The ontological argument

Donna asks:

Could you summarize the logic of the Ontological proof?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The ontological argument has been flogged to death but just wont lie down. Anselm’s original was dismissed by Aquinas because it confuses a true semantic claim “God (necessarily) exists” (true by definition of the word “God”) with a possibly false existential claim “(Necessarily) God exists”, a simple logical fallacy (changing the scope of the modal operator from de re to de dicto, to be technical about it). Then Kant dismissed the argument on the grounds that “existence” is not a property which an entity may or may not possess, but a prerequisite for an entity to have any properties at all.

I shall deal with the modern version of the argument.
As ever we define God as a necessarily existing being, then proceed:

P1. If God exists his existence is necessary.
P2. If God doesnt exist his existence is impossible.
P3. Hence God’s existence is either necessary or impossible.
P4. God’s existence is possible (not impossible).
P5. Hence God’s existence is necessary.
Conclusion: God exists.

But note, the argument just as readily “proves” God’s nonexistence:

P1. If God is nonexistent his nonexistence is necessary.
P2. If God isnt nonexistent his nonexistence is impossible.
P3. Hence God’s nonexistence is either necessary or impossible.
P4. God’s nonexistence is possible (not impossible).
P5. Hence God’s nonexistence is necessary.
Conclusion: God is nonexistent.

The problem is P4. It begs the question. Clearly God’s existence (nonexistence) is only possible if he exists (doesnt exist). All we can really conclude is that if God exists his existence is necessary, if he doesnt his existence is impossible, but we dont know whether God exists or not.

What makes a chair a chair

Acer asks:

What makes a chair a chair?

Answer by Craig Skinner

I assume you speak of the furniture item rather than the person in charge of a meeting or organization.

What makes a chair a chair is (as with all other things) that it matches the relevant definition, description, specification, concept or meaning, in this case:

“A seat for one person that has a back, usually four legs, and sometimes two arms”.

This definition is wide enough to include armchairs, pushchairs and wheelchairs. There will be borderline cases like deckchairs, but whether we include these is just a matter of stipulation.

End of story you might think. But no, Plato wanted more. Instead of a thing simply matching a definition or concept, for him it matched the relevant Form or Idea. All chairs in the everyday (sensible) world are imperfect instances of the perfect Form of a Chair which exists in the (intelligible) world of Forms. So what makes a chair a chair is that it is an imperfect copy, or instance, of the chair Form, it partakes of that Form. For Plato the world of Forms was more real than the everyday world which contains only imperfect copies. Notice that the Form is logically prior to the instances — if all chairs in the world were destroyed, the chair Form would still exist, only uninstantiated. And similarly with qualities, so that all red things, say, are instances of the Form of Redness, and so on.

Aristotle said the Forms were nonsense: of course, he said, the thing we’re talking about has the form of a chair, but its form exists in the chair itself, and so with all other chairs, so that if all chairs were destroyed, there would be no such form, and similarly if all red things were destroyed, no redness would exist.

I’m with Aristotle — forms and qualities exist in things, not prior to them, in rebus rather than ante rem, as the philosophers of old put it.

We’re not quite finished. Never mind whether chairs have their form intrinsically or copied from the perfect Form existing in a heavenly realm, some modern philosophers declare that chairs dont exist at all, really there exist only “particles arranged chairwise”. Why, they say, should we privilege the particles arranged “chairwise” as being a thing but not, say, the particles arranged as “my nose + the Taj Mahal + the moon”. No, they say, there are no composite objects such as chairs, otherwise we must accept crazy, gerrymandered objects like the nose-Taj Mahal-moon. Only the fundamental particles (whatever they turn out to be) exist. Awkwardly, this means you dont exist, only “particles arranged Acerwise”, but we can still talk about chairs, plants , planets and people as if they existed. Some of us (myself for one) find it hard to accept that we dont exist (but can still think, Descartes would  surely consider we were joking). However, it seems to me, that if we agree particles exist and can be arranged chairwise, why not just say that matter has taken the form of a chair, or a human, or whatever, and we’re back to Aristotle’s view that a thing is a bit of prime matter taking a substantial form. As is often the case, Aristotle gets it right.

And now, worn out with not existing, I’ll settle the Craigwise-arranged particles in my favourite easychairwise particle arrangement.

Aristotle’s substance and accident

Bader asks:

I’m interested in Aristotle’s philosophy and I study his concepts of substance and accident. Aristotle says that an accident is that which exists through another or present in another and not in itself. My question is how exactly can I conceptualize the phrases “being in itself” and “being present in another” with some examples to clarify how something can be in another and what sort of relationship exists between them.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Aristotle’s metaphysics of potentiality/ actuality, substance/accidents, matter/ form, essence/ existence, and four causes/ causal powers is increasingly recognized as the framework underlying the physical and biological sciences, after a long period of misrepresentation and neglect beginning with early moderns such as Hobbes, Descartes and Locke, and I’m pleased you’re interested in it.

As regards substance and accident, these refer to the individual, naturally occurring, concrete items of the world (plants, planets, cats, humans, and so on) and their properties. So, a substance is a thing or object (consisting of prime matter taking the form of that particular thing), and its accidents are its properties (qualities, attributes, features), what can be said of it (predicated of it). For example my cat is a substance having the accident “black”, my grandchild is “female”, the tree in the garden is “leafy”. You can readily see that the substances (cat, grandchild, tree) are self-standing items, existing “in themselves”, but they cant be a property of something else – nothing can be “cat” or “tree”,  so they cant be “present in (as a feature of) another”. Accidents (“black”, “female”, “leafy”) on the other hand can only be present as features of things (substances) , they  are “present in another” not “beings in themselves”. Thus, you never come across a big or a black, an old or a female, it always has to be a big, black or old something. By the way, Plato thought that properties were instances in the everyday world of universals which exist in another heavenly world of Forms. So the black of my cat instantiates the Form of the Black (blackness). Even if every black thing in the world were destroyed, the Form of the Black would remain, just uninstantiated. But Aristotle thought blackness existed only as and in its instances. “Goodbye to the Forms, for they are nonsense” he said.

Some accidents can be lost but the substance remains the same thing. My dog, for example, is long-haired, but can be clipped and still be the same dog. Its shagginess is a contingent accident (one that could be otherwise). Other accidents are essential to a substance ie without them it wouldnt be the substance it is. Water for instance boils at 100°C at sea level, and dissolves salt. If it didnt have these properties, it wouldnt be water.

Some scholars take “accident”, to mean only non-essential features (accidental ones as it were), others take “property” to mean only essential attributes (“proper” accidents). And for Aristotle “accident” applies widely, including not just intrinsic qualities like colour or hardness, but also attributes such as place, position, length, relation to other things, actions being undertaken, in short the various categories he applies to things.

Note that only natural things are substances (or substantial forms). Artefacts, whether designed, such as knives or computers, or chance arrangements like a heap of stones which happens to be table-shaped, are not substantial forms but rather accidental forms (dont confuse the “accidental” here with “accidents” as discussed above). A natural form has an intrinsic, sustained tendency to maintain its identity, an artefact hasnt. So wood, say, when in the form of a tree, maintains and repairs its shape and function  (its form) over the years, but when in the form of a shed, it rots and falls apart with the years. The shed, unlike the tree, has no inbuilt tendency to become and remain a shed. And if you plant a bit of a tree, another tree may grow, but a planted bit of shed wont grow another shed. Of course, accidental forms, just like substantial ones, have attributes (accidents) as discussed earlier.

I agree with Aristotle’s view that things are a compound of substance and accidents. Modern rivals, such as the bundle theory and the substratum theory are incoherent. The bundle theory says that a thing just is all of its properties: take away all the properties and there is nothing left. But what is it, then, that binds these properties together to make a particular thing?. If on the other hand we say that there is a bearer of the properties, a bare substratum, what sort of entity can this be? If the substratum has no properties whatsoever, we could exchange the substrata of a dog and a stone say. But now the entity with all the properties of a dog is really a stone. Absurd.  No, the bearer of the properties is the substance itself.

I hope I’ve said enough to give the general idea:

  • Substance + accidents ­­=  thing + attributes.
  • A thing is a “being in itself” and cant be “present in another thing”.
  • Attributes arent beings in themselves and can only be present in, or exist through, (other) things.
  • The substance/ accidents view of the constitution of concrete things is superior to the bundle or the substratum views.

Religion is neither irrational nor just infantile superstition

Jamie asks:

I watch a lot of online debates and discussions with atheists and theists. I watched many with the late Christopher Hitchens who was one of the first people to interest me in the subject. In the opening of one of his debates he made the point that if we knew at the infancy of the species what we know now religion would never have had the chance to really take off. He said that we have much better explanations to our questions now and religion even though it may have benefited us in the past has been made redundant. He said that the chances of any religion being true was in the highest degree improbable but how does one measure these odds? Is it because there are many other different religions and Christianity is only one of them or is it because the actual concept of a god is unlikely? What is the method or tool he used to determine the probability? Thank you.

Answer by Craig Skinner

The view of Dawkins, Hitchens and other “new atheists” that religion is irrational and based only on ignorance and superstition, and will fade away in the bright light of modern scientific understanding, is tedious and misleading. Plenty of well-educated and science-savvy people are religious. The two components of religion are the religious impulse and religious practice. The first is a feeling that there is something purposeful behind the world of everyday appearance augmented by scientific understanding. The second, religious practice, is communal activity based on shared beliefs about the source and nature of that purpose for us. None of the religious people I know relies on the flawed cosmological, ontological, design and moral “arguments” for god’s existence (many havent even heard of them). Rather, for them, belief in god is a basic belief around which other beliefs are fitted. Just as for atheists, disbelief is basic and other beliefs fit around that. In neither case is the basic belief irrational. And deciding the matter is not like deciding whether, say, string theory is an advance on QM/GTR. Belief in god is not another scientific conjecture about the natural world (the “God hypothesis”), so using evidence about this world plus, say, Bayesian analysis, to estimate the probability of god’s existence, is misplaced. And likening belief in god to silly beliefs, in fairies say, doesnt help either. All we can say is that if god exists his existence is necessary, and if god doesnt exist his existence is impossible. But we dont know which it is. And that doesnt mean it’s a 50/50 shot, or that it’s highly improbable one way or the other. We just dont know full stop.

Of course, in our attempts to grasp the nature of what is behind the scenes (if anything), all kinds of fanciful notions arise, and since some conflict with others, they cant all be true. But this doesnt mean it’s all nonsense or irrational superstition. Theism (and Deism) are just as respectable as atheism.

For the record, I’m an agnostic, and against denouncing or killing each other, or forcing our views on others, over something nobody can be sure about.

Finally, for a less militant and less shallow atheist view than that of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris, try Tim Crane’s The Meaning of Belief, Harvard University Press (2017).

Aristotle’s potential infinity

George asks:

What is meant by “being gone through” in Aristotle’s Physics Book 3, Chapter 4 (204a): What is incapable of being gone through, because it is not in its nature… Examined? Analysed?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Here “gone through” is meant literally, not metaphorically as in perused, examined, analysed. So a better translation is “What is incapable of being traversed, because it is not the kind of thing that can be traversed.” Here he speaks of infinite physical magnitude — we can set out to traverse it but the journey never ends.

The main Aristotelian view on infinity which is still relevant is that an actual infinity cant exist, only a potential one.

We can apply this both to the infinitely large and to the infinitely small.

Thus, the natural numbers are a potential infinity. No matter how many we list, there is always a next one. But we cant collect all of them at once as an actual infinity (we can of course deal with the notion of different sizes of infinity and give them symbols, as Cantor does).

As regards the infinitely small, consider division of a finite line. We can divide it in two, divide each of the halves, then each of the 4 pieces, and so on as long as we like but we never reach an end because each line segment, however small, can always be further divided. So a line is potentially infinitely divisible, but not actually. It contains an infinity of potential points. If we divide it, say, exactly in the middle, we create one actual point. We can divide it anywhere, creating as many actual points as we want, but cant divide it everywhere to produce an actual infinity of points. So the potential here cant be completely fulfilled (as in an acorn’s potential to be an oak tree) only fulfilled as completely as possible in the process of division ad infinitum.

All this is relevant to the modern view of the continuum, that a line consists of an uncountable infinity of points. But it cant: a point has no size, and no matter how many we lay down, infinite number or otherwise, the totality has no length. So, whilst a line can contain an infinity of points, it cant consist of an infinity of points. I wont go into attempts to resolve this with the notion of infinitesimals, discredited in the 18th century but respectable again these days).

This is only one of very many ways in which Aristotle’s views are highly relevant today.

Principlist approach to bioethics: works in medical practice

Omowunmi asks:

Describe advantages of a principlist approach in bioethics.  Describe disadvantages of a principlist approach in bioethics.

Answer by Craig Skinner

The principlist approach is what I learned when I was a medical student in the early 1960s, although this name wasnt given to it till the 1970s.

It is a way of debating and deciding ethical difficulties and conflicts in medical practice. It can be applied to legal and political conflicts too, but I used it in medical practice.

Essentially, we appeal to the following 4 Principles:

  • beneficience (do good)
  • non-maleficience (do no harm)
  • autonomy (patient’s right to self-determination)
  • justice (fairness).

A few words about each:

Beneficience: pretty straightforward. Giving treatment that works is good. Treatment that’s useless isnt.

Non-maleficience: we dont want to harm. But we may need to balance good and harm, say when an effective treatment has bad side-effects.

Autonomy: patient has right to choose whether to accept recommended treatment based on full info given to her (informed consent). She may decline even if failure to treat will be fatal.

Justice: fair allocation of scarce resources. In principle, all have equal claim under UK NHS. So, if not enough for all right now, then join waiting list and get treated when you reach top of list. Maybe some patients should get preference. Two examples:-

  1. The “good innings” view. This is the idea that a young person with most of her life ahead of her, gets preference for life-saving treatment over an old person who has already had his life. I agree with this. If I need dialysis for kidney failure, and it’s in short supply, I will have no complaint if a young woman with 3 young children gets preference over me.
  2. Illness not self-inflicted gets preference over self-inflicted. I was unconvinced by this. Famous examples were (a) the footballer George Best who ruined his liver by drink, was given a transplant (thereby denying a patient with liver failure due to non-alcoholic cirrhosis), only to resume drinking after a while and ruin his new liver; and (b) surgeons who refused vascular operations to heavy smokers whose vessel disease was caused by their smoking.

For each Principle we must decide it’s scope. Thus, autonomy doesnt extend to children or severely mentally impaired — others must decide. But who: if a child needs blood to save life, and parents dont agree with transfusion (being Jehovah’s Witnesses), do we respect family’s wishes and let child die.  Or, does “do no harm” extend to assisted dying or can a doctor ethically help a patient with an incurable and terrible illness who wants to end it all.

And of course principles may clash: I wish to do good by giving my patient a very expensive effective drug, but justice demands that the cash to fund the drug be used instead for hip replacements to make 12 old ladies pain-free and mobile.

So, in deciding ethical dilemmas in medicine, deliberate using the 4 principles, having regard to their scope, and making judgments as best you can if the principles conflict.

You ask about advantages. Here they are:

1. It is readily understood by everybody, including those with little or no training in ethics or philosophy eg doctors, nurses, managers, most patients, politicians.

2. It is acceptable as a framework to people of any or no religious belief.

3. No commitment to any normative ethical theory (utilitarian, deontological,            virtue ethics).

4. It works in practice.

As for disadvantages, those claimed include:

1. With exception of non-maleficience, principles are non-specific and just remind decision-maker about what needs to be taken into account.

2. No distinction between moral rules and moral ideals.

3. No agreed method for resolution when principles conflict.

I dont think any claimed disadvantage is great, which is why the method has been standard in approaching medical ethical matters for 50 years or more.

Conceptions of justice

Mary asks:

Is Justice the same as fairness? If there is a difference, what is it?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Fairness is just one conception of the concept “justice”. There are others, as I will explain.

We are talking about distributive or social justice – who gets what – not retributive justice (apt punishment for crime).

The main conceptions of distributive justice are:

  1. Justice as fairness.
  2. Justice as entitlement.
  3. Justice as desert

Here, I can give only a mere sketch of each.

1. The most famous advocate of justice as fairness is John Rawls. He thinks we are more likely to choose fair principles if we dont know how these will affect us as  individuals – if I dont know which bit of the cake I will get, I am more likely to cut fairly. He imagines people choosing behind a “veil of ignorance” – I dont know what talents or status I will have in the society we are making choices about. I might for instance, be an old, white, married man with a good job, or I might be a young, black, unmarried woman on welfare looking after three children. So my choices wont be biased toward either, or to any other social group. He thinks we would thereby choose equal basic liberties, equal opportunity to train for any job, and inequalities justified only if they serve to maximize the position of the worst of. This last principle, the difference principle, is his most contentious. Rawls’s view is in the hypothetical social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

2. The best-known advocate of justice as entitlement is Rawls’s colleague, Robert Nozick. He disagrees that justice is about agreeing fair principles by imagining we dont know how lucky or unlucky we have been in life’s lottery. Rather it’s about protecting people’s legitimate rights to their property. If we own things by initial acquisition and legitimate transfers, then we are entitled to them and to do with them as we wish. He feels that taxation is theft by the state, objects to the state as redistributor, and favours laissez-faire. He’s not saying it’s always fair or that people deserve what they get, often they dont, it’s just their good or bad luck, but it’s not a matter of justice as he sees it.

3. Justice as desert is the view of most non-philosophers. The conventional position is that a person can deserve to earn more than another even if due to factors beyond their control. So, Jane Plain and Christiano Ronaldo work equally hard in demanding jobs, she as a social worker, he as a footballer, but Ronaldo deserves his much higher earnings because is blessed by exceptional ball skills greatly in demand by clubs and fans. An extreme view is that people dont deserve to earn more if they work hard or have talent, because a person’s hard-working character or talent is something they have by luck.. More popular is a mixed view, that people dont deserve more for things beyond their control, such as being born rich, but do for things that are a matter of choice, like working hard or making sacrifices to obtain qualifications.

So, Rawls might think it unfair, and therefore unjust, that Ronaldo earns so much, but the injustice can be mitigated if his high earnings are heavily taxed to help provide funds for the public good and the needy. Nozick might agree it’s unfair, but so what, justice isnt about fairness. He might also think Ronaldo doesnt deserve all that money, but again so what, justice isnt about desert. It’s about entitlement, and surely Ronaldo is entitled to accept pay offers freely made to him. Most non-philosophers think it’s a matter of whether Ronaldo deserves his high earnings: some think he deserves every penny of it, others think that he does deserve high earnings but top footballers’ pay has got out of hand and they now get more than anybody deserves.

As individuals we mostly use a mixture of these three conceptions of justice as we judge the various actions and situations we encounter. Likewise a state’s laws and constitution are likely to be a mix.