Recent Responses

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.

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.

Why aren't more contemporary ethicists doing work informed by the broader social-biological scope of animal behavior?

I may not be best positioned to address this question, since my own work in ethical theory is mostly not deeply informed by broader social-biological perspectives on animal behavior, but I'll have a try. The question seems to assume (a) that ethicists are not influenced by social-biological perspectives on animal behavior and (b) that they should be. But both assumptions may be open to question. Here, much may depend on what the questioner has in mind by social-biological perspectives and the way in which they might inform ethics. If this is a catch-all for any good work done in the natural and social sciences, then (a) might be doubted. At least, it would be overstated. While some ethicists pursue primarily internal questions about ethics conceived of as articulating principles that both subsume and explain common moral judgments and also provide reflectively acceptable guidance and criticism, others do work that is interdisciplinary in some way or other. For instance, there has been recent work (e.g. Doris, Harman, and Vranas) about how the precepts of virtue theory are affected by the situationist paradigm in social and personality psychology. Many moral philosophers and decision theorists are interested by ways in which conceptions of rationality are affected by the discovery of so-called framing effects. Current work on altruism is often situated in part in relation to discussions in game theory and evolutionary biology. Jurisprudential discussions of responsibility and culpability are often shaped by work done in developmental psychology and neuroscience (a subject in which I have written myself). Now there may be more truth in (a) if "social-biological" is taken to refer to the narrower field of socio-biology. Even here there are some philosophers (e.g. Kitcher, Sober, Ruse, Midgely, Gibbard, and Flanagan) who see potential bearing of socio-biological ideas on some issues within ethics. For instance, Flanagan thinks that socio-biology might place some feasibility/realism constraints on what a moral theory could reasonably demand of agents. But in general caution is needed here. This is issue (b). Socio-biological accounts of the evolution of particular traits and dispositions purport to explain where and why these traits arose. What traits contributed to survival in very different circumstances may provide a poor guide to how we should behave now or what traits we should try to cultivate or reform. Traits that were selectively advantageous relative to a particular environment need not have been selectively optimal for that environment. What was advanatageous/optimal for one environment may not be for another, different environment. And there may be a lot we should care about besides reproductive fitness.

The bottom-line is that ethics, as practiced by most contemporary ethicists, is a normative science (or art), whereas sociobiology is a descriptive or explanatory science. That doesn't mean there can be nothing that one can learn from the other, but it does mean that they are very different enterprises. On this view, which recognizes the autonomy of the two disciplines, it makes no more sense to ask the ethicist why he isn't talking a lot about sociobiology than it does to ask the sociobiologist why she isn't talking about whether we have duties to future generations.

I once read that, in the case of most scientific discoveries, if they hadn't been made when they were, and by who they were, the same discovery would have been made by someone else. Is this true? I also read that Einstein's general and special theories of relativity were such an original contribution that if he hadn't come up with them we would still be waiting for them. Do you think that's the case? What about philosophy? Are there determinate structures of thought which philosophers are just uncovering, or is theorising a significantly creative act?

I have heard this said as well. In the history of science, there are many examples in which several researchers independently came up with the same new idea. Schrodinger and Heisenberg independently came up with the same theory (quantum mechanics) and presented it in such different forms that someone else (Born) had to figure out that they were equivalent. Darwin and Wallace (both from reading Malthus!) independently came up with the theory of natural selection. Adams and LeVerrier independently predicted the existence of the planet Neptune. Lavoisier and Priestley independently discovered oxygen. The examples are legion. These cases of simultaneous discovery are good evidence that once a problem reaches a certain point, it is widely recognized as a problem and the same solution would soon have been found even if the actual discoverer had not found it.

Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are sometimes cited as exceptions to this general rule. One reason for this view is that the "problem" as Einstein saw it was not widely recognized. Of course, many scientists knew of the Michelson-Morley experiment and realized that it was an anomaly that had to be dealt with somehow. But Einstein was motivated to develop relativity not primarily by experimental results that needed to be explained, but rather by an "asymmetry" in Maxwell's electromagnetic theory. (See the majestic opening paragraph of his 1905 relativity paper for the "asymmetry" argument.) This "asymmetry" was widely known, but very few besides Einstein regarded it as a problem of any kind.

Another reason for the view that relativity would not have been found without Einstein is that relativity was not a modest solution to a narrowly confined problem. Rather, relativity was a sharp break from all of the physics that had gone before. It dispensed with absolute time, space, and motion -- the conceptual framework of Newtonian physics as it was then understood. It is therefore more difficult to say in the case of relativity that it would still have been discovered at about the same time, had Einstein not been there to do it.

Unlike scientific theories, Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and Eliot's "Middlemarch" would not still have been created, had Bach or Eliot not existed. What's the status of philosophical ideas? In general, I am inclined to think that philosophy is a discipline in pursuit of truth, like science. Although philosophers (unlike scientists) still derive insights from reading works written many generations ago, philosophy involves giving arguments that others could (and probably would) have discovered. After all, one can give the "basic idea" behind some philosophical theory or argument. Its most valuable elements be summarized, put into other words, extracted from its context and its other elements. In this respect, a philosophical work is unlike a work of art.

Are Scientists who hold strong religious beliefs, or 'faith' as it may be called, scientists of a lesser calibre? I ask this because traditional scientific method entails entering into scientific work with a clear and unbiased mind in relation to the subject. If there are two scientists, one of 'faith' and one of no religious persuasion both trying to prove a particular point in say, evolution, is the scientist of 'faith' not heavily inluenced by his need to prove his faith true in his method. While the other scientist may have a more reliable opinion as he relies on reason and scientific method alone?

I certainly do not agree that creationism is "utterly optional" for a good scientist, on the obvious ground that it is bad science (or else pseudo-science). That was my point.

On the other hand, I accept that someone who was religious could do exceptional work in evolutionary biology--either by partitioning in the way I noted, or by conceiving of evolution as part of God's plan, or (as Heck proposes) by seeing religion as no more related to science than poetry is. I would add, however, that most religions I am familiar with seem to have a great deal more intersection with science, in their putatively factual assertions about the world and how things work, than poetry does. Keeping these intersections from generating conflict, I continue to think, is the partitioning trick.

But look, some philosophers (Heck included) both defend and practice religion, in which case it is no surprise that these philosophers would think that all talk of conflict between religion and science (or reason) is just insult and ignorance. Plainly, this conclusion (and the judgment of others' dissenting views) is debatable!

I remember reading somewhere that either Socrates or Plato favoured the idea of a ruling elite as a system of government. What he meant by this was a group of, I think, around 7 philosophers who, due to their altruistic nature and philosophic ability, were selected for a lengthy period to make decisions, without vote or public ballot, for their city state. What my question is... is, If Plato (I think it was Plato) were to see how we govern today, what part would he favour, if any? And would he think his ruling elite system still to be workable?

In the Republic, Plato argues that there should be a ruling elite consisting entirely of philosophers. He never mentions that there must only be 7 of these, and I think it would also count as a serious misunderstanding (one often made in the scholarly literature, however) to say that these philosophers had to be "altruistic"; rather, they needed to understand well what is in everyone's interest, including their own, and they would have to (correctly) understand their own interests as including the interests of those with whom they lived, and upon whom they depended for goods and services.

Plato was certainly no fan of democracy, as a form of government, and so he would not be much impressed with modern forms of government that were democractic by nature. He was also not at all in favor of oligarchy, or rule by the wealthiest citizens--which, I think it is fair to say, is how many present "democracies" end up. Plato counted tyranny as the worst possible form of government, moreover, so most of the alternatives to democracy we find in the modern world would look even worse to Plato.

So I think the upshot is that Plato would be deeply and strongly critical of every form of government now extant. In this, nothing has changed: the form of government Plato extolled as the best (as well as the one he regarded as second best) have never actually existed. And those that did exist in his time were forms he found deeply flawed.

Read the Republic (it really is quite readable, even for someone not highly trained in philosophy), and see what you think!