Monthly Archives: July 2010

Running with Zombies

Zombies have a large part to play in philosophy. I don’t just mean as academics and lecturers -although that is also true (especially when tenure is involved). What I mean is that the concept of a zombie provides a starting point for some pretty interesting philosophical discussion. Let me explain.

If I were to ask you what, fundamentally, you are, how would you reply? You might assert that you are a human being with arms, legs, eyes, ears etc. But you would probably agree that this is hardly the whole story. You would probably also insist that you are a thinking subject, with a mind consisting of beliefs, desires, pains, intentions, hopes etc. And you might concur that it is this complex of mental states that makes you not simply a human being but also a person. If I was to then ask you: where is this mind located? You might reply (having conceded that the question is intelligible) that it is “located” in your brain. And on the face of it the reply seems reasonable. It is my brain that makes it possible for me to feel pain, to anticipate pleasure, to regret the way I voted, to believe that Mo Farah is the best distance runner in Europe.

But what does it mean to say that the mind is “located” in the brain? Is it even a preamble to an explanation to assert that the brain “makes  possible” the sensation of pain? What sort of relation is being, hesitantly, hinted at?  To say that it is your brain that makes your mind possible is not necessarily to assert a relation of identity, for example, since by “makes possible” we might mean “causes”; and when one thing causes another thing there are two distinct things, not one (the possible exception here being God). Some philosophers do indeed wish to assert that the relation is one of identity: that minds are nothing but brains or (more unusually) that brains are “logical constructions” from mental events. Others wish to argue that the mental and physical are ontologically distinct and each as fundamental as the other. Some philosophers wish to deny that minds exist in the first place (yes, honestly).

This, of course, is the mind-body problem which can be summed up in the conjunction of two questions: how to reconcile the dull, grey, synaptic firings in our brains with the richness of phenomenal experience; and how do we bind ourselves as thinking subjects to the world of objects as described by science?

Enter the zombie.

There is an ingenious argument that has been given succinct expression in the writings of David Chalmers. It goes something like this. We are familiar with zombies as they are presented in popular culture, as beings physically like us and yet different from us in that they lack conscious experience. Another way of saying this would be to state that zombies are possible in the sense that to assert that they exist might be false but does not involve a contradiction. In other words, zombies are logically possible (they might exist in some possible universe) even if they are not nomologically possible (ruled out by the physical laws which govern this universe). I am, as it happens, a fan of the actor Dick Van Dyke and consider Diagnosis Murder to be the acme of cheap television shows which appertain to hospital doctors who also happen to be detectives. We can imagine a possible world in which Mr Van Dyke has a zombie-counterpart, a physically like-for-like equivalent to the non-zombie Van Dyke right down to the causal properties of his brain. But we can also intelligibly subtract from zombie-Van Dyke those features of felt consciousness that make “our” Van Dyke the fine actor that he is (the emotional range, the sense of empathy, along with the other felt properties shared with us non-thespians). From this it follows, surely, that those phenomenal features of consciousness (the qualia, or “what it’s like to us to be in pain etc) cannot be identical with the brain since if A is identical with B then necessarily whatever properties A has, B has also: and in the stated case this necessity does not seem to obtain.

The philosopher Michelle Maise, in a nice paper called The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill, discusses these issues in connection with running (the title refers to a rocky patch during the Boston marathon). Is it possible, she asks, for a zombie to run a marathon? On the face of it the answer seems straightforward: why not? If we can allow that there might be zombies then we can allow also that they would be able to run. And if they lack sensations such as pain, fatigue, despair and all the other companions of the long distance runner then it seems to follow that they’d make pretty good marathon runners. I’ve spent many a club race night running against club members who show no signs of discomfort and trust me, it’s dispiriting.

But the case of the stoical club runner is misleading for two reasons. For one thing they are normally bluffing: good runners are masters of concealment. She feels the same agony as the rest of us, she just chooses not to (behaviourally) disclose it. Secondly, as Maise points out, this spectrum of sensations is not accidental to the act of running but is on the contrary essential to it. The zombie, in other words, is not running  at  all. Sure it might be moving, but it is not running any more than my PC is flying when I launch it through the air following an email from my publisher. What is required in order to transform the fact of movement into the act of running is agency which, Maise suggests, cannot be legitimately ascribed to a zombie given their cognitive deficiencies.

That said, I wouldn’t want one chasing me. I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, those zombies can shift.


“The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill” is included in Michael W. Austin’s collection “Running and Philosophy: a marathon for the mind”. Other papers in the collection will be the subject of future posts.

The Useful & The Useless

stamp for 250 years of birth of Immanuel Kant ...

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A stock criticism of philosophy is that it is useless. This, of course, has a certain appeal. After all, philosophy does not seem to do anything obviously useful like baking bread, killing people, selling beer, or curing cancer.

One stock reply to this charge is that while philosophy might not be useful, it is still valuable. Value, one might argue, is not merely a matter of usefulness. While this has a certain appeal to it, it also seems to be a bit of a surrender. As such, I will avoid taking this approach.

Another stock reply is that the definition of “useful” that is limited to such things as baking, building and killing is far too narrow. Under a broader (and superior, a philosopher might say)definition, philosopher would be found to be eminently useful.

While this might strike some as a mere semantic trick of the sort beloved by philosophers, it does seem to be a legitimate approach under certain conditions. Obviously, if a philosopher employs an ad hoc definition to “prove” that philosophy is useful, then this would hardly do. Equally obviously, if the philosopher’s critic simply insisted on excluding philosophy from the realm of the useful by fiat, then this would also hardly do. What is needed, obviously enough, is an account of the useful and the useless that does not beg any questions. Providing such an account would be rather challenging. After all, philosophers will want to slide the definition so that philosophy is useful and those who disagree will wish to narrow the definition so that philosophy is excluded. Any compromise might be regarded as unthinkable-a selling out of one’s position to the enemy. However, a rational discussion over this matter has to begin with a willingness on both sides to at least consider the possibility of yielding some ground in the face of cogent arguments.

Since this is but a brief blog post, I will not endeavor to settle this matter or even make much progress. Instead, I will just engage is some sketching in regards to the useful.

While people often say that something is useful, it seems unlikely that usefulness is a intrinsic property of anything. Rather, when someone says that X is useful, they mean that X is useful (or useless) for Y (where Y is a person or some purpose). For example, running long distances is useful for people training for a marathon. However, it would seem rather useless for people training to design web pages.

On this view, usefulness would seem to be relative to the person or purpose. Thus, usefulness would be (to steal from Kant) hypothetical  rather than categorical.

In this case, philosophy would obviously be useful to many (if not all) professional philosophers. After all, it provides the basis of their employment and gives them something to do. This makes philosophy as useful as a large range of activities and professions that provide employment and activity.  It would also be useful to those who publish, purchase or read philosophy books (and other material). It would also be useful to the students who get credit hours towards graduation. This usefulness could, obviously enough, be extended quite far. For example, comedians who make fun of philosophy and people who enjoy arguing that philosophy is useless would actually find it useful in that it gives them a target.

This view also would entail that things that some see as paradigms of usefulness could also be useless. For example, someone who elected to live “off the grid” could regard a field such as electrical engineering as useless in that it would be useless to him in his chosen way of life.

I suspect, however, that critics of philosophy would not accept this line of thought. This sort of usefulness/uselessness  seems to be far too broad in that almost anything could be useful  or useless simply because someone finds it useful or useless in some manner. To add a few more lines to the sketch, the critic of philosophy no doubt wants the usefulness to be far more robust. Philosophers, I should think, would also want something more robust than this.

This then turns away from considering useful in terms of “useful for who?” and to the other path, namely “useful for what(purpose)?” This would seem to move a bit beyond the subjectivism of “useful for who?” and to a certain relativity, namely usefulness relative to a purpose.

On this sort of view, the usefulness of X would be defined in terms of what sort of purposes X can advance. In the example above, long distance running would be useful for training for longer races (10Ks and up, perhaps).  As another example, running instances as DPS in WoW and observing other players tanking would be useful for learning how to tank. Of course, some might regard playing a video game to learn how to play it better as not being very useful. Likewise, even if philosophy is useful for certain things (like giving philosophers a job) it might be seen as not useful.

Of course, it cannot be taken as being “not useful” in the strict sense. After all, philosophy does have many uses (as noted above). Rather, when the critic says that philosophy is useless, she most likely is making a normative judgment about the value of the uses of philosophy. To say that philosophy is useless thus seems  to say that the uses of philosophy are without value.

Of course, this raises the matter of determining value. As with usefulness, value seems to often be subjective  to the person doing the assessment or relative to the purpose at hand. Then again, perhaps there is some sort of intrinsic value that can be used to ultimately distinguish the truly useful from the truly useless.

This has, obviously enough, been a mere sketch of some of the debate and I do not claim to have settled anything at all. However, I think that progress has been made in that some of the terrain has been mapped out and some vague goals have been set.

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Time and Happiness

I am perplexed by the question of our relation to time and happiness. On the one hand, our lives are undoubtedly made up of present moments that succeed each other. There is no going back. Eventually, my tomorrows come to an end, and I assume that time will no longer exist for me. At that time, there will be no ‘me’ to be happy or unhappy, to experience pain or pleasure. Excluding the miracle of an afterlife, the discussion of happiness involves only the time that lies between birth and death.

How can we look at a human lifetime? One way is to look at it as the ‘times’ of our life. I was young once, and that was a time of my life. Today is another time in my life, and the days succeed one another in a regular fashion. There is a sense in which we never leave the present moment. However, another way to look at the time of one’s life is to imagine it ‘as a whole.’ I say, ‘imagine’, because it is literally impossible to view your life as a whole. To do that you would have to be able to read your own obituary. Yet, we may ask ourselves today if our lives ‘as a whole’ embody the values we hold most dear?

What have these different views of a lifetime to do with happiness? Are we to be happy in the moments of life that succeed each other, or is happiness a quality of life as a whole. Philosophers have divided on this question. The Hedonists believe that the happy life is one in which there is a quantitative preponderance of pleasures over pains in the course of a lifetime. All we actually have are the moments of pleasure or pain in our lives, and these moments have a subjective quality about which we are rarely confused. Therefore, the best plan is to structure one’s life in such a way that a train of pleasures and enjoyments are the norm, and pains come along as infrequent visitors.

From another point of view, hedonism looks too easy and too subjective. Pleasures involve the satisfaction of desires, but are all desires, and the pleasures that accompany their satisfaction, worthy of pursuit? Some lives that contain many pleasures might not be worth living. I love the example of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, who retired to his country estate and whiled away the rest of his life tearing the wings off flies. Is this human happiness? Who is to judge and by what standards? Values besides pleasure come in here.

Aristotle clearly believes that the pursuit of pleasure, unguided by good judgment, is not sufficient for happiness. It is not that the happy person has anything against pleasure as such, but rather allows some pleasures and avoids others. Wisdom tells us that the pleasures of drink are often followed by hangovers and of food by upset stomachs. Aristotle sensibly advises moderation in all things.

Also, there is the old traditional distinction between the ‘higher’ and the ‘lower’ pleasures. The lower pleasures are animal or physical pleasures, more like pleasurable sensations than thoughts. The higher are the pleasures of the mind, of art, theory or the like. We have to learn to appreciate the higher pleasures, and develop our sensitivities beyond physical sensations. So, though I would not call them ‘higher’ or ‘lower’, I do recognize a distinction between those pleasures that primarily involve introspected pleasurable sensations in one’s body, and those that rely more on perception and thought than raw sensations.

If we are to vet the pleasures of the moment so as to attain true happiness, then we must have a standard by which to judge those pleasures that are part of a truly happy life and those that are not. Here, Aristotle also has a position that can help us. For him, the truly happy person lives a long and honorable life, pursuing and attaining a degree of moral and intellectual excellence. We ought to live our lives as advised by our reason, and our reason has care of ourselves as a whole and over a life time. Thus we can judge how well we are doing in living the kind of life that, with a bit of luck, will be happy overall. It is true that the happiness of a philosopher like Aristotle is heavy on the supreme value of Reason in the determination of excellence. As self-directing, the happy person gains a measure of autonomy and control over his or her own thoughts, emotions and feelings. Of course, Aristotle finds the highest happiness in the exercise of theoretical reason, and thus values the joys of learning above the pleasures of the flesh.

We may not agree with Aristotle about the nature of happiness, but he does succeed in showing us how to question the hedonist’s account. How important is the pleasure or pain of the present moment when viewed in the light of a lifetime? The present moment, though it is all we actually live through, seems to be more important when we are young, and not so important when we are older. Many of the favorite things of my youth no longer interest me as much. Other things have taken their place. I hope my judgment is better now than it was then. I can put the present more into the perspective of a lifetime than before. Perhaps this is one reason that Aristotle believed that the young cannot be truly happy, no matter the undoubted pleasures of youth. As he wrote so beautifully, “One swallow does not a summer make.” A happy life overall is about achieving something which, in one’s own opinion, is worthwhile. It is having purposes that give life meaning, with pleasures and good times as just two of the ingredients of a good and happy life.

On The Lam

I’m on the lam. A fugitive from the State and its capricious application of “justice”. The “one armed man” has nothing on me.

My crimes are manifold, and like all habitual offenders I started small. Ignorance is no excuse but I genuinely was unaware that in 21st Century Britain it was an offence to change a light bulb without the appropriate state-approved certification. What can I say? My baby needed feeding and the main light had blown.

Criminality is a habit like any other, and it was not long before I had changed all the light bulbs in my flat whether they needed changing or not. I consoled myself with the fiction that what I was doing was some form of protest, against the war in Afghanistan perhaps, or the cancellation of the 24 hour drinking laws, or the failure of my local church to recognise the Tridentine Mass. But who was I kidding? I support the war, don’t drink, and have forgotten most of my Latin.

Before long I was irredeemable: mixing the recyclable rubbish with the household waste on collection day; driving my god daughter to school without submitting myself to the requisite criminal records check; cycling on a public road without a helmet. On one occasion I activated a speed camera on an empty dual carriageway at three o’clock in the morning. I even broke my “no dinner party” rule in order to announce my version of climate change scepticism. I had dipped my toe into the murky currents of the underworld and every time I thought I was out….they dragged me back in.

And so I have fled, pausing briefly to throw together a bag of clothes and to grab my well-thumbed copy of Paul Feyerabend’s autobiography Killing Time. Feyerabend understood the mindset of the outsider, but as his anarchism was formed on the Eastern Front rather than in the harsher context of 21st Century Britain, my empathy with him is somewhat abbreviated.

As I write this “they” will be searching the flat. Doubtless by now “they” will have found my copy of Anarchy, State and Utopia with the indiscreet marginalia decrying the extensive nature of Nozick’s “minimal state”. Will “they” be able to use that against me at the inevitable trial? Fortunately I have hidden my Roger Scruton: A Reader underneath the floor boards. As agents of the State are forbidden to attack floorboards (on health and safety grounds) I am confident that it will remain undiscovered.

I am reconciled to eventual capture and interrogation. I have accepted that some form of “re-education” will be inevitable. Possibly in the form of a “driving awareness” course, or compulsory enrolment in a bicycling proficiency course. Any incipient recidivism will be stamped out, ruthlessly.

The best I can hope for is “urban hero” status, but I suspect my crimes are too common to allow for this.

NYC Mosque & Collective Responsibility


The plan to construct a mosque in New York City has generated considerable controversy. The main cause of the concern is that the proposed mosque will be located near ground zero. Not surprisingly, many people consider this to be an insult to those who died on 9/11.

One argument used against allowing the mosque in the area is based on the view that the attack was an Islamic attack. To allow an Islamic building in the area would be a grave offense against those killed during the attack and their families. As such, the Mosque should not be allowed in the area.

This argument rests, obviously enough, on the assumption of collective guilt. To be specific, the assumption is that all of Islam is responsible for the attack because the attackers were followers of Islam.  Of course, there is matter of justifying this assumption.

One principle that would justify this assumption is that an attack conducted by believers in X is an X attack. In the case of 9/11, since the attackers believed in Islam, this made the attack an Islamic attack. More generally, this would be the principle that any misdeed by a believer in X would be the responsibility of all others who believe in X.

While people who dislike Islam might find initially find this appealing, a little consideration reveals that the principle applies to all systems of belief.  For example, this principle would entail that the sexual molestation conducted by Catholic priests was a Christian attack on children. From this it could be argued that Christian buildings  should not be allowed anywhere near children (such as schools). Presumably children should also not be allowed anywhere near Christian buildings.

One might be tempted to say that the actions of Catholics only spreads the guilt to Catholics. However, if the actions of Sunni Muslims spreads the guilt to all of Islam, then the same sort of spreading should apply to Christianity as well.

This argument is not limited to religions. In fact, it can also be applied to atheists as well. The principle would seem to entail that all atheists are responsible for the actions of other atheists because of their shared belied system. For example, this would make all atheists guilty of Stalin’s misdeeds.

This does seem to show the absurdity of this principle.  After all, this sort of association hardly seems sufficient to transfer guilt. What is needed, it might be argued, is a stronger connection.

One such principle is that if people conduct an attack in the name of  belief system X, then this is an X attack. That is, making such an attack in the name of a belief system connects all believers in X to that action.

As with the previous principle, a little consideration reveals problems. Consider, for example, those who have killed abortion doctors in the name of Christianity. By this principle, this would be a Christian attack on doctors and would thus justify not allowing any Christian structures near doctors. There are, of course, a multitude of historical examples of people committing terrible misdeeds in the name of Christianity (such as the Inquisition and the treatment of alleged heretics).

This seems sufficient to show the absurdity of such collective guilt. After all, it seems unwarranted to claim that an entire faith must bear responsibility simply because something bad was done by someone who claimed to be acting in the name of that faith. As such, it would seem that an even stronger connection is needed for guilt to be spread.

A possible principle is that if people conduct an attack in accord with the principles of belief system X, then this is an X attack. This does have considerable appeal. For example, if members of the Klan were motivated to attack black people on the basis of principles of racism, this would be a racist attack. However, it would still seem unwarranted to extend the responsibility to all racists. After all, it would be odd to say that black racists were responsible for such an attack merely because they also happened to be racists.

While the notion of collective guilt does not seem to be supported by this principle, it does seem to provide grounds for the sort of exclusion being considered. To be specific, if the attack on 9/11 was based on the principles of Islam, then it would seem acceptable to prevent a mosque from being built in the area.  After all, building a structure near ground zero dedicated to the principles that caused the attack would seem to be unacceptable.

This raises the obvious question: was the attack caused by principles of Islam in a way that makes Islam responsible in a meaningful way?

Obviously, similar sorts of questions can be asked of other faiths. For example, the ownership of slaves was once justified on the basis of biblical principles. That is, Christianity was used to justify slavery. By this principle, Christianity would be responsible for the slavery it helped justify  and Christian structures should be kept away from those descended from slaves.  Naturally, modern Christians tend to argue that Christianity was misused to justify slavery or that changes over time rendered those principles invalid. Obviously, if Christians can avail themselves of such replies, so too can the followers of Islam.

Naturally, people tend to take the view that their own faith is not responsible for past misdeeds based on interpretations of its principle. This view is generally not extended to other faiths, of course. The failures of one’s own faith are but mistakes. The failures of other faiths are, of course, inherent to those faiths.

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Who said this? About whom?

No idea if my grammar is right in that title! But that’s not the point. This is a quick philosophy quiz. Googling is not allowed, obviously – and would be completely absurd (what’s the point!?).

Here’s a quote. Could be old, could be recent. Who said it? About whom?

“When you question them, they pluck from their quiver little oracular aphorisms to let fly at you, and if you try to obtain some account of their meaning, you will be instantly transfixed by another, barbed with some newly forged metaphor. You will never get anywhere with any of them; for that matter they cannot get anywhere with one another, but they take very good care to leave nothing settled either in discourse or in their own minds.”

Edit: Okay, the solution to the quote above appears below in the comments. Here’s a new bit of trash talking – courtesy of Benjamin Nelson – for your delectation. Who said it? (Answer will be provided by Ben, because I have no idea!)

“You know some who, despoiled by the office of the tax-collector, or urged thereto by some one calamity, have become philosophers in the middle of their lives. Their philosophy consists in a very simple formula, that of calling God to witness, as Plato did, whenever they deny anything or whenever they assert anything. A shadow would surpass these men in uttering anything to the point; but their pretensions are extraordinary. Oh, what proudly arched brows! They support their beards with the hand. They assume a more solemn countenance than the statues of Xenocrates. They are even resolved to shackle us with a law which is altogether to their advantage; to wit, that no one shall be in open possession of any knowledge of the good. They esteem it an exposure of themselves if any one, deemed a philosopher, knows how to speak, for as they think to hide behind a veil of simulation and to appear to be quite full of wisdom within.”

Realisms: collective realism (part 3)

This is the penultimate section of an essay in four parts. Here is a recap of the argument so far.

In part 1, with the help of Crispin Wright, I argued:

1. Realism is modesty (the world is independent of the mind) and presumption (we have epistemic access to it). Anti-realism denies one or both.
2. Realism, as a general thesis about human knowledge, can be about any of the following things: truth, meaning, or judgment.
3. If it turns out that there aren’t any general claims being argued about in the classic debates when it comes to realism about truth or meaning, then we might as well be pessimists about the conversation.

In part 2, I began to show how the antecedent in (3) is correct. There aren’t any general claims to argue about in the classic debates. I began this argument:

A. Berkeley is essential to the classic debates.
B. To make sense of Berkeley’s perspective on truth, we have to disentangle the different kinds of knowing subject: the individual, the collective, and the divine.

C. If it turns out that Berkeley is a realist in one sense of (B) but not the others, then it would be trivially true that there are no general claims under dispute in the classic debates.

To that end, I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. Now my task is to show:

(a) He is a realist about the objectivity of truth as it is understood by collectives. (Part 3)
(b) He is a realist about the objectivity of meaning. (Part 4)

It is not obvious as to what extent Berkeley would think that the collective subject has a relationship with objective truth. In his commentaries on Berkeley, George J. Stack is quite explicit in denouncing the social collectivist view. “Now, it would seem that, in accordance with Berkeley’s statements, we would have to assume that if twenty men were looking at, say, the moon, they each would perceive certain sense-data which would be mind-dependent. But the collection of sense-data they would identify as THE MOON would be numerically distinct for each perceiver. It would be erroneous to assert that each of the twenty participants would be perceiving the ”same” moon… it follows that no two persons can perceive THE SAME THING at all.” (Stack:68) In Stack’s final interpretation, there is no common object of discussion at all. So in that view, Berkeley denies collective modesty, and (strictly speaking) he denies collective presumption as well. As far as collective knowledge goes, Berkeley must be a nihilist.

I have reasons to doubt that the case is quite so bleak. An incidental comment in Berkeley’s Notebook (A) suggests that Berkeley would endorse collective realism. In passage 801, Berkeley writes, “I differ from the Cartesians in that I make extension, Colour etc to exist really in Bodies & independent of Our Mind.” Clearly, we know something, together. Notice that this is unusually dramatic language for a man who is characterized as the doctrinal champion of immodesty. It is an unusually explicit endorsement of realism, at least when it comes to our knowledge, our minds. Given the boldness of the statement, it seems plausible to read that passage as saying that Berkeley is at least willing to grant that any given knowing subject mediately perceives the same ideas as their neighbors when they gaze out at the moon.

This is not to say that Stack is entirely off-base, however. Berkeley has tended to be skeptical of the notions of identity, individuation, or sameness. How, then, could he agree that many different persons are looking at the same object? The only way that Berkeley can say this is by supposing that ideas across persons are merely similar. As Stack admits, “Berkeley tends to affirm, in regard to this question of identity, that if we take the word SAME to mean what it ordinarily means, then it may be admitted that different observers may be said to perceive the same thing or that the same thing ”exists” for different perceivers. Berkeley assumes that the word ”same” is ordinarily used to refer to those conditions under which no distinction or variety is perceived… In this sense, Berkeley admits that the ”same thing” can be perceived by, and exist ”in the minds” of, different persons.” (Stack, 67)

Admittedly, this is a peculiar view, since we can legitimately wonder how it is that I can see if my ideas can even resemble your ideas – I can hardly pluck your ideas out of your head and lay them side by side next to mine for easy comparison. Actually, I can’t even compare many of my own ideas to one another. For, crucially (in the New Theory of Vision), Berkeley holds the heterogeneity thesis — the idea that my ideas of touch, sight, smell, etc., have nothing in common with one another. Now if my tactile idea of a box cannot even be similar to my visual idea of a box, when both are available to me, then how am I supposed to make the even greater inferential leap by supposing that my tactile ideas are similar to yours? (Berkeley, 60)

It is hard to make sense of Berkeley on this, and I will not pretend that I can resolve his views on identity in any satisfactory way. The matter will, I think, have to be given a provisional resolution by attending to the ambiguity of words like “collective” and “Our Mind”. In one sense, the word “collective” is meant to imply a community of knowers that exchange ideas back and forth like parcels in the mail. This sense is clearly impossible for Berkeley.

But there is another sense of the word, corresponding to aggregate opinion in relation to the divine. In this, there is no suggestion that one person’s ideas can resemble another’s in some way that is introspectively obvious. Rather, one person’s ideas are judged to be similar to another’s person’s only by virtue of God‘s perspective, which we presuppose is out there.

We know that objects possess a quality of “outness” for which God is the guarantor. Perhaps this is the ultimate import of the phrase, “independent of Our Mind”. Let us assume so. What does this tell us about Berkeley’s account? It is as true as ever that Berkeley’s arguments are advertised as a form of anti-realism, e.g., repeating that objects cannot exist without being perceived by some mind or other. But the upshot of his argument, especially when accented by selections from his Notebooks, indicate that his anti-realism is, in effect, restricted to the knowledge of the divine maker. As for sensible objects and their relation to finite humans, he is as modest as can be. And so, in that sense, he is a self-affirmed realist about truth.


It might be objected that the individualistic and collectivistic stances towards realism are nevertheless entirely dependent upon the divine stance toward anti-realism. For it seems that Berkeley wants to argue that individualistic and collectivistic stances are capable of grasping a quality of the outness of sensible data, and that they owe this presumption of outness to the divine form of anti-realism. In that way, it could be alleged that Berkeley is not a realist in any significant sense after all, since his realist doctrines all collapse into his divine anti-realism.

In order for this reductionist objection to be right, it would have to involve an asymmetric dependency – the collectivistic sense of realism would have to be grounded in the anti-realism of the divine, but not vice-versa. So if, for instance, Berkeley claimed that we had knowledge of God through mere faith, then it would be natural to conclude that there was such an asymmetric dependency. But Berkeley’s theology would have him argue quite the opposite. We have reasons to suppose that God exists, and these reasons are manifest in the operations of the real world. “Philonous” is explicit on this point: “Men commonly believe that all things are known or perceived by God, because they believe the being of a God, whereas I on the other side, immediately and necessarily conclude the being of a God, because all sensible things must be perceived by him.” (202, emphasis mine) Making the same point, again: “sensible things really do exist: and if they really exist, they are necessarily perceived by an infinite mind” (202, emphasis omitted). The doctrines of human realism and divine anti-realism are co-dependent. The language of realism and anti-realism about truth proves to be moot.

I have been trying to stress that this analysis of Berkeley forces us to end on a stalemate between realism and anti-realism. Yet at this point, it might be objected that there is a sense in which the game has been fixed in such a way that the anti-realist’s argument has been given surface plausibility. By placing accent on the knowing subject, and refusing to treat the phrase “independent of the mind” at face value, we have tacitly endorsed the idea that any plausible form of realism must take due care to be sensitive to the limits of the knowing subject. The realist, then, can rightfully complain that this trivially entails anti-realism. For they might allege that the demand for that an account be phrased in terms of perspective begs the question in favor of the anti-realist. For we are reduced in Berkeley’s case to a position of speaking in terms of “realism for us, anti-realism for God”, and the relativistic implications of this view are unpalatable to the realist.

I think that’s too harsh. An open-minded realist might argue that the language of “knowing subjects” can be accommodated. All we need to show is that realism holds for all minds alike. That is, the facts of the matter must be independent of all minds, universal to all genuine knowers: me, you, and God too. But then, of course, we are faced with a regress. In the first place, the question arises as to how we are supposed to establish that one subject knows has the same thing as their neighbor. If we say that we know they share the same knowledge because we reliable third-person narrators are observing the two subjects attend to the same stimuli, the question of how we know that, and so on. And if we stop the regress by appeal to the actual states of affairs, we are left appealing to the same bugbear that the open-minded realist had sought to dispatch.

It would be better if we were to hang up our hats on the objectivity of truth.

Unless, of course, we are atheists — in which case the question of God does not arise.

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Tea & Satire

Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol

Folks outside of the States are probably wondering, as usual, what the hell we Americans are up to with our Tea Parties and whatnot. The Brits will be glad to know that we are not messing with their tea this time around. Instead, we are busy spilling our own tea.

While our latest Tea Party is about politics, I won’t be focusing on that aspect in this post. Rather, I’ll use a recent incident as a concrete foundation for a brief discussion of satire.

Satire can be a rather sharp sword and can easily cut the hand that forged it. Mark Williams has been wounded by his own satirical blade: he  decided to leave the Tea Party Express due to the fallout generated by his blog.

Satire, being a form of comedy, falls within the realm of the ugly. As Aristotle argued, it involves presenting “some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” That, then, is the challenge of satire-being ugly, but not crossing into the realm of pain and destruction.  Crossing that line transforms the satire into the merely mean. As one might expect, discerning where the line lies does involve considering the purpose of the satire being examined.

I will, of course, admit the obvious: the line between the satirical and the merely mean is not an exact one. However, when someone crosses deep into the realm of the merely mean, that can often be readily seen.

Williams, I think, crossed that line.

Perhaps his failure at satire was due merely to a lack of skill rather than, as some have argued, racism. I will not render a judgment on this, but will merely consider the content of his post.

His post was supposed to be a fictional letter to Lincoln from the “Coloreds” and it begins as follows:

“Dear Mr. Lincoln, we Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!”

While it is tempting to claim that any use of “Coloreds” must be racism, that would be an error.  While it is a rather sharp term, satire deals in sharp terms and hence almost no term can be excluded as unfit for use. However, the sharper the term being employed, he more deftly the satirist must handle his tools lest he be cut to the bone.

Williams does not seem to have handled the term particularly well, at least in terms of his avowed purpose of lampooning those who had raised concerns about racism and the tea party. After all, trying to satirize charges of racism by merely presenting racial stereotypes is hardly a demonstration of skilled handling. Using the term “cotton” is also rather questionable. After all, in the United States linking “coloreds” and “cotton” is a stock tool of racism.

As another example, consider the following:

“Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bailouts directly to us coloreds!”

I can see, somewhat, what Williams might have been attempting here. Perhaps he was trying to make the point that to see the Tea Party’s opposition to bailout’s as racism would itself be racist, presumably because it would be based on racist stereotypes about “Coloreds.” However, it seems to come across in a different way, namely that it asserts that “Coloreds” love welfare and hence oppose the Tea Party’s opposition to bailouts (which are seen as welfare). Thus, far from refuting the charge of racism via a clever satire, it rather seems to provide evidence for said racism.

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Realisms: truth and Berkeley (part 2)

This post is a continuation of a multi-part series that began here.

Many philosophers patrol the armistice line between realism and anti-realism. These philosophers optimistically claim that there is a substantive disagreement between the schools.

Some of these philosophers might be described as hybrid theorists, owing to their acceptance of both realism and anti-realism, albeit in different senses. These philosophers have noticed that the conditions of presumption and modesty are not very clear. They contend that our cognitive abilities have limits, and the degree of access we have to the world must be held up against the horizon-line of our abilities.

This is how I think we should read Kant. He made the distinction between phenomena and noumena (thing-in-itself), and argued that powers of reason could be used to access the former but not the latter. In his way of speaking, noumena could only be contemplated by speculative reason, even though such speculations held no potential for vindication. In other words, the noumenal realm is mind-independent, in that it transcends the evidence accessible to our cognitive powers, while phenomena are mind-dependent.

Other hybrid theorists suggest that there might also be different ways of construing the meaning of “the world”. In effect, such forms of thought would argue that there are two interacting worlds. I think Descartes‘s substance dualism might be cited as an example.

The Kantian and Cartesian views are remarkable because they are optimistic about the use of the realism/anti-realism language, at least once one accepts the nuances they want to add to our conceptions of modesty and presumption. The conviction in favor of the preservation of the realism/antirealism debate is given succinct expression by Wright: “If anything is distinctive of philosophical enquiry, it is the attempt to understand the relation between human thought and the world… If our successors come to reject not the details but the very issue of the contemporary debate concerning realism, it will be because they have rejected philosophy itself.” (1)

But other philosophers have outright rejected the distinction by arguing that we can’t make much sense of what the debate amounts to. Rosen explains, “… after a point, when every attempt to say just what the issue is has come up empty, we have no real choice but to conclude that despite all the wonderful, suggestive imagery, there is ultimately nothing in the neighborhood to discuss.” There can be many kinds of failures at articulation. If the debate, for example, rests upon a misguided use of language (as Wittgenstein insisted), or a muddled understanding of how metaphysical access fits with the substance of the world, or a bogus distinction between appearance and reality (as Rorty claimed), then we ought to abandon all hope of progress towards enlightenment on the issue. At its most extreme, pessimism results in theory quietism, and indifference towards generic realist/anti-realist debates. Whether or not this amounts to a “rejection of philosophy itself” remains to be seen.


I count myself among the pessimists. In order to argue for quietism, in the sense of indifference towards any generic claims about realism, I am interested in exploring the very slight role that immodesty plays in George Berkeley‘s anti-realism. That is to say, I wish to show that, as far as human knowledge of truth and meaning are concerned, he is a realist.

It goes without saying that, as far as the broad caricature of Berkelean idealism goes, objects are dependent upon the operations of the understanding and ideas before the mind (dependent on the mind). Berkeley is at his clearest at the outset of the Principles, when he writes: “It is evident to anyone who takes a survey of the objects of human knowledge, that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses, or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the mind, or lastly ideas formed by help of memory and imagination”. (89) So Berkeley, when reduced to slogan form, can be considered immodest. But there is no question that he would support explication of what the knowing subject happens to be. For “…all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence, without a mind, that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit.” (91)

Berkeley chooses John Locke‘s realism as a central target. Specifically, Berkeley argues against Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. For Berkeley, the distinction between these qualities raises the question of how ideas (secondary qualities) could resemble insensible material things (primary qualities), which cannot be given a credible answer. Hence, the distinction acts as a wedge that can be exploited by the skeptic. So, again, it would seem logical to characterize Berkeley as an anti-realist. He does, after all, abhor the idea of material substances, lurking beneath our sensations like the dullest of ghosts.

Yet this surface anti-realism is merely apparent. A.C. Grayling comments, “Berkeley’s denial of the existence of matter is not a denial of the existence of the external world and the physical objects it contains, such as tables and chairs, mountains and trees. Nor does Berkeley hold that the world exists only because it is thought of by any one or more finite minds. In one sense of the term ”realist”, indeed, Berkeley is a realist, in holding that the existence of the physical world is independent of finite minds, individually or collectively.” (Grayling:168) The fact that Grayling takes pains to talk about realism in terms of finite minds, we can infer that the phrase “independent of the mind” need not be ambiguous about the knowing subject.


The debates that have informed present-day arguments on realism/anti-realism have rested upon different philosophical ways of speaking about the phrase “independent of the mind”. Hence, the denial of modesty is ambiguous unless the definite article is replaced by reference to the kind of knowing subject. If we try to fill in the gaps, we find that there are at the very least three kinds of immodesty: dependence upon our collective of minds, dependence on an individual mind, and dependence on the divine mind. In Berkeley, and in scholarly commentaries on Berkeley, we find explicit illustrations of this threefold distinction. We shall examine each in turn.

Berkeley’s arguments frequently seem to begin from an individualistic point of view. This is evidenced by constant explicit personal references, marked by phrases like “for my part”, “I sense”, and so forth. This is just to say that he chooses a phenomenal examination of the objects of his senses as his provisional starting point. Such a strategy is to be expected of philosophers that have proceeded in the wake of the Cartesian method. Yet he frequently leans away from the egocentric and into the social by explicitly leaving the ultimate verdict up to the audience, and by advertising himself as being of one mind with the “vulgar”. He continually asks the reader to troll their own thoughts and put his claims to the test of their own experience.

But, of course, this starting point is merely provisional. For it is also common knowledge that Berkeley believed that objects, like the tree in the yard, had an quality of “outness” that persisted even when we were not attending to it. As he puts it in the Second Dialogue (through the mouth of Philonous): “…I conclude, not that [sensible things] have no real existence, but that seeing they depend not on my thought, and have an existence distinct from being perceived by me, there must be some other mind wherein they exist.” (Berkeley, 202; emphasis his) We are left, at the very least, with individualistic realism.

Where he drew upon his individual experience for the purposes of explaining that real things must be comprehended by cognitive powers, we fnd him abandoning his own experience in application to his metaphysics. In that way, the tree in the yard continues to exist in such a way that transcends his evidence for it. The passage continues: “As sure therefore as the sensible world really exists, so sure is there an infinite omnipresent spirit who contains and supports it.” So Berkeley’s anti-realism is only relative to the divine knower.

So far, we have looked at the objectivity of truth relative to individuals, and relative to the divine. But we have left out two other issues: the objectivity of meaning, and the collective as a knowing subject. That’s saving the best for last. After all, if it turns out that Berkeley thinks that we have no collective access to the world, then we will have found some grounds for saying that Berkeley is an anti-realist about human knowledge. But if we can’t make that claim, then the whole debate over realism and anti-realism ends up being vapid pontification over God’s ideas.

Whereas, musing over God’s ideas is about as worthwhile as asking the question, “How now Brown Cow?”; and whereas, the realism/anti-realism debate is a keystone to philosophy; we must be resolved to face the possibility that, if Berkeley is not an anti-realist about collective access to the world, we will have shown that much of philosophy is absurd.

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The Racism Monster

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from Franke...

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Once upon a time, in a place nearby, there were two monsters. One was the monster of racism. He was the metaphor of the evils of racism. Like Frankenstein’s creation, he was stitched together of various parts. These parts included specific things such as antisemitism and general things like bigotry. While this beast was sometimes well loved by certain people, it is now regarded widely as a monster.

The brother of this monster is the racism monster. Ironically, those who fought against the monster of racism helped spawn this metaphorical menace. In their attempt to defeat the monster of racism, they helped create a metaphorical killing machine that swiftly and mercilessly attacks almost anyone who attracts its attention.

The most recent victim of the racism monster is Shirley Sherrod.  An incomplete video of her was posted on YouTube which seemed to provide evidence that she was racist. In response to the video, she was pressured into resigning and the NAACP issued  a statement condemning her. Naturally, certain conservative pundits were having a field day.

All this was done, it must be said, without anyone actually reviewing the entire video or considering the full facts of the situation. The racism monster, it could be argued,  struck swiftly, savagely and mindlessly.

If it had turned out that the monster had actually struck down a racist, then perhaps it could have been forgiven for its zeal.  However, the full video seems to make it clear that the allegedly racist incident was actually an experience that changed her views. The evidence also shows that she helped the farmer in question and the fact that the farmer’s wife is defending her lends credence to these claims.  Other important details include the fact that the incident she mentioned  took place long before she worked for the USDA and that her record shows no signs of racism. These facts were, obviously enough, not considered by the Obama administration nor by the NAACP.

I suspect that one reason the NAACP rushed to judgment is because of their recent condemnation of the Tea Party for racism. When they heard a black woman saying what appeared to be racist things, they probably worried that if they waited, they would be accused of following a double standard-condemning white racism while condoning black racism. While this is understandable, such a condemnation should be based on facts and it is reasonable to expect at least a minimal investigation (such as viewing the entire video). Such a leap to judgment and condemnation is, to say the least, unjust. Even if she were, in fact, a racist, the NAACP had a moral obligation to properly confirm this.

Interestingly, Roland Martin appeared on CNN to defend the NAACP’s condemnation. While he admitted that the NAACP had not seen the whole video, he argued that people in government should censor themselves and not say anything that could taken as racism. He did note that this was a matter of political reality rather than a desirable situation.

While I do agree that it is wise to watch what one says, my real concern is with the existence of the political reality in question. If people need to be worried that even a story about how they overcame their past biases can be taken as proof of racism, then there is something seriously wrong with the political reality.

In the case of the administration, they also worry a great deal about race matters. While it is morally correct to remove known racists from such positions, there is also a moral obligation to investigate such allegations thoroughly. If Sherrod had been charged with committing a criminal offense, presumably her guilt or innocence would need to be established before she could be fired. However, in the case of a charge of racism the assumption is clearly that a person is guilty until she can prove otherwise.

While the monster of racism is a fearsome beast, letting the racism monster run free is not a solution. While we should condemn racism, we have a moral obligation to confirm before condemning.

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