In an effort to avoid skepticism, Fred Dretske advocates the rejection of closure; the epistemic principle that asserts that knowledge is closed under known entailment.  Thus, if S knows P and S knows that P entails Q, and S comes to believe Q on the basis of this entailment, then S knows Q.  Dretske asserts that we have only two choices in regards to knowledge: one is that we retain closure and accept skepticism concerning ordinary knowledge that we take for granted (I have hands, etc.), the other is that we deny closure and keep ordinary knowledge (Dretske, 23).  According to Dretske, the denial of closure is the most reasonable choice.  John Hawthorne disagrees with Dretske and argues in favor of closure because he believes the denial of closure leads to more serious implications than any of the other options available.

            Why does Dretske think that closure demands skepticism?  Consider the following example: 

  1. Sarah knows that there is a farmer standing in the distant field (P) because she sees one. 
  2. Sarah also knows that that the fact that there is a farmer in the field entails that it is not the case that there is not a farmer in the field but an incredibly lifelike, animatronic scarecrow instead (Q). 
  3. Thus, according to closure, Sarah can know Q on the basis of her knowledge that P entails Q.

Yet can Sarah actually know that what she sees is not a scarecrow?  Has she taken the time to walk to the field and observe what she takes to be a farmer to make sure that she has not been deceived?  And if Sarah does not know if she is looking at a scarecrow, then she cannot know that there is a farmer in the field: P à Q, ~ Q, therefore ~ P.  Indeed, it seems that possession of ordinary knowledge seems to presuppose the knowledge one is not being deceived, which Dretske refers to as protoknowledge (14).  However it seems highly unintuitive for Sarah to claim knowledge of Q without any evidence.  Thus skepticism prevails.

            One may ask why Sarah does not have evidence of Q if she has evidence of P.  Consider the evidence that constitutes knowledge of P: Sarah sees the farmer standing in the field (maybe he is waving his arm, or is bent over engaging in a hoeing motion), and due to her past experience with such perceptions, she formulates the belief that she is indeed seeing a farmer in the field.  Yet Sarah’s evidence for P is not transmissible to Q.  She cannot know that she is being deceived by a robotic scarecrow by simply looking at the distant field; such knowledge would require different evidence.  This problem is further magnified with the introduction of Dretske’ “heavyweight implications” (Cartesian demons, brains in vats, etc.) that are impossible to determine through appeal to perception.  Thus, Dretske argues that the principle of closure decimates any hope for ordinary knowledge, for as long as I cannot know that I am not a brain in a vat being systematically deceived through the machinations of a mad scientist, I cannot even know that I am sitting at a computer writing this paper.

            Dretske considers the aforesaid “heavyweight implications” to be damning to ordinary knowledge if closure holds and leaves us with a choice between (1) skepticism with closure or (2) ordinary knowledge without it.  Dretske chooses the latter.  Thus Sarah can know that she sees a farmer in the field and know that this entails that she is not seeing a scarecrow, yet still not know that she is not seeing a scarecrow.

            Hawthorne argues against Dretske, not so much by offering a solution to the problem of closure, but by pointing out that the denial of closure leads to greater problems than it proposes to solve.  One such problem is that the denial of the intuitive principle of closure leads to the denial of the even more intuitive principle of distribution as well (Hawthorne, 31-32).  Whereas closure is bases upon logical entailment, distribution is based upon logical equivalence.  Thus the proposition “there is a farmer in the field” is equivalent to the conjunction “there is a farmer in the field and it is not the case that there is not a farmer in the field but an animatronic scarecrow instead”.  Thus, according to distribution, Sarah is in a position to know “that it is not the case that there is not a farmer in the field but an animatronic scarecrow instead”.  However, it is incredibly difficult to see how one can know the conjunction of P and Q but not know Q.  Indeed, Hawthorne demonstrates that the rejection of closure is not nearly as appealing as Dretske claims.

            Yet, as previously mentioned, Hawthorne does not resolve the problems inherent in retaining closure.  He even goes so far as to present his own closure implied quandary in his “Misprint” example (39).  To restate the puzzle:  I know from reading the newspaper that the Panthers defeated the Packers last Sunday.  This, in turn, entails that it is not the case that the story was a misprint and it was the Packers who actually defeated the Panthers instead.  However, it seems incredibly odd to say that I know that there was not a misprint because I know that Panthers won because I read the paper.  This is like telling a skeptical friend “If you don’t believe me just ask me!”

            Hawthorne gives Contextualism as a possible resolution to the problem of closure but readily admits the problems inherent in this view (one of which is that philosophers should rank among the most ignorant people in the world due to their understanding of skepticism!).  Hawthorne – as well as Dretske’s response – leaves us with the following type of concept:  “All the options are bad, but we have to pick the one that seems the most intuitively plausible.”  Dretske thinks the denial of closure is the most plausible while Hawthorne argues that doing so leads to more implausibility than not.

            I agree that both horns of Dretske’s dilemma (23) are unpalatable, and I think that neither philosopher presents a compelling solution to the problem of closure; however I am more willing to accept skepticism than to deny the principle of closure; especially since denying closure appears tantamount to denying logical equivalence as well.  Indeed, it is my regard for logic that compels me to side with Hawthorne.  It seems as though the denial of closure comes very close to a denial of logic and I cannot comprehend how it is possible that I can know P à ~ P yet not know ~ P.  Like Dretske and Hawthorne I have no compelling solution to the problems that closure presents (although I sincerely hope to discover one or discover someone who has), but I certainly think that the grass is greener on Hawthorne’s side of the fence.

William James  One of the more original methods adopted in the battle against skepticism was the one set forth by the 19th century philosopher/psychologist, William James.  Rather than argue over whether truth can be known, James simply redefines the meaning of truth in his theory of pragmatism.  According to James, the problem with the dispute between skeptics and dogmatists is that the latter professes to know the truth while the former asserts that truth cannot be known (or that one should at least suspend judgment).  James counters both positions by asserting that truth is not a correspondence between belief and an actual state of affairs, but truth is that which ‘works’, or produces proper consequences.  In this post, I hope to demonstrate the incoherence and contradiction inherent in the pragmatic theory of truth.

In his famous lecture, “The Will to Believe”, James makes the following statement:

But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself.  We still pin our faith in its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think.  Our great different from the scholastic [those who hold to a correspondence theory of truth] lies in the way we face.  The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem.  Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide…if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he [the empiricist] means by its being true.

In this passage, James is arguing that truth is founded on consequence rather than correspondence.  The truth of a belief is based upon where it leads as opposed to what it agrees with.  In essence, truth is what ‘works’ for the person who believes it.  However, one of the primary problems with this theory is the ambiguity of what is meant by ‘works’.  Indeed the term ‘works’ can be used in a variety of ways.  Take the following three possibilities for example:

  • 1) A belief works if it is eventually verified through empirical observation
  • 2) A belief works if it helps an individual make it through the rigors and hardships of daily life.
  • 3) A belief works if it provides the greatest good for the individual who believes it.

Now consider the following scenario:  Bob has been studying philosophy for 10 years, and he believes that he will successfully defend his dissertation for a PHD in the subject which he is preparing.  Throughout his academic career, Bob’s belief that he would someday earn a PHD has helped him to endure great personal sacrifice.  However Bob’s thesis is eventually deemed unacceptable by the examining committee and he does not receive the degree.  The question is: did this belief work?  It seems to have worked according to (2) but not according to (1).  And who knows if the belief worked according to (3)?  Perhaps Bob would never have received a job after getting his degree or maybe he would have been miserable as a philosophy professor.  The sheer ambiguity of the term is astounding.

Indeed, the very fact that the truth of belief is determined by its consequences leads to problems as well.  According to pragmatism, for a person to hold a true belief, she must know that this belief is ultimately useful in her life.  Yet does not this lead to skepticism as well?  How does one know that a belief is useful or not?  The pragmatist may answer that a belief is useful if leads to the good.  Well then, how does one know what the good is? 

Ultimately, pragmatism seems to confuse metaphysics with epistemology.  I believe that it was Bertrand Russell who observed that pragmatism confuses a test for truthfulness (epistemology) with the meaning of truthfulness (metaphysics).  A doctor can test for the flu by checking someone for a high temperature, however it does not follow that the word “flu” means “that which causes an above average temperature in the body”.  While the usefulness of a scientific model may be a good indicator of its truth, one should not confuse this with the truth of the model itself.

Finally, pragmatism appears to be self referentially absurd.  If the truthfulness of a belief is determined by whether or not the belief is useful, what if I find pragmatism, itself, to not be useful?  What if pragmatism does not work for me?  It seems that, in a case like this, the theory of pragmatism cannot even satisfy its own criteria.  If one interprets ‘useful’ as a belief that is eventually empirically verified, how then does one ever empirically verify the theory of pragmatism itself?  What observations can be made?  What tests can be administered?  And even if one could empirically verify the theory, at what point would the theory be officially ‘verified’?  Would not there not always be the chance that new empirical observations would undo the aforementioned verification?  Indeed, it appears that pragmatism, rather than being a way out of skepticism, is just a more fanciful of getting there.

(Click to see Part 1)

Once again, Aristotle was one of the first recorded ancient thinkers to discover the law of non-contradiction. It is important to note that Aristotle did not create this law, no more that Isaac Newton created the law of gravity; he merely discovered it as an unchanging principle of the universe.  In Metaphysics Aristotle states, “For the same thing to be present and not be present at the same time in the same subject, and according to the same, is impossible.” [i]  This then is the law of non-contradiction, one of the first principles of knowledge.[1]

      The law of non-contradiction can be expressed simply as such: A cannot be both B and non-B at the same time and in the same sense.  In this equation the letters A and B are variables.  We may insert a number of different words in this equation to illustrate the law of non-contradiction.  For example, an object (A) cannot be both square (B) and round (non-B) at the same time and in the same sense.  Now let’s examine that proposition with the aid of figure 3 below. 

      In this diagram A represents “object”, and B represents “square”.  Non-B represents anything that is not “square” (i.e. a circle).  Non-B is what is called the “complimentary class” because it completes the proposition.  To deny the law of non-contradiction would be the same thing as to make a square-circle, which is logically impossible (we cannot even conceive of such a shape).  

      The law of non-contradiction can also be used to verify the Correspondence Theory of truth as so: A statement (A) cannot be both true (B) and false (non-B) at the same time and in the same sense.  There is as much probability as a statement being both true and false in the same way, as there is an object being round and square.  It is a logical impossibility. 

God and Logic
      It may come as a shock to many people to know that God, himself, cannot break the law of non-contradiction.  That is, God cannot create a square-circle, or make a statement that is both true and false, or create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it. 

      Many people respond to this fact by saying, “How dare you say that God cannot do something!  God can do anything He chooses. He is all-powerful!”  But the Bible, itself, plainly states that there are some things that God absolutely cannot do.  Hebrews chapter six lists two things that God cannot do.  Verse 13 states that God cannot swear by any name higher than His own, and verse 18 states that God cannot tell a lie. 

      Both of these verses give a clue to the nature of the things that God cannot do.  God cannot and will not do anything that contradicts His nature.  For example, truth is an essential property of God’s nature so it is impossible for God to lie.  In the same sense, logic is an essential property of God’s nature; He cannot do anything that is logically impossible.  God is not subordinate to logic, but rather, logic is a part of Who He is[2], and so He cannot do anything that would contradict that part of Him.  “He cannot deny Himself.” (II Timothy 2:13).

 Dialectical Logic
      Another so-called form of logic is known as Dialectical Logic.  Whereas non-contradictory logic states that reality must be either/or, dialectical logic states that reality is both/and.  In other words, non-contradiction (or excluded middle) says that a statement is either true or false, but dialectical says that a statement can be both true and false.

      Some critics of the either/or form of logic point out that it is a Western (American, English, etc.) form of logic, and that when you are dealing with Eastern (Oriental) concepts you have to use the both/and form of logic.  This argument is flawed in two main areas

      In the first place, you cannot assign the laws of the universe by different cultures.  Mortimer J. Adler says that, “The fundamentals of logic should be as transcultural as the mathematics with which the principles of logic are associated.  The principles of logic are neither Western nor Eastern, but universal.”[ii]  In essence, Adler is pointing out that the laws of mathematics do not change in varying cultures.  “Two plus two equals four” is the same in America, Russia, Korea, Australia, and everywhere else for that matter.  The same thing applies to the law of non-contradiction.

      Secondly, you cannot argue against the law of non-contradiction without using it, and this, in turn, is self-defeating.  Perhaps a story would illustrate this point.  Ravi Zacharias tells of an instance when was debating a professor who embraced the Dialectical logic of the Hindu religion.

     As the professor waxed eloquent and expounded on the law of non-contradiction, he eventually drew his conclusion:  “This [either/or logic] is a Western way of looking at reality.  The real problem is that you are seeing contradictions as a Westerner when you should be approaching it as an Easterner.  The both/and is the Eastern way of viewing reality.”

     After he belabored these two ideas on either/or and both/and for some time, I finally asked if I could interrupt his unpunctuated train of thought and raise one question.

     I said, “Sir, are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and system of logic or nothing else?”

     There was pin-drop silence for what seemed an eternity.  I repeated my question:  “Are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and logic or nothing else?  Have I got that right?”

     He threw his head back and said, “The either/or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

     “Indeed, it does emerge,” I said.  “And as a matter of fact, even in India we look both ways before we cross the street – it is either the bus or me, not both of us.”[iii]

       From this humorous story we see the undeniability of the law of non-contradiction.  Any attempt to deny it is self-defeating.  The more you try to disprove it, the more you prove its necessity in rational argument.

      The consequences of denying the law of non-contradiction are dreadful (see fig. 4[iv]).  There would be no basis for reality if it did not exist, and our universe would be uninhabitable.        

(Fig. 4)

Eight Results of Denying the Law f Non-Contradiction

 By James Sullivan (see endnote) 

•1. To deny the necessity and validity of the Principle of Contradiction would be to deprive words of their fixed meaning and render speech useless.

•2. Reality of essences must be abandoned; there would be becoming without anything that becomes; flying without a bird; accidents without subjects in which to inhere.

•3. There would be no distinction between things.  All would be one.  Ship, wall, man would all be the same thing.

•4. It would mean the destruction of truth, for truth and falsity would be the same thing.

•5. It would destroy all thought, even opinion, for its affirmation would be its negation.

•6. Desire and preference would be useless, for there would be no difference between good and evil; there would be no reason to go home, for to go home would not be different from staying where one is.

•7.  Everything would be equally true and false at the same time, so that no opinion would be more wrong than any other even in degree.

•8. It would make impossible all becoming; change, or motion.  For all this implies a transition from one state of being to another; but if the Principle of Contradiction is false, all states of being are the same.

 Characteristics of Truth
      We will conclude this post with a few of the main characteristics of truth.  These characteristics are essential properties of what truth is and how it works.

 Truth is Exclusive
      All truth claims are absolutely exclusive.  When a statement is true, then by definition, it excludes everything else that opposes it.  For example, if the statement, “Socrates is a man” is true, then that statement excludes all other conceptions of what Socrates is.  Even the statement, “No truth is exclusive” is an exclusive statement, because it excludes any conception of truth except the one stated.

 Truth is Immutable
      Truth does not change; it remains the same no matter what.  There are a few objections to this, but the one most commonly stated is that truth changes with time.  For example, the statement, “Abraham Lincoln is president” was true in 1863 but is not true in 2003; this is seen as a valid contradiction of two equally true claims.  This objection is easily refuted because it is based on confusion of the law of non-contradiction

      The law of non-contradiction teaches that two opposing statements cannot both be true in the same time and the same sense.  Time is an essential context to a truth claim.  To quote Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks, “The spatial and temporal context of statements is an inherent part of the context which determines the meaning of that assertion.”[v]  The truth claim is understood in context of the time it was made.  So the statement “Lincoln is president” (as said in 1863) is an absolute, unchangeable truth.

Truth is Objective
      Truth is objective not subjective. That is, truth exists outside of us.  Our opinions concerning a statement or idea do not make them true or false.  The opposite of this belief is known as relativism.  Any conception of truth outside of its being objective will ultimately lead to a logical contradiction, and is therefore impossible.

      In this post we have looked at the definition of truth, the logic on which it is based, and some of its essential properties.  It is imperative that we understand the meaning and nature of truth if we hope to defend the absolute claims of Christ and the Christian faith.  Who knows, but that some of those who are reading this will not be faced with a Pilate of their own someday, who will ask them with earnest and hopeful desire, “What is truth?” 

[1] The first principles of knowledge are the self-evident starting points on which all knowledge is based (i.e. the law of non-contradiction).  These principles do not contain any content of knowledge, but are necessary for knowledge to exist.  To those who would try to explain away these first principles, C. S. Lewis objects, “It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.  If you see through everything, then everything is transparent.  But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.  To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” (The Abolition of Man, (Harper Collins, 2001), p. 81)

[2] It is interesting that the Greek term used to describe Jesus in John 1 is the word logos, from which we derive our word Logic.


[i] Aristotle, Metaphysics 4.3 1005b, (Prometheus Books, 1991), translation by John H. McMahon

[ii] Adler, Mortimer, J., Truth in Religion, (Macmillan, 1990), p. 36

[iii] Zacharias, Ravi, Can Man Live Without Go?, (Word Publishing, 1994), p. 129

[iv] Sullivan, James, B., “An Examination of First Principles in Thought and Being in the Light of Aristotle and Aquinas”, Ph. D. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (Catholic University of America Press, 1939), pp. 121-122

[v] Geisler, Norman, R.; Brooks, Ronald, M., When Skeptics Ask, (Victor, 1990), p.256

Just a quick note.  Johnny-Dee over at FQI recently posted a very interesting piece (and subsequent discussion) on the problem of whether or not the diversity of religious beliefs provides an epistemic defeater for believing in any one religion.  Certainly worth a click.

(Click to read Part 2)

Figures 1 & 2One of the greatest ironies of history consisted in a question that Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, asked of Jesus of Nazareth.  Exasperated by Jesus’ enigmatic responses, Pilate finally expressed the question “What is truth?”

The irony consists in the fact that Pilate was looking into the eyes of Truth personified at that very moment.  Christ, Himself, had told His disciples the previous night, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6).     

   But was Pilate’s question so unreasonable?  In it do we not find a legitimate search for a meaningful answer?  After all, in a culture where there were as many gods as there were men to worship them, would it not be difficult for the average Roman to define in concrete terms what truth actually was and who it was that possessed it?  I believe that the spirit of Pilate’s question lingers, especially in our day when the very nature of truth itself has been brought into question.

If the Foundations Are Destroyed…
      Psalm 11:3 asks this question, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”  The modern Christian apologist faces a unique problem.  In past times, the object of apologetic argumentation was to bring to light the truth and to dismiss the false, but in modern times the very notion of truth itself has been discredited, so that now the apologist must not only present the truth, but define what truth is.  If the foundational understanding of truth is undermined, what can the righteous do?

      We have all heard statements like this before.

            “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.”

            “There is no such thing as absolute truth.”

            “All truth is relative.”

            “You cannot know the truth.”

            “Truth depends on how you were raised.”

These statements may seem ridiculous or nonsensical, but they represent an increasingly prevalent trend of philosophy in the modern world (See figures 1 and 2). A trend, which if left unchecked, will render meaningful conversations about God and salvation nearly impossible.

      So is truth an absolute and immutable fact, or is it relative to your perspective and culture?  That is the question that the Christian apologist must be able to answer in order to lay a stable foundation for further proofs of his faith.

Truth Defined
            Truth is that which corresponds with reality.  Or to put it in the words of C. S. Lewis, “Truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is.”[i]  This is known as the Correspondence Theory of truth, and is the only logically correct answer to the question of what truth is.  All attempts to define truth in any other way are ultimately logically self-defeating.

Aristotle’s Definition of Truth
      The Correspondence Theory of truth was first postulated by Plato’s famous student, Aristotle.  In his Metaphysics, Aristotle states: 

Now, in the first place, this is evident to those who define what truth and falsehood are.  For indeed, the assertion that entity does not exist, and that nonentity does, is a falsehood, but that entity exists, and that nonentity does not exist, is truth. [ii]

To put Aristotle’s definition simply: truth is telling it like it is. 

      This may seem obvious or commonsensical, but Aristotle, by amplifying the teaching of Plato, was one of the first individuals to point out that truth is objective and not subjective.  That is, truth exists outside of ourselves and does not conform itself to our opinions of it.  For example, no matter how much I opine that the law of gravity does not exist, if I jump off of a tall building I will still fall.  Once again, Aristotle states…

Statements and beliefs…themselves remain completely unchangeable in every way; it is because the actual thing changes that the contrary comes to belong to them.[iii]

      Aristotle was basically saying that reality causes a statement to be true or false.  Truth does not change reality, it agrees with it.

G. E. Moore’s Definition of Truth
      G. E. Moore (1873-1958) was a philosopher and close personal friend of the famous agnostic, Bertrand Russell.  He and Russell, despite their errors, are renowned for shedding light upon the Correspondence theory.  Moore gives a definition of truth that closely resembles Aristotle’s, and helps to clarify the Correspondence Theory.

      In Some Main Problems of Philosophy, Moore states, “To say that this belief is true is to say that there is in the Universe a fact to which it corresponds; and that to say that it is false is to say that there is not in the Universe any fact to which it corresponds.”[iv]  In essence, Moore was saying that true beliefs correspond to facts (i.e. true ideas correspond to reality).  He goes on to say, “When the belief is true, it certainly does correspond to a fact; and when it corresponds to a fact it certainly is true…and when it does not correspond to any fact, then certainly it is false.”[v] 

      In Moore’s postulation of the Correspondence Theory we understand a belief does not create fact to make itself true, but rather, a belief is true because it agrees with a fact that exists within reality.

The Liar Paradox
      The Correspondence Theory has been the reigning theory of truth in Western thought for over two thousand years.  It has not been without enemies however; for it was not long after that Aristotle had asserted his theory that it was met with criticism.  Eubulides (a philosopher of the fourth century B.C.) postulated what is known as the “liar’s paradox” in an attempt to confound the correspondence theory.  Eubulides asked his audience to consider the statement, “I am lying”.

      The paradox is self-evident.  If you say that the statement is true; it is really false, but if you say that the statement is false; it is actually true.  So it seems that we find here at least and apparent problem with the correspondence theory of truth.

      The answer to this objection is that it is logically self-defeating.  Saul Kripke points out that such a statement is not grounded in a external matter of fact.  While Bertrand Russel observes that this statment creates what is known as a metalanguage in which talk about the primary language is impossible.  To quote Russell, “The man who says, ‘I am telling a lie of order n‘, is telling a lie, but a lie of order n + 1.”[vi]

[i] Lewis, C.S., God in the Dock, (Eerdmans, [2002 reprint of 1970 copyright]), taken from “Myth Became Fact”, p. 66

[ii] Aristotle, Metaphysics 4.7 1011b25-30, (Prometheus Books, 1991), translation by John H. McMahon

[iii] Aristotle, Categories 5.4a, From The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton University, 1984)

[iv] Moore, G. E., Some Main Problems of Philosophy, (Macmillan, 1953), p. 277

[v] Ibid. p. 279

[vi] Gardner, M., The Sixth Book of Mathematical Games from Scientific American, (University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 222

still_life.jpgThe Bundle Theory (also known as the cluster or collectionist theory) of substance is a theory that states that a substance is, or can be identified with, a collection of non-substantial entities.  It stands in direct contradiction to the independence theory of substance, which states that a substance is distinct from its qualities. The bundle theory states that a substance either is or can be reduced to its underlying qualities.  For example, an orange could be described as a collection of qualities like (i) a certain shade of orange, (ii) a certain pungent odor, (iii) a certain spherical shape, etc.  The two primary ways in which bundle theorists understand substances are eliminativism and reductionism.

An eliminativist bundle theorist (such as David Hume seemed to be) denies the existence of substances altogether.  The eliminativist would say that the things that we refer to as substances are nothing more than collections of qualities.  That is, the very concept of substance is unintelligible.

The reductionist bundle theorist seeks to reduce the concept of substance to an underlying collection of non-substantial entities.  The reductionist does not deny the existence of substances at all.  Rather he defines substances as such:

X is a substance if and only if X is a collection of a proper kind of non-substantial entities.

Reductionist bundle theories will be the focus of this post.

Reasons for Accepting the Bundle Theory of Substance
One of the most enduring arguments in favor of the bundle theory of substance stems from the apparent impossibility of describing or conceiving of a substance without also describing or conceiving of its qualities.  Bundle theorists state that the concept of a “bare particular” (a substance without properties) is incoherent since is impossible to conceive of such a thing.  It should be noted, however, that this is a controversial argument that seems to confuse imagination with conception.  It is possible to conceive of something that cannot be imagined.  For example, it seems entirely possible to conceive of a completely colorless or invisible object, although it does not seem possible to imagine it (picture it within my mind).  It seems ludicrous to assert that because I cannot imagine an invisible object it cannot exist.  Likewise, it does not follow that because I cannot imagine a bare particular, it is impossible for one to exist.

Another common justification for the bundle theory is that it is more ontologically parsimonious than any independence theory of substance.  Ockham’s Razor states that “all things being equal, one should not multiply entities beyond necessity.”  Therefore, it appears to be preferable, if possible, to define a substance by identifying it with a collection of non-substantial entities.  However, this motivation does not necessitate the truth of bundle theory, since the bundle theory of substance may be incoherent itself.

Forms of Bundle Theory
As stated above, the bundle theorist defines a substance as a collection of non-substantial entities.  But what exactly are the non-substantial entities that are being collected?  One reply to this question is that substances are collections of abstract universals.  Therefore an apple is a substance because it is a collection of certain properties like redness, juiciness, sweetness, etc.  However this sort of bundle theory commits a category error which renders it incapable of explaining substances.

If we understand redness and sweetness as universal properties then we also understand them as abstract entities.  Any collection of abstract entities is itself, an abstract entity.  However substances are concrete entities.  Therefore it is impossible to define any substance as a mere collection of abstract properties.

Another form of bundle theory employs the idea of sets.  It is argued that a substance is a set of non-substantial entities.  Sets, however, also seem to be abstract entities.  At least some sets contain only abstract elements, and since sets are an ontological category which would have to fall into either the concrete or abstract division of entities (the most basic and primary ontological division), it seems that sets should be considered as abstract entities.  Therefore, this once again leads to a category error that leaves abstract sets unable to explain the existence of concrete substances.

A final sort of bundle theory states that substances are collections of non-substantial, concrete entities.  Thus, since concrete entities are employed in this definition, a category error is averted.  There can be two ways of understanding this form of bundle theory: Phenomenalistic Collectionism and Trope Collectionism. 

Phenomenalistic Collectionism is a theory that states that a substance is a mereological sum of non-substantial, mind-dependant, concrete qualities.  This theory was championed by the idealist philosopher George Berkeley.  Berkeley (and possibly Hume) believed that substances were a collection of ideas or impressions.  However this theory doesn’t seem to square with everyday, common-sense notions of reality.  Since there appears to be no justifiable reason to reject the nearly ubiquitous understanding of the material world, this paper will focus primarily on Trope Collectionism, which is a theory that defines a substance as a collection of non-substantial, mind-independent, concrete qualities or tropes.

Arguments against the Bundle Theory of Substance
One objection that has been raised against the bundle theory of substance is that it seems to imply a form of mereological essentialism.  If a substance is a collection of non-substantial tropes, then it seems that if any of these tropes were altered in any way, the substance would be destroyed.  Take a particular basketball for example.  The bundle theorist would say that this basketball is a collection of certain qualities, such as a particular shade of orange, a particular shape and circumference, etc.  However, if one were to paint the basketball white, add more air to it, or deflate it; it would cease to be a collection of those original qualities.  Therefore the original substance would have been destroyed.  Mereological essentialism is quite a hefty burden for the bundle theorist to bear.

Another objection to bundle theory is that it appears to confuse qualities with parts.  We do not intuitively consider the color and circumference of a basketball to be parts of the basketball.  We would consider the material constituents of the basketball to be its parts though.  However, each item within a collection is a part of that collection.  Therefore according to a collectionist theory of substance, not only are the material elements of the basketball its parts, but the qualitative aspects as well (shape, color, size, etc.).  The burden of proof as to why the qualitative aspects of an object are indeed parts of an object rests on the shoulders of the bundle theorist.

The arbitrary unity of odd properties poses another problem for the bundle theorist.  It is ludicrous to assert that a collection of the sound of a cat, the feeling of a breeze, the smell of onions, and the particular shade of an eggplant would constitute a substance, but it seems that the bundle theorist would be forced to do so.  Since the bundle theory of substance states that a substance is a collection non-substantial qualities, it seems that any collection of qualities will suffice.  At least it seems that the bundle theorist cannot offer a reason to think otherwise.

This brings us to the final and, perhaps, the most problematic objection to the bundle theory of substance.  If a substance is a collection of non-substantial, concrete qualities, what exactly holds these qualities together?  Why do we not perceive random qualities “floating about”?  Why do they collect into substances?

            The bundle theorist can answer this problem in one of five ways.

  • (1) The parts of a collection are unified by being in the same place at the same time.
  • (2) The parts of a collection are unified due to a causal connection with one another.
  • (3) The parts of a collection are unified through a metaphysically necessary connection.
  • (4) The parts of a collection are unified through a combination of the above.
  • (5) The parts of a collection are unified through some unknown unifying relation.

One problem with (1) is that this explanation denies the possibility of non-physical substances such as souls (or God since he would be considered a soul).  The question of whether or not souls exist is not the issue here.  Any explanation of a substance should account for actual substances and logically possible substances.  The concept of a soul seems to be coherent, therefore this explanation of unity does not allow for the existence of a logically possible substance.

Another problem with (1) is that there is at least one other entity that would fit the definition given.  Events, which are certainly not substances, are composed of qualities that are in the same place at the same time.  Things like hurricanes and lightning bolts are not substances, yet they fit the explanation given in (1).

It can be objected that (2) implies something similar to mereological essentialism, if the bundle theorists insists that all of the elements within the collection are causally dependent on one another.  In this scenario, if one of the elements is destroyed, then all of these elements would be destroyed.  A substance would possess all of its properties essentially.

The bundle theorist can respond by stating that (2) does not apply to all of the tropes within the collection, but rather to certain tropes in a certain situation so that if one of them is destroyed, then all of the tropes within the collection will be destroyed.  However, Professors Hoffman and Rosenkrantz (Substance Among Other Categories) have supplied a counterexample to this by citing the example of a collection of two china cups (c).  In a certain situation, a bull causes one china cup to crash into another, thereby destroying them both.  The first china cup loses the particular quality of being at rest on the table which causes the subsequent destruction of all the qualities within c.  In this situation, c, would qualify as a substance.  Therefore, the revision of (2) does not succeed in explaining how the parts of a collection of qualities are unified.

Objections to (3) would be similar to those of the first form of (2).  If there is a metaphysically necessary connection between the parts of the collection, then a substance cannot survive the loss of any of its qualities.

(4) seeks to explain the unification of qualities within a collection by some sort of combination of the previous three explanations.  However any combination of the previous three will only be subject to the very same objections which the original constituents garnered.  The possibility of souls will always exclude the space and time explanation, the implication of mereological essentialism will crop up in metaphysically necessary connections, and counterexamples like the bull in the china shop used above will defeat the casual interdependence explanations.

A final explanation that can be offered by the bundle theorist is (5), that there is some unknown unifying relation that ties the collection of qualities together.  Whether this unifying relation is referred to as “consubstantiation” (Castaneda) or “compresence” (Russell), it is subject to the same criticism: the fact that nothing is known about it leads to the fact that it is either meaningless or question-begging to talk about it.

In conclusion, it may be stated that while the bundle theory of substance offers an attractive simplicity, it simply cannot stand up to analytical scrutiny.  It appears to confuse tropes with parts, implies mereological essentialism, and cannot explain why certain qualities are bundled together and how exactly this takes place. 

Rene DescartesThere can be no doubt that modern Western thought owes an incredible debt to the work of the French philosopher, Rene Descartes.  His Meditations on First Philosophy revolutionized the method and scope of rational inquiry and has had lasting repercussions into the present day.  Within the Meditations Descartes employs a strict axiomatic method in search of a secure foundation for knowledge; a foundation which he eventually discovers in his famous statement, cogito ergo sum: “I think therefore I am”.  An interesting byproduct of this discovery is Descartes’ consequent assertion that it is easier to know that one has a mind then that one has a body.  Indeed, the title of the second Meditation is, “Of the Nature of the Mind; And That It Is More Easily Known than the Body”.  But is this statement implied by Descartes’ cogito?  I believe that it is not and that Descartes’ reasoning is fallacious in regards to his epistemological distinction between the mind and the body.           

Before investigating the above claim, it is important to review the process of reasoning that led to its assertion.  Descartes begins the Meditations with radical doubt.  Indeed his stated purpose is to “apply [him]self earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all [his] former opinions.” His criterion for knowledge is strict foundationalism: he will only accept propositions that cannot be doubted or propositions that are built upon other indubitable propositions.  He is quite literally seeking to demolish the structure of his beliefs so that he can reconstruct them upon a certain foundation.  The epistemological wrecking balls that he employs are various arguments that can be traced back to the ancient skeptics.  At the end of the day – after meditating upon insanity, dreams, and evil demons – Descartes has effectively stripped himself of certainty concerning his former beliefs.

A new day provides the second Meditation and the famous discovery of the cogito.

So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.

There has been much debate over what Descartes was exactly trying to communicate by this statement.  Some have insisted that Descartes is presenting an argument here, while others believe that he is simply stating a self-evident truth which he has discovered.  While this debate is both interesting and important, it really makes no difference in regards to this post.  Suffice it to say that Descartes (whether in formal argument or not) is asserting that it is a necessary truth that whenever he thinks, he exists.  This is an impressive feat of reasoning to be sure, but his assumption that the mind is more easily known than the body does not follow from it.

            Descartes’ claim can be expressed in the following argument:

  • 1. I cannot doubt the existence of my mind.
  • 2. I can doubt the existence of my body.
  • 3. Therefore, the mind is more easily known than the body.

The first premise follows from the cogito.  Descartes states that he cannot doubt his own existence because, necessarily, whenever he doubts he is thinking, and whenever he is thinking he exists.  Therefore he exists as a mind, or a “thinking thing”.  In the first Meditation, however, he has already established that he cannot be certain of the existence of his body.  Therefore the knowledge of his mind is more certain than the knowledge of his body. 

            It is important to point out a major assumption that Descartes is making here: he assumes that the mind and body are distinct substances.  It appears that he bases this distinction upon a principle that was later articulated by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz.  This principle, known as Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals can be stated thus:

Necessarily, for any X and Y, if X is identical with Y, then for any property, P, X has P iff Y has P.

It follows then from the above principle that, if the mind and body possess different properties, they must be distinct substances.  Descartes appears to hold to something like the following argument:

  • 1. My body possesses the property of being doubted by me.
  • 2. My mind does not possess the property of being doubted by me.
  • 3. Therefore, according to the Indiscernibility of Identicals, my body is distinct from my mind.

It is only after he assumes the distinction above that Descartes can then go on to argue that the mind is more easily known than the body.  However, this argument is based upon the fallacious idea that dubitability implies distinction. 

            Consider the following argument:

  • 1. Samuel Clemens possesses the property of being doubted by me that he is the author of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
  • 2. Mark Twain does not possess the property of being doubted by me that he is the author of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
  • 3. Therefore, according to the Indiscernibility of Identicals, Samuel Clemens is not the same person as Mark Twain.

Of course this argument is clearly absurd since we know that the names “Samuel Clemens” and “Mark Twain” do indeed refer to the same person.  It is this same reasoning, however, that Descartes employs in distinguishing the body from the mind.  Just because he doubts the existence of his body and is certain of the existence of his mind, it does not follow that they are two different substances.

            It appears, therefore, that Descartes was wrong in asserting that the mind is more easily known than the body based upon the cogito.  What he was perceiving as his “body” and as his “mind” may well have been the same substance with two different names.  This is not to imply that the body and mind are the same, however, just that one cannot make this distinction based upon Descartes’ assumption.  And if the mind and body are indeed the same substance, then it makes no sense to say that one is more easily perceived than the other.

Mug shot of Sextus EmpiricusIn pursuit of a mind untroubled by bothersome knowledge, Pyrrhonian skeptics, such as Sextus Empiricus, employed various arguments designed to bring about suspension of judgment.  One such argument is to be found in the second of the Five Modes of late Pyrrhonism.  Sextus presents this argument in the fifteenth chapter of his Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

The mode based upon regress ad infinitum is that whereby we assert that the thing adduced as a proof of the matter proposed needs a further proof, and this again another, and so on ad infinitum, so that the consequence is suspension [of judgment], as we posses no starting point for our argument.

    The argument could be rendered thus:

1. For any given belief, a proof is required for that belief to be justified (assumed).

2. However, for every proof given, yet another proof is required for that proof to be justified; leading to vicious infinite regress of proofs.

3. An infinite regress of proofs provides no basis for justification since it is impossible to determine if every belief in the series is justified.

4. Therefore, it is impossible to justify any given belief and so one should suspend judgment.

            Sextus goes on to anticipate and reject two possible solutions to the problem of an infinite regress: these are expressed in the fourth and fifth modes, in which the former is concerned with circular reasoning and the latter is concerned with hypotheses (assumptions of knowledge).

            As to the initial argument, it does appear to be valid given the skeptic’s criteria of justification.  Furthermore, the third premise seems to be quite self-evident.  It does not seem possible to provide individual justifications for an infinite series of beliefs; at least, not in a finite measure of time (which would unfortunately describe the lifespan of all known human beings).  A criticism of the argument must therefore focus upon the first two premises, both of which are based upon a certain assumption of justification.

            Adopting circular reasoning would be one way of rejecting the second premise.  As stated above, Sextus anticipates this objection in the fourth mode:

The Mode of circular reasoning is the form used when the proof itself which ought to establish the matter of inquiry requires confirmation derived from that matter; in this case, being unable to assume either in order to establish the other, we suspend judgment on both.

To illustrate the point very simply:

1. Sextus Empiricus’ arguments for skepticism are irrefutable (how do you know that?).

2. Because he is the most persuasive skeptic in history (how do you know that?)

3. Because his arguments for skepticism are irrefutable.

            While this example is quite simple, it does demonstrate that circular reasoning is patently absurd.  One can prove anything by begging the question.  Likewise, one can justify any claim to knowledge if they are allowed to engage in a vicious circle of justifications.

            Assuming a belief (hypothesis) to be true would be another way of avoiding an infinite regress.  Sextus deals with this in the fifth Mode:

We have the Mode based on hypothesis when the Dogmatists, being forced to recede ad infinitum, take as their starting-point something which they do not establish by argument but claim to assume as granted simply and without demonstration.

            Under this scheme, an infinite regress can be avoided by digging one’s epistemological heels into a belief that requires no justification.  Sextus assumes that this position is invalid since the hypothesizer provides no argument or demonstration for the belief to which he holds.  This seems to be a valid objection to a whole assortment of unjustified beliefs.  Take, for example, the belief that I am Napoleon Bonaparte.  Using the logic of the hypothesizer, could I not simply assert this belief firmly and with no justification?  One can see why Sextus considers this position to be untenable.

            What about other beliefs though?  There are certainly beliefs that seem to be more reasonable that the one given above.  Take, for example, the belief that I am presently sitting before my computer typing this post.  Must this belief be ‘proven’ somehow before it can count as knowledge?  Sextus would say ‘yes’, but there are many who would disagree with him.  This leads us to examine the epistemological assumption that underlies the first premise of the infinite regress argument.           

            Sextus merely assumes that every belief requires some form of proof before it can be justified and count as knowledge.  Deductive certainty, however, is an incredibly high standard of justification.  Given his assumption, one can see how it would be impossible to know almost anything.  But do we have to grant his assumption?  Do we have to explain how we have knowledge of some specific thing for that knowledge to be justified?  If so, would it not be reasonable to ask the skeptic how he knows that we do not have knowledge of a specific item?

            It is at this point that the skeptic would probably launch into various arguments attacking the reliability of the senses; such as “How do you know that you are not dreaming?” or “How do you know that you are not insane or a brain in a vat?”  However, the hypothesizer may respond that just because something is logically possible, this does not mean that it is reasonable to believe it.  It is logically possible that a teddy bear is orbiting Mars or that the moon is actually made of green cheese, but this does not mean that I am required to believe these things to be so, or that it would be reasonable to do so.  Likewise, it may be logically possible that I am merely dreaming that I am typing this post or that I am insane, but the skeptic must provide me with good reasons to believe these things.  And I think that this is something that Sextus, for all his mighty modes, fails to provide.

            Therefore, the infinite regress argument of the skeptic is as only as powerful as its underlying assumption.  If deductive certainty is the required justification for knowledge, then we indeed know very little.  However, if certainty is not required, then the second Mode is unpersuasive.  It all depends upon who shoulders the burden of proof.