate.

A ‘slippery slope’, literally, is a sloping surface on which it is difficult to gain a foothold so that one slides downhill on it. Such as an icy hillside.

The ‘Slippery Slope Principle’ uses the term metaphorically, saying that if a certain course of action is allowed, it is the first step on a slippery slope, and further, less desirable actions will then be allowed, and then yet more, even less desirable, ultimately leading to totally unacceptable actions.

So, the argument goes, we should not take the first step.

An example is legalizing assisted suicide. Many people are against this on the slippery slope principle. They say the next step could be pressurizing old people, who need expensive medical and social care, to agree to assisted suicide. Then local Euthanasia Centres which routinely terminate old or disabled people. Finally organized death camps such as the Nazis set up.

Of course, the argument may be used to try to stop a progressive slide which many people see as an improvement. For example, in my lifetime, homosexual activity was a crime, and many people said that allowing it would be the first step on the slippery slope: next, people would be openly gay; then same-sex marriages would occur; then gay couples would be allowed to bring up children; then some Churches would say it wasn’t wrong; finally the Pope would give it his blessing. The argument was sound, all of this has happened, except for the Pope’s blessing.

You can think of other examples for yourself.


Question about God’s power

Chiedza asked:

I have a question on power. The idea of power is very complex. But my question is directly connected to God. You might not believe in God but let’s just presuppose His existence. One of the most difficult questions I’ve come across is the problem of evil in philosophy if religion. The argument many people present presupposes an omnipresent, all powerful God who is almost a puppet master. But I find is idea of power problematic and perhaps we just misinterpret the essence of power.

What if the problem of evil cannot be answered by the idea of the failure of an all powerful being but rather by the argument that God’s power is self-limited. Maybe power is not definitive of existence but rather responds to existence. What if to God power is not being able to make everyone bend to His will but rather, it’s found in granting a degree of freedom to His creation so that those who do yield to him do so out of pure understanding. Basically what if power isn’t all powerful but rather understanding the limits inherent in the idea.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I think your phrase ‘Let’s just presuppose his existence’ is the key to your question and my answer. You seem to be forgetting that Christian theologians have been debating and disputing precisely these issues with exactly those presuppositions for nearly 2000 years already. They were extremely clever, well-studied, highly intellectual and thoughtful people, and they had all your arguments and hundreds more to debate, because there was nothing else for them to debate on. Hence it seems to me that you have two options:

(a) As these ideas are not facts that can be solved by more or better knowledge, and as in any case we have no better understanding of them than the medieval, scholastic and modern theologians, you should consult them. The thoughts and deliberations of genuine experts on the subject are preferable to the opinions of mere moralists. Moreover, you will find so many answers, solutions and debating points in that literature, you could easily spend the rest of your life on them.

(b) The other option is not to presuppose God and look at power in the only context for which there is plain evidence that can be evaluated — human power. Then you have a lever by which you can discuss power (and especially evil) in a relevant human context, rather than to rely on speculation about things that no-one can assess with certainty.

You understand that I’m not answering your question, and there is a simple reason for this.

Just because the power of religion has been on the wane in recent centuries, does not mean that we are more knowledgeable and better equipped to face such issues. In fact the opposite is the case. For scholastic thinkers they were matters of the utmost importance, as their entire mental and physical existence was embroiled in them. For us it’s just a parlour game, or else a sign of growing desperation in the capacity of humans to face their self-made predicament.

I suppose the final answer is, that theological thinkers did not actually solve the problems. But the belief (or supposition) that solving the pseudo-problem of God’s powers is a useful path to a conclusive insight into the nature of power, is a very peculiar delusion indeed. At most, it could serve for a logical construction, which is perhaps what you are really angling for. But even this little exercise has been ‘done to death’; and I for one can’t see anyone being helped by it to an understanding of human (or God’s) power in any real world.


Dr Johnson and the stone revisited

Dorianne asked:

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

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Dr Johnson reputedly kicked the stone to demonstrate that the stone was a real, material thing existing independently of him – the epistemological view of Naive Realism. By this act he hoped to refute Berkely’s philosophical doctrine of Immaterialism.


In his Of the Principles of Human Knowledge, Bishop George Berkeley begins by stating that human knowledge is derived from either ‘Ideas imprinted on the senses or perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the Mind or, the ‘compounding, the dividing of ideas by memory, by Imagination’ (#1, Principles).

There is something that knows or perceives the ideas, which wills, imagines, remembers.

“This perceiving, active being is what I call mind, spirit or soul or my self. By which words I do not denote any one of my ideas but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherin they exist, or which is the same thing – whereby they are perceived; for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.” #2

There exists only ideas, sensations and minds which have those ideas, those sensations. This is contra to ‘common sense’! What we perceive are ideas granted but, these are copies, representations, reflections of actual, independently existing material objects, things in the world.

The ‘common sense’ materialist view involves, upon examination, a manifest contradiction. It maintains that houses, mountains, rivers exist or have independent existence distinct from their being perceived. If however, we perceive only Ideas, sensations; ideas and sensations can only exist when being perceived by the Mind. Ideas cannot exist apart from, independently of a Mind. So, Ideas exist only when perceived by a Mind. As Berekely famously summarised: Esse est Percipi — to be, is to be perceived.

No! The Ideas, sensations are only ideas etc of underlying things, objects. Just because we do not have an idea of a thing, object; it does not follow that we can then conclude that the object itself does not exist. A conclusion of ontology does not follow from a conclusion of epistemology.

Berkeley is most insistent that Ideas cannot be representatives of objects underlying or causing them. For we only ever perceive Ideas. Even if we had an Idea of an underlying object, this would be another Idea, an Idea to be contrasted with another Idea and so on ad infinitum. (#8 et alibi) No underlying physical object existing independently of a perceiving Mind can ever be reached. He lays down his challenge: is it conceivable for Ideas to exist independently of perceiving Minds?

“This easy trial may take you to see what you contend for is a downright contradiction. Inso much that I am content to put the whole upon this issue; if you can but conceive it possible for one extended, movable substance or, in general for any one Idea or anything like an Idea to exist Otherwise than in a perceiving mind; I shall readily give up the cause…” #22

So Dorianne, when Dr Johnson kicked the stone, he had the Idea of the stone, the sensations accompanying his kicking it but, as these remain Ideas, sensations in his Mind and the Mind of his companion with whom he was discussing the Bishop; he has not refuted Berkeley’s thesis. He is verifying it.