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.

Are there moral facts?

Jimmy asks:

Hey I have some questions regarding ethics. How do you determine what moral properties exist and what the best moral system is? It seems like every property that people refer to is only morally significant for arbitrary reasons. Like why does sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc. matter? It seems like people assume these axioms while just appealing to intuition. How would you be able to assert that sentience is a more valid moral property than say, race? What if someone just has the natural intuition to prefer white people over others? Most people would obviously agree that that’s absurd, as racism is less common than “sentientism”, but how would you subjectively and arbitrarily determine when an intuition is common enough to matter, and for whom does this intuition apply to? Should we only consider the intuitions of humans or men or white people, or even living creatures for that matter?

Also, this would apply to deontology vs consequentialism and utilitarianism. A common objection for the latter two is the utility monster argument. But how would one arbitrarily decide that it is wrong to give all the resources to the utility monster. It is also the case that people seem to be more inclined to give to the utility monster if you switch the situation so that the monster begins at a baseline of massive suffering. More people would support giving resources to the monster if it relieved his suffering greatly at the expense of having slightly less pleasure for the humans. This shows that people arbitrarily determine whether deontology or consequentialism is better. This is why I don’t understand how to prove that one’s moral system is better. It is for these reasons that moral nihilism seems to make more logical sense to me, although personally it obviously sounds absurd to say things like rape, murder, etc. aren’t wrong. I was wondering what your thoughts on all of this is?

Answer from Craig Skinner

One of the longest questions I have answered, but a big one. Actually, you ask nine questions on metaethics and normative ethics. I cant answer them all. I will deal with your overarching concern:

Are there moral facts, or is it all just feeling and opinion?

There is no agreed view. I will sketch the options.

First, we could say there are no moral facts. People continue to speak and act as if there were, praising, blaming, commending, denouncing. If they believe there are moral facts, they are mistaken, and we call this an error theory of morality. If they know there are no moral facts, but just pretend there are, this is moral fictionalism. Or we might think moral utterances just express attitudes (emotivism), or recommendations as to how to act (prescriptivism).

If, on the other hand, we think there are rights and wrongs of matters, that we can make mistakes, and that moral progress can occur, then we must say there are moral facts. Having decided this, we must next decide what kind. The main distinction is between mind-independent and mind-dependent facts.

Mind-independent facts could be transcendental, natural or non-natural.

  1. Transcendental facts are guaranteed by something beyond the everyday world, such as Plato’s Forms (eg of the Good), or God (divine command theory), or  self-evident facts — analogous to mathematical truths (Kant). But, on my view there is no evidence for an “intelligible world” distinct from the “sensible world”, and on the maths analogy, “self-evident” moral facts are axioms not a priori truths.
  2. Natural facts depend on the way the world is. But attempts to bridge the gap from fact to value by appeal to common humanity or evolved adaptive traits still leaves us with with descriptive not normative ethics, explanation not justification, no “ought” from “is”, no moral facts.
  3. Non-natural facts, allegedly, are unanalyzable and have intrinsic value. They are invoked to get over the problems with natural facts. But how they supervene on natural facts, and how we could know about them, are mysteries.

The most plausible view, for me, is that there are mind-dependent moral facts reached by intersubjective agreement. These facts are constructed, typically, not from actual agreement of fickle, real individuals with their personal views, but by postulating “ideal observers” or an agent-neutral “view from nowhere” from whom or from which can emerge a set of principles that no reasonable person could reject or that any fully rational agent could agree. Of course if there is no morality in the input to such an exercise, there is no guarantee of morality in the output — we need contractors/ constructors to be fair, benevolent. But this is no strike against the constructivist approach — all ethical systems are ultimately tested against our moral intuitions, this being equivalent to science’s testing hypotheses against the empirical world.

In conclusion, the case for mind-independent moral facts, whether transcendental, natural or non-natural, is weak. But there is no need to deny that moral facts exist. They can fairly be construed as mind-dependent in terms of constructive intersubjective agreement.

You must make your own choice. By the way, if you find these metaethical debates difficult, join the club, they are difficult. I’ve tried to avoid the technicalities that pervade the literature. And whether you favour a particular metaethical view, or remain open, you still have to deal with normative ethics (which system or combination of systems) and practical ethics (abortion, euthanasia etc.).

Footnotes to Plato: in a manner of speaking

Louise asks:

When Alfred Whitehead famously writes: “the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”, do you agree and if not why.  How could this be argued / refuted.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Footnotes are comments clarifying or commenting on a literary work. So, if we took Whitehead literally, his statement would be nonsense. Aristotle’s work, for instance, doesnt just clarify/ comment on Plato. He is original, going beyond and disagreeing with Plato on key points, and is at least the equal of Plato as a philosopher. And I doubt if Whitehead thought his own magnum opus, Process and Reality, was a footnote to anybody. So I wouldnt agree with Whitehead if his comment were meant literally.

But he doesnt mean it this way. As he says:

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them” (Process and Reality: Corrected Edition [1985], ed. Griffin DR & Sherburne DW, p39. Free Press).

So he just means that Plato’s work is so wide-ranging that it deals with practically every topic that philosophers have since written about. Fair enough, who could disagree, but not very profound.