November 11, 2017

I recently gave a talk on personhood to the University of the Third Age at one of my local schools. My talk was the first one of a day that was designed to look at what it means to be a human. After my piece, an evolutionary behavioural scientist gave a talk on animal behaviour in comparison to human behaviour to look at what it means to be human from a behavioural point of view. After that, there was a breakout session with the children from the school that was hosting the event and this was really interesting because those children, probably about thirteen and fourteen, had so much to add to the conversation. They were really engaged with what we were talking about and how it might affect moral decisions in the future with robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as looking at ideas of abortion, evolution, species and whatnot; and it was a pleasure to see the engagement of people at both ends of the developmental spectrum. It’s interesting to have them interacting so much with thought experiments involving burning abortion clinics and blastocysts and janitors. Nothing like challenging minds early!

Which one of these entities has personhood?
Which one of these entities have personhood?

Conceptual nominalism

The way I’m going to start this piece is by talking about one of my favourite subjects, the area of abstract ideas and nominalism. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I am a conceptual nominalist and this means that I deny the ontic reality of abstract ideas. Abstract ideas, such as morality, personhood, heroes, chairs (as ideas), redness and so on, only exist in the minds of the agents who conceive them. There is no realm “out there” where these abstract ideas exist.

My idea of what a hero is will be different from yours and any other person’s. When I look at the chair, I get a sense of chairness from it and have an understanding of the idea of a chair. However, a chair might feel like a bed to a cat, or to an alien it could be something entirely different, or to someone from the Amazon Rainforest, yet again something different. this is because there is no objective idea of what a chair is that our minds tpa into. It is not top down epistemology but bottom up mental construction. Definitions are usually functional so that a chair fulfills the idea of being a chair by fulfilling the function it provides to the people who are perceiving it.

What this means is that every single abstract idea is constructed by the conceiver. And, obviously, this includes personhood.


Let’s have a look at evolution and what is known as the species problem. Even Charles Darwin understood the nature of nominalism and how it affects how we categorise species and label them in the arena of evolutionary theory. The nature of evolution means that every single organism is part of a transitional journey from one point in time to another in terms of the properties of those organisms. What we do is we attach labels to categories along that continuum of time in an arbitrary fashion. It is like applying a digital idea to a spectrum. Let me remind you of my favourite picture:

evolution change

Arguably, at no single point along that journey of text from red to blue does the text stop being red and become blue. It’s fuzzy. We kind of intuit it. In a sense, there is no such thing as red and blue (outside of our minds, objectively). We invent these labels and attach them to a range of colours as we see fit. However, there will be disagreement as to what constitutes red and what constitutes blue. In Photoshop, for example, there are individual codes for every instantiation of colour.  The same could be applied to evolution. If we look at the evolution of man, we could apply an individual label for every single generation of organism throughout the whole continuum. Even that has problems because there will be numerous differentiated organisms that coexist contemporaneously.

tree life evolution

What we do is arbitrarily draw lines in time and say everything to the left of that line is this species and everything to the right of that line is that species. For example, we might draw a line in time and say that everything to left of that line is homo antecessor and everything to the right of that line is homo heidelbergensis. However, this does not mean that a homo antecessor male and female gave birth to a homo heidelbergensis at a particular point in time. Remember, everything is transitional. Evolution moves in very slow incremental changes.Evolution of Man

Because we create these arbitrary categories, we think that these categories really do exist outside of our minds. The layman will think that at some point in time, precisely, one species turns into another. However, this is a mischaracterisation of evolution based on the simplistic way that we categorise and chop up the continuous spectrum of change.

Human development

You can see that these categories and labels don’t really exist outside of our minds but we create them in order to simplify something that is otherwise complex and too unwieldy to use. This allows us to understand the field and manipulate the ideas to our own pragmatic ends. What you have seen above with evolution, can also be applied to human development.

Imagine the spectrum of human development from zygote to blastocyst, through foetus and baby, to child, adolescent, adult geriatric.

The simplified development of a human.
The simplified development of a human.

As you can see from the slide above, we have these labels, these arbitrary cut-offs, that segment and categorise human development, dividing it into nice, simple chunks.

They don’t exist objectively. We have constructed them to navigate our social and moral world. We apply digital cut-off points to a spectrum of continued development. In Britain, you reach (a form of) adulthood when you reach eighteen. But what happens at seventeen years, three hundred and sixty-four days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds? What does that one second do to that child? That adolescent even, on their eighteenth birthday? What properties do they now possess that allows them to qualify to vote that they did not possess the second before? Well, there is no discernible difference. We arbitrarily draw the line at eighteen years. Other countries do it as twelve, sixteen or twenty-one, depending on what adulthood might be defined as. In voting terms, we changed that in the UK, in Scotland, for the independence referendum.

These things are not set in stone.

And that’s just adulthood. You might ask, like personhood, what adulthood is and how it can be defined. Is it consensual sex? Ability to vote? Drive? Commit a crime?

Of course, different people will have different ideas.

Indeed, I know some seventeen-year-olds who are more adult and prepared and cognitively able to vote than many nineteen-year-olds. But we cannot treat adulthood on a case by case basis for pragmatic reasons (though you might imagine a test of sorts). We draw lines (in the UK at eighteen for voting) and declare that people must adhere to that for their definitions.

It hasn’t always been like that across time and geography.

What these labels require are properties to be attached to. Because there is no objective fact that a given label applies to a particular set of properties, we need to agree on what ones attach to which properties, and agree by consensus. When we agree, we write dictionaries and encyclopedias codifying that agreement. But these things change. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has adapted to the needs of scientists, and the word “literally” is now a contranym whose meanings also include metaphorically, the opposite to what it traditionally means. “He was literally on fire on the football pitch” has become such a common use of the word such that it can now, according to some dictionaries, be used to mean the opposite of itself.

Personhood is the same. It means whatever we agree it to mean. The problem is that so many philosophers, politicians and laypeople thoroughly disagree on what constitutes personhood. And that disagreement, as with any other term (including morality), reflects the lack of objective facticity.

Can we find agreement? Undoubtedly not, because it is wrapped up with so many other things such as abortion, euthanasia, the afterlife and other ideas that have such strong cultural, religious and contextual draw that means you cannot separate it from these other frameworks in which it is set. Thus to objectively (as in neutrally) assess its meaning is almost impossible for many people.

So now that we have established the problem with labelling things, considering the fact that there is arguably no right or wrong answer as to what personhood actually is, we will need to look at what the most reasonable definition for the word might be. What properties can most reasonably be assigned to personhood?

We’ll look at that in the next post.

Hopefully, you can see the value in setting out these arguments and points first before getting into the nitty gritty of personhood.


October 23, 2017

I recently posted about abstract objects and things that are called universals, writing about how I think the whole area is thoroughly problematic for metaphysics and thus theology. I won’t go through it all again – you can read more here – but I will redefine universals. There is a danger this post could be huge, so I have been necessarily succinct or frugal in wht I talk about. The reason for this post is that one commenter claimed I didn’t really deal much with Aristotelian realism, and that I concentrated on Platonic realism (true, but for good reason, as will hopefully become apparent).

Abstract objects are incredibly important aspects within the context of philosophy. They include all of the labels and categories of things (tokens). These types are abstract. So, for example, a chair is both the token (actual chair) and the type (an abstract labelling as such). This can include numbers, universal ideas like redness, ideas like courage and justice, and even individual humans, such as Jonathan Pearce.

Because of their very nature, in being abstract, they can cause headaches for physicalism (and naturalism) and causality. Ever since the Greek times, there has been the famous problem known as the Problem of Universals. This deals with the problem in defining what the properties of objects are, ontologically speaking (i.e., what existence they have). Universals are common (universal) properties contained by more than one object. Two cars and a ball being red – what is redness? How can these different objects have an identical property and is that property real or in the mind of the conceiver, or indeed, contained within speech? Are these abstract objects and universals causally potent? Can redness take a position in a causal chain or relationship?

Let’s look to see how Aristotelian Realism differs from Platonic realism.

Platonism Realism

Realists claim that these abstracta are real – that they exist in some tangible way. Plato, from whom the term came, believed that universals, like redness, existed separately from the particular objects (particulars) which contained said property. Platonic realism states that such entities exist independently from the particular, as opposed to Aristotelian realism states that the universals are real but dependent on the particulars.

Some arguments propose that, in order to have truth value in statements, universals must exist, such that “This apple is red” implies that the universal of redness exists in another realm for the proposition to be truthful.

One fundamental issue for such theories is: where is the locus of these universals? Where can they be found and what is their ontology?

Aristotelian Realism

The problem of universals existing in some other realm is seemingly solved by an Aristotelian approach whereby universals exist when they are instantiated in individual particulars. Universals exist in things, or in re. Each green thing has a copy of the property of greenness.

There is a kind of prototypical empiricism in Aristotle’s viewpoint in that it is investigating things that we discern knowledge of the world – we acquire knowledge through sensation, and by tapping into, say, the treeness of a tree to find out about trees and treeness. Unless there is instantation, there is no universal (form).

As Martin Tweedale says in “Aristotle’s Realism” of Aristotle:

He was, rather, a realist, but of a very tenuous sort…. he viewed universals as real entities but lacking numerical oneness; each is numerically many, and yet each is also one in some sense. The specific identity of numerically distinct particulars creates something like a class, and this is the universal.

“In some sense” is key here. Personally, I see Aristotelian realism (AR) as a fudge. To me, this is just an attempt to make certain properties ontologically real. That manness is instantiated in a man and thus manness is a “real” concept does little for me. In my opinion, this is just saying that person X has A, B and C qualities and that we have agreed that A, B and C are properties that, when seen together, constitute a “man” and thus “manness”.

However, we know that gender is being called into question and, as such, we can see this concept is a human conceptual construction. After all, we see male seahorses giving birth, and gender and sex being two differing concepts, and so on. When we agree on such terms, we codify this in dictionaries (very roughly) and encyclopedias (more deeply) as to what properties together constitute a given label.

But these are open to change. We have hangovers from history and society in receiving certain labels-to-properties relations, but these are not magicked into some reality when we commit them to thought or paper. They can be argued and changed. The properties themselves don’t change (though our scientific methods give us more details on them, and our understanding of them changes with new knowledge). The fundamental properties remain what they are, and we use language to essentially invent descriptions thereof.

Edward Feser states, in The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism:

Like Plato, Aristotle is a realist in the sense we’ve been discussing. But he thinks Plato needs to be brought down to earth a bit. For Aristotle, universals or forms are real, and they are not reducible to anything either material or mental. Still, he thinks it is an error to regard them as objects existing in a “third realm” of their own. Rather, considered as they are in themselves they exist only “in” the things of which they are the forms; and considered as abstractions from these things, they exist only in the intellect. [p.30]

And later:

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our mind when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. [p.124]

I think Feser is trying to have his cake and eat it. Damned cake-eater!


The problems with AR, as I see them, and I have hinted at some above, are as follows.

1) These instantiations are only accessible through human sensation and are subjectively interpreted. In Aristotle’s time, the universal of a solar system would have been described really very differently to today’s description of one. I struggle to see how such a theory can escape subjectivism.

2) Given the massive range of, say, colour (or anything that sits on a spectrum), the only sensible way of interpreting all the instantiation is that there isn’t blueness, but only individual instantiations of any given colour. Let me remind you of this:

evolution change

What humans do is arbitrarily assign a label to things. Above, there is blue or red. Or blue, purple and red. Or blue, purple, lilac, pink, puce, scarlet and red. And so on until we get to the level of labelling for any given instantiation. This is essentially what Photoshop does – it gives a code for every single colour. Now, you could perhaps argue for an AR account of each of them (assuming that you can’t go further down, to a more granular level) but what does this then say of the simple labels of blue and red? Do they disappear when they are found to be sub-optimal? When there appear to be no real demarcations? What of the “edgeness of redness”?

Aristotle did make a distinction between colour and, say, the label of “Socrates”. Socrates is a substance that exists in and of itself, whereas he saw colour as being an accident, a sort of modification to the substance (this could include weight or motion, for example). Substances always have accidents, but they are not essential to the substance. To me, however, this distinction still reflects the concept of labelling. Accidents are labels of properties which are assigned collectively to substances by labelling. Wetness emerges as a label to reflect the properties of multiple H2O molecules. This, in modern philosophical speak, is seen in terms of essenceproperty and contingency. Arguments abound as to whether there are, indeed, any essential properties (Anti-Essentialism) or whether all properties are necessary (Modal Necessitarianism).

I don’t think that this distinction particularly helps the Aristotelian get around the issues of the realism of these labels. The accidental properties of substances are still universals that are, at base, abstract.

And yes, humans understand these labels, but they are terribly fuzzy.

We understand what “adult” means, but this differs widely from culture to culture, and can be assigned from twelve to twenty-one, for example.

Fuzzy logic of boundaries play merry havoc with a clear understanding of AR.

3) What Feser above seems to hint at is the similarity between the instantiation and the sensation in the mind of the conceiver of the instantiation. But these are not identical. These are mental interpretations of properties. And we get these wrong, or disagree on them. In the species problem, you have palaeontologists disagreeing about which species a hominid fossil should belong to because it has properties of two hominids. The fossil, being transitional (as they all are) happens to sit right “between” the two species (itself a problematic ideal). As such, it is both. Or neither. And so humans actually disagree on the form or instantiation of the fossil. As Richard Dawkins said of this in The Greatest Show on Earth: “Once again we see how fickle and transitory our names are…. these three fossils have been variously called, by different authorities at different times”. Indeed, as states:

Homo habilis is a very complicated species to describe. No two researchers attribute all the same specimens as habilis, and few can agree on what traits define habilis, if it is a valid species at all, and even whether or not it belongs in the genus Homo or Australopithecus. Hopefully, future discoveries and future cladistic analyses of the specimens involved may clear up these issues, or at least better define what belongs in the species.

The reason this is, is because both species (in my first example) don’t exist in an ontic sense. There is a constant transition to which we apply two labels somewhat arbitrarily. As with the colours, we could have applied fifty, a hundred, or, indeed, none.

And the same can go for “dog”. So “dogness” doesn’t have ontic existence because the very label of dog is conceptually constructed to apply to certain animals on a biological and evolutionary spectrum. But not wolves. Perhaps.

Answering Criticisms

When I last posted about this and said:

Properties of particular objects can account for eventual similarity between objects (such as the green of grass and the green of a painted wall). Universals do not exist.

…Jayman (a Christian commenter) said:

This sounds incoherent. You want to say the greenness of the grass and the greenness of the painted wall are particulars but experience shows that greenness transcends either item. How can greenness be both particular and transcendent?

What appears to be happening is that AR proponents are looking at the correspondence of our thoughts to properties and seeing that as evidence of a realist sort of form rather than qualia, or sensations, of given properties. When our human sensations are similar to others’ (as they should be, with similar language, brains and social contexts), we see sameness, and apply labels. But if some of these differ (say, social context), then the labels and interpretations of the properties can differ. I might think a twelve-year-old is a child who should be treated morally appropriately and with whom adults should not be allowed to have sex. Someone else may have a completely different experience, thinking they qualify as an adult and sexual partner.

These are difference experiences of the same properties, both giving out different “forms” or “types”. For one person, there is an “adultness” of the twelve-year-old and their forty-year-old self, and for the other person there is not an adultness instantiated in both, but separate forms of human developmentalness: childness and adultness. And yet the properties in both cases are the same (indeed, the instantiation is one individual).

Who is right?

In some sense, under conceptualism, neither. Because these are subjective experiential labels. We have to try to agree on as much as we can, using logic and reasoning, and come by some moral rules that lead to legal codification.

This appears clearly what actually happens in the world. AR doesn’t seem to account for this, for what actually happens, whereas conceptualism does.

Jayman went on to say:

The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

The relation is itself a conceptual construction. Relations, seen as ontologically real things (as they would be under both types of realisms here) suffer from something called Bradley’s Regress:

Suppose that the individual a has the property F. For a to instantiate F it must be linked to F by a (dyadic) relation of instantiation, I1. But this requires a further (triadic) relation of instantiation, I2, that connects I1and a, and so on without end. At each stage a further connecting relation is required, and thus it seems that nothing ever gets connected to anything else.

Conceptualism is a form of eliminativism here, with regard to this problem. There is only a relation when we think of one.

Jayman continues (with my comments in italics):

We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter/energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of “rock” or “chair”, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism.

Platonic realism is not the only kind of realism. Furthermore, an arrangement of matter-energy just is a part of a chair’s formal cause. Even when trying to deny realism you aren’t able to do it coherently.

What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some form or other before the “chair” came to be. So the matter or energy did not “begin to exist”. This merely leaves the label of “chair”.

You are correct that the material cause of the chair pre-exists the chair. But you are incorrect in concluding that we are merely left with the label of the chair because you ignore the formal cause of the chair. You also admit that the molecules and atoms already existed in some form before taking on the form of a chair.

I could list some more quotes, but the point is the same. Jayman, and other Christian thinkers, really do favour Aristotelian accounts of causality (material, formal, efficient and final causes). Causality is a difficult concept over which people disagree. Aha! Look, you see, this is another concept over which there are fuzzy boundaries. It’s another case of conceptualism, in my mind. Just because Aristotle thought up four types of causes, it doesn’t mean these hold as objectively codifying causality!

I don’t want to get into critiquing the four causes here, but since the final cause is essentially “purpose”, you could imagine where I would start. That’s not to say purpose isn’t a valid idea, but I would not call it a cause. A tree stump doesn’t have an intrinsic purpose, but I could use it functionally as a table or a chair, and a cat could purpose it as a bed. That doesn’t mean it is objectively all these things now. It simply means that some entities have used it as those things and says little about its cause in the manner I would entertain “cause”.


So, on your view, science is just as unreal as God and objective morality?

Science is about investigating and understanding the world using language that describes reality functionally for us. We attempt to understand phenomena in the most accurate way possible (approaching corresponding to or reflecting their actual properties), and the scientific method self-corrects, often utilising forms of pragmatism to do so.

Our minds are about constructing maps of reality.

What Jayman and others do is confuse the map with the terrain. As Kant knew, we can never access the terrain-in-itself. The best we can do is approximate it as accurately as we can so that it is as pragmatically useful to us in flourishing as possible.



I don’t really see how AR gets you to realist accounts of morality and other theological labels. These still all appear to be conceptual constructions and we will continue to argue over them for many years to come.


Edward Feser, The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008)

March 31, 2017

Having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions meant. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

This is the ninth post, after

#1 – a priori

#2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

#3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

#4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

#5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

#6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

#7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

#8 – Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #8: Belief in God: theism or atheism?

#9 – Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #9: Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?

The question for this post is: Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism? Here are the results:

Other 346 / 931 (37.2%)
Accept or lean toward: empiricism 326 / 931 (35.0%)
Accept or lean toward: rationalism 259 / 931 (27.8%)

First thing to note is a fairly even split, with “Other” featuring prominently, though with empiricism having the edge over rationalism by some 10%.

The other thing to notice is that the last question featured the term “knowledge claims” whereas this one just talks about “knowledge”.

I see this as talking about systems we use to gain further knowledge, as well as propositional knowledge, and we are not a million miles away from a previous topic of “a priori” – can we have knowledge a priori, or before the fact (from the earlier) – in other words, before we use our senses to check out empirically what is going on?

In some sense, this is a simple rephrasing of that debate.


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that rationalists adopt at least one of three statements:

The Intuition/Deduction Thesis: Some propositions in a particular subject area, S, are knowable by us by intuition alone; still others are knowable by being deduced from intuited propositions.

The Innate Knowledge Thesis: We have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

The Innate Concept Thesis: We have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

We either know things to be true intuitively, or as part of being rational agents, or the empirical may trigger concepts already embedded within our nature. Of course, one weakness here is in establishing what intuition actually is.

Whilst other ideas and theses are closely connected to rationalism, or are often associated with it, I will keep it simple by only involving the above three.

One question that is often touted about such rationalism is the epistemic warrant: if someone uses intuition about a certain proposition, then it can be seen as lacking reason, and is thus potentially less justifiable, lacking in being warranted. How does an intuitive claim become a warranted claim?


For the empiricist, the following must be true in some way:

The Empiricism Thesis: We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience.

The source of knowledge for us is claimed to be a posteriori (from the latter) in its entirety, at source. Things may become intuitive, and even lacking reason, but they are as a result of us using our senses over time to formulate our propositional knowledge, and our systems that we use to navigate through the world. As the SEP continues:

Empiricism about a particular subject rejects the corresponding version of the Intuition/Deduction thesis and Innate Knowledge thesis. Insofar as we have knowledge in the subject, our knowledge is a posteriori, dependent upon sense experience. Empiricists also deny the implication of the corresponding Innate Concept thesis that we have innate ideas in the subject area. Sense experience is our only source of ideas. They reject the corresponding version of the Superiority of Reason thesis. Since reason alone does not give us any knowledge, it certainly does not give us superior knowledge. Empiricists generally reject the Indispensability of Reason thesis, though they need not. The Empiricism thesis does not entail that we have empirical knowledge. It entails that knowledge can only be gained, if at all, by experience. Empiricists may assert, as some do for some subjects, that the rationalists are correct to claim that experience cannot give us knowledge. The conclusion they draw from this rationalist lesson is that we do not know at all.

The Debate

The simple fact is that, and I assume this is why there is a large “Other”, many philosophers actually advocate for both, and others are skeptics, such that knowledge is not possible, or do not claim that it is possible. For example, on the former point, you could be rationalist about maths and mathematical claims, but empiricist about physical sciences. When, however, the domain being analysed has a crossover of empiricism and rationalism, we might have more of a problem. This can present problems when defining historical philosophers as entirely rationalist or empiricist, where a more nuanced approach is advised.

Nonetheless, an important debate properly described as ‘Rationalism vs. Empiricism’ is joined whenever the claims for each view are formulated to cover the same subject. What is perhaps the most interesting form of the debate occurs when we take the relevant subject to be truths about the external world, the world beyond our own minds. A full-fledged rationalist with regard to our knowledge of the external world holds that some external world truths can and must be known a priori, that some of the ideas required for that knowledge are and must be innate, and that this knowledge is superior to any that experience could ever provide. The full-fledged empiricist about our knowledge of the external world replies that, when it comes to the nature of the world beyond our own minds, experience is our sole source of information. Reason might inform us of the relations among our ideas, but those ideas themselves can only be gained, and any truths about the external reality they represent can only be known, on the basis of sense experience. This debate concerning our knowledge of the external world will generally be our main focus in what follows.

A thought experiment that I always find useful is imagining a disembodied mind at birth, if you will. Can you see that mind ever taking in more knowledge without any sensory input whatsoever? Can it access rational or non-empirical knowledge without recourse to any senses at all? And are rational sources of knowledge actually found within neural networks?

As a naturalist, and this is a pretty important point, I believe that the mind is supervenient on the physical matter of my brain and body. So at this source level, with the mind being at worst reflective of the physical brain, but certainly dependent on it, we have an issue for rationalism. Intuitive feelings or claims are still resultant from neurons firing and physical substrates and interactions within the body and brain. How does this affect the debate? If rationalism is the result of biological evolution and neural networks, what does this say about rationalism? Does it, in some manner, now become a sort of empiricism, or just because the innateness is sourced in biological systems, can we not still define something as rationalist?

AJ Ayers said of rationalism:

There can be no a priori knowledge of reality. For … the truths of pure reason, the propositions which we know to be valid independently of all experience, are so only in virtue of their lack of factual content … [By contrast] empirical propositions are one and all hypotheses which may be confirmed or discredited in actual sense experience. [Ayer 1952, pp. 86; 93–94]

As mentioned earlier, what is intuition? How can it support a warranted belief? “Grasping” or “seeing” things is simply not good enough, arguably, in establishing epistemic warrant, and some will also claim (see David Eagleman’s Incognito for some interesting examples of intuition) that these intuitions are often actually previously embedded, nonconsciously experienced, phenomena. Knowledge, according to pragmatists, is only knowledge when it is reliable, and how can you test intuition without recourse to the external world in validating its reliability? As the SEP continues:

What accounts for the reliability of our intuitions regarding the external world? Is our intuition of a particular true proposition the outcome of some causal interaction between ourselves and some aspect of the world? What aspect? What is the nature of this causal interaction? That the number three is prime does not appear to cause anything, let alone our intuition that it is prime.

It is true that we can never be certain about the external world. We could be living in The Matrix – there is always some non-zero element of doubt in any proposition. In a sense, that is the nature of empiricism: probabilities. But all reasoning is grounded using the Munchausen Trilemma, either in:

  • infinite regress
  • circular reasoning
  • an axiom

And, some might say, the soundest of the three is the axiom, as self-evident truth (though some don’t have a problem with circularity in principle). If you can’t give derivative reasons as to why something is true (i.e., that I am not in The Matrix), and can’t rely on empirical data, then where does this leave us? Perhaps we have to admit that there is no justifiable reason as to why we are not in The Matrix. However, this might be a neutral claim, since you could say that there is no justifiable reason as to why we are.

Certainly, self-evident truths are something that okay into rationalist hands. Merely just understanding what such a claim says is enough for us to think it is true.

The idea that we have innate knowledge is, to me, problematic, given the disembodied mind hypothesis above. Knowledge flows out incrementally from brain development that goes hand in hand with knowledge acquisition. We learn. We are always learning, and this learning is done through taking things in from the outside world into our senses.

Language us interesting as it appears to rest in some sense on grammar and syntax, which can be seen as a sort of logic. Is logic innate? Is the Law of Non-Contradiction something that is rationally in-built? Or does it come from making sense of data? If I see something is blue, then it is blue and not red. My senses lead me to understand that it cannot be both. But is that understanding innate? But we surely need to be able to test the law against real, observed examples. So at best for the rationalist, the law is empirically warranted.

The SEP says of Noam Chomsky, famous scholar of language (and many other things):

It is important to note that Chomsky’s language learners do not know particular propositions describing a universal grammar. They have a set of innate capacities or dispositions which enable and determine their language development. Chomsky gives us a theory of innate learning capacities or structures rather than a theory of innate knowledge. His view does not support the Innate Knowledge thesis as rationalists have traditionally understood it. As one commentator puts it, “Chomsky’s principles … are innate neither in the sense that we are explicitly aware of them, nor in the sense that we have a disposition to recognize their truth as obvious under appropriate circumstances. And hence it is by no means clear that Chomsky is correct in seeing his theory as following the traditional rationalist account of the acquisition of knowledge” (Cottingham 1984, p. 124).

Establishing warrant for any kind of innate knowledge is very difficult, and usually defers, again, to some sort of reliabilism, which is very difficult to establish without recourse to taking in empirical data. So even if you have a piece of innate knowledge, to make it warranted and to test its reliability, you need empiricism.

Of course, metaphysics is arguably the bedrock of rationalist thought.

But taking something like morality, would I have a coherent idea of morality if I had never seen other agents be kind or unkind? If I had never experienced morality, and empathised with others, would I ever have had access to moral knowledge? I think not.

When we see causation at play, we are using inference from all the other instances of causation that have taken place and experienced in our lives. We then apply these experiences to the new event. We might appear to be being intuitive, but our senses have been sifting through billions of pieces of data since our births.

Does a blind person have a concept of redness? Of chairness? imagine a blind person had no sense of feeling, would they have innate knowledge of the things around them? We get back to a version of the disembodied mind.

Maths can create much debate, too. 2 + 2 = 4 is arguably innate. But, the empiricist might say, you first learnt this from seeing multiple objects and counting them. True, but this is the source of learning the maths, not the source of the truth. And this can be applied to many of the previous claims concerning the brain.

We could derail here to get on to abstract objects and mathematical Platonism. Maths is, to me anyway, a descriptive language of reality, not reality. There is no ontic reality to the abstract maths we do, which we do to better understand the world out there.

How this might pertain to God

Rationalists like Descartes have used pure reason and rationalist approaches to argue for the existence of God. Descartes started by stripping back knowledge to the indubitable – knowing that the thinking entity exists. But is even that a result of sensation, in some manner? If the mind supervenes, depends upon, the physical, what does it say about that kind of Cartesian conclusion? Descartes had a fundamentally faulty understanding of physiology and the brain, let alone what the mind might be.

Descartes believed that we had an innate concept of God, as the SEP elucidates:

Consider Descartes’s argument that our concept of God, as an infinitely perfect being, is innate. Our concept of God is not directly gained in experience, as particular tastes, sensations and mental images might be. Its content is beyond what we could ever construct by applying available mental operations to what experience directly provides. From experience, we can gain the concept of a being with finite amounts of various perfections, one, for example, that is finitely knowledgeable, powerful and good. We cannot however move from these empirical concepts to the concept of a being of infinite perfection. (“I must not think that, just as my conceptions of rest and darkness are arrived at by negating movement and light, so my perception of the infinite is arrived at not by means of a true idea but by merely negating the finite,” Third Meditation, p. 94.) Descartes supplements this argument by another. Not only is the content of our concept of God beyond what experience can provide, the concept is a prerequisite for our employment of the concept of finite perfection gained from experience. (“My perception of the infinite, that is God, is in some way prior to my perception of the finite, that is myself. For how could I understand that I doubted or desired—that is lacked something—and that I was not wholly perfect, unless there were in me some idea of a more perfect being which enabled me to recognize my own defects by comparison,” Third Meditation, p. 94).

The problem here being that our concept of God can be seen in terms of human psychology, and is built up out of other concepts. In more pagan and polytheistic religions, they are human or animalistic, and have flawed personal attributes. In Judeo-Christian monotheism, God still looked like just a very powerful man. Patternicity, our desire to live forever and cope with death, the justification for our moral proclamations: all of these sorts of things are why God was invented. I do not think God as an innate concept is remotely defensible given that it seems derived from aspects of the world around us.

Here’s another thing. My twin six-year-old boys have no concept of God. I have not taught it to them. I have, on occasion due to mention in a film, sort of explained deities, but they appear to have no innate concept of God. Empirically from my own experience of my boys, this claim of innateness does not hold. Now, society is geared up towards thoughts and concepts of deities, and they will no doubt interact with these in due course. The prevalence of belief and religion is more about the psychological function that such beliefs provide.


Well, tough one. I think, for me at any rate, it doesn’t really matter. Yes, rationalism might hold for certain interpretations of maths, and perhaps for logic. But without empiricism, it’s all useless. I prefer a pragmatic and reliabilist approach in that justification needs sensory data and empiricism; and to show something as reliably and usefully true, you need to test it on the outside world. I think, therefore I am. This may be the bedrock of epistemological claims, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere else useful.

January 26, 2017

You hear this often, indeed on a recent thread, that abortion is the murder or death of innocent human life.

However, I *am* aware of laws against destroying innocent human life.

This prompts obvious questions about what human life entails and what innocent can mean. Let’s tackle innocent really rather succinctly. As one commenter stated:

Is it capable of being guilty?

At the pertinent time, it is neither innocent, nor guilty. It might have some potential to be both, by considering future hypotheticals, but at the time in question it cannot be innocent and it cannot be guilty. Just like it cannot be a Democrat or a Christian or good-looking or sensible.

That was easy.

As for it being human life, here are those sticky semantic arguments, that, as commenter Geoff Benson will know, will get me invoking the Sorties Paradox and conceptual nominalism again (the notion that abstract ideas don’t “exist” other than inside our minds).

Human and human life are terms whose definitions are whatever we agree them to be. They have no ontic reality, and exist as labels applied to properties, all of which is done in our minds.

I don’t look at an egg in my fridge and say “Oh look, that’s a chicken.” I say it is a chicken egg (or indeed, “chicken’s egg”). In this way, and embryo is not a human (being or life), it is a human embryo or blastocyst. Or, the embryo of a homo sapiens sapiens, as agreed by consensus. ven then, there is no ontic reality to species labels, as I have expressed elsewhere.

This is the problem with language. We forget it is a conceptual construction to describe the world. It is the pen that draws our map of reality, but it is not the terrain of reality itself. And sometimes, it fails to do or be what we want it to do or be.

The labels “human being” and “personhood” are hotly contested as to what properties of existence can be applied to them. At some unspecified and potentially unspecifiable point (such that we may perpetually disagree) an embryo turns into a baby and a baby takes on properties of being a human being, and of being a person. Because there is no clearly definable point at which this happens, we humans have conceptual meltdowns. We don’t like fuzzy logic and murky boundaries. They cause arguments. The abortion debate is a result of this. We look at a fully grown and functioning human, and project those properties and rights 9themseves conceptual edifices built on top of conceptual and shifting sands) onto every single developmental stage of that person/human/organism.

So “murdering unborn, innocent human lives violates the rights of the unborn” is a cluster grenade of exploding, and eventually disintegrating, conceptual ideas.


January 7, 2017

I am going to explain to you why species do not exist and in some sense there is no such thing as speciation in evolutionary biology. This will involve philosophy, sand dunes, voting, colours and fossils. Amongst other things.

The Sorites Paradox

My favourite philosophical thought experiment, if you can call it that, and as many of my readers might know of me, is the Sorites Paradox. It can be defined as follows:

The sorites paradox[1] (sometimes known as the paradox of the heap) is a paradox that arises from vaguepredicates.[2] A typical formulation involves a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Under the assumption that removing a single grain does not turn a heap into a non-heap, the paradox is to consider what happens when the process is repeated enough times: is a single remaining grain still a heap? If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?[3]

The paradox arises in this way:

The word “sorites” derives from the Greek word for heap.[4] The paradox is so named because of its original characterization, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus.[5] The paradox goes as follows: consider a heap of sand from which grains are individually removed. One might construct the argument, using premises, as follows:[3]

1000000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1)
A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2)

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grain) eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand.[6]). Read (1995) observes that “the argument is itself a heap, or sorites, of steps of modus ponens“:[7]

1000000 grains is a heap.
If 1000000 grains is a heap then 999999 grains is a heap.
So 999999 grains is a heap.
If 999999 grains is a heap then 999998 grains is a heap.
So 999998 grains is a heap.
If …
… So 1 grain is a heap.

This is crucial for my larger point.

What creationists claim

Creationists very often demand silly things like evidence that dogs give birth to non-dogs. Indeed, in a recent thread, a creationist stated these indicative remarks:

Lots of redheads coming out of Ireland isn’t evolution. Redheads coming (eventually) out of “Rhubarb”, now THAT’s evolution.


You’re the one who’s confused. Evolutionists claim “evolution” happens right before our eyes when bacteria “evolve” *RESISTANCE* to antibiotics. (I say NO evolution. The antibiotic-susceptible bacteria and the antibiotic- resistant bacteria are …
BOTH BACTERIA, one is no less a bacteria than the other.)

But the same scientists demur, I guess for political correctness, that the mutation that causes some human beings to have *RESISTANCE* to malaria (via the sickle cell mutation) is NOT evolution. You know, because they do NOT want to say those blacks with sickle-cell are NOT humans anymore. (And they’re right to not say that, but they’re right for the wrong reason.)


Well, if scientists think that evolution does *not* mean new species AND evolution does *not* mean common ancestry, then I guess I believe in evolution.

What you should be able to see here is that such a position demands of evolution clear speciation and particular points. A dog must give birth to a non-dog.

The problem is, this doesn’t happen and evolutionary scientists will be the first people to tell you this. If you are demanding this of evolution, and never get it, it is no wonder you deny evolution because it is nothing but a shoddy straw man of properly defined evolution.

Categorising stuff

We love to use categories. That’s a blue flower, that’s a red car, that’s an adult, that’s a child. It’s how we navigate reality in a practical sense – it provides our conceptual map. However, you shouldn’t confse the map with the terrain. Essentially (good word choice), we make up labels to represent a number of different properties. A cat has these properties, a dog these. Red has these properties, blue these. Often we agree on this labelling, but sometimes we don’t. What constitutes a hero? A chair? Is a tree stump a chair?

The problem occurs when we move between categories. It is at these times that we realise the simplicity of the categories shows weakness in the system.

You reach eighteen years of age. You are able to vote. You are now classed as an adult. You are allowed to buy alcoholic drinks (in the UK). But there is barely any discernible difference in you, as a person, physically and mentally, from 17 years, 364 days, 11 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds, and you 1 second later.

However, we decide to define that second change at midnight as differentiating the two yous and seeing you move from child (adolescent) to adult. These categories are arbitrary in where we exactly draw the line. Some countries choose sixteen, some younger, some older. These are conceptual constructs that allow us to navigate about a continuum of time. You can look at a five-year-old and the same person at twenty-eight and clearly see a difference. But that five-year-old and the same person one second later? There is no discernible difference.

And yet it is pragmatically useful for us to categorise, otherwise things like underage sex and drinking would take place with wild abandon, perhaps. Sixteen for the age of consent is, though, rather arbitrary. Why not five seconds later? Four days? Three and a half years?

Speciation is exactly the same. There is no real time where a population of organisms actually transforms into a new species. Because species is a human conceptual construct that does not exist objectively. We name things homo sapiens sapiens  but cannot define exactly where speciation occurred. In one sense, it does not occur. In another, if you look at vastly different places on the continuum, it does (at least in our minds).

This is a version of the Sorites Paradox.

As I have shared several times, this image sums it up with aplomb:

evolution change

Examples with recent human ancestry

We know this happens very clearly because there have been skulls found that have aspects and properties of what we think one (sub)species has, and other properties of another species. It is not different enough from either to be a new species, and thus it really is truly transitional. As all fossils are. The whole continuum of any branch is transitional right the way along. There are no category markers. As Dawkins states in The Greatest Show on Earth (but without images – it’s a long quote, but nails it):

Now for my next important point about allegedly missing links and the arbitrariness of names. Obviously, when Mrs Ples’s name was changed from Plesianthropus to Australopithecus, nothing changed in the real world at all. Presumably nobody would be tempted to think anything else. But consider a similar case where a fossil is re-examined and moved, for anatomical reasons, from one genus to another. Or where its generic status is disputed – and this very frequently happens – by rival anthropologists. It is, after all, essential to the logic of evolution that there must have existed individuals sitting exactly on the borderline between two genera, say Australopithecus and Homo. It is easy to look at Mrs Ples and a modern Homo sapiens skull and say, yes, there is no doubt these two skulls belong in different genera. If we assume, as almost every anthropologist today accepts, that all members of the genus Homo are descended from ancestors belonging to the genus we call Australopithecus, it necessarily follows that, somewhere along the chain of descent from one species to the other, there must have been at least one individual who sat exactly on the borderline. This is an important point, so let me stay with it a little longer.

Bearing in mind the shape of Mrs Ples’s skull as a representative of Australopithecus africanus 2.6 million years ago, have a look at the top skull opposite, called KNM ER 1813. Then look at the one underneath it, called KNM ER 1470. Both are dated at approximately 1.9 million years ago, and both are placed by most authorities in the genus Homo. Today, 1813 is classified as Homo habilis, but it wasn’t always. Until recently, 1470 was too, but there is now a move afoot to reclassify it as Homo rudolfensis. Once again, see how fickle and transitory our names are. But no matter: both have an apparently agreed foothold in the genus Homo. The obvious difference from Mrs Ples and her kind is that she had a more forward-protruding face and a smaller brain-case. In both respects, 1813 and 1470 seem more human, Mrs Ples more ‘ape-like’.

Now look at the skull below, called ‘Twiggy’. Twiggy is also normally classified nowadays as Homo habilis. But her forward-pointing muzzle has more of a suggestion of Mrs Ples about it than of 1470 or 1813. You will perhaps not be surprised to be told that Twiggy has been placed by some anthropologists in the genus Australopithecus and by other anthropologists in Homo. In fact, each of these three fossils has been, at various times, classified as Homo habilis and as Australopithecus habilis. As I have already noted, some authorities at some times have given 1470 a different specific name, changing habilis to rudolfensis. And, to cap it all, the specific name rudolfensis has been fastened to both generic names, Australopithecus and Homo. In summary, these three fossils have been variously called, by different authorities at different times, the following range of names:

KNM ER 1813: Australopithecus habilis, Homo habilis

KNM ER 1470: Australopithecus habilis, Homo habilis, Australopithecus rudolfensis, Homo rudolfensis

OH 24 (‘Twiggy’): Australopithecus habilis, Homo habilis

Should such a confusion of names shake our confidence in evolutionary science? Quite the contrary. It is exactly what we should expect, given that these creatures are all evolutionary intermediates, links that were formerly missing but are missing no longer. We should be positively worried if there were no intermediates so close to borderlines as to be difficult to classify. Indeed, on the evolutionary view, the conferring of discrete names should actually become impossible if only the fossil record were more complete. In one way, it is fortunate that fossils are so rare. If we had a continuous and unbroken fossil record, the granting of distinct names to species and genera would become impossible, or at least very problematical. It is a fair conclusion that the predominant source of discord among palaeoanthropologists – whether such and such a fossil belongs in this species/genus or that – is deeply and interestingly futile.

Hold in your head the hypothetical notion that we might, by some fluke, have been blessed with a continuous fossil record of all evolutionary change, with no links missing at all. Now look at the four Latin names that have been applied to 1470. On the face of it, the change from habilis to rudolfensis would seem to be a smaller change than the one from Australopithecus to Homo. Two species within a genus are more like each other than two genera. Aren’t they? Isn’t that the whole basis for the distinction between the genus level (say Homo or Pan as alternative genera of African apes) and the species level (say troglodytes or paniscus within the chimpanzees) in the hierarchy of classification? Well, yes, that is right when we are classifying modern animals, which can be thought of as the tips of the twigs on the evolutionary tree, with their antecedents on the inside of the tree’s crown all comfortably dead and out of the way. Naturally, those twigs that join each other further back (further into the interior of the tree’s crown) will tend to be less alike than those whose junction (more recent common ancestor) is nearer the tips. The system works, as long as we don’t try to classify the dead antecedents. But as soon as we include our hypothetically complete fossil record, all the neat separations break down. Discrete names become, as a general rule, impossible to apply. [Chapter 7]

In philosophy, there is a position called (conceptual) nominalism, which is set against (Platonic) realism. This conceptual nominalism, as I adhere to, denies in some (or all) cases the existence of abstracts. These categories we invent don’t exist (a word that itself needs clear defining), at least not outside of our heads. Thus species do not exist as objective categories. We invent them, but if all people who knew about species suddenly died and information about them was lost, then so too would be lost the concept and categorisation.

When we look at two very different parts of a continuum we find it easy to say those things are different and are of different categories, but when we look in finer detail, this falls apart. There is a fuzzy logic at play.

Species do not exist. Well, they do in our heads. When we agree about them. And only then so we can nicely label pictures in books, or in our heads.

Some quotes

Wikipedia has some nice quotes on the subject. Follow the links for sources and references:

“No term is more difficult to define than “species,” and on no point are zoologists more divided than as to what should be understood by this word.” Nicholson (1872, p. 20).[54]

“Of late, the futility of attempts to find a universally valid criterion for distinguishing species has come to be fairly generally, if reluctantly, recognized” Dobzhansky (1937, p. 310).[13]

“The concept of a species is a concession to our linguistic habits and neurological mechanisms” Haldane (1956).[46]

“The species problem is the long-standing failure of biologists to agree on how we should identify species and how we should define the word ‘species’.” Hey (2001).[49]

“First, the species problem is not primarily an empirical one, but it is rather fraught with philosophical questions that require — but cannot be settled by — empirical evidence.” Pigliucci (2003).[17]

“An important aspect of any species definition whether in neontology or palaeontology is that any statement that particular individuals (or fragmentary specimens) belong to a certain species is an hypothesis (not a fact)” Bonde (1977).[55]

January 5, 2017

In a rapidly expanding comment thread on SJWs and the regressive left, a debate with a religious type has developed concerning abortion. Here is a great comment by NathairNimheil:

Like you holding an *arbitrary* position of what constitutes “personhood”.

So my definition of personhood, which you have never even heard, is arbitrary? You reading minds now?

Neither does the newborn.

True enough, and in some legal contexts newborns and toddlers are not considered legally persons. However, you do have to draw the line somewhere and, as they do have significant things like a functioning nervous system and are independent rather than existing as a parasite on an (often unwilling) host, live born human children are usually granted some of the rights of personhood. An egg cell, on the other hand…

And is the quadriplegic less a person than you?

I was not referring to motor function but to mental function. The complete lack of a brain does, yes, pretty much rule out personhood. Personally, I’m pretty broad and liberal with my personhood ideas. I’m fully behind granting (or at least discussing) legal personhood to varying degrees for great apes, cetaceans and perhaps even elephants. A blob of partially differentiated cells, on the other hand, not so much. However, even if I were as dogmatic and certain as you seem to be about the human being status of an embryo, the fact remains that there is still no justification in forcing a woman to play host to the parasitic “person”. My body is still my body. My choice. Nobody else gets to violate my personhood and co-opt my body for their own needs.

I then chipped in with a connection to another thread in which the same commenter (See Noevo) is making similar naive claims about evolution:

Interestingly, See Noevo is showing here an exact replica of the issues he is exhibiting on another thread about evolution; namely, that he does not understand nominalism vs realism and the problem of abstracta in the realm of categorisation.

Thus species and personhood are “arbitrary” conceptual constructs that we use to navigate life and reality. They are our maps, not the terrain.

We may also disagree (and often do) on exactly what constitutes personhood or speciation. What exist are the individual properties of these given objects. We then assign, subjectively, these properties to a label. This does not, though, bring that label and associated abstract ideas into objective reality. They remain being conceptual entities.

Hilariously, See Noevo replied to Nathair’s previous comment with this utter cop-out:

I’ll put you on my No-Fly list.


As if Nathair had said something outrageous and not worthy f reply. In reality, he had utterly pwned See Noevo, and See Noevo ran away, proclaiming Danth’s Law by implication.


December 16, 2016

I have just started reading Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itselfwhich is shaping up to be a great book. I would like to just talk about this excerpt (Location 345, Kindle):

The strategy I’m advocating here can be called poetic naturalism. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it—telling its story—in different ways.

Naturalism comes down to three things:

  1. There is only one world, the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
  3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

Essentially, naturalism is the idea that the world revealed to us by scientific investigation is the one true world. The poetic aspect comes to the fore when we start talking about that world. It can also be summarized in three points:

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

A poetic naturalist will agree that both Captain Kirk and the Ship of Theseus are simply ways of talking about certain collections of atoms stretching through space and time. The difference is that an eliminativist will say “and therefore they are just illusions,” while the poetic naturalist says “but they are no less real for all of that.”

Philosopher Wilfrid Sellars coined the term manifest image to refer to the folk ontology suggested by our everyday experience, and scientific image for the new, unified view of the world established by science. The manifest image and the scientific image use different concepts and vocabularies, but ultimately they should fit together as compatible ways of talking about the world. Poetic naturalism accepts the usefulness of each way of talking in its appropriate circumstances, and works to show how they can be reconciled with one another.

Within poetic naturalism we can distinguish among three different kinds of stories we can tell about the world. There is the deepest, most fundamental description we can imagine—the whole universe, exactly described in every microscopic detail. Modern science doesn’t know what that description actually is right now, but we presume that there at least is such an underlying reality. Then there are “emergent” or “effective” descriptions, valid within some limited domain. That’s where we talk about ships and people, macroscopic collections of stuff that we group into individual entities as part of this higher-level vocabulary. Finally, there are values: concepts of right and wrong, purpose and duty, or beauty and ugliness. Unlike higher-level scientific descriptions, these are not determined by the scientific goal of fitting the data. We have other goals: we want to be good people, get along with others, and find meaning in our lives. Figuring out the best way to talk about the world is an important part of working toward those goals.

Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.

Carroll has a very good sense for describing and explaining dry philosophical ideas in an easy-to-understand and almost artistically readable way.

What he is talking about here is ontological realism against (conceptual) nominalism. In other words, what really exists? In one sense, and Carroll accepts this, only atoms and fundamental stuff really exist. This, he calls a “sparse ontology”. All other things, like tables and love and persons, don’t really exist; or, they are conceptual add-ons. This is where my thinking lies. It’s a sort of eliminativism of abstract ideas. Carroll accepts this in a manner of speaking, but goes on to say that a “rich ontology”, where all those other things are a way we have of describing reality (and they are useful), is in a meaningful way of seeing reality. These ideas and abstracts really exist, conceptually, and pragmatically.

I like this term “poetic naturalism”, since it appeals to those anti-reductionists, those humanities people, who hate the idea of stripping away those human (yes, “poetic”) ways of interpreting the sparse ontology of existence.

I look forward to reading more of this book.


November 15, 2016

Causality. It is a funny thing. Or not so funny.

A number of years back now, I took my class, as a teacher, on a trip to the Historic Dockyard in the naval city of Portsmouth, UK. My school was some 45 minutes walk and a short ferry ride from there. With the cost of coaches, it is important to be able to walk to such places to keep the costs down for parents.

We scotted it there on the way, and we were running a little behind, so the walk back at the end of the day was quicker still. One of our parents, helping with the trip, was a heavy smoker who had to stop off at strategic times throughout the day for a crafty kids-can’t-see-me smoke. Many of the children were moaning on the way back because they simply were not used to walking any such length of time. This certainly applied to some of the parent helpers too.

Anyway, we made it back for the end of the school day, so good effort.

Except, that night, we heard that the aforementioned parent helper had died. He had had a heart attack.

Ever since that moment, I have felt partly responsible for that outcome, of that man’s death. In a naive, folk understanding sort of way, that is.

In writing my book on free will, and in researching the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I have come to understand that causality is much more complex than one might imagine. A does not cause B which causes C in such a simplistic manner. At best, things are only ever contributory causes (see JL Mackie’s INUS notion of causality [1]); but even then, this assumes one can quantise time, and arbitrarily assign discrete units of existence to both events and entities.

Let’s look at the event of the class trip. Did it start when we arrived at the dockyard, when we got off the ferry, when we left, when I started organising it, or, indeed, were elements of the trip in place when I started planning the unit, given the job, got my teacher’s qualifications etc?

Of course, there is no objective answer to that. These abstract labels are subjectively assigned such that we can all disagree on them. That is, simplistically speaking, an element of conceptual nominalism. Likewise, there were necessary conditions in the parent’s life which contributed to his death: anything from his smoking, to his lack of general health, from deciding to come on the school trip, to  deciding to get married and have kids. And so on.

An event happens in time and arbitrarily ascribing a beginning and an end to that event is an abstract pastime, and thus fails to be (imho) objectively and (Platonically) real.

Causality works through people, and harnessing it so that any one individual can claim themselves (morally) responsible for future effects which themselves are caused by effects preceding the individual makes for tricky philosophy. This is the battleground for the free will debate, for sure. Arbitrarily cutting causality up in such a way is problematic.

As I have set out in my analyses of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), which I hope to turn into a book (based on a university thesis I did on it), causality is not a linear affair which can be sliced and diced, It is a unitary matrix which derives from either a single beginning (like the Big Bang), something I find problematic, or eternally backward, or reaching some time commencement which could itself be a reboot. Either way, the idea of causality cannot be seen, and should not therefore be seen, in a discrete manner of units which can be attributed to equally problematic notions of events or unities. We are one big family of causality, this here universe.

So, in answer to the question, no. No, I didn’t kill anyone. Perhaps we could say that the universe did. And whatever notion “I” am, and whatever “I” am represented by, sat on or, better still, was part of the threads which cross and recross intricately and almost infinitely over each other in a mazy web of interconnected causality.

By Felipe Schenone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Felipe Schenone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


[1] Cause as INUS-condition. The most sophisticated version of the necessary and/or suffi­cient conditions approach is probably John Mackie’s analysis of causes in terms of so-called INUS condit­ions. Mackie suggested that a cause of some particular event is “an insufficient but non-redundant part of a condition which is itself unnecessary but sufficient for the result” (Mackie 1974: 62). Mackie called a condition of this kind an INUS condition, after the initial letters of the main words used in the definition. Thus, when experts declare a short-circuit to be the cause of fire, they “are saying in effect that the short-circuit is a condition of this sort, that it occurred, that the other condi­tions which, conjoined with it, form a sufficient condition were also present, and that no other suffi­cient condition of the house’s catching fire was present on this occa­sion” (Mackie [1965] 1993: 34). Thus, Mackie’s view may be expressed roughly in the following definition of ‘cause:’ an event A is the cause of an event B if A is a non-redundant part of a complex condition C, which, though sufficient, is not necessary for the effect (B). Source.


October 14, 2016

My new book is available on ebook (Amazon [US, UK etc.], Kobo and Nook) for your reading pleasure. Please check it out! It concerns the Kalam Cosmological Argument and is called: Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument.

ebook cover

The paperback version should be released in a few weeks. Please spread the word! The book features a foreword by Jeffrey Jay Lowder, and chapters by Dr. James East and Counter Apologist (still annoying that in this day and age, in the States, people have to write under pseudonyms when writing about atheism!).

Let me know if you have any questions. The contents are below:




Foreword… 1

PART ONE: The Background… 3

1.1 The History… 3

1.2 William Lane Craig… 4

PART TWO: The Argument… 7

2.1 The Form… 8

PART THREE: Premise 1… 17

3.1 Causality making it a circular argument… 17

3.2 Nominalism and “everything” being “the universe”… 23

3.3 Establishing a non-realist position… 31

3.4 The Kalam Cosmological Argument and Libertarian Free Will are incompatible…  39

3.5 Quantum physics… 46

PART FOUR: Premise 2… 53

4.1.1 Can the universe have existed infinitely into the past?… 53

4.1.2 Infinity Minus Infinity, by James East… 59

4.2 The premise as inductive… 66

4.3 Creation of the universe ex nihilo… 67

4.4 Scientific theories to explain the universe and everything… 72

4.5 The call for cosmological agnosticism… 83

4.6 Naturalism as a good bet… 86

PART FIVE: The Syllogism’s Conclusion… 89

5.1 Causality and time… 90

5.3 Intentionality and time… 94

5.4 The Argument of Non-God Objects… 98

5.5 Simultaneity as a temporal notion… 101

5.6 On time: Craig’s inconsistent appeals to science, by Counter Apologist…  102

PART SIX: Potential Objections… 125

6.1 The Form… 127

6.2 Premise 1… 128

6.3 Premise 2… 133

6.4 Such views on causality undercut scientific inquiry… 136

PART SEVEN: Conclusion… 141

NOTES… 143



September 1, 2016

Last night we had a Tippling Philosophers session in a lovely pub in Portsmouth, and covered existentialism. I thought it would be a good time to continue my philosophy 101 series which has so far covered:

The philpapers results



Existentialism is a term that pops up a lot, even in the news these days (in the guise of an “existential threat” or “crisis”), but is often assumed as being understood when perhaps it is not. So this is for you budding philosophers starting out on your journey.


Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, and Christian, who is often seen as the one of the forefathers of existentialism. Although such ideas of his were largely rejected by his contemporaries, he influenced later thinkers a great deal, particularly those in the twentieth century. He was concerned with freedom, as well as meaning and purpose, in existence, and these are the core tenets of existentialism. Kierkegaard understood the importance of self-consciousness, and claimed that absolute freedom of the agent led to a sort of fear or dizziness. This was very relevant to those later thinkers. This freedom was wrapped up with morality – our moral choices are absolutely free and subjective. Though a critic of the Danish church, unlike most existentialists, he held on to the belief in God.


Jean-Paul Sartre took on these considerations about what makes us human beings. Previously, essentialism held. This is the idea that entities have an essence. In Plato’s world, there would be an ideal form of a cat to which all cats “aspired”, but were poor versions thereof. Every cat has a catness essence. In this way, humans have human essences, men have the essence of manness, women of womanness. We still see this prevailing today, particularly in religious thought (there are some religious commenters on this blog who hold to forms of essentialism).

Sartre saw this is fundamentally constraining what it is to be human – our freedom. Essentialism appears to be, in some sense, prescriptive. He used a paper-knife as an example. It has been designed for a function, and to succeed as a paper knife, it needs to be sharp, but not too sharp, made of a hard substance, but easy to wield. Metal, bone or wood work, but butter and feathers would fail in enabling it to be a paper knife, to have that essence. It would not make sense for a paper knife to exist without its creator knowing what it was to be used for. It is functional and designed as such. Its essence comes from before its existence, in any individual form.

Humans, Sartre claimed, are wholly difference. Our existence precedes our essence. Our essences are derived from our lives. This is very much wrapped up with atheism. There is no God because, in some manner, that would constrain our meaning, purpose and essence: our freedom. In the same way a craftsman makes a paper knife and decrees its purpose and essence, God would create and define humans.

Human nature, he claimed, is not fixed; there is no god to decree it as such. There is no place for such teleology.

On the other hand, we are the sorts of entities to define our own meaning and purpose (indeed, I wrote about this here), and this is a very human process. Without a god, we must define ourselves.

What differentiates ourselves from other entities is that we can define ourselves.

Now, he would admit some natural constraints, sometimes called facticity, whereby we cannot do anything we please. I cannot grow wings; I am somewhat constrained by the society I was born into and brought up in. But this facticity goes only so far.

My criticism of this is that there is a seemingly arbitrary cut-off that Sartre and others assign to where facticity ends. I would say it goes right up to choices, and includes vast causal variables of biology, genetics and environment. Indeed, Sartre has to make free will an assumption.

Sarte’s freedom is vital for his notions of moral responsibility, but it also connects humanity. Our choices, vastly free, affect the rest of humankind, he would claim, and this burdens us with a huge responsibility. Think back to Kierkegaard’s “dizziness” in considering such freedom. Sartre claimed we were, as such, “condemned to be free”. We have no excuses (those variables I mentioned) to hide behind – our freedom exposes us as the sole, responsible authors of our free actions.

This philosophy led him to become engaged in (socialist) politics, and emboldened young people at the time to those revolutionary ideals of the self defining itself, rather than traditional political forces constraining the individual. He had a significant relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, influencing her own writing in an existentialist manner.


Simone De Beauvoir

One of the earlier feminist thinkers, De Beauvoir threw out the essentialist rulebook after declaring that the self or “I” was ostensibly male, and that female was “Other” than male – passive, voiceless and powerless. Equality was seen in terms of how alike to men women were. Being born without purpose, we have to carve out “authentic” meaning for ourselves (this notion of authenticity is very important in existentialism). She sought to separate the bodily form of the female from the socially constructed femininity. Such constructs are variable and subject to change, so there are many ways of being a female. “One is not born but becomes a woman”. Women must existentially free themselves from the constrains of society. It is riskier and harder to be authentic, but it is the way to equality and freedom.


Albert Camus felt that because we have consciousness, we feel we have meaning, but since the universe is absurdly meaningless, there is a contradiction here. In order to overcome this contradiction, we have to fully embrace this meaningless of existence. The endless struggle (like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill) and drudgery of life is a reflection of its ultimate meaningless. There is a strong undercurrent of nominalism here. Meaning and purpose, as abstract ideas, do not exist “out there” in the universe, but are conceptually constructed in our minds. This is, like Sartre claimed, what makes us human. Recognising the ultimate meaningless is what allows us to live fully.

Hopefully, this gives some basic introduction to existentialism, and some of its proponents. Of course, there are others, and there is arguably much to disagree with as well as to agree with. Comments more than welcome!

Follow Us!

Browse Our Archives