What right to an opinion?


Do you have the right to an opinion?

Many months ago I was in a discussion that ended with two people disagreeing and the other one saying something to the effect of “well, this is my opinion and I have a right to it.” I didn’t say this at the time because I was happy for the discussion to end, but my thought was: That’s the problem here. The problem is that you think you have the right to think what you think, whatever that happens to be. You don’t. That’s right, you do not have the right to an opinion, whatever that opinion might be. Continue reading “What right to an opinion?”

Nuts and Bolts 011: Ethical Intuitionism


G. E. MooreIn the “nuts and bolts” series, I explain and discuss some of the fundamental ideas in philosophy (and theology sometimes) that are taken for granted within the discipline, but which might not be very well known to ordinary human beings. This time the subject is ethical intuitionism (or moral intuitionism).

Firstly, and this cannot be emphasised strongly enough, moral intuitionism is not and has never been a theory about how moral facts are grounded. It is not a meta-ethical theory and it is not an ethical theory. It does not try to explain what makes anything right or wrong, nor does it try to tell us which particular actions are right and which are wrong. If you ever hear someone say “so your intuitions tell you that it’s wrong. That doesn’t make it wrong!” then you have my permission to do something unpleasant to them. Moral intuitionism is not meant to be about what makes things wrong – or right.

So if it’s not a theory of morality, what is it? Moral intuitionism is a moral epistemology. It is no more and no less than a theory about how we can come to know certain things, in this case certain moral facts. We can know them, according to this theory, by intuiting them, by experiencing the intuition that they are true. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 011: Ethical Intuitionism”

Rationalists and Empiricists


These days – especially on the internet, although usually out side of a formal philosophical context, a lot of outspoken atheists take the title “rationalist.” Within popular philosophy, therefore (again, in the context of internet based discussion), if a person uses the word “rationalist” it is often assumed that one is talking about opposition to religion. Groups like the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists expect people to assume, based on the name of the group, that the group’s members are not religious (I won’t delve into the use of the word “humanist” just now, but that’s fascinating too).

I thought it might be helpful to point out, therefore, what rationalism really is. The best way to do this is to compare rationalism with its philosophical rival, empiricism. I’ll be brief, because brief explanations are the easiest to remember.

Rationalists, like Descartes or Kant, believed that (some) knowledge and concepts are innate: We are born with built in knowledge concepts. Candidates for this sort of thing might be moral intuitions, mathematical truisms, or perhaps a whole range of common sense judgements summed up as “folk psychology.”

Empiricists, like Locke, Berkley and Hume, believed that everything is learned via experience. We are born as a blank slate, and we accumulate knowledge and concepts as we go.

Every now and then I have a geeky chuckle over the fact that a lot of contemporary sceptics who like to call themselves “rationalists” are in fact empiricists after all. Yes, mine is truly a sad existence….

Further reading

The Great Pumpkin Objection


In the last podcast episode on Plantinga and properly basic beliefs, I briefly discussed the “Great Pumpkin Objection.” As it’s a subject worthy of a blog post of its own, and given that I know some people prefer things in writing, I thought I’d add a blog entry focused on that objection.

Alvin Plantinga has hammered out and defended the notion that if God (the Christian God that he believes in) really exists, then a Christian’s belief in God can be construed as properly basic. A properly basic belief is one that is rationally held and yet not derived from other beliefs that one holds (this is another way of saying that it is not justified by what is often called evidence). We hold many such beliefs, for example, the belief that the universe was not created just five minutes ago, any beliefs based on memory, belief that other minds exist, the belief that we are experiencing a certain colour, and so on. Set aside, for now, the fact that a lot of Christians think that they can produce decent evidence for the existence of God. Plantinga argued – successfully in my view – that even if that’s true, theism can be construed as properly basic and hence suitably justified even without such evidence. God created us in such a way that when we function properly we believe in him. The normal epistemic response to creation is to believe things like “God created this,” or more fundamentally, “God is real.” For more details, check out the podcast episode.

One bandwagon that anti-theists have jumped on is to claim that if theists can claim that their belief in God is basic, then just anybody at all can do this in regard to their belief in just anything. Here’s one popular version of that objection: In the comic strip Peanuts, the character Linus believes that there exists a Great Pumpkin who rises from the pumpkin patch every Halloween and rewards good children with presents. If Christians get to think that belief in God can be properly basic, then why couldn’t a person (like Linus) think that belief in the Great Pumpkin is properly basic, and so claim the right to believe it even though he cannot produce evidence for the belief’s truth? Continue reading “The Great Pumpkin Objection”

Episode 036: Alvin Plantinga and Properly Basic Beliefs


Here’s episode 36, in honour of the recent retirement of Alvin Plantinga as the John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. It’s sort of a “nuts and bolts” podcast episode on Alvin Plantinga, introducing the listener to his account of belief in God as a properly basic belief – a belief justifiably held, but not held on the basis of evidence or argument.




Hume on Induction and Miracles: Having a bob each way?


I think that Hume’s two most famous arguments are his argument against induction and his argument against belief in miracles. I also think that if Hume embraced either one of these arguments, he ought to have rejected the other.

Hume’s brief argument against induction is found in his Treatise on Human Nature, Book 1, Part 3, Section 6. Without reproducing Hume’s comments in full, in a nutshell the claim is this: We can only ever observe a finite number of things. There is nothing about examples of things that we have observed that justifies making generalisations about all events of that sort. “From the mere repetition of any past impression, even to infinity, there never will arise any new original idea, such as that of a necessary connexion; and the number of impressions has in this case no more effect than if we confin’d ourselves to one only.” In short, we cannot reason from a finite number of examples that we observe to a general rule that applies to all examples of that sort.

Don’t base your criticism of the argument (if you have one) on my necessarily brief summary. Before commenting on Hume’s argument, read Book 1, Part 3, Section 6 in full here. Failing that, just accept my very brief summary.

Now, what was Hume’s argument against belief in miracles? His position was that we cannot have a justified belief that miracles have ever occurred. Why is this? Hume’s argument against (belief in) miracles is found in section 10 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual. The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes.

What about natural events that we have not ourselves experienced? Hume uses the example on an Indian Prince who, because he lives in India, has never seen water freeze. True, says Hume, the Prince should regard the description of frost as extraordinary, but there is still some natural analogy that might be of use in considering whether or not it is possible. Besides, he has never seen water in a very cold place, so he cannot call frozen water in very cold climates contrary to his experience.  While the event would be hard to believe, “still it is not miraculous, nor contrary to uniform experience of the course of nature in cases where all the circumstances are the same.” As I start quoting from Hume on miracles, notice the occurrence of phrases like “uniform experience of the course of nature.” Hume gives another example of something that would not be a miracle: “It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen.”

Let me state for the record that I have never observed a seemingly healthy man suddenly dying. If you tell me that you have seen this, that is all well and good, but to ask me to believe it is a matter of me being asked to accept testimony. But Hume then immediately says: “But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.”

Notice the step taken here. Hume has said now that in fact – regardless of what you might think has happened in the past – nobody has ever been witness to a resurrection. As soon as Hume says this, of course, he will be justly dismissed by Christians as merely begging the question. At issue is whether or not the New Testament witnesses to the resurrected Jesus really were genuine witnesses or not. To show one’s hand as obviously as this by claiming – as part of one’s argument against belief in miracles – that they were not really witnesses at all, is simply to walk away from genuine debate. But I want to set this collapse of argumentation aside for a moment. I will ignore it and stick with Hume just a little longer for the sake of seeing something else. Hume’s next comment reveals the shape of his argument more or less in totality:

There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

Question time: How does Hume claim to have given a proof that no miracle has happened in the past, even when we have testimony telling us that something he would call a miracle has happened in the past? The proof, answers Hume, is that our limited number of observations of what has happened in cases that we can see amounts to the establishment of a uniform rule concerning what has always (and could have) happened in the past. It is, he said, “a direct and full proof.”

Maybe you think this is a good reason to say that no miracle has ever happened, and maybe you don’t. But here’s my second question: What type of argument is this? The answer is that it is an inductive argument. What did Hume say about inductive reasoning?

Glenn Peoples

Nuts and Bolts 003: Analytic and Synthetic Truth


When he was presented with the accused man Jesus of Nazareth, the governer Pontius Pilate asked a question laden with philosophical importance: “What is truth?” It’s a question that I think was adequately answered centuries earlier by Plato: “The essence of truth is to say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not.” In normal english, the essence of truth-telling is to tell it like it really is.

In this edition of the nuts and bolts ( a series in which I cover the fundamentals of philosophy and later, theology), I won’t be wading through theories of truth. What I am going to do, prompted by a recent conversation, is to discuss the distinction between two different kinds of truths: analytic and synthetic. It might sound a bit artificial at first to talk about distinguishing between different sorts of truth. Some statements are true, and some are not. Right? Bear with me. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 003: Analytic and Synthetic Truth”

Nuts and Bolts 001: What is knowledge?


In a recent discussion with one of the commenters over at M and M’s blog (see the interchange between myself and someone using the nickname “Heraclides”) it occurred to me yet again that there are people – especially on the internet – who frequently wander into arguments about what are essentially subjects in philosophy, who clearly don’t have a background in philosophy, who appear not to have done much (or any) reading in the area they are arguing about, who are at times not really familiar with some of the basic terminology involved (even though they are using it), and there’s nothing terrible about any of this so far – but then your realise that they are talking as though they are absolutely certain that they are experts in the field. You offer a little advice, but you are told by this obvious newcomer that you couldn’t possibly know what you’re talking about.

Take my recent encounter. I said that scientists treat theories as provisional, but they do not treat knowledge as provisional. Knowledge is, after all, warranted true belief, so a scientist only knows something if he has become convinced that it is true. The reply that I was promptly given was “Theories *are* knowledge 😉 This suggests to me that you don’t understand what a theory really is.” Oh, and as for the fact that knowledge is warranted true belief, this is what my zealous fellow blog visitor had to say:  “Only a religious person would write “knowledge is warranted true belief”. This both shows that you don’t understand science (and thereby aren’t in a position to criticise it) and that you don’t understand the failing of insisting something is “true belief” either (it’s blind to any revision or new information).”

Rather than simply get further frustrated at the bleak intellectual scene that one often finds in the comments section at blogs out there (as illustrated by the above encounter), I have decided to put a little more energy into becoming part of the solution. I’m adding a new category to my blog. The category is called “nuts and bolts.” In this new category, I’ll add posts that spell out basic terms and concepts used in the various subject areas in philosophy. You might think this is a bit redundant. After all, there are plenty of online dictionaries and encyclopedias out there. And you’re right, there are. But the way I see it, the more good basic information is out there, the more likely somebody will be to stumble upon it. So here it is, the very first post in the nuts and bolts category.

Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 001: What is knowledge?”

What “The Little Prince” can teach some philosophers (and some normal people too)


My favourite children’s book right now is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I’m currently reading it to my son. He’s old enough to read it himself (he recently turned 10 – how the years have flown by!), but I’m making the most of reading to him while he still lets me – long may those years last!

Sometimes Children’s books (like the chronicles of Narnia, or this one) have a way of presenting profound philosophical points in such a perfect way. I doubt that all such points are self-explanatory to their young audience, which is yet more reason to think that children’s stories like this one are best when read to children as well as by them, because a really good story benefits the reader as much as the listener.

Anyway, to the point: Part IV of The Little Prince, the narrator, the man who met the Little Prince, introduces us to the fact that the Prince is from Asteroid B-612. But the narrator assures us that he’s just telling us this as a matter of fact, and not for the sake of “the grown-ups and their ways.” For you see,

Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never say to you, “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead, they demand: “How old is he? How many brothers and sisters does has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.

If you were to say to the grown-ups: “I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,” they would not be able to get any idea of the house at all. You would have to say to them, “I saw a house that cost £4,000.” Then they would exclaim: “Oh, what a pretty house that is!”

Just so, you might say to them: “The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, then that is proof that he exists.” And what good would it do to tell them that? They would shrug their shoulders and treat you like a child. But if you said to them: “The planet he came from is Asteroid B-612,” then they would be convinced, and leave you in peace from their questions.

They are like that. One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people.

But certainly, for us who understand life, figures are a matter of indifference. I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have liked to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a friend…”

To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.

For I do not want any one to read my book carelessly. I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories. Six years have passed since my friend went away from me, with his sheep. If I try to describe him here, it is to make sure that I shall not forget him. To forget a friend is sad. Not everyone has had a friend. And if I forget him, I may become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures.

As someone with some familiarity with – and great appreciation for – the writings of Alvin Plantinga, and just as someone who thinks that we can know that God exists without being able to convince anyone, this stood out to me immediately as really profound.

Christians believe (or at least I hope I’m not the only one who believes this) that in some really important way, we know God, and that God, to some extent, has made himself known to us. Take a philosophically unsophisticated person to whom God has personally made Himself known as loving and forgiving, and so forth. Given that God really has done so, what kind of objection is it to say to such a person, “but how can this have happened when we don’t even have any hard evidence that God exists?” In these circumstances, that God is loving and forgiving (and so forth) is evidence that he exists, because you can’t be loving and forgiving – or anything else – unless you exist.

Of course, if someone forbids the possibility that the narrator ever knew the little prince, or that God could ever have actually made himself known, this will just sound false. All the more reason to think that (a very strong form of) evidentialism leaves something to be desired.