Realisms: meaning and atheism (Part 4)

This is the final 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 and part 3, 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.

I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. After rounding out an account of collective knowledge, I will show you that

Berkeley is a realist about the objectivity of meaning.

Before we conclude our examination of collective truth, we have to answer one more nagging question. How do we know that other people exist? Might they just be the products of some dream of mine? In short, what, exactly, is Berkeley’s solution to the problem of other minds, and how does it bear on the prospects of reading him as a collective realist?

Of course, Berkeley had quite a bit to say on the philosophy of mind in general. Berkeley is a particularist about ideas — he insists that the notion of an abstract idea is unintelligible. And he’s a nominalist, since any jumble of ideas might fit with a single, general name. Nothing connects a set of particular ideas with their general heading except the learned association between pain and ideas, and habitual use of the name to govern the ideas.

But Berkeley famously gives no explicit answer to this problem of other minds. His efforts are largely spent on the problem of the external world. So Stack might object: it is very fine to bring up a few scraps from his Notebook, but it isn’t fine to think that Berkeley is a realist about collective truth.

While it is tempting to inquire at length as to what Berkeley could or could not have said in his own defence, I think that his silence is much more interesting. It is best to say that Berkeley simply takes it for granted as a prior assumption that other people exist, and that they too are governed by the laws of associational psychology. He does not require evidence, argument, or proof. For all intents and purposes, we might treat the existence of other minds as a priori true, for Berkeley. (Or, if that terminology does too much violence to his empiricist project, we at least have to admit that the existence of other minds is dogmatically held.) And that is how he is so casual in his offhanded remark in the Notebook concerning a world “independent of Our Mind”. He could not bring himself to doubt the existence of others, or the prospect that their experiences differ radically from each other.


The focus so far has been on objectivity about truth (and more recently on objectivity relative to the collective of human knowers). However, we are also in a position to inquire into the objectivity of meaning. Since the question of meaning is a subject that is intimately related to collective truth, I have left it till last.

In what follows, I will be assuming that meaning can be understood as the assertability-conditions for sentences or utterances. This is cheating, in a way, because assertion-conditional semantics has been a relatively recent research programme. However, my use of this anachronism in assessing Berkeley is indispensable. For it is difficult to imagine any other candidate theory of meaning that is clearly and uniquely concerned with linguistic meaning, as distinct from the contents of a truth-claim or the contents of a judgment (each of which can be discussed in their own sections). (I am using assertion-conditional semantics instead of truth-conditional semantics because technical debates over the concept of “truth” have relapsed into the muddled state that they were in a century ago.)

Objectivity about meaning involves a distinction between the conditions under which an individual believes a sentence can be asserted, and the conditions under which the sentence really can be rationally asserted. The meaning of a sentence “is a real constraint, to which we are bound… by contract”. (Wright, 5) In other words, an individual can be wrong about the meaning of a sentence, and this wrongness may or may not owe to failures of perception or cognition by the individual. Another way of putting the same point is through discussion of the normativity of meaning.

Here, we have to find the grounds for two kinds of languages — private languages, as formed by the individual alone, and collective languages shared amongst a community.

Recall that, for Stack, Berkeley appears to have a difficult time with the notion of collective modesty. For Berkeley (interpreted by Stack), we cannot speak of two people immediately confronting the same objects of experience. We can only mediately perceive that the same objects are being attended to through the constant observations of the divine.

Suppose that Stack were correct when he interpreted Berkeley on the subject of our collective knowledge of objective truth. What would that tell us about the objectivity of meaning? One consequence would be that, as far as Berkeley is concerned, if we did not suppose that God existed then we would be left with no basis for collective modesty at all. Hence we would have no basis for understanding one another. Our grammars would at best be idiolects. There would be no reason to suppose that “we” share any common ground at all, and we surely couldn’t mean the same or even similar things by our sentences.

But the situation might even be worse. All private languages require rules to follow — we have to be able to look at a sentence and say that it is true or false depending on some stable conditions. Arguably, private languages cannot exist, since in a private language there would be no stable distinction between correctness and error. For when the speaker of a private language were confronted with stimuli that refute his or her semantic rules, they could always unconsciously redefine the rules to make themselves a permanent and exclusive arbiter of what is correct. Some would argue that this would be semanticide, or the death of all meaning. It would entail semantic anti-realism for private languages.


Before we make sense of either form of language, we have to recall the salient facts about Berkeley on truth. I have tried to show that Berkeley is a realist about the collective’s stance towards objective truth. His use of the phrase “independent of Our Mind” in the Notebooks (801) is more than merely suggestive — he means it.

But how is it that we know anything? Consider the following passage from the Principles. “Upon the whole, I think we may fairly conclude that the proper objects of vision constitute an universal language of the Author Nature, whereby we are instructed how to regulate our actions in order to attain those things that are necessary to the preservation and well-being of our bodies, as also to avoid whatever may be hurtful and destructive of them.” (emphasis mine) There are two things we need to take away from this section. First, that we are aware of the hand of God because our experience teaches us that we have the skills to look after our own well-being and avoid painful stimuli. Second, we have that relationship by recognizing the universal language, or the meaning, of God’s works. “[T]he manner wherein they signify and mark unto us the objects which are at a distance is the same with that of languages and signs of human appointment, which do not suggest the things signified by any likeness or identity of nature, but only by an habitual connexion that experience has made us to observe between them.” (61-62)

While these are nice things for us to know about truth, they’re not very helpful when it comes to the question of the objectivity of meaning. After all, we — well, most of us — certainly do not defer to God in order to get insight into what we mean by what we say. And it’s certainly not helpful to refer to Him when the common meaning of the language of nature is the proof of Him in the first place.

But actually, when it comes to individual languages, or idiolects, the solution is not hard to find. The arbiter of the meanings of individual utterances is the force of habit that associates two or more unlike ideas to one another, mixed with behavioristic psychology. The meaning of a sentence is established by the conditions under which the sentence warns me about cold and toothy things, and/or draws me towards warm and fuzzy things. That, at least for the moment, seems enough to make sense of how we can possess private languages for Berkeley.

From this point on, collectivistic meaning is not hard to come by. In order to broach the subject of collectivistic meaning, we would have to solve the problem of other minds, and we have to have an account of how individual languages work. I have suggested that the existence of other minds is supposed a priori, for Berkeley. We have individualistic languages due to the facts of associational psychology. Since we know others exist a priori, and that they roughly have “similar” experiences, react to “similar” things with pain, and so on, we have a common basis for distinguishing true from false sentences. In slogan form: so long as we have collective pains, and names for the pains, we have collective languages.


I have endeavored to look at Berkeley in a fresh light. I’ve tried to demonstrate that his metaphysical idealism straddles the lines between realism and anti-realism. I have examined his doctrines in two ways — with respect to the objectivity of truth, and with respect to the objectivity of meaning.

I have made the case that his metaphysics is systematically ambivalent between realism and anti-realism. Since the terms can only be properly applied when they are explicitly connected to a knowing subject, and since the result is not uniformly realist or anti-realist across all knowing subjects, there are no grounds for thinking he deserves either label. And since his view is supposed to be a canonical example of anti-realism, we are left to wonder whether or not an issue of any general significance is under dispute.

At this point, a critic might claim that Berkeley is a hybrid-theorist, of the sort mentioned with respect to Kant and Descartes. If so, then we could preserve the language of realism and anti-realism to describe his general views.

This would not be a successful argument. For Berkeley does not distinguish between different kinds of access by saying that some are more sensitive to skepticism than others, nor does he distinguish between different kinds of worlds. From the first, Berkeley denies the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, out of fear that allowing these different kinds of access will allow the skeptic to gain credibility. (Granted, however, he does distinguish between mediate and immediate perception, and these can be thought of as distinct kinds of access. But the entire point of his metaphysical idealism is to protect both forms of perception from the scrutiny of the skeptic, so they are not distinct in the sense of being threatened by skepticism.)

To be sure, there is a sense in which God has more “access” than we do – He is omnipotent, we are not – but this hardly has the power to generate a categorical distinction of the kind we see between phenomena and noumena. It is phenomena (ideas) and notions (minds) all the way down. And at no point does he suggest that God inhabits a different world from ours. His entire point, on the side of theology, is to provide evidence of God on the basis of the natural order.

All that is left to consider is the objectivity of judgment, which I do not challenge. There is no inconsistency, or threat of inconsistency, in generally stipulating the kinds of things that one considers to be irremediably real. (Berkeley tells us that spirits and ideas are real, while abstract ideas are not, for instance.) But stipulation is exactly the problem; debates over the objectivity of judgment retain an aura of arbitrariness, of being language-games. If this is the only ground upon which Berkeley can draw a general dividing line between things that are real and things that are not, then we are left with nothing to talk about except our interesting opinions.


…at least, not so long as we are stuck in the classical debates.

I suggested at the end of the last post, that the use of God as a knowing subject is what contributes to Berkeley’s systematic ambivalence. If we treated atheism as the only viable possibility, and if we could construct a viable epistemology for both individual and collective knowers, then we could be realists about all three kinds of objectivity (truth, meaning, judgment). To make a long essay shorter: if they are interested in keeping their realism intact, then epistemologists must be methodological atheists. And if I am right, this is a claim that even metaphysical theists must concede.

Works Cited

  • Berkeley, George. (1985) Philosophical works: including the works on vision. Michael Ayers (ed.) (London: Dent)
  • Grayling, A. C. (2006) “Berkeley’s argument for immaterialism.” The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley. Ed. Kenneth P. Winkler. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 20 April 2010.
  • Miller, Alexander, “Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = .
  • Rosen, G., (1994) “Objectivity and Modern Idealism: What is the Question?”, in M. Michael and J. O’Leary-Hawthorne (eds). Philosophy in Mind: The Place of Philosophy in the Study of Mind. (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers), pp. 277–319.
  • Stack, George J. (1991) Berkeley’s Analysis of Perception. (New York: Peter Lang)
  • Wright, Crispin. (1992) Truth and Objectivity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
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  1. As one who finds Berkeley’s ideas important and useful, and yet being among those who are disappointed with his reliance on a divine mind, I do feel a need to better flesh out this concept of collective minds. That is, it seems that the claim that there is a divine mind is also a claim that a mind other than the individual mind is possible, which then seems to be taken as sufficient to allow the assumption of multiple other minds. Clearly, excluding Berkeley’s dependence upon divine mind leaves one wanting to address the issue of other minds.

    And, with the social mediums currently evolving on the Internet, I have certainly been spending much thought on ideas of shared consciousness, along with attempting to imagine the nature of the organism associated with that consciousness.

    Somehow, turning God into a metaphysical machine, a mechanism for permanence, reminds me of the Eastern concept of Universal Mind (at least as basis for commonality). But, my current abilities aren’t sufficient to suggest how this fits into the context of this article.

  2. That’s surely one avenue to take, but it doesn’t seem to be the direction of his argument.

    How do we get the inference that “there are these ideas of nature, therefore there is a divine spirit”? Essentially, by process of elimination: it isn’t because there’s a material substrate, it can’t be due to other ideas, it can’t be due to our imagination, it has to be another mind. “Hence it is evident, that God is known as certainly and immediately as any other mind or spirit whatsoever, distinct from ourselves.” For some mysterious reason, we have no trouble in ascribing certain finite bundles of person-shaped ideas to be actual persons. So why not do the same for God?

    If we’re looking for the causes of these other ideas in total, though, God is the better explanation, for Berkeley. “We may even assert, that the existence of God is far more evidently perceived than the existence of men; because the effects of Nature are infinitely more numerous and considerable, than those ascribed to human agents.” (PHK 147) The watchmaker god, for Berkeley, is an inference to the best explanation.

    In that chain of reasoning, it is not that God is the guarantor of other people. Rather, God can only be inferred as the best explanation because we already know it’s okay to infer that other people exist. If there’s a dependence between people and God, it is a symmetrical one.

    One interesting point in relation to Eastern metaphysics. I should mention that my argument for atheism only works with the Abrahamic God: the omnipotent one. If there is a God that has finite powers (and hence, modesty), then you can with perfect consistency be a meaningful sort of realist as well as a theist.

  3. Hmm, that process of elimination isn’t particularly satisfying. I may find that seeping in to pet peeve that has been growing on me for a while. I’ve become uncomfortable with anything that can only be defined in terms of what it isn’t, particularly a concept like infinity (and all things non-finite). It isn’t that I want to say that there is no such thing as infinity, but there are a whole slew of pitfalls, and potential loss of sanity, in trying to reach meaningful conclusions about what can be done with a thing like infinity (one potential pitfall being calling it a thing). It’s just much easier work with a thing that can be defined in terms of what it is, rather than what it is not. But then, I don’t suppose that I’m the first to feel that way.

    A process of elimination, I think, works best when trying to select from a set of known things. But, when you’ve eliminated all the known things, identifying a new thing to add should, it would seem, be done with care.

    And, thank you for your response, particularly regarding how Eastern thought fits in with this discussion.

  4. A fair point. I think that Berkeley’s response would be to insist upon empirical experience as the basis of what we know. Our experience is exhausted by ideas, notions, and imaginings. If reality is not composed of any of these things, then it is not something we can know. Hence, we become skeptics (the wrong kind of anti-realist).

    I should mention also that I’m fairly ignorant of the particulars of Eastern thought, so I really shouldn’t be allowed to talk about it! So the comment I made is only as useful as the worldviews that it actually fits. Still, suffice it to say that the Eastern worldviews that I do have some passing acquaintance with (Taoism, Buddhism) are not in the same kind of trouble as Berkeley and his God.

  5. I’m glad that you’ve been brought on board here Benjamin, it’s a nice change of pace, though I do occasional lurk without comment on your blog.

    Here I have two things to say:

    I like your deployment of “modesty” and “presumption” as rhetorical devices. They add a veneer of normativity to your effort here, which I like. Did you come up with this angle yourself (specifically the use of these words in this way).

    And, though I’ve put no time into it yet, I wonder if your argument here could be adapted to realist/irrealist debates regarding the normative, as opposed to the descriptive sphere. The so called Kantian moral proof of God and so forth.

  6. Hi Faust, thanks for visiting and reading!

    “Modesty” and “presumption” are straight out of Crispin Wright’s first chapter of “Truth and Objectivity”. I cite this in the first post — I think — but I admit that they’re cited in a bizarre way, in the sense that you have to wait until the final instalment before you see the complete reference.

    The issue of moral realism was beyond the scope of this argument. The argument I’ve given here is concerned with the Big Daddy of all realisms, or Realism in the general sense. Nevertheless, moral realism a very important and relevant issue, so much so that another commenter was curious about it in the other thread as well.

    I do have some thoughts on moral realism, which I started to develop in conversation over at Butterflies and Wheels here (comments 28, 30, 40, 42) and here (comments 14 & 46) I realize how unreadable the above will be given the nature of the medium, so sometime soon I’ll write a post about it.

    I really doubt that the language of realism/anti-realism, or objective/subjective, is useful for moral concerns. But, that having been said, morality is clearly stable in some sense; it’s certainly not a series of arbitrary posits. But spelling out what makes moral judgments stable is difficult. Morality is not just a grab bag of sentiments (because morality must have some kind of normative authority), and not just a set of conventions (because morals must be anchored in real concerns), and certainly not dictated by mere reason (because morality cannot be bloodless).

  7. Ahh yes, I see that now:

    As he has it, doctrines of realism are characterized by the features of modesty and presumption.”

    So you make the attribution, but it passes by quickly. In any case, I find that way of phrasing the issue quite delightful.

    Just a for instance then try out:

    Moral Realism is modesty (morality is independent of the mind) and presumption (we have cognitive access to it). Anti-realism denies one or both.

    Immediately we see how the Humean line against moral realism got started in the first place.

    Of course atheist moral realists these days don’t need a God independent of the human mind to drive morality, they (sometimes) claim something more like:

    (1) Subjective states are produced by the brain.
    (2) The brain can be understood from the outside as one more object in the world.
    (3) Therefore we can in theory objectively measure moral sates.

    That’s super quick and dirty, but something like that is where say, Harris is going.

    For my own part, I think the analogies between morality and aesthetics are overwhelming. In fact I think the only difference between them is that moral norms explicitly recommend habits of action, while aesthetic norms may or may not do so. Sometimes we can see them meet e.g. “He doesn’t like Shakespeare I think there must be something really wrong with him.”

  8. Faust: I suspect that your premise (1) needs to be amended so as to make explicit what relation is intended by “are produced by”. If the relation is one other than identity then it is not clear that the argument goes through.

    You also need to to bind more tightly together the subjectivity of what you call “moral states”. But you said yourself the syllogism was super quick so you probably know that.

  9. Faust, even if Harris is right, I find it quite hard to see how (1-3) gets us very far.

    At worst, Harris’s realism is a non-starter. Suppose by “mind-independence” we meant “independent of our existence as a species”. There’s no sense in claiming morality is mind-independence in that way — for the entire thesis of (1-3) is that morality is mind-dependent! In this way, we can’t even have enough support to claim that moral judgments are objective. But that definition also forces us to declare a lot of real anthropocentric events (economic recessions, deforestation, etc.) to be “unreal”, which is pretty inconvenient.

    Instead, if we understand “mind-independence” as meaning “independent of the evidence”, then things are in slightly better shape. The proposal that ‘the objectivity of morality is merely psychological’ is tantamount to asserting that there’s a moral capacity of some kind that we can talk about. And surely there is a moral capacity. But perhaps there’s also an aesthetic capacity — even so, I’d not be especially tempted to say that there’s an aesthetic reality. Hence, if that’s all there is to it, then there’s not a lot of sense in talking about moral realism.

    So it’s not enough for us to say something like ‘the ability to formulate moral propositions is part of the world because we are part of the world’. Instead, we also have to say that the propositions are about moral events in the world, and these propositions occur to us because they’re related to those moral events in such a way that the world is foisting recognition of these events upon us. That’s a vaguely Humean sense of ‘independent of the mind’. But it’s not clear to me that this Humean sense fits very well with our dictum, “independent of the evidence”; actually, even if a realist by Hume’s lights were to argue successfully, the Humean realist would have won such small game that we might wonder what the difference is between presumption and modesty anymore.

    Peter Railton’s moral realism is worth bringing up here. He proposes a sense of “independent of the mind” that is stronger than Hume’s, and maybe even strong enough to give us a sense that moral judgments are objective. (A lot depends on the strength and reliability of our moral capacities, whatever they are.) But even so, unless we say something about the objectivity of moral meaning and the objectivity of moral truth, Railton’s view won’t be strong enough to defeat the criticism that he’s just engaged in a language-game.

  10. RE: “Food for thought” on Realisms — Pursuing a modern definition (debate) of realisms, truths, meanings, atheisms, etc!?

    I thought it’s good that Nelson presented a summary of his 3 previous articles on Realisms; otherwise, I would not have been able — considering reading-time wise and philosophically interest wise, as Baggini has also recently indicated herein elsewhere on why he won’t read any unsolicited works, etc — to redefine the classical understanding of realisms (as quoted in bold phase below) as one which is in contrast to my modern understanding of realisms (as presented in parenthesis) as follows:

    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.” — [On the contrary, “realism” is a thought confirming process or an objective perception of the world, the reality that is perceived and defined by our mind and by our observable, external, material “facts” in the physical world or the universe above and beyond; whereas “presumption” is a subjective, internal, reflective mechanism of our mind, one that enables us to access and recall memories of our a priori or experienced perception or reflection or imagination of the infinite universe as divine or as God, etc, in our traditional religious thinking or religiosity ad infinitum!

    Therefore, in normal rationalism, there can be or will be no “anti-realism” to speak of, once realisms of objectivity or presumptions of subjectivity that have been taken place or created in our mind: the memories of our physical reality or of religious imagining that no one else can erase or prohibit, except by our self-reasoning, confirming, or by willful forgetting, self-denying, or lying, etc in our own mind.

    In other words, epistemologically and cognitively (especially based on our current understanding of neuroscience, neurophilosophy, neurotheology, etc) realisms and presumptions (real, imagined, or created) are all for us alone to make or brake in our own each mind: the mind of creative or perceptive or interactive memories or insights, etc that no one else can actually steal or erase them from our each own mind, but ourselves; or lest our brain-mind being stricken by varied diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, degenerative neural disorders, strokes, post traumatic stress disorders, etc!]

    2. Realism, as a general thesis about human knowledge, can be about any of the following things: truth, meaning, or judgment.” — [Consequently, in and by this observation, realisms can be only about our knowledge of facts (reality, objectivity, etc derived in and from sciences); and of feelings (subjectivity, spirituality, sexuality, etc derived in and from religions) and thus of “scientific” or “religious” truths, meanings, judgments, or their respective rationalisms, as being conceived by our subjective or objective thought processes and feelings, as those defined in 1 above.]

    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 this pessimist/optimist/naturalist/realist argument, one clearly needs to clarify and distinguish one’s own realization of varied realisms (subjective or objective, by modern definitions) so as to arrive at a one’s own meaningful debate or conversation of these very timeless but mindful “science-philosophy” subject matters, since the inception of our humanities (especially religions, the collectives) over 50 millennia ago on this planet Earth!?]

    Last but not least, “In part 2 and part 3, 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 [1685-1753] 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.

    I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. After rounding out an account of collective knowledge, I will show you that Berkeley is a realist about the objectivity of meaning.” — [On the contrary, I think a reevaluation of the realist/anti-realist/theist Berkeley (based on our modern definitions of realism, meaning, rationalism, etc) is essential, so as too see if he is truly a realist cum theist, or a philosophical atheist, rationalist, or irrationalist (as one that predominantly came to mind is Richard Dawkins, as one irrationalist who is definitely inept in comprehending either realisms or presumptions, be they subjective or objective, or one being confused in and by both distinctions, as defined in 1 above and rationalisms, as discussed below)!?

    Ergo, please check out more discussions on the modern human mind here: “Let’s begin the Dialogue and Reconciliation of Science and Religion Now! — RE: What’s mind (or never mind)!? — Deciphering idiosyncrasies of scientific/religious rationalism vs. neo-Darwinist/ID-creationist irrationalism, in science and philosophy today!?” (PhysForumEU; August 2, 2009), so as to see if Berkeley has indeed reached a unity (or rationality) of his own understanding of the human mind and the divine, as defined by modern definition 1 above!?]

    Best wishes, Mong 8/8/10usct3:36p; practical science-philosophy critic; author “Decoding Scientism” and “Consciousness & the Subconscious” (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

  11. I quite concur that Harris doesn’t get us very far, and I think you articulate why, though I’d like it if you could unpack “independent of the evidence” a bit more.

    I guess what’s intriguing me here is my sense that if one accepts Berkeley’s view (not that many do), then one gets moral realism for free, as God’s mind can hold morality, just like it holds everything else (though maybe this is not quite right given the structure of your argument!).

    So taking your conclusion at face value, that we need to be methodological atheists to be realists, we simultaneously lose our Divine Command Theory, or however else one wants to formulate a God driven morality.

    It has long been my sense that embracing a naturalist worldview entails moral anti-realism. My feeling is that a lot of the struggles of moral realists are attempts to solve this “problem.”

    So the situation looks something like:

    Methodological naturalism = methodological atheism –> moral anti-realism.

    It’s just when I got to the conclusion of the essay series, I had to chuckle because it seemed to suggest that the kind of project that Harris may be doomed precisely because of his atheist commitments.

    Or at least, that’s my whimsical take on the preceding.

  12. Mong, whoa there. Too much at once so I’m not sure I understand you.

    Re: (1). Your description of “realism” seems mostly consistent with the one I gave — except that it inconspicuously rejects modesty, for reasons that I don’t understand. And “presumption” involves subjective and objective elements, because it has to do with access. It’s not just the subjective dimension, as you seem to be claiming, because the presumption involves presumption of veridicality, which is objective.

    Re: (2). I don’t know why you believe these claims are a consequence of mine, logically or otherwise.

    Re: (3). I tried to do that in the essay.

  13. Faust, that would be an interesting consequence! And maybe it fits some of the usual (mostly spurious) complaints that are made against atheism, i.e., that it trivializes morality. That makes it a well motivated concern.

    But that kind of critique depends too much on making a connection between the epistemology and ethics. I have said pitifully little on that subject, all things considered, but it’s clear that they’re going to demand different standards. Like Harris, I want to be able to rationally assert that morality is objectively true, objectively meaningful, and fosters objective judgments *in some sense*. But I don’t think that moral claims to truth, meaningfulness, or judiciousness are as widely applicable as realist claims are, because moral claims must involve a less ambitious set of standards than reality claims.

    In short, what we assert as being “morally true” doesn’t need to be really true. But at the very least, moral claims had better be real objective judgments too. Otherwise, they really do end up being the kind of vain flapdoodle and cosmic fantasy that the religious apologist has condemned herself and her moral convictions to.

    So all moral claims may be morally true, etc., but they’re all only judgments about real events and persons. Hence, the religious objection would be that, by my own lights, morality would seem to be closer to the level of a language-game concerning real things. But the accusation of “language-games” has a special sting to it that we don’t need to tolerate. A lot depends on what we think the details of moral psychology are; if moral claims are not especially game-like, or especially language-like, then it would end up being a mischaracterization. And to cut to the chase, three of the relevant faculties are instinctive sympathy, empathy, and rule-governance. I place the accent here on instinctive sympathy, which is the necessary feature. And sympathy is not intentional, and hence it is neither linguistic nor a game.

  14. You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but how does any of this put food on my plate, me not being a professional philosopher, in any of it’s guises?

  15. oh, i knew you were all just pissing against the wall…

  16. You don’t know that, because nobody has.

    There are lots of important things in the lives of ordinary people that don’t involve putting food on the table. Reading books. Watching television. Having a nice swim. Figuring out what you’re doing, where you’re going, what it means, how to do it best, and why you should care. That sorta stuff.

  17. It seems a curious affectation to me: to come onto a blog called “Talking Philosophy” and to profess some surprise that the posts are about….philosophy. Quite what Emily was expecting I’m not sure, something on home economics or basket weaving presumably.

    For me the question of whether the wall referred to is mind-dependent or could survive a “Berkleyan blink” is an interesting one.

  18. You boys (philosophizing from the evidence before me) are right of course. Why else peruse “Talking Philosophy”? Well, cos I’m reading Does the Center Hold which is jolly fun, I’m just not getting the need though. For Philosophy I mean. The World could sure use a dose of common sense but I don’t see any evidence of that in Philosophy… Oh, and Andy, your Misogyny is showing thru your Petticoats. Blink on that.

  19. Common sense? That’s Moore isn’t it? Remember that wonderful line from Iris Murdoch? “McTaggart says that Time does not exist…Moore replies that he’s just had his breakfast.”

  20. Common sense – that was me – I don’t need to read someone else to know what that is…

    “… he had got into an intellectual muddle early on in life and never managed to get out.”

    (Not the right ology, but apt nevertheless.)

  21. Emily

    You should say all this on the “Is philosophy useless” thread. Here:

  22. RE: More analysis on Berkeley’s realism/idealism!?

    @Emily: IMHO, in addition to Nelson’s “That sorta stuff” etc, reading, writing, or “Talking Philosophy” is to find “oneself” in one’s own reading or writing herein. For example, you find reading “Does the Center Hold” is fun; it’s because it resonates with your own philosophy of realism. However, without your sharing it with the general readers of this philosophy blog, we’ll not know (or argue) why your reading of that philosophy (or your feeling of realism) is fun!?

    @Nelson: Briefly, “modesty” is not an “objective” realism; it is a “subjective” idealism, or presumption, as defined in 1 above. Furthermore, “presumption of veridicality” is not an “objective” act of veridicality, at all; whereas “empiricism” is an objective act of veridicality, in science and philosophy today!? Thus by modern analysis of the above: Berkeley is a subjective moral idealist cum theist — a subjective religious realist that is very much rooted and reflected in his a priori religious thinking and training of the 17th century!? Just a food for thought!

    Best wishes, Mong 8/10/10usct4:24p; practical science-philosophy critic; author “Decoding Scientism” and “Consciousness & the Subconscious” (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

  23. Emily,

    It’s good that you mentioned common sense, because I have a different way of thinking about it. Lots and lots of people roam through life guided by ideas that they never really questioned. The ideas just sort of appeared there overnight, like flotsam washed up on a beach. So when we hear aphorisms like “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar”, we’re tempted to nod along because it’s common sense. Or we hear that we need to cut taxes in order to fix the deficit — that’s common sense too. It’s common sense that society needs religion to be moral. And so on. For the mostpart, common sense is made up of plausible sounding claims that we don’t actually have any basis for believing. We just know that we heard it enough times that we’re prepared to repeat it, because it’s common sense.

    If that’s how we want to live, then we’re robots, puppets acting out somebody else’s story. Alternately, our minds are sieves that catch a few ideas, memes, whatever, and dump the rest down the drain without thinking twice about whether or not we’ve lost something valuable in the process.

    I think that at some level, lots of people know that they’re stuck in this situation. Sometimes we have unusual intuitions that make a kind of uncommon sense, but we don’t think very long about them, for lack of time or concern. But I think it’s worthwhile, and comforting, to follow those intuitions to your own satisfaction. I want to see with my own eyes (so to speak) whether they really do lead to useless dead ends, or if they actually lead to forgotten valleys of the mind. So I think of it as an adventure.

    There are some practical side-benefits to all this, of course. Conflict management, critical thinking, communication skills, etc., are the sorts of transferable skills that some people find out of philosophy. But I’d be a liar if I said that those were the best reasons for having an interest and an open mind. The best reason is that it’s mandatory, that there’s no other way to live.

  24. Oooh Ben, I got shivers!
    I totally agree with the open mind and critical thinking prepositions, when applied to life. However, I think that to say that they stem from philosophy is backwards – we need these assets for living life, especially in the modern world – we need solutions, practical and moral, but you don’t need philosophy to engage in these very serious and consequential debates. 90% (I’m guessing) of the population interact with cultural predispositions, the majority of which are fueled by religious indoctrination. (The rest I’ll dump into the pot labelled “free thinkers”). Until philosophy steps out from behind the veil of religiosity and supernature, and embraces the tenants of scientific rigor, it’s always going to be a collection of crackpot elitist know-it-alls who may have a very strong grasp of philosophy, but a tenuous gasp on reality.

    I’d like to see a philosopher live “philosophically” for a day and see if he manages to stay out of the emergency ward. (Damn I just gave away my new reality show!)

    I’m sure it’s a fun exercise (I nibbled), but to make any claim for philosophy beyond academia is an anathema.

    “Show me a man who claims he is objective and I’ll show you a man with illusions.” Luce.

  25. 🙂

    That’s a plausible argument in many ways. The thing of it is, while you only need a your own good sense and a feeling for cooperation to reason your way through some problems in everyday life, you do need philosophy to recognize potential obstacles for what they are. Philosophers worry about remote consequences, like the stuff down the road. They like thinking in the Longer Now. That can lead them into the Emergency Room quite a bit, of course. It’s like somebody walking around with binoculars glued to their faces; it won’t be long before they fall into the hole that’s right in front of them. But the reverse is also true, as people who live in the Here and Now sit idle while foreseeable dangers aren’t considered. I hate to paraphrase Metallica (please forgive me), but it’s the first thing that came into my head: “The light at the end of your tunnel might be a freight train coming your way”.

    Some of these longer-term dangers aren’t uniquely philosophical. Economic, geopolitical, and ecological disasters are the main subjects in the contemporary world, and they seem awfully unphilosophical. But to figure out where we have made foolish decisions, and to protect ourselves in the future, we have to learn quality lessons that are at a high level of generality. The idea is that almost everybody could understand these lessons if they tried.

    Let me give an example where the need for philosophy is the most obvious and most dire: the media. Beltway journalists walk around with what they call common sense (or “the savvy”), and don’t ask the kinds of probing questions that would get at the truth. As a result, our governments lie to us and get away with it. How can we stop it? Listening to Julian Baggini would be a start! (

    The beltway journalists have a conventional wisdom, a common sense, that is completely bonkers. (To some extent, because the institutions they work for are massively corrupt. Still.) Imagine if you had a sympathetic journalist sitting right in front of you, explaining their experiences in the field and how there’s two sides to every story, that the truth is subjectively constructed, etc. What do you say to them? My first reaction would be to slap the silliness out of them. But let’s imagine they’re innocents who have absorbed bad philosophy. To reach them, you need strong, considerate replies on the fly.

  26. Ben,
    I think we are just playing semantics here.

    I’m not sure I understand why someone who is a philosopher, steeped in Plato, Descarte, Marx, Nietzche et al, ad infinitum, is any more gifted to “considerate replies on the fly” than anyone else with a modicum of real world life experiences.

    You can take any group (philosophers included) and attribute a “conventional wisdom” to their “common sense” world view. Such is life. Cultural acquisition is a side effect of living together in our varied peer pressure nooks and crannies!!

    Critical reasoning is not the purlieu of philosophy – for instance, you don’t need to know any epistemology (of any subject) to be able to understand the very important decisions and forward planning that needs to be undertaken with regard to the impact of the Gulf oil spill has, and will have, on every aspect of that region (ecological, economic, psychological, etc etc). I don’t see how knowing that some philosophers will argue that nothing is real and everything is an illusion adds any insight to the general condition of the gulf situation, or the planet in general.

    Debating (actually, thats too strong a word for philosophers!)… considering corrupt institutions would certainly be of benefit, if any philosopher could make a solid, quantifiable contribution.
    It’s fun and it exercises your brain, both very valid endeavors, but all it seems to be (to me) is opinion dressed up with a bunch of long words.

    Are then any real world modern day examples of philosophy (and let’s be honest and restrict it to philosophical considerations and not “critical reasoning”) that have actually added value to people’s lives? (One assumes here that knowledge is added value).

    In my nïaveté, one would imagine that peace talks would be a venue ripe for the foundation of philosophical détente, yet I don’t see it on any Philosophers resumé…

  27. Emily, then I’m afraid you may have an idiosyncratic definition of philosophy! Convention has it that critical reasoning and argumentation *is* the business of philosophy. That’s why you find introductory level critical thinking courses taught in Philosophy departments. What is uniquely distinctive of philosophy, aside from its generality or abstractness, is its focus upon reasoned argument: specifically, what makes a sound, cogent, valid argument, as distinct from a rhetorically pleasant one. That’s how we think we’re in a better position to separate ideas that are flotsam from those that are silver. Perhaps you meant that philosophy is not *just* critical thinking, but one way or the other it has to be involved.

    Philosophers have had extremely important things to say about political and social theory. John Searle and Margaret Gilbert, to take two recent examples, have been extremely helpful in helping people think clearly about institutionhood and collective behavior (respectively). For my part, it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve learned as much from these philosophers about social life as I have from taking social science courses. In my experience, the philosophical aspects of various disciplines — their epistemology, metaphysics, and so on — have been explicitly used in my social science courses, oftentimes getting it wrong despite good intentions. When the mistakes become systematic, say in sociology, it’s because the experts in the discipline actively seek to replace the canons of critical thinking with pleasant fallacies (for instance, the genetic fallacy). Left to their own devices, there simply is no apparatus in the institution to criticize it. Unless you’re an annoying philosophy student (like myself), sitting at the back of the classroom throwing intellectual spitballs at the faculty.

    So those would be the ones that I’d answer your question with. I doubt that peace will break out in the middle east because Searle and Gilbert are on the case, and similarly I don’t know if my successes at being a rascal in social science has put any food on anyone’s table. But I know that quality work can help to focus the questions and refine the projects that are alive in social science. Philosophers — that is, empirically informed philosophers — help a field find the right mix of organization and motivation that they need to excel.

    The gulf coast example is not a very useful one for philosophy, admittedly, due to the (unusual) fact that everybody recognizes the disaster and is collectively engaged in condemning BP and the regulators. People are already on the side of the good and the true — they can’t help but be. So a philosopher can cheerlead, but otherwise is mostly redundant. A better example: epistemology and the culture of journalism. (I gave a link above to a useful and interesting article by Julian.) You have a bunch of Beltway people who have a completely confused epistemology, and this confusion creates bizarre and frankly creepy results. And that’s supposed to be our Fourth Estate. Similarly, when biology teachers in Oklahoma face down parents that advocate Intelligent Design, they had better know a little bit of philosophy of science and epistemology (as well as the relevant science, of course). Otherwise, they’re going to be trounced by arguments from that side that are ferocious and cunning.

    So — that’s pretty much my sales pitch.

  28. To understand the importance of philosophy simply remove all the philosophers from history. Think of a counter factual world without Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Locke, Mill, Nietzsche, and Russel. Heck think of the world without Ayn Rand! Whatever such a world would be like it would certainly be nothing like ours. And that’s not even mentioning all the thinkers who “dabble” in philosophy, or who are “anti-philosophers” like Kierkegaard.

    One can always define philosophy away (“mere semantics”) by classifying it as “those language games that only academic philosophers understand and which have no definitive conclusions.” And there will always be those that claim that what philosophers are doing is at best a waste of time and worst a corruption of the youth. But it would be difficult to imagine a human history composed purely of those who had freed themselves of this disease and had prosecuted their cause exclusively with this strange thing called “common sense.” How exactly would the cultural discourses of any given age shifted into the next on the basis of “common sense?” Is “common sense” a concept shared by all cultures?

  29. Hi Ben,

    Well, I guess this exactly identifies my skepticism.

    re: Philosophy of Journalism

    Unfortunately this piece is old and several of the links are no longer active, however there are a good few reasoned critiques of the Loyn/Baggini stance – Schechter, Lynch, etc…

    This debate would be more fruitful if I were not in the US – the culture of news reporting here is comical, sad, inept and biased to such a degree that I’m not sure the word journalism can be applied to the majority of the reportage. The blogging sphere may be the future of news reporting, but I don’t know when anyone has the time to review several sources, evaluate their claims, verify their sources, or process their rhetoric.

    Again, I’m over-using the word, but commonsense would seem to be a good starting point. First the reader: unfortunately, no-one selects a newspaper based on the quality of the reporting – it’s another of those cultural associations we have acquired based on our own political and social perspectives. You don’t pick up a right wing rag and expect a call to vote for Obama – vis a vis, vice versa, etcetera etcetera…
    The same holds for the reporter; you’re not going to be on Fox News and limelighting for John Stewart.

    In an ideal world journalists would either be impartial, or declare their partiality up front. But a reporter is inevitably biased – where their stories are published are inevitably biased – their readers are inevitably biased, (and you can philosophize on this point all you like), that is the world we are living in.

    I live in the US (ten years) but I try to watch the BBC news – i). I think the standard of accountability and responsibility is high, ii). I’m culturally attuned to their nuances, iii). because US news is restrictive (if an American isn’t involved then we don’t get to hear about it).

    For instance you say “You have a bunch of Beltway people who have a completely confused epistemology, and this confusion creates bizarre and frankly creepy results” – I must have missed this in Loyn’s piece, I’m not sure from whence it springs. It seems biased and opinionated.

    Furthermore I quote Loyn on Galtung “I once heard the high priest of peace journalism” – no sense of irony or bitterness there. Later in the same paragraph “Let’s get cause and effect the right way round. The peace plan was not dead in the water because it was not reported. It was not reported because it was seen to be dead in the water.” So Loyn is now making policy, choosing not to report something based on a perception or an assumption?

    The Philospophy of Journalism seems to be that my opinion is better than yours. I don’t see any insight into the human condition that inevitably arises from the philosophical acrobatics that were indulged.

    The philosophical stances here are beliefs. Faith.
    You can argue the ball back and forth, but you’re always playing a deuce game.

    I may as well go all out and critique Searle and Gilbert too! (Isn’t the web wonderful? We are all experts now!)

    Searle, publishers note: “For more than three decades John Searle has been developing and elaborating a unified theory of language and mind… structural theories; that is, they analyze the items within their domains (speech acts and mental states) as having a structure which allows for variation along a number of parameters.”

    Sorry, is this saying that language changes, to stay in step with generational experience (cultural evolution)? I’m sure a lot of critical reasoning went into developing that theory…

    Searle’s latest book is on Civilization (actually Human Civilization, covering the bases there, cos’ who knows…) which should be interesting as that history is almost exclusively tied to religion and belief, not something Searle embraces, so no bias there.

    Gilbert: “In order for individual human beings to form collectivities, they must take on a special character, a ‘new’ character, insofar as they need not, qua human beings, have that character. Moreover, humans must form a whole or unit of a special kind…a plural subject.” Stiff upper lip, you know, pull together, see it through.

    Ben, ignore my teasing – it’s a very boring day here at work, and I have nothing but self-indulgence to keep me company.

    Well, this has been fun, although I fear I’ve been wasting everyones precise time.

    A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer,
    it sings because it has a song.
    –Maya Angelou

  30. Emily, certainly not a waste of time, so long as we’re properly engaged. But I’m afraid we don’t seem to agree about what’s involved in philosophy, let alone what’s important when we apply it!

    It is true that philosophy deals with arguments. When taken in isolation, we might want to call their conclusions “opinions”. But we can’t forget two things. First, that the opinions aren’t just boldly proclaimed from the rooftops. “I believe so-and-so — nyah nyah!” They are based in reasons. And second, these reasons must be the sort of thing that we can defend.

    You probably agree from the Fox News sorts of examples that there are opinions that are defensible when faced with fair scrutiny, and there are opinions that aren’t. There isn’t always a scientifically rigorous way to figure out the difference between fair and deranged kinds of argument, but there sure are very plausible and perfectly stable standards that are useful in doing the job (formal and informal fallacies, etc). We agree the state of American media hasn’t improved much over the years, and I understand that the culture is still in bad shape: These days Fox News is literally used in most introductory classes in critical thinking as a case study in obvious and explicit fallacies.

    Nobody should pretend to be impartial. People have opinions, and that’s healthy and good, and argument about those opinions is also healthy and good. But you can try to be objective while still being partial. That’s what philosophers try to do. But many people think that’s crazy, that the idea of being objectively partisan is contradictory. They’re wrong.

    You might be right about faith and philosophy. But it depends on what you mean by faith. If by “faith” you mean “strong belief”, then yes, philosophy is obsessed with our beliefs. Obsessed! Maddened! But there’s nothing wrong with that.

    On the other hand, if by “faith” you mean “belief without evidence”, then I need to ask about what you believe counts as evidence for something. Evidence can’t be we “directly see what’s right in front of our eyes”. Obviously, a lot of what we call “evidence” in science is based on all kinds of presuppositions about what the evidence is evidence of. When we are holding a giger-counter, we’re not literally seeing the radiation around us. We see a needle and notice how it dances around, and we infer all kinds of things about the radiation, because we believe in the background laws of physics, we think the counter has been calibrated, and so on. Philosophy can do the same, except when the evidence is even more ambiguous on the face of it.

    To get right down to it, whether or not it’s all a game depends on how powerful you think our reasons are. I used to think something sort of like what you’re saying, but I’ve since been convinced that I’ve been neglecting half of the human experience. Our cognitions, our reasons, deliberations, they all make a huge difference. There’s passion there, too, but it’s very incomplete to focus only on the emotional side.

    On Searle. The publisher’s note is, by design, not very informative. Searle’s latest book, “Making the Social World”, is about the existence of institutions. (The subtitle, about civilizations, is actually misleading given what he ends up talking about. Ignore it, trust me!)

    I must confess that I think that I’m prone to think that institutions are really weird. It’s hard to convince myself that these things really exist. In fact, I’m skeptical when people say that there’s this thing called “society” around us. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s character Bokonon in the novel “Cat’s Cradle”, I tend to see societies as ‘granfalloons’ — that is, a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. Bokonon says: “If you wish to study a granfalloon, just remove the skin of a toy balloon.” That pretty much fits with my initial reaction, which is just to say that societies are collections of people who may or may not share any kind of interaction. (Somewhere out there, Margaret Thatcher clucks in approval.)

    Searle’s argument, when you boil it down to the bare essentials, is that institutions can’t exist unless we can succeed at making institutions as real just by representing them as being real. This sounds like hocus-pocus, until he lays out the argument. It turns out that there are all kinds of cases where we succeed at making things real just by representing them as such: for example, when I make a promise, the existence of the promise is guaranteed by my making it. That’s an interesting and compelling argument. And sure enough, the details of it have received significant attention from social scientists; their critiques are just as interesting as the argument itself. At any rate, I feel as though I have a better grasp of what we’re talking about as a result of his efforts.

    That quote from Gilbert doesn’t tell us a lot about her view. Gilbert believes that joint action is made up of rights and duties of a certain kind. She thinks, for instance, that when two people go out for a walk, they commit to having certain obligations to each other. If you want to stop going for a walk, you need to find reasons for being excused; in a sense, you ‘violate’ an obligation, and recognize that you can reasonably be criticized. When people don’t have that kind of rights and duties, they aren’t in a society. Psychopaths, for example. Something about her argument (and Searle’s argument) still makes me uneasy, but at least now I’m not in the same place I was originally (with Bokonon).

  31. Benjamin.

    I’m interested in this claim that Berkeley was an anti-realist with respect to “divine knowledge”. Forgive me if I’m indulging in “vapid pontification” but would a Berkleyan not argue that we have epistemic access to Him, and have it constantly, on the grounds that a proper conception of causation assumes agency which in turn presumes Divine Volition? On this account we can be realists about Divine Knowledge simply on the grounds that were anti-realism true it would follow that our experience would be so disjointed and inchoate as to not count as “experience” at all.

    I also think, from memory, that John Foster uses a form of inductive reasoning to demonstrate what a Berkleyan account of “other minds” would look like. I think it’s in his “The Divine Lawmaker”. I’d check but I broke my no-lend book rule with my ex-partner and she has custody.

  32. re: Faust “simply remove all the philosophers from history”

    Well to understand the importance of why this is a fallacious argument, simply remove all the Christians from history! (Unfortunately, we can’t remove all religion, as genetically we are predisposed.)

    I think your oversimplification suffers from a deficit of definition and context.

    Philosophy – the practitioners were those “seeking knowledge” – evolved into distinct sciences. What was then philosophy we call a variety of disciplines now.

    The word Philosophy was an appropriate term for those engaged in it. It encompassed all the natural sciences, indeed most of the philosophers of yore spent a lot more time investigating nature than they did philosophizing, and when they did they were keen to empirically test their hypotheses.

    Today Philosophy is much more narrowly defined.

    >this strange thing called “common sense.”
    >How exactly would the cultural discourses
    >of any given age shifted into the next on
    >the basis of “common sense?” Is “common sense”
    >a concept shared by all cultures?

    This is just the sort of elitist thinking I keep coming up against.

    Sorry, but where’s the constructive debate here – if you think you are smarter than me, then educate me, don’t hide behind your insulted pride.

    Why not replace common sense in your piece with philosophy and see how sensible it sounds. Just because you need an -ology to feel important doesn’t change the essence of what it is – exchange of ideas. So you don’t like the term common sense – how about collective consciousness? I’m sure you can find some obscure thinker who has an appropriately oblique term.

    Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know what common sense is – after all we are all engaged in acquisition of knowledge.

    If you were an American you would (should) know that Common Sense was a rallying cry for the new republic (Thomas Paine, 1776).

    Heard of wiki – I know, it’s insulting for some people to use it, but try – it even has a section “In philosophy”, oh, and Aristotle is mentioned, and Locke, et al – you’ll feel right at home.

    And yeah, it’s cultural cohesive.

  33. For Emily:

    “Modern speculative thought has mustered everything to enable the individual to transcend himself objectively, bu this just cannot be done. Existence exercises its constraint, and if philosophers nowadays had not become pencil pushers serving the trifling busyness of fantastical thinking, it would have discerned that suicide is the only somewhat practical interpretation of its attempt.”

    -Kierkegaard (CUP).

    There is some anti-philosophy philosophy for you 🙂

  34. Emily – You need to tone down the rhetoric a bit. Be nice.

  35. re Ben, Aug 12

    >They are based in reasons…
    >…and these reasons can [be] defend[ed].

    O, absolutely! I fully understand (and endorse) these prerequisites.

    I haven’t been immersed in the whole genre yet – so maybe I shouldn’t be commenting… however… (!)

    Just taking Palmer as my starting point, everyone from Thales to Hume (he seems to have a soft spot for Russell) have had their theories espoused, deconstructed, then refuted. It seems there’s always one more theory to consider, but not one that is (or ever can be?) definitive.

    That’s fine for the theory.

    How is that applied in practice?

    Someone mentioned social sciences, and attributing philosophical reasoning, to gaining a fuller understanding. But how does that transpose to people living in the real world? Does a technique from philosophy reveal a better way to treat patients?

    I understand the personal growth that philosophical debate encourages, but what is the community benefit? The philosophers aren’t numerous enough in themselves to convey any societal change (if such a unanimous revelation were to occur), so it must be a concept that can be passed on, and most importantly understood by the great unwashed…

    Going back to the Philosophy of Journalism stuff. Again, I see where individuals may decide to endeavor to pursue a more rigorous discipline, but I see no groundswell of acceptance such that there are indeed cultural changes, that debate has made an impact on the journalism profession en masse.

    >if by “faith” you mean “belief without evidence”,

    Again, I think the “philosophy” component and the “critical reasoning” one are at odds. Critical reasoning needs to proceed from a known place.
    Philosophy is just recycling competing conceptual premises.

    As I see it you can either have Philosophy is Critical Reasoning, or Philosophy is about Critical Reasoning. The Philosophy of Journalism is not journalism – you may indeed gain insights about thinking about journalism, but esoteric concepts are not a foundation to implement actual change. Someone with a different philosophical stance (belief, faith if you will) can ascribe an alternative resolution.

    I guess I’m just not getting it (yet).

  36. re Jeremy, Aug 12.
    >Emily – You need to tone down the rhetoric


    I thought rhetoric was the art of using language to communicate effectively – that’s what Wiki says.


  37. Andy, you seem to be asking about the role of human knowledge of the divine as far as that pertains to human knowledge in general. So you wonder whether or not our supposed knowledge of the divine can be described as a kind of access to divinity, as far as Berkeley is concerned.

    Well, in a very very weak sense, we do have access to the divine, in the sense that we’re supposed to believe that there is a God (as a result of Berkeley’s favorite premises). This sense of access is kept weak on purpose. For Berkeley wants to keep a healthy distance from the Occasionalism of Malebranche. Occasionalism has a more robust sense of access to the mind of God, and (if I’ve read you correctly) is far closer to the position that you are considering.

    For Berkeley, I have knowledge of ideas and volitions without presuming the existence of God or any of the rest of it. Also, I presume (as if a priori) that other people exist and that they have ideas that are similar to mine. But Berkeley also thinks that objects are permanent, or independent of our minds; and that nature is elegant and rule-governed and all that stuff. We need to suppose that a divine eye is always watching in order for us to think that the world persists when we blink. That having been said, for Berkeley, if we did not assume there was a spirit looking after the world while we slept, then we’d at minimum have to be skeptics about these ideas. I don’t know whether or not this mere fact would support the counterfactual conclusion that you mentioned, where the world is all a-jumble. Since Berkeley is traces a route to metaphysics by driving through epistemology, it seems to me that he doesn’t have the resources to make that kind of strong argument. That’s my take at any rate.

    I’d be interested to read what Berkeley’s considered opinions on the problem of minds would or could have been. But given how little he talks about it in his Notebooks, what I suspect is that he didn’t really know how to answer the question. The excuse of “I lost the manuscript on a train in Italy” sounds a lot like “The dog ate my homework”. But perhaps this is just because I find everything that Berkeley says to be implausible.

  38. > Kierkegaard

    even when they’re on my side
    I can’t understand them…

  39. Benjamin.

    A considered reply and I agree with much of it. But on the subject of our epistemic access to God…..Berkeley does argue that the coherence of our phenomenal experiences is explicable only in terms of the consistency of divine volition (causation that is not agency is incoherent for him, and He is the primary agent). From which it follows, presumably, that epistemic encounters with phenomenal experience are in some sense epistemic encounters with His (volitional) character. Surely?

  40. Emily, not a problem. Actually, you ask very good questions. After all, if I can’t explain the value of philosophy in a way that I find satisfying, then maybe I shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) bother with it.

    Who is Palmer? I may have missed that reference.

    I think the idea you mention is ultimately based on a concern that philosophy doesn’t achieve consensuses, or at least not ones that can be sustained for very long. This is not quite right. Some of the big ‘isms’ are BIG — they last for aeons, and when they fall, it’s nothing less than earth-shattering. Here are some examples of isms that can be either attributed to philosophers, or whose rejection can be attributed to them. In order of descending plausibility:
    – Aristotlean physics dominated the intellectual landscape for millenia. When the doctrine of teleology was overturned by Galileo, it signaled a major shift in how we understand the world.
    – Empiricism has made a major impact on how we understand perception and the human mind. Though initially associated with Sextus Empiricus, empiricism is more commonly associated with modern thinkers (Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Mill). Being moderns, they were motivated by the science of the time; for instance, the case of the so-called “Molyneux Man” in John Locke was also used by Berkeley, and is central to both of their doctrines. No doubt, that aura of verifiability lent empiricism some of its popularity. And when empiricism suffered a fatal wound in the 20th century, thanks to the rise of philosophically literate cognitive scientists like Noam Chomsky, the repercussions were intense. We’re still going through the shocks, for various reasons, some political, some intuitive, some philosophical.
    – The assumption that conceptual structure conforms to classical logic was challenged by the later Wittgenstein. Independent research by cognitive scientists like Eleanor Rosch have found that Wittgensteinian objections were on the money. This has actually caused a lot of heartache for the people who do philosophy, because when you spell out what it means to philosophers, this means that the methods we’ve inherited from Plato are not always going to cut it from here on in.
    – Atomism. The theory that everything is made of atoms (literally: that which is uncuttable) is crucial to the picture of the modernist’s conception of the universe as essentially ‘mechanistic’. Atomism was first propounded by the philosopher Epicurus (which we learned through his student Lucretius — old-sounding names if there ever were any!). Sadly, in the strictest sense atomism and mechanism were decisively overturned by recent physics. (For the atom, we now know, is “cuttable” into its constituent positrons, neutrons, and electrons, and then again into quanta.)
    – If I really wanted to stretch it, I would mention that Erasmus Darwin was a natural philosopher, and the concept of evolution (though not the evidence of it) is sometimes attributed to him. But I won’t rest my case on that.
    – The Newtonian and Einsteinian revolutions were not accomplished by distinctively philosophical persons, so although they may have been doing ingenius philosophy, in fairness I don’t think the philosophers are allowed to brag about them. Nevertheless, you do tend to find philosophers who were not very far away from the physicists — Leibniz with Newton when it comes to the calculus, and to a lesser extent Poincare to Einstein when it comes to concocting isomorphisms of E=MC^2.

    That is all just to say that some philosophies become forts and houses, the grass and trees and dirt that we take for granted when we walk on it. If the terrain changes every so often, it is — I think — for the better, and not just because there’s a shift in fashions.

    You might be thinking of some other theories that have not quite stood the test of time. For instance, time has not been kind to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities — between, say, the sound itself and the vibrations of air. (At some level, I think the rejection of this distinction is sad. After all, the distinction provides a very nice rebuke to the zen koan, “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody’s around, does it make a sound?” Answer: “no, but the air moves”. Still, I don’t have to like the fact that it’s unpopular to accept that it’s unpopular, so; fair enough.) However, even in these dismal areas, you can find slow and steady progress being made. For example, I think the rejection of metaphysical dualism — the idea that the mind is not made up of the same substance as the brain — has reached consensus, despite a few dissenters.

    What about theories that are refuted within a single generation? Russell and Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” was a very good try, but it ended up being decisively refuted by Godel. Should Russell and Whitehead have bothered? Well, the thing of it is, the efforts of the Principia and the refutations from Godel have shown us some bizarre, fascinating things about our abstract knowledge of logic and mathematics. Just like in science, we have learned something from our errors, and become enriched because of that.

    So I don’t know if any of the above are community benefits, but they are benefits.

    That is not to say that there cannot be community benefits, though. Journalistic ethics and epistemology would be great, if people were more interested in writing those books and giving those lectures. Lots of philosophers are ivory tower assholes so they don’t. Also, philosophy can be an acquired taste — you don’t find a lot of high school students clamouring for more Plato. Also, philosophy requires one-on-one debate and discussion — it doesn’t fare well with mass media. I think those two things account for the lack of a groundswell, which is a pity.

    Still, there are subsections of philosophy that have found an institutional place. Ethics has clear applications, for instance. Medical ethics and business ethics are mandatory for those programs. Also, critical thinking / intro to logic are mandatory for people in software engineering. These are closer to community benefits, or they would be if they were implemented and people were motivated and interested enough in the subjects.

    On your two final points.

    Logic both is, and is about, critical reasoning; logic just is the study of “good reasoning”, both as a skill and as a subject. And most philosophy has logic at its core. So I’m not sure I accept your dichotomy.

    About the practicality of abstractions. True, as a rule, they’re surely not applicable in an obvious and uniform way. They need to be interpreted. And yet, without them we’re nothing and going nowhere.

    [Edited for clarity — Thursday 10:30]

  41. Andy, sure, in the very weak sense of access or encounter. But our access is dim, in that it only works by a chain of inferences that can themselves only work if we presuppose a larger body of knowledge about the regularities of Nature, the categories of knowledge, and the existence of other minds.

  42. Dim or not it might be sufficient to call into question the claim that Berkeley is an anti-realist on this (pretty important) point.

  43. Ah, I think I see your point. I equivocated, which is silly of me. I think I should clarify that there are two issues here: divine knowledge, and our knowledge of the divine. God is an anti-realist, since his perspective is highly immodest. The world isn’t independent of God’s mind in any relevant way! But we are realists about our knowledge of God because we have some access, and that allows us to infer His existence.

  44. Right, got it. I meant to ask if I was reading “divine knowledge” the right way. My bad.

    Would it be correct to say that God is an anti-realist? Would it not be more appropriate to say that in the case of Him there is no realism/anti-realism distinction as it is logically impossible that he lacks epistemic access to any possible state of affairs?

    I’ll stop asking questions now as you’ve been too generous with your time already and I need to give all four parts of your argument some attention.

  45. That’s a good question. I think it is quite fair to call the Berkelean God an anti-realist. There are two reasons to think this.

    One, as I mentioned, if either of the two terms apply in any interesting way, then it’s pretty much trivially true for us to say that if He/She/It is omnipotent and omniscient, then they must be an anti-realist and not a realist.

    Two, I can’t speak entirely on Berkeley’s behalf on this issue, because it involves my argument more than it involves his. Still, for me, the language of realism/anti-realism seems appropriate to use. After all, it is not conceptually impossible to think that the prime Idea-Maker isn’t all s/he/it is cracked up to be — even on Berkeley’s lights.

    For Berkeley, the manner in which we characterize the power of The Idea-Maker’s knowledge is something that has to be argued and explained. Specifically, for Berkeley, the active spirit that upholds our conviction in the Outness of things is a purely active being — S/He/It has no passive elements (no ideas), only notions / volitions, and hence is God. But *we* can certainly imagine that this spirit is far more humdrum. Berkeley happens to think that the spirit must be God — but for the purposes of his argument, any relatively pervasive spirit will do. IEP makes this point well: “One knows that one causes some of one’s own ideas (PHK §28). Since the mind is passive in perception, there are ideas which one’s own mind does not cause. Only a mind or spirit can be a cause. “There is therefore some other will or spirit that produces them” (PHK §29). As such, this is not an argument for the existence of God (see PHK §§146-149), although Berkeley’s further discussion assumes that at least one mind is the divine mind.” So Berkeley admits that it’s possible for the Idea-Maker to be other than God. But if it is God, then for Berkeley it has to satisfy the conditions of omniscience and omnipotence.

  46. Benjamin Nelson,

    …Are you sure that logic is about “critical reasoning” or “good reasoning”?

    How do we reason ourselves into a tautology?

    Isn’t Reason a synonym for “we’ve seen it before”?

  47. John, yes, logic is the study of good reasoning, though obviously that also involves the study of fallacies so that one can avoid them.

    Reasoning is inferring, showing how this follows from that. Don’t really know what you mean by ‘we’ve seen it before’. You can reason your way into novel conclusions.

  48. re: Ben Aug 12th.
    Wow, thanks Ben. Appreciate you staying with this and giving me a run down. I really should do a LOT more reading around all of this, and I wish I could tell you it’s going to happen, but I don’t think it is. Despite all your excellent explanations and summaries, you are right that I have preconceptions of what Philosophy IS and also what it should be accomplishing. Unfortunately I take the attitude that these are all just exercises for the mind – absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I can see how in academia this can be a useful measure of someones’ ability and propensity to achieve leaps of imagination in diverse fields – but for me it’s just not scientific. Take for example the tree in the forest koan – physics doesn’t require the presence of any living thing (let’s ignore that the tree is one such entity – lets say its a fossilized tree!) to operate. The koan is a mind game – I would venture that mysticism, religion and philosophy are too. I’m not denigrating those that partake – if I was smarter I’d want to prove my ability too – I’m sure some of my heroes (Darwin? Feynman?) we’re as well versed in the Philosophy as they were in the reality of their research.

    I’ll finish the Palmer book, but I may skip the PHIL 101 – it may dent my 4.0 GPA!!


  49. Oh dear, I can’t even keep track of which post I said what on. It was that I mentioned Phil 101… and Palmer’s book “Does the Center Hold” – sorry for any confusion, but i think you get the drift…

  50. Emily, not a problem, it’s been quite fun! I’ll keep that book in mind.

    About your GPA. You make a point that never occurred to me before — that people who excel at exact sciences and mathematics have a disincentive to take courses in the humanities, because courses in the humanities are slightly more subjective and risk getting a lower grade. That’s a big problem. But if you were still interested, and didn’t want to take on the risk of arbitrary marking, you could take a class in logic and critical thinking instead of Phil 101. It’s perfectly possible for you to ace the course, because the formal aspects of logic are as exact and rigorous as mathematics, and they offer few surprises.

    To be sure, I think that *some* philosophy proves to be nothing but a bunch of intellectual games. And some people, like Feynman, absolutely hated philosophy, and yet they were geniuses by all accounts. So it’s not a reflection of intelligence to look at some philosophical debates and say, “This is silly” — you have to call a spade a spade. But if you can show someone else why a debate is silly, and you can do it in a cooperative sort of way (no swearing, biting, kicking, elitism, etc.), then you will have turned confusion into clear thinking, and you’ll be confident that you’ve done it without being unfair. That’s genuine progress, even if all you’ve done is show why something is just a mind-game.

    But the reverse is also possible — mind-games can turn out to be soluble and interesting. So let’s take our favorite tree-koan. The question we have in mind is, “Can you explain “a sound” scientifically without reference to any observers?” I suggested that Locke would say “No”, if only because to be a sound just is to be perceived. Of course, there’s no doubt that the sound can be explained in physical ways: the vibration of the air travels to the organism, causes the vibration of the ear drum, sending the appropriate signals and neurological reactions. But to be a sound, you can’t have a causal story that leaves out the appropriate neurological responses of the organism. You can’t just say, “There were vibrations in the air, therefore there was a sound”. You need some kind of conscious organic interpretation of the event, or at the very least a causal story that includes those sorts of organic reactions.

    This isn’t a perfect account, but suppose that it was the right story to tell. Recall that this is a puzzle that Eastern mystics invented for the purposes of clearing the mind, because it was supposedly insoluble — but actually, we’ve found an answer! What was meant to be just a mind-game, turns out to be a genuine question that can be given a straight answer. Just because something is a mind-game, doesn’t mean that it rests on confusions that we are responsible for creating.

    Another example of the same thing is the question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”. People ask this, thinking they will be able to give the usual answers. But actually the theory of evolution has a clear answer: the egg came first, because it came from proto-chickens. Now suppose you try to rephrase the chicken-egg mind-game in a way that replicates the original cognitive dissonance in such a way that it doesn’t run afoul of evolution. In that case, you end up with something like the question: “What came first, an organism or its manner of replication?” Well, I don’t know how to answer that, because I’m personally ignorant of what biologists think about the initial spark of life, and I’m also unclear on how to distinguish microcellular organisms from inanimate stuffs. But we can anticipate a solution, even if we don’t know what it is at the moment.

  51. re: Ben Aug 16.

    Well first of all is ‘perception’ involved? – the entire chain of consequences – tree falls, air moves, etc, inner ear is stimulated, neurons fire, neural activity, etc – are physical and biological transferences. (Although, once again, we probably need to clarify exactly what is meant by ‘perception’)

    >without reference to any observers?

    But, I think, we’re at the nub of the problem – what you “really” mean is any human observers.

    Let’s just assume that Pan paniscus is the dominant ape – homo didn’t make it. Present day Bob Bonobo, is out with his troop, and an old rotten tree suddenly splinters at the base. Bob and the boys scram – the vibrations from snapping and breaking wood travels in the air, causes the vibration of the inner ear in some of the Bonobos: neural processing, panic, alarm, shrieks; and everyone gets out of the way pdq.

    A day later, a spacecraft from the very intelligent planet Ipz-og-Zog drops off a couple of very intelligent Zogs, right at the spot where the tree tried to kill Bob. Ipll, looking at the fallen tree, says to Zpg, “do you think anyone was here to hear it?”…

    Now Ipll and Zpg don’t mean just ‘anyone’: they mean other Zogs, or at least critters as intelligent as the very intelligent Zogs.

    No laws of physics changed in the last 24 hours – the only difference was Bob didn’t sit around afterwards thinking about the epistemology of the ontological consequences of trees falling in the forest, whether he or his chums were there to hear it or not, but the Zogs could have, if they’d wanted to.

    >You need some kind of conscious organic interpretation of the event.

    I think you are saying the same thing again – without man there is no event. Are you really saying that until there was the first semblance of organic reasoning intelligence (another [non-philosophical] debate for another time) there was no reality?

    >What came first, an organism or its manner of replication?

    Is there such a “philosophical” debate?
    This debate certainly exists, but I think it’s entirely scientific. This is people with a very intimate knowledge of abiogenesis who are engaging in critical thinking in order to build an experiment or theorize a hypothesis, to further expand knowledge on that very topic.

    It seems to me that if there is any quantifiable outcome to any discussion, then Philosophy won’t have anything to do with it.

    The only way to have a philosophical theory is for it to be so esoteric that only a handful of people are even aware of it.

    Following on from the observations you’ve offered (the tree in the forest koan), I take the stance that unless it is indeed within the general human sphere of knowledge (i.e the great unwashed get to HEAR about it) then it does not exist!

  52. To throw a monkey wrench 😉 into this lovely discussion…

    The example involving bonobos reminds me…

    I’ve encountered Zen teachings that state that all living things have Universal Mind (though I’m not sure to what extent this would include anything other than animals). If this were to include insects, which a Jainist would certainly allow, then the presence of an insect might be sufficient for sound. If it included plants, then the tree would hear itself fall. But, as Zen often deliberately presents its teachings in a vague manner, one is not encouraged to make such exacting distinctions.

    Regarding my previous mention of Universal Mind, I’ve never encountered anything suggesting that Universal Mind has a consciousness of its own, only that Universal Mind involves the commonalities of Mind. Also, I’ve encountered ideas in Zen that lean towards an empirical perception of the physical along with other ideas that seam similar to Berkeley’s (superficially, at least).

    As far as the applicability of all this, I realize that these ideas won’t be much use for the practical scientist or the engineer. But, these things do affect the manner in which we structure/organize our practical knowledge, and I think these ideas can be helpful in maintaining that knowledge. That is, these ideas won’t show up in any calculations, but they do keep things in perspective.

  53. Emily — it’s interesting — in writing the last post, I remember writing the phrase “human observers”, and then deleting it when I thought better of it. I’m glad I did!

    The point, for my purposes here, can apply just as well to Bob as to birds. The only prerequisite is conscious awareness of the sound, no matter how rudimentary.

    I’m definitely not suggesting that there was no reality prior to the observation. My comments are restricted just to the question, “What is a sound?” And I’m saying that sounds (for Locke, for the purposes of my argument on the utility of mind-games) are relational. You can’t say there was a sound without saying something both about the neurological responses of an organism who has been stimulated in the appropriate way. In other words, the sound is made up of two kinds of facts: the vibrations of the air, and the effects on the organism. Without both, it’s not a sound. Presumably, if there’s nobody out there, then the tree is still out there falling, and the air molecules are doing what you’d expect, but we can’t really say it has made a sound unless there’s someone around.

    To my knowledge, there isn’t a philosophical debate over what I talked about as the new chicken-and-egg problem. But that’s fine, because the point of using both of these examples was to show you that questions that start out seeming like mind-games can turn out to be actually interesting and resolvable questions. The ‘Tree Falls’ example would have sufficed, but I wanted to throw in a scientific case as well to drive the point home.

    I certainly don’t agree with your conclusion that philosophy is necessarily esoteric. This discussion is philosophical, and even lately draws on characteristically philosophical research (Locke). But I don’t think we’ve been too hi-falutin’ in our use of language.

    So needless to say, your tongue-in-cheek analogy misfires.

    Philosophy has had many effects on the broader outlook. I tried to give some examples of that above. But it does have some self-imposed limits, and people have to meet the philosophers half-way to see the value in it. There’s “outreach” (which blogs like this are doing), and then there’s “overreach”.

  54. Talking Philosophy | Morality, whether you want it or not - pingback on September 2, 2010 at 9:55 pm

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