Falsification HM5501 Lecture 4

October 15, 2017

Karl_PopperWhat we want is some criterion which will allow us to distinguish science from any other discourse. In other words what makes science, science, as opposed to religion? What is specific to the method of science? Our simplest response to this question is that science deals with facts that are objective (out there in some way) and that religion has to do with belief and is subjective. We might want to say, then, that science is true, and religion is not. When we looked at this simple definition, however, the less certain and clear it seemed. For the idea that science is made up of many observations of facts that are then converted into theories breaks down in the problem of induction, which, in its most succinct form, is the impossibility of leaping from a singular judgement to a universal one. No amount of logical finessing will get you from a particular to a universal judgement. This would seem to imply that science is no more objective than religion, and that a theory is as much a belief as any faith, though a particularly strong one when it comes to habits of the human mind.[1]

Moreover, it was also clear that the ‘inductionist’ picture of science was not accurate at all, since facts are not just littered throughout the world such that we pick them up and notice common characteristics from which we then construct some universal law, as though coming up with a scientific theory were no different from observing black crows and coming up with the statement ‘All crows are black’. On the contrary, we already come to facts with a pre-existing theory, which determines which facts we take as relevant or not (or even which fact we can see). As Ladyman explained, Newton did not find the law of gravity in Kepler’s data, he already had to have it in order to interpret the data (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6).

This reversal of the relation between theory and facts, that theory is first and facts second, is the basis of the next philosophy of science that we shall look at, Popper’s theory of falsification, and indeed rose out of the insurmountable problems of ‘inductionism’. His argument is that we should give up induction as the basis of science, but such a rejection would not lead to irrationalism. Rather we substitute for induction, deduction. But did we not argue already in the first lecture that deduction could not be the basis of science, since deduction is merely tautological? Deductive logic tells us nothing new about the world, but only analyses what we already know, whereas science actually tells us something about nature that we didn’t know before.

Deduction does not work as a basis of science only if we move from the singular to the universal, but if we go from the universal back to the singular then deduction does work. Indeed, this move from the universal back to the singular is exactly, Popper argues, how science operates. We do not start with facts and then make laws, rather we start with laws and then we attempt to test them with facts. The logical point is that we can’t go from observations to theories, even if the observations themselves are true, but it is possible the other way around. We can go from theories then back to observational statements to show that the theory is false. Thus to use Chalmers example, if someone was to see a white raven outside the lecture room today, then this would prove deductively that the statement ‘All Ravens are black’ is false. Such deductive arguments are known as modus tollens, which take the form if P, then Q. ⌐Q, therefore ⌐P (Chalmers 1999, p.61).

When we look at the history of science, this seems exactly what happens. Take for the example, Eddington’s proof of Einstein’s theory that gravity bends light. If the theory was correct then a star that was beyond the sun should be displaced from the direction of the observer so that we could see it. Normally the light from the sun would mean that these starts would not be visible to us, but would be if the light of the sun was blocked. Eddington managed to measure just such a displacement with the eclipse of the sun in 1919. For Popper, the point of this story is that he could have proved otherwise. In other words, Einstein’s theory could have been falsified, if there had not been any displacement.

The real difference between science and religion or any other discourse is not the theories or hypotheses put forward, but how they are tested. Popper is adamant that science is creative as any other human discourse and that the origin of this creativity is outside any logical explanation. That someone comes up with such an idea at such a time cannot be logically deduced. Thus, it would require a complex explanation, comprising of psychology, history, and sociology, for example, of how Galileo or Einstein came up with their ideas, and why not someone else, or at different time and place, but what we do know that what makes these creations scientific, as opposed to anything else is that they can be falsified (this is the difference between context of discovery and context of justification). In the opposite case, it does not seem possible to falsify a religion logically. I can always find a reason to believe something. Think for example of the classic problem of evil in theology. How do I justify the existence of God with evil in the world? It is perfectly possible to find such a reason, as Leibniz did, that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’, and it is just our lack of human understanding that prevents us from seeing it so.

Here we might need to know a little of the story of Popper’s life. When he was young he was a communist and of course Marxism was treated as a science. He says that one day in went on a march with his friends and they were attacked by the police and some of them were killed. He was so shaken by this incident that he had to speak about to his political leaders. They told him that these deaths were necessary for the political emancipation of the workers as was explained by scientific Marxism. But what then would falsify Marxism, for they did not seem to be any instance, including the death of his friends that could not be explained by it.[2]

This is precisely the difference between a science and a pseudo-science (religion is only a pseudo-science when it takes itself to be answering scientific questions, otherwise it is perfectly meaningful for Popper): a pseudo-science has the answer to everything and can never not be true, whereas a science does not have the answer to everything and can always be false. It is this that demarcates, to use Popper’s word, empirical science, from anything else, and it is a question of method, rather than logical form, by which he means the positivist obsession with the correlation of statements with aspects of reality. Metaphysics and religion are only pseudo sciences when they pretend to be sciences. If they do not, then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. They are certainly not meaningless which is just derogatory word, rather than having any useful philosophical sense.

If what makes a scientific theory scientific is falsification, what exactly makes a falsification? Can any falsification be scientific? Such a broad generalisation does not seem to be correct because just to falsify something would not make it a scientific theory. I could falsify physics, by quoting Genesis but no one would think I was being scientific. The answer here is intersubjective testability. One cannot conceive of how it would be possible to set up an experiment that would test my falsification of physics that claimed God had created the universe in the way that it is described in Genesis. One can imagine, however how it might be possible to test the falsification of Newtonian science through the prediction made by Einstein, which is entirely what the example from Eddington proves, and it is perfectly possible that other scientists could conceive of such an experiment, whether in principal or in practice.[3]

Could a theory always secure itself by simple adding an ad hoc modification every time a falsification was produced? Thus, to use Chalmers’s example, we could take the generalisation that all bread was nutritious to be falsified by the death of all the members of French village who ate bread. We could then qualify our theory by saying that all bread is nutritious except when it is eaten by these members of the French village and we could do this every time any falsification was discovered. Such ad hoc modification would destroy any progress in scientific discovery. How then can we distinguish between an authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modification (Chalmers 1999, p.75). In this example, the modification cannot be falsified, so it does not tell us anything new about the world. It in fact tells us less than the original theory that all bread nourishes. So, an authentic modification must be one that is also falsifiable. If we had said instead that all bread nourishes except one that is contaminated by certain fungus called Claviceps purpurea, then this would be an authentic ad hoc modification, since it could be tested and falsified, and thus does tell us something new about the world.

This distinction between authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modifications of scientific theories, however, tells us that we should not over-estimate falsifications of theories. When we look at the history of science we can see that ad hoc modifications can confirm rather than deny a theory. Take the case of the discovery of Neptune. Irregularities in the orbit of Uranus predicted that there must be another planet that had not be observed. Rather than reject Newton’s theory, scientists argued that a planet must exist that would explain it. Thus, the fact that Neptune was found in 1846 confirmed Newton’s theory rather than falsified it. Rather than seeing science as just a series of falsifications, which lead from theory to the next, Aristotle to Newton to Einstein, we should see it as the confirmation of bold conjectures and the falsification of cautious ones. For what difference does it make to science if one falsifies conjectures such as the universe is made of porridge or confirms a cautious one? But how then do we determine what makes a bold conjecture? The only answer to this must be background theories themselves, for only in relation to them could we know what would be bold or timid. The background knowledge is therefore the cautious conjecture (what we take to be correct) and the bold conjecture flies in the face of what everyone thinks is the case. We can see, then, what the real fundamental difference between the falsificationist and inductionist is. The first takes the history of science seriously, and the second has no conception of the history of science at all. There is no background knowledge. Rather facts are accumulated as though there were no context at all and science existed in the eternal present.

Is falsification immune to criticism then? The answer must be unfortunately not. The real problem is still the relation to the theory and the observation. All we can say deductively is that if there is O, then the falsity of T follows if the O is not given, but it tells us nothing about the standard of the evidence itself. What if the evidence is incorrect? Perhaps when person who said that the raven was white and no idea what white was. Perhaps the photograph of the white raven was created in Photoshop, and no such evidence exists. Popper does not have a better story about the correctness of evidence than the positivist.

Moreover, when we look at science, it does not take the simple form of ‘All swans are White’. Rather, sciences are made up of complex collection of universal statements which are interrelated to one another. Now if a prediction tells us the theory is false it tells is that one of the premises might be wrong but not which one or even that our own experience might be the problem. It might not the theory that is out, but the ‘test situation’ itself, because we cannot isolate the premise which allows us to falsify the theory (this is known as the Duhem/Quine thesis). So to use Ladyman’s example, if we were to try and predict the path of a comet, the law of gravity would not be sufficient, so if the predication were incorrect we would not know that it was the theory of gravity that was being falsified or something else (Ladyman 2002, pp.77–8). You cannot isolate hypotheses in science and refute one and others, because these different hypotheses fit together to make a whole.

Even if such an isolation were possible, falsification does not seem to capture what scientists do, for when we look at the history of science we do not find one great conjecture following another, but that scientists stick to their theories despite the fact that they can be falsified or they adopt a new hypothesis even though all the known evidence at the time should have killed them off at birth. This is what we find when we look at the detail of the eventual transition from the Aristotelian to the Copernican view of the world as Feyerabend and Kuhn describe it. It certainly was not the simple falsification of the one by the other. Science works, to some extent, because scientists are dogmatic and not open to falsification. If that is the case, how is it possible to differentiate, or demarcate, science from any other dogma? Will we not have to use different criteria, which are more pragmatic and historical than methodological?

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.

Popper, K.R., 2002. Unended quest, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] When we look at science as a method this is a problem. We might ask, however, if we think of science as an activity, whether it is such a problem since science is not a straightforward process of induction.

[2] The source of this story can be found in Popper’s autobiography (Popper 2002, pp.30–8).

[3] Does this open Popper to a more pragmatic account of science than an epistemological one? For if testability is inter-subjective how are we to describe it? Popper appears to want to separate questions of method from question of practice, but later criticisms will in turn want to question this distinction by asking whether it is really the case, when we look at the history of science, that scientists really are committed to the principle of falsifiability. This will be part of Kuhn’s critique of Popper.

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The Problem of Induction HM5501 Lecture 3

October 15, 2017

HumeThe justification of science appears at first glance to be the generalisation of experience. I heat metal x and see that it expands, I heat metal y and see that it expands, I heat metal z and see that it expands, and so on, such that it seems natural that I can claim that all metals expand when I heat them. When you hear then talk, then you would think that most scientists think this is what a scientific argument is, and most would also think this is what we might mean by scientific objectivity. There are, however, two questions we might ask of them. First of all, does the inductive method really produce knowledge in the way they think it does, and secondly even if it did is this how science itself operates in its own history? I actually think the second question is more important than the first. The first question is about scientific method, the second is more about what scientists actually do, and not what they say they do. It is a matter of pragmatics, rather than the logical definition of a method in the abstract.

Let us take the first question first, because it is the more traditional problem of induction, and has its canonical form in the argument of Hume. To understand his problem with induction we first of all need to understand, even if in the most basic way, his epistemology. For Hume, there are two kinds of propositions: relations of ideas, and matters of facts. In the first relation, the truth of our ideas is confined by our ideas alone. Thus if you understand the concept ‘bachelor’ you know the idea ‘unmarried man’ is contained within it. When it comes to matters of fact, however, we have to go beyond our concepts to experience. They tell us something new about the world and not just the ideas we already know. A matter of fact would be that Paris is the capital of France, or metals expand when heated. Of course when you know the idea then you know what is contained in it, but to obtain the idea you first of all have to get the knowledge. You only know that Paris is in France, if you have knowledge of basic geography. You only know that metals expand when heated, if you know metallurgy.

There can be false relations of ideas as there can be false matters of fact. Thus if you think that a whale is a fish, then you have made an error about a relation of ideas (you don’t know that a whale is a mammal), and if you think that Plato died in 399 BC, then you have made an error at the level of facts (Ladyman 2002, p.32). Relations of ideas can be proved true by deduction since the negation is a contraction. Basically relations of ideas are tautologies, you cannot assert that Peter is not a bachelor at the same time as asserting that he isn’t married as well, since being unmarried and being a bachelor are one the same thing. On the other hand, matters of fact cannot be proved by logic alone, but can only be derived from experience and their contradiction is not a fallacy. If I say that Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, none of the terms have a logical relation to one another, so I could assume that there is taller mountain. I would have to experience the different tall mountains on Earth to know which one was tallest or not (Ladyman 2002, p.33). For this reason Hume was extremely sceptical about what one could claim to know deductively. All that one could claim are logical relations between concepts that we already known (whose origin anyway would be the senses). What we cannot claim is to produce new knowledge about the world simply through examining our concepts (as theology and metaphysics is wont to do in his opinion).[1]

These distinctions seem very straight forward and at first glance appear to back up the ‘inductivist’ view of science. The problem for Hume, however, is whether the idea that matters of fact could have the same necessary conclusions as relations of ideas, as the idea of expanding metals as a universal law implies. The key to this problem for Hume is whether I can assert that what happens in the past is a necessary certainty for what will happen in the future. I have experienced the fact that the sun rises every morning. Does this give me the right to say it will rise again tomorrow, when I haven’t actually experience this dawn yet? If it does rise then I will be certain, and in terms of the past, I know that it did rise, but now can I know that I will rise again tomorrow? It is perfectly possible, even if it were unexpected, that the sun might not rise.

Induction for Hume is based upon causal arguments. Our only knowledge of cause and effect is through experience itself because there is no logical reason why any causal relation should hold or not hold. I know matches cause fires, because I know that from experience, not because matches logically contain fire. Just as we can only infer future behaviour of the world from the actual experience of the world, then we can only understand the category of causality from experience. In other words without experience we would not have the concept of causality as a generality. If I always experience the dawn as the rising of the sun then I conjoin this events. If A always follows B, then I will say that A causes B. This because I believe that the future always follows the same path as the past. So that if A happens, then B will happen. Linked to conjunction is contiguity and precedence. Contiguity means that B follows A in time and space, and precedence is that the effect is always after the cause. (the flame is after the lighted match and not before). It is because of conjunction, contiguity, and precedence, that we feel that we have good reason to say that A causes B, or that the sun will rise tomorrow. Hume assertion, however, is that this can never be a necessary reason, as is suggested by generalisation of a universal law, however compelling I feel this causality to be.

Take the example of billiard balls, which seems the most basic relation of causality. The ball X hits the ball Y and causes it to move. But what do we mean by that? Do we mean that the ball X makes the ball Y move or that it produces its movement? We think there is a necessary connection between the two events. X moving and Y moving. What we experience is conjunction, contiguity and precedence, what we do not experience is some mysterious ‘necessary connection’. What we see is ball X and ball Y, what we do not see is some other third thing (like an invisible connection, indeed what we do not see is causality). What does it add to our explanation of the events, even if we were to add this mysterious cause. Wouldn’t the ball X and the ball Y just move in exactly the same way?

The point for Hume is just because two events have always in the past be conjoined, does not mean that we can be universally certain that they will always do so. The conclusion of inductive argument could be false but that would never make it invalid (indeed it might make it more interesting, if the sun did not rise the next day), but this is never the case with a deductive argument if the premises are true, then the conclusion is necessarily true. What underpins the inductive generalisation is the belief that nature is well ordered spatially and temporally, that what happens many times will happen again in the same way. But that is just an assumption. Why must the future always be the same as the past and it certainly is not a logical contradiction if it were not.

Now of course we make these kind of inferences all the time, and Hume accepts that. I probably would not be able to live if I really though the sun would not rise tomorrow every time I went to bed. But this uniformity is a result of our psychology (perhaps it is an evolutionary trait) rather than reason or logic. We find regularity in nature because our habitual associations of events, and not because these events are necessarily connected.[2]

There is no doubt that Hume’s problem is very profound and does make us look at induction more critically, but we might think that the idea that science itself is inductive in the simple way that ‘inductivism’ implies is too simplistic. So the problem is not with induction as such, but how we are using it. It is important to note that this is a very different critique from the methodological one. In the first case, we investigate the method of induction, and like Hume say that is flawed, or might even argue that Hume’s own account of induction is not a correct description of induction.[3] Whereas in the historical account of science, we are arguing whether the description of method is actually how scientists themselves work. One is a description of the content of scientific knowledge, the other is a description of the activity of scientists themselves. Do scientists really act the way that Hume’s example suggests they do? This is a completely different way of doing philosophy of science. For it does not first of all describe a method of doing science and then apply it to scientists, rather it examines what scientists do and from that derives the method. We shall see that this way of understanding science is going to be very important to Kuhn.

Why might we think that scientists do not use the inductive method in the way that induction has been described so far? Take the example of Newton’s Principia (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6). Newton presents in this work the three laws of motion and the law of gravity. From these laws in explains natural phenomena like planetary motion. He says that he has inferred these laws through induction from observation. Now it is French philosopher of science Duhem that points out that there is a problem with Newton’s explanation. The data he is using is Kepler’s. His data proves that the planet will move in circles, whereas Newton’s in ellipses. This means that he could not have inferred gravity from Kepler’s data, rather he already the hypothesis of the law of gravity to interpret Kepler’s data. Even Kepler’s theory could not have be derived from observation, because he took his data from Brahe, but could only organise it by already assuming that planets moved in circles, a hypothesis he didn’t receive from data, but from the mystical Pythagorean tradition.

So there are two reasons why we might be sceptical of the simple inductive explanation of science. One is methodological through the problem of induction (though we might come up with a better inductive method to solve this), and the other is historical, that science does not work in the way that theory of induction describes. I think the latter is the more serious issue than the former. For in the end science is what scientists do, and not what philosophers might idealise that they do. If you like, the problem of induction is a problem for philosophers. It isn’t one for scientists. They work in a very different way indeed.

Works Cited

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.

 


[1] A group of philosophers from the 20th century called logical positivists also liked this distinction, and differentiated mathematical and logical truths, on the one hand, and science on the other. Anything that didn’t fit this schema was said to be nonsense or meaningless. I am not sure that Hume would have gone that far.

[2] Kant’s argument against Hume is that causality is not merely a habit of the mind but a necessary part of our representation of the world. It would not make sense without it.

[3] This is what Ladyman does when he lists all the different ways in which we might counter Hume, the most telling being induction as the ‘best explanation’ (Ladyman 2002, pp.46–7).


Induction HM5501 Lecture 2

October 2, 2017

BaconLast week we spoke about the difference between science and religion. We said it could be conceptualised as one between belief and facts. The more, we investigated, however, what a fact is, the less certain we became of its status as a starting point for scientific investigation. Common sense might tell us that facts are just out there and we simply observe them and scientific theories are merely collections of these observations, but when we look at the history of science, however, this is not how science works. What we take as facts are already determined by the way we understand and see the world, and our observations are equally shaped by this background conceptuality. In the next two lectures, we are going to investigate the problem of induction, which is probably the classic form of the philosophy of science, and we shall see that we’ll come up against the same barrier again. Moreover, the knowledge that science has of the world cannot itself be infallible, because of the very way that it interprets these facts. In this lecture, however, we’ll give a positive account of induction through Francis Bacon’s method in Novum Organum (1620) and we will investigate the problems of induction in the next lecture.[1]

Ordinarily we might think that scientific theories are obtained from facts through observation and this is what makes it different from belief. But what does it exactly mean that theories are obtained or derived from facts? How do we get from the one to the other? What we mean here is something logical rather than temporal. We don’t just mean that first there is a collection of facts, and then a theory, as though facts were just pebbles on a beach that we pick up. A theory, on the contrary, is supposed to tell us something about these facts before we have even discovered them. It is about meaning and context, rather than just what comes first or second in a temporal order.

What then do we mean by derivation when we speak about logic? We don’t have to go into the complexities of logic here but just the basic form since all we are interested is how theories originate from facts. Logic is based upon deduction. Here is a valid deductive argument, which comes from Ladyman:

All human beings are mortal

Socrates is a human being

Socrates is mortal. (Ladyman, 2002, p. 19)

1 and 2 are the premises and 3 is the conclusion. You cannot deny the conclusion if you take the premises as true. We can change the premises slightly, however, as Ladyman writes, and the deduction would be wrong.

All human beings are animals

Bess is an animal

Therefore Bess is a human being (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

What is important here is that it’s the form of the argument itself that is wrong. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if one accepts them. Bess could be any kind of animal. What is positive about deductive arguments is that they are truth preserving. That is, if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is. The problem is that the conclusion does not contain any more information than the premises. It does not tell you anything more about the world and surely this is what science does. Although science uses logic and mathematics, it does tell us something new about the phenomena we observe. If it did not, then there wouldn’t be different theories about the world.

From this is follows that if science is derived from facts then it cannot be done so logically, because logic cannot tell us whether a fact is true or not. If we know there are true facts then we can logically relate them together (logic is ‘truth preserving’), but it is only from experience whether we know they are true or not. Take for example the scientific law that metal expands when it heats. It does not matter how many times that I repeat this, as Chalmers argues, it does not logically follow (as is implied below) that all metals will expand when heated:

metal x expanded when it was heated

metal y expanded when it was heated

metal z expanded when it was heated

All metals expand when heated (Chalmers, 1999, p. 44)

If scientific theories don’t come from facts logically, then how are they derived? The answer must be through experience itself inductively. What do we mean by induction? First of all, the difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that in the latter the conclusion always goes beyond what is contained in the premises, as the example above shows. I can never be certain that all metals will expand when heated, because this is precisely what I assert when I move from singular instances (this metal expands when heated) to the universal judgement that all do so.

How then can I adjudicate between a bad and good inductive argument in the way that I did with deductive ones? It would seem, through common sense, that I might be able to justify my universal judgements if I go through many singular observations. In other words, I observe many samples of metal to investigate whether they do expand or not, and if I observe in this large number that they do, then I would be justified in asserting ‘All metals expand when heated’. Thus, the laws of induction would be

1) The number of observations should be large

2) They must be repeated under a wide range of conditions

3) There should be no exceptions.

It is precisely for this reason that English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon can up with his ‘new method’.[2] First this method is negative. The point is that we should avoid falling into bad arguments rather than coming up with new deductive ones. Bacon’s method is rules about how to practice science by avoiding some of the worst errors. These errors he called ‘idols of the mind’: that we tend to see order and regularity in nature when there is none is the idol of the tribe; that our judgements and are shaped by our language and concepts rather than what we see is the idol of the marketplace; and finally that are views of nature can be distorted by our philosophical and metaphysical systems of thought is the idol of the theatre.[3] From this follows the positive content of Bacon’s method that we ought to make observations of nature that are free of these idols. It is from the mass of information gained through observation that we should make generalisations, rather than understanding our observations through generalisations, which he accuses the philosophers of doing. This he calls the ‘natural and experimental history’.

It is important to understand what Bacon meant by observation is not just looking at the world, but doing experiments, and it this emphasis on experiments that distinguishes the new method from the old Aristotelian one.[4] It is experiments that preserve the objectivity of observations. First, it allows them to be quantified and secondly that they can be repeated by others and thus tested as to their reliability. It is this data from experiments that are then put into tables. To use then example from Bacon of heat: first we have the table of Essence and Presence that lists those things that are directly part of the phenomena of heat; secondly, we have the list of Deviation and Absence, which lists those phenomena that are related to the first but have no heat; and then we have the list of Comparison, where features that have a quantity of heat are listed and quantified. The empirical method is one of elimination. Let us say I argue that the colour white is explanation of heat. Then I would check my tables and I would see that not all the phenomena that are hot are white, or that some phenomena that are white are not hot and so on. White, then, could not be part of theory of heat. Through this process of elimination Bacon explained that heat was caused by the ‘extensive motion of parts’, which is not far from the modern kinetic theory of heat.

Bacon believed one can discover the forms that made what we observed possible, even though they were not directly perceivable. These forms where the direct physical cause of what we saw. This was the rejection of final causes, where natural phenomenon where viewed as purposive. The Aristotelian explanation, for example, that stones fall to the ground was because the earthly element sought to fall to the centre of the earth. Teleological explanations such as these are only suitable for human actions (since humans unlike stones do have desires) but not natural phenomena. The ubiquity of physical causes is the major different between new empirical science of the 17th century and the old science of Aristotle’s era that had dominated the explanation of nature for so long.

There are, however, problems with induction. First, what is the status of the non-observed forms that are the physical cause of what we observe. How can we make a leap from what is seen to what is not seen? It is possible to see how heat might be explained by Bacon’s method since in fact we can see the motion, but how would we go about explaining radiation? Also, we see in science that there can be two competing forms that explain the same visible phenomena such as the two theories of light, for example. Bacon does have an answer for the last problem. He says that we ought to set up two competing experiments that would test what we observe and we could see which was the more successful. But this already demonstrates what we might doubt about Bacon’s new method. In this case are not the theories themselves determining the experiments and not what we observe? Bacon says that science is made from two pillars: observation and induction and that we ought to be able to observe nature without prejudice (the prejudices being the idols of the mind). This is perhaps what most people think that science is. We take many instances and then we generalise a law. Yet the problem is how we account for this mysterious leap from the particular to the universal. How many instances make a general law and if there is an exception does this mean that law is no longer a law?

There are, then, two problems with the principle of induction as Bacon describes it. One is that we might doubt that any observation is unprejudiced. This is not just in a negative sense as Bacon describes it, but also positively, that without a theory it is hard to know what one would observe in the first place. If one didn’t have a theory of electricity why would you set up experiments to observe it? Secondly, we might worry about how it is possible to go from many observations to a general law. Just because X has happened many times before, how do we know we know that it will happen again? This problem of induction, as it is called, and was introduced by the Hume, and has for many made naïve induction untenable. We shall investigate this problem in next week’s lecture.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science? University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Qld.

Gaukroger, S., 2001. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, P., 2007. Was there a Scientific Revolution? European Review 15, 445–457.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science. Routledge, London; New York.


[1] Although Newton had not read Bacon’s work, his scientific method was widely seen as following his account of induction, and through the fame of the former, has become the ‘common sense’ view of science. For a general account of the importance of Bacon for the image of science, see (Gaukroger, 2001).

[2] See (Ladyman, 2002, pp. 22–5) for this summary of Bacon’s method.

[3] As we can see, what Bacon sees as idols, we might see as unavoidable necessities and this precisely prevents us from accepting the naive inductive explanation of science.

[4] On the importance of experiments to Bacon’s conception of science, and the subsequent transformation of science from a solitary to a communal affair, see (Harrison, 2007).


Why Philosophy? Lecture 1 HM4511

September 24, 2017

thalesPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives, we do not question our fundamental principles, values, or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were the first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one these first, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theaetetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end, is not on Thales, but those who laughed at him, because, according to Aristotle, having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he could predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune by cornering the market in olive presses (Politics 1.11 1259a5-19).[1] Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being. In this way, he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals, and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what the word ‘philosophy’ means in Greek (φίλος meaning ‘love’ and σοφία meaning ‘wisdom’), is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas non-philosophers always know they have found the truth and everyone else is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.[2]

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives? Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes, and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we must accomplish throughout our whole lives, and is something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that can choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction, and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though our time were endless and we could always put off deciding. It’s a bit like how we think about our own death. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course, that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here.[3] He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.

Works Cited

White, Stephen, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.


[1] For a full account of what we know about Thales, which is very little, see, Stephen White, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[2] Perhaps Plato typifies the non-philosophy in the figure of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who does not like arguing or contemplating the truth from different perspectives but always wants to win. The practice of philosophy, what it means to philosophise, is as of much importance to Plato, perhaps even more so, than the content.

[3] You can watch him talk about this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0O09_ZekE. He starts talking about his spirtual experience at about 8.36.


Induction – Lecture 2

October 10, 2016

BaconLast week we spoke about the difference between science and religion. We said it could be conceptualised as one between belief and facts. The more, we investigated, however, what a fact is, the less certain we became of its status as a starting point for scientific investigation. Common sense might tell us that facts are just out there and we simply observe them and scientific theories are merely collections of these observations, but when we look at the history of science, however, it is clear that this is not how science works. What we take as facts are already determined by the way we understand and see the world, and our observations are equally shaped by this background conceptuality. In the next two lectures, we are going to investigate the problem of induction, which is probably the classic form of the philosophy of science, and we shall see that we’ll come up against the same barrier again. Moreover, the knowledge that science has of the world cannot itself be infallible, because of the very way that it interprets these facts. In this lecture, however, we’ll give a positive account of induction through Francis Bacon’s method in Novum Organum (1620).[1]

Ordinarily we might think that scientific theories are obtained from facts through observation and this is what makes it different from belief. But what does it exactly mean that theories are obtained or derived from facts? How do we get from the one to the other? What we mean here is something logical rather than temporal. We don’t just mean that first of all there is a collection of facts, and then a theory, as though facts were just pebbles on a beach that we pick up. A theory, on the contrary, is supposed to tell us something about these facts before we have even discovered them. It is about meaning and context, rather than just what comes first or second in a temporal order.

What then do we mean by derivation when we speak about logic? We don’t have to go into the complexities of logic here but just the basic form since all we are interested is how theories originate from facts. Logic is based upon deduction. Here is a valid deductive argument, which comes from Ladyman:

All human beings are mortal

Socrates is a human being

Socrates is mortal. (Ladyman, 2002, p. 19)

1 and 2 are the premises and 3 is the conclusion. You cannot deny the conclusion if you take the premises as true. We can change the premises slightly, however, as Ladyman writes, and the deduction would be wrong.

All human beings are animals

Bess is an animal

Therefore Bess is a human being (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

What is important here is that it’s the form of the argument itself that is wrong. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if one accepts them. Bess could be any kind of animal. What is positive about deductive arguments is that they are truth preserving. That is, if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is. The problem is that the conclusion does not contain any more information than the premises. It does not tell you anything more about the world and surely this is what science does. Although science uses logic and mathematics, it does tell us something new about the phenomena we observe. If it did not, then there wouldn’t be different theories about the world.

From this is follows that if science is derived from facts then it cannot be done so logically, because logic cannot tell us whether a fact is true or not. If we know there are true facts then we can logically relate them together (logic is ‘truth preserving’), but it is only from experience whether we know they are true or not. Take for example the scientific law that metal expands when it heats. It does not matter how many times that I repeat this, as Chalmers argues, it does not logically follow (as is implied below) that all metals will expand when heated:

metal x expanded when it was heated

metal y expanded when it was heated

metal z expanded when it was heated

All metals expand when heated (Chalmers, 1999, p. 44)

If scientific theories don’t come from facts logically, then how are they derived? The answer must be through experience itself; that is to say, inductively. What do we mean by induction? First of all the difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that in the latter the conclusion always goes beyond what is contained in the premises, as the example above shows. I can never be certain that all metals will expand when heated, because this is precisely what I assert when I move from a singular instances (this metal expands when heated) to the universal judgement that all do so.

How then can I adjudicate between a bad and good inductive argument in the way that I did with deductive ones? It would seem, through common sense, that I might be able to justify my universal judgements if I go through a number of singular observations. In other words, I observe a large number of samples of metal to investigate whether they do expand or not, and if I observe in this large number that they do, then I would be justified in asserting ‘All metals expand when heated’. Thus the laws of induction would be

1) The number of observations should be large

2) They must be repeated under a wide range of conditions

3) There should be no exceptions.

It is precisely for this reason that English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon can up with his ‘new method’.[2] First of all this method is negative. The point is that we should avoid falling into bad arguments rather than coming up with new deductive ones. Bacon’s method is rules about how to practice science by avoiding some of the worst errors. These errors he called ‘idols of the mind’: that we tend to see order and regularity in nature when there is none is the idol of the tribe; that our judgements and are shaped by our language and concepts rather than what we see is the idol of the marketplace; and finally that are views of nature can be distorted by our philosophical and metaphysical systems of thought is the idol of the theatre.[3] From this follows the positive content of Bacon’s method that we ought to make observations of nature that are free of these idols. It is from the mass of information gained through observation that we should make generalisations, rather than understanding our observations through generalisations, which he accuses the philosophers of doing. This he calls the ‘natural and experimental history’.

It is important to understand what Bacon meant by observation is not just looking at the world, but doing experiments, and it this emphasis on experiments that distinguishes the new method from the old Aristotelian one.[4] It is experiments that preserve the objectivity of observations. First of all, it allows them to be quantified and secondly that they can be repeated by others and thus tested as to their reliability. It is this data from experiments that are then put into tables. To use then example from Bacon of heat: first we have the table of Essence and Presence that lists those things that are directly part of the phenomena of heat; secondly, we have the list of Deviation and Absence, which lists those phenomena that are related to the first but have no heat; and then we have the list of Comparison, where features that have a quantity of heat are listed and quantified. The empirical method is one of elimination. Let us say I argue that the colour white is explanation of heat. Then I would check my tables and I would see that not all the phenomena that hot are white, or that some phenomena that are white are not hot and so on. White, then, could not be part of theory of heat. Through this process of elimination Bacon explained that heat was caused by the ‘extensive motion of parts’, which is not far from the modern kinetic theory of heat.

Bacon believed one can discover the forms that made what we observed possible, even though they were not directly perceivable. These forms where the direct physical cause of what we saw. This was the rejection of final causes, where natural phenomenon where viewed as purposive. The Aristotelian explanation, for example, that stones fall to the ground was because the earthly element sought to fall to the centre of the earth. Teleological explanations such as these are only suitable for human actions (since humans unlike stones do have desires) but not natural phenomena. The ubiquity of physical causes is the major different between new empirical science of the 17th century and the old science of Aristotle’s era that had dominated the explanation of nature for so long.

There are, however, problems with induction. First of all, what is the status of the non-observed forms that are the physical cause of what we observe. How can we make a leap from what is seen to what is not seen? It is possible to see how heat might be explained by Bacon’s method since in fact we can see the motion, but how would we go about explaining radiation? Also we see in science that there can be two competing forms that explain the same visible phenomena such as the two theories of light, for example. Bacon does have an answer for the last problem. He says that we ought to set up two competing experiments that would test what we observe and we could see which was the more successful. But this already demonstrates what we might doubt about Bacon’s new method. In this case are not the theories themselves determining the experiments and not what we observe? Bacon says that science is made from two pillars: observation and induction and that we ought to be able to observe nature without prejudice (the prejudices being the idols of the mind). This is perhaps what most people think that science is. We take many particular instances and then we generalise a law. Yet the problem is how we account for this mysterious leap from the particular to the universal. How many instances make a general law and if there is an exception does this mean that law is no longer a law?

There are, then, two problems with the principle of induction as Bacon describes it. One is that we might doubt that any observation is unprejudiced. This is not just in a negative sense as Bacon describes it, but also positively, that without a theory it is hard to know what one would observe in the first place. Secondly, we might worry about how it is possible to go from many observations to a general law. Just because X has happened many times before, how do we know we know that it will happen again? This problem of induction, as it is called, and was introduced by the Hume, and has for many made naïve ‘inductivism’ untenable. We shall investigate this problem in next week’s lecture.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science? University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Qld.

Gaukroger, S., 2001. Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, P., 2007. Was there a Scientific Revolution? European Review 15, 445–457.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science. Routledge, London; New York.


[1] Although Newton had not read Bacon’s work, his scientific method was widely seen as following his account of induction, and through the fame of the former, has become the ‘common sense’ view of science. For a general account of the importance of Bacon for the image of science, see (Gaukroger, 2001).

[2] See (Ladyman, 2002, pp. 22–5) for this summary of Bacon’s method.

[3] As we can see, what Bacon sees as idols, we might see as unavoidable necessities and this precisely prevents us from accepting the inductive explanation of science.

[4] On the importance of experiments to Bacon’s conception of science, and the subsequent transformation of science from a solitary to a communal affair, see (Harrison, 2007).


Why Philosophy?

September 25, 2016

thalesPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives, we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end, is not on Thales, but those who laughed at him, because, according to Aristotle, having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune by cornering the market in olive presses (Politics 1.11 1259a5-19).[1] Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being. In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what the word ‘philosophy’ means in Greek (φίλος meaning ‘love’ and σοφία meaning ‘wisdom’), is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas non-philosophers always know they have found the truth and everyone else is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.[2]

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, and is something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though our time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own death. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here.[3] He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life lived without knowing how it might end up.

Works Cited

White, Stephen, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.


[1] For a full account of what we know about Thales, which is very little, see, Stephen White, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[2] Perhaps Plato typifies the non-philosophy in the figure of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who does not like arguing or contemplating the truth from different perspectives but always wants to win. The practice of philosophy, what it means to philosophise, is as of much importance to Plato, perhaps even more so, than the content.

[3] You can watch him talk about this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0O09_ZekE. He starts talking about his spiritual experience at about 8.36.


Levinas on the Difference between Morality and Ethics – Lecture 7

August 29, 2016

Levinas-portraitFor Gaita the difference between ethics and morality is that the former is the relation to the other in their individuality, whereas the latter is conceptual. The psychiatrists, in the hospital he worked at, could speak of their patients in terms of rights and dignity, but their actions showed the opposite. Whereas the behaviour of the nun, in her love of them, showed Gaita what it meant to treat every human life as infinitely precious. It was actions that revealed this truth rather than words. Levinas makes the same fundamental distinction. He asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, ‘whether we are not duped by morality’ (1969, p. 21). This is not because he thinks that we live in a world without values, but like Gaita, there is relation to the other that transcends all values and norms. Ethics is the immediate response to the other human being who makes a demand on me without negotiation or legitimation on my part. Ethics is not decided by me thinking whether I have an obligation or not, but through my response to the suffering and vulnerability of others. The opposite to this, which can sometime be justified by a morality without ethics, is a violence against the other human being.

Gaita, as we have seen, comes from a wittgensteinian tradition, whereas Levinas’s background is phenomenology, so it would be worth looking at this first before we go onto explain Levinas’s ethics in any detail. Phenomenology, through the teaching and writings of Husserl, is return to the roots and beginnings of philosophy. He sees it as a recommencement and reminder of what philosophy is meant to be. Within the modern context, this is an argument against naturalism, which is the belief that science is the only discourse that can make sense of the world. Just as philosophy freed itself from the shackles of theology it then subordinated itself to science, but even science is dependent on the original presentation of the world, for if the world did not present itself to us how would we begin to explain it? This original presentation of the world through perception is the basis of any scientific explanation and is the task of philosophy to describe it. The fundamental basis of the presentation is intentionality. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. I never just see something before me, but always ‘something as something’, the tree as a tree, the car as a car and so on.

One way to think of the difference between ethics and morality is through the phenomenological presentation of the world. The question is, does the other appear to me differently from other objects in the world, and if the other does appear differently, then can this difference be explained ethically? When Levinas speaks of the presence of the other, he does so in terms of the face, but he does not mean by the face some kind of objective property that another person might have, like the colour of their hair or the shape of their eyes. No doubt we can relate to other people like that, and for the most part we do so. Others just belong to the rest of the furniture of the world and I hardly notice them. Yet in this way, Levinas would argue, I am not having an ethical relation to them at all. I am like the psychiatrists in Gaita’s example. I can speak about the patients using words like ‘rights’, ‘dignity’, and ‘respect’, but I don’t really ‘see’ them at all in their individuality and singularity.

Levinas speaks of this radical difference between the ethical relation to the other and the relation to others through categories and concepts as the impossibility of murder. This sounds strange and peculiar because we know that murder is not impossible. Levinas’s point is not that we do not kill and harm others, but that it is only possible because we already have robbed them of a human face. We remember Reznikoff’s poem in the previous lecture. The S.S. officer can brutally murder the mother and child because he does not see their faces. They are only things, ‘vermin’, obstacles that need to be eliminated. They are less worthy of sympathy than a stray dog.

In several interviews in the 1980s, Levinas refers to an incident in Vassily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, whose subject matter is German siege of Stalingrad and the Soviet defeat of the Nazi’s, as a way of explaining what he means by ethics (2001, pp. 80–1).[1] The book is about the terrible and horrific events of the 20th century, battles, massacres and genocide, but it is the little human events one remembers after reading it. One such event happens at the end of the book, when the battle of Stalingrad is over. German prisoners are being used to bury the dead who are found everywhere. There is crowd watching them. One prisoner is a German officer who is tormented by what he is doing. He seemed to be the only one who was affected, but for this reason attracted the scorn and anger of the little crowd. One corpse they picked up was a child. Someone in the crowd shouted out as though they recognised her, as though they were her mother. The crowd was on edge and was ready to visit the worst violence against the German officer. She picked up a brick and was ready to assault him, but as she strode to him she did something that was perfectly senseless in the situation. She felt for a piece of bread in her pocket and gave it to him, saying ‘There, have something to eat’ (Grossman, 2006, pp. 395–6). Levinas says of this incident and the rest of the book, ‘there are acts of stupid, senseless goodness. Grossman shows is this throughout the whole book.’ (2001, p. 89). Why describe such actions as ‘stupid’? They are not legitimised by any political, or moral system. Indeed, they are the very opposite of systems of morality and work in opposition to them. They are the direct response to the human being who stands before me beyond ideology, creed or dogma. The woman recognises the German officer as a human being and gives to him her last bread, even she can’t even explain or understand why she did so. You could see this scene against the one portrayed in Reznikoff’s poem. He did not see the mother or child as human beings because of a system of morals, however perverted and hostile to human life it was, whereas she saw the humanity and suffering in the German officer, despite dogma and ideology that would have made him an object of hatred and violence.

Levinas describes this ethical relation in detail in his book Totality and Infinity (1969). It is the relation of the self to the other outside of any conceptual or categorical system. Levinas describes it as a concrete event. Not the ‘I’ as it is thought, but lived. Not the ‘other’ as someone I think or theorise about, but other that stands before in their singular presence. The ethical relation, as Levinas describes it, is asymmetrical. He means by that, that the relation of the other to me is not the same as my relation to them. The ethical moment of this relation is when the other’s presence makes a demand upon me and calls into question my possession of the world. There is no reciprocal demand. Subjectivity, as concretely experienced, is egoism. I enjoy and possess my world, and in this enjoyment others are of no concern to me at all. Ethics is only possible because the other’s presence calls into question my self-centred happiness. The other interrupts my world and demands justice from me. I do so of them.

The way that Levinas describes this ethical relation of transcendence is through the primacy of speech. The theoretical relation to the world, including other people, is one of vision. I perceive and see things and then subsequently label them. The relation of ethics, where the other calls me into question, happens in the relation of speech. The other speaks to me and only then do they have a ‘face’ and I respond to them. The face, then, for Levinas is not physiognomy, but the presence of the other in the words they speak. In Grossman’s story, the woman sees the German officer and hates him. He represents for her all the terrible events of the war and the dreadful acts of the Nazis. She does not see him. He just represents for her the category ‘Nazi’ or ‘German’. It is only when she speaks to him, when she says to him ‘have something to eat’ does she respond to him as one human being facing another. He does not represent anything. He is only this suffering being in front of her that she responds to with kindness and generosity, however senseless it might be in that situation. Speech is the experience of the other as other.

If Levinas were to criticise Gaita, he would probably say two things. First of all, the way that he describes ethical relation is as though it came from the side of the self rather than the other. It is up to me whether I love the other or not and reveal them in the common humanity. It is the nun who reveals the humanity of the patients and only then is this revealed to Gaita as though at third hand. In some sense, therefore, the difference between ethics and morality is only a different kind of thought, how Gaita thinks about ethics once he understands the actions of the nun. For Levinas, on the contrary, ethics comes from the side of the other, who makes a demand upon me, and then I act. This is why the end of Grossman’s story is so different. The woman doesn’t not understand why she gave the German officer the bread and never does. ‘Lying on her bed, full of bitterness, she was to remember that winter morning outside the cellar and think: “I was a fool then, and I’s still a fool now.”’ (Grossman, 2006, p. 394). Secondly, perhaps because Gaita is describing the ethical relation from the outside, it is a relation of vision rather than speech. The nun is speaking and responding to each patient she meets as ‘infinitely precious’, but Gaita only looks. His remorse is subsequent to this event, but in some sense he still keeps at a distance from it.

If there is a difference between ethics and morality, this does not mean that for Levinas we are duped by morality. We are only fooled if we place morality or systems higher than the ethical moment. Our moralities, as we have seen throughout human history, can betray our humanity rather than elevate it, for what better way to justify violence, murder and death, than through a morality. In fact, it is probably impossible to commit just dreadful acts without a belief system to support them so that one does not have to experience the humanity of one’s victim. We are not deceived if our morality is constantly held in check by ethics , like a scepticism, as Levinas compares it, that constantly haunts the pretension of reason’s having the last word, (1991, pp. 165–71).

When we observe the political justification of violence and indifference (think of the casual way that we speak of refugees and immigrants, as though they were not human beings like us), we might think Levinas’s and Gaita’s ethics is sentimental. This is Badiou’s accusation against this kind of ethics (2001). Rather than solving or changing the state of the world in which we live, it lives of this suffering, since in my response to it I can assuage my conscience without having done anything at all. This ethics is just a ‘pious discourse’ but does nothing at all to change the world, or even worse feeds of the world that it fails to transform. The more victims there are the more I can feel good about myself for defeating evil in the world. If there were no victims what could I do. So just as much as ethics must call into question our politics, so too must our ethics be translated into discourse. It not sufficient to simply respond to the other. You have to have in mind the others too who aren’t present there.[2]

Works Cited

Badiou, A., 2001. Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil. Verso, London; New York.

Critchley, S., 2004. Five Problems in Levinas’s View of Politics and the Sketch of a Solution to Them. Political Theory 32, 172–185.

Grossman, V.(, 2006. Life and fate. Vintage, London.

Lévinas, E., 2001. Is it righteous to be?: interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Lévinas, E., 1991. Otherwise than being, or, Beyond essence. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht; Boston.

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Morgan, M.L., 2011. The Cambridge introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.


[1] For an excellent explanation of Grossman’s importance to Levinas, see (Morgan, 2011, pp. 16–29).

[2] For an important discussion of politics in Levinas, see (Critchley, 2004).