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Q: If someone believes that a transmigrating personal identity/soul has no recollection of a previous life when re-embodied, does that imply an empiricist (tabula rasa) view?



This view that a transmigrating soul has no recollection of a previous life might be supposed to be an objection to Plato's doctrine of recollection as outlined in the Meno. For there Plato does appear to suggest that the slave boy's ability to discover mathematical truths is to be understood in terms of the soul recollecting what was first known in a previous existence, when prior to embodiment,  the soul was acquainted with the world of the forms. However, even on this reading of Plato, a priori knowledge of the necessary truths of mathematics is in no way derived from recollection of previous embodied lives. So even Plato, so understood, could deny the mind is a tabula rasa while happily allowing that the transmigrating soul has no recollection of previous, embodied lives. For no rationalist has ever sought to account for a priori necessary knowledge in terms of remembering truths learnt through experience in a previous embodied existence. (Note that Plato does not suggest our recollection of forms is from a previous embodied life/existence.) So having no memories from previous embodied existence is simply irrelevant to the debate about whether or not the mind is a tabula rasa.

This is the really important point: the rationalist denial that the mind is a tabula rasa is based on the claim that no experience could ever be sufficient to account for our knowledge of necessary truths about the nature of reality. This is because experience reveals to us what in fact is the case in the reality we are currently experiencing e.g the paper is white not pink. But necessary truths go beyond that in revealing to us what must be the case in all possible worlds and no experience of the actual world could be the source of our knowledge of that. For example, we claim to know that two added to two must be four and there is no possible world in which the outcome is something other than four. So, whether or not, the soul recollects facts from previous embodied existences, this has no bearing on the rationalist- empiricist debate about whether or not the soul is a tabula rasa for the simple reason that past experiences, no matter how numerous, can never by themselves justify necessary truths.

Therefore the rationalist claim that the mind is not a tabula rasa has to be understood as the claim that the soul is so constituted by its very nature as to possess certain concepts and principles from which necessary truths can be derived through reflection on these innate concepts and principles. So understood, the claim that we have innate ideas has nothing to do with recollecting ideas or truths which one has previously experienced in some prior embodied existence. The soul, in so far as it is constituted by these innate ideas and principles, can be thought to transmigrate and to forget everything learnt from experience without ceasing to have the capacity to discover anew these necessary truths. So long as it retains its own intrinsic and essential nature or character as a soul it will possess these innate ideas. Therefore so long as the soul is not destroyed during transmigration it will retain this innate structure and therefore be capable of discovering necessary truths even though it remembers nothing of its past embodied lives.




Q: What is the difference between knowing and knowledge?


The word 'knowledge' can be used more flexibly than the word 'knowing' in the following respect. 'Knowledge' can refer both to the fact that someone knows something (as in the question 'What is knowledge?', which is asking what this fact consists in) and to the truths or propositions actually known (as in 'Her knowledge of mechanics is extensive'). In contrast, the word 'knowing' only ever refers to the fact that someone knows something, never to the things known.

Q: Next year\'s Religious Studies syllabus for OCR asks us to assess the following question: \"Should what is meant by the word ‘good’ be the defining question in meta-ethics?\" Before that question arises we are required to examine Moore\'s intuitionism, ethical naturalism and emotivism as meta-ethical theories. I\'m not entirely sure what I could do here. I am presuming there was a reaction to post-Moorean philosophy\'s pre-occupation with the meaning of good. Have you any suggestions as to who/what I could study in order to address the question given in the syllabus?


This is a case where you may need to ask OCR officers for advice, but we would take the question to be an invitation to discuss deontology. Deontological theories (as opposed to consequentialist theories such as Moore's ideal utilitarianism and other forms of utilitarian theory) put the concept of obligation, rather than goodness, at centre stage. The father of deontology is usually considered to be Kant. But a more recent expression of this theoretical approach (and a very readable one) is The Right and the Good by W.D. Ross. Although Ross does recognise a role for goodness to play, in that he thinks there is a prima facie moral duty to 'promote a maximum of aggregate good', he also thinks that there are other prima facie duties that have nothing intrinsically to do with promoting goodness, e.g., the duty to keep a promise. (Although keeping your promises may produce goodness for yourself or others, that is not the moral reason for keeping them – the reason is that it is simply your duty, in Ross's view.) How does Ross think we know these truths about what is right and wrong? He believes that this is by a non-inferential faculty of understanding akin to that by which we know mathematical truths. For more information about Ross's Approach (besides his own The Good and the Right and Foundations of Ethics), see the excellent article about him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which includes material about Ross's attack on the ideal utilitarianism of Moore and Hastings Rashdall.

Q: I am a bit unclear what the specific complaint would be from an eliminative materialist against the functionalist, given that they don't purport to make any one-to-one match-ups between mental and physical properties of the kind made by identity theorists. A related point: for the EM to be willing to allow for AI being capable of cognition (as I imagine some would wish to do) they would presumably want an account of what is happening that was focusing on the level of function/"software" rather than specific instances/"hardware", and mental concepts may well be well-suited to that purpose.


Functionalism is a form of mind-body reductionism in which mental states are 'reduced' to particular sorts of physical states, although, for the purposes of this reduction, these states have to be identified not in a directly physical way (in terms of neurons, for example), but in a more abstract way in terms of their causal role in the activities of the entity to which consciousness is attributed (whether that is a human being, an animal or possibly some A.I. system or robot). In contrast, eliminative materialism or eliminativism is the claim that mental states do not exist. For eliminativists, mental states are not to be identified with functional states, because they think that are no such things as mental states. Eliminativists take this nihilistic view about mental states because they think that the concept of a mental state is a defective one, since, for example, it involves various claims about privacy of access and infallibility that are objectionable or even incoherent. On the other hand, I think that eliminativists might say that talk of functional states could replace talk of mental states in a scientific description of supposedly conscious entities, as functional state talk does not appear to be vulnerable to the objections raised against mental state talk. You are right in thinking that eliminativists who want to say that some AI systems are capable of cognition may want to appeal to functional states and it does seem open to them to do so.

On the other hand, eliminativists appear to many people to be vulnerable to the objection that in providing a purely 'third person' account of human beings and other entities that we commonly regard as having consciousness, they have left out something very important. And to such objectors, functional states would not provide any sort of answer, as they cannot supply that ineliminable first person aspect. I leave it to you and your students to decide how precisely this objection could be developed and whether it is convincing!  

Q: Why is the issue of circularity explanation any less an issue for functionalists than for behaviourists? If the functionalist can solve it by defining all mental states at once, holistically, (e.g. ramsification) then why can't the behaviourist do the same? I am not saying it is or is not an issue for either, just that I can't see why it is any more an issue for one than the other. Thanks.


Thank you for your question. One interpretation of the circularity objection to behaviourism is a semantic one. Hard analytic / logical behaviourism is making the claim that it is possible to translate statements about mental states such as ‘beliefs’ or ‘desires’ to statements about behaviour or behavioural dispositions. The claim entails that we should be able to give a full description of any mental state (e.g. a desire for a beer) without mentioning any other mental states (e.g. a belief that there is a beer in the fridge); i.e. that we should be able to ‘analyse away without any remainder’ talk about mental states. Against this hard analytic/logical behaviourism it can be argued that any attempt to translate statements about mental states in terms of statements about behaviour fails because the hard analytic/logical behaviourist is forced to define such states partly in terms of other mental states. E.g. in defining what it is to have a desire for a cold beer on a hot day behaviourally, you might want to define it in terms of going to the fridge to get one. However, you will only do that if you believe that there is a beer in the fridge. Hence, it looks as if you will need to include “belief” in your definition of “desire.” This means that mental states get defined in terms of other mental states. This “circle’ of mental states being defined in terms of other mental states is a problem for a position which argues that we should be able to analyse away without any remainder talk about mental states.

However, for a position which does not make the strong semantic claim that we can analyse away without any remainder talk about mental states, this ‘circularity objection’ fails.

Functionalism is mainly an ontological theory (a theory about what mental states are) rather than a semantic theory (a theory about what talk about mental states means). The circularity objection as outlined above is an objection to a semantic theory. It is not an objection to an ontological theory. Hence, the circularity objection doesn’t translate into an objection to functionalism.

The functionalist can argue that mental states such as beliefs are interrelated with other mental states such as desire, and that mental states need to be understood holistically.

The main distinction you must keep in mind is the distinction between behaviourism as a semantic theory and functionalism as an ontological theory. Objections that can be levelled against one might not be levelled against another without making some kind of category mistake (as Ryle would say). E.g. the interaction problem, which is a real problem for (interactionist) substance dualism, might be solved by functionalism (by arguing that mental states, although multiply realisable, must be realised by something physical) whereas the logical/analytic behaviourist will argue that the interaction problem is not a genuine problem and needs to be dissolved rather than solved. E.g. to think about the mind/mental states as being causally efficacious is, according to the logical/analytic behaviourist, a logical category mistake, so there is no problem to be solved.


Q: I was attempting to get across what Mackie finds queer in his argument from queerness. It was hard going. No explanation convinced me that I had got to the heart of what exactly is the strangeness of objective, categorically prescriptive facts - facts that have an in built to-be-pursuedness. I tried to explain using the is-ought gap but then was stuck on this question: Is Mackie presuming the validity of the is-ought gap or does his argument conclude with it? I have two questions: Is there a plausible or convincing way of getting across the argument from queerness? And is the is-ought gap an implication of the argument or is it the conclusion that he arrives at?



Mackie’s argument from queerness and the link with the is-ought gap.


You ask two questions: firstly, what exactly is the argument from queerness and secondly, what is the relation between the argument from queerness and the is – ought gap?


What is Mackie attacking?


The first thing is to understand Mackie’s target with this argument from queerness. The argument from queerness does not address all versions of moral realism. In particular it does not attack ethical naturalism, the view that moral facts are simply natural facts. It is directed as an attack against those versions of moral realism which claim that moral facts are non-natural facts because of their mysterious intrinsically action guiding nature. As you correctly identify it, the target of Mackie’s argument is the existence of “categorically prescriptive facts – facts that have an in built to- be - pursuedness”. Mackie illustrates the view he is attacking with Plato’s Form of the Good and the views of moral intuitionists.


What is the basic argument from queerness?


The actual argument in basic outline is as follows: the existence of such “facts that have in built pursuedness” is so strange and mysterious that it is unreasonable to believe in their actual existence. The claim that the existence of these alleged facts is mysterious or “queer” falls short of the claim that they are logically impossible. Mackie is not claiming that objective categorical prescriptions are logically incoherent in the way four sided triangles are logically incoherent. To be “queer” for Mackie is simply to be so strange and difficult to make sense of in a universe that is to be explained naturally and scientifically that it is unreasonable, other things being equal, to believe in them. They just do not fit into a modern, scientific understanding of reality.


Epistemological unpacking of the “queerness” allegation


Mackie, of course, cannot just leave it at that. He has to unpack or explain further what is “queer”, contrary to a modern scientific understanding of reality, about real facts or properties which are intrinsically action guiding. He claims that there are two ways of doing this: one epistemological and the other metaphysical. The epistemological unpacking of “queerness” is simply the claim that a scientific understanding of how our senses provide us with knowledge of the world leaves no room for explaining how humans can perceive objective prescriptions. There may be a science of colour perception but no equivalent science of the perception of objective values or Plato’s Form of the Good. Epistemologically objective values are "queer" because it is not clear how we can detect them with any of our five senses or infer them from what we can detect via our five senses.


Metaphysical unpacking of the queerness allegation: first attempt Humean psychology


Unpacking what is metaphysically queer about these alleged action guiding facts is less straightforward. Mackie initially attempts to do so by appealing to Humean psychology where all behaviour is the product of both cognitive states (for example, beliefs) and non-cognitive states (for example, desires). From this perspective all real properties and facts are motivationally inert. Knowing this is water is not in itself sufficient to explain my drinking it. So on this view what is metaphysically queer about postulating facts with “in built to-be-pursuedness” is that this contradicts a well-established and plausible psychological theory of human motivation. However Mackie concedes this is not conclusive as it is open to the defender of intrinsically action guiding facts to claim that moral properties are a counter-example to Hume’s thesis.


Metaphysical unpacking of the queerness allegation: second attempt supervenience


So Mackie offers a second attempt to unpack the alleged metaphysical queerness of intrinsically action guiding facts. He does this in terms of the “queer” relation between natural properties of actions and non-natural properties of those same actions. Suppose for example that setting fire to a cat is wrong (intrinsically not to be pursued or done). The relation between the natural properties of the burning cat and the moral property of wrongness is not any ordinary logical relation. It is not an analytic truth that burning cats is wrong and an immoral person who fails to accept that it is wrong cannot be convicted of some error of logic. However the relation is not a contingent relation either: the wrongness of burning the cat seems to be inseparable from the natural properties of the action: if they are present, it must be wrong. Therefore the relation between the natural properties and the moral properties which Mackie calls supervenience is itself metaphysically queer because it seems to be a hybrid: neither logical necessity nor contingency. But Mackie assumes all relations are either logically necessary or contingent: there is no room in reality for a third option. So Mackie thinks that the realist about intrinsically action-guiding-properties is committed to introducing a third new relation, the supervenience relation, which is necessary but not logically necessary and that is metaphysically queer.


How does this argument from queerness relate to the is – ought distinction?


If you believe there is some fundamental metaphysical underpinning for the is–ought distinction then you are, in Mackie’s terms, an objective prescriptivist. For to believe the distinction is one which corresponds to two different realities is precisely to believe in both inert, empirically identifiable facts and to believe in a different but equally real category of non-empirical and intrinsically action-guiding kinds of facts. This is roughly the metaphysics Mackie attributes to Plato and the intuitionists. The argument from queerness then is a direct attack on the is-ought distinction understood as a metaphysical divide, actually present, in reality. In fact Mackie is seeking to show what is “queer” about that metaphysical commitment.


However if you believe that our moral practices and institutions (which are simply the creation of our interests and attitudes) enshrine an is–ought distinction as one of their rules then the argument from queerness leaves that untouched. Mackie’s error theory is precisely that we have developed ways of talking and thinking which involve a false belief in objective prescriptions and an associated conviction that these are distinct from and cannot be logically derived from natural non-moral facts.


Therefore Mackie’s attitude to the is-ought distinction is nuanced. It can be accepted by Mackie as a constitutive part of our man-made and erroneous ordinary moral practices and beliefs. It is what we all ordinarily think. But if the appearances are taken at face value and we assume that reality is made up of two wholly different kinds of facts, prescriptive facts and natural facts, then the argument from queerness is an attempt to attack that metaphysics.

Q: In the syllabus we are required to apply the ethical theories to the following five areas: the treatment of animals, simulated killing, crime and punishment, war and lying and deception. I'm struggling to come up with much to say about how preference utilitarianism might apply in these areas. Both text books (Lacewing and Jones et al) do not specifically mention preference utilitarianism when examining how utilitarianism might work out in practice. They stick to the classic hedonistic variety and the act and rule form of it. Is the lack of specific application of preference utilitarianism in the applied ethics section implying that preference utilitarianism and the classic variety are more or less identical when they are applied to the areas above? Or is this an oversight - the preference variety would actually apply differently and different conclusions would have to be drawn about war, simulated killing...etc.? If so, have you any recommendations about what to read in order to research this area?



It is quite common when discussing the implications of utilitarianism for real life issues not to make very much of the distinction between hedonistic and preference utilitarianism. The difference between the two theories is not necessarily crucial for determining the right thing to do in every case, as the two versions of the theory may give the same answer. So a treatment of these issues that did not make reference to the distinction would not necessarily be inadequate.




Having said that, out of the five areas to which students are asked to apply the theory, there seems to be one at least where the difference might be considered significant. This is the area of lying and deception. Here is a concrete example to work with. A friend of mine is close to death. He asks me to promise him that I will do a certain thing for him after he has died and tells me that he cannot die in peace unless I do it. I make that promise, although I have no intention of keeping it, because (let us say) I know it will be very hard and cost me a great deal of anguish.




To simplify things a little, let us assume an act utilitarian, rather than a rule utilitarian, approach. In other words, the rightness of a given possible act will be decided by trying to work out the value of its consequences and comparing them with the value of the consequences of alternative acts. A hedonistic utilitarian will see this 'value' exclusively in terms of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the experiences undergone by those sentient creatures affected by the act, while a preference utilitarian will conceive of it in terms of the maximal satisfaction of preferences. Now suppose that I am a hedonistic utilitarian. Then my only concern is with the difference this deceptive promise is likely to make to the pleasantness or unpleasantness of people's experiences. It seems, then, that hedonistic utilitarianism will counsel making the insincere promise. If I do not make it, my friend is likely to be extremely miserable in the remaining (albeit short) period of his life. No doubt I will also be unhappy seeing him in this state. Nobody else's experiences will be affected (we may suppose). Surely, then, the right thing to do from a hedonistic utilitarian perspective is to go ahead and make this promise that I have no intention of keeping.




If I am a preference utilitarian, on the other hand, I am likely to see things differently. After all, my friend has a strong preference for me to do a certain thing. For the preference utilitarian, that fact has weight independently of its implications for my friend's state of mind. It counts strongly in favour not only of making the promise but of keeping it. If I am aware of this, my promise has to be sincere. Of course it does not necessarily follow that when all relevant factors are taken into account, the right thing really is to make the promise sincerely and keep it. The onerous aspects involved in doing the latter might be so severe as to outweigh the badness of flouting my friend's strong wish. But the point is that the preference utilitarian, unlike the hedonistic utilitarian, is obliged to take that wish into account, independently of its implications for my friend's (or anyone else's) levels of experienced happiness.

Q: Dear bpa, I am about to embark on a PhD in Philosophy, I have an MA in Philosophy and a BA in History and Philosophy. I have been looking at the new AQA A level in Philosophy and I would like to teach this syllabus as an FE / Adult education lecturer while working on my PhD. I notice that there isn\\\\\\\'t a PGCE in Philosophy and I remember being told at a conference that working on a PhD was considered, in itself, sufficient to teach the A level. I remember being surprised and pleased at this information but I can\\\\\\\'t seem to find these professional entry requirements confirmed anywhere online. I\\\\\\\'m happy to see that you take questions. Here\\\\\\\'s mine: What qualifications are required to teach AQA A level Philosophy in FE colleges or community based adult education institutions? Thank you for your help. PS:- On a more Philosophical note I wonder if our discipline is unique in this regard? Is it the case that you can learn to philosophise, you can teach others how to philosophise but you can\\\\\\\'t teach others how to teach others how to philosophise.


 The answer is complicated. It is true that you do not need a PGCE you teach only A-level, But that is only true in some schools e.g. some independents and academies. To be covered for all schools, you would need at least a post 16 PGCE. It is now possible to get this in philosophy, though very rare. I believe the Institute of education are offering one, which involves a placement in a London school.

There are other ways into A-level teaching. See this link:

The paradox you mentioned at the end of your question is well noted!

Q: Descartes in his meditations tells us that an evil demon controlls all our perceptions, but the meditator retains the power willingly to suspend judgment. The cartesian demon cannot simply force its victim to have an arbitrarily chosen belieffor example, it cannot install and run an arbitrarily chosen train of thought in the mind of the philosopher, thereby making the philosopher beleave whatever the demon wants. But how could descartes be sure this wasn't the case? Whats to say our reality isn't controlled by an external force that controls what thoughts,beliefs, and actions we have everday of our lives? How could we know it if it was true? How could we deal with that?


The imagined deceiver – whether an omnipotent God or the malicious demon – has the power both to supply us with perceptions and to disturb our capacity to reason. Descartes is arguing that it is not merely the external world that is cast into doubt – which may not exist as it appears, or even exist at all – but also the seemingly firm ideas held by the meditator, which do not seem to depend on the external world – such as the truths of geometry and mathematics. It is this latter class of beliefs which fall into the questioner’s category of ‘making the philosopher believe whatever the demon wants’. Here we have the possibility of interventions in our chains of reasoning, however brief or simple, or with our capacity to recall ideas, so that we might even doubt that we are correctly counting the sides of a triangle every time we try, or be mistaken in supposing that 2 and 3 really do make 5.


The deceiver’s power, being total, must also, for Descartes, include being able to influence all of the ‘thoughts, beliefs and actions’ mentioned by the questioner – so it is possible that what I think I am now doing, I am not actually now doing.

However, the way to deal with this, according to Descartes, is to recognise the limits to the deceiver’s power with respect to the very idea of deception – as he says in Meditation 2, try as he might, he (the deceiver) cannot make me the subject of his deceptions unless I am here to be deceived. So whatever thoughts are being plugged into my mind, however subtle those interventions are that happen beneath my notice, I am at least able to hold on to the certainty that I (whatever it is that I am) cannot but exist.

However, as many philosophers have noted, the conclusion established by ‘the cogito’ isn’t as indubitable as Descartes thought (cf. Sartre and Russell, for instance). But what the questioner is driving at seems to offer deeper worries, before even arriving at the cogito. If we are allowed to trust at least some of our ideas/beliefs/deductions then we can work our way to something like the cogito, but if this is all just ‘noise’ then why suppose we can make any progress at all? Here Descartes makes an appeal to intuition – that we have a sound grasp of basic ideas such as truth, falsehood, doubt, and certainty, which remain unquestioned/unquestionable. But if those ideas are ‘up for grabs’, and we are not warranted in thinking that we have any firm beliefs (clearly and distinctly held or otherwise) then it’s hard to see how to escape from the demon’s clutches. Further, if reason itself is in doubt then it seems very hard, if not impossible, to see how to rebut the sceptic. Because none of our ordinary perceptions in these cases can be appealed to – we must do it all a priori – then only reason could be deployed to defend itself. So either we accept some of our ideas as axiomatic, or a rather vicious circle looms.


Q: The A2 syllabus asks us to teach the zombie argument for dualism. The syllabus states this requirement in the following way: The ‘philosophical zombies’ argument for property dualism: the logical possibility of a physical duplicate of this world but without consciousness/qualia (Chalmers). I\'m not sure why property dualism is mentioned as if the argument only supports that version of dualism. Chalmers in Consciousness and its Place in Nature says the argument could equally well support substance dualism - he calls this Type D dualism. There seems to be an implication in the wording of the syllabus that the inconceivability argument as opposed to the zombie argument support different versions of dualism. I\'m doubtful whether this is the case. The arguments could be taken as supporting either version of dualism. It seems to me that extra considerations outside of the specifics of the argument would lead on to one version or another. Am I missing something here?


If philosophical zombies are a possibility – if it is possible, that is, for there to be human beings that behave exactly as we behave, but without any mental states, consciousness, qualia, etc., so that, for example, these fingers would still be falling on the keys of this keyboard, which would still have been built, etc., even if there was absolutely nothing going on subjectively - then the relation between our mental states and how our bodies behave is merely contingent.  Even more startlingly than that, our mental states are not essentially amongst the causes of our bodily behaviour.  Thus the possibility of philosophical zombies can be seen as an argument for that version of property dualism known as epiphenomenalism, which holds that our mental states, etc., are nothing more than causally inefficacious non-physical by-products of processes occurring in our physical brains.  On the other hand, though, if philosophical zombies are not a possibility – perhaps because the very idea of a philosophical zombie is incoherent – then our mental states would seem to be essentially causally implicated in much of our bodily behaviour, and epiphenomenalism, at least, would be severely undermined.

I agree with the specification that the primary applicability of the philosophical zombies case in this context is to property dualism.  However one can, indeed, see how it might be raised for substance dualism.  Famously, Descartes maintains that he has privileged access to his own mental states, but no epistemic access to any mental states that other humans might possess, and that his understanding of his own mental states is direct and intuitive.  This raises the problem of other minds: there’s a moment in the Second Meditation, for example, where Descartes asks whether the ‘people’ he seems to see from his window are really people at all, or merely mindless automata.  If it is possible for mindless automata to pass the Turing Test, as it were, by behaving in ways indistinguishable from the ways in which a minded human behaves, then once again the relation between humans’ mental states and how human bodies behave is merely contingent, and indeed human mental states are not essentially amongst the causes of human bodily behaviour.  Of course Descartes himself goes on to say things that contradict this, his version of substance dualism being of the causal interactionist variety, according to which there is two way causation between the mental and the physical.  However the massive difficulty of explaining how such interaction is possible between radically different substances might lead us to question the justifiability of his position here.

Q: Is there a contradiction between Searle\'s rejection of the \'system reply\' to his chinese room argument, and his assertion that consciousness is a systemic property?


OK. Firstly, we need clarity concerning in what ways there can be contradiction. So I shall begin this answer somewhat circuitously.

Analytically speaking, a contradiction is conditional upon our acceptance of the meanings of the terms employed. For example, ‘A triangle has three sides’ is true by definition because the accepted meaning of the term ‘triangle’ is also that of the (defining) predicate. A contradiction such as ‘A triangle has four sides’ is only a contradiction by virtue of the accepted meanings of the terms (signs) used in the proposition. Of course, things could have been different. For whatever reason, a triangle could have been defined as a four sided figure (or even a bicycle); there is nothing that logically excludes this possibility – it is contingent upon human practices in terms of how things are classified. The point, in this sense at least, is that a logical contradiction between Searle’s rejection of the ‘system reply’ and his own Chinese Room thought experiment relies on having contradictory definitions of consciousness and understanding in each. In the analytic sense described above, all this amounts to is whether or not Searle’s reply implies a different definition of consciousness and understanding to those he offered in his Chinese Room thought experiment i.e. a conception of consciousness and understanding that requires something more than the ‘input à process à output’ model characteristic of standard functionalism (I shall assume familiarity with this and Searle’s thought experiment). It is also worth highlighting that Searle’s paper and the debate surrounding is (if not explicitly) implicitly an attempt to arrive at a definition of consciousness.

So, now to the topic at hand. Searle’s point is that a machine is not conscious because that which is doing the sorting of the symbols into coherent conversational Chinese does not grasp what it does; it merely operates – in terms of causal necessity – in the ways it has been designed to do so. When such a machine fails to operate in the ways expected of it then something must have gone awry in terms of the internal (cause and effect) series of processes.

The system reply argues that one can only account for consciousness and understanding in terms of the whole; if this is not so then the system cannot be said to understand anything. In other words, consciousness can be accounted for in terms of the sum total of the processes which it performs.   Searle’s disquiet with this reply is as follows: the machine (computer or whatever) as a whole, according to the system theorist, can only be recognised as understanding something when considered in its entirety, not in terms of examining just one portion of its machinations in isolation. Thus, a mind can ultimately only be understood as such if we understand its machinations in their entirety. But then, asks Searle, how are we to distinguish the mind from thermostats and livers etc.? He remarks:

“The study of the mind starts with such facts as that humans have beliefs, while thermostats, telephones, and adding machines don't. If you get a theory that denies this point you have produced a counterexample to the theory and the theory is false....Think hard for one minute about what would be necessary to establish that that hunk of metal on the wall over there had real beliefs beliefs with direction of fit, propositional content, and conditions of satisfaction; beliefs that had the possibility of being strong beliefs or weak beliefs; nervous, anxious, or secure beliefs; dogmatic, rational, or superstitious beliefs; blind faiths or hesitant cogitations; any kind of beliefs. The thermostat is not a candidate. Neither is stomach, liver adding machine, or telephone. However..., notice that its truth would be fatal to strong AI's claim to be a science of the mind. For now the mind is everywhere. What we wanted to know is what distinguishes the mind from thermostats and livers.”  Searle, John. R. 1980. p.420

So far so good but now we come to the question of contradiction. Having dismissed the (understanding and conscious) mind as some sort of machine that exists by virtue of a complex series of inputs and outputs, he concludes his paper by suggesting that, nonetheless, “only a machine could think” (Searle, John. R. 1980. p.424). Granted, it has to be a special kind of machine – one with beliefs, desires, and so on (see above), and one that “had the same causal powers as brains” (ibid.). Searle qualifies this however, by saying:

“Whatever else intentionality is, it is a biological phenomenon, and it is as likely to be as causally dependent on the specific biochemistry of its origins as lactation, photosynthesis, or any other biological phenomena.” Searle, John. R. 1980. p.424

But it is not clear what this amounts to. The idea of intentionality (related to phenomenological experience) seems vital to Searle’s rejection of system theory. Yet this very aspect, he claims, is a biological phenomenon insofar as it is causally dependent on neurological processes. Thus, the question is: is Searle invoking the very conception of mind he has explicitly denied? If so, it would be a contradiction insofar as it would be analogous to arguing that a triangle has three sides and then concluding that it has four.

The distinguishing feature, on the face of it, seems to be that Searle’s conception of mind requires intentionality (varieties of phenomenological experience). However, if causal processes are internal to such intentionality then it becomes hard to distinguish between system theory and Searle’s position (unless, of course, one considers intentionality to be distinct from the processes of the machine – perhaps produced by – but not identical with – these processes). One way in which one might do this is to argue that it is our intentional states that allow for the possibility of distinguishing between those things that do not possess such intentionality from those that do not. But the question then becomes: surely, there is – in essence – no systematic difference between those machines that have intentionality and those that do not –  is it merely a contingent matter that some run processes that are consistent with intentionality whilst others do not? Certainly, an argument could be made that suggests a contradiction between Searle's rejection of the 'system reply' to his Chinese room argument, and his assertion that consciousness is a systemic property; it is also worth noting that he is not precise in terms of saying what intentionality actually amounts to. However, if construed as the search for a definition (and given that much of Searle’s paper is a negative critique of other arguments as opposed to detailed positive argument in favour of his conclusion that human beings are, in some sense, machines), I would be wary of accusing him of a formal contradiction.



If you have not done so, it may also be worth reading Ned Block’s rejection of standard functionalism (Block, N. ‘Trouble with Functionalism’ in The Nature of Mind. Ed. Rosenthal, D.M. OUP. Oxford. 1991).

In it (in short), Block argues that functionalism does not distinguish between conscious and non-conscious entities. Much of the force of his argument rests with the (possibly) mistaken ascriptions of experiential content (qualia) to Turing machines: the functionalist idea of sensory inputs, computational responses and the subsequent observable outputs, serves the idea of a Turing machine very well. However, it apparently leaves out one vital component which human beings possess and machines do not viz. conscious experience – what one might characterise as our ‘inner’ life or the phenomenal character of our experiences when we see colours or feel pain, for instance. The onus is, therefore, on the functionalist to show that the mind really is no more than a particular kind of organic computer and that inputs, computational responses and outputs are the sum total of what amounts to consciousness. Indeed, Block goes on to argue that functionalism also allows for organizations (in addition to machines) to be considered as conscious minds:

Economic systems have inputs and outputs, e.g., influx and outflux of credits and debits. And economic systems also have a rich variety of internal states, e.g., having a rate of increase of GNP equal to double the prime rate. It does not seem impossible that a wealthy sheik [sic.] could gain control of the economy of a small country...and manipulate its financial system to make it functionally equivalent to a person, e.g. himself. If this seems implausible, remember that the economic states, inputs, and outputs designated by the sheik [sic.] to correspond to his mental state, inputs and outputs need not be “natural” economic magnitudes...His only constraint is that the magnitudes he picks be economic, that their having such and such values be inputs, outputs and state, and that he be able to set up a financial structure which can be made to fit into the intended formal mold [sic]. The mapping from psychological magnitudes to economic magnitudes could be as bizarre as the sheik requires. (Block, N. 1991. p.225)

Presumably, the same could be said of other kinds of organisation such as schools, universities, hospitals and so on. Thus, Block’s argument against functionalism can be reduced to the claim that two systems which are functionally equivalent cannot be distinguished in terms of their experiential content; one system cannot – on the functionalist view – have conscious experience attributed to it and the other not. 

Although some functionalists have responded by suggesting that the criteria we use to define conscious experience should be rather more confined than functional definitions – for instance, focusing on the kind of entity (e.g. an animal as opposed to a machine) that realises functional roles (which should, themselves, be more abstractly understood) – the difficulty of conscious experience still remains in relation to psychological predicates such as fear and pain. So, for example, if we consider the causes of pain (remembering to include computational responses and outputs in its realisation) in relation to conscious and non-conscious beings, then the idea of conscious awareness as internal to the concept of pain vanishes.

Block was certainly an influence on Searle, so it may be worth looking for comparisons and differences.


One way in which one might address problems of this kind in philosophy of mind is to look at Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

Meaning is not a process which accompanies a word. For no process could have the consequences of meaning. (PI ii: p.186)

Just as understanding is not a process (I don’t just understand something when there is a particular process going on in my brain), so any complex process of inputs and outputs can occur without my meaning anything in particular because meaning is not inherent in such processes. Put another way: there is nothing metaphysically meaningful in particular processes of the kind that functionalists believe to be at the root of our psychological predicates (that are understood as internal to our concept of mind). Similarly, it is perfectly conceivable that we might encounter someone who shows no signs of consciousness but, nonetheless, exhibits brain activity that is typical of a conscious person – we do not say that, all the same, that this person is conscious.

Thus, meaning does not come about through causal necessity – between, say, inputs, internal processes and outputs – but, rather, through the significance that a person’s behaviour has for us and what we recognise (understand) it as expressing; such neurological processes may sometimes be contingently attached to particular kinds of behaviour but they are not the criteria for the predicates that we use to describe  a person’s mental states (meaning is not inherent in neural pathways; rather brain activity of particular kinds is often concomitant with particular forms of behaviour). Consequently, we cannot specify psychological predicates in functionalist terms or in terms of those specified by Searle in the latter stages of his paper.

Just some food for thought anyway. Hope it helps.



Block, N. ‘Trouble with Functionalism’ in The Nature of Mind. Ed. Rosenthal, D.M. OUP. Oxford. 1991

Searle, John. R. (1980) ‘Minds, Brains, and Programs’ in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (3): 417-457


Wittgenstein. L. [‘PI’] Philosophical Investigations. 1953. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Third edition. Oxford. 2001.

Q: Hello, my name is Jamie I am just beginning to study philosophical thinking. I am confused as to what Descartes Cogito argument implies, I understand that it follows that we cannot dought our existence because \" doughting\" is a form of thought. But how can Descartes know he is doing the thinking since the thoughts he is having could be coming from somewhere else? How can we be sure that something external to our minds isn\'t coercing and controlling what thoughts we experience? I guess what I\'m asking is how do we know we have freedom of thought?


Dear Jamie,

Well done for taking the first steps on your philosophical journey. Descartes is a very good place to start, and his Meditations on first philosophy – or simply the Meditations- is a great work to begin with.

I think you have two quite different questions here:

1)    How can Descartes know that he is doing the thinking?

2)    How can Descartes be sure that something external to his mind is not deceiving him?

 The second question is the easier, so let us begin with that. Descartes CANNOT be sure that something external to his mind is not deceiving him. Descartes, however, is quite aware of that – it is part of the point that Descartes wants to make about his existence. He writes the following:

Even then, if he is deceiving me I undoubtedly exist: let him deceive me all he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing while I think I am something. So after thoroughly thinking the matter through I conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, must be true whenever I assert it or think it.(Meditations 2)

Let him do his best to deceive me! He will never bring it about that I am nothing while I think I am something; or make it true in the future that I have never existed, given that I do now exist. (Meditations 3)

Descartes argument is that EVEN IF he is deceived, he must exist. If he did not exist, he could not be deceived.

 The second question is much harder to answer, and it might be that Descartes does not have a good answer to it. How can Descartes know that he exists as Descartes when he is thinking? Could it not be the case that some other bloke, call him Diabolo, could be dreaming that he is Descartes?

Descartes did not consider exactly that objection. He did consider whether the fact that there are some thoughts going on entails that someone is thinking them, and he argued that it must be the case, since thoughts necessarily need a thinker as “a logical subject” – someone must be thinking. Thoughts cannot just float around in the word without someone, a thinker, having those thoughts, in much the same way in which colour cannot just float around in the world without something, a physical object, having that colour. You might say that “colour” and “thoughts” are predicates which both depend on there being a “subject” (or “substance,” as Descartes would have said) to have them.

However, Descartes' consideration here does not answer your worry about who is doing the thinking – the identity of the thinker. If Diabolo is dreaming that he is Descartes, Descartes does not exist, and the thoughts are not in Descartes – Descartes is not the underlying logical subject or substance – all there exists is the false belief/thought that someone is Descartes, and that belief/thought is to be found in Diabolo. Descartes does not exist!

 I hope this not only answers you questions but helps you a bit further on your philosophical journey.


Q: Hello, just wondering if anybody had any notes or ideas on how Aristotle's virtue theory could be applied to animal rights/ keeping animals in zoos. Thanks :)


One wouldn’t want to go to Aristotle’s writings for defences of the rights of animals. Aristotle thinks that only humans inhabit the ethical sphere, properly speaking, since only humans have rationality. There is in nature a hierarchy of beings, with non-conscious things like plants made use of (eaten, say) by those things higher up the chain with consciousness (humans, and non-human animals). We are, by virtue of our nature, intelligent, and thereby able to make use of (for transport, work, food, etc…) animals – they are of instrumental value to us, not valuable in themselves. In fact, for Aristotle, part of the function of animals is their usefulness to us, just as it is part of the function of the fruit to provide nutrition for animals.

One way, then, that we could view zoos is by means of this instrumentally valuable role played by animals – the entertainment or educational value provided by these sorts of places. To seek to understand the world is built into us, and we are only properly human when exercising this part of our nature. Aristotle himself studied animals – he was probably the first great biologist/naturalist – and he did much to highlight the features shared by humans and other animals. Much that we learn about animals can help us to understand ourselves more fully: “If any person thinks the examination of the rest of the animal kingdom an unworthy task, he must hold in like disesteem the study of man.” [On Parts of Animals, Book 1, Chap 5, 645a, 26-36. In W. Ogle (trans.), Aristotle on the Parts of Animals (1882]. So insofar as zoos are places of learning, they are good, and can contribute to the virtuous life.

What about the animals themselves, though, and the different sorts of zoos that there are? For the Aristotelian there are ways of treating animals unnaturally, given that they have natural powers, or purposes, which can be allowed to become actualised or not. There are, for Aristotle, ways for a horse to be what it ‘ought’ to be – a running, mating, eating creature – and it can do some of these things fully, partially, or not at all. So a ‘good’ horse will be one that doesn’t merely use its powers of locomotion, but that uses those powers well – so if confined to a stable most of the time it will not be able to be a ‘good horse’: a powerful, healthy, active animal. So perhaps a ‘good zoo’, on this view, will be one which allows the animals to actualise their potential – with spaces to climb or roam, opportunities to predate, to hide, to burrow, dependent on the kind of animal in question. If you put a polar bear on a small fibreglass ‘glacier’ next to a paddling pool in a cramped enclosure then it will not lead the best sort of life for a polar bear.

So, does it matter morally that a zoo owner houses his animals in poor conditions? Well, yes and no. We can’t say that treatment of the creatures under his care is bad in itself, and if he gains, by means of his resourcefulness, from the use of the animals then there is a sense that he is doing what comes naturally. However, if the poor treatment of the animals is financially driven, and we discover that the owner has devoted his ingenuity to squeezing as much money as possible out of his zoo (cutting corners everywhere, starvation conditions for the animals, failing to call in vets when required) in order to pursue a luxurious lifestyle we can certainly impugn his character – he might even be described by Aristotle as an evil person, behaving in a shameful or ugly fashion, holding generosity in disdain, engaged in the very opposite of virtuous action. 

It could also be the case that the worker in the zoo who treats the animals cruelly, who looks on their suffering with amusement, is less likely, thereby, to be a virtuous agent. Having habituated himself to not be moved by an obviously conscious being’s pain it might make him less likely to be moved by the pain of conscious human beings – again, not a point about the badness of cruelty to animals, per se, but in light of how it might lead to badness in the human sphere of conduct (a doggedly popular view associated with St Thomas Aquinas, a Christian Aristotelian).

Q: I'm teaching analytical or logical behaviourism - a thesis which claims that mental terms can be analysed into behaviour terms. Carl Hempel defends something like this. But what is the ontological claim? Is there an ontological claim? Does behaviourism claim that the mind is the body or does it just confine itself to a thesis about language and the way words should be used? Some texts seem to imply that it's an ontological claim as well as a linguistic proposal, some seem to keep this on ice so to speak and just talk about how mental terms can be unpacked. Can my students 'get away' with writing that behaviourists say that the mind is behaviour or ought they to confine themselves to the claim that mental talk can always be unpacked in terms of behaviour or 'colourless' movements?


To answer your question properly, I need to sketch some preliminaries (of which you are probably already well aware).

At the root of behaviourism is the attempt to circumnavigate scepticism. Traditional conceptions of the mind have conceived of it (the mind) as an inner world of essentially (as opposed to contingently) private representations and sensations. Our ‘inner’ world is believed to be epistemically independent of outer behaviour although causally linked to it. Consequently, we can never know the contents of another person’s mind – we can only infer it from their behaviour. As such, our overt behaviour is traditionally conceived of as epistemically inadequate because it can only provide a rough approximation of what is going on in a subject’s mind; it certainly cannot tell us anything about the qualitative aspects of a person’s sensations (you could make a link with Locke’s inverted colour spectrum in relation to this point). In essence, behaviourists argue that because all the criteria we have at our disposal in relation to mental state predicates are to be found in the behaviour of a person we can, as such, analyse such terms purely in terms of behaviour without invoking some kind of ‘inner’ mental state.

There are several versions of behaviourism, each with subtle but definite differences. I will just take two in order to make things clear (it will be all you need anyway). The first authentic behaviourist position emerged from Logical Positivism (although its roots can be found in Locke and Hume).  In notes taken by Friedrich Waismann, Wittgenstein claims that,

A sentence cannot say more than is established by its verification. If I say, ‘My friend is angry’ and ascertain this by his displaying certain perceptible behaviour then I mean nothing more than he is displaying this behaviour. (McGuinness, B. 1967. p.244)

These comments more or less sum up the behaviourism of the Logical Positivists. (Wittgenstein was, at this time, very much aligned with the Logical Positivists). Such behaviourism is thus understood to be a corollary of the verification principle; I am only able to make meaningful assertions about my friend if there is some way in which such assertions can, in principle, be verified (or falsified).  Put another way: Logical Positivists attach mental state terms to particular kinds of behaviour (meaning particular kinds of arrangements of facial muscles, for instance).

Objections to Logical Positivist Behaviourism

Objections to this form of behaviourism have tended to focus on dissimulation, feelings and mental events (such as beliefs) leading to certain kinds of overt behaviour. Frege, for example, remarks:

Even an unphilosophical person soon finds it necessary to recognize an inner world distinct from the outer world, a world of sense-impressions, of creations of his imagination, of sensations, of feelings and moods, a world of inclinations, wishes and decisions (Frege, G. 1956. p.299)

Our moods, for instance, are something that we can know ourselves much better than those who observe us, particularly if we hide them from others; this is quite a common occurrence. A teacher, for instance, will be expected to act professionally and not let his mood have an effect on his teaching and overall attitude in the classroom; such an event seems to suggest that the real meaning of mood is something ‘inner’, something that we can keep to ourselves; overt criteria are ontologically (and causally) dependent on our inner mood.


Ryle’s Behaviourism

Ryle was keen to dispose of the Cartesian immaterial mind and, with it, the dualist conception of mind . In one of the most frequently quoted passages from his work Ryle attacks the Cartesian conception of mind as ‘the dogma of the ghost in the machine’. (Ryle, G. 1991. p.53) The chief difference between Ryle’s behaviourism and that of the logical positivists is that it characterises the mental aspects of psychological predicates in terms of our being disposed to act in certain ways. In other words, he argued that the only way to properly understand psychological terms was to examine how they are employed in relation to the various kinds of behaviour they describe. The causal nature of such mental dispositions should not be confused with materialist theories of mind which suggest a causal relationship between brain states and particular kinds of behaviour. Ryle makes this clear:

[T]o explain an act as done from a certain motive is not analogous to saying that the glass broke, because a stone hit it, but to the quite different type of statement that the glass broke, when the stone hit it, because the glass was brittle. Just as there are no other momentary actualisations of brittleness than, for example, flying into fragments when struck, so no other momentary actualisations of chronic vanity need to be postulated than such things as boasting, day-dreaming about triumphs and avoiding conversations about the merits of others. (Ryle, G. 2009. p72)

 In other words, when we speak of someone as sincere or insincere, for instance, what we are actually doing is referring to such a person’s dispositions to behave in certain ways; mental dispositions, Ryle believes, go towards forming patterns of human behaviour which are the sole criteria for the development and ascription of our psychological predicates. As such, he is able to respond to the charge that behaviourism cannot deal with cases of dissimulation by arguing that evidence for deception exists in our observing the further patterns of behaviour of a person within given contexts.

Put another way, Ryle argued that concepts such as insincerity refer wholly to behaviour but in a way that requires further behaviour – either side of it, so to speak – for such a concept to emerge. We cannot take an isolated piece of behaviour as insincere without taking the behaviour preceding and succeeding it into account. (By contrast, the logical positivists did not think that behaviour needed to be analysed in such terms – mental state terms could be analysed wholly in terms of particular (free-standing) types of behaviour.)

Objections to Ryle’s Behaviourism

The idea that the inner life is a fiction – an idea that is apparently necessary in the light of the argument that psychological concepts can *only* acquire their meaning from what others can observe – now seems problematic even if a behaviourist argues that we would have no idea about the moods of another were it not for their outward behaviour. There is, for one, a causal role that does not seem to be explicable in terms of mental dispositions; after all, there needs to be some kind of cause behind our ways of behaving that cannot be analysed purely in terms of behaviour. Whilst Ryle might argue that insincerity can be analysed in terms of behaviour that preceded and succeeded it and that, as such, we should think about a person as having a disposition that is causally related to particular manifestations of insincerity, it is not at all obvious how we are to understand the previous and succeeding behaviour as causally related to a particular instance of insincerity.

Moreover, if you fall over and hurt your arm, for instance, your pain causes you to cry out. In this case, the sensation seems to have been the cause of your overt behaviour. Thus, there is a causal chain between ‘inner’ sensation and overt behaviour, something that behaviourists of all kinds do not allow for.

Now to answer your question!

·         I'm teaching analytical or logical behaviourism - a thesis which claims that mental terms can be analysed into behaviour terms. Carl Hempel defends something like this.”

o   This is accurate although it is done in different ways (as I have tried to show).

·         “But what is the ontological claim? Is there an ontological claim?”

o   In short, the ontological claim is something held by, for example, Type ID theorists and Cartesian Dualists. The claim is that there is something ‘inner’ that exists and is epistemically independent of behaviour but, nonetheless, causally related to it (sensations and/or brain-states cause pain behaviour or behaviour characteristic of insincerity). Behaviourists deny such claims.

·         “Does behaviourism claim that the mind is the body or does it just confine itself to a thesis about language and the way words should be used? Some texts seem to imply that it's an ontological claim as well as a linguistic proposal, some seem to keep this on ice so to speak and just talk about how mental terms can be unpacked.”

o   According to behaviourists, there is no dualism in accounting for the concept of mind (no mind-body, for instance). How can a mental process, such as willing, cause spatial movements like the movements of the tongue? How can a physical change in the optic nerve have among its effects a mind’s perception of a flash of light?” (Ryle, G. 2009. p.9). It is best at A-level to stick to the position that behaviourists deny any kind of ontological commitment in terms of the existence of mind that is, somehow, independent of behaviour. The mind itself should be merely understood as a sum of the various mental-state terms we use and which can be analysed purely in behavioural terms; nothing is hidden. All talk of emotions, sensations, sincerity, insincerity and so on can be analysed in terms of complex patterns of behaviour; all mental terms can be analysed in behavioural terms. In essence, behaviourism is about the meaning of our mental predicates, not about ontological commitment.

·         “Can my students 'get away' with writing that behaviourists say that the mind is behaviour or ought they to confine themselves to the claim that mental talk can always be unpacked in terms of behaviour or 'colourless' movements”?

o   The top end of any class should aim to show how Ryle deals with the objection put to the Logical Positivist version. Others should stick with what you have suggested. However, I would say that some discussion about the criteria that allow us to apply mental predicates should always be included in order to lend plausibility to the behaviourist position, otherwise one runs the risk of attacking a straw man.

Here are some suggestions for further reading (for students):

·         Braddon-Mitchell, D. and Jackson, F. Philosophy of Mind and Cognition. Blackwell. Oxford. 1996 (this is a really good, clear volume that incorporates discussion of all relevant aspects of philosophy of mind; it contains really useful annotations in the margins)

·         The Nature of Mind. Ed. Rosenthal, D.M. OUP. Oxford. 1991. (contains primary material covering all aspects required for A-level together with helpful introductions to each position)


N.B. Although I have referred to Wittgenstein in my answer, it would be best (sadly) to exclude him altogether as the syllabus makes no real reference to him. And, whilst W’s later work can be interpreted as advocating a form of behaviourism,  it is only a poor reading that understands it as such.  


Frege, G. ‘The Thought: A Logical Inquiry’ in Mind, New Series, Vol. 65, No. 259 (Jul. 1956), pp. 289-311

McGuinness, B. (Ed.) Ludwig Wittgenstein und der Weiner Kreis. Shorthand notes of F. Waismann. Basil Blackwell. Oxford. 1967.

Ryle, G. ‘Descartes’ Myth’ in The Nature of Mind. Ed. Rosenthal, D.M. OUP. Oxford. 1991.

Ryle, G. The Concept of Mind. Routledge. Oxford. 2009

Q: If indirect realism is true, can we know that there is an external world that causes our sense data?


A philosophical sceptic will answer this question with a resounding “no – we cannot know that an external world causes our sense data”. This is because the philosophical sceptic interprets indirect realism as imposing “a veil of perception” between us perceivers and whatever it is that may be supposed to produce sense data in us. There is simply no way of accessing whatever lies behind our sense data to discover what it is or to discover whether our sense data accurately represent it. Paradoxically, the sceptic interprets indirect realism as implying that our sense data cut us off from the world and actually block our access to it.

However, unsurprisingly, supporters of indirect realism are reluctant to accept this sceptical conclusion. They argue that we can have knowledge – or if not knowledge then at least highly probable belief- regarding the cause of our sense data. Descartes is an indirect realist who in Meditation Six argues that we can be certain that the cause of our sense data is an extended physical world. He bases this certainty on his prior proof that God is no deceiver and that it is clear to human reason that the best explanation for our sense data is the existence of the external world. Locke does not claim to know for certain that the external world is the cause of our sense data. But he does claim that it is highly probable that it is the cause of our sense data and that for all practical purposes we can treat it as a certainty. He rests this claim on the involuntary nature of our sense data and their natural orderliness and coherence. Russell develops a position similar to Locke by arguing that the external world is an induction to a best explanation. What this means is that of all the various hypotheses put forward to account for the order and regularity of our sense data – a dream, an evil demon, a super computer, the physical world –it is the last which is the most probable explanation as this hypothesis fits better with the character and order of the data than any other rival hypothesis.  Strictly speaking, unlike Descartes, neither Locke nor Russell claims to have certain knowledge of the existence of the external world. But they do claim that their belief in the external world is rationally justified and highly probable.

Q: The new syllabus requires us to explain Russell\'s response to scepticism engendered by indirect realism. Can we know the nature of the external world if sense data are the immediate objects of perception? Russell\'s answer is that we cannot know the intrinsic nature of external objects but we can know something of the relationships between them. He gives the example of the experience as of an eclipse. Although I cannot know what the sun, moon and sun are in themselves, I can at least know that they are in a straight line. This seems sparse but informative. Three \'unknowns\' are in a straight line. But then Russell goes on to say that we cannot know what a straight line is like in itself. We can only know the look of a straight line. Is Russell being genuinely informative here? Is any information being communicated to me if I do not know what the three things are and I cannot know what I mean by an external straight line? I suppose all that is left is the notion of threeness. Apart then from threeness is there anything informative going on here?


A lot depends on what “information” means in this question. If it means “information about how things actually are in physical space”, then it is true that Russell is saying that all such information, whether about material objects or about their spatial (and indeed numerical) relations, is conveyed to us via sense data. We cannot directly observe objects in physical space, nor therefore the spatial relations between them, since we can be directly acquainted only with our representations of these objects. But, he is arguing, that acquaintance gives us information about relations in a way that is resistant to scepticism as the information which it gives us about material objects is not. The look of the moon in my private visual space (small silvery disc), and what it is to be the moon, are things which it is not open to me to compare, since the moon ‘in itself’ is necessarily unknown. But the look of a straight line in my visual space is the look of the shortest distance between any two points on it (or else it wouldn’t look like a straight line), and being the shortest distance between two points is what it is (and all it is) to be a straight line in any space. (Russell just assumes that all spaces are Euclidean.) So the comparison between straight lines in private and in public space is unnecessary as well as impossible, since what assures our knowledge here is just logic embodied in geometry. That is why he says on the basis of his eclipse example that “we can know the properties of the relations required to preserve the correspondence [of the external world] with sense-data, but we cannot know the nature of the terms between which the relations hold.”  This is surely a “genuinely informative” distinction within the phenomenology of perception, corresponding to the original Lockean insight that the world informs us about itself via the primary qualities, though all we ever encounter directly are the primary qualities of our representations.

Q: Hello BPA, I'm looking for model essays to give to my students as examples of good practice. Rather than writing them all myself I was wondering if there was a bank of such resources that I'd not come across. In the short-term I'm particularly interested in model answers for Unit 3: Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion, as well as Unit 4: Mill, but in the long-term other model essays would also be good! Thank you for your time.


Our resource bank contains suggested answers to some AQA papers including the specimen unit 3 and unit 4 papers. Just click on 'Resource Bank' at the top right, and scroll down to 'Teaching resources'. Please note that these answers don't have AQA's 'seal of approval', but every effort has been made to conform to what we think they are looking for.

Q: I am looking for material that I can use to help my students to deal with possible questions for PHIL3 - Philosophy of Religion on the following: "Students should consider what is meant by "religion", whether it is a well defined or integrated phenomena". This seems very broad [i.e. what is meant by religion] but also I am not sure what is meant by religion being a "well-integrated phenomena" [sic]. This sounds rather sociological and I am unsure what philosophical issues are being referred to [beyond something along the lines of "do the different religions hold incompatible beliefs/concepts about a deity, etc". Thanks


We reproduce here our answer from some while back to an almost identical question, with a broken link repaired (if the link doesn't work by double-clicking, please copy and paste it to your address bar):


We think that this kind of question is specifically inviting reflection on the social sciences’ approach to religion – and I see that Routledge have a downloadable pdf on this topic on their resources website (linked to the BPA resource bank):

In brief, we think students would be expected to discuss here whether the term ‘religion’ denotes one core activity or practice (is there, for example, a single defining characteristic shared by all religions?), or whether instead there are various ‘religions’ that have no one thing in common, even if there are overlapping features. Is there such a thing as ‘religion’, or are there only ‘religions’? And what features distinguish religious practice(s) from other forms of activity, such as scientific and philosophical discourse? Are the claims of religion to be understood as empirical claims, or are they better understood as expressions, or commitments? Does religious belief and activity arise from human beings’ attempts to explain the world around them – is religion thus a cognitive activity, a pseudo-science – or is it rather that religious practice serves a fundamental emotional and social function?


We think this is the ground that students are expected to cover here, and the Routledge materials I mention above give a nice overview of the accounts of religion by social scientists such as Durkheim and Weber. Hope this is useful.

Q: Are we like this because we're here or are we here because we're like this?


Your question could be answered from an evolutionary perspective, in which case I think the answer would be \'both\'. On the one hand, we are like this because we are here, in the sense that evolution molded us to be the way we are. On the other hand, we might be said to be here (still) because evolution has given us a nature that fits us for survival.




From a religious perspective, the answer might be a bit different. Christians believe that humans were made in God\'s image, which suggests we are here because of the way God wanted us to be. This would apply to our essential spiritual nature, though a Christian could concede that other aspects of us might be molded by our interactions with each other and with the rest of the world--in other words, by the fact that we are here.







Q: Who is the author of 'Virtue Ethics in Action'?


The author is Howard Simmons. Incidentally, Howard has incorporated this material, in a corrected and revised form, into his \'Guide to Moral Philosophy\', available in the Resources section, which is why \'Virtue Ethics in Action\' no longer appears on the site. It is to the \'Guide to Moral Philosophy\' that reference should be made.

Q: A student has said the following in response to Cartesian-style conceivability arguments for dualism. It is essentially the reverse of the original: "I can conceive of my mind being identical to something physical, so it is logically possible that the mind is identical to something physical" Therefore....?? I am unclear on whether anything follows from that at all. Any help? Thanks, Peter



I suppose the original Cartesian argument goes something like this:  I can conceive of myself existing even though no physical thing exists.  And so I COULD exist even though no physical thing exists.  That is, I could exist without being a physical thing.  But every physical thing is essentially physical:  it has to be physical in order to exist at all.  It follows that I am not a physical thing.
Your student’s anti-Cartesian argument would then be this:  I can conceive of myself existing as a physical thing--something made up entirely of matter.  And so I COULD exist as a physical thing.  But every nonphysical thing--that is, every thing not entirely made up of matter--is essentially nonphysical:  it has to be nonphysical in order to exist at all.  It follows that I am a physical thing.
These arguments cannot both be sound, since their conclusions conflict.  The question is whether there is any reason to suppose that the Cartesian argument is sound and the anti-Cartesian argument is not.  (Of course they could both be unsound.)  If both have equal merits, the Cartesians lose, since they’re the ones trying to prove something here.  Presumably the nub of the matter is whether the Cartesian ‘conceivablity’ premise is any stronger than its anti-Cartesian counterpart, since the rest of the two arguments look more or less equal.
The Cartesians might say that my being a physical thing is not conceivable because we can’t conceive of how a physical thing could think, whereas there is no analogous barrier to conceiving of my being a nonphysical thing.  (There is no apparent conflict beteween being nonphysical and thinking.)  But this would require a further premise, in addition to the conceivability of existing as a nonphysical thing, about the incompatibility of thinking and being physical.  If this were the only response to the objection, the Cartesian argument as it stands would be incomplete.  In fact, if we had this further premise, there would be no need to appeal to the conceivability of being nonphysical, since the further premise alone (together with the indisputable premise that I am thinking) would establish that I am not a physical thing.
A better response is to say that it’s unclear what it would be to conceive of myself as a physical thing.  I can imagine seeing a physical thing in the mirror, seeing and feeling my hands and feet, and so on.  (Of course I don’t need to imagine those things, since that’s how my experience actually is.)  But that doesn’t amount to imagining or conceiving myself as lacking any immaterial part.  It\'s hard to imagine or conceive of a mere lack of something.  By contrast, it’s much clearer what it would be to conceive of myself as wholly nonphysical:  I just imagine myself continuing to think and be conscious when all physical things are destroyed, or the like.  (Whether that actually provides any grounds for the clam that I really could exist in that state is of course a further question.)  In other words, the Cartesian argument gets such force as it has from a vivid thought experiment, whereas the corresponding anti-Cartesian thought experiment hasn’t got much content.

Q: Is it useful to assume virtue and vices explain moral behaviour?


Did you mean useful or true? I suppose whether it's useful or not depends on whether one can develop a persuasive or plausible theory using this assumption. This is certainly the case—a number of philosophers have done so. But whether the assumption is true is another matter. One would have to consider whether there are alternative explanations that are equally or more plausible and they're not hard to find. For example, you could argue that moral behaviour is caused by the desire to co-operate with others, to conform to one's cultural environment, to give oneself an inner glow and so on. There are also more radical options. Some writers (called 'situationists'), inspired by recent work in empirical psychology, have argued that virtues and vices do not even exist. They argue that people's behaviour is to be explained in terms of the particular circumstances of the moment, rather than in terms of fixed character traits (e.g. the man went to the front of the queue because he was confused about where the queue ended, not because he had a 'selfish character'). If you want to know more about this sort of critique, you could read Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiments in Ethics.

Q: Is there a Kantian Captain? An argument between Blackburn vs Korsgaard


Dear Charlotte,

I'm not sure what you intended by adding the second phrase to your question here: 'an argument between Blackburn vs Korsgaard' ... but clearly in asking about this you're already aware that the idea of a "Kantian Captain" is a notion that Blackburn uses, in criticising Korsgaard's interpretation of Kant's ethics. (He uses this image, of the Captain, in his book "Ruling Passions", see p. 252).

Blackburn characterises Korsgaard's reading of Kantian practical reasoning as presenting something like a Captain, on the deck of a ship, who has complete power and authority over the crew. The Captain is the only one who is free - he is the will, the embodiment of pure practical reason, free from all desires. He is pure, authentic self-control (unlike the crew, who are subject to all kinds of everyday desires).

The "Captain" idea, then, is a characterisation of a certain 'traditional' view of Kantian moral philosophy. Allen Wood (in "Kantian Ethics, p. 3] describes this traditional view - as illustrated by Blackburn's Captain image - as follows:

Kant is seen exclusively as a representative of moral strictness and sternness, downright hostile to human happiness, mercilessly unsympathetic to human weakness, allowing no place in the moral life for natural human feelings and desires."

But this, according to many, is a misconception of Kant.

So, in answer to the question "Is there a Kantian Captain" - well, that all depends on which interpretation of Kant's moral philosophy one endorses. Most 'sophisticated' Kantians will reject the 'Captain' picture.


Q: Please can you very briefly clarify Russell on the a priori/universals, the relationship of this to what exists and the implications for knowledge. Thank you very much.



In The Problems of Philosophy, Russell argues that, in addition to particular things, there exist also universals. For example, as well as individual white things, there exists also the universal white (or whiteness) which is what all particular white things have in common. He explicitly credits Plato with this view, although unlike Plato, he thinks the world of particulars is just as real as the world of universals. On the other hand, he is not quite prepared to say that universals 'exist', as this would seem to imply that they exist in time and space, like particulars, which is not the case. (Of course, a universal like whiteness can be realised at a particular place and time when it is present in a white particular, but this is not the same as saying that the universal itself exists at that place and time.) He prefers to say that universals subsist, which means they have a kind of timeless reality.


As for knowledge, Russell applies his famous distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. Knowing something by acquaintance means knowing it in an immediate way, not by inference. Knowing something by description, in contrast, is inferential knowledge. Russell thinks we know by acquaintance such universals as sensory qualities like whiteness and hardness and simple relations like 'being to the left of' or 'coming after'. We know by description those universals that we have to infer, such as the universals associated with physical objects (mass, volume etc.), which, unlike our sense-data (whether particular or universal), cannot be perceived or known directly by us, in the view of Russell and other traditional empiricists.


I hope that's clear. Bear in mind, that Russell changed his views a lot during his long life. This answer is based on his position in The Problems of Philosophy, which I think is his most accessible account.


Q: What is the best way/is there a formal way to tackle the follwing: Albert says: `Everything Caroline says is true’. Betty says: `Everything I say is false’. Caroline says: `Everything David says is true’. David says: `Everything Caroline says is false’. Who is the only one who could be telling the truth? (a) Albert (b) Betty (c) Caroline (d) David Thank you.


Only David could be telling the truth. Here is an informal proof:


Caroline's statement must be untrue. Proof: Caroline says that everything David says is true. Suppose she is speaking truly. Then everything David says is true. One of the things that David says is that everything that Caroline says is false. So everything that Caroline says is false. In particular, her statement that everything that David says is true is false. So it is not the case that everything David says is true. But this contradicts our finding above that everything that David says is true. So the original assumption that Caroline was speaking truly leads to a contradiction and so cannot be true.


Albert's statement must also be untrue. Proof: Albert says that everything Caroline says is true. But we already know of one thing that Caroline said that was false (see above). So Albert can't be speaking truly.


Betty's statement must be untrue. Proof: she says that everything that she says is false. Suppose she is speaking truly. Then it is true that everything she says is false. In particular, when she says that everything she says is false, she must be speaking falsely. But this contradicts our assumption that she was speaking truly when she said this. So the assumption that she speaks truly leads to a contradiction and so cannot be true.


Finally, there seems to be no contradiction in supposing that David speaks truly. He says that everything that Caroline says is false. We already know of one false thing Caroline said. If everything else said by Caroline (including possibly things not mentioned in the problem set-up) is false as well, then David speaks truly. So from the information supplied, it could be that David speaks truly on this occasion.




Q: What is the difference between monism and materialism? And into which category (if any) would Aristotle and Gilbert Ryle be placed?



Monism is the view that there exists only one thing or one type of thing. In the context of philosophy of mind, monism can either take the form of materialism (i.e., the one type of thing that exists is matter) or idealism (i.e., the one type of thing that exists is mind).

Basically, both Aristotle and Ryle are materialists. Aristotle doesn't think that the mind exists as an entity independent of the body. For him, the mind is a an 'aspect' of the body in something like the way that the shape of a statue is an aspect of the statue and not something that can exist independently of it. And since the body is clearly material in nature, it follows that the mind must itself ultimately be material.

Ryle also believes that the mind does not exist 'over and above' the body. He has a very helpful analogy. Suppose someone is being shown around a university. He is shown the various colleges, the administrative buildings, the place where exams are held, the student union and so on. He is shown students and lecturers going about their business. When the tour finishes he says, 'Yes, that's all very interesting, but where is the university?' Clearly this person is suffering from a deep misunderstanding. He has already been shown the university, although he doesn't realise it. The university is nothing over and above the buildings, institutions and activities that compose it. In the same way, Ryle goes on to argue, a mind is not anything in addition to the body and its activities.

Having said all that, it is important to understand that there may be more specialised uses of the term 'materialist' such that Aristotle and Ryle would not count as materialists. For example, if you understood materialism in terms of mind-brain identity, so that for example, pain is literally identical to C-fibre stimulation (or some similar physiological process), then neither of these authors would be materialists. But this does not alter the fact that in the most general usage of the term both are indeed materialists (and therefore also monists).

Q: What are the key differences between 'emergence' and 'supervenience' in philosophy of mind? Functionalists seem to say the mental supervenes upon the physical, as the mental is reduced to functions but not reducible to the physical itself. Bio - naturalism seems to say the mental is a high order, systemic property that supervenes on the physical; so the mental is reduced to the systemic properties but not reducible to the physical. Property dualism seems to be saying that mental properties emerge out of the physical, we don't really know what the mental stuff is but its not reducible to the physical. Chalmers would make distinctions between strong and weak emergence; weak emergence seems to fit what functionalists and Bio- naturalists might call supervening properties. It's not clear to me or my students what the essential distinctions are between these two concepts. The reading I've done around these ideas have yet to make the distinction any clearer for me. many thanks for any help you can offer.



Apologies for the long delay in answering.


Emergence is 'supervenience plus'. All cases of emergence are cases of supervenience, but not all cases of supervenience are cases of emergence.


With supervenience, if you duplicate all the lower-order facts, then you duplicate the corresponding higher-order facts as well. So, for example, if consciousness supervenes on the brain, then any two brains in precisely the same physical state over a given period would be having the same conscious states during that period. In all the theories you mention, consciousness supervenes on the brain.


Emergent properties and processes are those that arise from the interactions between the lower-order entities and cannot be deduced from the properties of those entities considered in isolation. If consciousness is correctly described as an emergent property of the brain, this implies that it arises from neurons, but that it cannot be deduced from the properties of neurons considered in isolation—their interactions also have to be considered. (An example of a non-emergent property of a brain might be its mean density, as this is purely determined by the masses of the different bits of matter in the brain and their distribution—their interactions are irrelevant).


Now for strong and weak emergence.


A property is only weakly emergent when, in principle at least, it can be deduced from all the lower-level facts (including facts about interactions). It is strongly emergent when it cannot be deduced from them. According to Chalmers, consciousness is a strongly emergent quality relative to brain facts, because you can't deduce it merely from the physical properties of the brain (even properties related to interactions) that it is conscious. In order to make such a deduction you have to add laws that correlate conscious states with brain states, laws that are quite unlike those of standard science, as they involve a non-physical component.


All the theories you mention seem to involve both supervenience and weak, but not strong, emergence. This is certainly true of biological naturalism and property dualism.* Functionalists think: (a) that the properties of the neurons considered in isolation are not sufficient to create consciousness—certain kinds of causal properties are also needed; and (probably) (b) that in principle you could deduce all the functional facts—and hence all the facts about consciousness—from the physical facts. This makes functionalists weak emergentists, even if they don't use that term.


*By the way, don't talk of property dualism as involving 'mental stuff'--that's substance dualism.


You're welcome to send a follow-up question if you need any of this further clarified.


Q: Hi there. I am currently studying philosophy at university and have recently written a coursework on virtue ethics. I have used a piece of work from this website called 'Virtue Ethics in Action' and as I have still not learnt to reference as I go along, it has come to the end of the essay and therefore time for me to write my bibliography and as usual having one or two minor issues. Having found this piece of work (Virtue Ethics in Action) through Google I am struggling to find the relevant information to reference it. I was wondering if you might be able to help me out with this? (Sorry, I'm aware that this type of question is not what these forms were intended for!) Many Thanks, Kate


Hello Kate,

No problem. 

The first thing I would suggest is for you to ask the relevant seminar leader or module convenor.  they will be able to tell you better than I can how *they* want you to reference websites.  (There may be a relevant dept. or school document outlining how this should be done, as well.)

Beyond that, I would give the name of the author, the name of the atricle, the full website address, and the date you last accessed it.

Hope this helps,

Q: What would be considered the main criticisms against soft determinism? Is it fair to state that that the soft determinst position is simply a re-definition of freedom to 'political' rather than 'metaphysical' freedom?


‘Soft determinism’ is the conjunction of two claims:  determinism and compatibilism (the thesis that determinism is compatible with our having free will).  So it says this:  everything that happens is a logical consequence of the state of the universe at any time in the past together with the laws of nature; and this does not prevent us from at least sometimes having a choice about what we do.

This view is not normally taken to be only about freedom in the political sense.  It’s easy to see how political freedom could be compatible with determinism.  What sort of government we have, if any, is entirely independent of whether everything is a logical consequence of the past and laws of nature.  It’s supposed to be about freedom in the sense of having a choice about what we do:  being able to do something while also being able to refrain from doing it.

Since soft determnism is the conjunction of determinism and compatibilism, you can criticise it either by criticising determinism or by criticising compatibilism.

The main objection to determinism is that it is inconsistent with current physics--more precisely, with standard interpretations of quantum mechanics.  There are natural laws telling is how likely a radium atom is to decay within a certain period, but no known law telling us when it will decay, or indeed whether it ever will, no matter how much information we have about its current state and past conditions.

The main objection to compatibilism is the so-called ‘consequence argument’.  One version goes like this:

1. If determinism is true, everything that happens is a logical consequence of the state of the universe a million years ago together with the laws of nature. (definition)

2.  We have no choice about the state of the universe a million years ago.

3.  We have no choice about what the laws of nature are.

4.  If we have no choice about P, and P logically entails Q, then we have no choice about Q.

5.  Thus, if determinism is true, we have no choice about anything that happens.

Q: How can anything ever be meaningful after Wittgenstein's private language argument has been claimed? If everything is external and there is no such thing as the self, how meaningful are emotions?


This question is in need of considerable clarification. Please indicate, in a reformulated question to the site, how you think the PL argument impugns general meaningfulness. (It is supposed to show some necessary conditions, i.e. an arena of  public discourse, for language to be meaningful.) Please also explain what you take the link between the first and second question to be. (The  PL argument doesn’t involve denying the self, though it does imply that a completely self-enclosed self couldn’t understand itself.)

Q: Am I correct in thinking that logical fatalism leaves room for some understanding of free will? Our future is fixed, but as our actions are causally ineffective whatever we do does not influence what will be. We therefore have some freedom of action as it does not cause the fixed future? Thanks.Stephen



If I understand you correctly, your argument is this. If logical fatalism is true, then nothing we do can affect what happens. Consequently we cannot reasonably be held morally responsible for anything we do. Therefore, we are free to act as we please. Is that a fair construal of your argument?


The argument makes the assumption that we can only be held morally responsible for our actions if they could make a difference to what happens. Though this is not obviously true, it may be defensible. More importantly, there is an objection that might be made surrounding your use of the terms 'free will' and 'freedom of action'. In philosophical discussions of these matters, these terms are usually intended to mean freedom from anything that might affect our ability to act in one way or another. (Logical fatalists and hard determinists maintain that we have this ability only in relation to what we actually do—we cannot act differently from the way we do act; compatibilists and libertarians say that in some important sense we can.) But you seem to be using 'freedom of action' in a different way—to mean (I think), not the ability to act as one wishes, but the (moral?) permissibility to act as one wishes. Hence my reference to moral responsibility. But it might be said that permissibility is useless if you haven't established ability in the first place—and, as we saw, logical fatalists will claim that you can't do that, since (rightly or wrongly) they maintain that everything is inevitable.


I hope this helps. If not—maybe because I have misunderstood your argument—do feel free to come back to us.

Q: How can one stop questioning the world and its value , to accepting everything.


Dear Phil,


It's not really clear what you're asking here. Are you asking for advice on how to 'not think about anything'? If so, I guess I'd recommend meditation, as that's the only practice I can think of in which the aim is to quiet the mind and contemplate nothing.

I wonder why you would want to 'stop questioning the world'. Human beings have a thirst for knowledge, and a great curiosity about the world, and their own place in it. This is what comes with being rational, self-aware, reflective beings. To not 'question the world' would be to reject the rational part of our nature. And, for some, this would mean living a life that is less than human. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I'm inclined to agree with that. Your suggestion that we should 'accept everything' implies a rather passive existence, and one might argue that we should not be accepting of situations and states of affairs that are, for instance, unjust or less than satisfactory. In short, I suppose I think that we should always be questioning the world, to improve our understanding of it, and that we should seek to change it where we think it should be changed. 

Q: I have a continuation questions about mereological nihilism. Has Peter Unger changed his reasoning for denying I exist over the years? I know he once believed that I don't exist than I read an article that he has changed his mind. Then there is another book by Michael Rea in 2009 called, “arguing about metaphysics”, which includes an article by Unger. I assume all the articles where Unger denies I exist are the same reasoning? Also is Unger reasoning for denying I exist the same as Professor Eric Olson in the book called, “What Are We - A Study in Personal Ontology”? Thanks


Professor Olson writes:

Unger gives at least two different arguments for the view that there are no people.  Both have to do with vagueness.  The one I remember best--the 'problem of the many'--says that there is no ONE thing I could be, but only a vast number of material things, each with precise boundaries.  For each atom that is only a borderline case of being a part of me, there is being that has it as a part and another being that doesn't have it as a part.  Because there are many such 'borderline' atoms, there are many candidates for being me, each differing from the others only by having or lacking one atom, or a small number of atoms.  All of these beings are people.  But nothing could make any one of them me.  Unger concludes from this that none of them is me and hence I don't exist.  (It's nicely summarized in van Inwagen, Material Beings pp. 215f.)

He retracted this view in his book Identity, Consciousness and Value.

However, Unger never endorsed mereological nihilism, the view that there are no objects with parts.  (As van Inwagen points out, it appears to presuppose mereological universalism, the view that any objects whatever are the parts of something.)

Olson doesn't endorse Unger's arguments.  He says you might accept nihilism on the  grounds that it would solve a vast number of philosophical problems, not only about the metaphysics of people (personal identity and all that), but also about material objects (the ship of Theseus, the puzzle of the statue and the clay, etc.)--much as atheism solves all the philosophical problems about the nature of God.

I hope that's helpful.

Q: Do you have (as a mother/parent) a perfect duty to protect the life of your (very young) child?




Yes, I would say so, intuitively speaking. Let's recall Kant's distinction which you allude to: a perfect duty is one that admits of no exceptions due to personal inclination. An imperfect duty is one that does admit of such exceptions. A good example of a perfect duty is the duty to tell the truth—you can't just escape this duty simply because telling the truth would make life difficult for you. A good example of an imperfect duty is the duty to help the needy. Though (perhaps) we are obliged to do this some of the time, we're not obliged to do it when, for example, we feel exhausted. Now certainly your example looks like a perfect duty. A parent can't with moral impunity say “I don't feel like looking after my child or keeping her safe today, so I won't bother”.


But one should be careful not to infer too much from this. 'Perfect duty' does not mean the same as 'absolute duty' in the sense of a duty to which there are no exceptions whatsoever. (This point may be obscured by the fact that Kant himself seems to have thought that our perfect duties are absolute—for example, we are always obliged to tell the truth in any circumstances.) Consider the plight of the character Sophie in the novel and film Sophie's Choice. She is ordered by the concentration camp commandant to choose which of her two children should be shot. If she refuses to choose, they will both be shot. If we assume, as I suggested, that Sophie's duty of protecting her children is a perfect duty, it would not (I think) follow that she should be morally condemned for making the choice that the commandant offers her. In fact, it could be argued that Sophie fulfils her duty more fully if she does this, as she at least manages to protect one of her children in a situation in which the only alternative is to protect neither. But if this so, her duty cannot be absolute, since, regarding the child that she 'chooses', she does not fulfil her duty of protection.


One can also see some relevance of this perfect duty to the abortion issue and no doubt some might use it to argue against abortion. The problem is whether one's foetus counts as one's child. In the later stages of pregnancy the answer is probably that it does—earlier on, this is much more doubtful.


Howard Simmons

Q: Why is it that ontologically electrical/electrochemical signals in the brain or genetic code not thought of as immaterial? In explain the immaterial, these two 'substances' (a misnomer) can be thought traditionally of what pseudo-scientists of the past thought of as the soul but do not occupy a physical realm as such. More of a conduit or the case of genetic codons as something akin to a meme which desires to reproduce. Any reply would be wonderful. I'm sure you get a lot of questions. Thanks



This depends on the definition of “material” that you are assuming, and thus the definition of “immaterial”.


Strict ontological materialism involves a claim about the ultimate, noumenal existence of matter which cannot be demonstrated through any observations of phenomena. On this criterion I can’t see any distinction between “material” and “immaterial” since both involve noumenal claims, and the status of electrical signals just involve more such noumenal claims: whatever side of the metaphysical divide between material and immaterial you choose to put electrical signals, your reasons would have to be equally speculative.


The alternative form of materialism, more common in modern philosophy of mind, is physicalism, in which physical matter is distinguished by its observable conformity to physical laws. As far as I understand the status of electrical/electrochemical signals (without being a physicist), these do at least obey some physical laws, e.g. the conservation of energy, even if there are others which are not observable, or where the conformity of these signals to physical laws is in doubt. In any case (again from a limited, philosopher’s rather than physicist’s, understanding of the subject), our understanding of physical laws and the status of physical ‘objects’ is constantly changing with the development of quantum mechanics. One of the problems with physicalism is pinning down what is meant by ‘physical laws’ given the limitations in our knowledge of them, and the contradictions between Newtonian and quantum theorisations of them.


However dubious the relationship of electrical/electrochemical signals to physical laws, I think it would still be very speculative to say they were immaterial. That would be drawing the reverse conclusion from limited evidence – an argument from ignorance. All we would be justified in saying is that the physical status of electrical/electrochemical signals was doubtful. In my view that’s the case with all material (or immaterial) objects anyway: we can only really draw provisional conclusions about them, putting them in provisional categories according to the evidence, rather than knowing anything about their ontological status.

Q: In Stanford's online article on Free Will it's distinction between 'various alleged determinisms' include psychological AND biological. In my humble opinion shouldn't they fall broadly into Genetic? Can you provide the distinction between the two or all three with an illustration? Thanks!


There is no quick answer to your question, either from a scientific or a philosophical point of view.

From a scientific viewpoint, the boundaries of biological and genetic studies are constantly blurred by questions concerning the interaction of organisms with the environment they happen to be exposed to or evolve from.  Consider a mental illness such as schizophrenia.  There is currently advanced research into the presence of a chemical disruption in a particular biological marker that appears to be present in a particular neurological tissue.  How does that disruption come about?

The same holds for the relation between psychological and genetic events.  Consider the psychological experiences reported by and observed in persons who live with schizophrenia: what robust reasons are there to attribute these experiences primarily to genetic determinants?  In spite of the categorical-nosological fact that persons who live with schizophrenia share some psychological symptoms, it is well-known that some persons recover better than others depending on certain social and cultural, ultimately environmental conditions.

Now to the philosophical answer to your question.

As with any attempt to conceptualize what are otherwise ordinary, folk experiences—in this case, experiences of willing such as wantings and desires—one must resist reductionist approaches.  This is not a principled recommendation, but a methodological one. 

From a conceptualist standpoint, willing is a misnomer for action.  Descriptions of it—including those by philosophers—can choose to consider findings in empirical psychology, physiology, biology, and in so many other related scientific lines of investigations into the organic dynamics of the human body.   

From a scientific standpoint, willings are actions that are made possible by organic material conditions, just as any other kinds of action.  The problem for philosophers is that scientific accounts of willing usually fall short of appreciating that willing experiences include meaning:  what I want, what I desire, the modes of manifestation of my desires and wants, and their impact in the world—all these questions lend meaning to the functionality of willing. 

Think of the main characters in Ridley Scott’s famous film ‘Blade Runner’, troubled by the discovery of this dimension of meaning in their actions.  The concept of free will has an origin in our experience of this dimension of freedom.  Whether this experience is a fantasy story, a metaphysical myth we tell ourselves, is just as important from a philosophical point of view as is establishing the reasons for upholding the belief in free will.   

The consequences of the belief in free will for persons and the social groups to which they belong are all too empirically evident to be discarded as mere metaphysical illusions.  From being held especially accountable for certain actions in the world, namely in the eyes of the Law, to people’s ability to overcome all sorts of constraints—psychological, biological, physical, and even genetic (think people who are born with Down Syndrome)—the philosophical question is what, in our actions in the world, binds the dimension of meaning and the dimension of functionality.

We must avoid the fallacy of taking explanations and descriptions for causes.  Describing or explaining any experience on psychological, biological, genetic, ultimately organic material grounds, must not be seen as tantamount to identifying their causes in genetic factors.  While there are scientific conditions without which willing experiences could not materialize in the first place, the subject of willing’s interpretive attitude towards the manner in which those conditions constrain his/her judgements, desires, and actions, is not itself constrained by these conditions, but rather give the latter a context or dimension.

By way of example, consider the complex notion of akrasia or weakness of will.  Should we try and give it a scientific description, we may hypothesise that it requires a psychological disposition to interact with the environment on a reduced motor and/or verbal level, that a number of neuro-physiological  events might associate to this psychological disposition—perhaps a certain combination of neuro-transmitter and hormonal processes—, and perhaps these hypothetical neuro-physiological events might themselves be rooted in certain biological markers, in which case further hypotheses might be raised regarding how these biological markers are made possible by the investigated organism’s genetic material.   

What is clearly left unaddressed in the above scientific approach to akrasia is the character of akrasia itself.  For the above hypotheses can be raised with regard to any form of organic interaction with the world.

Q: To what extent, if at all, is self-interest our motivation to be moral? [30marks]


Dear Saadia,

It looks as though you've pasted in a question from a past exam paper here (with the [30 marks] prompt); I guess you're hoping for a philosopher to reply with a nice neat 30-mark essay answer on self interest and morality, but that's not really what this site is for, i.e. we are not here to prepare sample answers for exams, but rather to answer specific questions or clear up confusions about philosophical theories, ideas, or texts.

If you have a more specific question that you'd like to ask, then please re-post. 


Q: Would it be fair to say that rationalists would tend to disagree with the comment that "certainty is limited to introspection and the tautological", whereas empiricists would tend to agree with it? For exmaple: Descartes would argue that since God is benevolent we can trust our senses with certainty SO LONG as we do not let our will get out of hand. And Leibniz would argue that we can know with certainty everything about the world as it is all necessary due to this being a perfect world. Any comments on this discussion would be very much appreciated.


I think you are broadly right in your first statement. Kant is a difficult case because he thought that there are propositions, such as the truths of arithmetic and geometry, which can be known with certainty but they are not tautologies and are not findings of introspection. This would make him a rationalist according to your principle, but he is not usually regarded as such, or at least not in any straightforward way. But then the neat rationalist/empiricist distinction does not really apply to Kant, as he has elements of both approaches in his philosophy and indeed arguably wanted to get beyond the controversy altogether.

By the way, I'm not a Leibniz expert, but I don't think the reason he thought every truth was ultimately necessary was that this is a perfect world. It's true that he thought this is the best of all possible worlds.  But was that the reaon? This is a very difficult business and it is not entirely clear that what Leibniz thought about these matters is even coherent. But just be careful about your statement of Leibniz's views. (In a similar vein, did he think that we humans can know everything with certainty or only God?) 

Howard Simmons

Q: Hi, Mereological nihilism believes that wholes don't exist. It will deny the brain exists as a whole object. Does it deny emergence, specifically consciousness? Thanks


Professor Eric Olson of Sheffield University sends this reply:

Mereological nihilism does not by itself imply anything about the nature of consciousness or its relation to physical phenomena.  Suppose, as nihilism says, that there are no brains, but only simple particles ‘arranged cerebrally’.  Those particles will still engage in activities of a sort that don’t occur anywhere else but in brains.  There will be chemical reactions, the movement of ions across membranes, electrical signals passing along neuronal paths, and so on.  It may be a bit misleading, if nihilism is true, to describe these activities in these terms, since according to that view there are no such things as molecules or ions or membranes or neurones.  But there are simple particles arranged ‘molecularly’, ‘ionically’, and so on.  The microphysics--at the level of elementary particles--is the same whether or not nihilism is true.

Nor does nihilism by itself rule out the existence of mental phenomena such as consciousness.  So it may imply nothing at all for debates about how the mental relates to the physical--whether that relation is some sort of emergence, for instance.

That said, nihilism rules out the existence of conscious or thinking beings.  Or at least it rules out the existence of composite conscious beings--it’s consistent with the existence of mereologically simple conscious beings.  Since it would be pretty mad to suppose that a simple material thing, such as a single electron, might be conscious, it would follow that the only conscious beings were immaterial--something like Leibnizian monads.  If there are no immaterial conscious beings, then according to nihilism there are no conscious, thinking beings at all.  And you might suppose that consciousness must always be the consciousness OF something:  there can be no consciousness without a conscious being.  Likewise, maybe there could be no thought without a thinking being.  In that case, nihilism would imply eliminative materialism:  that there are no mental phenomena at all.

Q: Can Hume (or any other rational agent) really deny that it is possible to know, by reason alone, that nothing in the world could be be both red and green in the same moment? Likewise, can I know, without empirical investigation, that either there will or won't be a battle at sea on the Mersey tomorrow at 7am?


Anyone can deny that it is possible to know by reason alone that nothing can be red and green at the same time, and they would be well advised to do so, because it isn’t!


You can know by reason alone that nothing can be red and not red at the same time – this being just an instance of the purely logical law: not both p and not-p. But to know that green is not red, or more generally that the colours exclude one another, you have to have experienced colour.


Once you have, though, you can of course see that necessarily nothing can be both red and green at once. This is not something that subsequent experience could call into question. So this is certainly a case where the necessary, the a priori and the analytic do not carve up into the neat divisions that Hume hoped for.


The answer to the second question is: yes. You can know anything of the form ‘Either p or not-p’ without empirical investigation. What you can’t know without such investigation is which of the alternatives is going to be the case. (But this is such an obvious answer that I may have misunderstood the question, in which case please do re-pose it.)

Q: Hi, Is there any way to argue against the philosophy of mereological nihilism? The philosophy that I don't exist, trees, chairs don't exist etc.. I think there is one way mereological universalism. Are there any flaws in mereological universalism? Here is an article on mereology. Here is an article with a definition of mereological nihilism. Also how do you solve the sorites paradox? The sorites paradox is if you remove one particle from an object, repeat the process. When does it stop being the original object? For a human I think it easy, when the human is no longer conscious and same with a computer when it no longer functions. But how does it work for a chair? Here is an article that explains the sorites paradox better. Look under the comment from Sean Paul M in this link. Can you also explain the concept of existence monism? If I am not mistaken it is the belief that everything is one meaning that I don't exist? Is there any way to against Existence monism? Also what is priority monism? Here is a link. I am having trouble understanding the articles. Can you keep your answers very simple? Don't use the concept of gunk or the soul Thank you for your answers


Please remember that this site is intended for people teaching philosophy in secondary schools/colleges. I am not at all sure that your question is directly relevant to any of the current secondary philosophy syllabuses. It is also very wide-ranging and would make excessive demands on our panel. (Rather than ask us to visit sites, it is preferable to give your own summary of what they say.) I would suggest that you resubmit your question, making it more focused  and explaining its relevance to secondary-level philosophy.

Q: Should Sapir-Whorf linguistic conceptual schemes (on the whole) be understood as predetermined?


Dear Antonios,

I passed your question to my colleagues who specialise in philosophy of language and metaphysics, but they weren't quite sure what your question was asking (it's unclear what you mean). One of them replied:

>> Sorry, but I'm not sure what the question means. I can comment more generally, though, that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not held in high regard by psychologists – there may be no such thing as a "Sapir Whorf linguistic conceptual scheme", if that's meant to be a conceptual scheme to which a language-user is limited as a result of the language they speak. (I don't know what it would be for one to be "predetermined".) If I remember right, there's a very accessible discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct", which might be worth looking at. <<

Hope this helps - if not, perhaps you could formulate your question a little better (provide a bit of context/detail), and try again?

Best wishes,

Lisa Jones (& colleagues) at University of St Andrews.

Q: Can Chomsky innate grammar mould be regarded as an innate conceptual scheme of a sort?


Yes, I think it can be viewed in this way. On the other hand, it is very much a scheme for 'knowing how' rather than 'knowing that'--that is to say, it provides the person with language-learning skills rather than a set of facts, or at least that is how it is most naturally interpreted. In this respect, it is rather different from the 'innate ideas' of the rationalists. Also, I think the phrase 'conceptual scheme' might be going too far. I think of the latter as consisting of substantive concepts (like Kant's categories)--Chomsky's innate structures seem more abstract and peculiarly linguistic than that.


Howard Simmons

Q: Is mathematics made up of analytic propositions?


This is really not my field, but I think the answer is 'no'.

Some philosophers (eg the logical positivists, building on Frege and Russell) maintained that mathematics was made up of analytic propositions. This required two claims to be true - (i) that mathematics can be reduced to logic, and (ii) that the propositions of logic are analytic. However, both claims are highly uncertain - I am not sure what to say about the epistemology of the propositions of logic (Quine cast doubt on the whole idea of truth in virtue of meaning in his famous paper 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism'.) And claim (i) has generally been disbelieved since Goedel's proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic. Logic is complete, so if all the propositions of maths can be derived from the propositions of logic, then maths must be complete too. But it isnt. So (ii) is false.

Other considerations also bear on this - for example, does 'mathematics' include geometry? If so, it has been famously argued by Kant that our knowledge of geometry is *synthetic* a priori - not analytic. So the argument about thr analyticity of maths may work out differently for different bits of mathematics. 

Q: Hi, Regarding Philosophy of Mind: In what ways do intentional mental states cause different problems for behaviourism, identity theory and functionalism? Or is it simple the same problem for all three: that intentional mental states cannot be reduced to the physical? And how would philosophers who hold to these theories respond to the problem of intentional mental states? Many thanks for any help offered.


Intentional mental states create problems for the three theories you mention in different but overlapping ways.

The simplest case is what you call identity theory - better, 'type identity theory', ie the thesis that every token of a given mental state type is identical with a token of some one physical state type, e.g. every instance of believing that it's Thursday is identical with an instance of some particular brain-state type. The objection is then this: imagine you are talking to someone about what day it is. They answer questions just as you would, when they say they have an appointment on Thursday and then say suddenly 'oh my goodness, it's Thursday', they run to the appointment etc etc. That is, there seems to be the same connection between perception, action, assertion etc as there is in your case. Then you do a brain scan and find out that their brains are composed of some totally different material from your brain (silicon where we have carbon, say), so they cannot be in the same brain state as you are in when you believe it's Thursday, or indeed when you believe anything. But do they believe it's Thursday? Intuitively, yes - so that belief can't be identical to any brain state type, because two people can both have it and be in different brain states.

As regards behaviourism, intentional mental states (which are usually contrasted with phenomenal states such as pain, which are assumed to have no intentional content) are in a way behaviourism's strong suit: it is easier to be a behaviourist about these than about pains. For example, I may be no better at knowing that I am angry about something than a friend of mine is, so one of the usual objections to behaviourism - that it can't make sense of the immediacy of self-knowledge, because all knowledge of mental states (including my own) would need to be based on behavioural observation if behaviourism were true - lapses. However, this reply doesnt get the behaviourist very far. Very often I *do* have immediate knowledge, without self-observation, of my intentional states (e.g. of my belief that it's Thursday), so what is the behaviourist to say about that?

Finally, functionalism. Functionalism is in a way a reply to the problems both for behaviourism and for type identity theory. Behaviourism says that to believe that p is to be disposed to behave in certain ways, in certain circumstances (where 'circumstances' includes perceiving this or that, beong told this or that, etc). Functionalism in its basic form improves on this by saying that to believe that p is to be disposed, in certain circumstances, to behave in certain ways *and to form certain other mental states*. In a variant form, functionalism says that people who believe that p are disposed to behave in certain ways and to form certain other mental states, but that what any given person's belief that p IS is the physical state which CAUSES them, in the circumstances, to behave in those ways and to form those other mental states. (Thus it identifies a disposition with its underlying cause.) However, the physical state that causes people to behave in those ways and to form those other mental states can be different from person to person - so, in you, it might be brain state B, while in the strange silicon-based man it might be brain state B*. Thus, it avoids the earlier objection to type identity theory - this is what's known as 'multiple realization': the same mental state can be differently physically realized in different people.

However, if behaviourism faces a problem about self-knowledge where intentional states are concerned, so should functionalism. What's more, both allegedly face a problem that also arises for behaviourism about pains. It's this: suppose the claim is that to be in pain is to cry when injured. Well, what about people crying in films, or people who are stoical and dont cry? Behaviourism defines the state too tightly, so gives both false positives and false negatives. Why wont the same issue arise for belief - 'to believe it's Thursday is to be disposed to say that it is Thursday when it is Thursday, and when someone asks you what day it is' etc etc. Well, what about lying, pretending and so on? Functionalists say this problem can be overcome by the 'and other mental states' clause - that is, if you WANT to deceive someone else then of course you won't say 'it's Thursday' when asked. Believing it's Thursday is thubuts a very complex function from inputs to outputs, because it is mediated by a huge range of other mental states. Objectors (led by John McDowell) say you cannot draw a boundary round the range of mediating mental states, because minds are constrained by reason, not just by causal processes - hence the idea that you can state even a very complex function to capture what a belief IS is a mistake.


Q: an economy so advanced that man can spend his life studying and experimenting - why this should not be so/should the long term unemployed seek to spend their time as such?


Thank you for this. You make a good point. It has been the dream of utopians for a long time to make human work unnecessary by passing over the drudgery to machines so that we can all just enjoy ourselves. Of course a great deal of mechanisation has already occurred over the course of the last 200 years but the result has not been a life of leisure for all by any means. Maybe you can work out yourself why this is.

Howard Simmons

Q: Hello I was reading Hare's 'blik' reply to Flew falsifiability criterion of religious statements. Are there any replies to Hare's blik argument?


I think Flew must have responded to it at some point, though I don't know what he said. If I were Flew, I would probably maintain that the argument is a dangerous one, as it would seem to justify almost any world-view, however absurd. For example, if I have a 'blik' in which everyone is out to kill me when in fact the evidence obviously shows otherwise, then that is presumably fine according to Hare. This seems to involve a dangerous relativism, in which we can't distinguish between rational and irrational views. With the advent of postmodernism, many today seem to be comfortable with such a position, but I think Flew would have fought it tooth and nail.

I hope this helps.

Best wishes,

Howard Simmons

Q: I am looking at hallucination and illusion as types of perceptual error and wonder whether you could clarify how the representative realist responds to them? Does the representative realist have a different thing to say about hallucination compared to illusion? Many thanks,


A representative realist argues that we perceive representations dependent on perceivers rather than objects in themselves, and thus cannot distinguish perceptual error as a false representation of an object, as all representations are false (so to speak) in the sense of not precisely representing the object as it is. This means that perceptual errors can only be distinguished on grounds of incoherence from other perceptions. The only distinction between a hallucination and an illusion here is that a hallucination arises distinct from apparent objects, whereas illusions arise as a distortion of apparent objects. A hallucination for a representative realist would thus be incoherent in relation to the whole of the rest of experience. An illusion, on the other hand, would only be partially incoherent, as it would appear to have some properties consistent with surrounding perceptual objects and some inconsistent. For example, Macbeths dagger is a hallucination because the perception of a dagger floating in the air is inconsistent with normal sense experience, but a puddle on the road far in front of you caused by heat-haze would be an illusion, because the perception of the road itself remains consistent with normal perception, and only the apparent liquidity of the puddle is inconsistent with what we perceive as we get closer. I think the distinction here is a fuzzy one!

Q: Hi, Some of the text books seem to run Locke's represenative realism and sense data theory closely together. Please can you clarify the points of similarity and difference. Thank you.


I am rusty on this but off the top of my head, I would say Locke's representative realism and sense-datum theory are either identical or, at the every least, the former is the leading variety of the latter. Representative realism says that to perceive a mind-independent object is a two-stage affair: (i) our minds are immediately presented with an item (an 'idea'), which (ii) represents (and is, in the veridical case, caused by) the mind-independent object. So there are two relations, between our minds and the inner, mental thing; and between the inner, mental thing and the mind-independent object. On the traditional view of what sense-data are, sense-data are Lockean 'ideas', i.e. the very mental items in the two-stage theory of perception I sketched: mental items which 'represent' non-mental ones. But there are other interpretations of what sense-data are too (hence my earlier remark that the sense-datum view stands to Locke's view as genus to species). Thus, GE Moore (as I recall) thought there are sense-data in the sense that there are items, by being immediately presented with which we are (mediately) presented with e.g. trees and houses. But he denied these items are themselves mental: Moore thought sense-data were surfaces of ordinary objects (thus, I see the tomato by seeing part of the surface of the tomato). A contemporary compromise between direct realism (contrast: representative realism) and sense-datum theory is the view which one sometimes comes across, that perceptual experiences 'present' outer objects (rather than representing them), but that nonetheless these experiences have a content which 'represents' the objects they are experiences of (e.g. McGinn's view in The Character of Mind): perhaps an unhappy compromise. This view has debts to sense-datum theory, but isnt really a version of it.

Q: Hi, I'm teaching tolerance on the AQA spec for the first time this year. It says that one of the arguments in favour of tolerance is pragmatism. The only bit of pragmatism about tolerance I'm aware of is Rorty (which can be quite tricky in places). I was wondering if anyone knew whether this was the material they expect or if there is another pragmatic approach to liberalism/tolerance? Thanks for any help you can offer.


Dear Benjamin,


Thank you for your question.  Assuming you have not already done so, I suggest that you have a look at the concept of value pluralism, which has most famously been developed by Isaiah Berlin in his Two Concepts of Liberty (also of relevance is his essay titled 'The Hedgehog and the Fox'). You might also wish to have a look at Robert Talisse's criticism of Berlin's value pluralism.  There are also contemporary defences of value pluralism in line with some of the traditional pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey.

I hop this helps.


Dr Christine Lopes


Q: Hi Following up the question regarding contradiction in Kant. My question was: What kind of contradiction are the maxims: a) I will kill anyone who stands in my way b) I will kill everyone c) I will abort my foetus. However, I didn't mean between the statements. I meant what is the exact contradiction (Conception or Will) for each of those statements.


Interesting question, but I confes I have never been able to get very far inside this way of thinking about moral questions, beyond the cases for which it seems to work well such as false promises. As regards (1), the form of the maxim is conditional ('If anyone stands in my way, I will kill them') so I guess one wd have to say the answer depends on whether or not the condition is fulfilled. If it isnt (ie, in a world in which no one stands in anyone's way), the maxim seems harmlessly universalizable. On the other hand in world in which it is at least possible that the condition is fulfilled, it could lead to my being killed. But I do not see why that is a 'contradiction' of either kind. (2) One way of getting started on this would be to kill oneself - indeed universal suicide wd be the most economical way the universalization of this could come about, wouldnt it? Kant had his reasons for thinking suicide was impermissible - I cannot recall whether they are said to follow from the idea of 'contradictions' in one's maxims but I think not. (3) I have no idea what to say about this. Is one allowed to say the universalized form of the maxim has restrictions as to circumstance (inc e.g. 'I am a rape victim'?). If not, it would lead to the extinction of the human race - but where is the 'contradiction' in that? This is the point at which it sounds as if K is appealing to the badness of some large-scale set of consequences - though it doesnt seem (given other things he says) that he can be.

Q: Hi. What kind of contradiction are the maxims: a) I will kill anyone who stands in my way b) I will kill everyone c) I will abort my foetus


There is no contradiction between these statements. Their most obvious logical property is that (b) entails both (a) and (c). Perhaps also (a) entails (c). But maybe I've not understood you correctly. You may want to explain exactly what you had in mind. If you found this in a textbook or other source, it might help to give the reference.

Q: What do you take Quine's final position on the debate between nominalism and platonism to be?


I haven’t read everything Quine ever wrote, but the position usually ascribed to him is that there are sets or classes but no universals (properties or relations).  The crucial difference, for Quine, is that sets are individuated extensionally and properties are not.  So what set you have is determined entirely by what members it has:  X and Y are necessarily the same set if and only if they have the same members.  A set is just a collection of certain objects; it doesn’t matter how those objects are chosen.  By contrast, different properties can have the same instances (things that have the properties), and many properties could have had instances other than the ones they in fact have.  

For example:  as far as we know, the set of featherless bipeds (in all of time and space) is the same as the set of human beings, since every featherless biped is a human being and every human being is a featherless biped.  (Let’s not worry about amputees.  They’re still bipedal in some sense.)  Even so, the property of being a featherless biped is not the property of being a human being:  what it is to be a featherless biped is not the same as what it is to be human.  There could have been non-human featherless bipeds, even if in fact there aren’t.  Another example:  The set of British empiricists (that is, famous early-modern empiricists) is the set {Locke, Berkeley, Hume}; but the property of being a British empiricist is not the same as the property of being one of those three men.

If by ‘nominalism’ you mean the view that there are no properties or other universals, and by ‘Platonism’ the view that there are, then Quine was a nominalist.  However, as Quine admitted, sets are immaterial, abstract entities:  invisible, intangible, changeless, without location in space or time, and causally impotent--just the sort of thing Plato enthused about.  So his belief in sets is Platonism of a broader sort.

Q: please can somebody explain how 'rights' and 'justice' sit with 'Abortion'?


Dear Antony (if I may),


Apologies for taking a while to respond.  Things were very busy at the end of our term, and then Christmas and family visits intervened.


Here's a sketch of how the terrtiroy often divides when it comes to current philosophical thoughts about abortion.  For more detailed discussion, see Marggie Little's work:


I'll concentrate on rights rather than justice; the issues may come to the same thing in the end.


So, our first focus could be on whether fetuses (and zygotes, etc.) have rights, and specifically whether they have a right to life.  When thinking about that, we first have to think hard about what a right to life is, and whether and how adult humans have rights.  Imagine we do.  (That's controversial.)  In virtue of what do we have it?  That we are conscious?  That we are self-conscious?  That we feel pain?  That we feel pain as pain?  That we have people that care for us?  That we have certain significant interests, whether or not we are aware of them?  And so on.  working out the answer to this question, may help us decide whether fetuses have a right to life.  Fetuses - at least those early on - may not feel pain, and may certainly not feel pain as pain, that is conceptualize it in a certain way.  But, they have significant interests that can be harmed.  

Some people think that fetuses have rights to life because of potentiality: right now they have a right to life, because *in the future* they will be conscious, we can assume. 

But, potentiality is notoriously hard to base things on.  Why assume that we can accord anything to something now because of what it *might* become?

And I haven't even begun to think about slippery slope problems: consciousness is not an all or nothing affair.  Neither are many of the other possible conditions above.  When do rights kick in? At conception?  At twenty weeks?  At birth?  At one years old?  Etc.

Anyway....even if we did accord a right to life to a fetus, does that mean that abortion is impermissible?  Some people are not sure at all.  After all, even though we use the language of rights, rights are often not regarded as absolute constraints on behavious, just significant side-constraints.  (Because of this, people think we should do away with such talk.)  For example, I have a right to life.  But, if I am about to attack someone with a knife screaming blue murder, they have every right to defend themselves, even if this means killing me.  They would not get punished.  So, my right to life is not to be observed under all circumstances. 

Similarly, even if the fetus has a right to life, what happens in the circumstance where it is a choice between the mother's like and her child's?  We may praise (strongly) those women that forgo their lives for their child's.  But, we would not blame a mother for choosing the opposite path.

The really interesting debate is where we have a supposed right to life of a fetus matched against a (supposed) lesser right of the mother, such as the right to decide what happens in her own body for nine months, and how her body is changed thereafter.  Certain people think there is no debate here: no abortion is permissible in such circumstances, even in cases of rape.  Other people take a softer line - although that introduces a question: why value the life of a child/fetus whose existence is brought about through choice rather than force, something that no child/fetus has any say in?  Some people think that we can allow mother's the choice, even in cases beyond rapes.  (UK law allows for this.)  But the philosophical basis for this is tricky.  what is so special about the mother here?  Is it because she is already a mature adult, and the fetus is not (and we ignore all things to go with potentiality)?  This is a tricky area.


Anyway, I hope that helps.  As I say, this is just a sketch.  At many points people will push forward arguments to say that abortion is permissible or impressible.  If you want to chat some more, please do.  My email address is:


Best wishes,







Q: Dear Sir/Madam, I was wondering if you could inform me of the deadline dates for the two rounds of conference grant applications mentioned on the website. Many thanks, Dominic Shaw


Sorry Dominic - I can't answer your question. You'll need to get in touch with the appropriate admin person dealing with the grant applications (there must be a contact address somewhere). Sending a question to this 'answers facility' means that your question gets delivered to a philosopher (me, in this instance), not a BPA staffer. 

Q: Hi there, I was wondering please if it would be possible for you to tell me where I could get A2 Philosophy past papers for AQA UNIT 3 AND 4 online or whether or not it would be possible for you to send me all the available A2 past paper questions that you know of, as I desperately need them. As I have looked at the AQA website in search or A2 Past paper Material and other relevant material but I have been unable to find anything in relation to both A2 units. Thank you very much please respond ASAP, very much appreciated. THANK YOU !!!!!!!!!!!


Unit 3 and unit 4 question papers for June 2010 can be found on the AQA site at

The AQA have also provided exemplar answers to these (accessible from the same page, under Teacher Resource Bank.) In addition there are specimen papers for both units, but I cannot find them on the site any more, so I will E-mail copies to you. On our site you will find suggested answers to selected questions in the specimen papers. For these go to:


Q: (Mill, On Liberty) Are there cases in which long term utility could require us to censor a view?


It depends on what you mean by censoring a view.  Chapter II of On Liberty argues strongly against any suppression of rational discussion, where views are proposed and debated on their intellectual merits.  Such discussion may well mislead or offend people, which is bad in terms of utility, but Mill argues that the consequences of censorship are worse.

That said, he accepts that speech more broadly should sometimes be suppressed because of the harm it can cause:  incitement to murder, for example, or shouting Fire! in a crowded theatre.  But these are not cases where the speaker is proposing or discussing a view.  What if I tell lies in public in order to discredit my enemies?  That might be proposing a view, though not in the spirit of honest intellectual debate, but rather in order to cause harm, and there is no reason for Mill to defend it.

A harder case would be one where the honest rational discussion might do serious harm to someone.  For example, someone might honestly propose, on the basis of what she takes to be good scientific evidence, that members of a certain disadvantaged group have a lower average intelligence than the rest of society and that the difference is genetically determined.  You can imagine how the promotion of such a view might reinforce underachievement in such groups.  I expect that Mill’s principles would lead him to defend this, at least as long as it remains an honest intellectual inquiry and is not hijacked for political purposes. 

Q: In what sense can Kant be classified as a "naturalist"?


We may distinguish ontological and methodological naturalism. The ontological naturalist is concerned with the contents of reality, asserting that they are exhausted by nature with no place for supernatural or other non-natural kinds of entity. The methodological naturalist is concerned with ways of investigating reality, and claims some kind of general authority for the scientific method.

Kant as transcendental idealist is clearly not an ontological naturalist. While for him the phenomenal world or world as it must appear to us is the domain of nature and natural laws, and is the only domain that our understanding can grasp theoretically, there is also, standing in some (problematic) relation to this phenomenal world, the intelligible or noumenal world of things-in-themselves, outside time, space and causality (and so evidently non-natural).

It seems equally clear that he is not a methodological naturalist. While much concerned to vindicate the methods of Newtonian science in relation to our knowledge of the phenomenal world, his general philosophical method is transcendental argument, that is, argument having the schematic form:

 1. Experience has feature F.

 2. Feature F requires a world of kind G.

 3. Therefore, the world is G.

The second premise of such arguments is always for Kant to be justified non-empirically, by appeal to forms of insight which are evidently logical and conceptual, thought not reducing to analytic “relations of ideas”. But it is only through such arguments that we can come to know the fundamental structure of reality. Hence the writ of (empirical) scientific method does not run across the whole of reality as a naturalist must claim.

There would thus appear to be no useful sense in which Kant can be classified as a naturalist. This is not to say that some modern philosophers, from Strawson downwards, have not tried to interpret aspects of his philosophy in terms compatible with naturalism – but that just shows the power of our modern scientistic world-view to mislead us.



There is too much in your question. It would keep us all busy for at least a month! What you need to do is confine yourself to one issue per question and ideally your question should take the form of a request to comment on some idea that you have had rather than to formulate whole lesson plans for you.

I will respond to one of the points you raise here: “Explain and illustrate one reason to think that certainty is confined to analytic propositions”.

An analytic proposition is a proposition that is true by definition or true in virtue of the meanings of the words within it, e.g., “All vixen are female” is analytic because “vixen” simply means a female fox. Some philosophers (empiricists) maintain that only an analytic proposition can be certain because a synthetic (non-analytic) proposition is such that its falsity is always a logical possibility and therefore such a proposition could always turn out to be false, however much evidence we may so far have accumulated for it. For example, “All vixen are good hunters” is not analytic because if it is true, then what makes it true is not the meaning of any of the words within it, but “the way the world is”. While we can indeed accumulate evidence for it (observing that all the vixen we have ever come across are good hunters is one way), that evidence is never such as to justify complete certainty, because there is always the possibility, however faint, that there could emerge in the future significant evidence against it. (This is most obviously true when our evidence was just based on observing the hunting skills of particular vixen—we cannot observe all vixen in perpetuity.) In contrast, an analytic proposition is not subject to this problem, since our belief in its truth is not based on evidence in the first place, but on knowledge of the meanings of the words within it. As long as we understand the meaning of the word “vixen”, we can justifiably be certain in advance of any empirical investigation that any vixen we ever come across is going to be female.

As far as the rest of your questions are concerned, I should first look in our resource bank to see if any of them are covered there amongst the past paper answers. You may submit to us those that aren’t, but only on the basis of one issue per question and you should try to give your own ideas and ask for comment, rather than asking for a whole lesson plan or exam answer.


Best wishes,


Howard Simmons

Q: We all know that when Aristotle taught Socrates everything he needed to know to found ethical egoism, but how does this relate to his view on the nation state?


I would ask you to reformulate this question. please.

Aristotle did not teach Socrates--Socrates predated him.

Socrates own views, as opposed to those attributed to him

by later authors, are very much a matter of dispute.

Perhaps you could have another look at your question to

clarify exactly which of the two philosophers you want to

know about. Best wishes, Howard Simmons

Q: In God & The World, Swinburne claims that (natural) evil needs to look unfair, random, excessive, if we are to maintain faith and hope, which are central virtues/two ways in which souls grow spiritually. What arguments could be made against that?


Im not sure whether this reply is in the spirit of the Answers website, but it would help me if you could say - however sketchily - what YOU think the answer(s) might be, and then I can say something in reply, or just add something. Does that sound like an acceptable way to go about this?

Q: In God and The World, what does the Free Will defence achieve? Can it account for the existence of natural evil? I can see how it could justify moral evil but is that all that it can?


Free will accounts for the existence of moral evil, as moral evil just is (arguably) freely chosen wrong-doing. But without the addition of further premises, it cannot account for any other kind of ‘evil’ such as pain (whether humanly or naturally caused). A standard Christian view is that all pain and suffering in the world is the result of original sin, brought into the world by a free transgression of God’s rules by the first man and first woman. But for this (or anything else) to provide a rigorous explanation of non-moral evil in terms of human free will, it has to be shown that logically, God (being the way he is) could not have created a world in which there was human free will but no possibility of non-moral evil. One suggestion is that God needs human beings to turn away from wrong-doing and this will not happen unless wrong-doing engenders pain, which then acts as a kind of deterrent against further wrong-doing (though presumably not as a guaranteed deterrent, or else the free will aspect would be compromised), but there are several objections to this. (Why do those incapable of learning—such as the very young—have to suffer? Why do people sometimes have to suffer as a result of others’ sins? Shouldn’t people repent out of love for God rather than as a way to avoid pain?—and so on.) These objections may or may not be answerable—or there may be some other explanation of why, if there is free will, there has to be non-moral, as well as moral, evil. But the point is that the free will defence can’t explain non-moral evil unless supplemented by some additional premise(s) to secure the link.

Q: I just finished my degree in Philosophy and am now teaching philosophy at AS level. My students keep on telling me that deontological ethics are about duty, but we all know deontological ethics are about the role God plays in morality. How can I get this through to my students? Thanks Thomas


This is an area where the established use of terms can hide philosophical confusion. But if we just stick with established usage for a moment, your students are right! The word "deontology" comes from a Greek word for "have to" or "must". So sometimes the word "deontology" means "the theory of duty" - an approximate synonym of "the theory of the right" (as contrasted with the "theory of the good").

More commonly, it is used to label a particular *kind* of theory of the right, which in the Punch and Judy contest of ethical theories is intended to contrast with consequentialism, and perhaps other ethical theories too (including the "Divine Command Theory"). So suppose it is your job to care for a blind and immobile old lady. You could supplement your meagre income by stealing and selling a silver sporting trophy of hers (which she can no longer see, is sitting forgotten on a high shelf, there will be no further bad consequences etc etc). The (act-)consequentialist says "take it"; the opponent who replies "dont take it - its wrong to steal/break trust" is usually portrayed as the "deontologist". (A variant on this is to portray the opponent as an "absolutist" - someone who thinks the duty not to steal in unbreakable in any circumstances. That is a kind of "deontologist" but not the only kind - though of course it is a favourite consequentialist trick to portray their only opponents as absolutists.) If you want to find some deontologists in this sense, you might look to WD Ross with his theory of prima facie duties, or to neo-Kantians of one sort or another. This is probably the usage of "deontology" which your students had in mind (though the first usage I explained also puts them in the right).

Well, whats wrong with the established uses of the word? Actually there is nothing wrong with the first use I sketched ("deontology" = theory of duty, or theory of the right). Its the second use that is muddled. For the consequentialism/deontology contrast misses the fact that consequentialism IS a theory of moral duty - it says your moral duty is to maximize good consequences. Where consequentialists and "deontologists" differ is not over the question whether there ARE moral duties, but over where they come from. Consequentialists think duties derive from the goodness of outcomes, Divine Command theorists think they derive from Gods commandments, neo-Kantians think they derive from the status of moral subjects as rationally autonomous; some neo-Aristotelians think they derive from considerations to do with what it is to be an excellent or flourishing human being; and there are Rossians and others who think there are duties that dont derive from any of these things, and which are in some sense basic.

However, taking this on board may be a struggle in the context of teaching Philosophy at AS level, as I would guess the Punch and Judy contrast between consequentialists and "deontologists" is well embedded in the syllabus. If you want a definition of "deontology" that is a compromise between what I think is actually true and the Punch and Judy approach, I guess you cd say consequentialists are people who say duties derive from consequences, whereas deontologists are people who say they dont, and then go on to add that they derive either from somewhere else (eg, but not only, Divine Commands) or from nowhere, ie they are just a basic moral notion.


Q: How does Kant's Noumena-Phenomena distinction relate to Empiricism? Does it undermine it?


According to Kant, ‘phenomena’ are things as we experience them, while ‘noumena’ are things as they are in themselves before they have been structured in such a way that we can experience them. Precisely because they are beyond our experience, we can have no knowledge of what noumena are actually like. This entails that Kant’s distinction rules out empiricism, since empiricists, as well as maintaining that all our substantive (non-verbal) knowledge derives from experience, are also generally understood to hold that that there are no features of the world that we could not in principle grasp through our experience. Noumena, if they existed, would be beyond our experience, and so not acceptable to empiricists.

By the way, the recognition of noumena is not the only feature of Kant’s theory that rules out empiricism. The acceptance of synthetic a priori judgements is also anti-empiricist, as it involves accepting that we can know at least some substantive truths about the world independently of experience.

Q: Hi Despite the differences between Kant and Sapir-Whorf, do the latter propose that ALL of our concepts will derive from our linguistic community? In other words, do Sapir-Whorf accept space-time and causality just like Kant does but everything else is taught? Or do they suggest that even such fundamental concepts are learned?


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For Sapir—Whorf, all concepts are products of the linguistic culture. This includes Kant's forms of intuition space and time and the category of causality. Here is what Whorf has to say about the Hopi indian language/culture:

'the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time”, or to past, present, or future, or to enduring or lasting, or to motion as kinematic rather than dynamic (i.e. as a continuous translation in space and time rather than as an exhibition of dynamic effort in a certain process), or that even refer to space in such a way as to exclude that element of extension or existence that we call “time”... Hence, the Hopi language contains no reference to “time”, either explicit or implicit.' ('An American Indian model of the universe' (c. 1936) in Whorf (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality, MIT Press)

Sapir—Whorf generalised from specific linguistic studies such as this to the hypothesis of linguistic relativity (the very nature of reality depends on the linguistic categories a culture/language employs). It is important to notice that this hypothesis is not reached in a Kantian a priori fashion but by observation and analysis, and could thus be tested empirically, which is what Whorf intended.

Q: Do you know what Wittgenstein had to say about whether there could be crossover between language games? E.g. Would he would agree that empirical evidence can be used to support religious belief? Also, what could you recommend as good for someone who has never read any Wittgenstein, to introduce me further to his philosophy? Thank you.


A tricky one. Where exactly did Wittgenstein even locate the boundaries of language games? We need an answer to that before we can speak of crossovers. My sense is that Wittgenstein's own use of the phrase 'language games' was rather informal, and doesn't go far enough to constitute a theory of language games, where one ends and another begins, or anything like that. On the other hand some of his followers, in particular some of those interested in the philosophy of religion, have taken the phrase rather rigidly and insisted on a difference between the 'game' of religious discourse and the (distinct) 'game' of science. So their answer to your first question wd probably be 'no'. What Wittgenstein's would be I cannot say. One further point: Wittgenstein is famous for saying that philosophy should 'leave everything as it is', and not interfere with actual uses of language. But he also thought philosophers ought to give up saying certain sorts of thing as a result of understanding his work. So wasn't philosophy a 'game' that just ought to be left alone, like all the others? If not, why not? That's a further reason for hesitation in saying what Wittg wd have said about your question.

As regards what to read, Wittgenstein's masterpiece is his Philosophical Investigations, so you shd read that. More accessible, and more directly connected with your interest in religion, is (a) his Culture and Value, and (b) his Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed Cyril Barrett. Both are short. It's a pity just to read this material without reading the Investigations, but each will cast light on the other. Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. R Rhees, is biographical, and will introduce you to what Wittg himself was like. Finally, W's last work, On Certainty, has things on belief, evidence etc which shd interest you.

A writer who has made much use of Wittg in developing a philosophy of religion is DZ Phillips. A place to start is his essay 'Religion in Wittgenstein's Mirror;, in A. Phillips Griffiths (ed.), Wittgenstein Centenary Essays. But Phillips has also written lots of other books, if you cant get hold of that one. Peter Winch is a very interesting philosopher - his book 'The Idea of a Soclal Science' (get the revised edition if you can) started off a lot of the thinking along the lines of 'it's a conceptual error to subject religion to empirical standards of verification'.

Q: I wanted to ask a quick question about identity theory. It is sometimes stated that it can be multiply realisable (on token-token identity), however, wouldn't identity theorists still have to claim that the mind is the brain? Thanks


Hello Amy, thanks for your question. I consulted my colleague, Dr Simon Prosser, who works in and teaches Philosophy of Mind and he has provided the following answer for you:


The difference between type identity and token identity can cause a lot of

confusion - most undergraduates find it pretty hard at first. But in fact it's

pretty simple. Let's start with an analogy. Suppose I give you a Christmas

present. Suppose the Christmas present that I give you is a bottle of wine.

Well, that's a token identity - that specific Christmas present, the one I gave

you, is (token identical to) a bottle of wine (i.e. identical to that specific

bottle of wine, the one I gave you). But it wouldn't be true, as a general

claim, to say 'a Christmas present is a bottle of wine'. A Christmas present

could be all sorts of things, and a bottle of wine could equally be a birthday

present. So the property (i.e. the 'type') 'being a Christmas present' is

multiply realisable - it can be realised by bottles of wine, teddy bears, etc.

etc. Consequently there's no type identity between Christmas presents and

bottles of wine - i.e. no true type-identity statement of the form 'a Christmas

present is a bottle of wine' (understood as applying to every Christmas present

or, in other words, to the property ('type') of being a Christmas present and

the property ('type') of being a bottle of wine). They're different properties.


It's the same for mental states and brain states. According to a type identity

theory there are statements like 'pain is a firing of C-fibres' that hold true

of every instance of a firing of C-fibres. But according to a token identity

theory (one that isn't also a type identity theory - that's usually implicit in

describing a theory as a token identity theory), maybe this particular feeling

of pain (the one you're feeling right now, say) is a firing of C-fibres, but

maybe the subjectively indistinguishable pain that I'll feel in five minutes

time won't be a firing of C-fibres, but something else - just as one Christmas

present may be a bottle of wine, while another may be a teddy bear. So the

token identity theory allows that pains, like Christmas presents, are multiply



These theories tend to be stated in terms of mental states and physical states,

rather than in terms of minds and brains (etc.) But if we were to put it that

way, then a token identity theorist would deny that 'the mind is the brain',

taken as a generalisation true of all minds (i.e. a type identity), but would

still accept the possibility that some specific ('token') mind (yours, for

example) is a specific ('token') brain (i.e. your brain).

Q: Hi, Could you please clarify two points on Hume? Firstly in meta-ethics, how can he argue that we cannot go from an is to an ought yet maintain a form of naturalism tied to good as what is in line with the fact of our sympathetic sentiments? And is this significantly different from Foot's argument that we cannot value anything we like? Secondly, and more straightforwardly, following the AQA text I've told the kids that Hume's Fork does not apply to itself, but am not 100% on why it is not a relation of ideas known through demonstration? Thank you!


Both points are complex issues upon which Hume interpreters disagree. He is widely read as claiming that no judgement about ought can be correctly inferred from a set of premises which are solely expressed in terms of is along with the view that vulgar systems of morality commit this logical error. Ordinarily the claim is more generally taken to be the position that no moral or evaluative conclusion can be validly inferred from any collection of purely factual premises. Some philosophers hold that Hume is committed to a non-cognitivist view of moral judgements (which is that they are neither fact stating nor evaluated in terms of truth). If so his claim that ought cannot be correctly inferred from is follows very directly from the commitment to non-cognitivism. The reason is that if moral judgements are only expressions of sentiment and lack any factual content then they cannot be inferred from purely factual premises. On this reading of Hume it is evident how he could maintain both the inability to infer ought from is along with the centrality of sentiment in morality. As regards the second question Hume’s Fork is very largely thought to be self-refuting (although there have been several attempts to argue that it is not). The Fork claims to be a piece of knowledge and therefore must be either a relation of ideas or a matter of fact. However, closer inspection of it reveals that it is neither and is therefore not a piece of knowledge. 

Q: A previous exam question for Unit 1 is 'How convincing is the view that we are born with at least some innate knowledge?' I note that the example answer on this site does not highlight the distinction between innate ideas and innate knowledge. It seems to me that in some cases the distinction is difficult to draw, e.g. Descartes might be said to claim that he (at least) has innately an idea of God. For Descartes, I think, to possess this idea is implicitly to know that God exists (?), though a deductive argument is needed to make this clear. Is this correct? Elsewhere, how much weight should be placed on the distinction between possession of innate ideas and innate knowledge? How much clarity about this is required for the spec?


Certainly the literature often treats innate ideas as being (almost) synonymous with innate knowledge. It seems to me that innate ideas would be innate knowledge if the expression of them were true. But false innate ideas would not be innate knowledge. It doesn't obviously follow that to have an innate idea of God is to know that God exists. You could have the idea but it turn out he doesn't exist (say the idea were planted by an evil demon). This is a clear and important distinction.


Q: Hi. I was wondering if you could clear up a few issues with Utilitarianism. Firstly- does the hedonic calculus extend to animals? I have heard that the pain and pleasure of all sentient beings matters though presumably it is not more important that animals have pleasure than humans. Secondly- is Bentham essentially a positive Utilitarian? Would he rather we increase pleasure than decrease pain? Lastly, is or isn't Mill a rule utilitarian?! I have read differing opinions on this and presume it's debateable. Many thanks!


1. Yes.  All utilitarians that I know of accept that all pleasure and suffering is morally relevant.  According to utilitarianism our moral duty is to act so as to bring about the greatest possible total happiness (think of suffering as a sort of negative happiness).  So the suffering and pleasure of non-human animals--assuming that they can suffer or experience pleasure--makes a difference to what we ought to do.  It may be that a pig (say) cannot suffer as much as a human being, and cannot have the same intensity of pleasure.  Or maybe human beings are capable of a higher sort of pleasure and a worse quality of suffering than pigs are, and higher pleasures count for more in the hedonic calculus than lower ones even if the quantity and intensity is the same.  (Whether this is so is an empirical question.)  In that case the sufferings and pleasure of pigs matter less, morally, than those of human beings.  But they still matter.


2. I think not.  In the Principles of Morals and Legislation Bentham starts out saying that we ought to approve of actions insofar as they promote happiness and disapprove of them insofar as they oppose it.  This may give the impression that he thinks our moral duty is simply to bring about as much positive happiness as we can.  But pain is not mere absence of happiness, and surely pain is worse than ‘neutral’ experience that is not painful but falls short of happiness.  So it would be a mistake to think that minimising pain was unimportant, or less important than promoting happiness or pleasure.  And later on Bentham does talk about our duty to minimise pain.  He defines ‘utility’ as ‘that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness’.


3. Probably not.  Although Mill’s view is complex, he is usually taken to be an act utilitarian and not a rule utilitarian.  Rule utilitarianism is roughly the view that an act is right just when it conforms to those rules of conduct which, if we adopted them, would bring about the best overall balance of happiness over suffering.  This implies that in some cases it will be right to perform an action whose consequences would be less good overall than some other action one might have performed instead.  For example, if the best set of rules forbids lying, then it’s always wrong to lie, and we have to tell the truth even in cases where lying would bring about more happiness.  And Mill does not accept this.  He doesn’t say that we sometimes have a moral duty to act in a way that will bring about less overall happiness than something else we could do instead.  So he appears to be an act utilitarian:  to hold that our duty is always to do the thing that, of all the things we could do, would bring about the most overall happiness.

Q: i am considering studying philosophy at university, but i would like to ask, what jobs would i be able to get out of this degree?


There are several things to say in answer to this.

One is that while teaching at the U of Kent (where I kept quite a careful eye on these things), philosophy graduates had a very good placement record - on the whole, they didn't stay unemployed for long (if for any time at all), and went on to jobs (or other destinations, such as further degrees) that they wanted.

The second thing to say is that there isn't really any one sort of job a philosophy degree prepares you for. If I had to name a career, apart from teaching and/or further study in philosophy itself, that philosophy actually *prepares* you for, I suppose I would name the law, because it involves argument, and the capacity to draw fine distinctions of meaning - both of which feature prominently in philosophy. Something similar might be said for certain sorts of journalism, or the Civil Service, or management consultancy, or ... But in a looser sense it prepares you for a huge range of things. And at the employer's end of things, it's seen as a difficult subject. So, even if philosophy has no practical relevance to the job you are applying for, employers think to themselves 'if they can do well at that, they can do well at this too'.

This brings me to my third point. However attractive to employers philosophy graduates may be, philosophy is very far (very very far) from being an 'applied' degree. (Contrast e.g. medicine or architecture or engineering.) Many of the things philosophy students get asked to think about are questions which do not arise in most work contexts. So although everyone thinks, when considering whether to apply to university, 'what am I going to do next?',  if you have too much of an eye on what to do next, or are in too much of a hurry to get out into the world of work (or to feel what you're studying will be directly usable in the world of work), the abstraction of philosophy may seem like a drag. If you are going to spend three years studying it, therefore - and I think this applies to any subject - you really need to find it interesting and rewarding for what it is, not just in terms of what it might lead to: otherwise those three years are going to seem like a very long time.

Q: I would be grateful to receive an explanation of Strawson's arguments in support of the conclusion that the concept of a person is primitive.I am particularly interested in the argument which includes the contention that it is not possible to ascribe to ourselves mental states without being able to ascribe mental states to others.Many thanks


The argument in question (in Ch.3 of Individuals) is an application of – perhaps, in fact, just a version of – Wittgenstein’s private language argument. In Strawson’s hands it emerges as a kind of transcendental argument, from the possibility of our referring meaningfully to our own experiences to the epistemological and ontological conditions necessary for us to be able to do that.


Strawson starts from a logical point about predication: it must be logically possible for any predicate to be meaningfully affirmed of more than one subject. He takes this to be part of the idea of a predicate: (  )F is a function with in principle a range of satisfiers, even when in practice only one yields the value true. In other words, to assign a predicate is to talk about the way something is, and for anything to be a way something is, it has to be possible in principle for more than one thing to be that way. (For another angle on this, suppose there is a predicate G which logically could only be affirmed of a unique individual S – since in saying “S is G” we  couldn’t then be saying of what kind S is, we wouldn’t genuinely be characterising S, and the  idea of predication just loses all content. It’s not immediately clear how this argument handles such a predicate as is an even prime, but it seems to work for all predicates of the kinds Strawson is interested in here.) 


He then considers predicates ascribing states of consciousness, such as (  ) is in pain. By the logical argument above, unless I can in principle meaningfully say of others that they are in pain, I cannot meaningfully say it of myself. But (he takes it as given), I can meaningfully say it of myself. Therefore (by modus tollens) I must be able to ascribe this experience to others too.


But to be able to ascribe the predicate (   ) is in pain meaningfully to others, I must be able to identify other individuals to whom to ascribe it. These individuals cannot be material objects, since it is (his argument assumes) a logical solecism to ascribe states of consciousness to these as such. But nor, and crucially, can they be Cartesian egos (“minds”) as such, since by virtue of their logical privacy I can never in principle identify these, just as such. So these individuals must represent within our conceptual scheme a basic class of particular, such that I can ascribe conscious states to other particulars of this kind by observation, and also to the one particular of this kind that is me by the sort of non-observational inner attention that we’re all familiar with. This is the class of basic particular he calls persons.


One might incline to say: well, and didn’t Descartes too recognise that we uniquely combine mind and body? Sure – and after all, if this is the idea of person in our basic conceptual scheme, you would expect Descartes to have been in fact working with it too. But Descartes’ (mistaken) model of the concept was that persons are essentially minds, though attached in a unique sui generis way, which he could never satisfactorily specify, to bodies. Strawson’s fundamental point is that actually this dualistic model can never get going in the way Descartes thinks it can, by starting from necessarily private experience in our own case. If we do try to start from there, we have nothing to start from. To think meaningfully about even just my own experience or mental contents, I have to work with a different, as it were inherently inter-subjective, concept of what I as a person am.

Q: Hi, It would be really useful if you could compose some model answers for the political philosophy units/questions. Thanks, Sarah



There is an answer in the resource bank on a question about the relationship between rights and utility. It is in the specimen unit 3 paper. I hope you find it helpful.

Q: Could you please explain how the philosophical direct realist deals with examples of perception, which appear to show that the nature of what is experienced is not entirely determined by the external world? For instance, the duck/rabbit illusion, in which a given observer can have two different perceptual experiences without any change in the external world or the “filling in” of the blind spot by some process of the mind. (A related set of cases are those which seek to establish that observation is knowledge dependent. For instance, it might be argued that, a telephone engineer and a layman who look at the same tangle of wires that is a telephone substation can have different perceptual experiences). Both types of examples hope to establish that what we actually experience during perception is mind dependent. If this is conceded by the direct realist, then has the difference between the direct and indirect realist now become a difference of degree rather than type? Recommendations for further reading in this area, as well as advice about how much I should go into this with my A level students will also be very much appreciated. ( I submitted a version of this question a month or so ago - I am trying again in case the first was the victim of a technical problem)


Hello Mark,

I passed your question to a colleague of mine (Dr Simon Prosser) who works in Philosophy of Perception, and he's provided a brilliantly comprehensive response for you - hope it helps! Here goes:


First of all, we should distinguish two things: the theory-dependence of

observation, and the existence of illusions. The fact that what is observed can

depend on the theoretical commitments of the observer does not thereby make the

observation false.


For example, setting aside controversies over what counts as part of a

perceptual experience, and what counts as inferred from the experience, it may

be that a more expert observer observes everything the non-expert observer

observes, but also observes something further. To give an example similar to

your 'telephone substation' case, a tutored musical listener may hear

structures in a musical chord that the untutored listener is unaware of.


None of this is a threat to direct realism; direct realism does not say that the

observer is aware of everything that could be observed, but only that whatever

is observed is observed directly rather than via some kind of intermediary.

Another example to illustrate this: someone with poor eyesight will see less

details than someone with good eyesight, but that's no reason to think that the

person with poor eyesight sees via some kind of blurry intermediary. They simply

see less than the person with good eyesight.


The problems for direct realism come about mainly because of illusions. If a

perceptual experience presents the world in a different way from the way it

really is, then this does indeed present a prima facie problem for direct

realism. Perhaps the most popular response to this problem at the moment is to

adopt a disjunctive theory of perception (i.e. one according to which the

illusory perceptual state is of a fundamentally different kind from a veridical

perceptual state, which offers a way of blocking a key premise in the 'argument

from illusion'). But some intentionalists (advocates of the currently popular

view that perceptual states should be understood in terms of their

representational content) will argue that their view is also consistent with

direct realism, at least on some versions of direct realism. For more details

I'd recommend having a look at William Fish's new textbook 'Philosophy of

Perception: A Contemporary Introduction' (Routledge, 2010), though for a

shorter (and free, if you have access) discussion see also Tim Crane's entry in

the Stanford Encyclopedia of Perception under the heading 'The Problem of

Perception'. For book-length treatments of the problems for the direct realist

see A.D. Smith, 'The Problem of Perception' and John Foster, 'The Nature of



Note however that the literature on disjunctive theories is pretty tough and

will go way over the heads of most A-level students. The issues here get very

tricky and subtle, so it might be best just to give a brief summary of some of

the main positions (perhaps as outlined in Tim Crane's S.E.P. piece) and

explain that there's a big and difficult recent literature if they want to

pursue it further.


You mention a couple of other problems cases. Firstly the duck/rabbit. I can

think of two different ways to think of this in the present context. Firstly,

there may be an object that really looks like a duck and also really looks like

a rabbit, but it's impossible to see both resemblances at once. I don't think

this threatens direct realism because there's no illusion involved, just

partial seeing as described above. The fact that the subject can voluntarily

switch aspects is not a problem, any more than the fact that someone can

voluntarily choose whether to wear their spectacles. On the other had

experience might present the object as really being a duck, or really being a

rabbit (or there might be a real rabbit that can be mistaken for a duck, or

vice versa, for example). This would involve an illusion, and therefore

presents the same problem for a direct realist as any other illusion.


Secondly you mention the blind spot. If it's really true that the blind spot is

'filled in' then it would have to be treated as akin to a hallucination, and

would therefore present the same problem for the direct realist as any other

hallucination (hallucinations occur when there is no real object there despite

the subject having a perceptual experience as of an object; illusions are

distinguished from hallucinations by the fact that in an illusion there is

really an object there, but it does not have the properties it appears to have.

But hallucinations and illusions both present quite similar problems for the

direct realist). But the blind spot presents tricky philosophical problems in

the philosophy of mind; it's not at all uncontroversial to say that it's

'filled in' rather than merely being an un-noticed absence in what is perceived

(much like the fact that you don't see anything through the back of your head,

although you are not generally aware of any boundary at the periphery of vision

- no one thinks that's a problem for direct realism). For more on the blind

spot, see Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Penguin, 1991).

Q: Is Eliminative Materialism and reductive or non-reductive (or neither) theory of the mind?


Depends what you understand by eliminative materialism, which receives two similar but distinct interpretations in the literature. Someone who claims that common sense mental notions do not pick out anything real and that mental terms are therefore empty, is a materialist (presumably) who is actually eliminating something. Someone who claims instead that reference to mental notions can be somehow reduced to reference to states of the brain, is just a materialist. The latter position is clearly reductionist. The former is not strictly reducing to anything else what it says doesn’t exist in the first place. But both are reductionist in the bad general sense of being scientistic – that is, assuming that science has to be able to explain everything because it would be unscientific if it didn’t.  Since everyone actually knows from the most intimate possible evidence that mental states are real, any attempt to reduce or explain them out of existence is actually deeply unscientific.

Q: Hello, I’m doing Mill’s On Liberty as a set text and would like to check something. Would it be correct to say that the following conjunctive is a sufficient condition for intervening in someone’s actions – that the action is both causing harm to others AND that banning the action would not be against the general interest? Thanks for your previous answers which have all been really helpful. Christina


Hi Christina,

Thanks for yours.  I should preface this with 'I'm no Mill expert', by which I mean I teach Mill, and pol phil generally, but do not have expert textual knowledge of the whole of Mill's corpus.

I think your conjuction is a sufficient condition for action according to Mill, or at least his official line.  (Whether he could keep to it is anotehr matter.)  In addition, the fact that he action is harmful to others is alone enough reason to justify intervention.  We then debates as to what constitutes 'harm', and what constitutes mere offense, and how great the harm has to be to one's interests.  But we will have to decide those debates with your conjunction as well anyway.  

If you have never found it, Jo Wolff's An Introduction to Political Philosophy has a chapter on Mill that revolves around a lot of these issues and is very readable, both for teachers and A-Level students.

Hope this helps.  Best wishes, Simon



Q: Hi, I just wanted to double check something on the Reason and Experience unit. I've been looking into Hume and have come across people giving alternative explainations for a couple of things. Could you just explain what exactly Hume's Fork is and what Hume believes about the 'self'. Many thanks.


Hi, I just wanted to double check something on the Reason and Experience unit. I've been looking into Hume and have come across people giving alternative explainations for a couple of things. Could you just explain what exactly Hume's Fork is and what Hume believes about the 'self'. Many thanks.

Hume’s Fork consists in a dichotomy between uninformative reason and informative experience, i.e. the claim that there are only two possible ways of justifying our beliefs: firstly by empirical means (which is informative) and secondly through a priori reasoning (which is trivial and uninformative, telling us only the implications of what we already assume). Hume denies the possibility of any third option of the kind favoured by rationalists: that is a priori reasoning which is informative and gives us knowledge of the world.


Hume’s belief about the self is to deny the existence of the self on the empirical ground that no self can be observed. He argues that if we observe our inner experience we find mental events of various kinds, but no matter how much we observe we can never observe a self that possesses these mental events. Descartes’ argument is that mental events necessarily require a possessor of those mental events, which is a self or soul, but Hume exposes this alleged necessity for a self as no more than an assumption. Given that he accepts empirical grounds alone for any assertion, the lack of observability of a self  implies that there is no self.


Hume’s Fork is important for the ‘Reason and Experience’ topic at AS, but Hume’s view of the self is not essential to it – it just offers a possible illustration of the differing implications of empiricism and rationalism in a particular area. If you do want to use it for illustrative purposes, I can recommend Introducing Persons by Peter Carruthers (Routledge) for some very clear and interesting discussion of the Descartes vs Hume argument on the self, with helpful examples.

Q: Can someone help me with Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument in relation to Philosophy of Mind? I understand that he is saying that the meaning of mental terms is developed publicly rather than deriving from a supposed link between the term and a private mental object. But is he also saying 1 I cannot know my own mental states until I have acquired language? 2 Thought depends on language - i.e. I cannot think until I have been introduced to a public language? I would be really grateful for any clarification/suggested reading anyone may be able to share on this so that I don't unnwittingly mislead my students (even further). Thanks, Tim


The private language argument is extremely complex and has a very extensive secondary literature. There is ongoing disagreement about how to interpret the argument appropriately so the best you will do is to find a reasonable way of reading it. In basic terms, it is the case that Wittgenstein claims public language is required for words to be meaningful and the meaning of words cannot explained by reference to private mental objects. It is widely agreed that Wittgenstein thinks that reference to private mental objects is unsatisfactory and disagreement how he supports this view.

Re (1) it is clear that Wittgenstein holds that one cannot know ones mental states prior to the acquisition of language. If the private language argument is correct how would such knowledge be possible- that is to say, how would it be possible to find ways of conceiving of such mental states? Re (2) it follows from the private language argument and other aspects of Wittgenstein’s writings that thought depends upon the acquisition of public language. However, a number of contemporary philosophers, such as Jerry Fodor, dispute this claim so it is by no means uncontroversial. For reading you could try Stuart Candlish’s article on private language in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

( bibliography lists a good number of standard secondary literature items should you wish to investigate further.

Q: I have read the question about internalism and externalism in moral philosophy. I understand the difference but find it hard to think of an ethical theory which is in fact externalist in the first sense of the meaning which I think is the way it is used in the A2 syllabus. The closest seems to be utilitarianism which seems to be a theory where you could do your hedonic calculus and have no motivation whatsoever for acting on this decision. However, I am sure Bentham and Mill must have a reply to this. Also, I thought I read somewhere that emotivism could be compatible with externalism. Any help you could give on this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Bonnie


Just to make sure we are on the same page, let's say internalism is the thesis that moral judgments are intrinsically motivating (so, to judge that it's good, just, fair etc to do A is to be motivated, pro tanto, to do A - which doesn't mean one actually WILL do A, as there could be other competing motivations too); externalism is the negation of this thesis. (If this isn't roughly the definition you are working with, the rest of this probably won't be helpful.) I see what you mean about utilitarianism and externalism. Mill felt the need to write a special chapter of 'Utilitarianism' to explain how people could be motivated to do their utilitarian moral duty, so surely he's thinking 'It's one thing to prove to people that utilitarianism is the correct criterion of right action. But believing that has got nothing to do with being motivated to do as the utilitarian criterion requires.' So it sounds as if he was an externalist. Well, maybe he was. But it's worth remembering two things. First, in his 'Sanctions' chapter, Mill says utilitarianism can make use of the same psychological resources as any other ethical theory - this doesn't show he wasn't an externalist, but it does imply that he didn't think there was a *special* link between externalism and utilitarianism. And (and this is the second point) that seems right. It seems wrong to me to say some ethical theories are more 'externalist' than others. After all, internalism and externalism are theories about ANY moral judgment, whereas ethical theories are theories about which moral judgments, or which general moral principles, are correct. So whatever my ethical theory tells me it's right to do - whether that's to perform the happiness-maximizing action, or the just action, or whatever it is - internalism says that my judging *that* is pro tanto motivating, while externalism denies that.

I am not sure about the link between emotivism and externalism. Emotivism is not an ethical theory on a par with (say) utilitarianism - it's a meta-ethical theory. Usually, it's claimed as a merit by emotivists that it fits in with internalism about motivation (which I guess is the majority view these days): non-cognitive attitudes motivate (it's said), internalism says moral attitudes motivate, so if moral attitudes are non-cognitive attitudes (as emotivism says) we can make good sense of the truth of internalism.

Q: I know (at least I think I do) what functionalism is, but I am meant to teach my students the difference between teleological functionalism and machine functionalism. I've found some fairly technical discussions of it, but nothing I would assess to be 'only' A level standard. Is there a more snappy way of viewing the distinction? What is/are the main difference(s)?


Functionalists hold that the content of a mental state is determined by its causal role - it is a function from inputs to outputs and other mental states. Teleological functionalism says that the content of a mental state is determined by the causal role that it is **supposed to** play (i.e. that it is its function to play). The best place to look for more is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) - look at the articles entitled 'Functionalism' and 'Teleological Theories of Mental Content'.

Q: Could you suggest possible content for a question in Unit 3 on Philosophy of Religion that asks for the meaning of religion and its relation to other areas of discourse /activity? (Note this appears in a separate section in the syllabus from the issue of religion as a language game or autoonomous form of life. I'd appreciate any thoughts you may have. Thanks, Tim Gay


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Hi Tim,


I take it that the part of the unit to which you are referring is this:

Students should consider what is meant by 'religion', whether it is a well defined or integrated phenomena and the relation between 'religion' and other kinds of discourse and activity.

Having taken quick look at topics of Unit 3 on the A2 syllabus, I would imagine that this kind of question is specifically inviting reflection on the social sciences’ approach to religion – and I see that Routledge have a downloadable pdf on this topic on their resources website (linked to the BPA resource bank):


In brief, I think students would be expected to discuss here whether the term ‘religion’ denotes one core activity or practice (is there, for example, a single defining characteristic shared by all religions?), or whether instead there are various ‘religions’ that have no one thing in common, even if there are overlapping features. Is there such a thing as ‘religion’, or are there only ‘religions’? And what features distinguish religious practice(s) from other forms of activity, such as scientific and philosophical discourse? Are the claims of religion to be understood as empirical claims, or are they better understood as expressions, or commitments? Does religious belief and activity arise from human beings’ attempts to explain the world around them – is religion thus a cognitive activity, a pseudo-science – or is it rather that religious practice serves a fundamental emotional and social function?


I think this is the ground that students are expected to cover here, and the Routledge materials I mention above give a nice overview of the accounts of religion by social scientists such as Durkheim and Weber. Hope this is useful.

Q: When dragging up some old questions from some past papers to convert to 'new' ones for the new specification, I was interested to see one that referred to two ways we gain a posteriori knowledge. Not being a strong epistimologist, I had thought that at this level, A level, that we gain a posteriori knowledge solely through sense-experience so what would be the other? Many thanks, Lucy


I suspect this refers to Hume’s distinctions among impressions. We gain knowledge of the external world through the five outwardly-directed senses, and also of our own states (emotions etc.) through a kind of inner sense. These are “impressions of sensation”, but there are also “impressions of reflection” such as those of desire or aversion which arise in us when we reflect upon ideas (e.g. of particular kinds of pain or pleasure) which “return upon the soul” after being formed (copied) from original impressions of sensation. All this is a posteriori  knowledge – it does not precede experience and has to be justified by reference to it.

Q: I am teaching the A2 Epistemology and Metaphysics section. Can you please explain to me what Wittgenstein's beetle in the box and 'tove' are exactly about? I'd be very grateful if you would do this! Thank you.


Hello Mary,

Wow, big questions and issues!

(i) Beetle in the box.  The idea - roughly, and trying to put things in a non-controversial way - is that there is (may be?) no way to check exactly what is going on in someone's else's mind.  But, that doesn't really matter.  Indeed, it points to a more positive view, namely that part of what the mind is (or, more extreme, all of what the mind is) is captured in a public fashion.  The strong conclusion would say that there is no internal, non-public thing called the mind.

While thinking about this I came across this, which might be of use:

(ii) Tove.  This is concerned with definitions of things, and the applications of concepts, and links to Wittgenstein's thoughts on rule-following. 

LW is arguing against the idea that one can uniquely pick out objects prior to or separate from the use of identifying descriptions.  LW thinks this gets things round the wrong way.  You might think that there are good counter-examples to this, e.g. (famously) ostensive definition.  So, I point at something and say 'this is Simon' or 'this is tove'.  Supposedly I name or highlight the object, and then the definition can follow.  But, LW tried to show, at length, that ostension works only in a certain context.  E.g. a context where you point at me names the person and not the action, or my jumper, or names this person on this day (rather than that day) and so on.

I hope this helps.  there is a lot of philosophy of language going on in the background to all of this.  Here is something I came across when thinking about how to answer this for you.  This is more complicated and detailed than the previous page, but I hope it won't confuse too much:

I hope this helps,

Best wishes, Simon







Q: Would it be correct to say that if one believes in innate ideas, then one must be a rationalist, but one can be a rationalist without believing in innate ideas? I am still confused on the distinction between these beliefs. Thanks very much Christina


Yes, it’s rationalist to hold that there are innate ideas, but, yes, you could be a rationalist and not hold there were innate ideas as such.

Let’s assume that all ideas derived from or grounded in experience are empirical ideas, so those who hold that this is the only source of ideas are empiricists. Further assume that any idea is either an an empirically grounded idea or it is not. A rationalist believes that there are ideas which are not empirically grounded which are a source of knowledge. Many rationalists hold that these ideas are not only entirely independent of experience but are also held prior to experience. It is this latter condition which makes the ideas ‘innate’. To hold that there are such innate ideas is to adopt a rationalist stance towards knowledge. Descartes held a straightforward version of this position.

Leibniz, responding to Locke’s critique of innate ideas, presents a more nuanced view when he says ‘we must not imagine that we can read the eternal laws of reason in the soul as in an open book’; he’s going not for Descartes’s fully formed innate ideas but innate dispositions which will mould ideas (but whose content may be supplied by the senses) that would not otherwise be formed if these dispositions weren’t possessed innately. So you could say that Leibniz is not committed to ideas that are entirely independent of experience and held prior to experience, but that he is still a rationalist because of the role of ‘the eternal laws of reason’ in the operation of the innate dispositions. Leibniz is a rationalist who does not rely on the existence of innate ideas.


Q: Hi there. Could you please outline for me the difference between nominalism and conceptualism, with reference to universals and particulars? The A2 philosophy spec defines conceptualism as saying that universals are just mind-dependent classificatory schemes. I'm thinking that nominalism should imply concepualism under this definition but feel sure that can't be right. Many thanks.


Nominalism says there exist such particular things as red balls, red flags and red blood, but no such thing as “the property of redness” which all these particulars share. Nominalists then owe us an account of what we mean when we use a universal term like “red” independently of reference to any particulars (e.g. when we say things like “Blue goes better with green than it does with orange”). Conceptualism says that there are actually existing things that we are referring to and talking about here, but they are mental things – they are the abstract ideas of the different colours which we have in our minds. So conceptualism isn’t really implied by nominalism, in fact strictly it contradicts it (though a lot here turns on what you want to mean by thing!). On the other hand, nominalism seem to lead naturally to conceptualism (we have to save the meaningfulness of our general terms somehow), and since there are famously problems with conceptualism as pointed out by e.g. Berkeley and Hume (is your abstract idea of blue light blue or dark blue?), it leads naturally to being suspicious of nominalism too.

There is a good article about this stuff in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy under the heading of Platonism in Metaphysics, see

Q: Where could I find posters and other 'incentive' material for prospective A level students. Many are interested but they want to see what it will lead to. 'Why study Philosophy....because....' type poster would be great!


The Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies, part of the Higher Education Academy, has useful resources for students thinking about reading for a philosophy degree on its website.


For students interested in an introduction to the study of the subject, their book, ‘Doing Philosophy: A Practical Guide for Students’ may be useful. Details of the book, including the first chapter, ‘Introduction to the Study of Philosophy’, are available here:


For students wondering what value their potential philosophy degree may have in terms of the world of work, their employability guide gives details of the skills a philosophy undergraduate can expect to gain, and how they can be useful to employers in various careers. The guide can be downloaded in its entirety here:


The BPA has a list of successful people who have studied philosophy:


The Subject Centre has a forthcoming leaflet Why Study Philosophy?. This will be available as a download from their website as well as in hard copy.

Q: Can you pleeease explain what on earth the third formulation of Kant's categorical imperative means? I have explained the legislative member of a kingdom of ends in so many different ways that I now believe I am just completely lying to students. Can I also ask- when universalising a maxim I am not meant to be thinking about consequences am I? So what am I looking for to confirm that the action is definitely universalisable? Many thanks.


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Let me try to reply to the second and third questions first. The categorical imperative should not lead you to think of the consequences at all. Were you to think of the consequences, you would be employing an hypothetical imperative: ‘If you want consequences C, then follow maxim M’. Clearly hypothetical imperatives cannot be universalised because the grounds are ones which some might want but others don’t want or have no interest in. This then provides a negative answer to your third question: if the imperative concerns the consequences of actions, if it makes reference to empirical facts, if it expresses our inclinations, then it is not universalisable. The positive answer is that an imperative is only universalisable if it is dictated by reason alone, where it would be irrational not to obey it. So the categorical imperative can never have the form: ‘Always follow maxim M, if ...’, only the form ‘Always follow maxim M’.


Now, to your first question. Kant thinks there is only one moral categorical imperative, so each formulation of it is, as it were, taking a perspective on the same thing. Think of the categorical imperative as a criterion for choosing amongst maxims: which ones are moral – should direct duty – and those which are merely practical or prudential. The statement of the categorical imperative that concerns you is the one that views it from the perspective of autonomy. It is the recognition that rational beings not only have to obey the categorical imperative, but they are each the author of it. The analogy is with a rationally perfect legislature composed of perfectly rational beings. Such an institution would only produce moral law. Kant recognises that this isn’t coextensive with the legal institution of law because he recognises that some such law can be nonmoral or even immoral – he calls such law ‘heteronomous’, meaning the grounds for the law lie outside of it. The moral law has an intrinsic ground for obeying it. The ‘kingdom of ends’ is the body of rational beings that both obey and author the categorical imperative.

Q: Does anyone have an exemplar of unit 2 RS Edexcel Medical Ethics question - with student answer and an indication of marks awarded?


You will find all our teaching resources in the resources section, but we do not have any RS material at present (though there are some philosophy of religion exam answers related to philosophy 'A' level).  It is anticipated that some RS material will be developed in due course. What you have requested is very specific. You might try EDEXCEL's website, if you haven't already done so.

Q: Under the miracles section in Unit 3: Philosophy of Religion the spec states that students should considermiracles in relation to the normative dimensions of belief, potential incommensurability and the possiblity of religious pluralism. Could anyone help me clarify what is meant by these three factors? Thanks


The normative dimensions of belief have to do with the way beliefs are governed by norms or ethical requirements. One such such norm would be the principle that we ought not to believe anything on insufficient evidence. This would obviously be of great relevance when considering the credibility of miracles.

Religious pluralism normally means that more than one religion is true, e.g, both Christianity and Islam (though since these religions are strictly speaking incompatible--one asserts the divinity of Jesus and the other denies it--one might have to settle for their both being PARTIALLY true). I suppose the relevance of this to miracles is that if one was prepared to accept religious pluralism, one would be able to grant some validity to the miracles of several different religions. For example, a Moslem might be able to accept miracles from the Christian tradition.

As for potential incommensurability, I'm not quite sure what the syllabus writers had in mind here. Perhaps you could contact for help with this.

Q: I am planning Phil3: Philosophy of religion section. In the spec it states students should know the ontological, epistemological and semantic background assumptions/motivations to both the cosmological and argument from religious experience. Am I right in thinking that: Epitemologically they are both a posteriori arguments so want to argue from our experiences of this world/universe to prove od exists. Ontologically: They are both trying to prove that there is a God which is a very different being to ourselves and the world. Semantically: ? I'm not sure what the exam board is looking for here and I can't find anything in the AQA text book. So help would be appreciated - many thanks.


From the perspective of the examination board all these assumptions would benefit from further elucidation. A response from one of their officers indicated that for the cosmological argument the epistemological assumption is that on the basis of our knowledge of the nature of the universe we can gain knowledge of the nature of its cause. The ontological assumption is that nothingness is somehow the natural state of affairs and that the existence of something needs explaining in causal terms. The semantic assumption is that we can talk meaningfully about something which must by definition be outside the universe given that it was the cause of the universe. This is an assumption about the reach of meaningful language. The epistemological and ontological assumptions seem reasonably easy to arrive at. However, the semantic assumption runs the risk of generating confused ideas about the nature of meaning.

As regards the argument from religious experience the epistemological assumption is that the nature and content of particularly powerful and moving experiences, that is, 'religious experiences' allow us to infer their cause. Furthermore, we can know from the content of an experience that it is indeed ‘religious’. The assumption is potentially problematic because it is directly connected to the fundamental difficulty with the argument from religious experience, namely, whether it is possible to produce a good non-circular version of the argument. The ontological assumption is that 'religious experiences' have and indeed require a cause beyond the physical. In other words the nature of the experience requires a particular kind of entity as an explanation. The semantic assumption is that we meaningfully describe the cause on the basis of the nature of the religious experience.



Q: I'm teaching the Descartes section of unit 4 and we will soon be looking at Descartes' view of the external world. In the past I have taught them that Descartes is a representative realist (using the primary/secondary distinction etc) and this seems to be support by some of the text books I've read. However, I have found some sources that claim Descartes was an idealist. Could you help me clear up this confusion? Thanks.


Descartes does have a version of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities.  And he probably held a representative-realist account of perception:  that is, he probably thought that we perceive external objects by being directly aware of mental representations of them.  I say ‘probably’ because I’m not sure whether he ever says this explicitly, or even addresses the issue.  But it’s what I would expect him to say.

I can’t see how anyone could take him to be an idealist, though.  Idealism is the view that material things are somehow ultimately mental, or mind-dependent, or unreal.  Descartes sees the mental and the physical as utterly distinct.  And he’s very much concerned to establish the reality of material things, most famously in Meditation 6.  Material things may be EPISTEMICALLY suspect--they’re less well-known, on his view, than the mental.  But they are equally real, and completely independent of the mind.  If there really is evidence that Descartes was an idealist, I’d be amazed.

Q: Thanks so much for all your answers here. This is quickly becoming a lifeline! Two questions, please: 1) In Moral Philosophy at A2, I always thought that Utilitarianism was an example of moral relativism but recent definitions I've read suggest that it isn't due to the absolute nature of the Utility Principle. Pojman's definition is that in Absolutism "There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated." which surely covers the Utility principle. I understand that the principle itself could be considered an example of moral universalism but doesn't its consequentialist nature dictate that it be an example of relativism not absolutism? 2) Is there a distinction between what is an objective moral standard or truth and an absolute moral standard or truth? Could you please help me to understand this distinction? Thanks.


1. Utilitarianism allows the right course of action to vary in differing circumstances, but it does not apply different principles according to culture, time, place etc as would a moral relativist. There is a distinction between taking the culture etc. of the subject of the decision into account insofar as it affects the consequences of the action, and allowing that culture etc. to determine the nature of the principle that is applied.

Personally I think utilitarianism is a moral absolutism, because the principle of utility is invariable, even though its application varies. Absolutism does not have to be deontological. An alternative could be to argue that it is a universalism but not a relativism, and that to assume all normative theories must be either relativist and absolutist involves a false dichotomy. Either way, utilitarianism is certainly not relativism.

2. This one is very much a matter of opinion, so I can only give you my opinion, which is that there is such a distinction. I would see an objective moral judgement (not a truth) as one that is justifiable in terms of experience. This depends on seeing objectivity as an attitude rather than as an absolute guarantee: an objective attitude tries to take further conditions beyond one’s own immediate preferences into account, in contrast to a subjective attitude that does not. A relatively objective moral judgement can thus take more of such conditions into account than a relatively subjective one, without being absolutely guaranteed.

However, much of the weakness of mainstream analytic moral philosophy at present, in my (probably controversial) view, is that it doesn’t provide grounds for making any distinction between moral objectivity and moral absolutism. This is because it tends to use convention as the only basis of moral judgement, and to reject psychological grounds for judgements of objectivity.  

Q: I have some questions on Herbert Marcuse's argument against tolerance: Could you explain and illustrate Marcuse's concepts of 'repressive tolerance' and 'desublimation' Could you also put his ideas into context in terms of political theory - I don't understand why his argument can be seen as 'radical' and left wing. Could you also offer some evaluative comments on his arguments, your own or what others have said (or what would Mill say for example?) (a few weeks ago the left wing think tank Compass called for a ban on advertising in public spaces as an act of liberation - would this be an example to support Marcuse's view?) Many thanks!


According to Marcuse, tolerance is not a valid ideal when it fails to serve the goals of developing a freer and more humane society. Marcuse is sceptical of Mill’s ‘marketplace of ideas’, in which it is expected that the truest or best ideas will win out by means of rational debate. He points out that this is not a fair playing field—the defenders of the status quo have the means to manipulate public opinion en masse. (Think of Rupert Murdoch.) The truly progressive voices can easily be drowned out. ‘Repressive desublimation’ also fits in here.  The term is an oxymoron. In Freudian psychology, ‘desublimation’ involves the defeat of repression and the consequent fulfilment of basic needs. In practical terms, repressive desublimation refers to the way in which the ruling class distracts the populace from seeking freedom and autonomy by creating a society based solely on the satisfaction of trivial desires (a system of which advertising is obviously an essential part). The link with the idea of repressive tolerance is that the mere ‘availability’ of richer ideas of personal freedom is not enough to distract the masses from fulfilling the ‘needs’ which a consumerist culture tells them they have.


I think Compass’s ‘liberating’ call for a ban on advertising in public places could indeed be seen as making a nod in Marcuse’s direction. Conventional liberals would view the right to advertise as essential to free speech, but Marcuse would argue that advertising is mainly used to dull the masses into consumerist subservience to the ‘military-industrial complex’.


Despite the fact that the left is normally thought of as favouring rather than opposing tolerance, Marcuse’s idea can be see as left-wing, in that he believes that tolerance is only acceptable when it favours the progressive cause of liberating human beings. It follows that Marcuse probably would have supported a ban on the BNP, at least in principle, since to tolerate them would be to tolerate beliefs and ideals which we know to be false and reactionary.


If I had to predict where Mill’s counter-attack would strike, I think it would be in relation to this idea of ‘knowing’ what is good and/or true. Marcuse might believe he knows the truth about how to arrange human affairs so as to bring about ‘human liberation’, but in reality it is a very complex and uncertain matter. Even rather unwelcome views need to be listened to, for while they may not be in possession of the whole truth, they could help to reveal important parts of it and thus contribute to the debate. (And even if what they say is wholly false, they are still worth hearing, according to Mill, as they help us gain a livelier appreciation of the truth.) Of course, as Mill would have been the first to acknowledge, there are risks in such an approach. But he would also have pointed out that it is equally risky to suppose that any group has a monopoly on truth.


In preparing this answer I have found the following very helpful: (by Marcuse himself).

See also for the idea of ‘repressive Desublimation’.

I hope this is of some help.


For the BPA,


Howard Simmons

Q: hi The specification makes a sharp distinction between fatalism and (physical) determinism. Could you please clarify this distinction for me? It seems to me that hard determinism implies fatalism. thanks for your time Chris


Determinism is the theory that given a complete set of initial conditions and fixed laws of nature, only one outcome is possible. Fatalism is the claim that certain important aspects of our futures are fixed independently of anything we do--for example, I am predestined to die unhappy and there is nothing I can do about this. The key difference is that determinism does not deny that certain conceivable actions of mine could affect such aspects of my life. In relation to the example above, a determinist (unlike the fatalist) needn't deny that if I go and live abroad this could prevent me from dying unhappy. True, a hard determinist would say that I cannot ultimately control whether I do go and live abroad. (Although I may go and live abroad if I choose to, I can't determine whether I will choose to--that's decided by a combination of my genes and my environment.) But at least a determinist--even a hard determinist--can allow that my actions could make a difference and this is different from the fatalist's theory.

Although many people think of hard determinism as a very uncongenial theory, fatalism seems to be worse. Fatalism places fundamental limitations on what human actions can achieve (beyond what science and common sense tell us), but hard determinism places no such limitations. True, if the hard determinist is right, we cannot ultimately control what actions we carry out, but at least we often do know of certain critical actions that we will carry them out and of others we do not know that we will not, which leaves us room for hope.

I hope this helps.

Howard Simmons

Q: Hi, I'm teaching A2 Ep & Met and struggling to get my head around the difference between internalist and externalist theories of justification. My students and I are getting increasingly frustrated with each other and I fear soon someone will get hurt (possibly with a textbook as a weapon). Can you help?



The question these theories are meant to answer is roughly this:  What’s the difference between genuine knowledge and mere true belief?  Suppose I believe something, and it happens to be true, but I was only guessing and got lucky.  My belief isn’t knowledge.  Suppose you really do know the fact in question.  Then you’ve got something that I haven’t got, something beyond the true belief that we share.  Philosophers call that extra something ‘justification’ or ‘warrant’ or ‘grounds’:  you’ve got some justification for your belief, or some grounds or warrant, and I haven’t.  It’s also possible to have justification or warrant for a belief even if it turns out to be false:  you can have a belief that would be knowledge, if only if were true.  The question, then, is what this justification or warrant amounts to.

Internalists say that justification--what turns true belief into knowledge--has to be something we’re aware of or can have immediate access to on reflection.  To know whether a belief is justified, you don’t need to leave the armchair.  You need only reflect.  Externalists deny this:  they say that whether a belief is justified can hinge on matters you are entirely unaware of and have no way of knowing about.  

I know that it’s now raining outside my window.  What makes my true belief knowledge?  An internalist might say:  I’m having a certain sort of visual experience, and I remember that whenever I’ve had such experiences in the past, it’s been raining.  That gives me grounds for believing that it’s raining now--grounds enough, when combined with the proposition’s truth, to give me knowledge.  Note that all the factors that enter into my grounds--my experience and my memory of past circumstances--are ‘internal’ to me, and open to introspection.  So whether my belief is justified or warranted does not depend on anything outside my direct awareness (though of course whether the belief is true depends on something outside me).

Externalists needn not dispute that I can have this sort of ‘internal’ grounds for my beliefs, or that such grounds can make the difference between true belief and knowledge.  But they think a belief could also be warranted by something not in any way internal to me.  Suppose it’s a fact that whenever I have visual experiences like I’m having now, it’s raining, and that I never, or rarely, have such experiences in dry weather.  My visual system is an accurate detector of rain.  Then externalists are likely to say that my belief is warranted, and I know that it’s raining.  Internalists will reject this, because the fact that my visual system is accurate is not accessible to me just by reflecting.  It’s a fact partly about my surroundings.  I’d need to leave my armchair to discover it.  Internalists will say that I have to KNOW that my visual system is accurate, or have a justified belief that it is, for this to be relevant to my knowing that it’s raining, or for my belief to be warranted.  Externalists say that the bare fact of its accuracy, whether I know it or not, is enough to give me warrant or knowledge.

Internalism and externalism diverge in cases where, as we say, you know something but you don’t know how you know it.  According to legend, certain people can distinguish male from female chicks with great accuracy, even though the two sexes are indistinguishable to the rest of us.  And the experts themselves can’t explain how they tell them apart.  In fact they don’t know themselves how they do it.  Externalism allows that the ‘chicken-sexers’ know whether a given chick is male or female.  What's more, they could know it even if they are unaware of their special ability.  Internalism implies that they could know this only if they they know that their hunches are reliable.  The mere ability to tell reliably whether a chick is male or female doesn't give knowledge, because this ability is not introspectively accessible to them.

Here’s an example where the theories diverge in the opposite way.  Suppose you’re Descartes worrying about whether you’re being deceived by an evil demon.  Are you warranted or justified in believing that you have hands?  According to internalism, this belief can be warranted (though not true) even if an evil demon really is deceiving you and you don’t have hands, because you may still have all the ‘internal’ evidence supporting your belief that you could possibly have.  Externalists may say that whether your belief is warranted depends on how reliable your beliefs about physical objects are in the circumstances.  That means that if you really are being deceived, your belief is probably unwarranted.  (This shows that according to externalism, you’re not always in a position to know whether a belief of yours is justified, whereas according to internalism you normally are.)


Q: Is there an agreed definition of teleological functionalism?


It’s not clear that there is an agreed definition of functionalism of any kind (teleological or not). But the following would do: functionalists hold that the content of a mental state is determined by the causal role that it actually or typically plays. If that would do for functionalism generally, the following will do for teleological functionalism: the content of a mental state is determined by the causal role that it is supposed to play (i.e. that it is its function to play).


However, teleologists can disagree with each other about how to specify the causal role (they can be holists or not; they can be externalists or internalists). And they can disagree about what functions are and how a mental state, such as belief, gets to have the function to play a particular causal role.


Functionalism (and therefore teleological functionalism) can also be a theory of mental categories, rather than of content (i.e. addressing the question ‘what's the difference between a belief and a desire?’, not ‘what’s the difference between believing that p and believing that q?’) . So you could have a teleological functionalist theory of mental categories too.


Q: Firstly, Could you provide a punchy contrast between moral internalism and moral externalism please? (I have recently come across opposite usages!) Secondly, If an agent acts altruistically and this turns out to be to someone's detriment (due to unforseen cicumstances) would this rob the act of its altruism? I assume not, but I must ask due to the question on the January unit 1 paper. Surely an act cannot be both altruistic and self-interested (even though it can be altruistic and (de facto) in one's own interests).




It depends what sort of int and ext you are after.  Here are two contrasts.

(a) Internalism about moral motivation: when one makes a moral judgement then motivation (of some strength) to act appropriately on that judgement is a necessary part of it.  

Externalism about moral motivation: when one makes a moral judgement then it is not necessary that there be motivation to act appropriaely on that judgement.  If such motivation is present, then this is a contingent matter, normally dependent on an individual's particular psychology. 

(So: we both might say that giving to a particular charity is morally good.  But, whilst you are motivated to give, I feel no motivation at all.  Whilst externalists would be happy with this, internalists will say that something has gone wrong with my judging and although it appears to be the same as yours, really it isn't.)

(b) Internalism about moral reasons: if someone is subject to a demand, or has a reason that applies to them, then the ground of that reason  - why there is a reason in the first place - lies in something that the agent accepts, or something that we can reasonably imagine them accepting.  ('Accepatnce' here is wide-ranging: commitments, desires, wants, ideals, etc.) 

Externalism about moral reasons: an agent can be subject to a moral reason and the ground of that reason may lie in something completely external to anything the agent does not or could not believe, desire, be committed to, etc.

So: we might think that agent A should do something, such as give to charity.  Why does this reason apply to A?  Internalists about reason believe that it applies to A only if A himself agrees now that it applies, or there is something else he is committed to (or some way in which we could reasonably imagine him changing his commitments) which entails that he should give to charity.  However, if it turns out that there is nothing about A now or a reasonably imagined different A in the future that would justify this reason applying, then it doesn't apply.  Externalists disagree.  There are some reasons that apply to us no matter what else we are committed to, desire, etc.  (Of course, a lot of the weight of the distinction is put on the 'reasonably imagined' new As.)

The person who started all of the modern debate on int and ext about reasons is Bernard Williams.  He denied the existence of external reasons (strictly, he said that external reasons statements are false.).

Altruism: well, it depends what one means by altruism.  (Sorry - but it's true!)  If one thinks that altrusm means: helping others (perhaps at some sacrifice to oneself), then it is possible to combine this with some degree of self-interestedness.  One might sacrifice something, but gain something else, but if one's prime motivation is to help others, then this still might be counted as altruistic.  However, if one has a stricter definition of altruism whereby one's prime and *only* motivation is to help others, then some of the cases you may have in mind don't count as altrusitic.  And, what of an even more exterme definition?  An altruistic action is that where one's only goal is to help others *and* it doesn't turn out that, inadvertently, you help yourself and/or harm someone.  That would rule out many cases as altruistic.  Indeed, it might be hard to think of a significant action that would be altrusitic if we adopt this definition. 

Any good?  Hope this helps.


Best wishes, Simon


Q: In the specification AQA distinguish between arguing for design and arguing from design in the \'God and the World\' module. I am struggling with this distinction. If arguing for design, then presumably you think there is a Designer. If arguing from design, then what else can you say once you have assumed design but that there is a Designer?


There is a distinction here – it’s a bit hard to spot, as it's quite subtle. Think of it this way:

To argue for the existence of God on the basis that the world is designed, you need to perform two steps:

1.    show that the world is designed

2.    show that the cause of this design must be God

The first step will require an argument for design – you must convince everyone that the complexity of the world should be understood in terms of being a design, a plan, showing purpose, etc. Paley’s watchmaker example is thus an argument for design.

The second step is where the argument from design comes in – now you must convince everyone that the design apparent in the world has been brought about (designed) by God. You have already argued for there being design in the world, now you are arguing from the fact of this design to the existence of a designer.

That’s the distinction, as I see it – a distinction between the two steps or stages in the overall “Design” argument. I should say I’m not familiar with the AQA materials (I’m in Scotland, so know the Scottish Higher instead), but I think this is right. Hope this helps.


Q: I am not a specialist in Philosophy, but have been roped into teach the subject along with the RS A-level. It is obvious that the students need to demonstrate quite complex skills of analysis, interpretation and evaluation. Currently, the students have an awful lot of subject knowledge (probably too much actually) and not enough of these skills. Do you have any ideas for: a) how to help the students know what these terms even mean in the context of a Philosophy essay and b)any methods, techniques, activities I could give them to help develop these skills? Thanks so much for your responses so far. Really appreciated.



Thanks for yours. 

Analysis, interpretation and evaluation is often half the battle.  The key thing to convey to your students is that philosophy is primarily an activity, not a body of knowledge.  It has lots of 'things' that need to be known, obviously, like most subjects.  But, it is not as if there are only two standard responses to Descartes' cogito, say, and then one learns them and one has sorted the debate.  (From your question, I see you can appreciate this readilyl!)  At that stage, with some of our first years who still might think in this dull way, I might ask them what they mean by thinking that a response is 'standard'.  Why are there two responses, rather than three?  Are these really two different ideas, or are they at root the same thing?  Which one is more important?  Which one should Descartes be worried about?  (Obviously these questions can work for lots of debates.)  As well as getting them to answer these questions directly, I try to get them to see that philosophers can ask these questions endlessly because this is what philosophy is about.  We are after people thinking creatively about such things.

As for exercises, you could try getting them to argue for points of view different from their own.  Also challenge them to come up with a point that is not in the material that you have given them or in the standard books they have read.  Also, if you are in a position where they are just trotting out lots of responses, get them to think about which is the most important response or idea and get them to defend why it is the most important one.  Get them, then, to think hard about how Descartes or a Cartesian would reply.    

To help with all of this, it might be worth you presenting them with two rival interpretations of the same passage or idea.  Get them to see that there may be no right answer that everyone agrees on.  Get them to debate the interpretations and idea.  All being well, that might help their powers of interpretation, and evaluation.

As I said, this is half the battle, and what I've said here may not work.  If you need any more advice, feel free to email us - or me - back.  Good luck.  Best wishes,

Simon -

Q: Hi there, Could you give me an overview of J. Schneewind's theories on modern moral philosophy and how they relate to understanding the need for religion in society and to understanding human actions please. Thanking you in advance


I don't think Schneewind is mentioned in the 'A' level philosophy syllabus and I am not actually familiar with his work. By all means tell your students about him if you think he is relevant but don't over-emphasize any figure that is not explicitly mentioned in the syllabus.

Q: I have a few questions that I would be most grateful if you would be able to try and answer with regard to the compulsory module ‘Reason and Experience’ on the AQA Philosophy specification. 1. I wonder if you might be able to help me on the following question from the AS specification ‘Is certainty confined to introspection and the tautological?’ Is the general gist of the reply YES from most people except rationalists who argue that there is also synthetic a priori propositions such as ‘I have a soul’ or ‘There is a Form of the Good’, that can be known with certainty (and are necessary?). So do empiricists generally agree with Hume that all a posteriori knowledge other than that of our own mental states is not certain (though most would be happy to still call it knowledge)? If there was a question on this in their exam, do you think they would be expected to talk about the problem of induction and Descartes’ sceptical arguments to explain why all other types can\'t be certain, even though this doesn’t really feature on the spec in a definite way? There could easily a question on it since it is explicitly named in the spec but I’m not too sure what the examiners would say. 2. Also on the specification is ‘the philosophical significance of innate ideas’. I’m not really sure what they are getting at here. All I’ve managed to come up with is that this knowledge will be more secure since it will be of eternal and unchanging things (according to Plato). Is it also significant as if there are innate ideas, these could form a secure foundation for other knowledge and we will have achieved certainty (what the foundationalist is looking for)? 3. Are Kant’s conceptual schemes meant to be an example of the synthetic a priori? 4. Do you think that students are meant to be taking a belief in innate ideas to equal rationalism? The textbooks all appear to but I thought they were not synonymous. I realise these are big questions so I thank you in advance for your time taken to read them. Sincerely Christina Davis


1. I can’t say what the AS examiners would expect, but here’s a professional philosopher’s opinion.  That certainty is ‘confined to introspection and the tautological’ is definitely a claim that empiricists typically endorse (if you define ‘tautological’ generously enough to include mathematical knowledge).  And rationalists characteristically accept that we can have synthetic a priori knowledge.  In fact, that claim is a good definition of rationalism.  However, rationalism as such does not say that we can have CERTAIN knowledge about these matters.  Even if certain famous historic rationalists such as Descartes and Kant said that we can have certain knowledge of the synthetic a priori, latter-day rationalists are much more likely to say that our knowledge of these matters is fallible and not absolutely certain.

You ask whether empiricists deny that we can have a posteriori certainty about anything other than our own mental states.  Well, this is a common  view (though Kant and Wittgenstein denied it).  However, I don’t know whether it’s more common among empiricists than among rationalists.  In discussing whether we can have certain knowledge about, say, the external world, it would certainly be appropriate to discuss Descartes’ sceptical arguments or the problem of induction.  I doubt whether the examiners would require this in a good answer to a question about certainty, but I can’t speak for them with any authority.

2. Innate ideas--concepts ‘hard-wired’ into us that we don’t have to learn--are an important theme in Plato, Descartes, Locke, Kant, and, more recently, Chomsky.  And it’s true that in past centuries, those who believed in innate ideas were generally those who thought we could have certain knowledge of synthetic a priori truths, and vice versa.  That said, neither claim obviously entails the other.  I suppose I can be certain that all barking dogs bark, even though neither BARKING nor DOG is an innate concept.  And even if (as Chomsky argued) basic grammatical concepts are innate, it doesn’t follow that grammatical knowledge is certain.  

3. The term ‘synthetic a priori’ refers to knowledge of synthetic propositions--truths.  A conceptual scheme consists only of concepts, such as the concept DOG.  Concepts are not propositions, and cannot be true or false.  So Kant’s claim that certain concepts (such as cause and identity) are innate and cannot be learned because they are presupposed in experience is not a claim about knowledge of propositions, and thus not about synthetic a priori knowledge.  However, Kant did say that we can know a priori that every event has a cause (for example), which is a synthetic proposition.

4. I hope not!  ‘Rationalism’ is a term used in many different ways.  Most commonly it means the view that we can have a priori knowledge of certain interesting, important, substantive truths--something like Kant’s synthetic a priori.  However, the claim that we have certain innate concepts is sometimes also called rationalism, even though it’s entirely different.  The fact that both claims were historically accepted or rejected together (accepted by Descartes, Leibniz and Kant; rejected by the British empiricists), and were not always distinguished, doesn’t help matters.  I teach my students to distinguish the two claims.  But I find that they have an almost irresistible urge to conflate them.

Q: In response to Howards answer about conceptual schemes: "as the section of the syllabus that mentions conceptual schemes doesn't refer to any particular author..." does this imply that students can simply study ONE version of conceptual schemes (either the apriori one or the aposteriori ones)in the secure knowledge that they will not be asked to discuss the debate between the two positions? Does it also mean that there will never be a question that asks anything SPECIFIC about either Kant's version or the more linguistic versions?


The following comment was received by an AQA philosophy subject officer:

"There will not be a question that asks specifically about Kantian or Linguistic versions of  conceptual schemes (or any other version).  However, they need to be clear about the a priori/a posteriori distinction and they should know that a conceptual scheme might be acquired or it might be innate. They would certainly not be asked to debate the relative merits of a Kantian and Linguistic version - although such a debate might be relevant.  More important is an understanding  why it seems that a conceptual scheme of some sort is important.   

With all these queries  there is an over concern with 'knowing theories' but if you look at the mark scheme what matters is the ability to analyse, interpret and evaluate."

I hope you find this helpful.





Q: I am teaching the tolerance section in PHIL2. The students find it very vague, and rather repetative. Even the Atherton and Lacewing text books are very vague. I am finding it very hard to break down the topic into sub topics they must learn and revise as you can with the other topics. Could you help me to make a revision list of theories/philosophers etc they can learn to make their revision more structured. Thanks


Hello Hayley (if I may),


Thanks for yours.  Yes, this can be a hard subject to teach ansd there is no definitive, structured, settled sides or arguments.  This isn't quite my area, also.  However, I've just had a look on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the entry on toleration:



This seems as if it might be some help, particularly the second section.  Think about - and get your students to think about - two key elements: (i) what exactly it is that is being tolerated (and odes this mean one tolerates the whole view, or just some aspect of a view), and how exactly the stance of those tolerating can be characterized.  You might also think about (iii) what practical action this results in and how it affects one's attitutde to third parties (who might not wish to see the view under consideration being tolerated.)

I hope this is of some help.

By the way, if you have never used it, the Stanford Encyclopedia is an excellent resource.  Some of the pieces might be too much for your students, but some are well written and easily accessible, and most should be os some use to you as a teacher.

If you want to email me again, you can use this site or email me directly:

Best wishes,






Q: Given that there is unfortunately no PGCE in Philosophy- could you recommend the best path for a Philosophy graduate to enter into A-Level teaching? Do teachers normally get a qualified in a different subject (e.g. Religious Education) and use this as a means to teaching Philosophy? Thanks


There is one PGCE course in Philosophy and Religious Studies offered by Liverpool Hope. There is no Philosophy PGCE because Philosophy is not a national curriculum subject. The Religious Studies PGCE would be quite a good staging area for philosophy teaching as things stand. It is possible that there will be more routes to philosophy teaching through the PGCE in the future, but that at this stage that is only under discussion.

Q: In Michael Lacewing's AS textbook he identifies three versions of compatibilism. I am struggling to see what nmakes them different. One is- 'voluntary action as defined in terms of the type of cause from which it isssues' and the second is 'voluntary action as causally determined and yet distinguishable from psychologically and physically constrained action'. He then goes on to discuss Frankfurt's views later on in the chapter. It seems to me that they are all three versions of the same basic point- that if you are able to act on your desires, without constraint, then you have free will. Obviously, there is then a debate about what constitutes 'constraint' which to me seems the main problem of compatibilism. So my question is- how should I present compatibilism to students? Is there one basic view with different versions or are there in fact different distinct versions? Thank you, Bonnie


Dear Bonnie,

What I would take to be significant about the differences between the 3 types of compatibilism is this:

  1. The first just identifies freewill as consisting in a single link, between choice and action, regardless of what is going on outside this process.
  2. The second identifies freewill as an absence of constraint, so this potentially takes us back further in the causal process creating the action. If my action is unconstrained, then a certain identifiable immediate condition creating or preventing that action is absent (e.g. hypnosis, paralysis etc). One’s action could be constrained in this sense but not in no.1, e.g. if I was hypnotised to stop smoking, but didn’t know this when I chose to not have a cigarette, and this led to my actually not doing so.
  3. Frankfurt’s sense goes one step back from no.1 by locating freewill in the consistency between first order desires and second order desires, as well as between first order desires and actions. (A development of this, which makes rather more sense to me, would be to see freewill as the relative quality of integration of our desires – that is, how consistent they are generally).

These three options only represent 3 types of naturalist compatibilism. The distinction between naturalist compatibilism and rationalist compatibilism is more profound and interesting – for that I recommend Thomas Pink’s Freewill: a very short introduction (Oxford). So, to answer your question, I’d say there are 2 basic views, with different versions of each of them.


However, having said all this, I wouldn’t necessarily go into these distinctions with AS students, unless you have a pretty able group. Most students have enough trouble grasping the basic theory of one type of naturalist compatibilism. It is number 2 that I always teach, and which seems to me most typical and important. If I do go into different types with more able students, I distinguish between naturalist and rationalist types. If you’re not confident with that, it’s really not essential, so I’d suggest sticking to no.2 naturalist compatibilism to start with.

Best wishes,

Robert Ellis



Q: How to apply Utilitarianism to the issues of abortion and euthanasia


In its simplest form, utilitarianism says that our sole moral duty is to maximize utility.  ‘Utility’ is taken to be a psychological state:  pleasure, or happiness, or perhaps the satisfaction of desires.  (The assumption is that this is the fundamental good--that all things are good only insofar as they promote utility--and that it is in some sense quantifiable.)  


So think of all the courses of action available to you in the circumstances.  For each course of action, consider its consequences:  what would happen if you did it.  Work out the total utility of those consequences, adding up all the pleasure the world would contain if you performed the action and subtracting all the suffering.  The action with the highest overall utility is what you ought to do.


This implies that it’s morally permissible for us to kill someone or something if, and only if, doing so would result in more overall utility than anything else we could do.  To simplify a bit, killing is right just when it would result in greater overall utility, in the circumstances, than not killing.  


So is it all right to kill an unborn foetus?  That depends on how much pleasure and suffering would come about, in the circumstances, if we did so, and how much would come about if we didn’t.  This in turn will depend on what the unborn person’s life would be like, and one what the lives of the mother and others affected would be like if she did and if she didn’t have the abortion.  The calculation is guaranteed to be messy!


Is it all right to kill someone, or help her kill herself, for her own benefit?  Again, it depends on what would happen if we did it and what would happen if we didn’t.  Suppose it makes no difference to anyone else’s utility which we do.  Then utilitarianism says that euthanasia is right if the remainder of the person’s life would otherwise contain a net utility of less than zero--that is, if her suffering during that period would outweigh her pleasure or happiness.  If the remainder of her life would otherwise have positive utility, euthanasia is wrong.  But of course, acts of euthanasia always have important consequences for the utility of others--as does refusal to grant requests for euthanasia.  So although utilitarianism supports euthanasia in some cases, there’s plenty of room for debate about whether it supports euthanasia in real life, or whether it supports a law allowing euthanasia.  It all depends on what the consequences would be.

Q: What can you recommend to make sense of conceptual schemes for 16 year olds? Are Kant and Sapir-Wharf talking about the same kind of thing?


Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.
Kant is talking about the fundamental preconditions for our being able to have experiences at all, consisting in the fact that we are able to conceptualise them in terms of space, time, causality etc. Kant's is an a priori theory--he is saying that on general philosophical grounds, our thinking MUST be like this. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be more of an empirical theory, based on differences that can be found to obtain between the ways in which different languages 'carve up' the world. I think Sapir-Whorf is easier for students to grasp, and as the section of the syllabus that mentions conceptual schemes doesn't refer to any particular author, I guess you could talk about that instead of Kant, if you thought it would work better with your students.
I hope this helps.
Yours sincerely,
Howard Simmons, BPA schools team

On re-reading your question, I noticed that it appeared to be asking for reading material. I have found the following helpful in relation to Sapir-Whorf:

   Geoffrey Leech, 'Semantics' (Pelican), pp. 28-32.

  A.P. Martinich (ed.), 'The Philosophy of Language', fourth edition (OUP), pp. 23-5.




Q: I have a student who is wondering whether to take AS philosophy. What books/resources could I recommend to give him/her a taste of the subject?



A very good introduction is Stephen Law’s The Philosophy Gym. It takes a series of issues in turn and deals with them in an accessible and often humorous way.


Jostein Gaarder’s novel Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy is a very unusual, but very stimulating introduction. It takes the form of a story about a 14- year-old girl who is introduced to philosophy by a mysterious mentor. Philosophers discussed include Socrates, Descartes, Spinoza and Hegel. The story has a fascinating twist, which itself raises philosophical questions.


Philosophy: The Basics is a pretty comprehensive introduction by Nigel Warburton. Topics covered include God, right and wrong, politics, scepticism, science, philosophy of mind and art.


Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar...: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein combines comedy and introductory philosophy in a very appealing way.


Much of the The Philosopher’s Magazine would be accessible to brighter students and would give a good idea of what philosophy is all about. Its website is at

For a more extensive list of introductory books, see our guide



Q: How could I introduce students to the main themes of political philosophy when teaching the ‘Why should I be governed?’ theme within Unit 1 (Introduction to Philosophy) of AS philosophy?


One way that you could do this is by asking the students how they might go about starting a new society from scratch. They could be divided into small groups to discuss this question, and then asked to report back towards the end of the lesson.


Rough lesson plan:


       Introduce topic and explain activity.

Question: If you had to start a new society from scratch, what decisions would you make about the following:


  • Who should be in charge? How do you decide this? How do you change it subsequently—assuming you can? (Come to think of it, should there be anybody in charge?)
  • Assuming that there are some people in charge do they have absolute power to pass any laws or edicts they want, and if not what sort of controls should be imposed on them?
  • How, broadly speaking, are goods and services to be distributed e.g. a free market, a command economy, some mixture of the two or some other option altogether?
  • What do you do about people who don’t obey the laws or edicts? Do you punish them and if so how is their culpability decided and how is a suitable punishment determined? Or will you have some other way of dealing with them, e.g. rehabilitation of some sort?

 All this will keep them very busy!


Divide class into suitable groups (about 3 or 4 each). Students begin discussing questions, with teacher listening in and making suggestions if things are stalling.


Students report back with their findings. (A spokesperson can be chosen by each group.) Teacher comments encouragingly. (Don’t be crushing about any suggestion, though of course it is in order to raise questions and/or objections.) When suggestions match existing ideas in political philosophy, mention philosophers concerned—especially if they relate to any of the set texts.


Bring the discussion to a suitable conclusion. Obviously, this will depend to some extent on what has happened in the rest of the lesson. 


I think that this activity could work with students of a wide range of abilities, but a weaker group will perhaps need more initial suggestions to stimulate their discussions. With a strong group you might actually give fewer suggestions than those indicated above. For example, you could leave out the reference to specific options for distributing goods and services and just see what they come up with.