Defining Philosophy

Defining Philosophy


It is an embarrassment to philosophers that they cannot define their discipline. It makes them look like shady operators. I propose to alleviate their embarrassment by offering a succinct definition of philosophy.

If you ask a physicist what physics is about, he will say that it is about physical reality, and you will learn what physics is. If you ask a psychologist what psychology is about, she will say that it is about the mind, and you will learn what psychology is. Similarly for geography, astronomy, botany, history, etc. But if you ask a philosopher what philosophy is about, you will not get such a straightforward answer—instead you will be subjected to vague mutterings about our conceptual scheme or incipient science or language or Being. You will rightly protest: “But what is it about?” The other disciplines can tell you what sector of reality they concern, but philosophy seems not have a specific sector to call its own—it seems to include both everything and nothing. This is theoretically unsatisfactory and bad PR. Every discipline is defined by the properties and relations that constitute its subject matter, but philosophy seems like the odd man out—the exception to the rule. What sector of reality does it take as its own? Don’t say “all sectors” because that is merely mystifying, and makes it look like it is all the disciplines added up, which it certainly is not.

It used to be said, perhaps a touch defensively, that philosophy is about concepts (or possibly the language in which concepts are expressed): it deals with the property of having a concept and with relations between concepts. The trouble with this answer is that it makes philosophy sound like psychology, and as a consequence not about the world beyond the mind. We need to say what it is about concepts that renders them of philosophical relevance. The answer might be returned: the analysisof concepts. Again, that is not entirely on the wrong track, but what kind of analysis? Isn’t analyzing psychological entities just more psychology (compare psychoanalysis). Similarly if we prefer to talk about language: what then makes philosophy differ from linguistics? What kindof analysis characterizes philosophy? The obvious answer is logicalanalysis. But this formulation describes the method of philosophy not its subject matter (imagine a physicist saying “physics is about the analysis of matter”). I propose that we make the obvious amendment: philosophy is about logical reality—as physics is about physical reality. That is the sector of reality with which philosophy is essentially concerned—the logical sector. The use of the word “reality” in this style of answer is intended to contrast the concern of the practitioner with such things as the concerns of a fiction writer: the scientist is concerned with reality not fantasy (like the science fiction writer). So the philosopher, being a sober factual type, is concerned with a certain part of reality—the part I am calling “logical”. Thus when asked what philosophy is about the philosopher can answer simply, “Philosophy is about logical reality”—as physics is about physical reality, psychology is about mental reality, history is about historical reality, etc.

Of course this short answer will not put an end to all questions, just as the comparable answer for other disciplines may well prompt further questions. We will need to say what we mean by “logical”, as the physicist needs to say what he means by “physical”. The correct answer, though not perhaps the best pedagogically, is that logical reality consists of all the relations of entailment, consistency, and inconsistency that exist. An example might help: the philosophical problem of free will concerns whether free will logically implies determinism or indeterminism. Thus we have compatibilists and incompatibilists debating the logical relations between free will and these other concepts. Some say free will rules out determinism, some say the two are compatible, and some say that free will logically implies determinism. Philosophy therefore differs from psychology and physiology when it comes to acts of will, being concerned with a logical question. Here are some other examples chosen more or less at random. Does the mind entail the body or are the two logically separable? How are sense experience and material objects logically related? Is knowledge logically compatible with non-conclusive evidence? How are mind and behavior logically related? Are truth and meaning logically connected? Do descriptive propositions ever entail ethical propositions? Does identity of reference entail identity of sense? Do modal propositions entail the existence of possible worlds? Do general terms logically imply abstract universals? Does death entail the end of the soul? Does survival of persons require identity through time? Are causation and constant conjunction mutually entailing? These questions are the stuff of philosophy and they all concern what I am calling logical reality; so our definition of philosophy looks to be on the right lines.

There can be different theories of logical reality: some say it involves concepts, some say it is a matter of words, others say that it is about reality itself (this is my position). Never mind: philosophy is about whatever logic is about. Note that I am adopting a very broad notion of logic here—certainly not restricted to standard propositional and predicate calculus. Logic in the broad sense includes any type of consequence relation—entailment in the most capacious sense (but it has to involve necessity). What is important is that this sector of reality exists and can be studied. In addition to physical objects, psychological subjects, biological forms, historical epochs, and geological strata, there is a realm of logical relations along with their relata (whatever we determine these to be). Let’s adopt for the nonce full-blooded realism about this sector: there is an objective mind-independent logical reality into which we can inquire.  Like other regions of reality it can be difficult to penetrate, presenting puzzles and mysteries, and be capable of leading us up the wrong track (some have said that our ordinary language distracts us from its actual nature). So we might want to preface our answer to the question of what philosophy is by remarking, “Well, there is something called logical reality, which is a genuine part of what there is, though there are debates about its nature…and philosophy studies that”. It might help to soften the inquirer up by saying a few words about mathematics or even logic itself (i.e. the subject of a typical logic course). But don’t spend too long on these preliminaries, just blurt it out without hesitation and in a confident no-nonsense voice: “Philosophy is the study of logical reality”. This should obviate the shady operator suspicion and pave the way for a healthy and fruitful discussion.  It is also entirely accurate.

One nice feature of this definition is that it does justice to the breadth of philosophy: philosophers talk about everything, though from a specific point of view. For everything has entailments, logic being universal. For instance, if you are investigating the logic of identity, you will be dealing with everything that exists, since everything is self-identical. This gets philosophy a reputation for being “abstract”, dubiously airy-fairy: but you should resist this idea. Philosophy has a perfectly solid subject matter, given that logical reality is real: entailment is as real as the things it relates. We investigate it by employing the faculty of reason, not the sense organs, but that doesn’t detract from its reality (compare mathematics). Reasoning is the method whereby logical relations are exposed. There is thus no objection to rephrasing our definition as follows: “Philosophy is the study of rational structure”. Logic deals with what is rational, so philosophy is concerned with the domain over which rationality operates. I prefer the blunter “logical reality” for reasons of rhetoric, but “rational structure” can be offered as a useful gloss (but beware of its psychologistic connotations). In any case, the general conception is consonant with the generality of philosophy. But this is not an indication that philosophy has no subject matter to call its own, only that its specific subject matter extends over all of reality (in this sense philosophy is a “higher-order” discipline). We might picture philosophy as lying alongside the other sectors of reality studied by the various disciplines, so that we have such philosophical topics as philosophy of history, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics, philosophy of knowledge, etc. It is not that philosophy somehow includesthese other subjects (it is not history, psychology, physics, etc.); rather, it studies the logical relations into which these various subject matters enter. It studies, for example, the logical relations between physics and biology or history and psychology (as well as logical relations existing within those disciplines).

What are the paradigms of philosophy as so conceived? I hesitate to single certain philosophers out because that may suggest a tendentious picture of the discipline, but Frege and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatusmake good examples. Consider Frege’s apparatus of sense and reference, of objects and functions, and Wittgenstein’s vision of reality as a logical space fixed by logical language. The world is depicted as a logical structure into which we may inquire. At the other extreme we have Hegel’s dialectical theory of the logic of history, or Sartre’s investigation of being and nothingness (consciousness entails a “nothingness at the heart of being”). Husserl’s Logical Investigationsdeals with the logical structure of mental acts. Grice’s work tells us that conversational implicature does not entail logical implication. Quine assures us that a behaviorist view of meaning entails indeterminacy. Kripke contends that names don’t imply descriptions. Rawls argues that justice entails fairness. And so on. A philosopher is always concerned with what follows from what, and what does not follow. Problems arise when reflecting on our knowledge of the world—logical problems—and we strive to solve these problems by reasoning. We try to get a clear view of logical reality (whether bewitched by language or not).

Philosophy so understood is not confined to mere description. It can be revisionary, even radically so. There may be hidden implications that undermine parts of common sense or even science. There may be lurking paradoxes that call whole areas of thought into question. Such is the way of skepticism: if we examine the logical nature of knowledge we see that it is inconsistent with many of our knowledge claims—it implies certainty where none is to be had. Truth may turn out to entail its own negation, as in the semantic paradoxes. Modality may imply an unacceptable metaphysics. So logical reality may diverge from the way it seems to us in common sense, requiring revisions in our conceptual scheme (maybe free will turns out to be impossible given its entailments). Logical reality may be difficult to discern, and not what we expect: so there is nothing quietist about this conception of philosophy.

If philosophy is about logical reality, it is centrally about linkages—its focus is on connection. It wants to know how things hang together, or fail to. It is always interested in how things are related, joined or disjoined. But it is not concerned with physical or psychological linkages, but with logical linkages. In the philosophy of free will, for example, the concern is less on free will itself as on how it is related to determinism (or indeterminism)—how are these things linked? Likewise we want to know about the linkage between mind and body—whether the mind logically precludes emergence from the body or not. So philosophical acumen largely consists in the detection and articulation of such logical linkages—in seeing what follows and does not follow. That’s what you’ve got to get good at. That’s what you’ve got to be interested in. The philosopher is a linkage enthusiast, an artist of logical connection (scientist too).

It is tediously repeated that philosophy used to include the sciences till they found their independence, and that the rest of philosophy will eventually go that way, disappearing up its own success. But if what I have said here is correct, this will not happen; and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject to think that it will. For philosophy is concerned with the linkages that constitute logical reality, and no other discipline is so concerned. Just as logical reality will never collapse into other areas of reality, so philosophy will never be replaced by the disciplines that study those other areas.[1]


Colin McGinn

[1]This essay is meant to complement my Truth By Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy(Oxford University Press, 2012).


Believing Zombies


Believing Zombies



Could there be zombies that believe they are conscious?[1]They have no consciousness, but they erroneously believe that they do. That may seem possible if we think of their beliefs as implanted at birth or something of the sort: couldn’t a super scientist simply interfere with their brain to install the belief that they are conscious, as innate beliefs are installed by the genes? The belief is false, but that is no obstacle to belief possession. We may have an innate belief that we are surrounded by a world of external physical objects, but that belief might be false if we are really brains in vats. Similarly, zombies might have false beliefs about their mental world, supposing it much fuller than it really is.

But the matter is not so simple: for beliefs need reasons. What reason could the zombies have for believing they are conscious? The reason we believe we are conscious is that we are conscious and this fact is evident to us–without that we would not have the belief in question. If the believing zombies were to reflect on the beliefs they find implanted in them, they would wonder what grounds those beliefs—what evidence there is for them. Finding nothing they would abandon their groundless beliefs, perhaps with a shake of the head at being so irrationally committed to something for which they have absolutely no reason. Minimal rationality would quickly disabuse them of their error; they would believe instead that they are notconscious, or possibly remain agnostic.

It might be replied that consciousness is not necessary to ground belief in consciousness, only the appearance of consciousness is. The zombies have to be in an epistemic state just like our epistemic state except that we have consciousness and they have none—the appearance of consciousness without the reality. But this is contradictory, since the appearance of consciousness would have to be a form of consciousness: it would have to seemto them that they were conscious. For instance, it would have to seem to them that they have a conscious visual experience of yellow without having any conscious visual experience (of yellow or anything else). Surely that is impossible: seeming to have a conscious state is having a conscious state (of seeming). So the only reason they could have for believing they are conscious is that they are conscious, and they need areason for that belief if they are to have it stably.

Now it may be said that we are being too rationalistic about belief: people can believe things for no reason at all, without any evidence whatever. Couldn’t our zombies believe they are conscious because this is what they have always been taught or because of superstition or from wishful thinking? They want badly to believe they are conscious (it seems so undignified to be a mere zombie) and so they deceive themselves into believing it. Happens all the time: no evidence at all, but firm belief nonetheless. That sounds like a logical possibility, though it would be an odd case of irrational dogma or motivated self-deception. One problem is that irrational believers generally thinkthey have reasons for belief, even though these putative reasons look hollow and unconvincing to everyone else. They will cite these reasons when challenged to defend their beliefs. But what will the zombies say when challenged? They can’t point to anything that even appears to look like consciousness, since that would imply that they have consciousness. People whose religion requires them to believe in miracles will cite certain natural events as proof of said miracles, however unconvincing these events may be as evidence of miracles; but our zombies have absolutely nothing to point to, since the mere semblance of consciousness isa case of consciousness. Their religion may require them to believe they are conscious, but they can point to nothing that could even be interpreted as consciousness, because they have no consciousness. An appearance of miracle may fail to be a miracle, but an appearance of consciousness is always consciousness. And nothing else could provide any halfway reasonable grounds for their belief. So we are left with the idea that they believe they are conscious without even believing they have any grounds for that belief.[2]This gets us back to the case of beliefs that exist without even having any purported justification. All they can say when challenged is, “I simply believe it”. This is a difficult thing to make sense of because beliefs need grounds ofsomesort (they purport to be knowledge after all).

We should conclude that zombies that believe they are conscious are not possible. Any being that believes it is conscious must be conscious. That includes us: if we believe we are conscious, then we must be conscious. This refutes an eliminative view of experiential consciousness: it cannot be that we lack such consciousness while simultaneously believing that we have it. We cannot be actual zombies under the illusion that we possess consciousness.[3]


Colin McGinn

[1]These are zombies with respect to experiential consciousness not zombies tout court, since they are stipulated to have beliefs. The intuitive idea is that they have no conscious experience and yet they believe that they do: for example, they think they have conscious visual experiences of colors, but they don’t have any such experiences.

[2]They may have a sacred text in which it is written that zombies are conscious, despite the introspective appearances, and they may be brainwashed into accepting that text. But then the “belief” they have is really a matter of faith, since they have no direct grounds for the belief, even of the thinnest kind. They accept the text only because of their religion, not because they can offer any justification for the beliefs it recommends. They don’t really believethey are conscious, as they (rightly) believe themselves to be embodied believers. For that they need some sort evidence, even if it falls far short of what it is evidence for.

[3]Some extremists have sought to deny that “visual qualia” (etc) exist, despite our firm conviction that they do exist. But it is simply not possible to believe in such things without there beingsuch things, since they provide the only possible grounds for such a belief.



I started playing guitar at age 60 after being a drummer for nearly 50 years. Not easy. Lately I’ve been playing bass more, which combines guitar and percussion. I recently learned the bass lick in Prince’s Sign O’ the Times (quite a thrill to play that). But even more recently I took up blues harmonica, which is fascinating and doable–I recommend it. Get a good instruction book and a Hohner Blues Harp and learn to draw on 4, you won’t regret it.


Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin: why we love America. Donald Trump: why we hate America. I’m aiming for 76 as my expiry date. Her lack of glamor is part of the reason for her transcendence. That voice.

The TV coverage was gratifying and RESPECT accorded a good deal of respect as a feminist anthem. Fair enough, it has a political dimension, but let’s not forget the groove and the way Aretha phrases it rhythmically.


Knowledge Versus Opinion




Knowledge, Opinion, and Fantasy



Plato wished to know the difference between knowledge and opinion. His idea, much elaborated over the centuries, is that something needs to be added to opinion to get knowledge. Knowledge is opinion plussomething—truth, justification, reliability, etc. Certainly we can agree that knowledge is more than opinion, but could it also be less? Do we need to subtract something from opinion to get knowledge? Does opinion have properties that knowledge lacks? Might it have properties that disable it from counting as knowledge? In order to answer these questions we need to be clear what we mean by “opinion”, allowing that the word may be more inclusive than the concept we intend to single out. There are two sorts of case to consider: bad opinions and acceptable opinions. Acceptable opinions would include a scientist cautious about the data tentatively suggesting that a certain hypothesis might be true: she isn’t at all dogmatic about it, agreeing that she might well be wrong; she proportions her belief according to the available evidence. Bad opinions would include those influenced by prejudice or propaganda and reflecting animosities in the believer—for example, the belief that Mexicans are murderers and rapists. I include here opinions based on wild conspiracy theories as well as superstitions and urban legends. The question then is how these kinds of opinions differ from knowledge.

It would be wrong to claim that such opinions can be converted into knowledge by the mere addition of certain conditions. Suppose one of these bad opinions turns out to be true, and suppose also that the believer has evidence for his belief: does that entail that he has knowledge? No, because the way he arrived at his belief deprives it of the ability to count as knowledge—at any rate, there is something defective about the belief that casts doubt on its claim to knowledge. In the MenoPlato suggested that opinion differs from knowledge in that it is transitory (“untethered”) while knowledge is fixed and stable. That fails to allow for rigidly held prejudicial beliefs or deep-seated errors of judgment. But the suggestion is interesting because it finds in opinion a feature that distinguishes it intrinsically from knowledge—a feature that prevents opinion from qualifying as knowledge. That is, it identifies in opinion a positive disqualification, not merely a remediable lack. And this corresponds to an intuition that pervades the philosophical literature on the analysis of knowledge, namely that knowledge cannot be defined as true justified opinion. It is not an accident that the first condition in the analysis of knowledge is stated using the concept of belief, because that concept is neutral on the question of knowledge; but no one finds it natural to start out stipulating that xknows that ponly if xis of the opinionthat p. That would quickly lead to counterexamples in the light of the kind of case I mentioned earlier: a prejudicial belief that happened to be true and justified would not count as knowledge (it would be a type of Gettier case). Bad opinions cannot be magically converted into knowledge by the addition of truth and justification. Such opinions differ intrinsically from knowledge. Plato conjectures that they are essentially unstable, flighty, and malleable—and one can appreciate his point. But even if that were correct, we would still need to ask whythey are thus mutable. So we have the question: in virtue of what do opinions of this type differ from knowledge (or rational belief)?

The answer I propose is that they are governed by fantasy. There is a class of beliefs that are controlled by fantasy, and that is the mark that distinguishes them from knowledge. I won’t be able to say much about fantasy here; I will take it for granted that fantasy plays a significant role in the human psyche, affecting almost every aspect of our psychological lives. Clearly the mind of the human child is riddled with fantasy, and this fantasy life affects the child deeply: a great many of a child’s convictions stem from fantasy—indeed there no clear line at this stage between fantasy and belief. As we mature the control of fantasy lessens, as the “reality principle” sets in (Freud wasn’t wrong about everything); but it never entirely disappears, and it is more powerful in some people than others. It can still shape belief even as the years accumulate. We can imagine beings that lose all vestiges of fantasy at puberty, becoming fantasy-free zones, never having their views shaped by what their imagination presents to them: but human beings are not like this, being prone to fantasy throughout their lives. Thus we are open to the fantasies promoted by conspiracy theorists, as well as to our own self-manufactured fabrications and fancies. The suggestion, then, is that opinion (in the intended sense) is the result of fantasy while knowledge is not. Knowledge is the rejection of fantasy; opinion is its embrace. Thus opinion can never count as knowledge, because fantasy-based belief can never be knowledge. There is a class of human beliefs (if that is the right word) that are disqualified from counting as knowledge by their genesis, no matter whether they may be true or justified. Thus we don’t analyze knowledge as true justified opinion just as we don’t analyze it as true justified fancy or feeling: we don’t say that xknows that ponly if xfancies that por feels that p(or fantasizes that p), because that suggests the wrong sort of psychological state to count as a case of knowledge. If a view (position, attitude, stance) results from fantasy it is disqualified from being knowledge; it is “mere opinion”.

But why is that? Why is fantasy so disqualifying? Because it roots belief in the self: it makes belief dependent on personality, emotion, idiosyncrasy, and waywardness. Fantasy reflects the urgings of the psyche–its preoccupations, insecurities, and aggressions. But knowledge must be rooted in the world beyond the self not inthe self—in the reality principle not the fantasy principle. Fantasy drags the mind away from the world and into its own dark labyrinth, but knowledge must face the bright objective common world. Opinion therefore tracks what lies within not what prevails without. Opinion is the expression of the self not its negation or transcendence. Thus opinion differs fundamentally from knowledge: you can’t just add to it and hope that its dubious origins will magically remove themselves. The OEDdefines “opinion” as “a view or judgment not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. One supposes that this definition took some crafting: notice that it avoids the word “belief” and uses “necessarily” to expand opinion beyond rational inquiry; also it opposes opinion to knowledge, as if these are two very different kinds of thing. But what it doesn’t do is provide any positive definition of the word; it simply says what opinion is not based on. Then what is it based on? It is based on something in the psychological subject evidently—and “fantasy” is its name. It is what the mind comes up with when facts and knowledge are lacking—conviction without evidence, without the control of the reality principle. Freud might call it the pleasure principle, and that is not wide of the mark, but fantasy is not always about pleasure. Fantasy is about disconnection from the world, possible (and impossible) worlds, madness, deception, self-deception, fiction, the absurd, the undisciplined, the puerile, and the paranoid. Fantasy is the antithesis of knowledge, not a precursor to it. Knowledge cannot have fantasy as a component. Opinion controlled by fantasy is not a suitable basis for knowledge. It needs to be thrown out not supplemented. People whose minds are stocked with such opinions are not on the road to knowledge; they have disqualified themselves from the start. They are going about the cognitive life in the wrong way.

Two distinctive Platonic doctrines fall into place under the present theory. The first is Plato’s attitude to the arts, particularly drama: he famously opposed them, regarding them as disruptive to the search for true knowledge (suitable only for watching on cave walls perhaps). We can now see that if opinion is based on fantasy it is based on what the arts are all about—the fabricated, the imagined, the unreal. If the mind confuses fantasy with reality, then mere opinion is the upshot, and true knowledge is precluded. Second, Plato’s hostility to the Sophists acquires a theoretical foundation: they trade in human fantasy, using it to sway opinion (note the word), exploiting the fragilities of the self. Plato seeks to banish fantasy from rational discourse, and discourage its role in human cognition—in the formation of our “views”. We can envisage different degrees of prohibition in the ideal Platonic society: completely excise fantasy from the mind (surgically or by indoctrination); suppress it as far as possible while tolerating its existence; or assign it to its proper place—dreams, romantic love, the arts. What we cannot accept is its intrusion into the serious business of acquiring knowledge—not if we take Plato’s strictures to heart. Practically, we must train our young to form their beliefs without any reliance on the promptings of fantasy—no conspiracy theories, no wishful thinking, no succumbing to the temptations of the compelling narrative (as if the world has to fit your favorite plotlines). The Sophists among us will always seek to inflame our imaginations in an effort to warp our beliefs, but we must train our young to resist their incursions. Let “That’s just a fantasy!” be our mantra. (Not that any of this will be easy: some catchy songs might help.)

Presumably fantasy is more powerful in some areas of thought than others. People tend not to fantasize about numbers (there are exceptions) or elementary particles, but when it comes to the biological world fantasy is strong—notably with respect to humans. Obviously animals have proved a rich source of fantasy and many weird beliefs have been held about them (mainly to their detriment), but humans are clearly the most fertile ground for the flowering of fantasy. We look at each other through a blinding haze of fantasy, not just people from other places, but also our own kith and kin. Marriage is a rich source of fantasy thinking, and so a hotbed of non-knowledge (the problem of other minds providing the slack needed to allow fantasy to flourish). I think of Othelloand other Shakespeare plays (isn’t Iago the ultimate fantasy-monger?). So we need to be more alert to the depredations of fantasy in some areas than others; we need to beware of “opinion” in the areas in which it is most likely to take root. Marriage counselors should take a “fantasy studies” course, specializing in “spousal fantasy disorder”. At any rate, the recognition of the possibility of fantasy should inform all our personal interactions, from the most casual to the most intimate.

We must acknowledge our dual nature. On the one hand, we have the rational faculty, whose object is knowledge; on the other, we have the imaginative faculty, whose work product is fantasy. The latter has a tendency to leak into the former, to deform and distort it. There could be beings without the imaginative faculty (they would be pleasing to Plato) as there could be beings without the rational faculty (maybe pleasing to some Romantics). The beings without imagination would be all knowledge and no opinion; the beings without reason would be all opinion and no knowledge. We have both faculties and the problem is leakage: too many people have their views shaped by the operations of fantasy. And they don’t realize it; or rather, they can’t think in these terms, as children can’t. They stand at rallies shouting and shrieking, their heads full of fantasies, brimming with “opinions”, and with no actual knowledge in sight: if only their fantasies could be abolished! History is largely the history of fantasy, of “opinions”, of the antithesis of knowledge. When a person tells you he is “entitled to his opinion” he really means he is entitled to his fantasies; maybe he is, but he is not entitled to confuse his fantasies with reality.

I want to emphasize that what Plato dubbed “correct opinion” is not to be confused with knowledge. An opinion is not saved from criticism by being correct (true, justified) given that it arises in a certain kind of way—by fantasy, according to the present hypothesis. Correct opinion might not lead us astray practically (because it’s correct) but that doesn’t mean it reduces to knowledge: it just happens to be correct, because it arose by a means that is inimical to correctness, viz. fantasy. Knowledge is more valuable than correct opinion because of its origin not because of its effects (to answer Plato’s question in the Meno)—because of its freedom from fantasy and fantasy’s dependence on the self. Knowledge is not self-directed, unlike opinion. This is why it would be wrong to define knowledge as correct opinion, as if opinion could redeem itself by being (accidentally) correct.[1]

Since we are in Plato territory let me propose an allegory of knowledge and opinion. There is a war going on between two factions: the adherents of fantasy and the adherents of reality (call this the Allegory of the War). We are the ground on which this war is being fought. The fantasy side wishes to acquire as much ground as possible, seizing as much doxastic real estate as it can; the reality side is defending its territory against the marauding forces. The battle ebbs and flows, with bits of land exchanging hands. The forces of fantasy are winning the war in certain areas (politics, ethics, the law) while the forces of reality hang on to their strongholds in science, mathematics, and philosophy. Some ground is hotly contested—history, economics, parts of psychology. The fantasy side is fuelled by rage and self-regard, not to mention insecurity, while the reality side is stoical and stone-faced, dispassionate to a fault. The war has been going on for millennia, ever since man acquired his dual nature (back there in old Africa). Sometimes fantasy holds most of the territory, sometimes reality manages to capture a chunk of land previously held by fantasy. The tide has been shifting in the reality direction in recent centuries, but nothing is ever securely held; for the fantasy side is wily and determined, and full of brute energy. There are setbacks, reversals of fortune, and humiliating defeats. Who will win in the end (this is a zero sum game)? It’s hard to say, but there seems to be no end in sight.


[1]I have not recurred to the category of tentative belief as a species of opinion, as with the cautious scientist. I don’t think this is the kind of case Plato had in mind, and anyway my main interest is in the category I called bad opinion. In the former kind of case we don’t need the concept of opinion because we can speak simply of knowledge without fear of solecism: the scientist knows that the probability of the hypothesis is nwhere nrepresents her degree of belief. There is nothing untoward about that belief and fantasy played no part in its formation. It is proportional to the evidence and is not resistant to new evidence, unlike the bad kind of opinion. The kind of opinion I have been concerned with corresponds to the groundless psychologically motivated opinions we observe all around us.


Delusional Narcissist

I notice that my favorite projective paranoid, Brian Leiter, has taken to calling me a delusional narcissist (clear-eyed sentimentalist would be more accurate). Why not throw in bipolar schizophrenic or depressive psychopath? Anything goes, right. Completely ridiculous, but so what. Why, Brian, why? But don’t let me stop you, old chap. You are clearly suffering from advanced ego fragility or manic-aggressive fantasy disorder or chronic sundered personality syndrome or… I’m sure it’s all in fun, no ill will intended, so no offense taken. Cheers, DN.



I just recorded an enjoyable podcast with Michael Shermer about mysteries etc. It should be out in a week or so. I liked it because it was long–a full hour and half. No soundbites. He was an excellent interlocutor.


Absolute Deontology

This seems apropos:

Absolute Deontology



Kant’s position that there cannot be a case of morally permissible lying has not been met with much enthusiasm. The idea of absolute moral rules thus seems mistaken. W.D. Ross sought to remedy the problem for deontological ethics by qualifying the force of moral rules: instead of saying that we have an absolute duty to tell the truth, he suggested that we have we have what he called a “prima facie duty” to tell the truth—a duty that can be overridden in certain circumstances. This notion has always been obscure and the terminology less than satisfactory, though the problem it is intended to solve is real; also it seems to soften duties in a way that anyone sympathetic to deontological ethics will find unappealing. Do we never have an absolute duty to tell the truth? Are our duties always merely prima facie? I want to suggest an alternative approach to the problem, one that abandons the idea of prima facie duty.

The alternative view appeals to the notion of different categories of lie. Consider the lying allegation intended to harm the person accused: that kind of lie is surely absolutely wrong. Lying to protect an innocent person is a good counterexample to a perfectly general prohibition on lying, but lying in order to harm someone is nothing like that—it precisely aims at injustice and suffering. I suggest that this duty is absolute: under no circumstances is it right to lie in order to get someone into trouble (and thereby get them into trouble). Call this the lying accusation: then we can say that the duty not to make lying accusations is absolute—not merely prima facie. Kant would be right about the status of this duty. By contrast there is no absolute duty not to lie to children: it depends on the circumstances—and there are plenty of circumstances in which lying is the only way to protect children. Likewise there is no absolute duty to tell people the truth about their physical appearance or level of intelligence. So some categories of truth telling are unqualified duties while some are not; it is not that alltypes of lying are only prima facie wrong. This is a good result because we don’t want to say that all types of lying are only wrong at first sight—but maybe not at second sight or on deeper reflection. When it comes to the lying accusation we don’t want to tell our children that this is wrong only in certain circumstances or at first glance—it is always wrong, very wrong, necessarily so. If a mother catches her child lying about another child, in order to get that child into trouble, the mother might say, simplifying somewhat: “It’s wrong to lie”. She means to be speaking of the kind of situation at hand, not cases of benevolent lying; and her message is that it is always absolutely wrong to lie in that specific way. She doesn’t follow Ross and cautiously intone: “It is prima facie wrong to lie”. If later the child asks her about benevolent lying, she will be beyond criticism if she replies: “I was talking about lying allegations not all possible forms of lying”. She expected the context to make her meaning clear, and no doubt it was clear; the child is being a philosophical pedant if she responds: “But you said the words ‘lying is wrong’ as if it applied to every possible kind of lie”.

Semantically, the case is a bit like “camels have four legs”: that is perfectly true (absolutely true) but it isn’t true that every camel has four legs (some camels have lost or leg or two). Likewise, “lying is wrong” is not a universal quantification over every instance of lying; rather, certain kinds of lying are deemed universally wrong (necessarily so). It is intended as a conjunction of certain categories of lie, not every possible type of lie (e.g. lying to protect the innocent). It is wrong to make lying accusations about people and also wrong to lie in order to make yourself look better than you are and also wrong to mislead people for no reason—but not wrong to lie in order to protect an innocent person from falling into evil hands.

It is the same for prudential duties. We can say, “you should eat in moderation” or “you should take regular exercise””, but we don’t intend to include eating in moderation after starving or exercising when you have the flu. This should not make us regard prudential imperatives as merely prima facie; rather, a more specific imperative would be absolutely binding, e.g. “don’t have a massive lunch every day” or “don’t sit around in the house all day (unless you are not well)”. It is not that prudential duties are merely prima facie duties; they are absolute duties once they are properly formulated. Ditto for duties of etiquette or rules of the road: of course it is sometimes right to violate the usual rules of etiquette or driving (as in cases of emergency), but it is equally true that some of these specific rules are universally binding, e.g. “Don’t make loud noises in church (for no good reason)”, “Don’t go the wrong way up a one-way street (in normal traffic conditions)”. And if we are talking about such rules in particular contexts the point is even clearer: “Don’t bang into that old lady”, “Say thank you to this shop keeper”, “Don’t turn left here”, “Don’t eat another plate of spaghetti”. This absoluteness is quite compatible with there being othercircumstances in which in which one should bang into someone or not say thank you or turn left illegally or have the extra plate. What we should not say is that lying is only prima facie wrong in all circumstances: in some circumstances—indeed in nearly all—lying is absolutely wrong. The concept of prima facie wrongness is not the right way to handle the possibility of exceptions to a universal quantification.

It is a question whether this approach generalizes to all cases of duties, such as the duty not to steal or murder or break promises. We can all come up with examples in which it would be unduly rigid to insist that one not do anything of these kinds—to save the life of a child, to defend oneself against unwarranted attack, to prevent a catastrophe. But does that mean that these duties are merely prima facie?  No, because individual categories of these duties might be universally binding: one should never steal from the poor to give to the rich or murder an innocent child or selfishly break a promise because something better came up. A Kantian attitude about theseduties is correct, even if we don’t want to say that there are no conceivable circumstances in which stealing, murder, and promise breaking are morally permissible. The simple statement “Stealing, murder, and breaking promises are wrong” is just shorthand for a conjunction of these specific statements; it doesn’t need to be qualified and weakened by the use of the prima facie operator. In fact, moral duties are always absolute, admitting of no exception, once they are properly formulated. So we really don’t need to back off from Kant’s fundamental position—while disagreeing with him about certain kinds of cases.

Here is a difficult case to end with: it is only possible to save the innocent child from the murderous storm troopers by falsely accusing someone of something and thereby getting them into trouble. You save the child’s life but only by falsely telling the storm troopers that your mother is a thief (thus landing her in jail). In this case I would say you have chosen the lesser of two evils, but the lying accusation was still an evil. But I can imagine someone sticking to the strict Kantian line here, and not unreasonably: you should not accuse your mother of being a thief in these circumstances even if it would save the life of the child. The case is in sharp contrast to merely flattering someone about his physical appearance when he is in fact in horrible physical shape, or not telling a child the awful details of how her mother died in a car accident. In these cases what you did was morally right not merely the lesser of two evils. Lying isn’t always morally wrong even if most kinds of lying are absolutely wrong.


Colin McGinn