Pointless suffering cant be justified

Martin asks:

A question about suffering.

A person is enduring extreme suffering. During that suffering they die. Did the suffering happen or matter?

Alternately, death ‘wipes the slate clean’ and is a release so you don’t have to worry about peoples last moments

I’ve witnessed traumatic things and I don’t know how to rationalise other’s suffering.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I saw a fair bit of suffering in 40 years as a medical doctor.

We’re not talking about voluntary suffering for good ends, like visits to the dentist, but pointless suffering.

Yes, it happens. The world is full of it. Probably suffering outweighs joy. But even if it doesnt, there is too much of it. The alternative is no world at all or one without sentient beings. And the case for that is convincingly made by Benatar in Better never to have been (OUP 2009).

And suffering matters. Yes, death ends a creature’s sufferings, but this doesnt mean it didnt happen. It will forever be the case that it did, and was bad.

I dont think you can justify or rationalize it. And this is the case whether you are religious or not. If you are, you might hold that an ordered world containing free beings, a world with both necessity and free will in it, inevitably includes innocent suffering, and at least some of it is deserved, and also that God is a fellow-sufferer (incarnate as Jesus). But even if all this were true, and also that those who suffered got a cushy afterlife, this still wouldnt justify it. Some say it helps us grow. And no doubt struggling with adversity can sometimes do this, but most suffering mars or even ruins a life.

So the best we can do is to try to prevent it, to relieve it if we can, and to comfort if we can do neither. Those who deal with it daily in a professional capacity can only cope if the have a degree of detachment from it, but this need not, and should not, amount to lack of fellow feeling.

Descartes and the Causal Principle: talking relics

Linda asks:

“Now it is indeed evident by the light of nature that there must be at least as much (reality) in the efficient and total cause as there is in the effect of that same cause. For whence, I ask, could an effect get its reality, if not from its cause? And how could the cause give the reality to the effect, unless it, also, possessed that reality? Hence it follows that something cannot come into being from out of nothing, and also that what is more perfect (that is, what contains in itself more reality) cannot come into being from what is less perfect.”

What is Descartes arguing in the text above? In other words, what does this quote mean? I am having a hard time understanding his point.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You are having a hard time because Descartes is talking relics. Of medieval scholastic philosophy that is.

We read Descartes in modern english translations, which has the effect of making him seem more modern than, say, Locke or Hume whom we read in their original texts. Try reading Molyneux’s (1680) english translation of Meditations and you will see this. But, although determined to shake off scholasticism and “build anew from the foundations”, Descartes was steeped in it, and the passage you quote is an example.

It occurs in M3 where Descartes sets out his causal argument for the existence of God. This relies on the scholastic “Causal Principle” which roughly says that the cause must be greater (or at least as great) as the effect, never the reverse. So Descartes will go on to argue that since he has a clear and distinct idea of a perfect, infinite being (God), such an idea with perfect and infinite content could only be produced by a cause with perfect and infinite reality (not puny finite me), namely God, so God exists. Actually the details are more subtle and hard to grasp: the existence of something (its formal reality) is distinguished from its content (objective reality), and reality comes in degrees (infinite substance, finite substance, modification of a substance), so that the argument strictly is that the degree of formal reality of the cause must be at least as great as the objective reality of the effect.

We can reject his argument on a number of grounds: deny I have any idea of an infinite being; agree I have this idea but say that it’s my own, a reasonable extrapolation from thinking of something getting bigger and bigger without limit; deny the causal principle (no evidence/argument given for it).

And so, a reasonable simplified paraphrase of the passage is:

“It stands to reason that a cause must be at least as great as its effect. Otherwise how could it produce the effect. It follows that we cant get something from nothing, or the perfect from the imperfect”

Finally, whilst some scholastic ideas do show unnecessary nitpicking and logic-chopping, and can be quietly forgotten, I dont share Descartes’ wholesale rejection. On the contrary, the Aristotelian/scholastic metaphysics framework of substance/form, essence/attributes, actual/potential, and efficient/final causes finds increasing acceptance in modern metaphysics, biology, cosmology and philosophy of mind. Here Descartes sets us off on the wrong foot (again, his dualism is another example). But he is still a great philosopher, great mathematician, considerable scientist, and one of my favourites.

Getting straight about truth

Louiza asks:

How will you characterize the nature of truth based on the theories of truth?

Can you say that there is no objective truth, but there are relative truths? Why or why not?

If you could choose to resolve a problem case or respond to a criticism made against a theory of truth, which problem would it be and why?

Reply by Craig Skinner

Ah, truth. Witnesses swear to tell it, philosophers seek it, journalists expose it, politicians hide it, Jesus said he was it. But what is it?

First, an analysis of truth is not usually concerned with truth as in true love, true grit, true friend or arrows flying straight and true. It is about truth as a property of statements (or sentences, propositions, or utterances, I wont deal with the subtleties of which is best). So, a statement is true if it states a fact, if what it says is correct. For instance, “Paris is the capital of France” is true because Paris is the capital of France. What makes it true is that it corresponds to the facts, to the way things are. This correspondence theory is the best one in my view. There are others. The coherence theory which says a statement is true if it coheres with others accepted as true. The trouble with this is that a consistent body of untrue statements could count as a body of truth. Pragmatic theories say that truth is what is ultimately generally accepted. But this gets the cart before the horse. The reason something gets generally accepted is because it is true (I exclude brainwashing and lying propaganda). Redundancy theories say there is no interesting property of truth, we dont need the idea: after all, it is said,  what does “is true” add in the statement ” ‘Snow is white’ is true” over and above just “Snow is white”. But I stick with the correspondence theory, and answer your first question thus: truth is the property of a statement that entails the fact (purportedly) stated.

To turn now to whether truth is objective. The answer is yes. It depends on the facts, the way the world is,  not on my opinion or how I feel about things. As to whether truth is relative, the answer is also yes, but we must take care to be clear as to exactly what we mean by this. Philosophers, as truth-seekers, bristle at relativism. The prospect of something being true for me but not for you, no fixed truth just different interpretations, of nothing being true period, is alarming. But this is not what it means for truth to be relative. It is always relative to some context. This is easiest to show by examples.

“My favourite treat is a glass of cold white wine” is true in the context of individual preference (not true for my wife who prefers chocolate).

“It is acceptable to leave corpses of your departed loved ones out for the birds to eat” is true in the context of traditional Jain culture.

“Paris is the capital of France” is true in the context of the actual world. But it might have been otherwise (Avignon say) so it is a contingent truth.

“2+2=4” is true in the context of all possible worlds. It couldnt be otherwise, it is a necessary truth.

As to resolving a problem or responding to a criticism, I would like to avoid technical problems, such as what does falsity correspond to in the correspondence theory, or whether Tarski’s disquotational formula implies a correspondence or a redundancy theory. Instead I would choose to defend the notion of objective truth as something we should seek, proclaim, and defend against those who would hide, deny or twist it for their own ends.

Finally, I have assumed truth is bivalent (a meaningful statement is either true or false) as in classical logic. Logicians have formulated alternatives, such as trivalent (true, false, indeterminate) or polvalent (many degrees of truth, fuzzy logic) but these are irrelevant to everyday living and to most of philosophy. Similarly some statements appear to be both true and not true (“This statement is not true” for instance) and alternative logics can take this into account, but again this need not detain us here.

Better never to have been

Rene Lopez asks:

Are there any good arguments against David Benatar’s antinatalism?

Answer By Craig Skinner

I dont think so. Benatar’s arguments in his book Better Never To Have Been (OUP 2009) are convincing.

His thesis is that a world without sentient beings (or no world at all) would be better than the actual world.

He has two arguments:

1. The vale of tears argument.
2. The asymmetry argument.

  1. The vale of tears view says that we humans are natural born reproducers and optimists (adaptive evolved traits). We overestimate the joys of life as compared with the sorrows, keep having children and hoping for better things for them, whereas an impartial assessment of how things really are for humans and other sentient creatures, will conclude that, whilst transient joys occur for most of us, and more joy for some of us, overall the balance is suffering.
  2. The asymmetry argument says that a world without sentient beings prevents both suffering and joy, but, whereas avoidance of suffering is a good thing FULL STOP, prevention of joy is not a bad thing because nobody exists to be deprived of it.

Of course, even if it would have been better for me never to have been born, it doesnt follow, now I do exist, that suicide would be best. A nonexistent person has no interests, rights or agenda, whilst an existent one has, and usually wants to live and make the best of it. Hence, Benatar recommends planned extinction of humanity by birth control. I doubt it will ever catch on, but unplanned extinction is a distinct long term possibility.

Meantime, driven by my evolved biases, and aware that although the Grim Reaper isnt quite knocking on my door, he may be lurking in the shrubbery, I best close and get on with living.

Metaphysical necessity

John asks:

Is there ANY notion of ‘metaphysical necessity’ that you consider to be defensible ?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, metaphysical necessity as the strictest or strongest grade of necessity: absolute;  necessity in virtue of the essences of things.

The grades, in increasing strictness, are:

1. Practical

2. Physical

3. Nomological

4. Logical

5. Metaphysical

Practical necessity refers to things we need to do in ordinary life to ensure our plans go smoothly eg before setting off to drive to Italy it’s necessary to check tyres, oil, insurance etc. But we could ignore this need and set off without doing any of it.

Physical necessity refers to something forced on us, not by logic or the laws of nature, but by the limits of our powers eg inability to time travel because we cant make big enough exotic wormholes in space or make a cylinder the mass of a galaxy spinning at half light speed. But maybe one day we will be able to do these things.

Nomological (Greek nomos = law) necessity is forced by the laws of nature eg on Earth a book dropped falls to the ground (law of gravity). But there may be other universes with different laws of nature where such a thing doesnt necessarily happen.

Logical necessity is necessity in virtue of the meaning of words (or symbols) plus the laws of logic eg “all bachelors are unmarried men”, “all red balls are red” are necessarily true. But maybe some other universes are illogical. Indeed, there are some true contradictions in our world eg “This sentence is not true” is both true and untrue.

Metaphysical necessity is absolute necessity, simply must be, no ifs, no buts. Examples are that I am necessarily the child of my specific parents (a child of somebody else couldnt be me); or that water is liquid H2O; or gold is the element with atomic number 79. We can say metaphysical necessity is due to the essences of things (the properties that make a thing the very thing it is). Nothing exists by metaphysical necessity though – any item in the world, or the entire universe itself, might not have existed. Of course we can define God as the being whose existence is his essence, in which case, if God exists, then his existence is metaphysically necessary.

The term “natural necessity” is sometimes used to mean physical, or nomological,  or both these necessities, but is confusing and best avoided.  Likewise “conceptual necessity”, due to definitions or meanings of words, which I include under logical necessity.

I may be a Brain in a Vat

Moe asks:

What do you think of Putnam’s argument against being a brain in a vat?

Assume we are brains in a vat.

If we are brains in a vat, then ‘brain’ does not refer to brain, and ‘vat’ does not refer to vat.

If ‘brain in a vat’ does not refer to brains in a vat, then ‘we are brains in a vat’ is false.

Thus if we are brains in a vat, then the sentence ‘we are brains in a vat’ is false.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Putnam’s argument is invalid. As indeed the wording of your question shows.

The statement ‘I am a brain in a vat’ is false whether I am a normal human (not a BIV) or a BIV. But I still don’t thereby know which I am.

To clarify:

If I am a normal human, then saying ‘I am a brain in a vat’ is obviously false.

If I am a BIV, then, as you say, my utterance ‘brain’ doesn’t refer to a 3-pound porridgy lump, it refers to a pattern of electrical impulses generated by the computer linked to the envatted brain, let’s call it ‘brain*’. Similarly, ‘vat’ refers to another pattern, call it ‘vat*’. So, when I say ‘I am a brain in a vat’ I mean ‘I am a brain* in a vat*’, which is false because I am not a brain* in a vat*, I am a brain in a vat.

Putnam’s error is to conclude that because ‘I am a brain in a vat’ is false whatever, then I can’t be a brain in a vat. The correct conclusion is that either I am not a brain in a vat or I am not a brain* in a vat*. But I don’t know which false proposition I am expressing.

Incidentally, I doubt it matters to a brain whether it’s in a glass vat connected to a supercomputer or whether (like mine) it’s in a tight-fitting, pitch-dark, bony vat connected to the outside world.

A little more on Hoyle’s ‘junkyard tornado’ argument

Orlando asks

Is the “junkyard tornado” argument of Sir Fred Hoyle for the existence of God as bad as Richard Dawkins seems to think it is?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, it is.

The argument intends to show that the development of a complex living creature by the random process of natural selection is as likely as the production of a Boeing 707 by the random process of a tornado in a junkyard ie so fantastically unlikely that we can dismiss the idea. Here’s the flaw. The tornado effect is a one-step process. But evolution proceeds by many intermediate steps, each of which is stable and conserved. The difference can be illustrated by the monkey-typing analogy mentioned by Geoffrey Klempner in his answer and used by Dawkins in his writings. The tornado is equivalent to the monkey having to type Hamlet all in one go – if an attempt fails (as it will) he starts again from scratch, and so on it goes, pretty well for ever, without success. Evolution is equivalent to keeping the letters which are correct in any given attempt while starting again with the others: so, if a version produces “T” where it should be, we keep this till  a later version happens to produce an “o” after the “T”, and now we have “To”. Pretty soon we get “To be or” and so on. In this way, and Dawkins quantifies it, Hamlet will not take that long for the monkey to produce.

Incidentally, I am a big fan of Fred Hoyle, his science, popular science books and science fiction. He coined the term “Big Bang” as one of derision (he championed the rival steady state idea which lost out as convincing evidence for the big bang appeared). He should have got the Nobel prize for his work on resonance states of carbon. Maybe his being a blunt, outspoken Yorkshireman outside the “establishment” of his day had something to do with it. He wasnt afraid to go out on a limb with his ideas, and he was more often right than wrong.