Faith, reason and ancient philosophy

Ali asked:

If the methodology of ancient philosophy was so potentially at odds with faith, why didn’t European thinkers simply ignore it? What does their determination to grapple and reconcile philosophy and reason reveal?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The idea that Ancient philosophy was ‘at odds with faith’ contains a serious misunderstanding. The way of reason, championed by the Presocratic philosophers, and by Socrates and Plato — for the purpose of this question, I’m assuming we’re talking about philosophy in the West — is a very different thing from contemporary scientism and anti-theism.

I have little to say about the history of montheistic religion, whether it be Judaism, Christianity or Islam. I’m tempted to respond: why wouldn’t the rabbis, monks and theologians want to claim that their views were rationally based, and who better to appeal to than the Greeks? More importantly, you only have to read these works of ancient philosophy to realize just how compelling they are, to anyone with a shred of intelligence. (That may be bias!)

The foundation of Greek thinking was faith in reason. Talk of ‘faith’ isn’t just word play. At the time of Thales, the idea that you could discover truths through the use of reason was a breathtaking discovery. It was also controversial. ‘Theory’ was a novel concept, the notion that by means of reasoning, one could achieve a reliable view of the cosmos and our place in it which was not derived from religious tradition.

Even then, and despite their evident enthusiasm, the Greeks knew that their hold on reason and theory was fragile. The Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes argued for a sceptical approach: even the most strongly supported theory cannot claim to be indubitable truth. Only God knows the truth about the cosmos while mere humans can only make their most reasonable guess.

Possibly the best, and also most moving, defence of reason is in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, which recounts the last day of Socrates’ life. Socrates puts forward arguments for the existence of the soul, while his friends raise various objections. If the existence of the soul could be rationally proved, you wouldn’t need more than one argument! But as Socrates makes clear, this is a topic where certainty is not to be had. He had proved his own faith by refusing the opportunity to escape execution (see the dialogue Crito) and drinking the hemlock without a word of protest.

All the Presocratics, barring the atomists, held that the most reasonable theory of the cosmos was one which hypothesised an intelligent principle (‘Nous’). Plato in the Republic argued that the Forms are arranged hierarchically under the Form of the Good. Aristotle in the Metaphysics argued for an Unmoved Mover. However, as you will rightly point out, none of these god-like principles were conceived as a personal deity: a God who speaks to Moses from a burning bush, or who takes up human form and calls out from the cross, ‘Oh God! Why have you forsaken me?’

What about the atomists? Atomism was based on a metaphysical principle of the unchangeability of Being, derived from Parmenides. So it is a very different thing from contemporary physics and chemistry. However, what the atomists discovered was that there is, in principle, a way to derive order from random motion of atoms — as counterintuitive as this might first have seemed. A simple example would be an avalanche, where smaller rocks fall into a crevice and larger rocks reach the bottom of the mountain. Or panning for gold, where the heavier particles naturally gravitate towards the centre of the dish.

A contemporary version of this is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The only difference (really!) is in the degree of sophistication. What is required in both cases, the Ancient and contemporary, is a willingness to take a leap — I won’t call it a ‘leap of faith’ — the determined view that, barring any other explanation, this must be the correct model for the way our ordered universe, our human world, arose through a series of stages from disordered chaos.

I am an atheist, and I hold to that view as a matter of philosophical faith. If a ‘God’ does exist, then He ought not to. The notion that the ultimate explanation of everything is some ‘family story’ about a ‘loving father’ strikes me as bizarre and offensive. (See my 2014 article, Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue.) In my recent book Philosophizer, I compare ‘true believers’ to a zombie plague. It makes me angry that so-called ‘religious’ people think they have a monopoly on faith. Read the ancient philosophers, study them, and you will come to a very different conclusion.

Divine command theory and the sinking lifeboat

Julie asked:

What would a Divine Command Theorist do or say in a “Lifeboat Ethics” situation?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

First off, I want to say that this is a really good example of a type of scenario that poses a serious challenge to divine command theory — although one that can be met if we are prepared to bite the bullet.

What is divine command theory? You can start by looking at these three answers:

I am going to assume that we are dealing with the version of divine command theory defended by Peter Geach (first answer, above). If you can get hold of it, I recommend reading Geach’s chapter, ‘The Moral Law and the Law of God’ in his book God and the Soul (1969) which is the best I have seen on this topic. (I found this on Google, but the link seems to have disappeared.)

What would be an example of a ‘lifeboat ethics’ situation, as you call it?

Here’s one possibility. The ship has gone down, survivors are in the water clinging to bits of debris. You are in charge of a lifeboat. You can’t rescue everyone — the boat is too small, there is not enough time — so you have to make hard choices. The obvious course of action is to go for the nearest survivors first. That’s the plan that promises to maximize the number of lives saved.

Now, we can tweak this by supposing that you know the identities of the survivors. All lives are equally valuable, according to divine command theory, regardless of whether there may be beneficial consequences in saving one individual, say, a famous scientist working on a cure for cancer, in preference to another, say, the ship’s cook. If the cook is nearer to the boat, then you go for him first, even if that risks the scientist’s life.

But maybe you would do this anyway, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the divine command theory of ethics. At least, it’s not clear. Regardless of which course of action you choose, you are doing good, you are saving lives.

So let’s look at a different case. The lifeboat is overfull and about to sink. The only way to save the lives of the people on the lifeboat is if at least two of those on board go back in the water. If they do that, their death is inevitable. You might consider sacrificing yourself, but that still leaves one to go. You have to make the decision. But, as divine command theory states, taking the life of an innocent individual is absolutely forbidden regardless of the consequences.

Draw straws? That would be acceptable, provided all those on board are willing to abide by the draw. However, it only takes one recalcitrant individual to scupper that plan. ‘Look, you agreed to draw straws and you got the short straw. So, jump already!’ Would you?

Divine command theory forbids taking the life of an ‘innocent’ individual. The person holding the short straw, quaking with fear, is ‘guilty’ only of breaking a promise — to commit suicide. That seems insufficient ground for the use of lethal force although the point could be debated.

At this point, it is possible — indeed, highly likely — that the other survivors on the boat will take the law into their own hands. If they do, and despite your best efforts you are unable to stop them, then the problem is solved. There’s no blood on your hands. But there is no guarantee that this will happen.

The only remaining possibility is to persuade just one person to sacrifice him or herself. You’ve already made the decision to go overboard. Maybe, at the last possible moment, before the boat starts sinking, someone will jump. But if they don’t, then the lifeboat sinks and you all die.

I am not putting this forward as a ‘refutation’ of divine command theory. It is simply what has to happen, if one makes the decision never to do wrong — never to do an action forbidden by divine law — regardless of the consequences.

Is randomness mind-dependent?

Eddie asked:

Is randomness mind dependent? Can any random process possibly be generated in a deterministic world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In the first year of my BA at London University in the early 70s I had a part-time job as a clerk in the OPCS, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in Holborn, London (which later in 1996 became the Office of National Statistics). I was in a small office with four or five clerks and a Senior Executive Officer (SEO). Our job was the most boring imaginable. We had to select addresses from the Electoral Register and compile address lists for interviewers to visit for the UK Government’s ‘General Household Survey’.

For the statistics gathered to be reliable, it was essential that the selection was done randomly. It would have skewed the statistics badly if we’d skipped all the East European sounding names, or names from the Indian sub-continent — or houses with twee names like ‘The Nook’ or ‘Rose Cottage’ — or on the other hand gone out of our way to select them. (I’m not saying this was never done. We were very bored.)

According to our SEO, a young woman who had joined the Civil Service after gaining her degree in Statistics, the only correct way to do the selection was use a mathematical formula to generate random numbers. Using a haphazard method, like throwing dice for example, wasn’t always a reliable way of generating random numbers because you need to be 100% sure that the numbers you produce would not appear to support a prediction.

An example of the dangers of relying on a haphazard method would be a penalty kicker in soccer who before the match uses a coin spin to decide which way he will kick the ball, right or left. He spins his lucky penny a few times: heads for left, tails for right. Unfortunately for him, the last six throws have all landed heads. And this time it’s heads again. The goal keeper, noting the kicker’s seeming predilection for going left in recent games, dives left and saves the goal and the match.

As time was pressing and none of us was sufficiently competent in maths (this was before computers) our SEO said it would be OK to select the last digits from telephone numbers in a telephone directory page opened ‘at random’. I hardly ever saw anyone do this. We just thought up two numbers in our heads. The first number n was the nth address on the Electoral Register for the district the interviewer was due to visit. The second number m was the number of addresses to skip before selecting the m+1th address.

Provided this relatively lazy procedure was followed, with no cheating, then the selection probably would have been sufficiently random for the purpose intended. Our SEO had a story to tell her boss. There was always an open telephone directory in the room so we could claim that we’d got our numbers from there.

What is the point of this story? Randomness is a practical concept, which applies differently in different areas of activity. In statistics, you want your results to be reliable, because policy decisions may depend on the outcome. In a game, you want your actions to be unpredictable. In a lottery, you want the result to be fair with no possibility of cheating. And so on. In none of these areas, or other examples you can think of, is randomness merely ‘mind dependent’. That is because in each case, there are consequences in the real world.

However, randomness in the sense I have described, isn’t purely ‘objective’ either. With sufficient knowledge (you might need to have powers approaching those of a Laplacian Super-Mind) you could predict any supposedly random selection or sequence — in a deterministic world, as you say, otherwise the bets are off.

Visual appearance and illusion

JimJim asked:

Visual size is illusory: it shrinks in all three dimensions. Before we correct for this, not only do the railroad tracks meet in the distance, but a train travelling down them gets shorter, narrower, and smaller. So my question is: how far away must a visible object be for us to see it real size?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The premise of your question is false. There are visual illusions, which require a special setup to work, but in general things appear the size that they are, no larger or smaller.

You can verify this for yourself easily. Pick an object on the far side of the room and walk towards it. Does the object (a framed picture, say) ‘get larger’ as you move towards it. Of course not. Hold out your arm and look at your hand. Now move your index finger towards your eye. At what point does your finger appear bigger than it is? At no point.

The notion, e.g., that a train travelling away from us ‘gets shorter, narrower, and smaller’ is based on a overly simplified model of perception. When you look at the train as it travels into the distance, the image projected upside down onto your retina gets smaller and smaller. But what you see, what you perceive, isn’t that image. You see the train. Moreover, you see it as a train, that is to say, an constructed object of a kind that maintains its size over time. (I’m ignoring the fact that a train gets longer or shorter if you add or subtract carriages.)

There are common objects that get larger and smaller. A balloon, for example. Let’s say we are watching a clown walking the road with a large balloon. The balloon has a puncture, and is visibly shrinking, getting smaller and smaller as we look on. The clown turns towards us and shakes his head, sadly. Being able to tell when things actually get bigger or smaller is a pretty important ability, don’t you think?

In order to explain this, a distinction is sometimes made between what we ‘actually see, with our eyes’, and the perceptual judgements based on what we see. So, in your example of the train, we ‘actually see’ the train get smaller, but this is then corrected by our judgement.

There are special cases where this is true. The moon in the sky doesn’t look that large. But then when you take into account the information that the moon is a quarter of a million miles away, a quick calculation shows that it must be pretty big if we can see it at all at that distance.

Then there are artificially constructed experimental setups where a man walking across a room appears to get smaller because the ‘room’ in question is designed with a false perspective: we see the room as rectangular, but in fact the far wall is twice the size of the near wall.

In each of these cases, judgement is required to correct what we see, or seem to see. But these are necessarily exceptions to a rule: The rule being that our faculty of perception (eyes, optic nerve, brain — not forgetting our capacity to physically manipulate the objects that we see) is ‘designed’ by evolution to produce veridical appearances. We need accurate information coming through the senses on which to base our judgements. That’s how perception works.

The concept of perception applies not only to the five senses but also to things like understanding what a person is saying. We perceive meaning. Sometimes we can be wrong, and often those errors can be corrected by judgement. But judgement needs something to work on on. Language isn’t a cacophony of sound, or squiggles on a screen or on paper that we then have to interpret — although, as in the special case it can be, e.g., if you don’t ‘know the language’ and have to work what the person is saying from a phrase book.

A good question to ask in alleged cases of perceptual illusion is, How would things look otherwise? Discussing ancient beliefs about the cosmos, one of Wittgenstein’s students once remarked about the fact that the sun appears to go round the Earth. ‘And how would it look if the Earth appeared to go round the sun?’ was his reply. — I’ll leave you with that question to think about.

Houses in the sky

Cena asked:

If crisis came, can humans build houses in the sky?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

From a technological standpoint, it it is perfectly conceivable that human beings could live permanently in habitats floating in the sky and held aloft either by giant impermeable Helium bags, or possibly jet thrusters (as in the TV series Altered Carbon, 2018 although the latter would require a substantial permanent energy source.

Another possibility, explored in the movie Elysium (2013) is a giant orbiting structure — the ‘Stanford torus’, proposed in a 1975 NASA study — which could provide an Earth-like environment for tens or hundreds of thousands of human beings.

The first option might not be available in the event of a nuclear war, as the Earth’s atmosphere would be contaminated. On the other hand, either option could be used in the event of an ecological catastrophe that rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable, although underwater cities have also been proposed.

From a philosophical standpoint, the main question is an ethical one. The population of the Earth is around 7 and a half billion. When the crisis comes, if it comes, it could be double or treble that.

Realistically, only a small fraction of that total number would have the chance to enjoy life in the clouds, or in orbit. That’s the problem.

The scenario has been visited many times in science fiction. In a way, it exists now. A relative few enjoy a nice life, while for the many day-to-day existence is gruelling, requiring unrelenting toil. But even if the problem of poverty could be permanently solved, that would not do anything to address the challenge of deciding who gets the chance to escape after the Sun flares, or the missiles fall.

Should it be a lottery? Or should only the best and brightest be offered the chance to survive? If you’re testing ethical theories against intuition, that question is every bit as effective as the more frequently discussed Trolley problem.

If the only consideration is the future of the human race, one might opt for the ‘best and brightest’. But who is to choose, and on what basis? How do you balance IQ against musical talent, for example, or sporting prowess? Far easier, and fairer (for the many) would be a lottery, but this would bring its own negative consequences. The great and the good would have to take their chance along with the hoi polloi — a prospect that you may well find repugnant. Imagine waving good bye to Einstein, or Mother Theresa, or the Beatles. ‘Sorry chaps, your numbers didn’t come up.’

In the absence of the political will to make that hard decision and enforce it, the default option is the one explored in ‘Elysium’. The ones who get to go are those who can afford the ticket. So, Beatles yes, Mother Theresa no.

I’m not going to end this with some specious nonsense about ‘hoping it never happens’. It probably will. So maybe it would be a good idea to start discussing the problem now.

Thought and language

William asked:

While written words symbolize spoken words, what do spoken words symbolize?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Imagine the following scenario:

After a long, desperate fight lasting all day and into the evening, the battle has been won.

A messenger is sent out to give the news to the King. He runs all night and all the next day, then collapses and dies from exhaustion before he is able to deliver the message.

If only written language had been invented! The message would have been delivered, whether the messenger lived or died, provided that he arrived at his destination.

But suppose that spoken language had not yet been invented, what then?

The battle has been won. But the only ones who know, are those who fought. And when, eventually, the weary warriors return home, how can they ever describe what they saw with their own eyes, judged with their own hearts and minds — corpses strewn over the battlefield, dismembered arms and legs, decapitated heads, the remaining enemy troops in full flight?

Michael Dummett remarks somewhere (it could have been in ‘What is a Theory of Meaning?’ either I or II) that ‘language increases the range of human perception’. You can look out the window to see that it is raining, or someone else can look out the window and tell you, in words, ‘Hey man, it’s raining!’

And so we are tempted to put forward the following analogy: just as written words reproduce (or ‘symbolize’) spoken words, so spoken words reproduce the language of thought.

When the warriors judge, ‘we have won the battle’, the thought they express, severally and collectively, is expressed in mental language, a language that has no ‘words’ or ‘sentences’ as such, and yet has the power, the capacity, to give meaning to spoken and written language (once it has been invented).

Dummett calls this the ‘encoding/ decoding’ model of language, which he claims is refuted by Wittgenstein’s argument against a ‘private language’ in Philosophical Investigations. (Dummett goes on to make some very questionable deductions from this about the necessity for a ‘theory of meaning’ which we need not go into.)

I endorse the view that language is necessary for thought. Before language (historically, spoken language) was invented, human beings simply did not have the power to ‘think’ the kinds of thoughts that language is able to express, specifically, thoughts about the past or future, or about generality. (This point is made persuasively by Jonathan Bennett in his book Rationality, 1964.)

Then Jerry Fodor came along with his The Language of Thought (1975) and gave the idea of ‘language in the brain’ a new twist. There has to be some ‘structure’ there to begin with for language learning to be possible, something ‘mental’ — although physically embodied in the brain — that is in some way isomorphic to written or spoken words.

However, Bennett’s point still stands. In an analogous way to Darwinian evolution, an individual human brain ‘evolves’ structures over time in response to human interaction and other external circumstances (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1991), and it is plausible to claim that the ‘language of thought’, if there is such a thing, only came into being as spoken (and written) language developed.

What Darwinian evolution gave homo sapiens was the extra plasticity required to build structures in the brain where none had existed before, which then enabled the development of language. As with other evolved structures (a wing, for example) we can hypothesize that some survival benefit was conferred by this extra brain plasticity apart from the capacity to develop language — but that’s just speculation.

What, then, do spoken words symbolize? Written or spoken words represent that something is the case, or is not the case: something that is true if the words represent that something is the case and it is the case, or if the words represent that something is not the case and it is not the case, or false if the words represent that something is the case and it is not the case, or if the words represent that something is not the case and it is the case. — That’s how Aristotle explained the concept of truth.

The technical term that we would now use for this is: ‘truth conditions’. Instead of looking for some ‘thing’ in the brain that is the ultimate bearer of meaning, we describe what meaning does, what it is, in effect. Statements, or judgements, made in written or spoken language, have truth conditions, and that is how they get their ‘meaning’. That is how language is able to work.

You might object to this that nothing has really been explained. Isn’t there still a mystery about how meaning — or the capacity to express thoughts or statements that have truth conditions — can arise at all? There is much that we still do not know. But I am going to leave it there.

Classic texts for the beginning student

Alan asked:

Discussing which philosophers’ original work to read, GK intimated that Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ would not be a good choice. Is this because you consider him a poor philosopher, or that his philosophy is so self contained it allows little constructive discussion? Or something else completely?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

How do you know that Spinoza was a great philosopher who is eminently worth discussing? Because that’s what you were told in some lecture course or in a YouTube video? Maybe the speaker was putting you on. Maybe the whole ‘spinoza’ thing is just a big joke played by philosophers on the non-philosophical world.

Spinoza is difficult to read without a supporting secondary text (or lecture course or YouTube video). That’s why when starting out in philosophy it is better to find a classic text that you don’t need to have explained to you, where you don’t need to be spoonfed.

Locke is one philosopher who has suffered from generations of misinterpretation. Reading texts from the 60s you’d think he was complete dumbass. Just read the unabridged Dover edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in two volumes from start to finish and you’d have a very good and accurate view of Locke. And you only need to read it once — because he goes to such great lengths to explain himself.

Pity the poor students who relied on the ‘expert guidance’ available at the time without taking the opportunity to judge for themselves!

That’s just one example. There are plenty of classic texts that you don’t need to have explained to you, for example you could try some of the texts in Section 3 of the Pathways introductory book list, which I reproduce here without comment:

George Berkeley Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713)

Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Plato Phaedo (around 385 BC)

Ludwig Wittgenstein The Blue and Brown Books (Blackwell)

Kirk, Raven and Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers (2nd Edition CUP)

— You can approach philosophy in the spoonfeeding way or you can see this as an opportunity to learn to think for yourself. The decision you make now will have profound consequences.

[Note added: for more on this topic see my post on the Philosophy Pathways blog On reading.]