Philosophy Cartoons

Humor meets contemporary analytic philosophy

Circularity January 23, 2009

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I’d be willing to put $500 on the line right now that I can give you a valid and sound deductive argument, where the conclusion renders the truth about whether God exists. I hereby guarantee that one of the following two arguments fits that description:

1. God exists.
2. Therefore, God exists.

1. God does not exist.
2. Therefore, God does not exist.

Each of these argument are such that if their premises are true, it is impossible for their conclusion to be true. This makes the arguments logically valid. Furthermore, it is necessarily the case that one of these arguments has a true conclusion, meaning therefore that one of them is sound.

Why don’t these arguments impress us in the slightest? It’s because validity and soundness are not the only measures of argument quality. A commonly ignored factor is non-circularity.

Most circular arguments are not as blatant as these. Often a long, drawn out argument will have as one of its premises a stylistic variant on the exact conclusion the argument is trying to make. Sometimes this is further obfuscated by some other cleverly disguised logical fallacy, such as an equivocation. This happened in my epistemology class last week – we removed an equivocation in terms from an argument only to find that its seventh premise was just a fancy way of saying exactly the same thing as its conclusion. Circular argumentation is sometimes known as begging the question.

Since circular arguments are neither helpful nor persuasive to anybody, philosophers would do best to avoid them at all costs. Examine your arguments carefully. Look for any premise that depend upon the conclusion already being true for its justification, then try to remove the circularity by justifying your premises on outside grounds. You may come up with brand-new arguments that will be all the stronger for having been through this process.

For more on circularity, check out this page from The Fallacy Files, the best website I’ve come across dealing with various types of logical fallacies.


Determinism January 21, 2009

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The Perry Bible Fellowship

Determinism is the view that everything that happens is determined to happen, due to the initial conditions of the universe in conjunction with the laws of nature. In other words, according to determinism, if we knew everything about the laws of nature, and everything about every particle in the universe, we could predict the future with 100% accuracy. We can form an analogy with billiard balls on a table. In a perfectly controlled system, hitting the cue ball in the exact same way given the exact same setup of the balls on the table will always cause the exact same results.

The idea behind the comic seems to be a macabre twist on the determinist story. A giant RESET button that sets the universe back to its initial state would, theoretically, only cause the exact same chain of events of this universe to happen again. (In fact, who’s to say that this hasn’t already happened? Oooooh…)

With the discovery of modern physics and quantum mechanics, contemporary scientists have swung decidedly toward indeterminism, whereby there are some events that are not caused by previous events, but are “uncaused.” An electron is said to act in an entirely random way when observed, such that we cannot possibly know both the speed and the position of any electron. Skeptics of this view claim that there is some cause to the way that electrons behave, but that our science simply has been unable to find it so far.

For more on this topic, including the alleged threat to freedom by determinism, try the SEP article on Causal Determinism or my sadly deprecated other blog.


The Distant Future Problem January 19, 2009

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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Consequentialism is the ethical view that the thing that makes an action right or wrong is its consequences. One version of consequentialism, as detailed by Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mills, is Utilitarianism. Utilitarians reduce ethics to almost a kind of math, where every action is evaluated in terms of the net amount of pleasure or pain it produces. We can imagine a sort of formula, where utility=pleasure-pain. The goal of the utilitarian is to maximize utility. It is important to note that the pleasure and pain of every individual is taken into account equally; I cannot place my own utility or even the utility of my loved ones above that of a perfect stranger.

For example, say that I’m driving my car when I see a woman in the road. To my horror, I discover that my brakes are not working properly. I have the choice to either swerve into a field of tall grass on my right or continue on my current path, hitting the woman. If I hit the woman, it would cause her a lot of pain, and may even end her life. If I swerve into the ditch, I will be able to coast to a stop. My car may sustain a bit of damage, I may be jostled around a bit, and I may be late to my next appointment. But none of those things are enough to justify my not swerving into the field, saving the woman. The net utility if I swerve is much higher than the net utility if I do not. It seems that the right thing to do would be to veer right.

Although it gets the right answer in cases like these, there are several objections to utilitarianism and other consequentialist theories, which brings me to the comic. Utilitarianism demands that we take the utility of every single person into account. The problem is that there is no restriction on how far into the future we must consider when making ethical decisions. Suppose that I swerve my car to the right in the example above, but unbeknownst to me, there was a child lying in the tall grass and I hit her with my car, thus killing her. As it turns out, had this child lived, she would have become a Nobel Prize winning scientist for discovering an economical alternative to fossil fuels. She would have had two children, who would have gone on to cure cancer and solve world hunger. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have been similarly gifted, and on for generations. If you like, add in to the example that the woman I saved by swerving to the right turned out to be a mass murderer. Now, by Utilitarian standards, it would seem as though my action was hugely, massively wrong. By swerving to the right and trying to save the woman, I caused immense amounts of pain and prevented untold amounts of pleasure. But we do not want to say that my action was wrong – after all, I did what I thought was best, given the information I had at the time. This is called the Distant Future Problem.

For another example, consider Henry III, who had seven children in the 11th century, A.D. It is not unreasonable to think that some of his descendants are still around today. We cannot possibly say for sure who falls into his bloodline: Shakespeare, Hitler, J.K. Rowling, myself… who knows, really? It seems utilitarians must be willing to say that Henry III ought to have considered the net utility produced by all those people and all their offspring, on into the distant future. This seems ridiculous, since we would not want to attribute a wrong action to Henry III simply by virtue of the actions of his great-great-great-great grandchildren.

For more on the distant future problem,


Solipsism Convention January 16, 2009

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Toothpaste For Dinner

Solipsism, when held by person X, is roughly the idea that person X is all that exists, and that everything external to X is merely a fabrication. This is what I will refer to as the metaphysical conception of solipsism. True solipsists in this sense are few and far between. Perhaps this is due to the fact that whenever any two solipsists meet, at least one of them is necessarily incorrect. Hence, the humor in the notion of a “solipsist convention.”

A more viable and widespread, although still unpopular, conception of solipsism is what I will call the epistemological conception of solipsism. Proponents of this view do not necessarily believe that they are the only existing things, but only that we cannot know of the exitence of anything external to oneself. Consider an argument made famous by RenĂ© Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” This valid inference gives me motivation to think that I, in fact, exist, for even if I were being massively deceived by an evil demon with respect to every one of my experiences, it could not be that the demon is able to deceive me with respect to my belief in my own existence. However, since I do not have this sort of first-person perspectives into the minds of, for example, you, it is possible that I exist and nothing else.

For more on solipsism and The Problem of Other Minds, see the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.