Clear Language, Clear Mind

May 15, 2009

Discussions on the internet

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 18:19


I have a couple of thoughts related to discussing things on the internet that I want to share. These thoughts are about active networking, being effective and having the goal in mind, avoiding unproductive people etc.

Realization of why one is discussing

First one ought to make it clear to oneself why one is discussing on the internet; What is one trying to obtain? Some are undoubtedly there to “fight” battles for a variety of reasons. Perhaps because they deem it fun or entertaining or to get self-confidence by “slaying noobs”.

But I’ll admit that this is not my primary goal. By primary goal I mean that it is mostly not what I aim to get out of a discussion. I aim to improve my philosophical understanding and have a few laughs on my way there. I suppose that this is many people’s desire. At least, the philosopher type people I like to identify with.

However, this outcome, that is, improving one’s philosophical understanding, does not come easy. One has to learn how to communicate in a useful way. By useful I mean a way that is optimal for whatever one is doing. I’m assuming here that one is trying to improve one’s philosophical understanding in a broad sense, and thus I’ll focus on reaching exactly that. In some cases this can be substituted for whatever subject it is that one is interested in. Some of my points may also hold for other subjects.

Is one in the right place? – Part 1

Discussion on the internet usually takes place in forums. Forums are designed to be a good place to discuss. However, some people like to discuss in other places like comment sections, instant messengers etc. I recommend not using a suboptimal medium to discuss in, such as an instant messenger. The reason why instant messengers are not a good communication tool for discussion is that they emphasize the quickness of the response which is irrelevant for a good argument. Good choices are forums and emails or private messages sent via private message systems. Such systems are usually in place at forums.

The reason that they are good choices is that they allow for easy quoting of others’ words, and they give an overview.

There are also differences between them. Forums are more often used as fight places. When talking “public” people are probably more reluctant to admit that they are wrong in order to avoid losing pride. This is a human trait that ought to be avoided if possible. It can be done by remembering why one is discussimg: To get a better philosophical understanding, not to have a renown internet personality. One can reduce the personality issue by being anonymous, so that the only “person” that loses pride is the name on the screen. If it gets really bad, one can always create a new user and start out anew. Forums are better if one’s goal is to get opinions from many people; Such as getting general comments on some important argument. In-deep discussions can hereafter take place either in the public forum or in private communications.

The advantage of email is that the personality issue is less there; People are less reluctant to admit mistakes when there is only one person that will know. Also keep in mind that e-mails can be used anonymously too. A disadvantage of e-mail or private messages is that the information is not publicly viewable. This means that unless one afterward shares the emails with a third part, others will not benefit from reading the discussion.

Is one in the right place? – Part 2

Though, there are other things than the medium to take into account. There is also the community. This obviously relates to the question of whom one is going to discuss with. One would not want to discuss with people who’s goal is to “fight”, as mentioned earlier. One would want to discuss with people who also share the desire of improving one’s philosophical understanding. Such people can be very hard to come by. One should try to get a good look at the forum discussions to get an idea about the general level of the discussion. Afterward one can answer the questions: Is it worth participating here?; What will I probably get out of it if I participate?

Participation, however, might not be needed. There is no reason to just repeat something that was already stated clearly. One can learn a lot by just reading. Think of it like reading a book where one has the opportunity to write something and change the story. This does not imply that one ought to write something. It might be a good idea just to let it run.

Avoiding unproductive people

This is basic networking. Don’t waste your time with people who will not help you reach your goal(s). This could be, but is not limited to, people who like to “fight”, or people who are too stupid to learn you anything. Stay around productive people. Avoid responding to people who are unproductive. If you wish, you can reply that you find them unproductive and thus do not want to engage in discussion with them. In this way it will seem as if you don’t have any counter-arguments, though this shouldn’t matter much to one as it is only a personality issue which I mentioned earlier.

The idea of working beliefs

Suppose you want to examine some proposition. How would you go on doing that? One could contemplate it oneself, and then decide what to believe. The problem is that often when one studies something only oneself, then one will probably miss some things, at least one will miss things that are obvious to other people. Some of these things might be critical to the examination of a belief. If one is really interested in truth, then one wants to see the best arguments for all sides. A good way to get familiar with such arguments is to discuss the issue with people who are intelligent and fairly well-read. This method is especially useful if one cannot find a good article or book published on the issue, or that this is too expensive etc.

Discussions on the internet are typically separated into different threads. This gives a very good opportunity to test beliefs. One can start a new thread and then pretend to believe something, and give the best arguments one knows for that specific belief. Others will then, hopefully. supply counter-arguments. After some discussion one can assess the total available evidence and then form more well-researched belief than if one had only examined it oneself.

However, one should avoid testing too stupid beliefs for that might get reasonable people to think that one is a troll or just really stupid, and thus to not respond to posts that one makes in other threads too.

Another advantage with working beliefs is that one avoids the embarrassment of having been proved wrong. One should simply state in the beginning of the thread that one is defending a working belief to see how it goes.


We’re all fallible creatures. When one doesn’t know what one is talking about, one should admit it. Think about how many times you have been wrong in the past. This is good inductive evidence that you will be wrong in the future; What possible reason do you have for thinking that you’ve got it exactly right this time? (I.e. since the last time you changed your beliefs.) It’s a good idea to keep one’s ignorance in mind when discussing. People generally don’t like people who act or write like they know everything already. After all, if you already know everything there is to know about a subject, why are you on the discussion board? To preach your position?

Of course, one ought not to claim too much ignorance either. People who claim to be ignorant about things they clearly know about are lying, and thus untrustworthy. Realize that you’re not superman, you’re not right about everything you believe, but if you set your mind to it, you will improve your understanding and get rid of many of the wrong beliefs that you hold.

Synthesis, cooperation

When discussing some completely new problem, i.e. one that was not hitherto known to the participants in the thread, it is probably a good idea to try to invent a theory together that can solve the problem. Other participants are not your enemies, for all you know, you might end up agreeing with them. Try to cooperate with other people to figure out the situation. There is no reason to try to stand out from the crowd. The majority view is not always correct, but it is not always wrong either.

Writing in a friendly language, mind-reading, psychological explanations

Writing in a friendly language may get you some new friends, reduce hostilities from other participants, and help keep focus on the issue in the thread instead of on personal issues. Friends you earn this way may be helpful in reaching your goals too. For instance, they could offer to proof-read and comment articles you write before you publish them.

Try to avoid mind-reading the other participants. If you need to know their opinion about something, ask them. Wrongly assuming their position is unproductive and happens a lot on forums. It will just inflame things with accusations of “straw man!” flying around.

Try to avoid writing psychological explanations of why people believe what they do. Such explanations often beg the question and are thus unproductive. They also, sometimes, insult the other participants. If you find it very important to tell a particular person why you think they believe what they do, then write it in very friendly language and sent it as a private message or email. Such explanations also derail the thread, moving the attention from the issue to other irrelevancies.

Principle of charity, language

As mentioned earlier, after a long discussion it may happen that you come to agreement with the person or persons that you’ve been discussing with. Many times people get stuck in their language choice or use. One ought to realize that common language is broad and can be used in ways you don’t normally use it. One ought to attempt to understand what then other person believes instead of just (almost mechanically) replying to what they write. Sometimes people choose a wrong word to express their belief. Ask yourself what your goal is: Is it to show that some particular belief is wrong, or to find out what the other person believes and to have a productive discussion? Think about it, there are billions of wrong beliefs. One cannot demolish all of them. There is only a point in demolishing a belief when one knows that there are people who believe it.

There is a principle related to this, the principle of charity: When one reads a text and have multiples theories or interpretations of what the author means, one should always assume that the author means the most probably interpretation of the text. If multiple theories are plausible, one should either address all of them or ask the author for clarification.

May 13, 2009

"The War on Sharing: Why the FSF Cares About RIAA Lawsuits"

Filed under: Politics — Tags: — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 16:39

Hvis man interesserer sig for copyrightproblemet så bør man læse denne artikel. Man bør generelt læse den, da det er en meget god artikel om emnet.

May 12, 2009

Belief, disbelief; agreement, disagreement

Filed under: Language — Tags: , , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 18:48

There is often some confusion surrounding the terms: belief, disbelief, agreement and disagreement when used in a philosophical context. We need to keep in mind that normal dictionary definitions are often not precise enough to be used in a philosophical context where precision and clarity are essential. (For analytic philosophy.) In this article I will explain the terms ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’, and ‘agreement’ and ‘disagreement’. Then I will suggest a new way to define the terms in the name of clarity.

Belief and disbelief

I’m not going into some advanced theory of how humans believe things. I’m merely going to the contrast between believing something and disbelieving something. The confusion lies not with the word ‘belief’ but with the word ‘disbelief’. Some take ‘disbelief’ to be a mere lack of belief in something. Others take ‘disbelief’ to be a belief in the negation of something. It is this latter meaning that is usually meant in philosophical context. Going by the normal meaning of ‘belief’ and the second meaning of ‘disbelief’ we should then be able to see that this is a false dichotomy; One does not either believe something or disbelieve in something. There is a third option, that is, that one has no belief at all on the matter.1 Here’s a table that shows trichotomy along with a symbolic logic representation of the options:

Options Formalization
I believe something. B(p)
I don’t have any opinion about something. ¬B(p)∧¬B(¬p)
I disbelieve in something. B(¬p)

Note: Replace ‘something’ in the table with some particular proposition. Philosophers usually just write p which is what I have done in the formalization to the right.

The confusion is often between row number two and row number three. Especially when the ambiguous phrase “I don’t believe that something” is used. Taken literally this phrase means the first part of the second row2 but people usually mean the third row when they say it.

I suggest that, for the sake of clarity, that one ought to use “I believe something” to mean the first row, “I have no opinion about something” to mean the second row, and “I disbelieve in something” to mean the third row. To mean a lack of belief in something I suggest using the phrase “I have no belief that something”. Avoid using the phrase “I don’t believe that something” because it is ambiguous.

Agreement and disagreement

Having understood the above we can move on to the second part of this article. I suggest that we define agreement and disagreement in an analogous way to the above defined words. This means that to be in agreement about something with someone is to believe the something that the other person believes. To disagree with someone about something is to believe the negation of what the other person believes. Note that the common usage of ‘disagree’ is to merely not believe the something that the other person believes. I suggest that if one wants to say that one does not believe the something it is that the other person believes, then one ought to say “I don’t agree”. If one accepts this redefinition in the context of philosophy, then one should see that the dichotomy between agreeing and disagreeing is false. It is possible to not hold an opinion at all about something.

1I mean ‘the matter’ in a strict sense. Here’s an example. Suppose the matter is ‘one ought to vote for the republican party’. Then the matter is only that. Beliefs about whether one ought to vote or note, or to vote for the democratic party are not relevant.

2That one has no belief in something. [¬B(p)]

May 10, 2009

Two kinds of certainty

Filed under: Epistemology — Tags: , , , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 02:13

A quick explanation of two types of certainty that people tend to confuse.

The first is the one we typically mean in natural language. It’s called psychological certainty. It’s a feeling of certainty; A confidence in something. This is the one we’re talking about when we say things like “Are you 100% sure?”. It is possible that someone is 100% psychologically certain that something is true and that the something is actually false. Just think of religious people. Psychological certainty comes in degrees.

The second is epistemic certainty. This is the one that philosophers usually talk about. It’s the inability to be wrong type of certainty. If one is epistemically certain, then one cannot be wrong. So, if one is epistemically certain about something, then that something is not only true but necessarily true; It cannot be false. This type of certainty is also called cartesian (after Descartes) certainty, infallible certainty and absolute certainty. This type of certainty does not come in degrees; Either one is epistemically certain or one is not.

For convenience, it smart to type p-certain and e-certain to distinguish between them.

April 23, 2009

Why something rather than nothing? An argument for the necessity of a something-world

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , , , , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 20:31

PDF due to mathematical expressions that WordPress does not support.


April 20, 2009

Motivation, reason, the impossible

Inspired by reading of David Hume’s Enquiry concerning the principles of Morals (EPM) edited by Tom L. Beauchamp.1

“Hume is often interpreted as arguing that no value judgment–however extreme, obscene, or cruel–is reasonable or unreasonable, just as no value judgment is factual. This interpretation needs careful assessment. A passion is ‘unreasonable’ for Hume not because the passion is inappropriate, as we suggest today when we say, ‘It was unreasonable of him to be angry’, but because the passion is based on an erroneous judgment, as when we say, ‘It is unreasonable to have a desire to do what is impossible’. For example, if I desire to see my dead grandfather at a restaurant tonight and this desire together with my peculiar belief that he will be there lead me to go to the restaurant, my desire is unreasonable because the judgment that he is alive and will be at the restaurant is unreasonable. Hume thinks that the judgment, not the desire, is unreasonable.”(Ibid. 47)

It is not Hume’s idea I will comment on here but I agree with it.

It is the idea of the commentator that desiring something impossible in unreasonable. His grandfather example seems fine though. Here are two counter-examples:

It is impossible to achieve a perfect society and not unreasonable to desire.

It is impossible to remove all suffering in the world and not unreasonable to desire.2

One way to defend his view is that the case is some continuum such as the perfectness of society or the amount of suffering in the view, the claim does not hold.

1This one:

2I’m using possible in the same collateral sense that he is, not any strict logical sense.

April 17, 2009

A journey into possibility land

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 03:27

Intro and types

I’ve been paying very close attention as of late to a special type of discourse: Namely, about what is possible and what is impossible. This study has led me to be very careful about my language use when speaking of such things because there are multiple types of possibilities: Logical, epistemic, physical, metaphysical, practical, technological etc. I have even created a modified version of modal logic that can handle multiple types of possibilities.i Logical possibility we ought to call L-possible, epistemic possibility we ought to call E-possible etc.

Modal fallacy

And before that I discovered the modal fallacy, which occurs when people confuse the scope of the possibility used. It may be about a single proposition or an entire implication.ii

Versions: Hypothetical and absolute

And then I discovered that even a single type (and pay close attention to the words used) of possibility is used in multiple ways. Let’s call these versions. There is the absolute version and then there is the hypothetical version. I did not invest these terms; Liebniz did.iii

Since I have already written of the aforementioned let me skip them and proceed on defining absolute and hypothetical modaly. Absolute modality is the one I’ve always been talking about and hypothetical is the one that others often talk about, which confuses matters a lot, and ultimately ends up wasting a lot of time.iv


But that is not clear enough, so let me define the first. A proposition is absolutely necessary iff the negation is a contradiction (which has the form [p∧¬p]). A hypothetical impossibility is a proposition which if added to a set of propositions would result in a contradiction. This is the kind of impossibility that we’re talking about when making reductio arguments: “If something, then some contradiction, but that it impossible, so something can’t be true.” Yes, it can in the absolute sense. We ought not to confuse them.

In a later article I attacked a hypothetical impossibility for being an absolute impossibility.v

The value of the hypothetical impossibility term?

I ask now what value we have of this term. What need do we get covered by accepting this term into our collection of words? None but confusions as far as I can tell. We might as well stop called the hypothetical impossibility for an impossibility at all, and then while we’re at it, we should be very careful in our usage of the necessarily-operator when writing conditionals, so we don’t commit the modal fallacy. It doesn’t matter if we call it ‘must’, ‘cannot’ ‘has to be’ or something else. We must be very clear in our language about this matter, for if anything is certain (meant non-literally), it is that the plain English language is not at all good enough for handling modalities. Clarity is the way forward.



iiiIt is discussed here: but originally from here:



April 16, 2009

Contraries and contradictories

Filed under: Logic — Tags: , , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 20:27


If one looks in a general dictionary one will not a find a definition of contrary that is philosophically useful.i

I looked the word up in a philosophical dictionary but that was not satisfied with the provided definition:

A pair of categorical propositions which (provided that we assume existential import) cannot both be true, but can both be false. In the traditional square of opposition, an A proposition and its corresponding E are contraries. Thus, for example:

All cars are green and No cars are green are contraries.ii

The reason why I am not satisfied with the above is that it is too narrow, i.e. that some contraries are not captured by the definition. I’m looking for a more rigorous definition. It seems that I have to create my own.

The problem with the above is that it only works for categorical propositions but contraries are not restricted to categorical propositions. For instance, two scientific theories may be contraries but they are not categorical propositions, or can be composed as a set of categorical propositions.

A more rigorous definition is this:

Two propositions, p and q, are contraries iff they belong to a set of propositions in which at most one proposition is true.

Note that it may be that no propositions in the set is true.

More formally we may define contraries as this:

For all x and for all y and for all z, iff x belongs to z and y belongs to z and at most one proposition in z is true, then x is a contrary of y and y is a contrary of x.


If one looks at the definition of contradictory the situation is better, though I still want to clarify the definition.iii

A contradictory may be defined as this:

Two propositions p and q are contradictory iff p and q belong to a set of propositions where exactly one of the propositions is true.

Note that this is assuming the law of the excluded middle.iv

More formally we may define contradictories thus:

For all x and for all y and for all z, iff x belongs to z and y belongs to z and exactly one proposition is true in z, then x is a contradiction of y and y is a contradiction of x.

Note also that all contradictories given my two definitions are contraries and that some contraries are contradictories.





April 11, 2009

Swartz' "Philosophy as a Blood Sport"

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Tags: , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 01:49

Copyright © Norman Swartz 1994
This revision: April 9, 1994
Department of Philosophy
Simon Fraser University

These notes may be freely reproduced, in whole or in part, provided the copyright notice and URL (above) are preserved on the copy. Any other reproduction is illegal.

Philosophy as a Blood Sport


This essay was written for a Festschrift for David Zimmerman, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.

Festschriften are, by custom, celebratory in nature. And so I must ask indulgence in my offering this somber, downbeat, essay. I am sure that David will not take it amiss. It is certainly not my desire to rain on David’s parade. Indeed, knowing of his intense sense of fairness, I suspect that he might even agree with some of what I have written. In any event, I have been talking about these matters with several colleagues in the Department over a period of many months, and it is time I put some of this in writing. This Festschrift provides only the occasion. I assure everyone that I had no particular philosophers, save the one faulted in the first paragraph, in mind when I wrote it.

It was back in the spring of 1965. I was a graduate student at Indiana University and the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association was holding its annual convention in Chicago. I and a few of my classmates drove from the campus at Bloomington to Chicago for the weekend meetings. At those meetings I witnessed the rudest, the most ill-mannered, performance I have ever seen by a philosopher. Robert Imlay read a paper, “Do I Really Ever Raise My Arm?” G*** B*** was in the audience. Immediately when Imlay had finished speaking, B*** was on his feet, usurping the meeting’s Chair of his scheduled role. B*** fumed: “You have got it all wrong. I am going to tell you what you should have said. Then, when I have said that, I will leave this room because I do not care how you will reply.” Whereupon B*** did just as he announced. He gave an impromptu talk of a few minutes, standing at his place in the audience, and then he turned and strode out of the room. Grover Maxwell, who was chairing the meeting, recovered admirably, and – pretending that none of this had happened at all – said, eloquently, “And now let us begin.”1

To this young graduate student, terribly naive about professional courtesies and mores, the incident was, although incredible, not particularly disturbing. It was titillating; it had a taste of scandale.

But with the perspective acquired over more than twenty-five ensuing years, having been involved both as spectator of, and participant in, numerous further public exchanges between philosophers, I now see that spontaneous piece of theater not as an isolated aberration but, sorrowfully, as only my first exposure to a number of such incidents.

Philosophers, of course, are supposed to be critical. We have trained, and daily refine our skills, at exposing the errors in others’ work. But while the exposing of error is an essential part of the doing of philosophy, it is not all there is to doing philosophy. Far too much of the practice of philosophy, both written and dialogical, has become one-sided: finding what is wrong in someone else’s work and failing to find what is right, useful, and meritorious in that work.

It is revelatory to attend the colloquia of academics and researchers outside of philosophy. The ambience is often, indeed almost invariably, radically different from meetings of philosophers. Philosophers have much to learn from those examples.

I remember when as an undergraduate, a year before I was to switch my career to philosophy, I took a summer job at the General Electric Research Laboratory, a scientific mecca which, at that time at least, was the largest privately funded research lab in the world. Every Friday afternoon there was a visiting researcher scheduled to deliver a talk in the auditorium explaining his latest research.2 These sessions were well-attended and keenly anticipated. The discussions following the talks were animated and exciting. And they were totally unlike much of what I have experienced in philosophy. To the best of my recollection, there was not a single instance at GE of anyone’s ever challenging the speaker on anything said. Instead these sessions were made up entirely of replies of this nature: “I’m working on such-and-such. Do you think I could adopt your techniques for what I am doing?”; or, “I think I can help you with so-and-so aspect of your problem. Let’s get together on this.”; or, “Have you heard of x’s results (/techniques)? I think his results (/techniques) could be useful to you.”; etc.

In other words, the discussions were invariably, and wholly, given over to trying to enhance, and make use of, one another’s work, to a cooperativeness, and selflessness that was natural, easy, and uninhibited. No one tried to ‘score any points’ off anybody else; no one tried to attack any other person’s work.

Since then I have witnessed the same friendly collegiality numerous times among other academics, and by ‘other’ I mean ‘non-philosophers’. Granted there have been occasions when I have seen philosophers behave in a similarly admirable manner. But I have also seen too many occasions when philosophers have ‘gone for the jugular’.

Is the blood lust I am speaking-of the cause of the underrepresentation of women in our profession? Does our very manner – collectively speaking of course, there are many individual exceptions – of doing philosophy repel the gentler, kinder, souls among our students? Have we adopted a collective personality which perpetuates itself by driving away those students who do not share our aggressiveness? These questions are, of course, sociological ones, ones whose answers call upon empirical research, and – as philosophers – we do not much ourselves conduct empirical research. But we must not fall back upon a priori answers.

As a father of a daughter who is pursuing a Ph.D. degree in philosophy, I have been afforded a rare opportunity to see academic philosophers from the outside, through someone else’s eyes. But it is not just, or even especially, Diane’s views which have troubled me. It is, rather, that she has been the catalyst for my seeking to learn from my own students how they view philosophers and, along with that, the contemporary practice of philosophy. Many of my women students, having finally been invited to offer their opinions and to relate their experiences, have been forthcoming. And what stories I have heard.

What so many persons currently practicing philosophy, currently serving as role models and mentors to students, find exhilarating – the cut and thrust of verbal battle – antagonizes, indeed offends, many students. Colloquia are viewed by these students – especially women – as the academic counterparts of courtroom battles. (Is there something of F. Lee Bailey, Louis Nizer, and Melvin Belli in many of us?) My students tell me that there is a palpable feeling of combat in philosophy paper readings and colloquia. And with their having alerted me to it, I, too, have come to sense it. Moreover, certain anecdotal evidence suggests that aggressive challenging of guest speakers’ theses has chilling effects on many of our students. For example, my best student of a year or two ago, a student with a real flair for philosophy, told me that she wanted no part of the hostility she felt at colloquia, and, despite my trying to convince her otherwise, was determined to leave philosophy. So far as I know, she has.3

It is not only in meetings. I find something of the same ruthlessness in many journal articles, and to an even greater extent in the reports that journal referees write about others’ work. I have, in various capacities, had opportunity to read a fair number of referees’ reports. Many of them leave me incredulous. What is there about writing an anonymous report on another’s work that empties the spleen of so many philosophers? Time and again, I have had to edit referees’ reports so as to make them, simply, civil. (Steven Davis, who sees far more referees’ reports than I do, has told me that he, too, finds many of them outrageously hostile.)

I am not remotely suggesting that we not attend to, still less desist from, the uncovering of error in philosophical work. But there are ways of doing this that are humane and honorable, and other ways that are insulting and unseemly. A person’s stature as a philosopher is not diminished by generosity and sensitivity. One thinks, for example, of Carl Hempel. Those who have known him personally (I have not) invariably speak of his kindness, and that humanity reflects in his writings: we look in vain there for a ‘put down’ of other philosophers. In Hempel’s work we see how it is possible to do philosophy extremely well without savagery. (Happily many other names come to mind as well.) But, by and large, or at any rate, to a greater extent than is warranted, philosophy has a vicious streak. If we really care about our profession, we need to reverse its destructive tendencies.

To be sure, what I have expressed here are opinions. You well may disagree with me. But if you are inclined to dismiss what I have written, do try to elicit views from students, not just those who have cast their lot with us, viz. the senior undergraduates and graduates, but from beginning students, most of whom abandon philosophy courses after initial exposure. It is easy to explain the attrition as being due to students’ inability to meet the high standards of the profession. But ought we to be sure that that is the principal reason? Might there be something else which disaffects students? Something not about philosophy itself, so much as about philosophers themselves?

Selected readers’ comments.


  1. Robert Imlay recalls the incident exactly as I do and has provided me with some additional information. It turns out that the meeting was the first time Imlay had ever read a paper in public. To this day, he regards B***’s onslaught as the most traumatic episode of his professional career.
  2. This was the early 1960s. I do not recall even one woman as guest speaker that entire summer.
  3. There is as well a significant further category of loss. Susan Wendell speaks of this in a note (25/07/92) she wrote me on reading a draft of this paper: “In addition to the consequences you point out, I think that the performance-under-fire aspect of presenting and hearing papers gives our students a false picture of philosophy. After all, a philosophic position is not proven false just because Jane Q. Philosopher can not instantly think of a good rebuttal to a criticism from the audience, nor is Jane thus proven to be a bad philosopher. Unfortunately, uncharitable opinions of precisely these sorts often are fostered in such circumstances. Even what looks to be a devastating criticism is sometimes seen to be smoke-and-mirrors after a few hours of hard thought. Many students, however, come to value the quick and clever point too highly. I have seen too many smart alecks, who have no significant ability to listen, produced by a philosophical education.”

April 7, 2009

Does a sound LPoE establish that god is impossible?

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , , , — Emil O. W. Kirkegaard @ 15:55

I’ve heard that claim, but do you think it is true? I don’t.
All LPoEs (Logical Problem of Evil’s) can be seen as an inconsistent set of propositions. Here’s a really simple version:

Simple LPoE:
1. God is all-good.
2. God is all-powerful.
3. God is all-knowledgeable.
4. If god is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowledgeable, then there is no evil.
5. There is evil.

The above set of propositions is inconsistent, i.e. they cannot all be true; it is impossible that they are all true. But from the fact that a set of propositions cannot be true, it does not follow that any one of them are impossible.

It does not follow either, that if all but one of them are true, then the last is necessarily false; impossibly true. That would be to commit a modal scope fallacy. What does follow from all but one of them being true is that the last one is false. So, there is a confusion between:

1. If all but one of the propositions in an inconsistent set are true, then the last proposition is necessarily false.

2. Necessarily, if all but one of the propositions in an inconsistent set are true, then the last proposition is false.

So, given the above I don’t know why someone thinks that a sound LPoE establishes that god is impossible. For that to work, one would need to establish that evil is necessarily and I don’t think that is feasible. After all, if evil is necessarily, it is not god’s fault that there is evil, is it?

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