Category: epistemology

Exiting The Cave, The Podcast Edition

Introduction

Welcome to the first episode of “Exiting The Cave”. My name is Greg. I am an amateur philosopher, studying philosophy part-time at the University of London, in their International Program. My “day job” is in tech, but my passion is philosophy. In case you’re not familiar with it, I have been writing a philosophy blog for about 5 years, now. You can find it at https://exitingthecave.com

This podcast is an attempt to extend that work, to challenge myself to do more, and to give readers of my blog more philosophy content. The blog has been, more or less, a running record of my attempt at a properly formal philosophy education. I’m hoping to take the podcast a bit further. Here, I want to explore ideas more freely, and delve a bit into subject areas I’ve studiously avoided on the blog. I’ll be venturing into the philosophy of aesthetics and music (as one of my keen hobby interests), and cracking open the Pandora’s Box of political philosophy and practical ethics. This way, I can sharpen the focus of the blog even further, creating a self-made resource for evidence, arguments, and other artifacts supporting the podcast.

To get things started, I want to use this podcast to benchmark the inspiration for the blog – Plato’s allegory of the cave – and talk a bit about why I have found myself sticking to the allegory, in spite of its cliché reputation these days. I’ll begin by telling the story, as portrayed in The Republic itself, and afterward, I’ll offer a few remarks about the many layers of meaning built into it, and why it resonates with me.


The Allegory of the Cave

Let’s get started. We’ll be entering Plato’s Republic, at Stephanos number 514a1, for those who want to follow along. Socrates’ dialectic partner throughout, is Glaucon, but the dialog is entirely in Socrates’ voice. I’ll be speaking in the first-person from this point on, as Socrates, then.


I said [to Glaucon], “make an image [in your mind] of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cavelike dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets.” 514ab

“I see,” he said.

“Then also see along this wall human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts, which project above the wall, and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood, and every kind of material; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent.” c515a

“It’s a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.”

“They’re like us,” I said. “For in the first place, do you suppose such men would have seen anything of themselves and one another other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them?”

“How could they,” he said, “if they had been compelled to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”b

“And what about the things that are carried by? Isn’t it the same with them?”

“Of course.”

“If they were able to discuss things with one another, don’t you believe they would hold that these things that they see, are the actual beings, to which they give names?

“Necessarily.”

“And what if the prison also had an echo from the side facing them? Whenever one of the men passing by happens to utter a sound, do you suppose they would believe that anything other than the passing shadow was uttering the sound?”

“No, by Zeus,” he said. “I don’t.”

“Then most certainly,” I said, “such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”c

“Most necessarily,” he said.

“Now consider,” I said, “what their release and healing from bonds and folly would be like if something of this sort were by nature to happen to them. Take a man who is released and suddenly compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light; and who, moreover, in doing all this is in pain and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before. What do you suppose he’d say if someone were to tell him that before he saw silly nothings, while now, because he is somewhat nearer to what is and more turned toward being, he sees more correctly; and, in particular, showing him each of the things that pass by, were to compel the man to answer his questions about what they are? Don’t you suppose he’d be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown?”d

“Yes,” he said, “by far.”

“And, if he compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt and would he flee, turning away to those things that he is able to make out and hold them to be really clearer than what is being shown?”e

“So he would,” he said.

“And if,” I said, “someone dragged him away from there by force along the rough, steep, upward way and didn’t let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged? And when he came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes full of its beam and be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true?”516a

“No, he wouldn’t,” he said, “at least not right away.”

“Then I suppose he’d have to get accustomed, if he were going to see what’s up above. At first he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the reflections of the human beings and the other things in water; and, later, the things themselves. And from there he could turn to beholding the things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night—looking at the light of the stars and the moon—than by day—looking at the sun and sunlight.”516b

“Of course.”

Then, finally, he would be able to make out the sun—not its mere appearances in water or some alien place, but the sun itself by itself in its own proper place — and contemplate it as it truly is.

“Necessarily,” Glaucon said.

“And after that he would already be in a position to conclude about it that this is the source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing all along.”516c

“It’s plain,” he said, “that this would be his next step.”

“What then? When he recalled his first home and the wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners in that time, don’t you suppose he would consider himself happy for the change and have pity for the others?”

“Quite so.”

“And if in that time there were among them any honors, praises, and prizes for the man who is sharpest at making out the things that go by, and most remembers which of them are accustomed to pass before, which after, and which at the same time as others, and who is thereby most able to divine what is going to come, in your opinion would he be desirous of them and envy those who are honored and hold power among these men? Or, rather, would he be affected as Homer says and want very much ‘to be on the soil, a serf to another man, to a portionless man,’ and to undergo anything whatsoever rather than to opine those things and live that way?”d

“Yes,” Glaucon said, “I suppose he would prefer to undergo everything rather than live in that way.”e

“Now reflect on this too,” I said. “If such a man were to come down again and sit in the same seat, on coming suddenly from the sun wouldn’t his eyes get infected with darkness?”

“Very much so,” he said.

“And if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about those shadows while his vision was still dim, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not at all short, wouldn’t he be the source of laughter, and wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release them and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?” 517a

“No doubt about it,” he said.

“Well, then, my dear Glaucon,” I said, “this image as a whole must be connected with what was said before. Liken the domain revealed through sight to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the sun’s power; and, in applying the going up and the seeing of what’s above to the soul’s journey up to the intelligible place, you’ll not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. In any event, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything—in the visible it gave birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence—and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it.”bc


My Analysis of The Allegory

The Republic is itself a dialogue so layered and so subtle that one could spend an entire philosophical career on it (indeed, several have). The allegory of the cave embedded within the dialogue is one of several gems dotting the whole narrative, and is arguably the most brilliant of them. It is not hard to see why this dialogue has inspired so many philosophers throughout history. Notice, for example, the use of physical direction, and motion. At the opening of the the Republic, for example, Socrates’ first words are, “I went down to the Pireaus…”. In the allegory of the cave, we are following him down into the cave. By the time we get to the end of the allegory of the cave, we have risen not only out of the cave, but up to a plane of existence beyond mortal imagining — only to descend down into the cave again. In other words, the allegory becomes a meta-narrative describing the reader’s journey through the dialogue of the Republic, itself.

Many other examples of this sort of symbolism and allusion are present (such as, for example, the fact that Adiemantus, Glaucon, and Socrates are themselves representatives at times, of the three kinds of citizen populating in the ideal republic; or, for example that the cave and its escapee are a metaphor for childbirth, in the transition from womb to independent organism). But, for the purposes of this podcast, I want to focus on three insights of my own.

The Problem of the Forms

First, there is the role of Plato’s Forms in the allegory of the cave. It’s not clear whether and how much of Plato’s dialogues are Plato talking, or Socrates. But many agree that the Theory of Forms was entirely a creation of Plato, and his use of Socrates to elucidate it was purely dramatic. One problem with this, is how it confounds the Allegory of the Cave (which may have originally been Socrates’).

To briefly summarize the theory here, Plato’s Forms are transcendental universals out of which all particulars in the material changing universe derive their genuine, or ultimate, reality. They are not simply conceptual generalizations in the mind, encapsulating, say, the “idea of chair” or the “idea of justice”. They are permanent, unchanging casting dies, from which the demiurge presses the material instances of chairs, or acts of justice, or even particular properties like size, color, shape, and nature. This is what Plato is referring to, when he puts into Socrates’ mouth, the words “… the idea of the good …” 2

But, this raises a serious problem with the allegory. For, as Parmenides3 pointed out in his dialogue with Socrates, there is no method by which men could obtain knowledge of the Forms, while remaining in the mortal realm. The implication for the Allegory, is simply this, then: nobody ever, really, leaves the cave. But Socrates (or perhaps Plato?) seems to think we can. The allegory is explicit about this. The philosopher king dwells in the realm of the Forms, and then faces the choice of whether or not to return to the cave to rescue his comrades. If it were a one-way trip, no such choice would confront him. But, it could only be a one-way trip, if the Forms are as Plato insists they are. So, either the Forms are not eternal, or we cannot return to the cave.

Epistemology and Motivation

Second, there is a problem with why any particular person in the cave would actually undergo such an ordeal as being extricated from his shackles. This is not just a practical question. I’m not simply saying that because nobody sane would bother, then neither should we as philosophers. Rather, I’m saying that the allegory skirts the question of motivation by putting us already in the “deus ex machina” position of having extracted the captive — and, that motive is key, because it calls into question the whole project. What, exactly, are we seeking? How did it come about that we knew to seek it? How will we know when we’ve found it?

So, in addition to the ontological problem that the Forms present us with, we’re now saddled with an epistemological one as well. Not having access to the Forms (assuming they do exist), and having no awareness of anything but the cave shackles into which we’ve been born, how could we possibly have any awareness to even ask the question of what is “beyond the cave”, or any motivation to question our experience of the cave itself? Socrates admits as much in the retelling of the allegory itself. We are cave dwellers ourselves, and would have no means of unshackling ourselves or the object of the allegory. Were we to tell him we could unshackle ourselves and him, he would surely tell us that we were lunatics for suggesting such a project — and he would be justified in doing so, without some rational standard for believing that such a thing is not only possible, but likely to yield what we claim, if attempted.

The Forced Rescue

There is an addendum to the traditional allegory story, that is often not included in its retelling. Recall that the largest part of The Republic, is Plato’s argument for what a just polis would look like, and by analogy, what a just soul would be. Socrates imagines three classes of men in The Republic: the men of everyday appetitive concerns (the craftsmen), the men of honour (the warriors), and the men of wisdom (the “Guardians”). For Plato, the “Guardian” is the man who has ascended from the cave, and dwelt in the realm of the Forms. Having both the capacity for, and the acheivement of, this enlightenment, he is the class of man who is best equipped to rule the rest of us, because he can see things that we cannot. But there is a problem with this part of the theory. Plato hinted at it already, in the reading above4, but later gets more explicit about the implications of this. Let’s have a look at that, here, beginning at 517d:

“Come, then,” I said, “and join me in supposing this, too, and don’t be surprised that the men who get to that point aren’t willing to mind the business of human beings, but rather that their souls are always eager to spend their time above. Surely that’s likely, if indeed this, too, follows the image of which I told before.”

“Of course it’s likely,” he said.

“And what about this? Do you suppose it is anything surprising,” I said, “if a man, come from acts of divine contemplation to the human evils, is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when—with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness—he is compelled in courts or elsewhere to contest about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?”

“It’s not at all surprising,” he said.

And, further on, at 519c, Plato explains what would happen to such men:

…Isn’t it likely,” I said, “and necessary, as a consequence of what was said before, that those who are without education and experience of truth would never be adequate stewards of a city, nor would those who have been allowed to spend their time in education continuously to the end—the former because they don’t have any single goal in life at which they must aim in doing everything they do in private or in public, the latter because they won’t be willing to act, believing they have emigrated to a colony on the Isles of the Blessed while they are still alive?”

“True,” he said.

“Then our job as founders,” I said, “is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”

“What’s that?”, Glaucon asked.

“To remain there,” I said, “and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious.”

“What?” he said. “Are we to do them an injustice, and make them live a worse life when a better is possible for them?”

“My friend, you have again forgotten,” I said, “that it’s not the concern of law that any one class in the city fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring this about in the city as a whole, harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one another the benefit that each is able to bring to the commonwealth. And it produces such men in the city not in order to let them turn whichever way each wants, but in order that it may use them in binding the city together.”

“That’s true,” he said. “I did forget.”

So, Plato’s philosophers would not naturally wish to return to the cave on a voluntary basis. They would, rather, wish to “remain and not be willing to go down again“. Glaucon rightly supposes forcing them to go down would be an injustice against them as individuals, since this sort of compulsion would be imposing a form of evil on the enlightened man. But, Plato reminds us, the goal here is not to maximize the individual’s own happiness. It is to harmonization the polis as a whole. To put it in modern parlance, they would be forced to return for the greater good. They would not return because they had any sort of love for their former cave mates. Plato understood the difference between love and pity, and the difference between love and duty.

But, the point here, is not to take issue with Plato’s totalitarianism, or to argue the efficacy of an idea like a tripartite polis (I will do this, in a later podcast). Rather, it is to say that the allegory of the cave is clear evidence of a problem with Plato’s theory. As a thought experiment, it has exposed an irrationality in his design. The moment one must resort to compulsion, and to apologetics for the use of force, one has abandoned reason. But Plato cannot see this, because he has so fallen in love with his own idea, that its flaws are invisible to him. Two of those flaws have been outlined here already. But there are dozens of other problems as well; not only within the confines of Plato’s own logical structure, but also across the span of three thousand years of hind-sight. Analysis of those additional mistakes will have to wait for another discussion.

Conclusion

Given my criticisms of the allegory of the cave, why would I adopt it as a defining feature of my philosophical “brand”, as it were? Clearly, I recognize how deeply flawed it is, in spite of how inspiring it is. So, why venerate it with a permanent reference built into the podcast? Good question.

One feature of Plato’s dialogues that I find compelling, and in many ways preferable, to the writings of, say, Aristotle, is precisely the fact that they are dialogues. Aristotle goes to great lengths in the Nicomachean Ethics to explain and to argue the necessity of practice in the formation of a virtuous character. He is right, of course. But, ironically, by engaging in didactics, rather than dialectics, Aristotle does not practice what he preaches. Plato, again ironically, is doing precisely this. Rather than explaining to us how and why we ought to prefer reason to appetite, Plato shows us the art of reason in the form of a drama, expecting us to take that example and employ it ourselves, in our own dialectics in the present. He is encouraging us to think and introspect by way of example, not simply enjoining us to do so.

Reasoning well is not something that can be imparted as a complete package, and by explanation alone. It must be done, repeatedly, and with expert guidance, in order for mastery of the art to be achieved. Aristotle provides us with a useful toolset in the form of the syllogism, and the model of generalizations from particulars. But he does not give us sufficient examples of these tools actually in use. Plato’s dialogues are the kinds of examples that are needed. We can see this here, in both the example of the Republic, and the Parmenides. Learning to reason is like learning to swim, or learning to sing. You must feel what it’s like to have a moment of rational clarity, must remember the state you are in when that happens, and must learn how to repeat that state. The dialogues are the meditations needed to facilitate that work.

When you take your first steps in philosophy, at least traditionally, you are confronted with dialogues like the Euthyphro or the Meno. Dialogues that are not simple or superficial, by any stretch. But dialogues that are narrowly focused on one particular idea. The apprentice philosopher learns to examine one idea, and explore all of its facets, before he is tasked with looking at two or three in relation to each other. The Republic (and arguably, The Parmenides), represent the culmination of that effort. These works demand that the thinker examine numerous inter-related ideas, all in relation to each other, and on several levels of analysis. The allegory of the cave embedded in The Republic, then, is as I have said before, the metaphor for the intellectual and emotional journey of the philosopher.

As I have shown in this critique, Plato must have understood that the attainment of full communion with the Form of The Good is not something that is possible for finite, incomplete beings such as ourselves. And yet, he did think that glimpses were possible. The allegory of the cave, then, represents not the attainment of enlightenment, but the striving for it. The pursuit of truth is a sort of “Zeno’s Paradox” for the problem of enlightenment. Through study, introspection, and the practice of dialectic, we slowly learn that we are shackled, we gradually gain the knowledge to unshackle ourselves, and we slowly stumble our way in the dark cave, toward the dim light high above, coming from the cave mouth. Yet, we can never quite achieve the threshold, as it always seems just that much further away. We are always exiting the cave, and this is why my blog and my podcast are so named.


  1. Republic, 514a 
  2. “Idea” is often a substitute for the word “Form” in translations of the dialogues. I generally prefer not to use it, because of the confusion it causes as a result of our modern notion of “idea”. But this translation used it. So, I’m sticking with it in this quote. 
  3. Parmenides, beginning at 133c, “…when ideas are what they are in relation to one another, their essence is determined by a relation among themselves, and has nothing to do with the resemblances, or whatever they are to betermed, which are in our sphere, and from which we receive this or that name when we partake of them. And the things which are within our sphere and have the same names with them, are likewise only relative to one another, and not to the ideas which have the same names with them, but belong to themselves and not to them… if God has this perfect authority, and perfect knowledge, his authority cannot rule us, nor his knowledge know us, or any human thing; just as our authority does not extend to the gods, nor our knowledge know anythingwhich is divine, so by parity of reason they, being gods, are not our masters, neither do they know the things of men. Yet, surely, said Socrates, to deprive God of knowledge is monstrous.…” 
  4. Republic, 516d-e 

A Stream of Consciousness On Metaphysical Realism

The following notes are an attempt at outlining my basic thought process, to document my progress in the study of metaphysical realism, and offer the reader some food for thought. I offer it, as is. If there are any actual arguments in this post, it is purely by accident. If there are any answers to the problem of realism within this text, the reader is free to take them.

A (Very) Brief History of What Is

The first question in metaphysics, the fundamental question, is “What is there?” Putting this more succinctly, in order to rely on fewer linguistic crutches, you could just say, “What is?”. In order to answer this question — or even to imagine an answer is possible — we have to ask ourselves a few other questions first. To begin with, why is this the question?

Somehow, we are beings. Somehow, we are beings aware of being, and of our own being. What is that awareness, and why do we have it? Descartes1 took that awareness as axiomatic (a “clear and distinct idea“, in his terms). It was the fundamental feature of his entire ontology, famously captured as “Cogito, Ergo Sum“. Awareness, thinking, not only implies being, it entails it. Descartes speculated that sense experiences were just another kind of thinking: they are the ideas that come to us as sense experiences. Berkeley posited this speculation as a fact.2 Experiences just are ideas in the mind, including the mind of God. Locke3 agreed that sensations are ideas in the mind, but insisted in a world apart from those ideas, a mindless mechanical world, in which inhered powers to populate the mind with the ideas of experience. Our bodies function as a reception medium, upon which reality makes its impressions, and the mind records those impressions. There are whispers of Hume in this language.

Tying this back to the germ of “awareness“, it seems from the preceding paragraph, that there are two different forms of awareness taking shape: thoughtful awareness, and experiential awareness. This vague duality corresponds with several well known distinctions in philosophy. The “subject-object dichotomy”, the “analytic-synthetic” distinction, and the “rationalism-empiricism” distinction. Described in various ways, by various philosophers, these two forms of awareness are said to give us a complete set of tools for discovering “what is“. As I see it, then, the core dispute amongst metaphysicians of modern philosophy, has been over whether experiential awareness just collapses into thoughtful awareness, and whether it makes sense at all to talk about the being of things beyond the reach of either thoughtful or experiential awareness. In the first case, this is the argument between rationalists and empiricists. In the second case, this is the argument between the realists and the anti-realists. The realists, so-called counterintuitively, because they accept as “real”, any number of beings beyond the reach of thoughtful or experiential awareness. The anti-realist, so-called because he does not accept anything as real, other than what can be grounded in thoughtful or experiential awareness. The Idealist may find it hard to locate a fit for himself within this schema. On the one hand, the Berkeleyan Idealist will want to say that it makes no sense to talk of beings that are beyond the reach of thoughtful or experiential awareness, thus placing him in the anti-realist camp. The Platonic Idealist, on the other hand, could be seen as defending realism, as against Parmenides 4 , by insisting both that the Forms exist, and that they are beyond our worldly apprehension.

How Do We Know?

Lurking in the background of this outline, lies a third major component. Namely, the problem of knowledge. When I speculate about tools for answering questions of an ontological nature, I am talking not just about whether the answers to those questions are true or false, as compared to a reality. I am also asking how we knowwhat is“? I have left it an unspoken assumption up to this point, that thoughtful and experiential awareness constitutes knowledge of being, whether that being is a complete entity or merely some particular property of a complete entity. Despite the confusing label of “conceptual realist“, Berkeley would deny that anything like an entity or properties of an entity could be known without an idea of it, because it is a bald absurdity to say that what is unknown is also known. On this basis, one could count Berkeley amongst the anti-realists, though also an idealist.

Empiricists like Locke seem far more willing to take certain beings as real, independently of any conception of them. Locke posited two kinds (“primary” and “secondary”) of properties of objects. His “secondary” properties were a kind of experiential awareness of an object that did not derive directly from the object, but from powers or features hidden from experiential awareness, yet inherent in the objects nonetheless. It is not hard to see why Berkeley would have had a complaint with Locke. How could he claim this reasonably, with no recourse to any demonstration, logical or empirical? The paradigm example of such a thing, is color. An apple is not red, says Locke, but hidden features of the apple and its surrounding environment conspire to produce the experiential awareness of red within our minds. Berkeley (I think rightly) asks, if we are going to posit such mechanisms for color or smell, then why not for shape, or heft, or motion, as well? He insists it is a distinction without a difference. If the idea of red is in the mind, then so is the idea of the shape of the apple, and the idea of it’s girth in our hand, and this is what makes the apple and all of its properties real.

As it turns out, later discoveries about light, the eye, and color have all apparently vindicated Locke over Berkeley. It is indeed a hidden feature of the apple, interacting with hidden features in the environment, that give us the experiential awareness of a red apple. However, further discoveries about the neurology of the eye and the brain, and subsequent discoveries about the quantum behaviors of light, that also seem to vindicate Berkeley. We know from neuroscience, for example, that experiential awareness is actually a coordinated composition of numerous asynchronous events. Nerve signals from the retina, from the ear drum, from the skin in our fingertips, from the olfactory nerves, and the tongue, all arrive in the brain as a more-or-less disordered collection of snap-together parts, often in different orders of arrangement and time, requiring the waiting for parts to complete the assembly of each moment of experiential awareness into a coherent composite image. This is often cited by determinists as a strong reason to reject free will (a question I will not address here). Why is this not also a strong reason to accept Berkeley’s “conceptual realism“? If this composite picture is not in fact, an idea, what is it?

But I digress. The present question, is what constitutes a justification for a claim that some entity or property is “real”? How can I make a claim about “what is” or “what is not”, that will carry at least the force of believability if not also deductive and epistemic certainty? The anti-realist insists not merely that an assertion about something be logically justifiable, but that it is also amenable to some sort of experiential validation. I cannot concoct just any story about what exists and have it accepted merely because I can demonstrate the validity of the logic. My story cannot be “evidence transcendent5, as the philosophers like to say. To be true or false — to even be able to judge as true or false — my assertions must be subject to some sort of comparison with some sort of object of the senses. As the dominant epistemologists would say, they must be subject to validation by way of correspondence with a reality6 about which my assertions make reference. Parmenides’ complaint to Socrates comes to mind here. How could the gods know us, or we them, if the world of the gods is impenetrable by the sensible world of instances? Descartes’ “clear and distinct idea” is no help here, either, since it just reiterates this very problem.

What Do We Mean?

The semantic philosophers would say that I am on the right track to ask about assertions, and what they mean, or in wondering how utterances about reality are justified in terms of their meaning. But I think this is a different problem than the questions I have been asking so far. The semantic philosophers are concerned with the assignment of a property to a thought. The description of a value belonging to a relationship between a thought and the object of that thought. They are unconcerned with objects beyond the fact that objects must be there to somehow give substance or experiential content to the relationship. A kind of equation: Thought == Object. (Interestingly, Hume frequently referred to events – both in reality, and in the mind – as “objects”7). This is the structure that Blackburn gives to truth8. Not so much a correspondence, as an equation. And he goes further than this. He wants to say that some objects come into being by thier having been thought about. Realizing the dangerous territory he is in, he is quick to draw clear lines of demarcation. Only certain things are “real” by virtue of our having thoughts of them; moral properties, or the value that inheres in money, for example. He calls this “quasi-realism”. In moral philosophy, this has come to be known as “projectivism”. This is different from Humean emotivism, because for Blackburn, the qualitative and quantitative value properties he’s describing really do exist. It’s just that the source of their existence is entirely mind-dependent. This mind-dependence is collective like Berkeley’s but it requires at least one human mind. For example, as long as at least one person sees the “value” in a dollar, the dollar has that value.

This question of the direction of flow between thought and object is fascinating to me. In Locke and Berkeley, it is fairly obvious that a substantive reality (be it a universal mind, or a mindless material) is producing experiences, and giving rise to the ideas of experiences, which we then express with varying degrees of specificity and accuracy with language. The only difference between Lockeans and Berkeleyans seems to be the nature of that substantive reality: is it mindless material governed by immutable laws in a mechanical clockwork universe, or is it a manifestation of the universal mind of God, intelligible to us because we share in that mind in some way? Both of these views puts the “ultimate” reality outside ourselves, while Blackburn wants to place at least some of it — or the responsibility for some aspects of it — squarely in our own minds. Does the source of an object or its properties affect how we answer “what is?” or even “is it real?” What sorts of properties constitute the full status of “real”? What things can be said to attain the property of existence (if being is a property, say, and not an absolute state)? For that matter, what is “existence”? The matrix of reality, within which individual beings are located? The “substrate” (as Berkeley’s Hylas would put it) that grounds all objects? Scientists (at least, the Einsteinians) would say, in a broad sense, that “existence” means some identifiable, finite accumulation of matter and energy at a locatable point in space-time. The planet Earth “exists”, for example. But this is too concrete, and thus too limiting, says someone like Blackburn. To say that because the value of a dollar has no spacio-temporal location, it therefore is non-existent, is to make us all into crazy people. So, returning to the question of direction, thoughtful and experiential awareness may be impressed by the objects in existence, or it may manifest the objects of existence, or both, or neither. Those are the choices, it seems. The last is some sort of extreme nihilism or Pyrrhonism. Locke (and Hume) take the first option, Berkeley takes the second, and Blackburn takes the third. Which of these is the correct choice?

Truth, Meaning, and Being

Crispin Wright9 takes us one level up, and asks the meta-linguistic question of whether truth is a substantive property of thoughts. Wright argues for the “deflationist” view of truth, and his is the first explication of the position that didn’t seem to me to be nothing more than a truism, or a complaint of superfluousness. The deflationist, he says, isn’t just suggesting that we economize our use of phrases like “is true” by retreating to implication only. Rather, the deflationist is denying that truth is a property of sentences at all. He is saying that it is a “disquotational tool” for making an agreement between thinkers, explicit. Since truth is either the assignment or the identification of a value property to a relationship between thought (subject) and reality (object), this would make the deflationist a kind of anti-realist about truth.

It seems to me, there are at least three ways to think about this problem:

  1. Truth is a real property of the relationship between thought and object, that only manifests in our asserted language through the disquotational device: “P is true, if and only if P”
  2. Truth is a real property of the relationship between thought and object, and is manifest in our asserted language whether or not we employ the disquotational device: either “P” or “P is true, if and only if P”
  3. Truth is not a real property of the relationship between thought and object, and any use of a disquotational device is misleading at best: “P” is merely the expression of an attitude or a

Perhaps it is misguided to attempt to apply the question “what is?” to such things as sentences, and the valence meanings applied to them. Do sentences “exists”? My use of phrases like “such things” suggests they do. What about thoughts? Can they have properties like an apple or a table? Can they have properties unlike an apple or a table? Can those properties be “primary” or “secondary”, as in Locke’s empiricism? The semantic philosophers are asking these questions from an analytical point of view (the view I have been taking throughout this post). But the questions have application far beyond understanding the instrumental components of linguistic meaning.

Applying my earlier question to the idea of truth makes this fairly clear: What is the “direction of flow” of the instantiation of these properties? Do we impose truth as a property on our relationship with reality? Is the relationship itself what imposes the truth? Is conceptualizing a “relationship” itself unreasonably imposing a meaning on experiential and thoughtful awareness? Where do we draw these lines, and why? More to the point, how do we draw these lines? Should we be drawing lines? As beings, as parts of the whole of being itself, there is the fundamental question of how it is we can tell the difference between the two, and even more significantly, how there can even be a difference? To put it in more concrete terms, how can mindless, mechanistic material being (the reality of Locke and Newton), give rise to a mindful, thoughtful, intentional beings? This is the kind of question that leads many philosophers into positions like animism, theism, and panpsychism.

The End

One of the most frustrating features of the study of metaphysics, is it’s capacity to pull you down an endless rabbit hole, strip away all your certainties, dissolve all your boundaries, and leave you with endless questions, the answers to which you have almost no hope of answering. This disorienting effect, instinctively, sends most people screaming in the opposite direction. Many philosophers who are not metaphysicians, will simply draw lines arbitrarily, and insist we go no further than them. Scientists do this, too, for professional reasons. I can’t say that I blame them. There is great value in the mechanistic, dualistic view of the universe and our place within it. It has yielded many benefits to the human species. But the philosopher cannot help asking the question, “what if we’re wrong?”, and based on some of the work going on in physics and astronomy, it seems like we just might be.

Plato, Parmenides, and the Theory of Forms – Part 3

Depending on the author, and the level of complexity of the analysis, some parse Parmenides’ case into four objections, some five, and some six. For the sake of limiting the difficulty of this post, I’ll be taking the four objection approach, clustering the minor ones in where they make sense. I’ll go through each of Parmenides’ objections as they occur in the course of the dialogue, and considering whether he’s sufficiently refuted Socrates.

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Plato, Parmenides, and the Theory of Forms – Part 2

In this installment of the series on Plato's Forms, we'll have a brief look at the major conceptions of the theory, some of the key differences, and dig deep into the one formulation Plato seems to have favored the most. For those of you looking for a thorough discussion of Parmenides' refutations, you'll have to wait until the last installment. In keeping with the principle of the first post, the idea here is to just try to understand the theory itself, and the problem it was trying to solve, before we make any move to object to it.

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London School of Philosophy – Summer School Conference

I decided to spend three of my vacation days on the London School of Philosophy’s “Summer School” conference, this week. The theme of the conference was “Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, and the talks focused heavily on the broad questions like the nature of philosophy, it’s role and purpose in society, it’s place in history, its relationship to art and literature, and the implications drawn from consideration of these questions, for the future.

Day One: The End In The Beginning

The first day carried us into the past, to ask the question “where did we come from?”. The day opened with a lecture by Tom Rubens on Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, and ended with a lecture by Tim Beardsmore-Gray, on Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. These two lectures functioned as profound book-ends, framing the picture of the entire day. The never-ending quest to understand ourselves, the universe within which we must take our place, and the significance of that role as self-aware and self-examining creatures, was a quest taken up with great gusto by the German half of the Enlightenment project, and they provide a powerful signpost in the history of philosophy. Though the German outlook was deeply pessimistic in character, it was also deeply optimistic in its ambitions, and this sense of conflicting attitudes about the past, present, and future, seemed to resonate throughout the conference.

The dualistic character of the day was made almost comical, by the juxtaposition of Dr. Hurley’s lecture on the history of Truth, and development of theories of truth, directly with Dr. Golob’s discussion of the nature and evolution of stupidity. Questions of what we can justifiably say that we know, when certainty transforms into absurdity, how we can tell the difference, and what implications this has in practice, are as old as philosophy itself. While stupidity might seem to be one of those common sense “I know it when I see it” problems, Dr. Golob made it amusingly clear that the answer is not so simple after all. Likewise, famously, the problem of defining Truth, was humbly demonstrated by Dr. Hurley. For all our progress, philosophy still struggles with the most fundamental questions, it seems.

Into this mix, entered Descartes, and the problem of the self. Grant Bartley’s lecture walked us through the core problem in Descartes’ Meditations – the problem of what we can know without doubt, including ourselves, reminding us of the need of philosophy to continually renew and remake itself – and in the process, remaking ourselves. As Iris Murdoch puts it in her essay, “The Idea of Perfection”:

“I think it is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning; a thing which is not at all easy to do…”

Jane O’Grady carried this notion forward in her outline of the project of the Enlightenment, showing its central characters to be the embodiment of what Iris Murdoch, again, described as the “two-way movement in philosophy… toward the building of elaborate theories, and… back again toward the consideration of simple and obvious facts…” Dr. O’Grady suggests that this movement is how best to understand the Enlightenment, and offered Theodore Adorno’s book, “The Dialectic of the Enlightenment” as a guide to the way the process might work.

This idea of a cyclical ebb-and-flow, or recreation, of philosophy and of the self, reached its crescendo and resolution in the talk by Tim Beardmore-Gray, on The Eternal Recurrence. It would be easy to view Nietzsche’s idea as an attempt to achieve some sort of Transcendence without calling it Transcendence. But, I think the more correct interpretation is one in which Nietzsche is trying to find a path to the resolution of all of philosophy’s great dualisms. Self-creation and the embrace of the eternally returning past, is not just an embrace of suffering for the sake of the good, it is an acknowledgment and acceptance of all the Heraclitian oppositions of existence, and experience (an opposition itself), and an awareness of their necessity to each other. But this view carries us beyond what Beardmore-Gray is likely to ascent to. My views are my own, of course.

Day Two: Transcendence, Order, Chaos, and Pessimism

The second day of lectures, addressing the question, “where are we now?”, opened with the triumphal optimism of Dr. Steinbauer’s seminar exploring what philosophy is, and what it can be. At issue in this talk, was nothing less than the nature of philosophy itself, and how we ought to regard ourselves, as philosophers, partaking of that nature. Are we scientists? Are we theologians? Are we something else entirely? Ultimately, Dr. Steinbauer eloquently argued that what it means to be a philosopher today, is to be a catalyst for understanding, both of the world and of ourselves. The right path seems to be, for Dr. Steinbauer, somewhere between the ancient Greek love of wisdom, and the modern mechanistic notion of philosophers as Conceptual Engineers.

As if on cue, John Heyderman then offered up an attempt to unify the notion of wisdom traditions and conceptual engineering, in the form of Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. According to this view, mind and body are two sides of the same coin. Heyderman explained that Spinoza saw all of reality as a consequence of the activity of the mind of God. To put it more succinctly: the universe is an idea in the mind of God, and by analogy, the body of man is an idea in the mind of man. This, perhaps, takes Descartes’ speculations about the sustenance of real experience (as a consequence of God’s goodness) to another level, by suggesting that his goodness is not enough. It is his existence that makes all of existence possible – his existence is as a mind, which as ideas. God, on this view, could be said to be the ultimate conceptual engineer.

Professor Fiona Ellis, later in the day, seemed to borrow from Heyderman on the basic idea of Spinoza, but painted the picture in a more naturalistic light. On her model, the universe of facts – the universe explained to us by modern physics and chemistry – is the correct view, but not the complete view. She described a reality in which various features of existence are co-mingled: Nature, Value, and God, all count as aspects to be reckoned with, and modern science is only capable of addressing the first. The specter of the fact-value dichotomy, and the is-ought problem, loom large in this picture, and Professor Ellis struggled to elaborate a coherent reconciliation of these distinctions. She invoked Levinas, in her own defense, who apparently argued that attempting to know God is attempting total control of reality, which is nothing less than deluding ourselves. Professor Ellis, in addition, argued inspiringly for a kind of knowledge of God as an experience had in essential relationships. Something that is not quite “God is Love”, but akin to the notion.

Returning to earth, Kieth Barrett gave what I believe to be the highlight lecture of the conference. His, was a tour de force defense of the idea of philosophy as a sense-making apparatus, extracting rational order from the chaos of existence around us. To open the discussion, Dr. Barrett provided two fascinating conceptions of order. One Transcendent, and one Immanent. The transcendent order comes to us from the ideal, and is realized by careful study and contemplation. This is the order of Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, it is static and uniform. The immanent order is not revealed, but discovered in patterns of essential characteristics made apparent through consistent observation. This is the order of Aristotle’s Organon.

Dr. Barrett’s bridging synthesis of the thesis of Transcendence, and its antithesis of Immanence, is the Enlightenment. Here, he argues, the modern natural philosophers take their inspiration from Aristotle, but their ideological commitments from Plato. The science of the Enlightenment, says Barrett, is not a genuinely empirical endeavor, because it goes far beyond the justifiable claims of sense experience, and posits a completely new conception of Transcendent order in the mathematics of Newton, and the abstractions of the presocratic Atomists. This, then, coupled with the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the 17th and 18th century, forms the basis of the Enlightenment worldview, and the construction of “The Rational Subject”, as posited by Zaretsky, in Secrets of the Soul. Dr. Barrett concludes his case by outlining Zaretsky’s evolution of the self, as a primary feature of the evolution of the Enlightenment, ultimately arguing, in a similar vein as Professor O’Grady earlier, that the Enlightenment never really ended, it has simply evolved into new forms in the present. The Rational Subject of Descartes, in synchrony with this transformation, has itself transformed into the Situated Subject of Freud, and finally the Deconstructed Subject of Levinas.

Which brings us up to the (philosophical) present, and all the political chaos it presently entails. Mark Fielding’s contribution to this effort, was a view of the present political landscape through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s famous “Truth and Politics” essay of 1967. Here, the opposition presented is between Truth as a value and Power as a value, and the implications of that choice. This talk was, by far, the most confounding to me. The argument seems to run something like this: politicians are expected, as a normative condition, to be liars. The polity loves to be lied to. Successful politicians, then, are the best at offering the lies that the polity most want to hear. The most successful liars are the ones who are best able to lie to themselves, especially. However – so goes the rest of the argument – it is also the case that truth is necessary for making sense of the world, and power is the capacity to get things done in the world.
The implications of this paradox are peculiar. If the most successful politicians are indeed the most successful liars, then either those politicians are not actually getting anything done in the world and thus have no real power, or the truth is somehow not necessary for making sense of the world or getting things done within it.

It is utterly unclear how this conundrum is to be solved. But I would venture a guess that the first implication is the correct one – albeit counterintuitive. Political power is one of the most illusory powers on earth. It often seems as though politicians are getting loads of things done in the world, but when you watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, you begin to realize that the world of politics is great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing at all, and that the vast majority of politicians actually do not in fact, get anything done in the world. This suggests that Arendt was right to recognize the lying, but failed to see its impotence, as manifest in political power, because she could not square impotence with political power. But, had she remembered her Plato, she might have recalled the story of Archelaus from The Gorgias, and Socrates’ judgment of him as the least powerful man in Macedon, or his discussion with Glaucon or Thrasymachus in The Republic, on the nature of the truly just man. Perhaps Arendt found these unconvincing, but if Fielding’s reading is correct, it is hard to see why anyone would find her convincing.

The night was capped off by adding bitter herbs to this simmering broth of pessimistic cynicism. A four man panel was convened to discuss “Philosophy in a Post-Truth Age” (whatever that means). The discussion centered primarily around “fake news”, “free speech”, and the overwrought political dialogue of the popular press. The opening speeches were awkward, curt, and uninteresting, and the room was more or less paralyzed by an overarching anxious malaise that prevented any real discussion from taking place. I left the conference on the second night, wondering whether I should come back or not. The contrast from the morning’s lecture by Anja could not have been more stark, in terms of the pessimism, and I seriously questioned whether philosophy could — let alone did — have any traction in the “real world”. The chaos of the present has just about scrubbed away most the enthusiasm for the orderly universe engendered over the course of the rest of the day.

Day Three: Idealism, Utopianism, and The Disintegrating Self
Day three of the conference purports to address the question “where are we going?”, beginning with a deep discussion of who we are, and want to become. The final lecture of Thursday night, “Human and Robot Minds”, by Richard Baron, and the opening lecture of Friday, “Philosophical Zombies”, by Rick Lewis, examined the problem of consciousness from the opposition of internal and external perspectives. Robot minds, it turns out, force us to look inward to discover what matters most about being human, meanwhile Zombies force us to look outward and face the possibility that there may not actually be anything significantly different. A key point raised by Lewis, is Chalmers’ conceivability criterion. Chalmers invents the Zombie as a means of asking whether it is conceivable that a creature emptied of whatever it is that makes a human special, but behaved in every way the same, could fool us into thinking it was the same. This is the mirror image of the Turing Test, really, and we are now getting to the point where in some settings, it is difficult to distinguish between a machine brain, and a human mind. The point is that it is now conceivable that, in the distant future, philosophical zombies could exist – as robot minds. At that point, how would we tell the difference? And, if we can’t, then what is it, exactly, that defines the human experience? As dazzlingly futuristic and apparently escapist a topic as this seems, it is profoundly distressing because it suggests that the mind-body problem resolves not into only mind, but into only body. Perhaps the hard determinists and physicalists are correct, and there are only bodies in motion. Maybe Sam Harris and his ilk are correct, and the self is just a complex delusion, required for the survival of the human organism.

But, the intractability of the subjective, first-person, conscious experience (what “it is like” to be “me”), is a problem only for the empirical disciplines. Notice how all the tests require a third-person perspective, and the sort of data that cannot tell you what you want to know anyway. From the perspective of science, it is an unfalsifiable problem, and as such, is not a scientific one. But it does not follow logically that the “self doesn’t exist”. This is a physicalist presupposition similar to the old business management maxim: if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter. But conscious experience does matter. In humans, it is the one thing that seems to matter the most, of all our characteristics. What is needed, is a new toolset, or some new methodology, which is capable of accounting for subjective conscious experience. In the absence of such a thing, philosophers will have to continue to do battle in the realm of speculation, mytho-poetics, and moral philosophy.

The next round of speakers for the day all moved us beyond the self, pressing the problem of the relation between the individual and society. Christian Michel, John Holroyd, and Sam Freemantle, each addressed this problem in ways that were simultaneously naively optimistic and yet weighed down by skeptical wariness born of experience. Christian Michel offered a defense of Nozick’s conception of a property-based anarchist utopia. Christian buoyed us with his deeply moving memories of post-WWII France and Charles de Gaulle, and provided a powerful critique of the property-less communist ideal of French intellectualism of that time. But his exposition of the alternative, while enthusiastic and inspiring, was nonetheless unconvincing because of its superficiality. There are hundreds of critiques of Nozick’s book, and numerous treatments of the problems of a stable property-rights regime in an anarchist world, that once understood, render this dream somewhat stale. His particular lecture was especially poignant and frustrating for me, because I have my own experience of just this sort of enthusiastic zeal on first discovering the likes of Mises and Rothbard, Nozick and Nock, Friedman and Hans-Hoppe. There is no question that the nation-state, as we presently experience it, is not quite right; that something needs to change, and — if you’re disposed to think as I do — the most likely improvement is going to be in the direction of minimalism and decentralization.

John Holroyd, by comparison, was much more circumspect in his aspirations. Holroyd’s talk offered interesting perspectives on the problem of localism and sense of community, in an increasingly globalized world. He highlights Michael Ignatieff’s book “Ordinary Virtues”, as a possible approach to thinking about these problems, and the book contains many allusions to the earlier iterations of globalization (before and during WWI, for example). Next, he takes on the question of “trans-humanism” – the movement eager to expand the conception of the improvement of human life through medical technology, to include things like cyborg augmentation (e.g., Neuro-link), and life-extension. The problem here, for Holroyd, is how to maintain a sense of humanity in all this augmentation, and what we do about the unintended consequences such changes are likely to have on quality of life and our sense of fulfillment. Lastly, Holroyd wants to tie the answers to these problems to an education system geared toward more human contact. The idea seems to be that, as technology begins to crowd out more and more of our time and attention, a conscious effort is going to have to be made to incorporate a more “organic”, local, human-to-human social culture.

Sam Freemantle’s talk purported to address the question of the future of Liberalism. This may be the most important political question of our age. We are literally on the precipice of ending Liberalism as a political project, and without any serious consideration, that death is likely to come all too quietly. Dr. Freemantle’s talk was useful, in the sense that he rightly pointed out many of the biggest problems posed by Liberalism’s reliance on traditional Utilitarianism, and he rightly lamented several failed attempts to rescue Utilitarianism from itself (namely, in the form of Rawls’ Theory of Justice). However, this talk left me feeling painfully aware of just how much more work needs to be done to revive the Classical Liberal tradition in the mind of the popular demos. Dr. Freemantle only offered tantalizing sketches and suggestions, and while one can’t be faulted for not having “The Answer” in a single one-hour talk, it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever have a sufficient answer. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, but unless someone can explain how something could come out of the slow death of English Liberalism, I remain fearful for the future on this front.

Putting It All Into Perspective
There were a few folks whose talks I did not mention here, but this should not be construed to mean they were not worth attending, or that they were not germane to the theme of the convention. On the contrary, it would be difficult to say that any of the talks “didn’t belong”. The problem, as I see it, is that the subject matter is so broad and so deep, finding ways to integrate it all into a summary such as this, and still do it all justice, is a task for a much better writer than myself. Also, there seems to be an analogy here, to the problem of the discipline of philosophy itself. Socrates takes Gorgias to task for being unable to answer the question of what subject rhetoric is “about”. In a sense, philosophy itself suffers from this problem. Plato wanted to answer the question by asserting that it was Justice and Truth, as such. But, we seem to have collectively rejected that conception throughout history, as simultaneously too narrow, and too ill defined. What philosophy is “about”, and what it is “for”, is not something I can tackle in this post. And perhaps it is too big a question for any one conference, no matter how thorough or lengthy it is.

As is the case with most philosophical inquiry, this conference generated more new unanswered questions, than it answered. Some argue that philosophy is a tool for sense-making, finding the rational order in the chaos of existence, or seeking understanding. Indeed, it seems even I made overtures to such an explanation earlier in this post. But I think now, that maybe the main job of philosophy is not so much “sense-making”, as it is just discovering what the right questions are, in any given age. This, it seems to me, is a task that is needed now, more than ever. We are awash in a sea of noise, from the internet, from the political sphere, and from our various social spheres. One good question can pierce that noise, like a siren in the fog. If this conference has managed to accomplish that, then it was well worth the effort to organize, and well worth the effort to attend. I have indeed heard several sirens throughout the course of the last three days, and as such, count this conference as a rousing success.

The Sorites Paradox – Maybe It’s Not What We Think It is.

It has been asked how, if at all, one might resolve the Sorites paradox. I am not convinced a solution is possible, and in this paper I will explain the responses I have become aware of, and why they fail. In the end, I will conclude that there is no solution to the paradox, but I will offer a few suggestions for a way forward.

The first response might simply be to reject the first premise of the argument. In other words, simply deny that a man with 10 hairs is in fact bald, or that 100 grains of sand is in fact a heap. In essence, this would render vague predicates useless at best, meaningless at worst, since no predicate that allows for a vague border case would be permitted to apply to anything. There is one way in which we might stretch this into plausibility, but I will address the other responses first, before returning to this in the conclusion.

The second response is to set some arbitrary boundary. This means selecting one one among the indefinite number of secondary premises beyond which all others will be false. For example, we might say that thirty-thousand and one grains of sand is the boundary below which we no longer regard a collection of grains to be a heap. At first glance, this approach might seem plausible. After all, we do this frequently in practice: setting the legal drinking age, or the number of credit-hours required to count as a ‘full-time’ student, for example. However, there are two core problems with this. First, from the context of the formal argument, there is no good reason to reject any of the subsequent conditional statements, and there appears to be no means by which we could discover a reason. The implicit modus ponens of the conditional compels us to accept them all. Second, as Wright (Vagueness, 1997) pointed out, vague predicates are inherently coarse by virtue of their intended use. So attempts to impose some sort of specificity would destroy their meaning.

The next approach would be to attempt to define a knowledge gap within some middle range of propositions between the edge false and edge true statements. On one interpretation of the idea, we could use a three-value logic, in evaluating the propositions. At some point, starting with grain one, the proposition ‘this is a heap’ would cease being false, and would instead be valued ‘unknown’ or ‘undefined’. Later, the unknown state would transition to true, once we’ve reached the next threshold. This would make it possible to judge the argument invalid, since any number of its premises were neither true nor false. However, this seems to be attempting to win on a technicality, and it suffers from the same problem as the arbitrary boundary solution, in that we have no real way of determining when the states should change.

The next response might be some form of Edgington’s “degrees” of truth (Vagueness, 1997). But this suffers from it’s own serious flaws. For example, consider the statement ‘it is raining’. That has a ‘degree’ of truth of .5. It’s negation, ‘it is not raining’ will have a degree of truth of .5. The consequence of this, is that the following propositions have exactly the same truth value: ’It is raining, and it is raining’, ’It is raining, and it is not raining’. The same problem exists with our heap of sand. So, again, we’re left with no clear way to determine the truth of the conditionals in the Sorites case.

In the end, there does not seem to be any clear resolution to this paradox. However, I would offer one suggestion. vague predicates, in addition to being inherently coarse, also seem to be describing inherently subjective experiences or judgements. While Sorites arguments seem to want to talk about objective properties of objects. Perhaps there is no solution to the paradox, precisely because “tall” or “heap” or “red” or “bald” is not in fact a property of the object being considered, but a property of the experience the subject has of that object. The paradox is perhaps trying to square subjective interpretation with objective matters of fact. And that’s why it cannot be resolved.

Book Review: Steve Patterson’s “Square One”

Truth is discoverable. I'm certain of it. It's not popular to say. It's not popular to think. But I know it's true. Anybody can discover truth if they know where to look. It only requires skepticism and an open mind. Don't take my word for it. Scrutinize every claim in this book, and if you discover no truth, then you may confidently discard it in the trash.

Patterson, Steve (2016-11-28). Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge (Kindle Locations 77-80). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition.

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On Schopenhauer’s Essay On The Freedom Of The Will

Expound and assess Schopenhauer’s argument that free will is an illusion. Does he succeed in showing what he calls “relative” freedom is not really enough to constitute free will?

Schopenhauer does succeed in logically arguing that what he calls “will” is not “free”, as he conceives the terms “will” and “free”. However, he does not succeed in showing that what we commonly understand to be freedom, is in any way undermined by his conception of the will. At best, he shows is that our common conception is incomplete. I will show that Schopenhauer sets up a false dichotomy between causality and the will via a misapplication of the notion of “negative” freedom, and that he asserts a scientifically inaccurate view of human consciousness that conflates causality with fatalism through his use of the concept of the “character” of the will. Finally, I will forgive Schopenhauer his mistakes, and show how his conception of the will, as crude as it was, pointed (perhaps inadvertently) to a more sophisticated approach to understanding human freedom.

Schopenhauer distinguishes man from animal in his essay by describing our capacity for rational deliberation and showing how this capacity provides us with a means to project decisions far into the future, thus freeing us from the constraints of instinctive behavior determined by immediate environmental concerns. Schopenhauer believes this sense of control over our own actions is what gives us the feeling that “I can do as I will”. This, he says, is the “negative” conception of freedom, meaning that my actions are not necessitated by external obstacles or coercions. But, he argues, being “free to do as I will” is in some sense still constrained, because acts originate from the will, and the will itself is constrained by causality. So, for Schopenhauer, a “free” will would be one that could function independently — i.e., in violation of — the laws of physical causality; and, since no one can show this to be the case except by special pleading, the will must be causally determined, and as such, not “free”.

While the notion of being “free from obstacles” is a good starting point in searching for a definition of freedom, it is a mistake to equate the laws of physical causality with a metaphysical “obstacle”. It suggests that existence is some sort of hurdle that needs to be overcome. This is akin to Descartes’ demand for absolute certainty as a standard of “knowledge”. Both yearn for an ideal realm of absolutes in which the mind is effectively godlike, possessing a sort of unmediated awareness of everything, and capable of a spontaneity akin to Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Engine, producing “decisions” in isolation (or even opposition) to the universe around it. In other words, like Descartes’ conception of knowledge, Schopenhauer’s conception of freedom is designed to render it impossible, leaving us no choice but to accept the negative conclusion that there is no such thing. But is there really no other way to look at this problem, than as an impossible metaphysical trolly dilemma between an utter enslavement to fate, or a miraculous denial of physical causality? For Schopenhauer, the answer is no, and this comes down to his view of the will.

Schopenhauer’s conception of the will is one shrouded in mystery. He describes it only in silhouette, as a feature of what he calls the “self-consciousness”: that part of the mind that is “turned inward” exclusively, and that makes us aware of our inner emotional states. He claims that the will cannot be known “in itself”, but only through the observation of our emotional states and our actions. He describes a decision, or choice, as an event in which an external “motive” is presented to the “outward-looking” consciousness, which then passes that awareness to the will. The combination of motive and the “character” of the will then produces an impulse to act in a certain way, which we can observe via the self-consciousness. He goes on to assert that the “character” of the will is something we are born with, and that remains fixed and immutable throughout our lives. So, for Schopenhauer, the “will” is a sort of Chinese Room, into which motives are inserted, and decisions are ejected, and if we had enough accumulated knowledge of every man’s decisions, we could conceivably define their character precisely, and predict all of their actions into the future, given a complete set of input “motives”.

This is a highly mechanistic view of human psychology of which even B. F. Skinner might have been skeptical. Modern neuroscience and psychology tell us that the brain is a highly “plastic” well into adulthood, that there does not seem to be any “center” of conscious control (aka “will”), and that there are many clinical therapy methods that have been very successful at altering not only behavior, but desires, impulses to action, and emotional responses to external stimuli. If we were to maintain even a metaphorical conception of the “character of the will”, modern science would compel us to a view of it that is anything but immutable. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense why an immutable will is required for Schopenhauer’s conception of the will as “causally determined”. Why is it not possible for external motives to have lasting causal effects on the “character” of the will, such that it’s later outputs did not match early results? Schopenhauer seems, implicitly, to think that this immutability is required in order to maintain his positive claim of causal determinism, but he does not explain why. Perhaps this was his attempt to avoid the “could have done otherwise” question?

For all of the vague and inexplicable features of his theory of will, Schopenhauer did manage to do us a favor. By formulating an idea that was fundamentally empirical, he offered us an opportunity for new knowledge through scientific testing of his theory. By making the distinction between matter-of-fact “negative” freedom, and the more fundamental metaphysical freedom, Schopenhauer helped to clarify the proper boundaries of our concept of freedom. By attempting to delineate the features of the conscious mind in order to isolate the will, he actually helped to begin the process of freeing us from the muddle of Cartesian dogmatisms, even while relying on them in some sense. Seen through the hind-sight lens of modern science, Schopenhauer was quite right to suspect an unexplored universe of activity in the mind occurring below the level of consciousness. The mistake he made, and that we continue to make today, is in assuming that this activity renders us incapable of acting “freely”. Schopenhauer does this because he conflates freedom with a miraculous power to untether oneself from the laws of physics. But it seems perfectly feasible that a complex process of activity – entirely governed by the laws of physics – could be going on at the neuronal level, that produced a behavioral phenomenon in living organisms that could be described as acting “freely”. The problem is, how would we know this? How could we correctly judge which of an organism’s behaviors was “free” and which was not? If I ran a rat through a maze 1,000 times, and it took the same path every time, could I say that the rat’s behavior was “determined”? Whether or not it was actually making “a free choice” is effectively an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If I drive the same route to work every day for a year, and then suddenly decide to change my route because I’m bored, is that evidence of “freedom”, or evidence of some causal factor that if I’d been aware of it a year earlier, could predict accurately, my change in habit? And even if I could predict this accurately, could it really be said that I did not have a “free choice” to take a different route when the year came due? It’s really not clear either way. This suggests that the whole question might be a red herring.

Schopenhauer wisely recognized that our concept of free will was superficial, and somewhat tenuous. Although his effort to achieve clarity overreached was could reasonably asserted in his day, he offered a dim light on the path to understanding the role of the subconscious in our decision-making processes. As such, he helped to make it possible for us to satisfy ourselves with “relative” freedom, even if he was correct that such a thing is an “illusion”. Though, as I have explained already, he hasn’t quite demonstrated that either.

The Qualia Of Dreams

The IEP defines Qualia as:

“…the subjective or qualitative properties of experiences. What it feels like, experientially, to see a red rose is different from what it feels like to see a yellow rose. Likewise for hearing a musical note played by a piano and hearing the same musical note played by a tuba… As [C. I.] Lewis [the originator of the term] used the term, qualia were properties of sense-data themselves. In contemporary usage, the term has been broadened to refer more generally to properties of experience… Qualia are often referred to as the phenomenal properties of experience…”

As I understand this, qualia is what the brain makes, out of the raw data coming across the wires connecting our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and fingers, to the brain. In other words, the meaningful content constructed out of that data. The article also goes on to include emotional responses among the “phenomena of experience”.

If this definition is correct, then what would we call the meaningful content constructed during dreaming? I often dream of driving off the edge of a cliff or a high bridge that’s unfinished. I can feel the free-fall as the car leaves the pavement. I can feel the inertia as I plummet (usually toward a body of water), and I can hear the wind in my ears. I can see the green-gray water of the lake below me. I can feel the water envelop me, as I strike its surface, and I can feel the pressure against my chest. I can taste the water, in my mouth, as I gasp for air after surfacing. And yet, I’m actually lying in bed, sound asleep.

This, of course, is a classic Cartesian complaint about “knowing”. But my main question, is how these feelings are occurring at all, if they are a product of sense data?

The same is true for memories. When I recall a choir concert I’ve been too, I can hear the music in my head (though, this is a bit more obviously distinct from actually hearing). When I recall the time I spent in Vermont, I can smell the mower clippings in our neighbor’s hay field. When I close my eyes, I can see the Alpacas he kept, nosing up to the fence in anticipation of some corn or sugar cubes.

The brain must be storing the original data somewhere up there, and re-purposing it, for memories and dreams. But how?

I think Descartes argument in the Meditations would have been much stronger, if he’d stuck with the dream comparison. Launching off into the demon analogy lost me.

When I was a teen, it was not difficult for me to realize I was in a dream, or to impose conscious intent into my dream landscapes. Realizing my state, it was thrilling to be able to give myself powers of flight or lazer eyes, or extra limbs. But sometimes, I would get stuck in a sort of “third person” mode, as well (Cartesian theater?), where I could watch myself from an oblique overhead perspective. Those dreams were a great deal more frightening (due to the lack of control). However, as I’ve gotten older, it’s become more and more difficult to differentiate between the conscious ego and the dream actor — and much more difficult to realize I am in a dream (when I’m dreaming, of course).

This suggests to me, that dreams either function as, or are a byproduct of, some sort of process of “integration” taking place in the brain. In other words, that our sensual experience, our emotional responses to those experiences, and our rational interpretations of the two, somehow need to be distilled into one thing, before they can “settle” into the personality. What that might look like at the neurological level — if my idea is even coherent — is beyond me.