Category: metaphysics

On Schopenhauer’s Essay On The Freedom Of The Will

Expound and assess Schopenhauer’s argument that free will is an illusion. Does he succeed in showing what he calls “relative” freedom is not really enough to constitute free will?

Schopenhauer does succeed in logically arguing that what he calls “will” is not “free”, as he conceives the terms “will” and “free”. However, he does not succeed in showing that what we commonly understand to be freedom, is in any way undermined by his conception of the will. At best, he shows is that our common conception is incomplete. I will show that Schopenhauer sets up a false dichotomy between causality and the will via a misapplication of the notion of “negative” freedom, and that he asserts a scientifically inaccurate view of human consciousness that conflates causality with fatalism through his use of the concept of the “character” of the will. Finally, I will forgive Schopenhauer his mistakes, and show how his conception of the will, as crude as it was, pointed (perhaps inadvertently) to a more sophisticated approach to understanding human freedom.

Schopenhauer distinguishes man from animal in his essay by describing our capacity for rational deliberation and showing how this capacity provides us with a means to project decisions far into the future, thus freeing us from the constraints of instinctive behavior determined by immediate environmental concerns. Schopenhauer believes this sense of control over our own actions is what gives us the feeling that “I can do as I will”. This, he says, is the “negative” conception of freedom, meaning that my actions are not necessitated by external obstacles or coercions. But, he argues, being “free to do as I will” is in some sense still constrained, because acts originate from the will, and the will itself is constrained by causality. So, for Schopenhauer, a “free” will would be one that could function independently — i.e., in violation of — the laws of physical causality; and, since no one can show this to be the case except by special pleading, the will must be causally determined, and as such, not “free”.

While the notion of being “free from obstacles” is a good starting point in searching for a definition of freedom, it is a mistake to equate the laws of physical causality with a metaphysical “obstacle”. It suggests that existence is some sort of hurdle that needs to be overcome. This is akin to Descartes’ demand for absolute certainty as a standard of “knowledge”. Both yearn for an ideal realm of absolutes in which the mind is effectively godlike, possessing a sort of unmediated awareness of everything, and capable of a spontaneity akin to Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Engine, producing “decisions” in isolation (or even opposition) to the universe around it. In other words, like Descartes’ conception of knowledge, Schopenhauer’s conception of freedom is designed to render it impossible, leaving us no choice but to accept the negative conclusion that there is no such thing. But is there really no other way to look at this problem, than as an impossible metaphysical trolly dilemma between an utter enslavement to fate, or a miraculous denial of physical causality? For Schopenhauer, the answer is no, and this comes down to his view of the will.

Schopenhauer’s conception of the will is one shrouded in mystery. He describes it only in silhouette, as a feature of what he calls the “self-consciousness”: that part of the mind that is “turned inward” exclusively, and that makes us aware of our inner emotional states. He claims that the will cannot be known “in itself”, but only through the observation of our emotional states and our actions. He describes a decision, or choice, as an event in which an external “motive” is presented to the “outward-looking” consciousness, which then passes that awareness to the will. The combination of motive and the “character” of the will then produces an impulse to act in a certain way, which we can observe via the self-consciousness. He goes on to assert that the “character” of the will is something we are born with, and that remains fixed and immutable throughout our lives. So, for Schopenhauer, the “will” is a sort of Chinese Room, into which motives are inserted, and decisions are ejected, and if we had enough accumulated knowledge of every man’s decisions, we could conceivably define their character precisely, and predict all of their actions into the future, given a complete set of input “motives”.

This is a highly mechanistic view of human psychology of which even B. F. Skinner might have been skeptical. Modern neuroscience and psychology tell us that the brain is a highly “plastic” well into adulthood, that there does not seem to be any “center” of conscious control (aka “will”), and that there are many clinical therapy methods that have been very successful at altering not only behavior, but desires, impulses to action, and emotional responses to external stimuli. If we were to maintain even a metaphorical conception of the “character of the will”, modern science would compel us to a view of it that is anything but immutable. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense why an immutable will is required for Schopenhauer’s conception of the will as “causally determined”. Why is it not possible for external motives to have lasting causal effects on the “character” of the will, such that it’s later outputs did not match early results? Schopenhauer seems, implicitly, to think that this immutability is required in order to maintain his positive claim of causal determinism, but he does not explain why. Perhaps this was his attempt to avoid the “could have done otherwise” question?

For all of the vague and inexplicable features of his theory of will, Schopenhauer did manage to do us a favor. By formulating an idea that was fundamentally empirical, he offered us an opportunity for new knowledge through scientific testing of his theory. By making the distinction between matter-of-fact “negative” freedom, and the more fundamental metaphysical freedom, Schopenhauer helped to clarify the proper boundaries of our concept of freedom. By attempting to delineate the features of the conscious mind in order to isolate the will, he actually helped to begin the process of freeing us from the muddle of Cartesian dogmatisms, even while relying on them in some sense. Seen through the hind-sight lens of modern science, Schopenhauer was quite right to suspect an unexplored universe of activity in the mind occurring below the level of consciousness. The mistake he made, and that we continue to make today, is in assuming that this activity renders us incapable of acting “freely”. Schopenhauer does this because he conflates freedom with a miraculous power to untether oneself from the laws of physics. But it seems perfectly feasible that a complex process of activity – entirely governed by the laws of physics – could be going on at the neuronal level, that produced a behavioral phenomenon in living organisms that could be described as acting “freely”. The problem is, how would we know this? How could we correctly judge which of an organism’s behaviors was “free” and which was not? If I ran a rat through a maze 1,000 times, and it took the same path every time, could I say that the rat’s behavior was “determined”? Whether or not it was actually making “a free choice” is effectively an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If I drive the same route to work every day for a year, and then suddenly decide to change my route because I’m bored, is that evidence of “freedom”, or evidence of some causal factor that if I’d been aware of it a year earlier, could predict accurately, my change in habit? And even if I could predict this accurately, could it really be said that I did not have a “free choice” to take a different route when the year came due? It’s really not clear either way. This suggests that the whole question might be a red herring.

Schopenhauer wisely recognized that our concept of free will was superficial, and somewhat tenuous. Although his effort to achieve clarity overreached was could reasonably asserted in his day, he offered a dim light on the path to understanding the role of the subconscious in our decision-making processes. As such, he helped to make it possible for us to satisfy ourselves with “relative” freedom, even if he was correct that such a thing is an “illusion”. Though, as I have explained already, he hasn’t quite demonstrated that either.

The Qualia Of Dreams

The IEP defines Qualia as:

“…the subjective or qualitative properties of experiences. What it feels like, experientially, to see a red rose is different from what it feels like to see a yellow rose. Likewise for hearing a musical note played by a piano and hearing the same musical note played by a tuba… As [C. I.] Lewis [the originator of the term] used the term, qualia were properties of sense-data themselves. In contemporary usage, the term has been broadened to refer more generally to properties of experience… Qualia are often referred to as the phenomenal properties of experience…”

As I understand this, qualia is what the brain makes, out of the raw data coming across the wires connecting our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and fingers, to the brain. In other words, the meaningful content constructed out of that data. The article also goes on to include emotional responses among the “phenomena of experience”.

If this definition is correct, then what would we call the meaningful content constructed during dreaming? I often dream of driving off the edge of a cliff or a high bridge that’s unfinished. I can feel the free-fall as the car leaves the pavement. I can feel the inertia as I plummet (usually toward a body of water), and I can hear the wind in my ears. I can see the green-gray water of the lake below me. I can feel the water envelop me, as I strike its surface, and I can feel the pressure against my chest. I can taste the water, in my mouth, as I gasp for air after surfacing. And yet, I’m actually lying in bed, sound asleep.

This, of course, is a classic Cartesian complaint about “knowing”. But my main question, is how these feelings are occurring at all, if they are a product of sense data?

The same is true for memories. When I recall a choir concert I’ve been too, I can hear the music in my head (though, this is a bit more obviously distinct from actually hearing). When I recall the time I spent in Vermont, I can smell the mower clippings in our neighbor’s hay field. When I close my eyes, I can see the Alpacas he kept, nosing up to the fence in anticipation of some corn or sugar cubes.

The brain must be storing the original data somewhere up there, and re-purposing it, for memories and dreams. But how?

I think Descartes argument in the Meditations would have been much stronger, if he’d stuck with the dream comparison. Launching off into the demon analogy lost me.

When I was a teen, it was not difficult for me to realize I was in a dream, or to impose conscious intent into my dream landscapes. Realizing my state, it was thrilling to be able to give myself powers of flight or lazer eyes, or extra limbs. But sometimes, I would get stuck in a sort of “third person” mode, as well (Cartesian theater?), where I could watch myself from an oblique overhead perspective. Those dreams were a great deal more frightening (due to the lack of control). However, as I’ve gotten older, it’s become more and more difficult to differentiate between the conscious ego and the dream actor — and much more difficult to realize I am in a dream (when I’m dreaming, of course).

This suggests to me, that dreams either function as, or are a byproduct of, some sort of process of “integration” taking place in the brain. In other words, that our sensual experience, our emotional responses to those experiences, and our rational interpretations of the two, somehow need to be distilled into one thing, before they can “settle” into the personality. What that might look like at the neurological level — if my idea is even coherent — is beyond me.

The Importance Of Descartes’ Existence

The proposition ‘I am, I exist’ (ego sum, ego existo – hereafter, referred to as the ’ego’), is of special importance in the argument of Descartes’ Second Meditation for many reasons. More generally, it is important because of the implications it has for Descartes’ overall philosophical project. For example, it implicitly rejects religious authority in favor of a personal standard of knowledge in an era in which Galileo faced aggressive persecution; it also forms the nascent beginning of the still ongoing nature-nurture debate, and it ultimately makes Descartes something of an Augustinian. But these topics are far too broad to cover adequately in a brief essay. Since the language of the question at hand focuses exclusively on the the Second Meditation and specifically the argument within it, a much narrower interpretation seems more appropriate. Namely, why is the ‘ego’ necessary for Descartes to achieve his goal in the Second Meditation, and how does it facilitate that goal? On this point, I will argue that there is one fundamental reason. Namely, without the ego, Descartes has no means by which to recover from the corrosive power of his own method of doubt. I will outline and analyze this reason, focusing on whether the ‘ego’ satisfies the logical and epistemic demands put upon it by the method. Finally, I will argue that because Descartes is unclear in his justification for the ego, it remains unconvincing as a basis for epistemic certainty.

Doubt, Absolute Certainty, And The Whirlpool

A central feature of Descartes’ Method of Doubt is an absolute standard for what he will allow himself to identify as knowledge. He states in Meditation One: “…we should withhold assent just as carefully from whatever is not completely certain and indubitable as from what is clearly false…”. In other words, for the purposes of his method, he makes no distinction, nor accommodates any gradation, between the weakest of doubts and the worst of errors. All of these shades of gray are to be judged identically false. As a consequence, he admits he is, “…forced to concede eventually that there is nothing… that cannot be doubted…”, and by the beginning of Second Meditation, he recognizes the extreme position this puts him in, vowing to find a way to extricate himself:

…I am so tossed about, as if I had fallen suddenly into a deep whirlpool, that I can neither put my foot on the bottom nor swim to the surface. However… I will follow [the method of doubt] until I discover something that is certain or, at least, until I discover that it is certain only that nothing is certain. Archimedes looked for only one firm and immovable point in order to move the whole earth; likewise, I could hope for great things if I found even the smallest thing that is certain and unmoved…

Finding this Archimedean point, then, is the challenge he faces in the Second Meditation. But what does this entail, exactly? To begin, we need to understand the standard of knowledge that has driven him to this point. In other words, what does Descartes mean by certainty? He defines it in The Meditations thus far only in silhouette, as a belief held “without doubt”. But to clearly understand his predicament it would help to understand what, for Descartes, constituted epistemic certainty. On this question, Descartes offers very little in the Meditations in the way of a complete explanation. However, he does provide some helpful details in an earlier work entitled, “Rules For the Direction of The Mind”. Rule three provides a direct and concise answer, in fact:

…let us here enumerate all the acts of our intellect through which we can arrive at knowledge of things without any fear of error. We admit only two: namely, intuition and deduction.

The Acts Of The Intellect

Unfortunately, Descartes does not explain why these two particular acts of the intellect are the only two options. However, he does a fair amount of work to describe how they function separately as paths to knowledge. First, on intuition, he explains that it something quite different from the common-sense conception:

…By intuition I understand neither the fleeting testimony of the senses nor the deceptive judgment of the imagination with its false constructions, but a conception of a pure and attentive mind, so easy and so distinct, that no doubt at all remains about what we understand. Or, what comes to the same thing, intuition is the indubitable conception of a pure and attentive mind arising from the light of reason alone; it is more certain even than deduction, because it is simpler, even though, as we noted above, people cannot err in deduction either. Thus everyone can intuit with his mind that he exists, that he is thinking, that a triangle is bounded by only three lines, a sphere by a single surface, and the like…

Descartes actually restates the “light of reason” notion in Meditation Three. So, we can be reasonably sure that the concept remained roughly the same for him in the gap between the writing of Rules and Meditations. He does not explain in the Rules how that “indubitable conception” is arrived at, except to assert that it arises from that “light of reason”. In The Meditations, he also adds that intuition is necessarily trustworthy, because none of the other “faculties” share the indubitable character of the faculty from which this notion arises.

“…whatever is shown to me by the natural light of reason – for example, that from the fact that I doubt it follows that I exist, and similar things – cannot in any way be doubtful, because there cannot be another faculty which I trust as much as that light and which could teach me that the conclusion is not true…”

He gives us an argument in the third Meditation for how intuition achieves this absolute undoubtable character, by way of a fairly lengthy chain of reasoning meant also to provide his first proof of the existence of God. An analysis of that argument (and the so-called ‘Cartesian Circle’ created by it) is beyond the scope of this essay. So, I will only roughly summarize Descartes’ justification, here: The ideas in my mind are something that require a cause which, at least in some cases, cannot be myself. That cause is necessarily God, because the regress must end somewhere, and that end must be the necessary source, and the most perfect of ideas. Namely, God.

Moving on to the intellectual act of deduction, he argues first in rule two of Rules, that deduction is like mathematics and geometry because it’s objects are “pure and simple”, and this makes intelligible knowledge superior to sensible knowledge:

“…we must observe that we can arrive at knowledge of things by two paths, namely by experience or by deduction. We must observe, further, that while experiences of things are often deceptive, deduction or a pure inference of one thing from another, though it may be passed over if it is not noticed, can never be erroneously executed by an intellect even minimally rational…

And further, he assigns the same certainty to this sort of reasoning, as he does to his intuition, precisely because of it’s independence from the senses:

“…mathematics and geometry… alone are concerned with an object so pure and simple that they suppose absolutely nothing which experience has rendered uncertain, but they consist entirely in consequences rationally deduced… [Thus], one must conclude… that those who seek the right road of truth should not occupy themselves with any object concerning which they cannot possess a certainty equal to that of the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry…

In the Meditations, again, he repeats this conception of (and commitment to) mathematical thought as a form of certainty, both in his opening letter to the Sorbonne, and in the First Meditation. The end result is that, for Descartes, nothing is worthy of the label “knowledge” or “certainty”, unless he can intuit it from the “light of pure reason” in a single spontaneous instant, or infer it directly in a single step from such an intuition. As he puts it in The Rules:

“…From all this we may conclude that those propositions which follow immediately from first principles are known according to the way we look at it, now by intuition, now by deduction, but that the first principles themselves are known only by intuition, and the remote conclusions, in contrast, only by deduction…

From the outset of his project, then, we can see that Descartes is anxious to find some kind of unassailable object of the mind that is beyond the reach of empirical rejection or denial by reasoned argument, upon which he can construct an epistemological edifice that will function as the basis for his science. But from what “first principle” can he begin this chain of very small, singular, and “certain” logical inferences? Well, to reiterate what he says in the Rules, “everyone can intuit with his mind that he exists, that he is thinking” In other words, Cogito, Ergo Sum. Or, even more simply as the necessary conclusion stated in Meditation Two.

Argument or Intuition?

Does the ‘ego’ succeed as this singular, certain, self-evident intuition? To begin with, it isn’t clear in the Second Meditation that Descartes has in fact established the proposition as an intuition by his own standard. For example, there are three obvious arguments presented near the start of the essay:

Argument 1:

  1. If I am having thoughts, then I am something.
  2. I am having thoughts
  3. C1: I am something

Argument 2:

  1. If I convinced myself of something, then I exist
  2. I convinced myself that there is no material world (From Meditation 1)
  3. C2: I exist

Argument 3:

  1. If it is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me, then I exist
  2. It is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me (from Meditation 1)
  3. C3: I exist

All of these are stated in quick succession immediately prior the conclusion, “…this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind…” If Descartes had not intended to express his existence as a conclusion following necessarily from premises (i.e., as an argument), or as a result of a series of arguments, then why even include these? If the intent was to demonstrate the “clear and distinct” idea of his own existence, wouldn’t it have been wiser to point out the absurdity in the inverse assertion (“I am not, I do not exist”)? Descartes actually hints at this in his explication of intuition in the Rules, even going so far as to assert the intuitive obviousness of our own self-existence. And, in response to Mersenne and Gassendi, in the Objections And Replies, Descartes explicitly denies that he is making an argument. He rejects their particular attempt to state the cogito in the traditional formulation of a strict syllogism, which contains a major general premise (in this case suppressed) and a minor particular premise:

  1. SP: Whatever is thinking must exist
  2. I am a thinking
  3. C1: I exist

By my reading, this is close, but not quite what Descartes is doing in the Second Meditation. Yet also by my reading, it still seems clear that he is indeed making an argument (three of them, in fact, as I have demonstrated above). But so what? Let’s grant momentarily that this criticism is sufficient to render both the ego and the cogito either as arguments, or the conclusions to arguments. Still, Descartes’ own standard of knowledge included both intuition, and deduction. Do the Modus Ponens interpretations above conform to Descartes’ understanding of the kind of deduction that constituted epistemic certainty? And, if they don’t, where does this leave the ego?

Judging by his statements about deduction in the Rules, it’s not so clear. On the one hand, he suggests a sort of apparent obviousness that requires no formal reasoning at all, such as the contemplation of geometric shapes. On the other, he describes a process by which we are moving from an axiom to an inference based on the axiom. There doesn’t seem to be any clear guidance on which of the two conceptions is preferable. In fact, Descartes himself seemed to recognize this muddled distinction, and tried to clarify it in the Rules:

there may now be some doubt as to why we should have added here another mode of knowledge besides intuition, that is, one proceeding by deduction, by which we understand all that is necessarily inferred from other things that are certainly known. But this procedure was necessary, since many things are known with certainty which nevertheless are not themselves evident, simply because they are deduced from true and known principles by the continuous and uninterrupted movement of a mind which clearly intuits each step… Therefore we distinguish here intuition from certain deduction by the fact that some movement or succession is conceived in the latter but not in the former…

In this context, it seems to me the Modus Ponens interpretations may be a more charitable understanding of Descartes than the form prescribed by Mersenne or Gassendi, since you could read the first two premises as a sort of simultaneous set of propositions, phrased for example, like: “the ‘I’ exists, and is convinced”. Yet, it seems to me that all that this really amounts to, is an attempt to make the argument look like an intuition — the only thing, really, that Descartes is willing to countenance as a “first principle” in his epistemology. Which puts us right back where we started: at a loss to discover “one firm and immovable point”, from which to lever the rest of our thinking.


The standard of knowledge that Descartes defines for himself in the beginning of Meditations is absolute certainty. He insists that only those things that we can assert with unflinching conviction should be granted the status of truth or knowledge. He tells us that this sort of “clear and distinct” certainty is only possible in the “light of reason”. While Descartes may assert, “…as a general rule… everything that I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.”, I find I have to agree with another author, that “The notion of a clear and distinct idea is, unfortunately, one of Descartes’ least clear and distinct notions.” And, as I have shown, there is even less ground for confidence in his idea as a deduction, since even Descartes himself insists that it is not, and the more charitable forms are simply begging the intuition. Applying Descartes’ own standard, then, there is no good reason to believe he exists, and I think Descartes would agree:

…we should be warned never at any time to admit any conjectures what- soever as an admixture to our judgments on the truth of things. This counsel is of no small importance. For the chief reason why nothing is found in the vulgar philosophy so evident and certain as to be incapable of controversial treatment is this: scholars, not content with knowing what is clear and certain, first hazarded further affirmations about obscure and unknown matters which they arrived at only by probable conjectures;…

While it’s true that Descartes’ method of doubt is useful occasionally, as a tool for highlighting hidden assumptions and implicit errors in thinking, Descartes’ use of it in the Meditations has a very different purpose. He says in passing, in the First Meditation, that he wants to make an advancement to “the sciences”. But that term had a very different meaning for him, than it does for us some 400 years later. Many writers and commentators excuse Descartes’ religiosity in his writings as a necessary self-defense in an era in which Galileo faced extreme danger for his confrontations with the church. But this does not correspond with the biography of Descartes the man, as I understand him. For all his skepticism, Descartes was fundamentally committed to his belief in God. And this was an explicit goal of the Meditations: “God’s existence and the distinction between the human soul and the body are demonstrated”. Nothing I’ve read so far, gives me any cause to believe this goal was disingenuously bolted on to the work, to appease ecclesiastical tyrants.

The Meditations is replete with black-and-white dichotomies, and impossible situations. The insistence on absolute certainty itself is a perfect example of that. This sort of thinking raises my own skeptical alarm bells. It typically arises out of two situations: (1) there is a problem with the language used in the argument, or some terms are not well understood, or (2) the author is determined to arrive at a preconceived conclusion, at all costs. As I have shown, Descartes clearly suffers from both Maladies. He needs knowledge to begin with something fundamentally separate from common experience, and yet fundamentally personal, in order to get to his God. To do this, he needs a standard of knowledge that divorces him from reality, and from authority. This is what motivated Descartes to put the ego (and the cogito) at center stage. Because without it, his argument is empty, and — at least for him — there is no reality.

Naturalism vs Teleology

Aristotle’s argument in Physics II 8 can be summarized as follows:
1. Dogs typically develop teeth good for biting and chewing.
2. A typical result is not a coincidence.
3. So it’s not a coincidence that dogs develop teeth good for biting and chewing.
4. If the development is not coincidental, it must be “for something”.
5. So the dog’s development is “for something”. (that is, it is goal-directed)
What do you think of this argument? Has Aristotle convinced you that natural processes like animal and plant growth are goal directed?

The problem with this argument lies in premise 4. Aristotle’s use of “for something”, implies some conscious agent that has intended the thing to be the case. You make this implication clear yourself, by calling the development “goal directed”.

Aristotle understood that an acorn is not an oak tree, and so would have understood that an embryo is not a dog. The embryo has no need of teeth. So, Aristotle is arguing that the unformed dog is somehow capable of intending its own form. But the dog doesn’t exist yet. So how can this be?

Today, we understand that embryology and fetal development is a product of evolution, and that a dog’s teeth is the mere expression of it’s genetic instructions. Which has no “purpose”, as such. It’s not “for” anything. It’s simply the brute fact of being a feature that makes survival and reproduction more likely. But, I suspect that Aristotle or his interlocutors would probably have invented a “prime intender” from this problem, had they realized it. Or, as the modern superstitious would put it, a “designer”.

I always struggle with this point, and perhaps since you brought it in, you may help me out. You say that the results of development are a “mere expression of genetic instructions”, which have no purpose as such. In your words, it’s just “a feature that makes survival and reproduction more likely.” My question is: How is it that survival and reproduction are not seen here as the goals of evolution? (There’s no need to postulate an agent together with the goal, a “designer”, since as far as I can understand Aristotle doesn’t do it.)

We impose the goal on the facts. Molecules do what they do. The fact that the processes by which molecules operate has resulted in different arrangments of those molecules, is no more evidence of a “goal directed” process, than a rock falling down a hill is evidence that the rock has the “goal” of getting to the bottom of the hill.

Think of this in the same way that Hume criticized “causation”, only one layer of abstraction up from there.

One can legitimately argue with Hume, when he suggests that when we see two billiard balls bang together and roll off in different directions, we’re not really “seeing” cause-and-effect, we’re only seeing a matter-of-fact series of impressions that we ascribe some mythical cause-and-effect concept to.

However, even if we accept cause-and-effect as a real phenomenon, we’re going to have to do a lot more work to demonstrate how the two billiard balls had the “goal” of vectoring in different directions, when they struck each other.

If you suppose that there are two different “kinds” of physical things at the level of atoms and molecules (the level at which genetics really operates), some of which can “have goals”, and some of which cannot, then the burden is on you to demonstrate what they are, how the difference produces these “goals”, and why they exist.

Getting A Handle On The Truth

What is truth?” ~ Pontius Pilate

This is an interesting and surprisingly difficult question. If you look in the OED, what you’ll find there are entirely circular and self-referential explanations: “the quality or state of being true“, ” that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality“, and “a fact or belief that is accepted as true“.

So, the poor souls that rely on the dictionary are left with, essentially, “truth is what’s true”, and “what’s true is what we agree are the facts of reality.” But what if we’re wrong and we still agree? Or worse, what if we disagree, but one of us is right? This can’t be the last word on this topic. What can we say with any confidence about truth, as such? To put it in the words of Bertrand Russell:

“We may believe what is false as well as what is true. We know that on very many subjects different people hold different and incompatible opinions: hence some beliefs must be erroneous. Since erroneous beliefs are often held just as strongly as true beliefs, it becomes a difficult question how they are to be distinguished from true beliefs. How are we to know, in a given case, that our belief is not erroneous? This is a question of the very greatest difficulty, to which no completely satisfactory answer is possible. There is, however, a preliminary question which is rather less difficult, and that is: What do we mean by truth and falsehood?” — The Problems of Philosophy (p. 77)

Thinking on the question a bit, I realized I’m not quite sure what I mean. So, I decided to take a brief look at what what philosophy has had to say on the subject over the centuries, to see if I might find something I’m willing to accede to, at least in the short term.

As Russell is careful to point out in the book I just referenced, any real understanding of truth must start first with understanding what knowledge is. But even this is tricky. I wanted to simply stipulate to the classical definition, in order to shorten this post. But what we find in the traditional definition of knowledge, is yet another circular reference: knowledge is Justified True Belief. In other words, that which is known is that which satisfies all of the following three conditions:

  1. It is believed
  2. That belief is justified
  3. That belief is true

For the sake of brevity, I’ll let the Stanford encyclopedia explain these three conditions in detail, and I’ll set aside common objections to this formulation of knowledge for a later post. Nevertheless, in spite of Stanford’s assertion that “the truth condition is largely uncontroversial“, I think the fact that truth is present in the definition of knowledge is a serious problem for philosophy because it makes the two terms fundamentally dependent upon each other: truth is that which is known is that which is the truth.

As such, I find it hard to blame the dictionary for its circularity when it relies for its definitions on an academic discipline that can’t seem to provide a clear answer to this question. What’s more, I think it’s a little disingenuous for “serious” philosophers to scoff at Ayn Rand for her insistence on unjustified “axioms” like “Existence Exists“, or to laugh at Christians who, facing no real alternative, rely on Jesus’ pronouncement that actually it is he personally who is “…the way, the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6).

To be completely clear, my aim here is not to argue that there is no such thing as truth, or that we cannot know things or cannot justifiably claim to know the truth — or worse, that we should just throw our hands up and simply declare it to be whatever we want it to be. To do so, I’d have to employ the very tools of thought that I’d be condemning. All I am suggesting is that maybe we’re not as sure as we think we are, and that maybe we need to rethink some of these fundamental questions.

What Everyone Else Thinks

As one might expect, given what I have stated above, there are actually numerous philosophical theories of truth. The most popular among them, the “correspondence theory“, offers the greatest appeal to common sense. This theory is probably where the OED gets it’s turn of phrase “in accordance with fact or reality”. The theory states that “a proposition is true provided there exists a fact corresponding to it.” But what does “correspondence” mean? And what, exactly, are facts? Russell makes a lot of hay on this second question, in his own conception of correspondence. In short, this definition “works”, but it’s not entirely satisfying (as Russell notes in the above quote).

Some argue for something called “coherence“, in which each new statement is compared to a complete set of beliefs, and rejected if it does not “fit” within that collection. This theory seems to fail on two grounds: first, that it is not necessary for the collection of beliefs to have any relation to reality, and secondly, as Russell again points out, because of the first problem, there can be many equally “coherent” belief systems existing side by side. How do we know which one to choose? The problems point to a third problem, that I think also plagues the pragmatist, constructivist, and consensus theories of truth. Namely, that they all elevate mere belief to the ontological status of a fact, by virtue of some ex post facto rationale. What’s more, this equivocation seems to go unnoticed (or worse, dishonestly ignored) by the theories’ adherents.

What I think

I find Kant’s idea of the conjunction between the noumenal and phenomenal world somewhat compelling. Although, probably not for reasons Kant would approve. Science shows us that there is a reality that is outside the reach of the senses. Perhaps truth, then, is the extent to which we can apprehend these non-phenomenal parts of reality, and reconcile them with the phenomenal parts. Already, science has provided us with all sorts of tools for doing this (telescopes, microscopes, sensors, meters, etc.). If this is true (somewhat ironically), then the way to the truth is through scientific inquiry. This is certainly a different route to truth via science than the pragmatists propose, but I think the destination may be the same.

On the other hand, although I don’t quite understand his theory, Alfred Tarsky‘s emphasis on semantics got me to wondering.

I have heard truth described by some as a relationship between physical reality and conscious awareness. This is not quite the same thing as correspondence, because the focus here is not on the objects in the relation, but the relation itself. It’s an interesting idea, but I think this isn’t quite complete. Because, if conscious awareness of reality is all that is necessary for a “truth” relation, then beavers and ants and birds would be capable of apprehending the truth. Clearly, then, it must something more.

That difference is language. Truth is as much a semantic concept, as it is a metaphysical one. Like knowledge, the definition of truth is concerned with the objects of mind and reality, and primarily with the nature of the relationship between them. But what is it about the nature of this relation, that makes it truth? I think it is the meaning we assign to that relationship, and the value discovered in the contents of that relationship.

In short, truth is a kind of semantic value judgment of the perception of reality as it is apprehended, by a mind capable of apprehending and valuing. But what does this mean, in practice? Is this just another way of formulating correspondence? Not quite. Is it the same as claiming that the truth is whatever we want it to be? Not quite. Is it pragmatism in another suit of clothes? I don’t think so.

But I’m struggling to find the words necessary to develop the idea any further. And perhaps that’s a clue to the problem with all of these theories. Maybe the problem lies precisely with the fact that our language is woefully lacking, when it comes to the task of describing these sorts of relationships. This is why I am beginning to wonder if we don’t need a new language, or a new way of thinking, or of describing our thoughts, before we can properly answer this question.

Philosophy: An Obituary

Last night, I watched a debate between a journalist, a sociologist, and a scientist over whether or not philosophy is “dead” (as Stephen Hawking put it). Lewis Wolpert completely wiped the floor with the non-philosophers pitted against him. And sadly, he was also mostly correct. Philosophy has not done itself proud of late, and the fact that this panel didn’t actually include any philosophers to stand in its defense, is evidence that it is struggling, if not dead.

Wolpert is absolutely right. Science, as a practice, is indeed nothing more than a means by which we can gradually make more and more confident predictions about the actual behaviour of reality. And this pursuit is purely ethics free. But rather than this point suggesting the death of philosophy, instead it actually begs its continued existence. Where did the hard sciences come from, after all? Philosophy. Biology from Natural Philosophy. Astronomy and Physics from Existential Philosophy (not Sartre’s Existentialism). Psychology and Neurology from Philosophy of the Mind. And so on. What’s more, today, there is still no “science” of ethics, despite the efforts of celebrities like Sam Harris to argue otherwise.

I love science. It has given us so many fantastic metaphors. Saying that philosophy is dead because it is only capable of inventing sciences but never of being one, is like saying that nebular nurseries are ‘dead’ because they only create stars, but can never become one. It’s confusing the pursuit for it’s products. This is why Wolpert is partly wrong.

And there is so much more to do. Far from being settled questions, ethics and politics remain the responsibility of philosophers. A responsibility that has largely gone untended since Nietzsche. Fuller and Derbyshire danced around this very point in this debate. But neither seemed to grasp the implications consciously. Instead, they turned into flailing defensive children, when they got close to this realisation. Which is, I guess, what one would expect from people who have done more to destroy their own profession, than any scientist ever has.

Instead of honestly taking up the yoke of solving the riddle of a coherent secular ethic, philosophers busy themselves by denying that any such thing as normative truth is even possible, while simultaneously glad-handing on stage with anachronisms like theist apologists.

But Hawking is only half right. Philosophy as a profession is not dead, yet. Its vital signs are very weak. Now, as a society, we could put a pillow over its face and put it out of its misery. Or, we could remember the first line of our oath as doctors of men, and “first, do no harm”.