Recent Responses

As far as I know, it's not illegal in football (soccer) to kick the ball really hard at someone's face if they are in the way of goal. Throwing dummies and gamesmanship are also treated as acceptable. So how exactly does agreeing on rules of a game remove normal moral constraints? I know people wouldn't be happy if I started blasting a football at their faces, but would it be morally ok?

It's not illegal but practitioners of the game would certainly be judged to be immoral if it was done with the intention of hurting someone. It is true though that we can do things in sports that would be judged to be immoral in other contexts and on this point I agree with Douglas Burnham that it is a matter of giving consent - accepting the rules of the game.

Hello. Thank you for reading this. I'm in grave need of philosophical counsel please. I cannot 'get' the distinction between 'a priori' and 'a posteriori'. It seems to me that anything that is known must be, in some way, related to experience. I'm troubled by this thought experiment: If a baby was born with a terrible genetic condition which excluded all the human senses, what would the child 'know'? Without the 'experience' of the senses, what could the child ever know? Not even syllogism would be possible; without experience, language would not be available to the unfortunate child. And I imagine that this would be true of numbers too. Yours truly, Blunderov.

Here's Frege's way of making this point:

Now these distinctions between a prioir and a posteriori, synthetic and analytic, concern, as I see it, not the content of the judgement but the justification for making the judgement. ...When a proposition is called a posteriori or a priori in my sense, this is not a judgement about the conditions, psychological, physiological and physical, which have made it possible to form the content of the proposition in our consciousness; nor is it a judgement about the way in which some other man has come, perhaps erroneously, to believe it true; rather, it is a judgement about the ultimate ground upon which rests the justification for holding it to be true. (Foundations of Arithmetic, section 3)

Frege attaches a footnote in the middle of the first sentence in which he says that he means "only to state accurately what earlier writers, Kant in particular, have meant by" these terms.

Natural language statements have quantifiers such as, “most”, “many”, “few”, and “only”. How could ordinary first-order predicate logic with identity (hereafter, FOPL) treat statements containing these vague quantifiers? It seems that FOPL, with only the existential and universal quantifiers at its disposal, is insufficient. I read somewhere that ‘restricted quantification’ notation can ameliorate such problems. Is this true, or are there difficulties with the restricted quantification treatment of vague quantifiers? What are some of the inference rules for restricted quantification notation? For example, in FOPL you have the existential instantiation and universal instantiation inference rules. Are there analogue inference rules for the quantifiers, "many", “most” and “few”? Can you recommend any books or articles that outline, critique or defend restricted quantification? I also read that there are issues with FOPL regarding symbolizing adverbs and events from natural language. Is this true or just a superficial problem? Another complaint about FOPL, (especially Russell’s treatment of statements in the form of “The so and so...”), is that, often there are no obvious correspondences between the grammatical structure of the natural language and its logical notation counterpart. For example, in the English statement, “All men are mortal” to the logical notation, (x)(Mx->Rx), there seems to be no obvious correspondence to the connective ‘->’ from anything in its natural language grammatical structure. In other words, the logical notation seems too contrived. What is the common response to this complaint if any? These seem to be grave problems for the applicability and effectiveness of FOPL to natural language arguments. (I am not referring to the “limits” of FOPL where extensions such as modal, tense, or second-order logic might accommodate the richer parts of natural language, but rather to the apparent inability of any logic(s) dealing with these problems.) Note: Much of these concerns I have come from an article I read by Kent Bach in “A Companion to Philosophical Logic” by Blackwell Publishing. Thanks Kindly for your reply, J Jones

One further point. Toward the end, you write:

These seem to be grave problems for theapplicability and effectiveness of FOPL to natural language arguments.(I am not referring to the “limits” of FOPL where extensions such asmodal, tense, or second-order logic might accommodate the richer partsof natural language, but rather to the apparent inability of anylogic(s) dealing with these problems.)

Waiving the issue about vagueness, there isn't any problem dealing with such quantifiers in a second-order context. Both of the quantifiers I mentioned, "Most" and "Eq", can be defined in second-order logic, so the caveat at the end kind of gives the game away. That said, what perhaps is puzzling about these quantifiers is that, as is the case with second-order quantifiers, there is, as I said, no sound and complete set of rules for them, with respect to the intended semantics. In that sense, there is no "formal" logic for these quantifiers. But, again, that is not to say that one cannot write down some rules for them, and these rules may even be adequate for most or even all of the intuitively valid arguments one might care to give. The really interesting question, to my mind, would be what kinds of resources one actually needs to be able to do that. And that is why it is interesting, to me, how hard it is to write down sensible "elimination" rules for "Eq". For more on that, see my paper "The Logic of Frege's Theorem", which is on my web site. (The example discussed there is more the ancestral, but similar points apply to "Eq".)

Of course, if we don't waive the issue about vagueness, then there are, as I also said, lots of other problems around. But these problems are not special to "few", "many", and the like.

I'm a student with the Open University in the UK, recently due to industrial action my tutors are no longer marking our essays with scores, they now only put comments on them. Personally I prefer this. I find myself feeling motivated to higher levels, and without the scores I cannot gauge what my average is, meaning that each essay is important to me. Initially this was because I didn't want to receive a bad comment, hence a bad score, but now it's because I am so much more absorbed in my subject. But other students don't feel the same, they feel as if it's their right to know their scores, after all, what is a degree if it isn't one massive score. I've decided that those of us who are enjoying the way things currently are, without scores are at University for the pursuit of knowledge. While those who do not like it are at University in pursuit of a degree. Two very different things. My question is, with this in mind, Do you agree that Universities would become better learning establishments, temples of knowledge even, if the current score system were to be abolished and replaced with a discussion and comment system? I also believe that the way Universities work have their roots firmly entangled in capitalist-democratic society and our Universities have been designed to promote the current way of doing things (life) in this society.

Grading at least some of students' work is probably unavoidable, but comments are essential. I've become fond of the British system of separating teaching from assessment. At Cambridge University, where I work, this means that the weekly philosophy essay that undergraduates write for their supervisions (tutorials) receives extensive comments and is the basis for extended discussion between the student and the supervisor, but the essay is not graded. The student's grade is based rather on tests and extended essays (both types of excercise submitted anonymously), and the grading is done by a board of examiners.

Some students who come into this system find it disconcerting: since their examiner is in general not their supervisor, they are nervous that they won't know exactly what the examiner wants to read. But that may be no bad thing, and the system gives students plenty of feedback and separates this from the grade. Since your supervisor is not your examiner, your relationship with her can be a little like that between an athlete and a coach -- you are working together to improve your skill and to help you to train to do well in the exams.

My question concerns existentialism and determinism. I understand that a "movement" like existentialism is very nebulous and diverse. Many of the thinkers given the name "existentialist" hold varying views on various subjects. But one theme, at least as I understand it, that runs through many existentialist works is the idea of freedom, Sartre's "condemned to be free" for example. From what I understand the sum of an individual is composed of their actions, we are what we do. As such we have a responsibility towards our actions. But I was wondering how some of the major existentialist thinkers would address determinism, specifically determinism based on scientific physical laws. It would seem that if this type of determinism were correct, it would undermine the existentialist view of freedom.

By emphasizing human freedom and responsibility, existentialists are not asserting a claim in physics -- such as "it is false that human beings are mechanisms fully determined pursuant to physical laws of nature."

Rather existentialists are making two different points. One is phenomenological. We are condemned to be free or forced to decide. You must decide whether to enlist in the army, whether to pull the trigger, and so on. Physical determinism, even if you could somehow know that it's true, could not take away this predicament of being forced to choose.

The other is a normative point about how we ought to think about our decisions and agency. I ought to take full responsibility for the effects of my decisions. And when there is the slightest doubt about the reach of these effects, I ought to assume that this reach is greater rather than smaller.

Existentialists urge this point retrospectively: I ought not to deflect responsibility by thinking/saying that things just happened ("I could not bring myself to act differently"). And they also, and especially, urge it prospectively: I must lead my life on the practical assumption that it is up to me to change the world, that the whole future of humankind is my responsibility.

This practical instruction, too, is not much disturbed by physical determinism. For suppose again that physical determinism is true and you know this. You might then appeal to it to deny your responsibility ("if I shoot, I will have nothing to do with this man's death, it's all just molecules interacting according to immutable laws"). But you might also accept responsibility ("if I shoot, then I will be the cause of this man's death.") Here the second point touches the first: You are still confronted with the choice between these two attitudes.