Utilitarianism – Lecture 1

April 24, 2016

John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870In this course I am making a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality is the application of reason to moral decisions. Ethics, on contrary, is not about procedures but how I respond, or fail to respond to the sufferings of others. This isn’t a matter of reason, but of sensibility, since it is perfectly possible to ‘reason’ oneself out of ethics simply by refusing the status of humanity to others.

In Western philosophy, at least, there are 3 standard form of moral rationality (though the third is really a critique of the other 2): utilitarianism, deontology and virtue theory. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of acts, whereas deontology emphasises the intentions of the agent. What is common to them both, however, is that they begin with the self and the self is primarily understood as a rational agent. It is this presupposition that will be questioned to some extent by the third theory, virtue theory, and fundamentally by ethics. In virtue theory, will still begin with the self, but the self is interpreted as existing in a concrete situation (a given community, society and history) whose values are embedded rather than deduced rationally, and what matter is not just the intentions or consequences of actions, but character and authenticity. Ethics, as we shall later in the course, goes even further than this, because it questions whether we should begin with the self at all, but rather with others, and that our commitment to others is first about sensibility, rather than rationality (in other words that the relation to other is different from the relation of the self to itself in moral reflection).

In this lecture, we are going to focus on utilitarianism, which is perhaps the most popular and well known, but also the one moral theory that pervades our everyday lives because it is the basis of public policy and government decisions that generally are taken on a utility basis. There are two version of utilitarianism. One by Bentham and the other by Mill, whose version can be seen as a correction of the formers. The basis of Bentham’s utilitarianism is the ‘happiness principle’. A policy or decision is moral if it contributes to the general happiness of everyone. Happiness, here, is a psychological category, and for Bentham is a quantifiable and calculable in terms of its intensity and duration. What is good is what gives us pleasure, what is bad, is what causes us pain. All moral arguments come down to the maximisation of happiness as opposed to personal preference or dogma.

An example of Bentham’s utilitarianism in action would be the planned creation of workhouses in England in the 19th Century, which luckily for the poor were never fully implemented.[1] Bentham’s argument was that encountering the poor on the street was a public nuisance that lead to a decrease in the happiness of the majority so it would be better for them to be incarcerated in workhouses against their will. Moreover, it was better for society as whole if the poor were forced to work rather than being unproductive parasites, as he saw it, on society. By putting the poor to work they would in fact pay for the cost of the workhouses, and therefore not be a burden on the taxpayer. Although these ideas where never fully put into action, we can still here them loud and clear today.

Why might some find Bentham’s ideas morally dubious however unpractical they turned out to be? The fundamental problem is it sacrifices the freedom of the individual for the sake of society as a whole.[2] The workhouse was repressive and cruel system that destroyed the lives of those who were incarcerated, as the novels of Dickens portray, and it seems hardly justifiable to argue that destroying a human life is justifiable for the sake of the happiness of the majority. If this were the case, as Sandel argues, why wouldn’t we justify the throwing of the Christians to the lions, since the majority obviously gained pleasure from this spectacle (2010, p. 37)? Can the pleasure of one, justify the pain of another? Doesn’t this go against our moral intuitions?

As Sandel goes onto write, some people have used this argument to justify torture. We might think that the suffering of an individual is not as important as the social good gained by torture.[3] We could think of good utilitarian arguments, he adds, about why torture is wrong: that in the end you don’t gain much information from torturing people; that society itself, in the long run, would be undermined if we let systematic torture happen (what would be the difference between us and our enemies?); that our own soldiers and agents would be tortured. Yet there is also an argument on principle that torture is wrong. The dignity of the individual outweighs any utility (this is the same critique of Bentham’s workhouses and prisons).

One way that people justify torture is the ‘ticking time bomb’. The argument goes that if a nuclear device were to go off and we had a terrorist in our hands, then all of us would tortures the terrorist to find out the information and stop the bomb. The problem with this scenario, as Sandel points out, is that we are not describing like with like. It implies that the person being tortured is innocent like us and therefore we are willing to sacrifice one life for another, but of course the terrorist is not the same as us. The real example to see whether you think there could be a utilitarian defence of torture would be whether you think it would be worth sacrificing the innocent daughter of the terrorist to find out why the bomb is. Would the happiness of the majority justify the suffering and death of a child?

Our worries about utilitarianism, at least in the crude form that it put forward by Bentham and public policy, is that it isn’t a moral philosophy at all but just a moral calculation, which reduced every human life to a common denominator. Sandel alludes to the famous example of the exploding gas tanks in the Ford Pinto (which was the basis of the scene in the film The Fight Club) (2010, p. 43). When Ford did a cost benefit analysis if found that the cost of fixing the fault was higher than the costs of people burning or dying. Is there not something morally repugnant about putting a value on someone’s life in this way, in the same way that Bentham only saw the lives of the poor in terms of an economic value?

It is for these reasons that Mill sought to improve Bentham’s utilitarianism. First of all he makes a distinction, though it is not always clear in his text, between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. In act utilitarianism, a utility calculus is performed for every situation. Thus it is perfectly possible, that in a particular situation, the best cause of action would be to tell a lie since this promote the happiness of the greatest number. Rule utilitarianism does not focus on the consequence of an action, but a rule. The argument then would be about whether telling lies would benefit society as whole, as opposed to keeping promises. Rule utilitarianism would not justify, therefore the telling of lies in any situation, because constantly making exceptions to the rule would undermine social relations confidence and trust.

Mill’s fundamental reform of Bentham, however, is at the level of the psychology of pain and pleasure. For Bentham, this was a matter merely of quantity, intensity and duration. Every rational creature would seek pleasure and avoid pain. Mill’s argument is that it is psychological incorrect to reduce pain and pleasure to sensation and everyone knows this through introspection. We do not merely speak of quantity of a feeling but also the quality of one. Even when we speak of pain, we can think of a dull or a sharp pain. We can think of dull pain being more or less painful and the same with a share one, but the difference between them is qualitative not quantitative. As rational beings we are capable of ordering our desires qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

Everyone knows Mill’s famous statement ‘It is better to be human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. When it comes to individual acts, this might be difficult to defend. It is really true that reading book is more pleasurable than sex? Even those who like reading books would hardly defend that. Moreover, is it true to say that in having sex I don’t use my mind at all? Mill’s dictum makes no sense if we think about it in this way, and is hardly convincing psychologically. When Mill is thinking about the quality of pleasure he is thinking about life lived as whole (this again is the important difference between act and rule utilitarianism). Would a life that was dedicated wholly to sex be better than a life that was not? Mill’s argument would be that it wouldn’t be if we thought about society as whole, for the one reason that person who dedicated their lives solely to sensual pleasures would essentially be selfish and egotistical. It is only through education that I would realise that society exists only because of the selfless acts of others who are willing to sacrifice their own advantage.

In some sense Mill could be seen as a utopian socialist, as opposed to the reactionary views of Bentham, and the revolutionary socialism of Marx.[4] His utilitarianism is about social progress, which the major theme of his work On Liberty, and which should be seen as the context of his moral theory. What would benefit the majority rather than the minority? A morality that has its source in intuition or tradition tends to be authoritarian, reactionary and conservative. We ought to change the world so as make it better for the vast majority of people, and the two great wants in our word are poverty and disease, so we should change the world to rid ourselves from them. The problem is that we can certainly imagine a despotic society that could achieve these ends rationality without individual rights. Do we think this sacrifice is worth it, or does it undermine human dignity and respects for others beyond calculation for a future good? It seems the only way to save utilitarianism is through the idea of dignity, but the latter cannot be determined by a calculus. It is a principle.

Works Cited

Bahmueller, C.F., 1981. The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s silent revolution. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kurer, O., 1992. J.S. Mill and Utopian Socialism. Economic Record 68, 222–32.

Sandel, M.J., 2010. Justice what’s the right thing to do ? Penguin books, London.

Schiemann, J.W., 2016. Does torture work? Oxford University Press, New York.


[1] For a full historical account of Bentham’s ideas and implementation of Poor Law reform in England, see (Bahmueller, 1981).

[2] A separate and equally important issue is whether poverty is the fault of the individual. The real cause of poverty in England that the time was not the idleness of the working classes, but the Corn Laws, and industrialisation. Bentham’s incarceration of the poor stems from a fear of revolution not a concern with their welfare.

[3] This moral argument is different from the argument whether torture works or not, which it does not. The moral argument would be that even if torture did work, it would still be wrong. For an account of whether torture actually works, using game theory, see (Schiemann, 2016).

[4] For a detailed account of why Mill should be considered a utopian socialist, see (Kurer, 1992)


Aesthetics – Lecture 5

April 21, 2016

brillo-soap-pads-1969What do we mean by aesthetic judgement and what are we doing when we talk about something that we call art. The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek word αισητική. It means ‘sensation’ in the sense in which we might feel the cool wind blow against our cheeks or the taste of the bitter sweet coffee in the morning. Both these are sensations. Let use this word as a clue for our own investigation of aesthetics, even though for the ancient Greeks this word had no reference to art. We might say, therefore, that the first, and most simple, component of art is the existence of an object, for it is objects that we sense. Let us not make any judgement about this object at the moment, for we will want to leave the contentious debate about what constitutes an art or media object till the end of this lecture. At the moment all we have before us is an object and the idea, perhaps the most obvious one, that without objects there wouldn’t be any art.

So well and good. But what is an object in an aesthetic sense? We know what it means to sense an object, but is this all we are speaking about when we speak about an art object. We say that the object has certain properties or qualities that are, what can we say, ‘picked up’ by the brain in the way that a radio picks up signals from space. The coffee is bitter and sweet and this bitterness and sweetness is somehow, very mysteriously, transported to my brain via the taste buds of my mouth and tongue, and then even more mysteriously translated into the thoughts ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ in my mind (not my brain this time!).

This whole occult process of sensation has been the debating point of philosophers for centuries. Is the sensed object real? Is the bitterness and sweetness actually in the object, or only in my mind? How can we distinguish the brain from the mind? And so on and on ad nauseam. Thankfully for us we don’t have to get involved in this debate, but it has introduced something that we might find as useful for the understanding art as an object, and that it is the subject who senses, perceives and reflects about the object. Thus, no matter what kind of art we are talking about we can always say that there must be at least two things: an object, and a subject relating some way with it.

Let us stay with this subject and object for a bit, and see whether it may help us understand the nature of aesthetic judgement a little bit more. The question we need to ask ourselves is how the subject, the spectator, stands towards the art or media object. To get closer to this we need to think about how we ordinarily stand towards objects in the world. I would say that objects mean something to us in relation to their uses. We interpret objects in relation to what matters to us. Thus, it is probably incorrect to say that we have sensations that we then convert into meaningful objects, rather the world of objects we move around in, and which is our home and context, is already meaningful for me. I do not hear sounds out of my window and then hear a car, rather I hear the sound of the car from the first (of course I might hear sounds that I cannot recognise, but they would still have the meaning ‘unrecognisable sound’ attached to them, and I might be wrong about the sound that I hear, but nonetheless I would be hearing meaningful sounds and not just a jumble of senseless noise that I then have to construct into a meaningful object). Even in our most theoretical approach to object, there meaning is given in advance by the corresponding scientific telos, whether we are talking about quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology.

With art, however, something different is going on. For in art sensations are in some sense redeemed; that is to say, sensations matter to us, but not in the same way as they do in our practical involvement with objects. In the latter, sensation is subordinate to meaning, but in the former sensation and meaning are in conflict, and the experience of art is perhaps nothing else than a deep feeling of the gap or gulf between them. This is why the experience of art is always the experience of a resistance of expression. For unlike with our practical involvement with objects, sensation is never wholly subsumed under meaning. This is why art and media are significant, but not in a conceptual manner. They always seem to resist being completely exhausted about what we say about them.

There are two ways we can look at this strange relation between sensation and meaning in art: one from the side of the subject, and the other, the object. Let us begin with the subject first. We think that what makes something a artwork is a property of the work itself, such that it has ‘art’ just in the same way that our coffee has ‘bitterness’ and ‘sweetness’. Perhaps this is most common-sense theory of art, and is certain the one that you most hear about in the newspapers, on radio and television, and the internet. Thus, we get the endless and infinite debates about what good art is, as if it were a matter of simply recognising something about a painting in the way that one comes to recognise what a dog is by the ability to remember certain features. From this it follows that good art has certain properties (x, y and z) that bad art does not possess. Good art, for example, is usually figurative, and bad art abstract or conceptual.

But that is to treat art as though it were simply an object of perception with certain objective properties, which is to miss completely the significance of the aesthetic relation to objects. What is important is precisely this relation itself and not the object, for it is clear, with what is called ‘modern art’, that anything can be art object, for what the object it is not just what matters, but how we relate to it. This does not mean, however, that aesthetic judgements simply a matter of liking something? This is when this peculiar gap between sensation and meaning, which is how we spoke about art, returns. For if art were merely a matter of sensations, then aesthetic judgements would be merely a question of preference. You like Picasso, I like Duchamp and so on.

To see that the relation to art cannot be the same as mere preference is to understand that in talking about art I am making a claim upon others. There are actually three elements we need to be aware of when we are investigating art: the object, the subject (the spectator, if you prefer) and others to whom I address my claims about the object (of course, I also belong to these others). The difference between an object of mere sensation and an aesthetic object, is not to be found in the object itself, rather it is in the claim I make to others. In saying something is a work of art and has aesthetic excellence, then involved in this judgement is the implicitly the notion of universal agreement (Kant called it the sensus communis (1952, p. 82)). This does not mean that there will be universal agreement. In reality we know this is never the case, but I make an aesthetic judgement as if it were possible. Thus I do not just say that I like Picasso, rather I say that Picasso is a great painter, and you ought to agree as well, and there is something wrong with (you lack understanding if you don’t). This is not the case with mere preference, which is purely subjective, and I do not seek to gain, if only ideally, universal agreement that chocolate is better than strawberry ice cream, for this is merely a matter of enjoyment and pleasure and not an aesthetic judgement. The difference would be if the ice cream were in an art gallery and some one asked for my aesthetic opinion about it. I would have misunderstood them completely if I had gone up to the ice cream and licked it and said that it tasted quite good. Of course I could do this as an aesthetic judgement, as a statement that I didn’t think it was a work of art, but that would be something quite different, precisely because I would be making be making a claim for universal agreement.

This subjective account of the relation to art, however, misses out something very important, and this is the object. For in this subjective account of aesthetics, what counts is the discourse about art and not the art itself. An object is art, because it part of a discourse about art that has a certain form of the ideal universal agreement, rather than the mere expression of liking and preference. But I would like to say that the art object also has a presence, which differentiates it from ordinary objects, and which always resists our judgements about them. I would not say ‘outside’ or ‘exterior’ to, for this resistance of the object only ‘appears’ as such through the judgements, including their appeal to an ideal universal agreement, we make in their failure to capture completely their enigmatic and obscure presence. It is this that is the particular tension between sensation and meaning that creates the aura of an art work.

This resistance interrupts our understanding of our everyday world. In so doing it makes our world present. In our everyday affairs and general business, it is not so. It is only when my involvement is broken and interrupted it does so. A chair that I sit on every day at my desk is not present, nor the world in which it stands, unless one day it breaks as I sit on it. But Rauschenberg’s bed does so. In our everyday lives we never notice that the door is there. We simply grasp hold of the handle and walk through into the room. But if one day the door handle were to break, and I could not open the door as I ordinarily do, then the presence of the door would be visible to me, but also, and this is the most strange thing, so would the world in which working doors are necessary. The class room where I need to teach students about aesthetics, the university, the aim of teaching, Western culture and so on. Art, in its strange and enigmatic presence (a presence which is the opposite of the commodity) are like broken objects that reveal our world, like the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux grant us a glimpse the absent world of the Palaeolithic age.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 1952. The critique of judgement. Clarendon Press, Oxford.


From Kant to Marx via Hegel – Lecture 4

April 19, 2016

We are interested in Marx the philosopher. We are not interested in Marxism nor in the histMarxory of communism. To understand Marx as a philosopher we have to go back to his philosophical roots. This means going back to Kant’s ethics and to Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ethics. To understand Marx as a philosopher, we have to understand why he went further than Hegel and why, in the end, he rejected Hegel’s defence of the state as the ultimate guarantee of freedom because it was not sufficiently concrete.

Freedom, as Kant argued, is not a real property of things. I can see that the table is brown and the chair is blue, but I cannot ‘see’ freedom in that way. Freedom, on the contrary, is an ‘idea’. It is a necessary human invention that is an expression of what it means to be a rational animal. It is a necessary invention, because without it, we cannot even understand what it means to be a rational being, and therefore what it means to be human. We are not rational and then free, rather to be rational means to be free. Rationality and freedom are one and the same thing.

Kant’s ethics starts from this intuition. To be moral means to be responsible for your actions. No one thinks that a non-rational being is responsible for what they do. Thus I do not think that my dog is morally responsible for peeing on the kitchen floor, even though I might find this inconvenient. Likewise, I do not take a young child to be morally responsible for soiling their diapers. I think that they do not know any better, so I do not judge them. However, I do think that you, as a morally responsible adult, are to be judged for your actions. For you are capable of deliberating about them. If not, then I do not judge you. Kant is making the point that if we did not think that human beings, as rational animals, were not responsible for their actions, then there would be no morality as such, and if there were no morality, then there would be no society. Freedom, responsibility, and ethics all go together, and one follows necessarily from the other.[1]

To act morally is to act from principle. The grocer does not adulterate his products not because he will gain more customers from being honest, but that he knows in principle it is wrong to be dishonest (Kant, 1956, p. 65). Of course, from the outside it is impossible to know whether the grocer is acting from principle or not, since both a selfish and selfless action appear the same: the grocer does not adulterate his flour. It is only from within the subject’s intentions that an action is moral or not. This is the function and purpose of the categorical imperative. As a process of deliberation it tells me whether my actions are moral or not. If I can universalise my subjective maxims, then I go know with certainty whether they are coherent and consistent. Thus stealing is not wrong because others have told me so, but because it is incoherent to both wish it and universalise it at the same time, since to steal is dependent on this existence of property that it contradicts in its application.

Freedom can only be preserved through the consistency and coherence of rules that are universal. Freedom is not a fact of nature, it is a fact of reason. If we wish to live as free beings, then we have to follow the moral law, otherwise my freedom would be the limitation of others. It is only because we all follow the same moral law as rational beings that we can all equally be free. In the end, for Kant, reason is only important because it allows us to be moral beings, to rationalise and be responsible for our actions. There is no empirical proof of freedom, it is normative. Kant is arguing that if you want to live in a word of free beings, then the only way to do so is to act morally in a coherent and consistent way. If you don’t want to be free, then give up morality, but are you sure that you do really wish to live in a world like that?

For Hegel Kant’s practical philosophy has two important weakness. First, the formalism of the moral law means that it doesn’t give us sufficient content in order to apply it in a given situation without additional material. Second, even if the moral law did work as Kant describes it, it is not sufficient to motivate us to act morally (Sedgwick, 2012, p. 2). As every undergraduate knows, it might seem quite right not to tell lies, but surely it would be absurd to tell a Nazi that I am hiding my Jewish neighbour in my cellar if he were so to ask me. As Hegel argues in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, it is no contradiction to steal if no property existed, so property has to exist as a real social fact, rather than a universal formal law, for theft to be seen as violating morality (Hegel, 1991, pp. 162–3). Moreover, if morality does not benefit me as a particular individual (rather than some abstraction like ‘humanity in general’), then it would hardly motivate me to act at all. Why would I act from duty, if doing so did not make me a better person?

For Kant, the self is thought abstractly through reason. For Hegel, it is thought concretely through society.[2] There is freedom because we mutually respect each other, first of all in terms of our physical existence, since slavery is the belief that we can own another human being, like any other commodity, and secondly through our respect of the other’s possession, which in are in reality an extension of their own subjectivity. The fundamental opposition for Hegel is between morality (Moralität) and ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). In Kant’s conception of morality, every individual lives in their own private world, and the agreement with others is accidental. But the fact, Hegel would argue, that we can live as free individuals without being molested by others, is that are real social institutions that protect our freedom. Freedom is a social reality before it is a ‘fact of reason’.

Hegel was aware, however, from reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, that there was a great difference between modern societies and ancient ones. Kant too recognised the danger of the market. It would undermine the respect we would have for each of other as an end in itself, but for Hegel it was insufficient to think that the alienation of economic relations could be overcome by morality. It required the state to intervene to balance the excesses of market where individuals were reduced to commodities. The state preserves society so as to promote autonomy. It is not the state that destroys the freedom of the individual, since in its true form it should be the expression of the individual’s freedom, but the market, which if left unchecked leads to alienation and exploitation, a universal slavery of another form, wage slavery.

Has the world turned out as Hegel thought it would? Perhaps the answer to this question is ‘no’. In Hegel’s mind, the state would replace the social bonds that were being destroyed by the market in civil society, but what in fact happened is that the state identified itself with the market. Government is nothing but economic self-management and all social relations have been sacrificed to market ones. Hegel, then, completely underestimated the power of capital to destroy all societies that have existed and to replace them in their own form, as Marx and Engel’s famously wrote at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is a last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels, 2002, p. 223).

The reason that Hegel’s philosophy failed is the same as Kant’s. It sought the solution to alienation and exploitation in thought rather than in real lives of individuals. If Hegel did argue that the foundation of morality was society, then this society a concept rather than the real social existence of individuals. The individual, the self, the subject, is something that is thought by Hegel. It is the individual as thought, the self as thought, the subject as thought. It is not the individual who lives, the self who lives, the subject who lives. It is because Hegel’s solution to the alienation and exploitation of the market was a solution of thought alone that in the end his philosophy made no difference to reality at all for those who suffered and were exploited and who suddenly found themselves ‘unfree’ in the a so called free society.

Human beings, for Marx, are first of all living, breathing suffering beings, before they are thinking beings, and what they suffer from are not merely the thoughts of suffering and pain, but real suffering and pain. The world is real. It can engulf me. It is not merely the projection of my mind and imagination. Take the example of hunger, Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx, 1992, p. 390). Hunger is a natural need, therefore, the object that corresponds to it is something real and objective, not merely a postulate of thought. I cannot overcome my hunger merely by thinking about it. I must eat something or in the end I will die of hunger. I must eat in order to live. It is only by transforming the real world through real activity that I will solve this problem of hunger and not through the idea of hunger.

This does not mean that Hegel’s philosophy does not contain the truth of criticism, but it exists in a doubly alienated form, where the object is only the thought entity, and the subject is only consciousness. The solution to alienation for Hegel, therefore, is a solution that is internal to the mind. The separation of consciousness from the world, which finds its highest expression in religion, is separation which it discovers internally in its mind. The solution to this separation is therefore only mental. I only have to think this alienation as end and it magically it is ended. But it is ended in thought alone Marx will reply. I think that I am no longer alienated but really I am still alienated, for as a philosopher I have alienated myself from my own natural existence, as a human being, as Marx writes in a footnote, ‘with eyes, ears, etc., living in society, in the world and in nature’ (Marx, 1992, p. 398). You cannot think your way out of alienation; rather you have to find the solution in life. All the solutions of Hegelianism are false solutions.

What is true about Hegel’s philosophy is the meaning of humanity is one of movement and process. Humanity is not given, rather it has to create and make itself. It does so by overcoming its alienation, by destroying the separated character of the world. But this superseding of alienation must be a real superseding at the level of existence and not merely at the level of thought, a real act of living self-creation, and not merely the thought of such an act, and human beings will only become truly free when capital is for the sake of life, rather than life for the sake of capital. This would require a fundamental transformation of democracy where the state would exist for the majority of the people, rather than a small minority who believed they already knew what the interests of the majority were.

Bibliography

Beiser, F.C. (Ed.), 1993. The Cambridge companion to Hegel. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Hegel, G.W.F., 1991. Elements of the philosophy of right. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Kant, I., 1956. The moral law: Kant’s groundwork on the metaphysic of morals : a new translation with analysis and notes. Hutchinson, London.

Marx, K., 1992. Early writings. Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York.

Marx, K., Engels, F., 2002. The communist manifesto. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Musil, R., 2011. The man without qualities. Picador, London.

Sedgwick, S., 2012. Hegel’s critique of Kant. OUP Oxford.


[1] If we were to argue that no-one is responsible for their actions, thus that genes or their upbringing were, then we would have no right to punish them. We punish others as a mark of our respect for them as autonomous free individuals. This is one theme of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man without Qualities. If the murderer and rapist Moosbrugger commits his crimes because of physical causes, then how can he be blamed for them, since no one accuses the rock that falls on someone head of committing a crime (Musil, 2011).

[2] For an excellent account of Hegel’s ethics see ‘Hegel’s Ethics’ by Allen. W. Wood (Beiser, 1993, pp. 211–33).


Kant’s Transcendental Idealism – Lecture 3

April 9, 2016

immanuel-kant-2To understand Kant you have to, of course, understand what he is rejecting. If you don’t the know context of a philosopher, which is always what problem they are facing, then you won’t really be able to understand the point of their work. You will, for example, think it is easy to dismiss a whole or part of their argument, because it disagrees with some contemporary position (as though they were guilty of some unforeseen stupidity on their part, as though they should have none better). Thus Plato is dismissed because he thinks forms can be separate from instantiations of them, or Aristotle because he believed that reality was made of 5 elements, or Descartes because he believed in God, and so on. Of course, once one has grasped the context of a philosopher that does not mean that one has to take on board all the they say, but it does mean that one won’t dismiss them in a superficial way.

One way of understanding Kant’s philosophy is seeing how it arises out of the perennial conflict between empiricism and rationalism in Western Philosophy (though we shall see that it is not as simple as simply unifying them as some might believe). We have already spent some time in discussion of rationalism because of our lecture on Descartes, so this time we will look at, in a little detail, empiricism, and more specifically Hume.

He famously woke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’, since before reading Hume, he was a rationalist of a kind.[1] What then is the basis of Hume’s philosophy? We do not require unjustified metaphysical speculation in order to have a rational scientific understanding of nature. To rid ourselves of this metaphysical speculation we have to become sceptical has to the objective basis of science, but this is necessary if we are not to base it on fictional and imaginary ideas. For Hume the source of all our ideas are the senses. This limitation is very important for Kant. Like Hume, he will argue that our knowledge of the world is limited to what is given in experience. Outside of that we can know nothing. In this sense, Kant is more Humean than he is Cartesian.

Sensations themselves are divided into two for Hume. On the one had there are impressions, and on the other ideas. Impression are direct sensations. I see the colour blue. Blue is the immediate sensation. Ideas are the relations between impression. I see many blue things, and I compare them through the concept ‘blue’. This does not mean ideas are separate from impression in terms of their existence. An idea exists only because there are impressions, and these impressions have their source in the sensation of the world. Ideas are, if you like, impressions that have become older. They are less vivid and present than immediate sensations, but they are made of nothing but sensations. A blind man, Hume argues, could not have an idea of a colour, because he has not seen it, nor a deaf man sound, because he has not heard it (Hume & Buckle 2007, p.16). Hume’s question is whether there is a necessary order in the relations of ideas, as there is in the order of impressions (in sensation, one impression comes after the other). In other words, what groups or orders my ideas together. If I think of x, must I also think of y?

The answer is that I associate one idea with another. There are three kinds of association for Hume, resemblance, proximity and causality. If I see a picture of a fox, then I am likely to think of a fox, if I imagine a room in the university, then I am likely to think of a room next to it, and finally, if I think of stone dropping from someone’s hand, then I likely to think of falling to the ground. Now it is the last association that is fundamental to how we think of the explanations of natural sciences. When we think of explanations in total, then are two kinds: relations of ideas and matters of fact. For the former, Hume is thinking of logic and mathematics. For these, we do not have to go beyond the ideas themselves (if you understand the meaning of one idea, then you will know why the other idea is necessarily associated with, so that ‘bachelor’ must mean ‘unmarried man [remembering that these ideas still have their origin in impressions]). But for matters of fact this is not the case, because they tell us something new about the world, rather than just analyse what we already know. Why do we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, when we could equally believe the opposite. Hume is not arguing that we shouldn’t believe that the sun will rise (in fact he has good argument to think why we do), but there is no logical reason why we shouldn’t. The reason why we do is that we associate one idea with the other, the idea that the sun rose yesterday with the idea that the sun will rise tomorrow. We might think that we get to this second idea through an argument, where the statement ‘the sun rose yesterday’ is a premise. If it is an argument of this kind, then it could only be a relation of ideas or a matter of fact. It can’t be the first, since there is no contradiction in thinking the opposite, but it can’t be a matter of fact, because it is precisely that kind of argument I am trying to prove, so I appear to be going around in circles.

The answer must be that my conviction must have its origin elsewhere and that a belief is not the same a giving a reason or having a reason (indeed Hume will argue that our reasons have their source in our beliefs rather than the other way around). His answer is that the source of this belief is in our impressions rather than in our ideas first of all. It is because I have had the vivid experience of the sun rising again and again in the past. The belief that it will do so in the future is a habit and custom of the mind that I associated with the impression of I am having now. Thus when I see the see the dawn, whether directly or indirectly, I immediately associate it with the idea of the sun rising and I cannot help but do so because this custom or habit belongs to human nature intrinsically. A belief then is a particular vivid idea. Not as vivid as a direct sensation, but more vivid than a reason or a concept, and it is this that cause me always to associate x with y. Of course experience is open ended. It is perfectly possible that one day my belief will be unconfirmed rather than confirmed by experience.

Kant is more on Hume’s side, as we have said, rather than Descartes. In these sense, he is an empirical realist, that our understanding and experience of the world is given by experience, and we cannot deduce facts about the world by arguing from ideas. Where he differs from Hume is how far he is willing to take this. He argues that causality cannot be just an habit of mind, an association, but must be fundamental to our experience as such, so fundamental that we would even be having experiences of objects at all, rather than worrying whether the sun might rise tomorrow or not.

What is fundamental to Kant’s difference from both Descartes and Hume is how he conceives of the relation between the subject and object. For both of them, though they give completely diametrically opposed answers to the problem, it is a question of how the subject conforms to the object. For Descartes, my knowledge conforms to the object through ideas, whereas for Hume, it does so through sensations. For Kant, on the contrary, and it is this that is totally novel in his approach, the relation between the subject and object must be reversed. It is not how does the subject conform to the object, but how does the object conform to the subject. As Kant writes,

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all our attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge […] We should then be proceeding on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. (Kant 2007, p.Bxvi)

Both Hume and Descartes relate knowledge to knowing the thing as it is in itself. One asserts that we can now it through ideas, the other through sensations. But it precisely this ‘thing’ that we cannot know, Kant argues. We can know how the object appears to us. Appearance itself is split into two: the content of appearance and the form of appearance. The content of appearance is what is given in experience (what Hume calls sensations or impressions). The form is how these contents appear to us. Thus, we can distinguish between what the chair is, and how the chair appears to us.

It is Kant’s argument that the form of appearance is universal and necessary. Unlike the habits of Hume, then, they are true of all human cognition, and we cannot experience the world in any other way. In the transcendental aesthetic, Kant describes the pure forms of sensation, time and space; in the transcendental logic, the pure forms of the object (the categories of the understanding); and finally in the transcendental dialectic, how philosophy gets into difficulties when it treats these pure forms as though they were objects of experience that one could know directly.

Let us look at Kant’s argument for the pure form of space in the Critique of Pure Reason, because by examining this one argument we will see how Kant’s employs a transcendental method to solve the age old antagonism between empiricism and rationalism. Kant is arguing that space and time are a priori and synthetic. What he means by that is that space is prior to experience but also adds something to experience (it unifies it; this is the formal element). We can already see that Kant is doing something novel here, because usually we think that the a priori is analytic, and the synthetic is a posteriori, so it seems quite strange to argue that space and time are a priori and synthetic.

Let us first of all look at the belief that space is something real, just like the objects that we can see. Kant’s argument against this common sense view is quite simple: space, he argues is the outer form of things for us. In other words, things that are outside of us are always in space (the difference from time, is that this is the inner form of ideas – are memories are not literally in space). To say that space is derived from experience is therefore to beg the question, for the very thing that one is trying to prove, spatiality, is already appealed to in the proof. Secondly, space cannot be derived from experience because of its necessity. The necessity of space for every appearance is that it is possible to imagine space without any appearances, no tree, no house and so, but it is not possible to imagine the absence of space and appearances (of course it is possible to think the absence of space, but it is not possible to imagine that there is something and no space). The argument against the Newtonian view that space is something real (a self-subsisting entity, as Kant calls it) is that this would mean that space were a container, but this container itself would have to contained and so on ad infinitum.

This would seem to imply that space, therefore, can only be a concept of things rather than something real, but Kant has to show that space is the pure form of sensations, and not just a concept that we have of things. This is much harder to prove than that space is not real and Kant, for this reason, spends more time doing so. The philosopher he has mind, who thinks space is just a relational concept, is Leibniz. For Leibniz, space is not something, so to speak that exists outside of objects and thus independently of them, rather it is an idea that expresses the relation between objects. Space is, therefore, not something real, but merely an idea. How can we best understand this notion of relational ideal space? Think of two places and the distance between them. Let us think of the two cities of Plymouth and Exeter in the South-West of England. We might say that Exeter is near to London than Plymouth, but is this being nearer a property of Exeter, or does it not rather express the relation between Exeter and Plymouth. For there to be space at all, there needs to be at least two objects. With just one object, there would be no space. If space were not a relation between objects, then it would exist, if there were only one object.

Kant needs to show that space is not simply a thought that we associate with objects, but their necessary form of presentation. He does this by showing that how we use pure intuition of space, is not the same as how we use concepts.[2] The intuition of space is unitary, singular and unique. This means that diverse spaces are parts of one and the same Space. The relation between these spaces, and Space, is not the same as the relations between the concept Tree and instances of trees. All the diverse parts of space belong to one space, but trees do not belong to one and the same Tree, therefore space cannot be a concept, and if it cannot be concept it must be an intuition, since these are the only two sources of human knowledge.[3]

So the conclusion of the argument is that space is not property of things, either as sensation or a concept, but is a necessary part of our experience of the world, for we cannot have an experience of an external without it already been organised through space. Space, therefore, is both a priori, since it is necessary, and synthetic, since it is added something to experience (namely it is spatial). Things are spatial because human consciousness is spatial, and not the other way around. Kant repeats the argument with time, and then in the transcendental logic with logics. It wants also to show through the transcendental deductions that without these pure forms of appearance there would be no object for us at all. As Kant writes,

The a priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. (Kant 2007, p.A111)

So Hume’s argument is that we have an experience and then associated these ideas in our minds. For Kant, on the contrary, we wouldn’t be having an experience at all. Causality is not something that we apply to our experience; it belongs to the very fabric of our experience as something meaningful and coherent from us, and it is on this foundations that the natural sciences are built.

Bibliography

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Hume, D. & Buckle, S., 2007. An enquiry concerning human understanding and other writings, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.

Kant, I. et al., 2004. Immanuel Kant Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Of Leibniz-Wolffian kind. Kant writes in Prolegomena, ‘I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction’ (Kant et al. 2004, p.10).

[2] We need to be certain here, as Sebastian Gardner points out, that Kant is not denying that there is a concept of space, but we should not confuse this with the pure intuition of space, which must underlie even this concept (Gardner 2006, p.77).

[3] Kant, in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, also demonstrates the difference between the pure intuition of space and a concept by demonstrating that the infinity of space is not the same as the infinity of a concept.


Descartes and Rationalism – Lecture 2

March 18, 2016

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesFor the next several weeks we are going to do a quick tour of the history of philosophy. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but give you a general map of some of the key concepts and ideas. Philosophy is not the history of philosophy, but you cannot do philosophy without its history. First of all because all philosophers are in argument with others, and you don’t know what they are arguing about if you don’t have a grasp of the context of their argument. Secondly, there is a lot of technical jargon in philosophy, so if you don’t know what the concepts are, then you can be totally confused (especially since a lot of these concepts sound like words we ordinarily use, and you soon come to realise that ordinary definitions are pretty worthless when it comes to philosophy). Some people argue that history isn’t important in philosophy, but I don’t agree. Philosophy is historical through and through, like any human activity, and the idea that philosophical ideas are timeless and eternal, is itself an historical idea. There seems something very strange to me to treat Plato’s problems as though they were exactly the same as our, and what he meant by the words he used, is the same as what we do, even though there are thousands of years separating us. Of course, in the end history does not answer everything, but not to know the history leaves you very much in the dark.

When we come to read Descartes’ Meditations we can be very blasé about it. Doesn’t everyone know the famous cogito ergo sum, and has the idea that reality is a dream the basis of a very successful movies series?[1] Because we have become very used to Descartes’ ideas, we also think that they are very easy to dismiss and counter, as though we hardly have to think about them at all. To understand Descartes, however, like every philosopher, is to know what his problem was, since metaphysics is always an answer to a problem. His problem wasn’t whether reality existed or not, but what is the status of our scientific theories. Scientists, on the whole, are not interested in metaphysical problems, but of course philosophers are.

Descartes’ Meditations cannot be understood without the rise of new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he was a philosopher, Descartes was a scientist and mathematician. What propelled him towards philosophy, was his worry about the metaphysical consequences of the new science. Something he believed, for example, that Galileo had not been sufficiently concerned.[2] What this new science required was a completely different metaphysics, but before we can understand what this is we need to be aware, if only in a very schematic way, the metaphysics he was rejecting, which was Scholasticism that had its basis in a reworking of Aristotle.

Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield, 2003, pp. 291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red). For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Now the point is, if you are going to reject the scientific account of Aristotelianism, then you are also going to have discard the metaphysics that underpins it. This is what Descartes does and he thinks Galileo doesn’t. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing (if we wish for a total explanation), whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting, I am in fact doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you know, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exist in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. When I perceive a something I exist in perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt of the first meditation, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax example, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair real exists.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

True, however, only internal to my own thoughts. Not true as true to reality. I still have no idea whether reality is what my ideas say it is, however internally coherent my ideas are. At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

It is at this point that we can get confused about Descartes’ philosophy. We are told that he is a rationalist and that he is attempting to ground the new science in more rigorous metaphysics, but we associate the idea of God with religion, or even worse with superstition. Why would he know introduce God? Isn’t he rejecting reason altogether? This answer to this question is to go back to the problem. The new science postulates a mathematical reality which is not open to the senses. How do I know that this isn’t a fiction? To the practical scientists this is not a problem. She isn’t worried. She just gets on with her experiments. For the philosopher that isn’t enough. He wants to know that reality really is what we say it is. For this we need there is an external guarantee and this is what God is. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, in the conclusion to this this lecture, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[3] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze, 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects here, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams, 2005, p. 124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out ‘Descartes’ Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (Spinoza, 1996, sec. 1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two), which express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain our place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese 67, 77–90.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze [WWW Document]. Sur Spinoza. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 10.9.14).

Hatfield, G., 2003. Routledge philosophy guidebook to Descartes and the meditations. Routledge, London.

Spinoza, B. de, 1996. Ethics. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Psychology Press.


[1] I am thinking of the Matrix trilogy, and the first film in particular.

[2] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain it sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew, 1986).

[3] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


Heidegger and The Philosophy of Science – Lecture 7

January 28, 2016

Martin HeideggerWe have thought about science as being different from religion. Science has to do with facts, and religion with beliefs. Increasingly, as we have gone through the different views of what science might be, this simple opposition has become less and less believable. For a start off, it is not at all clear that science has to do with facts, if we mean by that that facts are simply lying around for a scientist to construct a theory from. On the contrary, facts are theory dependent. What is taken to be a relevant fact is given by a scientific theory, and this theory cannot be justified by appeal to them alone otherwise we would be lost in a circular argument. Is it possible then to define science simply by theories alone without recourse to facts outside of them? Popper certainly attempts to do so through this principle of falsifiability in his initial starting point. What makes a theory scientific as opposed to non-scientific, and thus what distinguishes science from religion, is that it can be falsified whereas non scientific theories cannot. But when we examine the falsifiability theory in detail, it is very difficult to show, in concrete terms, how they are falsified. Rather than anomalies causing scientific theories to collapse, they seem quite happily to carry on regardless, and because scientific theories are so complex, it is difficult to discern which hypothesis has to be falsified in order for the theory itself as whole to be so. In other words, the fact problem still rears its end, but now at the point of falsification rather than at the point of the construction of a theory. Because of these problems, philosophers of science like Kuhn will argue that we shouldn’t be arguing about science as such, or the ideal nature of science, but investigating what scientists themselves do. What we find then is not a smooth progress of science from one theory to the next getting ever nearer to the truth, but a discontinuous series of revolutions that he called ‘paradigms’.

Although we can speak of different paradigms, surely it is the same reality that is beneath them all? The question of reality is particularly pressing in science because the basis of modern scientific theories, since Galileo and Newton, is unobservable phenomena. If science of the 16th and 17 century posited nature as made of tiny particles of matter in motion of which all that we observed we its effects, this did not mean that anyone could see such corpuscles. How then did we now that such a theory was real? The whole of Descartes philosophy was to answer this question, and his answer, which not many philosophers after him were satisfied, was that it was God’s justice than ensured that what our theories said was real was in fact what reality was, even though we could not see it. The whole debate between realists and anti-realists in the philosophy of science is whether we can commit to such a reality or not without God or any other transcendent guarantee (or indeed whether it matters or not, whether it can be proved to be real).

At the end of the discussion of realism and anti-realism, I introduced the philosophy of Heidegger. Many will argue that he does not have a philosophy of science, but I don’t think that is right at all. Indeed, one could say that the whole of his philosophy is a sustained debate with science (Glazebrook 2000). For Heidegger, science is a restricted not a full account of experience. We take science to be describing the way that things are, but for Heidegger, it is only a certain way of approaching things, and not necessarily the truest. In Being and Time, he distinguishes between the present-to-hand, and the ready-to-hand (Heidegger 1962). Science, which has its roots in a certain metaphysics, relates to things as present-to-hand, but this is not how we relate to the world that is nearest to us. Our fundamental relation to things is ready-to-hand. We use them. We open the door to enter the room, we enter the room and sit at the chair, we place the books on the table, we look at the screen on which a picture has been projected, or we look at the words written on the board, or down at the book in our hands, and so on. What we do not look at, is little particles of matter, or atoms. Why, Heidegger, would we take this world not to be real, and the scientific world to be more real?

When we related to things as ready-to-hand, as opposed to present-to-hand, then it is clear to us that these things relate to our world. The world is the context is which making use of things makes sense (there is the world of the classroom, and this world is part of bigger world in which something like a classroom makes sense). This world is not a thing. It is not a container in which something is enclosed (like water in a glass, to use Heidegger’s example). Rather, it names the cultural context or background in which something like sitting in classrooms and listening to lecture’s makes sense. Even the activity of science itself, with its abstract picture of things, is not possible without this world, since science is something that human beings do, and can only occur where this activity already has a meaning.

In section 3 of Being and Time, ‘The Ontological Priority of the Question of Being’, Heidegger speaks explicitly about science. He says that every science has its own area of things that it studies. Thus physics studies matter, chemistry, elements, and biology, life, and so on. Yet for any of these sciences to function, they have to take for granted that the things they study actually exist. Thus, Heidegger says they all presuppose a understanding of being that they do not question. The physicist accepts that matter exists, the chemist, elements, the biologist, life. If they did question the existence of these things, then they could not actual do science at all, because they would come to a stop at the threshold of the investigation and never get any further. If I don’t accept that these things exist, then how could I do physics, chemistry or biology? What Heidegger here calls a ‘regional ontology’ is similar to what Kuhn calls a paradigm, the ‘ontical questioning of positive science’ to normal science. It is only when a science goes into a crisis does the ontology that it presupposes come into question. This is when, again in Kuhn’s vocabulary, does the existence of the very fundamental nature of the objects of a science become doubtful and only at this point does science have to turn to philosophy for its answer.

What philosophy discovers is that science is a projection onto nature. This does not mean that nature does not exist for Heidegger (if human beings ceased to exist, there would be still planets, but there would not be Newton’s laws of motion). What modern science projects onto nature is mathematics. Nature is only what can be described mathematically. Galileo and Newton onwards, this is understood in terms of efficient causality rather than final causality. For Aristotle, nature is defined teleologically. Nature has a purpose, goal and direction, whereas in modern science it does not. This is why for Heidegger technology is the essence of modern science, because it means, through its mathematical projection, nature is totally subsumed to human purpose. Because nature has no purpose or value in itself, its only value is for the sake of us. It becomes, to use Heidegger’s phrase, a ‘standing reserve’. The big difference between Kuhn and Heidegger, is though both understand science historically, Heidegger does not think that the image of nature in Newton and Galileo is that fundamentally different from that in quantum physics. Though they are a different mathematics, nonetheless both view nature mathematically. The fundamental split them is between final causality of Aristotle and the efficient causality of modern science that culminates in technology.

For Heidegger, the basis of mathematical projection of science is the experiment. It is therefore a fundamental misunderstanding of science that it simply experiences things as they are and then comes up with a picture of the world (a picture which is meant to be what things really are). On the contrary, through the experiment, the scientist already interprets experience mathematically. It is the mathematical model that gives meaning to the experience and not experience meaning to the mathematical model. This again is the big difference between Aristotelian and modern science. For Aristotle, science is based on experience, for modern science it is not. Mathematics is first, not experience, but we still speak about science as though it was about experience, and somehow the things that we directly experience around us were the diminished and restrictive one, and not science. As though we were living in the abstract world and the mathematical projection of science were the full blooded one.

That meaning is the subject of science is what the history of science teaches us. We see that the world of Aristotle, Newton and Einstein, is not one and the same world a series of ruptures, breaks and discontinuities. Although the reference of these theories is one and the same, the meaning of the reality they refer to is not. What mass means in Newton, therefore, is not the same as what it means in Einstein. To use Kuhn’s word these worlds are incommensurable, since there is not a perfect translation between one and the other. You will only think that objectivity is threatened by this picture, if you believe in a metaphysical reality that is beyond human experience but which at the same time we can know. Reality is not outside of us, it is something that we construct through our institutions and discourses. The difference between astrology and astronomy is not in terms of a method, as Popper might have us believe, that one is tested by facts and the other is not, since when we investigate the history of science, we see that a theory will ignore those facts that do not fit its paradigm, but it does not have the virtues or practice of objectivity. The problem with astrology is that it explains too much and not too little. Truth, if we might put it this way, is a practice, a way of being, rather than a mirror to a reality that stands outside of us eternally the same. It is the creation of concepts to problems that are forever changing, and it is through problems that we grasp reality.

Rather than grand narratives, the study of the history of science concerns the details. What scientists say and do. For this reason we cannot impose an image of science on its own reality. What we discover is that reality is not identical through time but constructed from different aspects that are only relatively stable and which can always dissolve into a new regularity that might take elements from the previous paradigm but would transform their meaning by placing them in different relationships. It is not reality which explains how science changes, but the changes in science that explain reality, just as it is not the chair that defines sitting, but sitting the chair. The correct question is therefore not what reality is, but how do we understand and interpret reality. What changed in the nature of scientific experimentation such that reality was perceived in a different way? What changes is not reality, but how we perceive and understand, and what changes this perception is the practice of science itself, its discrete methods and discourse that would be only visible to us through historical investigation. The subject of such a history is what scientists do. We reject the idea of hidden telos, as though all scientific activity were heading in the same direction that reveals a reality that had already been there from the beginning but simply unknown by us. Science is made up of actions of scientists and nothing more. The meaning of reality does not belong to some intrinsic definition but to a practice that leads to a certain and definite objectivity over a period of time, but which can subsequently dissolve as a new objectivity emerges. Reality is only a correlate of a practice and only has a meaning as such in relation to it. We can therefore distinguish between the practice of science and non-science, but there is no absolute ahistorical meaning of science, and still less a reality that is eternal and unchanging. Science is not about reality per se, but problems.

What Heidegger calls ‘projection’ Feyerabend calls a ‘belief’ (Feyerabend, 2010, 10). We think that science is just an explanation of what common sense already knows. But the opposite is the case. Science, since Galileo, moves in in another direction than common sense. It is by moving in the opposite direction to ‘contemporary reason’, that the new science develops new instruments and new experiments. If it had not done so, if it stuck by the old rules and methods, it would not have developed such a new way of looking at and understanding reality. It is only subsequent to the emergent of the new beliefs that evidence can be found to support them. We tend to think the opposite. That the new beliefs emerged because the evidence demonstrated their truth, but the opposite is the case: it is the new beliefs that made the evidence even visible. This is why subsequently we can say that ‘Galileo was on the right track’, because now there is enough evidence to support the theory, but if we had waited for the evidence before hand, the theory would never have got off the ground. As Feyerabend continues:

Theories become clear and ‘reasonable’ only after incoherent parts of them have been used for a long time. Such unreasonable, nonsensical, unmethodical foreplay thus turns out to be an unavoidable precondition of clarity and of empirical success. (1993, 11).

Works Cited

Feyerabend, P., 1993. Against method. Verso, London; New York.

Glazebrook, T., 2000. Heidegger’s philosophy of science. Fordham University Press, New York.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.


Realism and Anti-Realism in Philosophy of Science –Lecture 6

January 24, 2016

higgs-simulation-3In a previous lecture we looked at Kuhn’s idea of history of science as broken by different paradigms that are incommensurable. Aristotelianism, Newtonianism, and Einsteinism, mark revolutions in the history of science rather than a smooth flow of one epoch into another which will some day reach an ultimate Truth when we can all stop doing science because what our theories say and what is are exactly the same and there will be no exceptions. What Kuhn reminds us is that when we think about what science is, rather than taking the philosopher of science’s word for it, we should examine what scientists do. We will find that the philosophical version does not much look like the real history of science, rather they are idealisations in both sense of the word: an abstraction and a kind of wish fulfilment. Kuhn is not sceptical of science as such, but the philosophy of science. His book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, marks the death knell of a particular kind of philosophical history of science, so that it can be replaced by the proper history of science, whose object is what scientists actually do, rather than what philosophers think they might do. In other words, the new object of this history of science is ‘normal science’, in all its messiness and vagueness, rather than an idealised science that has never existed except in the minds of philosophers like Ayer or Popper.

At this point, however, we are going to make a little detour back to philosophy, and that is to the question which should have been bugging us from the very beginning, which is what exactly is science about, rather than what is the history of science. Early on we characterised the difference between religion and science as the difference between belief and facts. We said that science is about reality, that it makes true description of real things that happen in the world. In a word, it is objective. On the contrary, religion is subjective. It does not give us a true picture of the world, but offers us a moral compass through which we can live our lives. To confuse religion with science is to undermine the importance of religion rather than to give it more intellectual support. There is no conflict between science and religion, because they are completely different discourses. One tells you what something is, the other how you ought to live your life.[1]

But what do mean when we say that science is about reality? Aren’t we being a little simplistic when we do that? What is reality after all? Everyone knows the old paradox of whether a tree that falls down in a forest makes a sound or not if no one is there to hear it. Is reality what we perceive or is it more than that? I would say that it would be absurd to say that there would not be trees, stones or stars if there were no human beings. As though human beings were to vanish the universe would vanish with them. The universe does not have any meaning, however, except for the fact that it means something for some being or other in the universe. A stone is not a stone for a stone. It is only a stone for human beings who understand what it is to be a stone. We’ll come back to this at the end of the lecture.

Both Chalmers , Okasha, and Ladyman (perhaps because they all belong to what can be loosely called the analytic tradition) seem very reluctant to address these questions head on (as though they were too philosophical and could be avoided. I would say that it is their hidden philosophical assumptions which allow them to avoid these questions).[2] For them, on the contrary, the important distinction is between realism and anti-realism, rather than whether reality exists out there as such and what we might mean by reality as a whole. Chalmers simply dismisses the idea that reality being formed by language (what he calls global anti-realism), through a Tarskian theory of truth, which begs the questions, because such a theory already has a commitment to a certain view of language, and a certain view of reality, which remains unquestioned by Chalmers himself. Investigating this presupposition, however, would take us too far from the subject of this lecture itself.

What then is anti-realism and realism in science? First of all it is important to note that both theories accept the reality of the world. So it is important not to confuse either with a thorough going scepticism. The difference between them has to do with the status of scientific theories, on the one hand, and observable phenomenon on the other. A strong realist would argue that both observable phenomenon and theories are true descriptions of the world out there, whereas an strong anti-realist would say that only observable phenomenon are true, and theories are neither true of false. All these authors, as far as I can see, occupy a position between these two extremes.

The common sense view, I suppose, would take it that both theories and observable phenomenon are true, so we are going to approach this question from this point of view. None of us would think that observable phenomenon are not real, that when I see a donkey there isn’t a donkey out there (again I am not so sure that both Okasha and Chalmers skip over this supposed reality far too quickly, but let us leave them to have that truth for now). What isn’t so certain is that theories really point to something out there. This is because much of the basis of a scientific theories actually point to phenomenon that we cannot observe. If we cannot see something, then how can we say that it is part of the world? From what vantage point would we say that it is real? Of course, as Okasha points out, many sciences do have as their basis observable phenomenon, such as palaeontology whose objects are fossils, but modern physics does not (Okasha, 2002: 59). We cannot literally see inside of the atom. We only have theoretical pictures of what they look like, and we do not know if at that level the universe really looks like that at all.

The anti-realist is not saying that there is no difference between science and someone who thinks that the earth is balance on the back of a turtle. Rather theories only give us structures or the scaffolding in which we can observe phenomena through experimentation, but it is only this literally observable phenomenon which we can take to be true. The theory itself we cannot prove is real or not, because there is nothing there to see which we could demonstrate as real or not. The history of science itself seems to bear this out, because there have been false theories that have actually brought out true observable phenomena, so there does not seem to be an analogy between the truth of a theory and the truth of observable phenomena. The example that Chalmers gives is the history of optics, which is littered with what we now understand to be false theories of light, and yet which provided correct observable phenomena. Thus Newton believed that light was made up of particles, then Fresnel believed that light was a wave in a medium called ether, then Maxwell, believed that light waves were fluctuating electric and magnetic fields in ether, then in 20th century we got rid of the ether and the waves were entities in their own right, then finally the wave theory of light was supplemented by the particle theory of photons.

It seems to go against common sense, however, to say that theories are just fictions on which we hang our experimental results. When we look at the history of atomic theory it does appear that we are getting a progressive understanding of the structure of atom, and it would seem entirely bizarre that the theory would predict what we ought to see, and at the same time being entirely false. One way of getting around this is by arguing that the anti-realist is making a false distinction between what is observable and what is not observable, since though we cannot see inside the atom, we can detect the existence of atoms by ionisation when they are passed through a cloud chamber. The strict anti-realist, however would say that, all we know is real is the trails themselves, and we cannot not know whether the atoms are real or not, just as we should confuse the trail that a plane leaves in the sky with the plane itself. In other words, we have to make a distinction between direction observation and detection.

The fundamental issue here is whether we can make a complete separation between theories, on the one side, and facts on the other. This is the real issue, rather than whether facts are observable and theories not. In fact it is the anti-realist and not the realist who is committed to the separation. Both Okasha and Chalmers, though in different ways, would criticise this separation. Chalmers returns to whether the history of philosophy really does prove that theories which were once taken as true are shown to be false by the next one, and so on infinitum, so that we can never know whether are theories give us an accurate view of the world, by arguing that each new theory takes up some aspect of the previous one which gives us a more and more accurate picture of the phenomenon we are attempting to understand. Thus a true theory (unlike the turtle theory) captures some aspect of the truth of the world, if only a partial one, which is then improved by the subsequent one (does this conflict with the Kuhnian view of science, since it implies an accumulative image of science?). Okasha, on the other hand, will claim that the problems that the anti-realist claims would undermine the possibility of claiming theories to be true, could also rebound against what we would think were observable phenomena, and thus would destroy the basis of all science altogether, since we could only claim to know what we could see now in this moment, and not past events, since again they are only known by detection rather than direct observation (this would be mean that the anti-realist argument would be like Hume’s problem of induction).

As I said at the beginning, I find both Okasha’s and Chalmers discussion of realism unsatisfactory and indeed both of their chapters seems to end without any kind of resolution as though they had both been exhausted by the discussion. What I think is left unthought in their views is that the only way we could access reality is through science, and thus if we cannot, then we cannot access reality. To me the discussion of observable and unobservable phenomena is a red herring. Nothing has meaning unless it has meaning for us and that is true of both observable and unobservable phenomena, but the real issue is whether our reality is first of all something that we observe. Here I would turn to the philosophy of Heidegger, who would argue that it is prejudice of a very old metaphysics that our first relation to the world is one of perception, what he calls ‘present-to-hand’. What is true both for the realist and the anti-realist is that they take reality to mean ‘present to hand’. It is just that one thinks scientific theories are speaking about something present to hand and the other does not. The world for Heidegger, on the contrary is not something, present to hand, but ready to hand. The world is first of all something that we orientate ourselves in, rather than perceive.[3] This context can never be investigated as an object, because it is what objects make possible. Even science itself must have its origin in this cultural context or background. It is only because science as an activity means something to us that we can approach anything in the world as a scientific object, and not the other way around.

As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, Newton’s laws are only true because we exist. If we were no longer to exist, and the world in which these laws made sense were no longer to exist, then it would be absurd to still say that these laws were true. This does not mean that things do not exist separate from us, nor that truth is relative. Newton’s laws really say something about things, because these things only are, in the sense of ‘true’, through our existence. This truth would only be relative if we really thought that there was a truth of things beyond our existence that we did not know. Things are only because they are there for us, but this in no way means that any assertion is possible. This would be to confuse assertion and the condition of assertion. The truth of reality is dependent on our existence, but this does not mean that you or I can say anything we like about this existence. For you or I as individuals are just as much part of this existence as anything else is. To be a scientist is to already accept what this existence means (what the world of science means, of which Newton’s laws are an example), and to refuse this is no longer to be a scientist.

Works Cited

Van Fraassen, B. (2006). Weyl’s Paradox: The Distance between Structure and Perspective. In A. Berg-Hildebrand, & C. Shum (Eds.), Bas C. Van Fraassen: The Fortunes of Empiricism (pp. 13-34). Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.


[1] It is a wholly other topic whether religion is the only discourse that can do this, but that does not undermine our distinction between it and science.

[2] Okasha, Samir, ‘Realism and Anti-Realism’ in Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, 2002, 58-76. A. F. Chalmers, ‘Realism and Anti-Realism’ in What is this Thing Called Science?, third edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press, 1999, 226-46. Ladyman is more willing to discuss the philosophical issues in depth, but he does so from an analytic perspective. What is lacking in all these treatments is what I would call ‘ontological depth’, and I am going to turn to this in the next lecture which will look at some of the ideas of Heidegger.

[3] I think that this is what Fraassen is getting at when he says that a theory or model of reality is only useful when we locate ourselves within it, though I don’t think he is referring to Heidegger’s distinction here. (Van Fraassen, 2006, p. 31)


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