Believing things into existence

Patricia asked:

If Y is the sole necessary and sufficient conditions for X

And if there are no other necessary conditions for X,

And if there are no other sufficient conditions for X,

And if Y is always the entirely subjective belief of any given individual, not susceptible to justification,

Then in what sense can X be said to exist? Or in what sense can the word which is a marker for X be said to have any meaning?

I hope I have phrased this in a way that makes sense. I’m not an expert logician by any means!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Patricia, for your beautifully formed question. I would not change a single word of it.

First, I am going to tell you what immediately comes to mind with regard to this ‘X’ (and was probably on your mind too) and then talk about a rather different case which you may not have considered.

What immediately comes to mind? Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para. 258 which begins:

“Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign “S”…”

From around para. 200 onwards, Wittgenstein has been leading up to this, his case against the notion of a ‘private language’, a language that purportedly refers to subjective ‘objects’ such that ‘a definition of the sign cannot be formulated’. This last bit is crucial, because although we normally consider things like pains and tickles to be subjective or private, these events exist in the arena of public discourse, with repeatable and recognizable causes and effects.

‘S’ is different. Apart from my writing ‘S’ in my diary, nothing physical changes in me to prompt the writing of ‘S’ nor is there any characteristic external behaviour for S, nor any physical event that can be observed to cause me to write ‘S’.

By the end of para. 258 the argument is already over. Game, set and match. (I’m not going to go over this here, books have been written about it.) All that follows are objections that Wittgenstein bats away with ease. The idea of ‘belief’ is the very first thing he considers, in para. 260:

“Well I believe that this is sensation S again.” — Perhaps you believe that you believe it!

What is it to ‘believe’ something, or ‘believe in’ the existence of something? Our first thought is that ‘I know what I believe’. The fact that I believe that P, or believe in the existence of X, is self-validating. I know what my beliefs are, a priori. So what, exactly, is it that presents itself to my mind when I have a belief that P, or a belief in the existence of X?

There are things one can say about many beliefs that are not true of all beliefs. For many beliefs, there is evidence that one would point to; but not for all beliefs (e.g. the belief that the universe has existed for more than 5 minutes, Russell’s famous sceptical hypothesis). For many beliefs, there are actions that are appropriate if you have that belief, but not for all beliefs. Let’s say that (for whatever reason) I believe that Donald Trump will be remembered as one of the great American US Presidents. There is nothing that I can do to show that I have this belief other than asserting that very statement, or repeatedly Tweeting it, or saying (in 8 years time after Trump’s second term) ‘I told you so!’

This ‘sensation’ that I’m having now, which I call ‘S’ is one I ‘believe’ I’ve had before, when I first gave it the name ‘S’. What makes this a case of belief? We’re all familiar with that feeling you get when you recognize something or someone. ‘I’ve seen that car before, what is it?’ ‘It’s a Pagani Zonda.’ ‘Ah!’ Problem is, the ‘feeling’ I get when I ‘believe’ I am having S again is just another incorrigibly subjective feeling, like S. Maybe I’m just imagining it all. What is the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘imagination’? Like cases of deja vu, where you really can’t say exactly what is in your mind or what you’re thinking.

In short, the appeal to belief doesn’t help. It doesn’t go a single step towards weakening the case that Wittgenstein has made in para. 258.

— Now, I want to consider a seemingly very different case, or rather cases, of your ‘X’.

Here are two examples. I believe that I have a guardian angel. I also believe that I have a virtuous soul.

Because I have a guardian angel, whatever bad things may happen to me will not be as bad as they would have been had I not had a guardian angel. If I break my arm, then I can console myself with the thought that were it not for my guardian angel, I would have broken my arm and my leg.

Similarly, I may have done some despicable things in my life, but I believe that because I have a virtuous soul, these were aberrations, the result of ethical misjudgement, rather than reflections of my true character. Were it not for my virtuous soul, I would have done far worse things.

I believe that I have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul because I really do have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul. I have these gifts because I believe it and only because I believe it.

Moreover, unlike the case of ‘S’, these beliefs definitely have consequences. Because I have a guardian angel, I am prepared to take risks that I otherwise would not have taken. Because I have a virtuous soul, I am prepared to put myself in moral danger that I would not otherwise have put myself in.

Wouldn’t this be a case that fits your schema? We can go further and generalize. I could believe these things about you. Because you have a guardian angel, your question was more cogent and logical than it otherwise would have been, etc. (So this isn’t, as one might have first thought, merely a case of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.)

Over to you.

Writing an essay on the Crito

Jess asked:

I just want some guidance on writing a philosophy paper on Crito! I have to basically write 3 paragraphs of:

1) Socrates argument

2) the counter argument

3) why i think Socrates’ argument overrules any counter argument.

I don’t know how to extend this to be 1200 words.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I would like to help you, Jess, but first I want to say something about this kind of question. I don’t mean questions about Socrates or the Crito, I’m talking about instructors who basically tell you all the steps you need to do to write your ‘paper’. Do this, do this, do this and you’re done. Easy.

Except that philosophy isn’t like that. The whole point about studying philosophy is learning to think for yourself. Maybe your ideas on the Crito don’t fit the instructor’s easy scheme. Why must Socrates win every argument? Is he a god? Didn’t he say that all he knew was how much he didn’t know? Can’t he ever be wrong?

Casting my mind back to this famous dialogue by Plato, I seem to recall that Crito visits Socrates in prison where the great philosopher is awaiting execution after being convicted by an Athenian court on a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the young. ‘Hey, Socrates,’ says Crito, ‘My friends and I can help you escape to a place where your philosophical ideas will be appreciated. You can live like a lord. Look what the Athenians did to you, you don’t owe them anything.’

And then Socrates says something to the effect that he couldn’t live with himself if he ‘harmed the laws of Athens’. Or some such nonsense.

If Socrates had said, ‘I want to be a martyr to philosophy. I want Plato to write his greatest dialogue, the Phaedo, about how I bravely drank the hemlock discussing the immortality of the soul with my friends,’ one could understand. Martyrdom is a theme of contemporary politics. Everyone dies, so make your death count for something. Take a few dozen unbelievers with you and let them be dragged to hell.

Now, I can be wrong about this and often am. Maybe you disagree with my casual dismissal of Socrates’ argument. This is about what you think. I’m not going to put words in your mouth or write your paper for you.

As for the length, 1200 words is nothing. If you were talking about this with your friends, how many words would your conversation run to? Several thousand, I’d guess. So my advice is: forget that you are following a ‘how-to-do-it’ guide for writing a paper. Read the Crito at least twice. Then write what you make of it all. Let it all hang out. Risk being ‘wrong’. (You might still be in the right, but unfortunately regardless of how stupid they are, instructors are the ones who give the grades.)

Most importantly, argue with yourself. Don’t assume that the first thought that comes into your mind is valid or even relevant. Write your paper, criticize it, then rewrite it from scratch. I guarantee that the result will be something of which you can be justifiably proud.

Extracurricular activities of a Philosophy major

Lorenzo asked:

I am a foreign high school student who intends to apply to a top american university, in order to major in Philosophy. What kind of extracurricular activities — related to philosophy — could I do and include in my applications, showing to the admissions officials my commitment to its study and improving my chances of being accepted?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Do they have this saying (or the equivalent) in Brazil, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’?

It’s unlikely that the admissions officer of a philosophy department would be looking specifically for extracurricular activities related to philosophy. What they want to know is: are you an interesting person or a boring swat? Will you be making an active contribution to the life of your university or college? For example, in sport, or the performing arts, or special interest clubs, or outreach?

What can you do besides philosophize?

On the site it says, ‘Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’ If I was an Admissions officer, you would also need to show me that you have genuine intellectual interests outside your chosen subject — in the physical sciences, or psychology, or history for example. Do you follow politics or does the news just bore you? What are your views on Third World debt? climate change? Where do you stand politically on libertarianism? socialism?

However, as you asked, I do think that there are philosophically related things you can do, like attending public talks by philosophers if there are any available, or contacting your nearest university philosophy department and asking them if you can sit in on some of their seminars. Does your school have a philosophy club? What contribution did you make to it? Have you ever talked to a professional philosopher?

Well, the fact that you submitted this question is a start. It’s something you can note on your application form.

So far as your philosophical abilities are concerned, you may be asked to submit a sample of your work — an essay or essays on philosophy. School grades are rarely enough to judge a candidate’s academic potential. The best advice I can give here is, don’t even think of cheating. Sweat it out, put everything you have into it. And hope for the best.

Good luck!

Russell, Pascal and betting on God

Ernest asked:

What was Bertrand Russell’s response to Pascal’s Wager?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’m guessing that you did a search for “Pascal’s Wager” and “Bertrand Russell” and you were unable to find any quote from Russell responding to Pascal’s argument. Guess what, I did the same. Knowing how good search engines are these days, I would lay odds on that in his long career Russell didn’t, in fact, state any view specifically about Pascal’s Wager, although in his History of Western Philosophy he makes some pretty deprecating remarks about Pascal, going so far as to raise questions about his sanity.

(It’s best to read the original text of Pascal’s Wager rather than ‘Sweded’ versions. The original passage from Pascal’s Pensees is quoted here.)

Pascal as a philosopher doesn’t much interest me, although Russell does. ‘A Free Man’s Worship’ in Russell’s essay collection Mysticism and Logic deserves to be on the top shelf of any atheist book collection. (No need to buy the book, you can easily find Russell’s essay on the web.)

A quote from Russell that frequently surfaces is what he claimed he would say after death if he found himself confronted by an angry God, demanding, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me?’ Russell replies, ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ or words to that effect. The point of this isn’t about evidence, it’s about God’s motives. The very notion that unbelievers should be punished for their unbelief, that human beings should make a sacrifice of their (supposedly) God-given powers of reason is monstrous, an atheist would say.

On the other hand, demanding that another person (a partner, say) ‘have faith’ in us is part of universal human experience. ‘You should have given me better evidence for believing in you,’ is a very poor response to give to one’s spouse when after much travail his or her book is finally published — or when he or she is acquitted of a murder charge.

Arguments over this point are never going to be resolved. So making the argument depend on what is or is not a suitable object of ‘faith’ isn’t going to be helpful.

Let’s look instead at the very idea of a bet, and betting odds. A bet is a guide to action, and two factors come into play: your calculation of the likelihood or odds of a particular event occurring or not occurring, and your level of risk aversion — or, alternatively, your positive preference for risk taking.

Let’s say that having won your 450 horse power Japanese sports car on eBay, the first thing you plan to do is drive across Europe to Germany so that you can belt down the Autobahn at 200 miles per hour. Relying on your driving skills to dodge the slower traffic you are risking permanent injury or death but the thrill is worth it, isn’t it? Might be. If there wasn’t the risk, the thrill would be less.

Assume that we knew for sure that there is a Hell and some human beings are going there. (There are a few temporary escapees, that’s how we know.) Would that be sufficient reason for toeing the line and obeying God’s commandments? Not at all. The thought that evil carries a mortal risk might enhance the pleasure for some. Besides, in real life, no-one knows for sure what the right action is. A Mephistophelean anti-God might punish human beings for being good and reward evil.

The point, however, is that as a reason for action an argument from probability like Pascal’s Wager can never be compelling for all persons at all times. If you think that the likelihood of there being a God is no more or less than the likelihood of there being an anti-God then all bets are off. Whereas if you incline, for whatever seeming ‘reasons’, to the God alternative then it is possible that one day walking down the street you will experience the urge to walk in to your local Buddhist temple — or synagogue, or church, or mosque — just to experience the atmosphere of holiness and reverence, to give that a chance of working on you.

What a frightful prospect! Indeed. Knowledge doesn’t come into it. This is about betting and risk. For a few atheists, the risk of being converted away from atheism is so horrifying that they wouldn’t go near a place of worship. Other atheists might find it a breeze, and a bit of a laugh. And yet others, again maybe only a few, might be tempted by an argument from probability to give belief a chance.

It may seem a rather weak defence of Pascal’s Wager to say that it might be valid in some, maybe only a few cases. But this isn’t the same as simply saying that it is invalid. It is a rational argument from probability with a special application, valid, if and only if the relevant circumstances apply.

Do panpsychists have a moral obligation to rocks?

Robert asked:

Does a person who is sympathetic to panpsychism have a moral obligation to rocks?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the Pathways web site it says:

Remember: There is no such thing as a foolish question.
But also: Consider the possibility that you may be wrong.

(Following your Pathway)

So I am going to take Robert’s question seriously, even though at first sight it looks a bit facetious.

‘Of course, we don’t have any moral obligation to rocks!’ you will say.

What about Mount Everest? That’s a rock. Don’t human beings have a moral obligation to keep this great mountain in a decent state, and not foul it up with abandoned tents, food cans and used toilet paper? I think we do.

On the other hand, it seems hard to imagine that a rock randomly picked up from Brighton Beach has even the slightest moral claim on me.

That of course is a different question from the one raised by the Brighton and Hove City Council Byelaw against pilfering attractive rocks from the beach for personal gain or to decorate your home, because you are harming other human beings who have a right to enjoy the beach in its unmolested state. The rock itself isn’t harmed if you or I break this Byelaw. (Perhaps the same argument applies to Mount Everest, but I would prefer to leave that question open.)

However, according to one version of panpsychism, every physical entity in the universe, from quarks to galaxies and everything in between has some degree or measure of ‘consciousness’. (In Whitehead’s Process and Reality the ‘actual entities’ that compose physical reality are events rather than spatio-temporal particulars, but I don’t think it would make any difference to this argument.)

Let’s assume, naively perhaps, that consciousness is a kind of ‘stuff’ that things can have in a greater or lesser amount. Humans have more consciousness than butterflies, and butterflies have more consciousness than pebbles.

Let’s also assume that if you harm anything that has consciousness, whether more or less, then that is something bad, perhaps in proportion to the degree of consciousness possessed by the entity in question. Catching and killing butterflies for your butterfly collection is less bad than killing humans for your shrunken heads collection.

The question, however, is how you can harm a rock. I don’t think that this is entailed by the panpsychist theory, and here’s why:

The amount of consciousness in a given rock is determined purely by the aggregation of its parts. That is because a rock, as such, has no internal principle of organization. In Leibnizian or Lockean terms, it is not a ‘substance’. It doesn’t have an ‘essence’ from which its properties flow, other than the properties that arise from composition, such as having a striped pattern, or being smooth or crumbly. On the panpsychist theory, if I break a rock in two, then there is just as much consciousness as there was before, only now distributed in two parts.

By contrast, the consciousness of a single living cell is more than the aggregation of the consciousness of its chemical constituents. On the panpsychist view, in parallel with the physical organization of the cell, there is a ‘mental’ organization of its conscious aspect. This is what Leibniz held about his ‘monads’. A human being has a ‘principal monad’, which is the self, which is something extra added on top to the descending hierarchy of organized structures, from limbs and organs, to cells and their ultimate physical structure.

It follows that if you destroy a living cell, you reduce the total amount of consciousness in the universe. Cells can be harmed. Causing unnecessary harm is bad. Ergo, we have a moral obligation — albeit rather small and easily overridden by other moral considerations — to every living cell on Earth, or perhaps in the Universe if there is life elsewhere.

A rock, on the other hand, as we have seen cannot be harmed. On the panpsychist theory, you cannot reduce the amount of consciousness in the universe by splitting the rock in two, grinding it down to a powder, or doing anything else to it. Even if you could convert all of its matter into energy, you would still have the same amount of consciousness but in a different form.

That disposes of one ground, at least, for thinking panpsychism absurd. Whether panpsychism is, or could be true, is an entirely different matter.