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Apr 29 15

Sentient Beings

by Bill Meacham

Buddhists advise us to act so as to benefit all sentient beings. To understand this advice we need to know what a sentient being is. (We also need to know what benefiting such a being would consist in, but that is a topic for another time.)

Wikipedia says

“Sentient beings” conventionally refers to the mass of living things subject to illusion, suffering, and rebirth (Samsara). Less frequently, “sentient beings” as a class broadly encompasses all beings possessing consciousness, including Buddhas and Bodhisattvas [who are not subject to illusion and suffering, etc.].(1)

Initially we can say that a sentient being is one that is alive and is conscious of its environment. This definition excludes robots and other machines that detect changes in their environment and respond to them but, we assume, are not conscious. But what is it to be conscious?

In a pre-theoretical way we all know what it is to be conscious, because we are all conscious a good bit of the time. We have what is called “knowledge by acquaintance”(2) of being conscious. But attempts to define consciousness have been legion, and so far there is little agreement. That’s because our language is inadequate to the task. Language is well-suited for talking about the objective world we all inhabit, but not our subjective experience.

By “objective” I mean what is out in the public world that we can all see or hear or touch or sense in some way. If I tell you it is raining outside you can go look and see for yourself whether I am right. By “subjective” I mean what is private to each one of us. Such things as our thoughts and feelings, the particular shades of colors we see and the particular qualities of sounds that we hear are subjective. If I tell you I am thinking of rain you have no way to tell whether I really am or not.

So a sentient being is one that has a subjective, private point of view. The world appears in a particular way to a sentient being, a way that is not accessible to anybody else.

What distinguishes a sentient being from a non-sentient being is that we can imagine being the former but not the latter. Children do this all the time, playing at being cowboys or princesses or any number of other roles that they see adults acting out. First-person literature puts us in the shoes, so to speak, of another person, allowing us to fantasize how it would feel to be that person and how the world would appear to him or her. We can, if we choose, take another person’s point of view.

Obviously it is a lot easier to imagine being another person than being something non-human such as, for instance, a bat(3) or a dolphin(4), both of which rely on sensory modalities far different from ours. But we can at least imagine that the world appears in some way to such beings, even if we cannot very well imagine the specifics. We infer from their behavior that they perceive their world and take an interest in it, that they have beliefs and desires and initiate actions as we do. We can, in a similar way, imagine that worms, insects, even single-celled amoebae are sentient.

Imagining being another sentient being allows us to care about that being. We can sympathetically understand their suffering and their joy. We have compassion for them because we know, or think we know, how it is to be that being. Just as we would like to alleviate our own suffering, we want to alleviate theirs as well.

One might reasonably ask if having compassion is really the best way to alleviate our own suffering. Why open ourselves to the possibility of feeling what another being feels? That just gives us more suffering! Perhaps we would be better advised to close ourselves off and not care about others at all.

Well, closing ourselves off is certainly one strategy for reducing our suffering, just as cultivating compassion is another. But those who have tried both report that the latter works a lot better. Your life is richer and far more fulfilling when you enlarge it. The closed-off path leads to loneliness, despair and pain. The path of compassion leads to connection, hope and delight. And, if the Buddhists are to be believed, it leads ultimately to the perfect peace of Nirvana as well.(5)

There’s only one way you can find out for sure. I suspect we have all closed ourselves off to one degree or another. To find out if compassion works better, we’ll just have to try being compassionate and see for ourselves.


(1) Wikipedia, “Sentient beings (Buddhism).”

(2) James, Principles of Psychology Vol. 1, p. 221, cited in Buck, “William James,” p. 613.

(3) Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” p. 438.

(4) Foer, “It’s Time for a Conversation,” p. 36.

(5) Wikipedia, “Nirvana.”


Buck, Ross. “William James, the Nature of Knowledge, and Current Issues in Emotion, Cognition, and Communication.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 16 No. 4, December 1990, pp. 612-625. Online publication as of 23 July 2014.

Foer, Joshua. “It’s Time for a Conversation: Breaking the Communication Barrier Between Dolphins and Humans.” National Geographic Magazine, May 2015, pp. 30-55.

James, William. Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt, 1890.

Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 435-450. Online publication as of 29 April 2015.

Wikipedia. “Nirvana.” Online publication as of 29 April 2015.

Wikipedia. “Sentient beings (Buddhism).” Online publication as of 28 April 2015.

Mar 3 15

Moral Realism

by Bill Meacham

At a recent conference at the University of Texas at Austin Jeff McMahan, a distinguished professor of ethics and the author of quite a number of works on the subject, revealed a shortcoming in much of contemporary ethical thought. The context was discussion of charitable giving and its ethical obligations, and the professor posed a conundrum. There appear to be scenarios, he said, in which one is not obligated to do an act that would produce some good, a praiseworthy act—doing so would be supererogatory, above and beyond the call of duty—but once one has engaged in the act, one is obligated to maximize the good one does. Here are some examples:

  • A wealthy person dies and leaves in her will an extraordinary amount of money to her dog. She is not obligated to leave her money to any entity, but once she has decided to give it to somebody or something, it seems morally wrong to give it to a dog rather than to a charity that would benefit human beings. (This is a real case, by the way. The benefactress was Leona Helmsley, and her will made quite a stir in the news a few years ago.)
  • You are confronted with a burning building inside of which are a human child and a bird in a cage. It would be quite dangerous to enter the building, and you are under no obligation to do so. But if you do, and you save the bird instead of the child, people would be justified in blaming you for not saving the child.
  • You find a person trapped under some wreckage. To save him you would have to clear away the wreckage at some risk that it might fall on you. Again, you are under no obligation to try to save the person. But if you do, you have a choice: you can save him by amputating one of his arms or by moving the wreckage, thereby saving both arms. If you save only one arm, people are justified in blaming you for not saving both.
  • You may, if you choose, give money to charity, but you are under no obligation to do so. If you decide to give money to a charity that provides seeing eye dogs to blind people at a cost of several thousand dollars each, you can be blamed for not giving it to a charity that provides cataract operations that prevent blindness at a cost of only a few dollars each, as the latter would provide far more benefit per dollar than the former.

All these scenarios are analogous. They elicit moral intuitions about what is right and wrong, that is, what is morally required, forbidden or permissible. In each case doing something that you are not required to do and that can produce some good puts you in a situation in which you are morally required to choose the greater good. But you could, without blame, have chosen not to do anything. It is the last of the cases above that worried the professor. Faced with the prospect of blame for failure to give to the right charity, you might decide not to give any money at all! That is not an attractive outcome to someone affiliated with charities.

What’s wrong with this picture? Philosophy seeks to find logically coherent principles that describe certain broad aspects of reality, in this case morality. But in these examples the principles are not logically coherent. You can’t be blamed for not doing good, but you can be blamed for doing less good than you could. But doing no good is certainly doing less good than you could. So we have a contradiction: you can both be blameless and blameworthy for doing less good than you could.

When we are faced with a contradiction, it generally means there is a problem with one or more of the premises, so let’s have a look at them. The way to argue from intuitions about cases, according to McMahan, is that first you have an intuition about a particular case and then you generalize from that case to a universal rule.(1) Here is the argument in detail:

  • Premise 1: Doing act A will produce more good than failing to do it.
  • Premise 2: You are not required to do act A, but you are permitted to do it.
  • Conclusion 1: You are not required to do more good than less.


  • Premise 3: Act A entails two possible further acts, A1 and A2, which are mutually exclusive.
  • Premise 4: Doing A2 will produce more good than doing A1.
  • Premise 5: Having done (or at least started to do) A, you are required to do A2.
  • Conclusion 2: You are required to do more good than less.

So which premise is faulty? Not 1, 3 or 4, as these are simply facts about the situation, stipulated to be true for the sake of argument, not moral claims. It must be either premise 2 or premise 5, which are mutually contradictory. So it is either false (from premise 2) or true (from premise 5) that you are required to do more good than less. But which is it?

Here is where the shortcoming I referred to above is revealed. Much contemporary moral discourse assumes that there is a moral fact of the matter, a position known as “moral realism.” Moral realism is the doctrine that “ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world (that is, features independent of subjective opinion)….”(2) Indeed, in discussion McMahan averred that some actions, such as those in the scenarios above that produce the lesser good, are “objectively impermissible.” A second assumption is that such objective moral rules are logically coherent.

Taking the second assumption first, I suppose someone might argue that objective moral principles do not need to be logically coherent. If so, I reply, they could not provide a reliable guide to conduct, so we might as well ignore them. The practical effect of their being incoherent would be the same as if they do not exist. So we can safely assume that if there are objective moral principles, they are logically coherent.

The problem with moral realism is, of course, how to determine just what those objective moral features of the world are. The professor’s scenarios illustrate the difficulty. Is it true or false that one is required to do more good than less? How can we tell?

Typically, different flavors of moral realism posit different sources of morality and thus different methods of determining what the moral rules are. If you think that moral rules result from the decree of God, for instance, then you will refer to scripture and ecclesiastical authority to find out what they are. If you think that moral rules are simply objective features of the world without reference to their source, then you will rely on moral intuition. And the professor’s scenarios all rely on moral intuition.

But the moral intuitions contradict each other. One intuition has it that we are not required to do more good than less, and the other has it that we are. Could it be that moral intuitions are not a reliable way to find out what objective moral reality is? If so (absent divine decree) we have no way to find out!

No matter which way you look at it—that the moral principles contradict each other or the moral intuitions do—moral realism puts us in a quagmire of uncertainty. We have conflicting moral intuitions but are without a way to resolve the conflict.

Perhaps moral realism itself is the problem. Let’s suppose that the moral features of the universe are not objective, not independent of subjective opinion, and see where that supposition leads us. Well, if they are not objective, then what are they? We do, after all, have moral intuitions. What are they intuitions of?

They are indeed intuitions of moral rules, but the rules are socially constituted rather than independently existent in the way physical objects are. By “socially constituted” I mean that within a community of practice, a social group, a culture or a society everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. So, for members of such a community they are real. Their reality can be seen in their effects. People really would not blame you for staying out of the burning building, but they also really would blame you for saving the bird rather than the child once you are in there.

Unlike supposed objectively existent moral rules, however, there is no requirement for socially constituted rules to be logically consistent. People are not, by and large, logically consistent all the time, as evidenced by everyday observation and lots of social and psychological research.(3) Social conventions evolved as humans learned to live with each other in groups. They were not derived via logical inference from first principles.

Are they then as unreliable as incoherent objective principles would be? No, because, like most of human activity, they are context dependent. If you are outside the building, you are blameless for staying there. Once inside, however, you can be blamed for failing to save the child. Different contexts have different rules. Human psychology is full of such context-dependent heuristic rules. We would be in sorry shape if we had to reason out, step by step, everything we had to do. Those proto-humans who tried that approach did not become our ancestors.

From all this it appears that considering our moral intuitions as revealing a socially constructed morality makes more sense than as revealing an objective reality. (Of course they are both objective in the sense of being independent of any particular person’s subjective opinion; but socially constructed morality may vary from culture to culture, whereas on the moral realist view morality does not vary.)

The proponents of moral realism can object to this conclusion by claiming that a premise has been overlooked: You are permitted to do less good than more if doing more would entail some considerable risk or cost to you; otherwise you must do more good. When you are outside the building, it would clearly be more risky to enter the building than not. But once inside, neither alternative is more risky than the other. The original risk, having now been taken, is what economists call a sunk cost,(4) and rationally should play no further role in decision-making.(5)

This move weakens the case against moral realism, but does not defeat it. In order to make sense of the conflicting intuitions, the moral realist has to pile on additional premises, making the structure more and more complex. The scenarios above are not the only ones in which moral intuitions conflict. Should you tell the Nazis that Jews are hidden in your house or lie and say they aren’t? Should you allow abortion in order to protect a woman’s personal integrity or force her to have an unwanted baby to protect the fetus’ right to life? What about intuitions that Those People are evil and disgusting and should be exterminated and Our People are good and honorable and should dominate the earth? Depending on which group you are in, you may agree or disagree rather strongly. In each case, in order to make a coherent set of moral rules, you have to add more and more conditions, clauses and stipulations until the whole thing becomes unwieldy. You don’t have to do that if you take morality to be socially constructed; you just accept the inconsistencies because human beings are inconsistent creatures.

But in either case, whether you are a moral realist or not, you need to decide whether you will obey the moral rules revealed in your intuitions. How to decide that is a topic for another time.


(1) McMahan, “Moral Intuition,” p. 110. There is more to the process than this. In further steps you judge how well the universal rule fits with other such rules, go back and forth between the universal system and particular intuitions, and so forth. Here I simplify for the sake of argument.

(2) Wikipedia, “Moral realism.”

(3) See, for instance, the work of Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman, among others.

(4) Wikipedia, “Sunk costs.”

(5) Thanks to Professor David Sosa for making this point in the discussion.


Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

McMahan, Jeff. “Moral Intuition,” in Hugh LaFollette and Ingmar Persson, ed., Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2013. pp. 103-120.

Wikipedia. “Moral realism.” Online publication as of 28 February 2015.

Wikipedia. “Sunk costs.” Online publication as of 2 March 2015.

Jan 25 15

How To Exert Free Will

by Bill Meacham

How To Exert Free WillI am excited to announce my new book, How To Exert Free Will. It is an electronic book, readable on Kindle and various other platforms, and I am making it available for free here:

Several years ago I wrote a paper on freedom of the will, but soon discovered that it was inadequate. Since then I have been working on a replacement, and this is it. I am grateful to members of the Austin Philosophy Discussion Group and others who have given me good feedback along the way.

The book is an account of the philosophical controversy regarding the topic. Some say our will is not free, but I say that it is and offer suggestions for how best to employ it. After defining what the term “free will” means, the book considers a number of topics: what it really amounts to in practice, whether the world is determined or not, recent research in brain science, the difference between objects and agents, the role of self-awareness and more. I draw on the work of Robert Kane and Daniel Dennett among others. The book ends with practical advice about how we can effectively use our free will and to what end. It considers an important philosophical topic in terms that non-philosophers can easily understand.

Please feel free to download the book from and share it with others. I hope you enjoy it.

Dec 30 14

What Good is Philosophy?

by Bill Meacham

(I recently gave a talk at the philosophy club summarizing what philosophy is all about. Here it is for your enjoyment. Disclaimer: My summaries of various philosopher’s ideas are so short as to amount to caricatures. Please do additional research on your own on topics that spark your interest.)

In brief, philosophy is good for learning how to think clearly about a number of important and fundamental topics. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philia, meaning affectionate love or affinity, and sophia, wisdom. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. The Greeks, starting with Socrates, thought of wisdom in a very practical way: it meant knowing how to live your life, how to conduct yourself in order to live in a good way. Philosophy began as the effort to find out how to live well.

The Branches of Philosophy

As it has evolved Philosophy includes more than figuring out how to live. Some of the many branches of Philosophy are the following:

Metaphysics. The word literally means “after physics.” In the compilation of Aristotle’s lectures, the books placed after the works on physics were called the metaphysics. Metaphysics is now taken to be the investigation of the underlying nature and structure of reality as a whole. In that sense it means that which is beyond physics.

Epistemology, from the Greek episteme, knowledge, and logos, explanation of or study of, considers what knowledge is and how we come to know things.

Ethics, from ethikos, considers questions of human conduct: How should we live? Why should we live like that? What are good and evil? How should we decide that an act is unethical? What is happiness?

Logic, from logos, meaning explanation of, considers what makes conclusions follow from premises and what makes an argument sound.

Ontology, from ontos, being, and logos, the study of, is the study of being. What kinds of things are there? What is it to be in the first place? How is non-being possible?

Philosophy of Mind asks questions such as these: What is the human mind? How does it think? How is mind related to body?

Aesthetics, from aisthetikos, that which concerns feeling, is the study of art. What is art? What makes something beautiful? Is the beauty of music similar to that of a landscape?

Political Philosophy, from polis, the Greek word for city-state, considers the organization of society. How should society be organized? How should decisions be made? What would utopia be like? Is utopia possible?

There are numerous other areas of philosophy: philosophy of mathematics, of science, of religion, of language, of social science, of history. In all of these, philosophy looks critically at the foundations of the discipline, at its presuppositions and its language.

Three Questions

From the time of the Greeks, philosophers have been concerned with three fundamental questions, the first three of the branches listed above:

  • Metaphysics – What is there? What is real?
  • Epistemology – How do we know what is real?
  • Ethics – What shall we do about what is real? How shall we lead our lives? What is our duty? What virtues should we cultivate? How can we be happy?

These three questions are inseparable. Duty, virtue and happiness all require knowledge of goods and evils, and rights and responsibilities, so ethics requires epistemology. Knowledge is always knowledge about something, so epistemology requires metaphysics. And we care about metaphysics because it makes a difference in how we act, so metaphysics has a bearing on ethics.

Metaphysics: An Account of Everything

Even before Socrates, the pre-Socratic thinkers—Thales, Anaximenes and others—began to consider the world in a new way, a way that did not depend on beliefs about gods and spirits to explain how and why things happen. The attempt to explain the world in purely physical terms led these thinkers to assert that everything was made of Earth, Air, Fire, Water or some boundless material that manifested as these elements. Nowadays we look on these doctrines as naive speculation, but at the time they were revolutionary.

According to Plato, what is really real are the Forms, ideas that can be understood by pure intellect. Physical reality is a lesser reality.

According to Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, the primary category is Substance. Form is not separate from particular things.

Descartes asserted a dualism of material and mental substances.

Leibniz asserted a plurality of non-interacting substances.

Hegel asserted Idealism, the idea that spirit (Geist) or mind is fundamental.

Dennett and many other contemporary thinkers assert Materialism, the idea that matter is fundamental.

Alfred North Whitehead says that the fundamental category is Process, not Substance. Processes are both material and mental. According to Whitehead, the goal of metaphysics (which he called “speculative philosophy”) is to “frame a … system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. … Everything of which we are conscious as enjoyed, perceived, willed or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme.”(1)

The rise of experimental science has reduced the scope of metaphysics. We have gone way beyond Earth, Air, Fire and Water. But science itself is based on metaphysical assumptions that are not demonstrated by the scientific method! These assumptions include the following:

  • That there is an objective reality;
  • That it is ordered in a rational and intelligible way;
  • That it is describable by immutable mathematical laws, laws that do not change arbitrarily with the passage of time or in different regions of space; and
  • That these laws are discoverable by systematic observation and experimentation.

And some topics worthy of investigation are not amenable to scientific explanation at all:

  • The relationship between mathematics, including logic, and the physical world.
  • The relationship between subjectivity and objectivity.
  • Whether there is a purpose or meaning to it all, and if so what it is.

Epistemology: How We Know

There have been two main approaches to understanding how we know things: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism attempts to reason from first principles to what must be. Some examples of rationalist thinkers are Plato, Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. Empiricism starts from experience rather than first principles. One observes what actually is and forms theories useful for prediction. Some examples of empirical theorists are Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Kant bridges the gap between the two, recognizing that all we know of the world comes through our senses, but claiming that reason can discover necessary categories through which we must experience the world.

Rationalism and empiricism require each other. We don’t reason in a vacuum; first principles are suggested by experience. And to be useful, theories based on experience must be logically coherent and sound.

Ethics: A Guide to Life

Ethics is the practical concern with how to live one’s life. Some of the thinkers about ethics are the following:

Socrates asked questions such as, What is temperance? Courage? Justice? Piety? Virtue?

Aristotle advised us to cultivate the virtues.

The Stoics sought to live in harmony with nature and to be indifferent to pleasure, pain and the vicissitudes of life.

Epicurus advised us to seek the pleasure of tranquility. (His ideas were far from what we now think of as epicureanism, the pursuit of sensual pleasure.)

Kant said we should do our duty according to the dictates of reason.

Kierkegaard, a precursor of the existentialists, advised us to have faith while confronting doubt. Subjectivity is truth, he said, and the authentic life is one based in deep feeling.

Sartre said that we are radically free. We must arbitrarily choose our actions, and in so doing we create ourselves.

As mentioned above,the practical maxims in each of these approaches to ethics are based on a view of the system of things as a whole. Figuring out how to act requires understanding ourselves. Understanding ourselves requires understanding the whole of reality. Hence, ethics cannot be divorced from metaphysics and epistemology.

As philosophy is the attempt to think clearly, and as our language has a great deal to do with how we think, it behooves us to watch the words we use to talk about what we should do or to tell others to do. There are two categories of language in this regard, Goodness and Rightness. The Goodness paradigm uses words such as “good” and “bad” to speak of benefits and harms. In this paradigm, “should” is practical advice. The Rightness paradigm uses words such as “right” and “wrong” to speak of duties, responsibilities and our obligation to obey moral rules. In this paradigm “should” is a moral command. I have written about this distinction elsewhere; here I just want to advise you to notice when people talk about what should be done whether they are in the Goodness or Rightness paradigm, or whether they mix up the two.

Conceptual Analysis and Correction of Conceptual Mistakes

Much of contemporary philosophy in the English-speaking world focuses on conceptual analysis. The attempt to use words clearly is found in all of the branches of philosophy, whether it be to determine what people really mean when they use certain words or to stipulate what the author intends them to mean. Analyzing concepts goes all the way back to Socrates, who asked what courage is or piety, etc.

The modern analytic tradition emphasizes clarity of argument and a respect for the natural sciences. Its aim is the logical clarification of thoughts, which can be achieved only by analysis of the logical form of philosophical propositions. This tradition relies heavily on modern formal logic. It rejects sweeping philosophical systems in favor of attention to detail or to ordinary language. At its most extreme, it regards ungrounded metaphysical speculation as meaningless nonsense.

Stemming from the analytic tradition, but not limited to it, is the idea that the proper aim of philosophy is to correct conceptual mistakes.

The Logical Positivists thought that only statements verifiable either logically or empirically are cognitively meaningful. The goal of philosophy is to prevent confusion rooted in unclear language and unverifiable claims.

The later Wittgenstein asserted that the purpose of philosophy is to break bad habits of thought, which are typically brought about by misuse of language: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”(2)

The Pragmatists, Peirce, James and Dewey, sought to make our ideas clear by focusing on their practical effects.

In all of this lies a useful observation, that clarity of language promotes clarity of thought and mutual understanding. Using words sloppily is not only unappealing but positively harmful.

Other Philosophers

Some philosophers don’t fit neatly into the categories above. Here are a few:

The writings of Nietzsche contain unsystematic observations about human nature. They are a polemic guide to life.

Edmund Husserl founded Phenomenology, the clarification of aspects of reality from a rigorous first-person point of view. His work is analytical, but it is an analysis of subjectivity, not of language.

Heidegger, Husserl’s student, did ontology from a radically subjective point of view. His work is an ontology of the world as lived in, not just thought about. As a guide to life he advised us to be authentic.

The Value of Philosophy

There are lots of things you can do with philosophy, of varying degrees of usefulness.

You can play interesting intellectual games. Many people find them lots of fun and an agreeable pastime. But sometimes the games become completely trivial and unrelated to real life. A recent New York Times article notes that epistemologists now concern themselves with questions such as how you know you believe you are wearing socks. Not how you know you have socks on, but how you know you believe you have socks on.(3)

In contrast, philosophy can also be of vital importance. Achieving wisdom, knowledge of what to do with your life, is the most important thing you can do.

One thing that is clear from the history of philosophy is that there are no easy answers. Famously, philosophers never seem to settle on something they agree on. Unlike the physical sciences, in which more and more detailed knowledge has been achieved over time, philosophy still talks about the same questions that the ancients did.

But that does not make it useless. All it means is that someone else’s answers to what to make of life are of limited value if you don’t think about the question yourself. For maximum value, for having a firm foundation for both thought and conduct, we each need to figure out for ourselves the answers to the fundamental questions.


(1) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 4.

(2) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 109.

(3) Cassam, “Know Thy Self — Really.”


Cassam, Quassim. “Know Thy Self — Really.” Online publication as of 29 December 2014.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. 1929. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbooks, 1957.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Tr. G. E. M. Anscombe. 1953. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Dec 5 14

LaPlace’s Demon and Quantum Aggregates

by Bill Meacham

With the notable exception of chaotic systems—those in which slight variations of initial conditions produce widely diverging outcomes(1)—the theory that everything is determined generally entails that future states can be predicted from current or past states of the system under investigation. The possibility of accurate prediction has a distinct bearing on questions of determinism and free will. For the most part, if something cannot be predicted with accuracy, then it is not determined.

Materialists base deterministic beliefs on physical causality, the idea that physical events happen inexorably as a result of prior physical events. Taking human beings to be nothing more than complex aggregations of physical matter, they believe that our sense of free will is illusory, and that all is determined by the past. If we insist that such a view entails that we could fully predict the future, we run into a problem. For any system that engages in substantial interaction with its environment and is complex enough to be interesting, it would be computationally unworkable to predict its future states in their entirety. We might get better and better, of course, but could not achieve 100 percent accuracy. Even disregarding quantum indeterminacy, it is in practice impossible fully to predict the future.

Even so, some insist that it could be possible in principle. If we had a powerful enough computer and enough data, they say, we could do it. This was the view of the Marquis de LaPlace, who wrote,

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.(2)

LaPlace knew nothing of computers, but LaPlace’s Demon (so-called; he himself did not use that term(3)) takes the place of one. The problem is that, given the openness of systems to external influences, such a computation would mean ultimately that we would need to predict the future of the entire universe. To do so would require a computer with a data store larger than all the items we would need to keep track of, hence larger than the universe. Not to mention that the computer itself would presumably be part of the universe and thus would itself need to be modeled. This scenario ends up in absurdity.

At the quantum level the future state of an individual object or event (at that level, the distinction between the two is tenuous at best) is indeterminate; events can be predicted only statistically. However, the statistical predictions are quite accurate and replicable. This leads some materialists, who believe humans to be entirely physical, to assert that human beings are determined because we can predict physical reality with accuracy. This does not hold either. It is the same as saying that people are determined because given a population of them we can predict how many will choose one thing over another—to vote Republican or Democrat, say. Or that an individual is determined because over a span of time we can predict how often that person will choose one thing over another—to eat vanilla ice cream or chocolate, for instance. But even given the accuracy of such statistical predictions, we are unable to predict a single instance with certainty. We can’t fully predict how a particular person will vote or what food that person will choose at a particular time.

The single instance of person or time is analogous to the single photon fired at the photographic plate in the Double Slit experiment.(4) We are unable to predict where it will be detected, even though we can predict the statistical aggregate quite nicely. And that is the essential point about ourselves as agents, that in every moment there is the possibility that we will do something unexpected.


(1) Wikipedia, “Chaos theory.”

(2) LaPlace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, p.4.

(3) Wikipedia, “LaPlace’s demon.”

(4) Wikipedia, “Double-slit experiment.”


Laplace, Pierre Simon. A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. translated into English from the original French 6th ed. by F.W. Truscott and F.L., Emory. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.

Wikipedia, “Chaos theory.” Online publication as of 21 November 2014.

Wikipedia. “Double-slit experiment.” Online publication as of 16 September 2014.

Wikipedia. “”Laplace’s demon.” Online publication’s_demon as of 19 August 2014.

Oct 27 14

Freedom and the Game of Life

by Bill Meacham

No discussion of free will would be complete without mention of Daniel Dennett, a noted compatibilist, one who believes that free will is a reality even though the universe is wholly determined. Leaving aside the fact that the universe is not in fact wholly determined—because quantum indeterminacy is in effect at the subatomic level of reality—his account of free will is instructive, as it analyzes the practical effects of free will, effects that are real regardless of whether the universe is wholly determined or not.

Dennett writes in the tradition of Wittgenstein, who thought that the purpose of philosophy is to break bad habits of thought, which are typically brought about by the bewitchment of intelligence by language.(1) Dennett’s work on the topic is all about deflating exaggerated misconceptions of what free will really is. What do we really mean when we say we want our will to be free? His answer is that we cannot, upon rational reflection, mean that we want it to be uncaused.(2) Instead we want the following:(3)

  • We want our actions to be determined by good reasons, not by causes outside our control.
  • We want to control our own decisions and actions, not be controlled by someone or something else.
  • We want to be free from constraint.
  • We want our deliberations to be effective, to have a genuine ability to influence the course of affairs.
  • We want dignity and responsibility to be real, not illusory. And we want fatalism and nihilism to be illusory, not real.

All of these depend crucially on the notion of agency, that we are “capable of initiating, and taking responsibility for, projects and deeds.”(4) Dennett calls this view of human nature the “agency metaphor.”(5)


As I have described in detail elsewhere, Dennett sometimes uses a technical term in philosophy, the “intentional stance,” to refer to ascriptions of agency. Dennett observes that we ascribe to others an interiority (my word, not his) much like our own:

[The intentional stance] consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires and other mental states exhibiting what Brentano and others call intentionality.(6)

Since “intentional” has a perfectly good everyday usage, it is unfortunate that Dennett uses it to describe the stance we generally take toward other people, toward many animals and, figuratively at least, toward some non-living things such as computers. I prefer to call it an agential stance: we interpret others as agents. From that stance, beliefs and desires are quite as real as physical objects:

There are patterns in human affairs that impose themselves, not quite inexorably but with great vigor, absorbing physical perturbations and variations that might as well be considered random; these are the patterns we characterize in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions [in the everyday sense] of rational agents.(7)

How Agency Evolved

Dennett, being a materialist, has quite an elaborate account of how agency, with its concomitant notions of freedom and responsibility, has emerged through evolution from arrangements of lower-level physical elements. In his model of reality everything is determined at the lowest level, but higher-level agential patterns emerge from the interactions of low-level elements.

He reasons by analogy from the Game Of Life, a simple computer algorithm invented by mathematician John Conway.(8) The universe of the Game of Life is a two-dimensional grid of square cells, each of which is in one of two possible states, alive or dead. Every cell interacts with its eight neighbors, the cells that are horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent. At each step in time, the following transitions occur:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if caused by under-population.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overcrowding.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

The initial pattern constitutes the seed of the system. The first generation is created by applying the rules simultaneously to every cell in the seed. Births and deaths occur simultaneously at each tick of the programmed clock (in other words, each generation is a pure function of the preceding one). The rules continue to be applied repeatedly to create further generations. Here are two simple seeds:

Block, a still life, stays the same at each tick.
Game_of_life_blinker_1a Game_of_life_blinker_2a
Blinker, which oscillates between two patterns.

Given an initial configuration of elements, the rules determine unambiguously and invariably what happens at each iteration. At the lowest level, considered from the physical stance, everything is completely determined. But we, like gods from the imagined point of view of the world of the game, can change the initial configuration. As we do so, unexpected patterns emerge. We find gliders, configurations that move in a straight line through the two-dimensional space. We find eaters, configurations that destroy gliders that collide with them. We find puffer trains, space rakes and other oddly-named configurations.(9) When we detect such entities (and they are easy to see), we have adopted the design stance, interpreting what we see as a higher-level pattern that operates according to its own law (i.e., in its own regular way), even though all the patterns are governed by the same fundamental laws.

In a similar way, Dennett says, all the complexity that we know as agential has emerged via evolution from simpler physical forms. The blind trial-and-error of Darwinian selection creates organisms capable of learning and adopting better and better strategies for survival and reproduction.(10) And those strategies depend crucially on belief and desire, properties of agents.

According to Dennett, evolution of replicators by natural selection, combined with the usefulness of the agential stance to predict and explain behavior, is enough to account for what we know as freedom of will.

Philosophical Implications

Is Dennett right? He certainly makes a good case that all the concerns about free will listed at the beginning of this chapter can be explained (or explained away) by evolution, but the details are too many to summarize here. Instead I consider just a couple of points.

The first is self-awareness. The real power of human agency, says Dennett, is our capacity for what I call second-order thinking, the power to take ourselves as objects of observation and thought. He observes that evolution has provided us with practical reason, the ability to anticipate events and to take actions to enhance our chances for survival. Such reason is the result the development of an ever more elaborate ability to recognize patterns, and that ability culminates in second-order thought:

The truly explosive advance [in humans’ ability to go beyond unthinking reflex] comes when the capacity for pattern recognition is turned upon itself. The creature who is not only sensitive to patterns in its environment, but also to patterns in its own reactions to patterns in its environment has taken a major step.(11)

I have asserted elsewhere that our capacity for second-order thinking is the peculiarly human virtue, that which distinguishes us from other animals and the exercise of which can lead to a fulfilling life. Dennett’s assertion is that this capacity is the result of many thousands of years of evolution, a point with which I have no dispute.

Another interesting aspect of Dennett’s treatment of the issue of free will is how much his thinking is like that of American Pragmatists C.S. Peirce and, in particular, William James. James asks, “Grant an idea or belief to be true … what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?”(12) And “the possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action.”(13) This method of assessing truth is reflected in passages such as these by Dennett:

The answer [to whether someone could have done otherwise in exactly the same circumstances and internal state] could not conceivably make any noticeable difference to the way the world went.(14)

The useful notion of “can,” the notion that is relied upon not only in personal planning and deliberation, but also in science, is a concept of possibility.(15)

The main thing [in considering whether one could have done otherwise] is to see to it that I jolly well will do otherwise in similar situations in the future.(16)

… what philosophy is for.(17)

These passages all show quite a practical attitude toward philosophical questions and indeed toward philosophy itself. Instead of puzzling over abstract concepts, we look at what difference various answers would make in our dealings with the world. In this approach the pragmatists bear some resemblance to Wittgenstein. Both offer philosophical methods to clean up confusion.

Let’s take this attitude toward Dennett’s fundamental assertion, that all the things we ascribe to agency and to free will can be accounted for in a deterministic universe by the aggregation of lower-level patterns into higher. Compare it to the assertion that I have made, that in an indeterministic universe what matters is not the outcome of a single quantum event, but the overall pattern of many of them.(18) The assertions are basically identical: what matters is agency, which is usefully described and explained at a higher level than fundamental physical units, be they deterministic or not. Hence, whether the universe is deterministic or not doesn’t make any difference to the question!

(Of course, we have very good reasons from physics for believing in quantum indeterminacy. Dennett argues by appeal to analogy and intuition in Freedom Evolves that we do not need to postulate any quantum indeterminate effects on our thinking and decision making in order to have free will.(19) His argument, fascinating as it is, is irrelevant. Such effects do exist, so we might as well take them into account.)

We are again back at the thought that the question of free will is ridiculous. As Dennett says, “We cannot help acting under the idea of freedom, it seems; we are stuck deliberating as if our futures were open.”(20)

But Dennett also notes that it is quite crucial to recognize that our will is in fact free, because we will be much worse off if we think it is not:

Believing that one has free will is itself one of the necessary conditions for having free will: an agent who enjoyed the other necessary conditions for free will—rationality and the capacity for higher-order self-control and self-reflection—but who had been hoodwinked into believing he lacked free will would be almost as incapacitated for free, responsible choice by that belief as by the lack of any of the other necessary conditions. … If [a person] sinks into doubt, or worse, into the conviction that he lacks free will, he is certain to be right: his attitude toward his own opportunities for choice and action will be such that he is essentially disabled as a chooser.(21)

In our own game of life—the one in which each of us is the star player—it makes a lot more sense to assume that our will is free than not.


(1) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 18.

(2) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 13.

(3) These points are the topics of the various chapters of Dennett, Elbow Room.

(4) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 169.

(5) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 61.

(6) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(7) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 27.

(8) Wikipedia, “Conway’s Game of Life.” You can find several implementations of the game on the internet, should you wish to try it out yourself, for instance at as of 26 Ocrober 2014.

(9) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 39.

(10) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 30.

(11) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 29.

(12) James, Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth, p. 133.

(13) James, Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth, p. 135.

(14) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 138.

(15) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 148, emphasis added.

(16) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 143.

(17) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 18, emphasis in original.

(18) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 48-49.

(19) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, pp. 97-139.

(20) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 108.

(21) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 168.


Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. 1984. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.

Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.

James, William. “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, pp. 131-153. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication as of 24 October 2014.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Wikipedia. “Conway’s Game of Life.” Online publication as of 22 September 2014.

Sep 24 14

Mental Parasites

by Bill Meacham

What if your brain were taken over by a parasite and made you want something you would not ordinarily want? What if it took over your second-order thinking and made you want to want that thing? Would your will then be free?

This is not so far-fetched a scenario as it might seem. There are numerous examples of parasites infecting the brains of animals to make those animals act contrary to their own well-being. Here is one:

The Lancet liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum has a very busy life. As an adult it spends its time in the liver of a cow or another grazing mammal. Here it mates and lays eggs, which are excreted in the host’s feces.

A snail eats the poo, taking in the eggs at the same time. The eggs hatch in the snail and make their way into its digestive gland, where they asexually reproduce. They then travel to the surface of the snail’s body. As a defensive maneuver, the snail walls the parasites up in cysts and coughs up the balls of slime…doing exactly what the parasites wanted it to do.

An ant comes along and gobbles up the fluke-laded slime balls. The flukes then spread out inside of the ant, with a couple of them setting up shop in the insect’s head. When night approaches, the flukes take control. They make the ant climb up a blade of grass and hold tight, waiting to be eaten by a grazing animal. If the ant is still alive at dawn, the flukes release their control and the ant goes about its day like normal (if the ant baked in the sun, the parasite would die, too). At night the flukes take over again and the cycle repeats until the ant becomes cattle food.(1)

It’s doubtful, of course, that the lancet fluke actually wants its host to do anything. That is just a figure of speech. But what is clear is that the ant’s climbing up the blade of grass has nothing to do with its own survival and well-being. Its mind, tiny as it is, has been hijacked by the parasite. If it had enough mentality to reflect on what it is doing, the ant could probably find plausible and compelling reasons for its actions. Perhaps it feels good to climb. Perhaps hanging out at the top of the blade of grass feels tranquil and comfortable. Or exhilarating. We’ll never know. But we can find out find how it feels in our own case, because we too are subject to parasitic hijacking.

Daniel Dennett makes the point that certain memes have the same effect on humans that the lancet fluke has on ants. A meme is a unit of cultural transmission, similar to the gene, which is a unit of biological evolution. Like a gene, a meme is a replicator, except memes replicate contemporaneously between minds rather than historically between bodies.(2) A meme is an idea or information packet that replicates itself by passing from mind to mind. Says Dennett,

It’s ideas – not worms – that hijack our brains. … There are a lot of ideas to die for. Freedom. … Justice. Truth. Communism. Many people have laid down their lives for communism, and many have laid down their lives for capitalism. And many for Catholicism. And many for Islam. These are just a few of the ideas that are to die for. They’re infectious.(3)

Such hijacking might be innocuous and unintended, the product of cultural memetic replication like a catchy tune, or it might be quite deliberate, as in brainwashing or propaganda. For example, here are a few memes that may have been installed in you or someone you know.

  • Those of other religions than yours are heathens and infidels and must be stopped at any cost.
  • Your form of government is the best one and works for your benefit.
  • People of your race (or gender or nationality, etc.) are better than those of other races (or genders or nationalities) and deserve better treatment.

And so on. You can probably think of more. In all these cases, our beliefs can induce us to act contrary to our own well-being (and to our genetic fitness as well, but that is not usually our concern).

But regardless of the effect on our own well-being, when we are so induced we seem to act as we do voluntarily, of our own free will. And yet, something else – our parents, our community, our culture, the information media we are exposed to, the government, the dominant economic class, etc. – determines our will, i.e. what we want, choose and strive for. And furthermore, that something determines our second-order will as well, what we want to want.

I have noted with approval philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s notion that freedom of the will consists in being able to make second-order volitions effective. It is second-order volition – our ability to control what we want based on our capacity for reflective self-evaluation – that distinguishes us humans from other animals. Our will is free, he says, when we succeed in making our second-order volition effective; that is, when the second-order volition actually governs the first order such that the preferred first-order desire is what results in action. When that happens, we judge that our will is free.

But what if somebody else controls our second-order will? Such a thing is quite possible through brainwashing, application of propaganda, and also operant conditioning and behavioral engineering as depicted in the novel Walden Two.

Robert Kane calls such control Covert Nonconstraining Control, or CNC. In cases of constraining control, a person is forced by physical causes to act against his will, for example by being physically threatened or locked up. In cases of nonconstraining control, a person’s will is manipulated so that the person willingly does what the controller wants done. The person is not obviously constrained, but is controlled nonetheless. Examples include operant conditioning, behavioral engineering and other forms of manipulation. CNC, covert nonconstraining control, occurs when the manipulation is hidden from the person being manipulated; that person does not know he or she is being manipulated and perhaps does not even know that the manipulators exist.(4)

When we find out that we have been manipulated we typically feel outraged. Take the fictional account of the fantasy world of Harry Potter. In that world one of the unforgiveable curses is Imperius, by which the witch or wizard controls the victim’s will. It is unforgiveable because it violates one of the most central aspects of our identity, the sense that we are in charge of our choices, and that our choices define (or reveal) who we are. Nobody wants to be a puppet. (The other thing that is central to our identity is how we perceive reality, our own unique point of view. But our perception, seemingly more passive, is not quite so central. Were we to find out that someone had distorted our perceptions, we would feel anger at being lied to, but not, I suspect, outrage at being controlled.)

So is our will free when we are covertly constrained? No, obviously not. Our choices and resulting actions are not ours, but our controller’s. But do we still have free will? In the sense of having the capacity for it, yes.

That capacity – whether or not it is actually exercised at any given time – is rooted in our capacity for reflective self-awareness, or second-order thinking. If your second-order will is determined by someone else, as soon as you know it you can take steps against it. Or for it, if you decide you like it that way. The point is, once you know someone is trying to control you, you have a choice about it. Second-order thinking is, potentially, self-correcting.

Now clearly it might not be so easy to find out. If your manipulator is sufficiently skilled, it might be very, very difficult indeed. You would feel no impulse to find out if you did not even suspect that you might be subject to manipulation.

That’s why philosophy is, in some ways, a subversive concern. Socrates famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living.(5) If we desire wisdom we are advised to examine our lives even if there appears to be nothing to be concerned about. A manipulator would not want you to do that, because you might discover the manipulation. Having discovered it, however, you would be better off, as you could then take steps to take back your will.

Eternal vigilance, it seems, is the price not only of political liberty(6) but of freedom of the will as well.


(1) Bennington-Castro, “12 Real Parasites That Control the Lives of Their Hosts.”

(2) Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, chapter 11, pp. 189–201.

(3) Dennett, Daniel C. “Dangerous Memes.”

(4) Kane, The Significance of Free Will, pp. 61-67.

(5) Plato, Apology, 38a.

(6) Berkes, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Quotation).”


Bennington-Castro, Joseph. “12 Real Parasites That Control the Lives of Their Hosts.” Online publication as of 19 September 2014.

Berkes, Anna. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Quotation).” Online publication as of 24 September 2014.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, New Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Dangerous Memes.” Online publication as of 19 Sept. 2014.

Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Plato. Apology. Tr. Hugh Tredennick. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Aug 27 14

Book Review: Ethics Without Morals

by Bill Meacham

I’ve been published again; this it is time a book review in Philosophy Now magazine.  Here is the link: For your convenience, I reproduce the whole thing below.


Regular readers of this publication will know that ex-columnist Joel Marks underwent quite a profound change of outlook with respect to the study of ethics and morality. Formerly a Kantian who worked out in some detail how the moral dictates of pure reason apply to particular circumstances, he is now a moral anti-realist, asserting that there are actually no moral dictates at all! Marks’ book, Ethics without Morals, is a readable exposition of his new position, which he calls ‘amorality’, after ‘atheism’. Just as atheism denies the objective existence of God, amorality denies the objective existence of morality.

As philosophers, we need to get clear on our concepts. What is morality? Marks’ answer: morality is a set of absolute and universal imperatives and prohibitions – a set of rules which everyone is obliged to obey. This set of imperatives is supposed to apply to all human beings at all times and places. The moral rules trump all other rules, and manifest in our feelings as spontaneous intuitions or impulses to obey or enforce them. The essence of morality is its universal, unchanging, and absolute authority in matters of human behavior. Following Kant, Marks calls moral imperatives ‘categorical’, meaning that they apply unconditionally, and independently of how we feel about them. In brief, morality is a set of obligations that we are all supposed to obey. This is what we mean by the term ‘morality’, by and large, in common language. And morality in this sense does not actually exist, says Marks.

The Genesis of Morality

Marks argues that there are several possible explanations for our belief in morality, and that the one that does not assume that morality exists makes a lot more sense than the others.

The first possible explanation for belief in morality is that God legislates it and gave us a conscience so we would know right from wrong. The second is that morality is a built-in feature of the universe, much like gravity, and we have developed an intuition to perceive it. The third is that the belief in morality was a useful evolutionary adaptation that lingers on even though it is no longer helpful.

The evolutionary explanation makes the best sense, according to Marks. Development of a sense of morals was evolutionarily adaptive for early humans because it enabled them to live cooperatively in groups. We evolved to believe in morality because we have to live with others in order to survive, and moral rules regulate how we get along together. A shared sense of morals makes for group cohesion, and those who live in cohesive groups survive and reproduce better than those who don’t. As primatologist Frans de Waal has noted, human societies are support systems within which temporary weakness does not automatically spell death (Our Inner Ape, 2005, p.187).

Crucially, this explanation does not require that morality actually exist in an objective sense; all it requires is that people believe it does. There is an obvious objection here, and to his credit Marks considers it: this explanation does not require that morality does not exist, either. The evolutionary argument is quite compatible with either of the other explanations. Against this possibility, Marks argues a form of Occam’s Razor: the evolutionary explanation alone is simpler and conceptually more economical than it would be in conjunction with either of the others. But Occam’s Razor alone is not enough to discredit them, so Marks must consider each independently.

Against the God explanation he cites Plato’s Euthyphro, in which Socrates argues that it makes more sense to say that the gods love what is right rather than that the right is whatever the gods love. Hence, morality (ie right and wrong), if it exists at all, exists independently of the gods (or of God). This leaves the second idea – that morality is a natural feature of the universe. Against this, Marks argues a number of things: that morality in this sense would be a set of commands without a commander, a nonsensical notion; that the only way of perceiving moral commands is through intuition, but different people have different intuitions, and there is no way to adjudicate between them; and, that there exists no plausible account of how an objective morality has any connection to the rest of the universe we know about – the idea is metaphysically incoherent. Of the three explanations, the only one left standing is the evolutionary one.

With so much at stake, one would expect an extensive discussion of just how our sense of morality may have evolved, the various ways it manifests in our lives and societies, the different flavors it takes, and so forth, along the lines of Jonathan Haidt, Stephen Pinker, Richard Joyce and others. In fact Marks spends remarkably little time defending the evolutionary view. That’s because he takes it to be well established already, and because he has his sights set on something more: why it is advisable not even to pretend that morality exists: “A clear-eyed review of the relative effects of believing and disbelieving in morality would move us to prefer an amoral regime” he says (p.38).

Meta-Ethical Marks

Marks is so eager to divest himself of anything that sounds like morality that he says there’s nothing we should do (because there are no moral ‘shoulds’), only what we want to do – a view of human nature that he calls ‘desirism’. All we ever do is what we want to do, he says. So the goal of his work is to convince us to desire amoralism.

In this effort Marks succeeds brilliantly. His chapter entitled ‘Might Amorality Be Preferable?’ includes an excellent rant against the defects of our typical sense of morality: morality makes us angry; it promotes hypocrisy; it encourages arrogance; it’s arbitrary, because there is no final justification for saying anything is right or wrong; it is imprudent, leading us to do things that have obviously bad consequences; it makes us intransigent, fueling endless strife; it is useless as a guide to life; and it leads philosophers to waste time on silly puzzles. By contrast, amorality is free of guilt, tolerant, interesting, explanatory and compassionate (when the blinders of blame are removed, we are free to consider others with an open heart), not to mention true. The upshot is that amorality is far more preferable. If you read only this chapter, you will have gained a lot.

Marks is here making a meta-ethical claim – a claim about the status of ethics – which claim I like to explain in terms of the language used to express it. That is, throughout the history of philosophy there have been two competing domains of discourse regarding ethics and morals, the Right and the Good. The Right pertains to duty and obligation: it refers to an obligation to obey moral rules; laws that are taken to be applicable universally and independent of one’s own preferences. The Good pertains to benefits and harms: it refers to consequences of actions that may be good or bad for the agent or others. In these terms, Marks’ claim (which I find persuasive) is that Goodness trumps Rightness – that it makes more sense to speak of ethics (ie, ideas of the best way to live in society) in terms of benefits and harms than to speak in terms of duty and obligation. He does not quite spell it out that way, but his preference for ‘goodness’ or ‘benefit’ language is clear from passages such as these:

  • “Believing this particular truth, that morality does not exist, will make things go better.” (p.2)
  • “Morality… does not exist and… it would be good for us to believe that.” (p.3)
  • “Abandonment of moral thinking and speaking… would be more effective in achieving… [a] common goal of maximally satisfying our considered desires.” (p.63)
  • “Morality breeds escalation of conflict, which is often to no one’s net benefit.” (p.66)

But if morality does not exist and it would be beneficial for us to quit speaking in moral terms, what is the alternative? What is the best way to live our lives? Marks’ answer is to pursue only what you desire after due consideration:

“We now… have a replacement criterion to guide our actions in general, to wit: Figure out what you really want, that is, the hierarchy of your desires all things considered, and then figure out how to achieve or acquire it by means that are themselves consonant with that prioritized set of your considered desires.” (p.53)

We might call this Marks’ categorical imperative, except that he is quite clear that it is not a moral command but only advice. In contrast to morality, ethical commands, he says, are hypothetical, their application being contingent upon what is desired. By this he means that you can legitimately offer advice such as, “If you want to be trusted, then you ought to be honest” (ethics), but you can’t legitimately tell someone that they must absolutely be honest, without context and without reference to what they want (morality). Amoralist ethics is therefore quite practical, in that it lends itself to evidence-based assessments of how best to proceed; and it is intrinsically motivating, because its advice is based on what you actually want, not on what someone else tells you to do.

Amoral Advice

There’s a lot to like here. There are a few rough spots, to be sure. There’s an egregious bit of sophistry on p.24, in which Marks assumes what he says needs proving. The discussion of evolution deserves a lengthier treatment. (Hmm, ‘deserves’. Am I making a moral judgment?) And I suspect that it would not be so easy to abandon our sense of morality, since it is built in by several hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. But these minor blemishes are far outweighed by the great service Marks has done in pointing out that the moral emperor has no clothes. The practicality of amoralism, in contrast to the intransigence of moralism, is quite appealing.

But I feel impelled to articulate one criticism: that Marks does not go far enough. He tells us to consider what we really want and then to act on our desires; but he gives no guidance about what to really want – by which I mean, no guidance about what it is important or advisable to want. What is important enough to care about? He asks us to pay attention to “our considered desires,” but on what basis shall we consider them? Certainly we all have competing desires. How then shall we evaluate them? How shall we decide which of the contestants to favor? What is the best thing (or even a pretty good thing) to desire with sufficient intensity that we are moved to actually strive to achieve it?

‘What’s the best thing to desire?’ is not a trivial question. Rather, it is one of the fundamental questions that philosophers have considered, since Socrates or earlier. Marks should at least offer some advice, then. That’s what philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, is all about. (That’s a non-moral use of the word ‘should’, by the way: it means what is socially expected, not what is morally commanded.)

What would the advice be? My own view is that it would have to do with what leads us to a fulfilling and flourishing life. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Socrates agree that the desire to survive, thrive and feel happy and fulfilled is fundamental and essential to all humans. If you disagree and think something else is more to be desired, then consider that in order to fulfill that alternative desire, you would have to survive and thrive at least enough to be able to attain it, and once you attained it, you would, I presume, feel happy and fulfilled. So functioning well enough to survive and thrive is the fundamental aim of all of us.

Given that premise, the philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to function well? How are we constituted, what is good for us, and what are we good for and good at? In short: What is human nature?

I won’t attempt to answer these questions here, but this shows there’s more to the story of ethics than just to do what you want after due consideration. We can for instance make generalizations about what makes most people happy or what promotes the welfare of most people, and we can generate advice based on those generalizations. Such advice, being empirically based, would have a great deal of force. I think Marks would agree that it would have much more force than moralistic judgments based on false metaphysical presuppositions.

In sum, Marks has produced a thought-provoking work. I have not described all of it. There is a chapter on how an amoralist would address the contentious issue of animal welfare, for instance. There is another chapter on various alternative ways to conceive of morality. Scattered throughout are hints that Marks doubts many of the usual conceptions of free will. Perhaps he will write about that topic in the future. If so, I expect to read it with as much pleasure as I had reading Ethics without Morals.

© Bill Meacham, 2014

Bill Meacham received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, made his living as a computer programmer, systems analyst and project manager, and is now an independent scholar in philosophy. He is the author of How To Be An Excellent Human, and his writing can be found at

Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality, by Joel Marks, New York and London: Routledge, 2013, 133 pages, ISBN: 978-0-415-63556-1

Aug 8 14

A Finely Tuned Universe

by Bill Meacham

One of the more superficially plausible arguments for the existence of a Creator God is that of the Finely Tuned Universe. It is a variant of the argument from design, that the contents of the universe are so intricately connected that an intelligent being must have designed them. That argument originally focused on biological complexity, but Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection trumped it by accounting for biological design by natural causes rather than an intelligent creator.(1) The argument that the universe is finely tuned to provide a home for human life extends the argument from design from biology to the cosmos as a whole.

The argument, in brief, is that the conditions that allow life in the universe can occur only when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range. If any of them were only slightly different, the universe would not be conducive to the establishment and development of not only life, but the diversity of physical elements, astronomical structures, and even matter itself. The probability of these values all being just so is so small that an intelligent Creator God is a better explanation than pure chance.

The list of such constants varies among adherents of this view; among them are the following:(2)

  • The ratio of the strength of gravity to that of electromagnetism;
  • The strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei;
  • The Density parameter, the relative values of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe;
  • The cosmological constant, which defines the energy density of the vacuum of space;
  • The ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass; and
  • The number of spatial dimensions in spacetime.

Recently it has been suggested that the mass of the Higgs Particle, which is 17 orders of magnitude smaller than physicists would expect it to be were it “natural” (a technical term in particle physics, not the opposite of supernatural), is also one of these finely tuned properties of the universe. If it were what physicists would expect given other characteristics of small particles, there would not even be mass as we know it, let alone life.(3)

The Finely Tuned Universe argument asserts that the fact that all these values are set just so is highly, highly improbable. They have a Vanishingly(4) small chance of occurring just as they do by pure chance; so instead, an Intelligent Designer must have set them up that way. As a friend put it, what if you flipped a coin 100 times and it came up heads every time? Wouldn’t that be so improbable that we would suspect something other than random chance?

I think not. In rebuttal, let’s consider some points about probability and the anthropic principle.


The concept of probability applies only to that which has not yet happened, i.e., events in the future. The probability of an event happening is equal to the number of ways it can happen divided by the total number of possible outcomes. For flipping a coin to get heads there is one way the desired event can happen (it comes up heads) and two possible outcomes (it comes up heads and it comes up tails), so the probability of getting heads is 1/2 (0.5) or 50%. To find the probability of independent events that occur in sequence such as 100 heads in a row, you find the probability of each event occurring separately and then multiply the probabilities. That would mean 0.5 to the 100th power, which is indeed minuscule (7.88861E-31, according to Excel).(5)

But, after the events have happened, the concept of probability no longer applies! If you did indeed get 100 heads in a row, the probability, if you can call it that, would be 100%. Before you started, the probability of that outcome was minuscule. After you are done, that outcome is a certainty. It is no longer probable; it is actual.

So to say that we live in a highly improbable universe is bogus. It is certain that we live in the universe as it is.

That answer is unlikely to persuade most people. Yes, the universe is as it is, but before it got that way wasn’t it improbable that it would? My answer: Yes, it was quite improbable. But so was every other way it could have been.

Imagine, not a Creator God, but a Universe Generator. The Universe Generator is like a random number generator (except it does not have to be random) that generates universes, either all at once (the “multiverse”) or one at a time. Before any particular universe is generated, the probability of it turning out in a certain way is minuscule. The probability of a universe with different cosmological constants from ours, but each having a particular value, would be as minuscule as the probability of our universe with the values we find in it. At some point in meta-time our particular universe is generated. Then it’s a done deal, and here we are. That it was improbable before it got generated is nothing remarkable; so was every other universe before it got created.

I’m not sure the concept of a Universe Generator in meta-time actually makes sense, but it is a way of suggesting that the alleged improbability of our universe turning out just as it has is a bogus consideration.

Here is another way of looking at it. For simplicity, imagine flipping a coin, not 100 but only eight times. The probability of getting heads all eight times (HHHHHHHH) would be 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2, or 0.5 to the 8th power, which comes out to 1/256, or 0.00390625. That’s not Vanishingly small, but small enough to seem awfully improbable. Now consider the probability of getting some other result, say HTTHHTHT. Its probability is equally 0.00390625! Now matter how it comes out in the end, before you flip the coins the probability of any particular outcome is the same as any other. Similarly, that our universe was improbable is nothing remarkable. So was every other possible universe.

Anthropic Principle

Yes, one might object, but how come we get to be here and observe our world and think about it? Isn’t that strange? Not really. Consider the Anthropic Principle, the idea that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. A variant called the Weak Anthropic Principle says that the universe’s ostensible fine tuning is the result of selection bias. Only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing and reflecting upon any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life would not be observed by anybody.(6) So it is entirely unremarkable that we are here to observe the universe. If the universe were such that it could not support life, we would not be there to observe and puzzle about it. There is no need to posit any sort of intelligent design to account for it. As physicist Stephen Hawking puts it, “Intelligent beings … should … not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence. It is a bit like a rich person living in a wealthy neighborhood not seeing any poverty.”(7)

So What?

You can readily find on the Internet numerous other objections to the Finely Tuned Universe argument for a Creator God as well as numerous theological arguments that purport to refute them. I have offered a few objections in the interest of clarity of thought, but I suspect that the whole debate is what the Buddha called “questions which tend not to edification.”(8) Who really bases their faith on such arguments? Both theists and atheists come to conclusions on emotional grounds and then find arguments to rationalize their positions, as do we all in many arenas of life.(9)

William James addressed the question over 150 years ago: “It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.”(10) In either case, the world is as it is. From a practical point of view, speculation about origins is futile.

But what does matter is our orientation to life in the future. James, a theist who struggled to find a way to reconcile his urge to believe with science and philosophy, asserted that theism is preferable to atheism because it gives us hope for the future. I have addressed this question before. When objective science fails to provide an answer, our subjective experiences of what we might call a Higher Power can be decisive, particularly if our relationship with that Higher Power provides us benefits. If, for instance, we are happier and function better with such belief than without it, then we are justified in believing.

In that vein, I offer a gentle speculation. Consider the unlikely result of flipping a coin mentioned above, HTTHHTHT. The same result can be written in binary code, the language of computers, as 01100101. That is the code (in ASCII, for those who know what that is) for the letter “e,” the most common letter in the English alphabet. If we examined a computer-encoded text, we would find that sequence, 01100101, far more often than we would expect if its genesis were purely random. Indeed, we would probably find it more often than any other sequence of eight bits. That finding would tell us that the text is not random, but has some other organizing principle.

We cannot inspect numerous universes to see if more of them are amenable to life than we would expect from sheer randomness. But, as a friend suggests, we can look around the world we do live in to see if we can discern evidence of a Higher Power that takes a benevolent interest in us, God’s fingerprints as it were.

And if we find such evidence, we try to formulate a coherent story of how it fits in with the rest of what we know. There are many such stories in the world’s religions. Here is another one. In the beginning, it is said, was the Word.(11) Perhaps the universe we live in is a story that God is telling, a story that isn’t over yet. We are characters in the story; and unlike characters on the printed page, whose actions are determined by the author, we get to co-create the story. We get to make decisions and exert our will to make things happen. Maybe our actions are only eight tiny bits in a sequence that is Vastly long, but those bits make a difference. And it is up to us what kind of difference we make.


(1) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.”

(2) Wikipedia, “Fine-tuned Universe.”

(3) Veith, “A Christian Physicist;” Barr, “On the Edge of Discovery;” Barr, “The Large Hadron Collider.”

(4) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 207.  “Vanishingly” (capitalized) means very, very small, but not infinitely so.  Its reciprocal is “Vast,” meaning very, very large, but not infinite.

(5) Aczel, Chance, pp. 5-12.

(6) Wikipedia, “Anthropic Principle.”

(7) Quoted in Iron Chariots, “Fine-tuning argument.”

(8) Buddhist Writings, Majjhima-Nikaya, Sutta 63.

(9) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 13-17.

(10) James, “Some Metaphysical Problems,” p. 71.

(11) Christian Bible, John 1:1.


Aczel, Amir D. Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market & Just About Everything Else. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.

Barr, Stephen M. “On the Edge of Discovery.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Barr, Stephen M. “The Large Hadron Collider, the Multiverse, and Me (and my friends).” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Buddhist Writings, Translated and Annotated by Henry Clarke Warren. Vol. XLV, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001. Online publication as of 15 November 2012.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Iron Chariots. “Fine-tuning argument.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

James, William. “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Veith, Gene. “A Christian physicist, the Higgs particle, and an anthropic multiverse.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Fine-tuned Universe.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Jul 17 14

Some Observations on C. S. Peirce

by Bill Meacham

Charles_Sanders_Peirce_100The topic today is a single paragraph from a paper by the American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce (pronounced “purse”) titled “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed For Man.” Peirce is considered a highly original and influential thinker, and by considering in detail Peirce’s assertions in this excerpt we’ll be able to see why. Here it is:

Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence. Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction; and it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act. We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts. Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment. This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness. If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.(1)

This passage appears in a paper in which Peirce debunks a number of ideas that much of philosophy has historically considered true but that Peirce considers false. The first sentence expresses one of them:

Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence.

In this sentence Peirce states what he will argue against. The rest of the paragraph is his refutation of the proposition that in order to have a belief we must know that we have it. By “conception” Peirce means an idea, a notion, a judgment or a thought, something we entertain mentally. What he means by “belief” is at the root of Peirce’s contribution to philosophy, and will be made clear shortly.

Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction ….

We can think of something without actually believing it. For instance, I can think “The cat is on the mat” without believing that the cat really is on the mat. The words are just a conception, an idea; perhaps the idea includes along with the words a mental picture of the cat residing on the mat or perhaps not. If I look and see that the cat is there, then a feeling of conviction is added to the conception. When I not only think but also believe that the cat is on the mat, then, Peirce says, a feeling of belief, a feeling of being convinced, is present in the experience as well.

This assertion should give us pause. Peirce is making a claim about one’s subjective experience of belief; and the claim is about all people, not just himself. How can we tell if he is right or not? To see if there is such a difference we would each have to examine our own experience of believing something and contrast it (in memory or in imagination) to our own experience of just thinking of something without believing it. I invite you, dear reader, to do just that. Let me know what you find out.

Peirce then says

… it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act.

[Note: Writing before the harmful effects of male-only language were recognized, Peirce means by “man” any human being.]

Peirce offers two definitions of the term “belief.” He does not mean to say that the two definitions are equivalent, as the phrase “mere question of words” might suggest. Peirce means to say that we can define the term “belief” however we like so long as the meaning is clear and we all agree on it. The first definition is what we have just discussed. The second is Peirce’s original and influential contribution to philosophy and the foundation on which Pragmatism as a philosophical movement is based. Belief, he says, is that upon which a person will act. In other papers he offers similar definitions:

If a man is made to believe in the premisses, in the sense that he will act from them and will say that they are true, under favorable conditions he will also be ready to act from the conclusion and to say that it is true.(2)

Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. … The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. … Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises.(3)

In contemporary terms, Peirce is a Dispositionalist, one who thinks that it is the pattern of actual and potential behavior that is fundamental in belief. Believing that something is the case is equivalent to being disposed to act as though it is the case.(4)

It is instructive to consider how Peirce comes to this view. He does so by observing how belief and its opposite, doubt, actually function in ourselves and in the world. In his influential paper “The Fixation of Belief” he says that doubt and belief differ in three ways:(5)

  1. They feel different. The sensation of doubting is a kind of irritation. The sensation of belief is calm and satisfactory.
  2. They have different ways of determining our actions in the world. Doubt is a state in which we do not act with surety; it gives us no guidance; we do not know what to do, so we act hesitantly if at all. Belief is a state in which we do act with surety. We have confidence in what we believe and act on our beliefs quite readily.
  3. They have different ways of determining our actions toward themselves. “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.”(6)

Peirce was trained as a scientist and a logician and made his living taking scientific measurements for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. His method in all things intellectual is scientific. Instead of reasoning from putatively self-evident first premises, he observes reality and learns from it. In the case of belief he observes the effects that it and its opposite, doubt, have on the believer, both internally, how doubt and belief feel, and externally, in what way they affect further efforts of inquiry.

Returning now to the passage at hand, Peirce says

We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts.

Sensational belief is that which is accompanied by a feeling of conviction. Active belief is that which determines how we are disposed to act. Peirce claims that either one can occur without the other, but unfortunately adduces no facts in support of his claim. Let’s see if he is right. By constructing a truth table we see that there are four possible cases concerning a conception (or, as we would say today, a proposition) that might or might not be a belief. Let S stand for Sensational and A for Active belief; here is the table:

1 S true A true
2 S true A false
3 S false A true
4 S false A false


Case 1: Sensational is true and Active is true; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and also disposes the person believing it to act. An example of case 1 is this: I am about to go out and want to know if it is raining. I am in a state of doubt. I look out the window and see that rain is falling. Now I am no longer in a state of doubt, but one of belief. I am quite confident that it is raining, and I take my umbrella with me to keep me dry. My belief is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and directs my action as well.

Case 2: Sensational is true and Active is false; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does not dispose the person believing it to act. An example of case 2 is this: I have a sudden feeling that there is a ghost in the next room, but I know that ghosts don’t exist, so I don’t do anything about it. The feeling is there, but not the impulse to action.

Case 3: Sensational is false and Active is true; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does dispose the person believing it to act. There are a great many examples of case 3. By far the majority of our beliefs are not things we think of or pay attention to, but do influence our behavior, beliefs such as that the floor is stable and will not suddenly give way; that one’s cup is where one last put it; that plants need sunlight and so forth.

Case 4: Sensational is false and Active is false; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction and neither does it dispose the person believing it to act. Case 4 includes two sub-cases, one in which we have no belief at all and the other in which we believe that a proposition is false. An example of the former (4a) would be the proposition that the flight from Austin to Chicago is delayed. I do not know whether that is so, and I don’t care, so I have neither a feeling of certainty nor a disposition to act. An example of the latter (4b) would be the proposition that the moon is made of green cheese. I believe the proposition false, so again I have neither a feeling of conviction in its truth nor a disposition to act. (I do, however, have a feeling of conviction in its contradiction, that the moon is not made of green cheese, so this case might properly be thought of as an example of case 1.)

An examination of cases shows that Peirce is correct in saying that sensational and active beliefs do not necessarily involve each other.

The next sentence is surprising: “Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.” It is unclear to me what reorganizing a belief would amount to, and to my knowledge Peirce nowhere else speaks of such reorganization. I suspect that this is a typographical error in the original, and the word should be “recognizing.” If so, the sentence would make more sense:

Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of recognizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.

On this reading the sentence would mean that the power of recognizing a conception as a belief consists in the capacity one has for the sensation, the “peculiar feeling of conviction,” to arise. The sentence is scarcely more than a tautology, but at least it makes sense.

What follows, however, is even more problematic.

This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness.

The sensation is certainly an object of consciousness in the sense that the person believing the proposition and paying attention to the sensation feels it. But it is also subjective in that only that person and nobody else feels it, so it would appear that Peirce is just wrong. The key to understanding this sentence is his use of the word “intuitive.” Peirce uses the term “intuition” in a special way. He means by it “a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, … [a] premiss not itself a conclusion.”(7) He thinks there are no such things, and the whole paper “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” attacks in various ways the assertion that there are. An example of such an alleged intuition is Descartes’ famous Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I exist.” From this alleged certain or self-evident proposition Descartes erects an account of reality that he claims to be indubitable because it rests on an indubitable foundation. Peirce scorns such a method. For Peirce, the way to find out about reality is to employ the scientific method: form a hypothesis; deduce from it some conclusions that can be verified experimentally; and then observe reality carefully in order to corroborate or disprove the hypothesis.

That said, I think his use of the word “intuitive” is unfortunate because it implies that we have no way of knowing the subjective elements of conscious experience other than by inference from publicly-observable facts. But, as Husserl has shown, conscious experience certainly does contain subjective elements; and one way we can know them is through introspective phenomenological observation, that is to say, from privately observable facts.

The final sentence in the passage at hand reiterates Peirce’s commitment to the scientific method:

If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.

We quite often discover belief by observing external facts. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” comes to mind: If someone says they think the ice is safe enough to walk on but refuses actually to walk on it, we infer that they don’t really think so. A less overt example is what cognitive psychologists call Theory of Mind and philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the Intentional Stance, which consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires.(8) If something seems to move on its own rather than being pushed by another object, and it moves toward something as if trying to reach a goal, and it changes direction flexibly in response to what is happening in its environment, then we quite automatically take it to be an agent, a being with beliefs about its surroundings as well as things it wants to acquire or accomplish.(9)

Peirce also says that we can infer from the sensation of conviction that we will be willing to act on what we are convinced of. I suppose that is true, but in practice we hardly ever if at all go through an explicit chain of such reasoning. We just act on what we believe without any thought of whether we believe it. If thought is needed, it is to decide what to believe, not to figure out what we believe by considering our sensations of conviction.

In summary, this short passage illustrates several key ideas of C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic thought:

  • Reliance on scientific method, of careful observation of reality, to determine what it is reasonable to believe.
  • Reliance on observations not only of third-person objective facts but also of first-person subjective facts.
  • Understanding what a concept means by what practical consequences it has, and in particular understanding belief as that upon which a person is disposed to act.
  • The importance of action in the world, not just contemplative thought from an armchair, to determine the meaning of concepts.

Peirce is the founder of Pragmatism. If you would like to study his ideas in more depth, I recommend two articles, which, taken together, are the foundational statements of that philosophical movement: “The Fixation of Belief” and “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”


(1) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” pp. 31-32.

(2) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” p. 42.

(3) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.

(4) Schwitzgebel, “Belief.”

(5) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.

(6) Ibid., p. 99.

(7) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” p. 18.

(8) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(9) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 313–322.


Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 286-302 (January 1878). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 113-136. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 103-114 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 13-38. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 140-157 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 39-72. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 1-15 (November 1877). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 91-112. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 14 June 2014.

Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Spring 2014 Edition. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Online publication as of 16 June 2014.