Problems of Philosophy

On pages 148-155 of Naming and Necessity, Saul Kripke concludes his book by setting forth an argument against type-type identity theory (the view that that any given mental state is identical to a brain state). Kripke argues that a mental state (pain) cannot be identical to a brain state (C-fiber stimulation) because if the aforementioned states are identical, then they must be so necessarily; and since we can conceive of one state existing without the other, they cannot be identical. Below, I shall set forth a general argument (with explanatory comments) which demonstrates the basis of Kripke’s reasoning and then cite Krikpe’s example from the text (also with explanatory comments).

1. If X is a rigid designator and Y is a rigid designator, and if the statement “X is identical to Y” is true, then the statement “X is identical to Y” is necessarily true.

• An example of the above is “Mark Twain is identical to Samuel Clemens”. Since both of these names are rigid designators, then “Mark Twain is identical to Samuel Clemens” is true in every possible world in which these rigid designators pick out an individual. On the other hand, the statement “Mark Twain is identical to the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is composed of the rigid designator “Mark Twain” and the non-rigid designator “the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. While these two designators may be identical in the actual world, it is possible that someone else could have written The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Thus, the latter example of identity is not necessary.

2. X is a rigid designator.

3. Y is a rigid designator.

4. However, “X is identical to Y” is not necessarily true.

5. Therefore, “X is identical to Y” is not true.

Below is a reconstruction of Kripke’s specific example involving “pain” and “C-fiber stimulation”:

1. If “pain” is a rigid designator and “C-fiber stimulation” is a rigid designator, then the statement “pain is identical to C-fiber stimulation” is necessarily true.

• Kripke anticipates that some people will object that the identity statement above cannot be necessary since it is known a posteriori. However, Kripke points out that the statement “pain is identical to C-fiber stimulation” is analogous to other necessary identity statements that are known a posteriori such as “water is identical to H2O” or “heat is identical to molecular motion”. Besides this, Kripke demonstrates early on (pp. 35-37) that some necessary truths are known a posteriori (like certain mathematical proofs that require a great deal of calculation).

2. “Pain” is a rigid designator.

• Once again Kripke anticipates objections to the above premise. He asserts that “pain” is a rigid designator because it picks out what it refers to by an essential property (the sensation of painfulness). It is impossible to conceive of pain existing without the property of “feeling painful”.

3. “C-fiber stimulation” is a rigid designator.

4. However, “pain is identical to C-fiber stimulation” is not necessarily true.

• It is possible to conceive of a world in which one can exist without the other.

5. Therefore, “pain is identical to C-fiber stimulation” is not true.

I must confess that the above argument appears to be a powerful refutation of identity theory. It seems to me that the only way out of the conclusion is to either deny Krikpe’s semantics or argue convincingly that either “pain” or “C-fiber stimulation” or both are not rigid designators.

            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.

            By “moral dilemma” I mean a situation in which an agent ought to do A, ought to do B and cannot do both A and B.  Experience seems to validate the existence of such dilemmas, and a plethora of illustrations have been offered as far back as Plato’s question of whether or not to return a promised cache of arms to a man intent on violence[1], to the heart-wrenching decision face by Sophie in Sophie’s Choice[2].  Such apparent dilemmas carry strong intuitive and emotional weight, and it does appear that, in certain circumstances, one is irrevocably caught in the horns of a dilemma which will lead to a failure of duty.  However, I shall argue here that those who support the view that an adequate moral theory must allow for moral dilemmas do so at the cost of rejecting other important principles of adequacy for moral theories.

  There are a number of principles by which a moral theory may be evaluated.  Some of these principles may be regarded as necessary conditions for a moral theory, while others are meta-prescriptive in nature: detailing what a moral theory ought to require of agents[3].  Still others may be regarded as “good-making features” for a moral theory.  In this paper I shall employ the following five principles:

  • P1: A moral theory must be consistent.
  • P2: A moral theory must be action guiding (decision-making procedure).
  • P3: Requirements of a moral theory must be within the power of the agent to perform (“ought” implies “can”).
  • P4: A moral theory must imply that it is morally desirable that agents should seek to avoid moral conflicts.
  • P5: A moral theory must make sense of moral emotions.

      I have listed the principles in order of their respective importance.  (P1) and (P2) may be regarded as necessary conditions of any moral theory.  Indeed, it seems impossible to even conceive of a moral theory which is inconsistent or fails to be action guiding.  While there are a few who deny the truth of (P3), I shall argue below that (P3) can be understood as an extension of (P2).  (P4) is meta-prescriptive in nature, while (P5) may be regarded as a good-making feature of moral theories.


(P1). Consistency

The most common charge leveled against those who support moral dilemmas is that of inconsistency.  It is argued that the existence of genuine moral dilemmas leads to an incoherence that, in the words of W. D. Ross, “would be to put an end to all ethical judgment.”[4]  This inconsistency, however, is not as apparent as it initially seems.  Indeed, in order to demonstrate the inconsistency of moral dilemmas, one must first adopt certain principles of deontic logic.

In her essay, “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency”, Ruth Barcan Marcus demonstrates that the existence of moral dilemmas, in themselves, does not lead to a logical contradiction.  Marcus points out that consistency is “a property that such a set has if it is possible for all of the members of the set to be true, in the sense that contradiction would not be a logical consequence of supposing that each member of the set is true.”[5]  Thus moral dilemmas do not necessarily imply inconsistency because it is possible for moral dilemmas to arise contingently yet each principle of the underlying moral theory to be true.

Marcus uses a “silly two-person card game”[6] to illustrate this point.  In this game, black cards trump red cards and high cards trump cards of lower value.  A potential dilemma is cited as occurring when a red ace is turned up against a black deuce.  Initially, this does seem to lead one to conclude that the rules of the game are inconsistent.  However, Marcus points out that such a conclusion is mistaken since it is possible for all the rules to be obeyed in some worlds and for a conflict to never arise.  The rules are contingently inconsistent but not necessarily so. According to Marcus, opponents of moral dilemmas are making the same mistake as the opponents of the card game: they do not recognize that it is possible for moral dilemmas to arise within a moral theory whose underlying principles are all true.

Thus, while opponents of moral dilemmas seek to deny the very possibility of dilemmas, the charge of inconsistency cannot be used insofar as it applies to the truth of ethical principles in themselves.  In order to make the charge of inconsistency stick, one must tie the ethical principles to logical principles so that a moral dilemma can be stated as a logical contradiction (an agent is required to do A and ~ A). 

There are two axioms of deontic logic which are commonly appealed to by opponents of moral dilemmas.  These two principles, when employed together, yield a logical contradiction in moral dilemmas:

  • D1. OA → ~O ~A
    • – If it ought to be that A then it ought to be that not A (it is permissible that A).
  • D2. * (A → B) → (OA & OB)
    • – If it ought to be that A implies B, and if A is obligatory, then B is obligatory.

            Using these two principles, the argument demonstrating the inconsistency of moral dilemmas can be stated thus:

(1) OA
(2) OB
(3) ~¯(A & B)
  (Premises 1, 2, and 3 constitute the standard definition of a moral dilemma.)
(4) OA → ~O ~A                                       (principle D1)
(5) * (AB) → (OAOB)                   (principle D2)
(6) O ~(B & A)                                           (from 3)
(7) O (B → ~A)                                          (from 6)
(8) O (B → ~A) → (OBO ~A)             (from 5)
(9) OBO ~A                                          (from 7 and 8)
(10) O ~A                                                     (from 2 and 9)
(11) OA and O ~A                                        (from 1 and 10)
(12) ~O ~A                                                   (from 1 and 4)

            Thus, using the two axioms of deontic logic above leads to a logical contradiction of (10) and (12).

            Any attempt to reject the above argument requires one to deny either (D1) or (D2), or both (D1) and (D2).  While (D1) is so basic that there is little controversy regarding its validity, there have been a few concerns with (D2) (such as Ross’s paradox and forms of the Good Samaritan paradox).  Nonetheless, (D2) still seems to be quite basic and the burden of disqualifying these principles rests firmly upon the shoulders of the supporters of moral dilemmas.


(P2). Action Guiding

Another condition of adequacy for any moral theory is that it provides an agent with moral guidance (even if indirectly).  Indeed, one can hardly conceive of a moral theory that does not provide instruction for what one ought to do.  However, many consider (P2) to be too weak, thus leading to the following revision:

P2I: A moral theory must be uniquely action guiding.

            That is, a theory should not fail to offer guidance in a moral situation nor should it recommend incompatible actions to an agent.  Since one of the primary purposes of a moral theory is to give direction to agents, it seems only fitting that a moral theory be uniquely action guiding.  Theories that allow for dilemmas, however, do suggest incompatible actions to agents and thus are not uniquely action guiding. 

            Supporters of moral dilemmas will often point to symmetric cases in which the agent is required to choose between two perfectly equal options.  Take, for example, a mother who has twin daughters suffering from leukemia.  The mother can undergo a bone marrow transplant for only one of the girls, thus the daughter who receives the transplant will live and the other daughter will die.  Supporters of dilemmas argue that in such cases there can be no unique guidance for actions since the choices are equal.

            Given the above example, however, opponents of dilemmas can point out that moral theories can still be uniquely action guiding since symmetrical situations like the one cited above present a disjunctive obligation.  Since the best act that the mother can do in such a situation is to save one of her daughters, then that is her duty.  Indeed, such a concept seems quite natural in other situations.  If a dying wealthy uncle can only choose one of his noble nephews to bequeath his wealth, it hardly seems a moral failure if he does so.  Thus the option of a disjunctive obligation to maintain a uniquely action guiding moral theory is available to those who reject moral dilemmas, while supporters of dilemmas are forced to accept theories that fail to be uniquely action guiding.


(P3). ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’

The principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ is one of the most intuitive of moral theories.  Many consider it to be a condition of adequacy for moral theories. Essentially, the theory asserts that the requirements of a moral theory must be within the power of the agent to perform; that is, if an agent ought to do an act he should be capable of doing so.  However, those who support the view that an adequate moral theory must allow for moral dilemmas can find the principle to be quite problematic, since opponents of dilemmas have used the principle to argue for the inconsistency of such theories.

            Opponents of dilemmas employ the principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ as well as the agglomeration principle to construct an argument which demonstrates the inconsistency of moral dilemmas.  These two principles are represented thus:

  • D3. A OA → ¯A
    • – For every A, if it ought to be that A, then it is possible that A.
  • D4. (OA & OB) → O (A & B)
    • – If it ought to be that A and it ought to be that B, then it ought to be that A and B.

            With these two principles, the argument can be represented thus:

(1) OA
(2) OB
(3) ~¯(A & B)
  (As above, premises 1, 2, and 3 constitute the standard definition of a moral dilemma.)
(4) A OA → ¯A                                      (principle D3)
(5) (OA & OB) → O (A & B)                     (principle D4)
(6) (OA & OB) → ¯(A & B)                     (an instantiation of 4)
(7) OA & OB                                              (from 1 and 2)
(8) O (A & B)                                             (from 5 and 7)
(9) ~O (A & B)                                           (from 3 and 6)

            And so, by employing (D3) and (D4), opponents of dilemmas can demonstrate a contradiction in (8) and (9).

            Supporters of dilemmas have three options available to them in order to avoid the conclusion of the above argument: they can reject (D3), they can reject (D4), or they can reject both (D3) and (D4).  An example of the third option can be found in the fourth chapter of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Moral Dilemmas[7], and since (D4) is widely regarded to be a basic axiom of deontic logic, I will examine Sinnott-Armstrong’s rejection of (D3).

            In rejection of (D3), Sinnott-Armstrong offers what he considers to be an example which demonstrates that there are some cases when a moral agent ought to perform an act but cannot.[8]  In this example Sinnott-Armstrong asks the reader to suppose that Adams promises at noon to meet Brown at 6:00 p. m.  However, Adams chooses to go to a film which starts at 5:00 p. m.  Due to the distance which separates the move theater from the meeting place, Adams will be unable to meet Brown when he promised.  Thus, if the principle (D2) holds, at 5:00 it cannot be true that Adams ought to meet Brown at 6:00, since Adams cannot do so.

            Something does, indeed, seem strange about this account.  Sinnott-Armstrong points to the fact that most people would agree that Adams still ought to meet Brown since he made the promise to do so earlier in the day. Since he cannot however, principle (D2) must be false.

            However, there is something even more troubling about this example which Sinnott-Armstrong fails to point out.  It would appear that principle (D2) grants any agent the option of being relieved from his obligations by simply taking actions to ensure that he cannot fulfill his duty.  Yet this certainly does not seem right.  The problem with the above example is that it fails to take into account the fact that when an Adams willfully placed himself in a situation in which he would be unable to fulfill his obligation he failed to perform his duty at that time.  Therefore it is no longer the case at 5:00 that Adams ought to meet Brown, since Adams has already failed to keep his promise by choosing to go to the film.

            One may still wonder what it is that makes principle (D3) map onto our intuitions so strongly.  I believe that this is because (D3) extends from (D2).  Remember that (D2) states a moral theory must be action guiding; that is, it must be able to give moral direction to agents.  With that in mind, suppose that Jane gives her teenaged son, Ralph, a list of things that need to be done around the house.  The list reads thus:

  • 1. Wash the car and shampoo the carpet at the same time.
  • 2. Mow the lawn and clean the shower at the same time.
  • 3. Clean the oven and fold the laundry at the same.

One can only imagine poor Ralph’s consternation at reading such a list!  Not only will it be impossible for Ralph to follow such directions, this list seems to lack any real direction at all (at least direction that is intended to be followed).  Likewise, moral theories that deny principle (D3), fail – on at least some occasions – to be action guiding.


(P4). Avoiding Moral Conflicts

It seems intuitive that a moral theory should direct agents to avoid moral conflicts whenever possible.  Yet some supporters of dilemmas, such as Ruth Marcus, argue that moral dilemmas must exist because there is a moral duty to act in such a way as to prevent moral conflicts:

The point to be made is that, although dilemmas are not settled without residue, the recognition of their reality has a dynamic force.  It motivates us to arrange our lives and institutions with a view to avoiding such conflicts.  It is the underpinning for a second-order regulative principle: that as rational agents with some control of our lives and institutions, we ought to conduct our lives and arrange our institutions so as to minimize moral conflicts.[9]

Marcus’ argument, which is a form of what has been referred to as the “moral residue argument”, can be stated in the following modus ponens form:

  1. If one ought to desire to not knowingly act in such a way as to bring about a moral conflict then moral conflicts are dilemmatic.
  2. One ought to desire to not knowingly act in such a way as to bring about a moral conflict.
  3. Therefore moral conflicts are dilemmatic.

The above argument is valid, so opponents of dilemmas must focus on the truth of the premises, and the second premise (a restatement of (P3)) seems plainly true.  Indeed, Terrance McConnell, a noted opponent of moral dilemmas, acknowledges the truth of the second premise when he states, “One cannot plausibly deny that it is morally desirable for agents to minimize the conflicts they face.”[10]  McConnell, as well as other foes of dilemmas, does take issue with the first premise and argues that there is an alternate explanation that accounts for the moral force of the second premise. 

McConnell gives the example of making a promise to two individuals – Juan and Helga – that you will meet them at a given time.  However, the time at which you promised to meet Juan and Helga is the same so that you cannot fulfill both promises.  McConnell agrees with Marcus that making such a promise is wrong in that leads to inevitable moral conflict: either Juan or Helga are going to be frustrated because of your decision.  The point at which McConnell disagrees with Marcus is whether or not you must engage in yet another wrongdoing because of the moral conflict in which you find yourself.  Marcus, who would argue that the moral conflict in question is a moral dilemma, would say that another wrong is inevitable.  McConnell, on the other hand, denies that another wrong must take place.  Indeed, McConnell argues that the moral conflict in which one wrongly placed oneself is an entirely new situation which requires a new decision that is based upon which choice is morally superior.  The moral ledger has been reset, as it were.

Initially, the position may seem to be incorrect.  Indeed, the alarm bells of intuition begin to ring when one considers the inevitable frustration and disappointment that will be brought about by failing to keep your promise to one of your friends.  McConnell acknowledges this intuition, but points out the friend’s disappointment and frustration are not the result of an additional wrongdoing, which stems from the neglected horn of a moral dilemma, but that her frustrations are the result of the original wrongdoing of placing oneself in a moral conflict.  Furthermore, McConnell correctly points out that the friend’s future frustration cannot be what made the original decision of placing oneself in a moral conflict wrong, since your friend could very well die before the time of the promised rendezvous, but your earlier conflicting promises would still be wrong, since making such conflicting promises shows disrespect for the individuals to whom they are made.  Thus the wrongness of placing oneself in a moral conflict, contrary to the second premise of Marcus’ argument, is not based upon a moral conflict presupposing a moral dilemma.  Therefore Marcus’ argument is unsound.

Furthermore, McConnell points out that the duty to be careful to not place oneself in a moral conflict still holds even if the conflict in question is easily resolved.  He uses the example of breaking a trivial promise to save an accident victim’s life: while nearly everyone would agree the aforementioned action is morally correct, if the agent in question had made the trivial promise with knowledge of the future conflict she would have been wrong in doing so due to the disrespect shown to the individual to whom the false promise was made.  Since one commonly held aspect of moral dilemmas is that they are irresolvable, it is clear that the duty to be careful to avoid moral conflicts cannot be based upon the existence of moral dilemmas since it is wrong to knowingly place oneself in a moral conflict, even when the said conflict can be easily resolved.[11]


(P5). Making Sense of Moral Emotions

It is naturally desirable that a good moral theory be able to make sense of moral emotions, and many supporters of moral dilemmas actually consider (P5) to strengthen their case.  This “phenomenological argument” in favor of moral dilemmas argues that since one feels guilt after making a difficult choice in a situation of moral conflict, then one must indeed be guilty.  There have been various illustrations of the above argument, but the one thing that they all have in common is the insistence that perceived guilt (or remorse) indicates actual guilt.[12]

            Opponents of dilemmas agree that remorse is only appropriate when an agent has actually done wrong.  However, they are apt to point out that just because one experiences remorse does not mean that one has done something worthy of remorse.  There are many cases in which an individual may experience incredible feelings of guilt, yet, according to outside observers, has done nothing wrong.

            Consider the example of Matthew, an amateur golfer who is enjoying a game on a weekday afternoon.  After a particularly wild swing, Matthew’s shot slices in the direction of a nearby street and strikes the windshield of a school bus filled with children.  The distraction from the impact causes the driver to lose control and the bus runs off the road eventually rolling into a ditch.  Many of the children are seriously injured, and a few are killed.

            Of course, no one should legally or morally fault Matthew for the accident and the consequent deaths and injuries of the children, however few would find it unsurprising that Matthew, after discovering that it was his ball that caused the accident, should be filled with grief and experience feelings of guilt over what had taken place.  Indeed, it would seem strange if Matthew did not experience such emotional pain, since we know how we would, ourselves, would feel in such a situation.  Nevertheless, while Matthew’s grief and regret over the tragic accident may – and should – be considered appropriate, the same cannot be said for his feelings of remorse.  Indeed, one could even say that Matthew’s experience of guilt is, although understandable, irrational.

            Supporters of dilemma are not the only ones who appeal to (P5) in favor of their position.  Opponents of dilemmas have their own phenomenological arguments against the existence of moral dilemmas.  One of these arguments appeals to the practice of seeking moral advice in an apparent dilemma, another points out the phenomenon of moral doubt that often occurs after a decision has been made in an apparent dilemma.[13]

            In situations of moral conflict, and especially when the alternatives appear to be symmetric, it is a common practice for an agent to seek moral counsel concerning which decision to make.  However, if a moral conflict is genuinely dilemmatic, it would be irrational or dishonest to advise an individual to choose one alternative over the other.  Indeed, the only sound advice in such cases would be to simply instruct the individual that they will fail in their duty no matter which choice they make.  But this is not how we perceive the nature of seeking and giving advice to be.  Thus, the opponent of dilemmas argues, if an agent feels the need to seek advice for a solution to her problem, and the advisor feels the need to give advice because there is a solution to the problem, this must be because moral conflicts are not genuinely dilemmatic.

            The second phenomenological argument against dilemmas focuses on the doubt that an agent is apt to experience after making a difficult decision involving moral conflict.  According to this argument, if one is in a genuine dilemma, there is no reason for doubting one’s decision after the fact since doubt implies that the agent is concerned over whether or not she made the right choice.  In a genuine dilemma, there can be no right choice.  Thus the existence of moral doubt disproves the reality of moral dilemmas.

            Objections offered by supporters of dilemmas against the above two arguments are very similar in character to the objections given by the opponents of dilemmas.  One may say that it is irrational for an agent to seek advice or have moral doubts in certain situations; however, the burden of proof rests upon the supporters of dilemmas as to how one may determine these situations.  Furthermore, the arguments given above clearly demonstrate that the position of supporters of dilemmas is not significantly strengthened by (P5), and that opponents of dilemmas can construct similar arguments.



The debate concerning moral dilemmas will probably continue for a long time to come, and there are many other arguments and considerations to be examined about the matter.  However, it seems apparent that those who argue that an adequate moral theory must allow for moral dilemmas find themselves in a troublesome situation in regards to other conditions of adequacy for moral theories.  Until the supporters of moral dilemmas can account for these apparent weaknesses, it seems that only moral theories that exclude dilemmas should be considered adequate.    




[1] Plato, The Republic, Book I, trans, G. M. A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (eds.), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

[2] Styron, William, 1980, Sophie’s Choice, New York: Bantam Books

[3] See Terrance McConnell, “Metaethical Principles,  Meta-Prescriptions, and Moral Theories”. American Philosophical Quarterly. Volume 22, Number 4, 1985.

[4] Ross, W. D., Foundations of Ethics, Oxford University Press, 1939, p. 60.

[5] Marcus, Ruth. “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency”.  The Journal of Philosophy.  87.3 (1980): p. 129.

[6] Ibid., pp. 128-129.

[7] Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, 1988, Moral Dilemmas, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[8] Ibid., pp. 116-121.

[9] Marcus, Ruth. “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency”.  The Journal of Philosophy.  87.3 (1980): p. 121.

[10] See Terrance McConnell, “Moral Residue and Dilemmas”, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Theory. ed. H. E. Mason.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.  p. 44

[11] Marcus, incidentally, avoids this criticism by holding the position that all moral conflicts constitute moral dilemmas.  One must question, however, if the benefits that Marcus’ theory gains from exempting itself from this objection outweigh the very unpalatable position that all moral conflicts lead to inevitable wrongdoing.


[13] See Terrance McConnell, “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency in Ethics”. Moral Dilemmas. ed. Christopher Gowans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. pp. 163-169.

Let me start by saying I’ve been called a jackass recently, a certain synonym for the “beast of burden” (AKA: mule, jenny, moke) for saying something similar to this.  I’m not complaining.  My point of view isn’t always the most comfortable and I’ve been known to stir things up a bit before. 

What’s more, maybe the shoe fits, in some ways.  Of course, I’m speaking of myself as in comparison to the four-footed animal with large floppy ears – you might have seen it.  I agree that I may be like this dull creature in that I will carry my share of a load on my back, if I am beaten long enough.  I am as ugly as the brute, my wife will tell you that.  And as far as intelligence, there are some striking similarities between myself and the foolish burro.  Just today, I was late for an appointment, so did I respond with increased haste, you might ask?  Not hardly.  I drifted into a daydream while driving down the highway.  I missed my turn altogether and progressed from being just a few minutes late to practically absent altogether. 

Although I guess I could physically be mistaken for a donkey if I was approached from the wrong angle in dim lighting while tying my shoes, I may be primarily like the animal as it pertains to my lack of knowledge of matters of higher learning, the arts, literature, history, etc. etc.  I can perform basic mathematical functions on a calculator and I do know my ABCs.  (Although at times my children have caught me singing the alphabet song when searching for papers in my file cabinet.) 

So I’m not too smart, not the brightest crayon in the box, a couple of fries short of a happy meal, my elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor, whatever … but, from my asinine point of view, I don’t get all this fuss about a “problem of pain”.  I was listening to a talk radio show recently and some guy e-mailed in asking where was God when the host of the show had made some unwise choices and created alot of problems for himself.  As if God should have stepped in and saved this guys family from financial ruin, divorce, etc. if he was “truly a good God.”  I hear it all the time, “If God is a good God then why does he allow so much suffering in the world?”  Somehow this question has stumped many people and caused them to become “bitter” against God.  The question is asked, “If God could stop evil and pain, being an all-powerful being, how can he allow evil and suffering to exist?”  The only two answers these people rationalize to be possible are that either (1) God is not good or (2) God is not all powerful.  They say, “How can a good God allow people to suffer?” 

My simplistic point of view, for which I am sometimes demonized, would be …  What?  Are you joking?  You’ve got to be joking.  This is not a valid question!  This is absurd.  Its more than absurd.  Its completely blasphemous to insinuate that somehow its God’s fault for the pain in the world and that a good, all-powerful God should stop the pain.  Pain is a direct and often indirect result of people’s rebellion against God!  Did God cause the pain or did we?  Of course, God will allow suffering in this world! 

Maybe I should put it this way.   When did we start thinking that God was on our side?  We are the arch enemies of God by our very existence.  He created us good and whole but we chose a long time ago to become the people that we are today.  We are God’s enemies from birth.  He hates what we do and what we have become, as a human race.  He loves us because of what He knows we will become when we are recreated in His likeness again, that’s why he has sent his Son, Jesus, to change us, to make us new, holy creations in his image, but I don’t see how there is any reason he should take away our pain!  If anything, we should suffer a whole lot more for the evil that is in our souls and our minds.  My guess is we will too, as our society rebels against God’s clear commands more and more.  Isn’t the whole purpose of suffering to deter further evil and to judge sin.  Isn’t this what we asked for? what we deserve? 

Yes, I said it, sin.  Sin – there it is again.  Why do we feel we must use words like “mistake” or “lack of judgement” to cover what we really are?  Again, call me whatever you want, I’m sure I deserve it somehow.  But aren’t we the ones who brought the curse on ourselves?  Aren’t we the sworn enemies of God by nature through the choice of Adam our father some 10,000 years ago?  We are the ones who rebelled against him.  Not the other way around.  Why do we think that he, the Creator of the universe, should allow us to live – much less take away our suffering?

If we got what we deserve … well, there is a reason they call it hell.  Thank God there is a way to escape the judgment to come, by accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and repenting of our sin.  This way we can become new creations and escape what we deserve.  If anything we should be thanking God for the times of reprieve from pain and suffering, not questioning how He could still be good in allowing it.

I know I’m not being very sensitive.  My comments probably haven’t made anyone “feel” good.  And I’m sure the responses I get to this post will make calling me a jackass look like a compliment.  But that’s just the way I see it, and I think I’m in pretty good company.

The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 ESV

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; (28) God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, (29) so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
The Apostle Paul, Romans 1:18-32 ESV

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (24) Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, (25) because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (26) For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; (27) and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (28) And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (29) They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, (30) slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, (31) foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (32) Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

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

(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.


Australia’s Daily Telegraph recently published this story about a lawsuit brought against an IVF clinic by Aussie parents because doctors failed to identify a “cancer gene” in a procedure known as “preimplantation genetic diagnosis”.

According to the Telegraph:

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, was pioneered by Victorian scientists, and the controversial gene screening has been embraced by fertility clinics around Australia and the world.  It is billed as a way of reducing the incidence of deadly genetic diseases, including more than 30 inherited cancers, cystic fibrosis, deafness and blindness.  Dozens of Australian children have been born using the controversial technique, which has triggered ethical and legal debate over whether scientists should be allowed to “play God'”.  The tests are carried out on an IVF embryo when it has eight cells. A single cell is removed and DNA tested for gene mutations.  The mother who is suing produced eight IVF embryos for genetic testing. Of the embryos tested, only two were given the all-clear for implantation. The others were discarded.

Doctors reportedly assured the parents that their child would not have a hereditary, cancer-causing genetic mutation.  The doctors were wrong, and now the child has a high probability of developing cancer at some point in his life.

Stories like this shine a clear spotlight upon the ethical minefield of modern genetics.  Since the successful mapping of the human genome in 2003, scientists have been working feverishly to identify genetic predispositions to diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.  As further discoveries are made and technology continues to develop, a host of ethical problems will arise.  It’s hard to imagine, that in the not-too-distant future, human beings will be “genetically designed” not to develop cancer.  Perhaps we will never discover a cure for cancer because there will be no need: people will simply be immune to it.

But why stop at cancer?  Why not “turn off” the gene that gives rise to obesity as well?  And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that the genes are arranged to produce intelligence and a balanced personality.  Then maybe we can tweak the genes that will determine personal appearance – because after all – who wants to have an unattractive child when they could have otherwise?

  1. So how about it?  Would you allow your child to be “genetically vaccinated” against cancer or other diseases? 
  2. What about obesity? 
  3. Below (or even average) intelligence? 
  4. An introverted personality? 
  5. Unattractiveness?

I’m quite sure that I could go along with number one.  I’m not so sure about two.  The rest of this list gets progressively more scary.  What do you guys thing about it?


Defining the nature of identity can be a perplexing task.  For every definition or principle of identity that is put forward, a host of problematic thought experiments will inevitably arise to challenge it.  In this post we will be applying Leibniz’s Law to the problem of the statue, the vase, and the hunk of metal.

One of the most well-known principles of identity that has ever been offered was given to us by the seventeenth century philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.  His principle, which has come to be known as Leibniz’s Law, asserts that necessarily, for any X and Y, if for any property, P, X has P iff Y has P.  This principle actually contains two separate principles which can be listed as follows:

1. The Indiscernibility of Identicals: Necessarily, for any X and Y, if X is identical with Y, then for any property, P, X has P iff Y has P.

2. The Identity of Indiscernibles:  Necessarily, for any X and Y, if for any property, P, X has P iff Y has P, then X and Y are identical.

The second of these two principles is considered by some philosophers to be controversial.  This paper, however, will only be considering the first principle.  The Indiscernibility of Identicals is generally not thought to be a controversial principle, and it can be an immensely helpful tool in solving puzzles about identity, as we shall see below.

            Imagine the following scenario that involves a hunk of metal:

            1. The hunk of metal was a statue on Monday.

            2. The hunk of metal was a vase on Tuesday.

            3. On Wednesday, the hunk of metal was neither a statue nor a vase.

It appears therefore that:

            1. The hunk of metal = a statue on Monday.

            2. The hunk of metal = a vase on Tuesday

            3. The hunk of metal = neither a statue nor a vase on Wednesday.

This line of reasoning becomes very problematic, however, when we introduce the principle of the Transitivity of Identity.  This principle states that if a=b and b=c then a=c; or to apply it to the previous scenario.

            1. If the hunk of metal = the statue

            2. And the hunk of metal = the vase

This leads to the absurd conclusion that

            3. The statue = the vase.

Some would argue that the conclusion can be avoided by restating Leibniz’s Law so that it is time contextual.  Thus, necessarily, for any X and Y, and any time, t, if X is identical to Y then at any given time, t, X and Y must have the same properties.  Yet this does not avert the conclusion at all.  Indeed, it leads to the same inconsistency.  Using the above restatement of Leibniz’s Law we come to the following conclusion:  if the hunk of metal is identical to the statue on Monday, then on Tuesday, the hunk of metal must still be identical to the statue.  This is obviously not the case, however, since the hunk of metal is identical to the vase on Tuesday and is identical with neither the statue nor the vase on Wednesday.

Another proposed solution to this problem is to assert that the only thing that actually exists over the three days is the hunk of metal itself.  Thus, we would say that on Monday the hunk of metal is statue-shaped, while on Tuesday the hunk of metal is vase-shaped.  This theory – a form of Mereological Nihilism – would deny the existence of things like statues and vases and would propose that the only things that truly exist are basic substances (like hunks of metal, or rather, the mereological atoms that compose the hunks of metal) that are arranged in various ways.  While this is a possible solution to the problem, it is hard to reconcile this theory with our basic intuitions that clearly acknowledge the existence of things like statues and vases.

There is yet a third solution to this problem, however, that is much more in agreement with our intuition.  This solution asserts that the hunk of metal is not identical to either the statue or the vase.  According to the principle of the Indiscernibility of Identicals, two entities are identical iff they share the same properties.  Therefore, to demonstrate that the hunk of metal is not identical to either the statue or the vase, we must point out some property that they do not share in common.  Yet, this may be more difficult than it sounds.

Since the hunk of metal and the objects that it constitutes occupy the same place and have the same mass and extension, it appears that the hunk of metal is indeed identical with the statue and the vase.  In other words, if on Monday, the statue has the property of being two feet tall, then so does the hunk of metal; and if on Tuesday, the vase has the property of being cylindrical, then the hunk of metal possesses the same property.

However, when we begin to look at things from a temporal perspective, the indiscernability of these objects begins to break down.  Take, for example, the hunk of metal and the statue which it constitutes.  If these two substances are not identical, then on Monday they each occupy the same place at the same time.  Yet at the end of the day, when the metal is melted down, the statue is destroyed while the hunk of metal continues to exist.  Thus we discover that the hunk of metal possesses the property of existing past Monday while the statue lacks this property.  Now, we can inverse the principle of the Indiscernibility of Identicals to read as such:

Necessarily, for any X and Y, and for any property, P, if X possesses P and Y does not posses P, then X and Y are not identical.

Therefore, according to the principle listed above, the hunk of metal and the statue cannot be identical due to the fact that the hunk of metal possesses a temporal property which the statue lacks.

We are left, then, with two possible solutions to the problem of the hunk of metal, the statue, and the vase.  We can either espouse a form of Mereological Nihilism or – by introducing Leibniz’s Law and properly defining the properties of each object- we can assert that the hunk of metal, the statue, and the vase are all separate entities.  Considering the highly unintuitive conclusions of the first solution, the latter solution seems to be the most favorable to answer this problem.

Two Spheres

For any ontological category, it is preferable to have a principle of individuation that will make it possible to distinguish entities within it.  However, discovering exactly what it is that makes one substance diverse from another can be a difficult task; this is particularly true when the substances in question are exactly alike (share the same internal properties).

Imagine a universe in which the only things that exist are two spheres.  These spheres are exactly the same in their internal properties.  The question that must be answered is this: “What is it that makes these spheres different?”  Or, in other words, what is the principle of individuation for these two objects?  I will examine the merits of the following four theories.

  1. They are individuated by space and time.
  2. They are individuated by the matter of which they are composed.
  3. They are individuated by their properties.
  4. Individuation is a brute fact.

1. Individuation by Space and Time
One possible theory is that the two spheres could be individuated by space and time.  Thus, Sphere A is distinct from Sphere B because A and B occupy different places at the same time.  This theory may seem very plausible at first glance; it is quite obvious that the two spheres are not in the same place at the same time, so it seems that this must indeed be what dinstinguishes them.  However, after closer examination, we find that this theory brings some heavy baggage along with it: namely, this theory presupposes the Absolute Theory of space. 

The Asbsolute Theory of Space, championed by Sir Isaac Newton, asserts that space is a container that holds the objects that exist within it.  Therefore, space is not dependent upon objects and would exist regardless of whether anything else did.  Modern physics, however, has powerfully discredited this theory of space and it is no longer espoused by many scientists or philosophers.  Furthermore, we are sitll left with the question, “What would the principle of individuation for each place be?”

One may ask, then, why it is not possible to use the competing theory of space (the Relational Theory) instead of the Absolute Theory in formulating a principle of individuation for the spheres?  The Relational Theory, famously held by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, asserts that space is dependent upon objects.  In other words, what we refer to as space is merely the realtion between objects and their observers within the universe.  The Relational Theory of space will not accomodate a place-centered principle of individuation, however, due to the fact any appeal to “place” within the relational framework will lead to a circle of interedependence of places and objects since space exists in relation to objects.  Thus a principle of individuation based upon space and time does not appear to be plausible.

2. Individuation by Matter
Another principle that could be used two differentiate between the two spheres is that of matter: so that A is distinct from B because A and B are composed of different matter.  This theory assumes the priority of understanding substance as “stuff” (formless matter) over the priority of understanding substance in a counting sense (individual substances).

Aristotle (and consequently, Aquinas) held that matter is prior to individual substances and that one could individuate substances by the matter of which they were composed.  In other words, an individual substance is matter that has form imposed upon it.  Thus it seems that Aristotle’s principle of individuation relied heavily upon the forma indentity of a substance.

Leibniz, on the other hand, asserted that individual substances are prior to stuff.  Indeed, he believed “stuff” to be composed of individual substances which he referred to as ‘monads’.  Although Leibniz’s monads lead to an idealistic understanding of reality, the basic principle (if there are complexes, then there must be simples) holds true.  In the view of modern science, these simple substances would not be monads, but the basic particles which exist on the atomic level.  Thus, individual objects seem to have more priority than formless matter.

Furthermore, the principle of individuation given above involves circular reasoning.  If we individuate the two spheres, A and B, by the matter that they contain, what then is the principle of individuation for the matter itself?  One may reply that we can individuate the matter by the form imposed upon it, but this leads us back, once again, to the two spheres.  How do we individuate the forms?  By the matter which composes them.  On and on we go.

3. Individuation by Properties
A third (and quite promising) possible principle of individuation for the two spheres is individuation by the properties which the spheres possess.  The reason that this theory is more feasible than the previous two is that it appeals to an ontological category outside of the concrete category.  Whenever a theory attempts to individuate an entity on the basis of something within the same category as that entity, it leads to serious problems (usually a vicious circle).  This theory of individuation is based upon an inverse understanding of the Indiscernability of Identicals known as the Diversity of the Dissimilar:

Necessarily, for any A and B, and for any property, P, if A possesses P and B does not possess P (or vice versa), then A and B are not identical.

All that is necessary, then, to individuate the two spheres is to demonstrate that they do not actually share all of their properties.

Leibniz actually proposed that it was impossible for any two substances to have the exact same properties.  He believed that any similar objects would differ at some point even if that point were so miniscule as to escape observation.  However, Leibniz’s reasoning behind this was pure theological speculation.  He asserted that God would never create any two substances with the exact same properties because there would be no reason to do this and that doing so would contradict God’s good and reasonable nature.  Again, pure speculation.

Duns Scotus disagreed with Leibniz.  Scotus proposed that substances could be identical in every general property, but that each individual substance possessed a nongeneral property that was unique to that substance.  He called this special property a haecceity or “thisness” (from the Latin pronoun for “this”).  Thus Sphere A is distinct from Sphere B, because A possesses the property of ‘A-ness’ and B does not (and vice versa).  While the idea of haecceities may seem almost too convenient for the problem at hand, there does seem to be strong evidence for their existence when one considers the concept of self-recognition.  How is it that we are able to simply know that we are indeed ourselves?  What is it that we appeal to when we do such?  It appears that I am appealing to the property of “Josh-ness” when I consciously recognize myself.  Thus the principle of individuation based upon abstract properties seems much more viable than the theories we have looked at thus far.

4. Individuation as a Brute Fact
A fourth, and final, response that can ve offered to the problem of explaining the diversity of the two spheres is that individuation, itself, is a brute fact that has no explanation.  It seems that the nominalist would be forced to accept this fourth proposal since any appeal to individuation that he would make would be within the same ontological category (concrete) and would lead to circular reasoning.  Brute facts, however, are not welcome within the theories of most philosophers, since a good system of metaphysics will seek to explain as much as possible.  Therefore, after reviewing the four theories given above, it is the property-based principle of individuation that seems to be the most promising explanation to the problem of the two spheres.


Three Cats

          In the debate between realists and nominalists, one of the most noteworthy arguments that realists have employed is known as the Formal Cause Argument.  This argument takes its name from one of the four causes that Aristotle listed as accounting for the reasons why a certain thing exists.  Among these four causes, the formal cause can be thought of as the exemplar for something else.  Take, for example, a statue of Socrates.  The formal cause for this statue would be Socrates, himself, since the sculptor is seeking to copy the form of Socrates in stone.

            The Formal Cause Argument can be given like so:

  • 1. Felix is a cat, Garfield is a cat, and Morris is a cat.
  • 2. There must be something about Felix, Garfield, and Morris that accounts for all of them being cats.
  • 3. This “something” can only be their felinity or “catness”.
  • 4. Therefore, the universal, “catness”, exists.

            The above argument is valid; therefore if the nominalist desires to counter it, he must attack one of the argument’s premises.  Since the nominalist would have to agree with the first premise, the only premises that remain are premises two and three.

            In rejection of premise two, some nominalists assert that there is no explanation for why Felix, Garfield, and Morris are cats: this is simply a brute fact.  While this is certainly a position that an individual can take, it tends to be quite an undesirable one because of the need to appeal to a brute fact.  Most philosophers desire to be able to explain as much as possible about the universe, but brute facts deny the possibility of explanation.  Therefore, whenever possible, it is better to give a reasonable explanation for something than no explanation at all.

            Thus the nominalist is left to counter the third premise of the Formal Cause Argument.  One such attempt is the Verbal Definition theory of universals.  This view was popularized by the medieval monk, Roscelin, who asserted that universals are nothing more than flatus vocis or “puffs of air”.  In essence, Roscelin was asserting that what are often mistaken for universal properties are nothing more than verbal definitions.  For example, the property of “catness” can be reduced to the technical definition of “cat”.  Therefore, Felix, Garfield, and Morris are all cats in virtue of the fact that they all conform to the definition of “cat”.

            The problem with this theory is that it is not so easy to define things as one may think.  While it may be a somewhat simple matter to define a basic element like gold or iron; just how do we define the word “cat”?  Perhaps we may say that a cat is a four-legged mammal with whiskers and a tail; however this very same definition applies to thousands of other species of animals (and perhaps some species that have not been discovered as of yet).  And what are we to do with a cat that is born with only three legs?  Is this animal no longer a cat?  Our base intuition would say that it is, but according to the above definition it could not be.  In short, the problem with the Verbal Definition theory of universals is that it requires something that we cannot give; in this case, a perfect and exhaustive definition for “cat”.

            Another objection to the third premise of the Formal Cause argument is the Causal Theory.  This theory seeks to dismantle the Formal Cause argument by appealing to another one of Aristotle’s four causes: the efficient cause.  The Causal theory would assert that Felix, Garfield, and Morris are all cats based upon the fact that each one of them had another cat as its efficient cause.  In other words, we know that a creature is a cat because it came from a cat. 

            The problem with this theory, however, is that it is based upon the assumption that “like begats like”.  This means that each cat would have to be produced by another cat ad infinitum.  There could never come a point in which a cat was formed by something that was not a cat (such as Darwinian evolution or Divine creation).  The problem here is that this theory requires that every kind of concrete particular be eternal.  In other words, cats would have always existed and will always exist.  There are not too many individuals who would be willing to accept this as a fact.

            A final and more promising alternate theory offered by nominalists is called Trope Nominalism.  In this theory, nominalists introduce the concept of tropes.  Tropes are asserted to be the particular, non-sharable, concrete aspects of a certain concrete particular.  For example, if two squares are the same shade of blue, the realist would say that both of these squares exemplify the universal “blueness”.  However, the trope nominalist, while stating that the two squares resemble one another, would assert that neither one of these squares share a universal property but that each one of them exhibits a particular shade of blue that is unique to that square (a trope). 

            Indeed the very idea of “resemblance” is crucial to this form of nominalism (trope nominalism is sometimes referred to as resemblance nominalism).  A trope nominalist explains their position as such:

X, Y, and Z belong to a kind F iff X, Y, and Z each have a particular F-ness and these F-nesses form a circle of similarity (or resemblance).

            Applying the above definition to Felix, Garfield, and Morris would yield the following result:

Felix, Garfield, and Morris are all cats iff all three of them have a particular “catness” and these “catnesses” form a circle of similarity.

            Some realists would argue that this brings the trope nominalist perilously close to realism due to the fact that the relation of resemblance between each concrete particular appears to be a universal itself.  However, the nominalist reply is that each resemblance relation is a particular resemblance relation (just as each trope is a particular aspect) based upon its resemblance to other resemblance relations.  While some realists would (correctly) argue that this leads to an infinite regress in resemblance relations, the nominalist can easily defend himself by pointing out that realism, itself, is dependant upon an infinite regress of shared qualities.

            Therefore, it appears that the concept of tropes provides the nominalist with an effective counterexample to premise three of the Formal Cause Argument.  One can accept either the existence of universals or the existence of tropes to give an account of the “something” that causes Felix, Garfield, and Morris to all be cats.  And in the case of this particular argument, it seems that the nominalist (with Ockham’s razor in his corner) would be in a better position with his theory of concrete tropes then the realist with his theory of universals.

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.

 I recently discovered – via this post on another blog – that Stephen Pinker (popular, Led Robert Plant would be proud!Zeppelinish hair-styled, psychology prof. from Harvard) has published yet another article arguing for a biology-based morality.  You can read the NY Times article here. 

As some of you already know, I have already posted on Pinker’s pernicious problem of a materialistic morality.  Although his most recent article is somewhat longer than his earlier article in Time magazine, his arguments remain the same.

Rather than rehashing my appraisal of his argument in this post, I invite readers to check out my earlier post, “Stephen Pinker and the Morality of a Meat Machine”.

You gotta love that hair though 🙂

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