The “about-ness” of thought

Consider, for example, the “about-ness” of thought. Does it make sense to say that one physical state is about another state? C. S. Lewis thought not:

We are compelled to admit between the thoughts of a terrestrial astronomer and the behaviour of matter several light-years away that particular relation we call truth. But this relation has no meaning at all if we try to make it exist between the matter of the star and the astronomer’s brain, considered as a lump of matter. The brain may be in all sorts of relations to the star no doubt: it is in a spatial relation, and a time relation, and a quantitative relation. But to talk of one bit of matter being true about another bit of matter seems to me to be nonsense. [1]

Surely the laws of physics govern these physical states without any reference at all to what they are “about”. If we knew all the physical facts about the world, I contend that it would be like watching a silent movie without subtitles. Different scenarios with respect to the meaning of what is going on could be compatible with the same physical state of the world. If two people are watching the same silent movie without subtitles, it is likely that each of them is seeing a somewhat different story line. There is nothing about what each is seeing on the screen that determines that either of them is correct about what is actually going on in the movie. If reality is fundamentally physical, and the state of the physical world does not uniquely determine what meaning a word has, it follows that the word has no determinate meaning. So how could there be any determinate meaning to the words and concepts that we use? W. V. Quine argued that physical information leaves it indeterminate as to what, say, a speaker of a foreign language means by the word gavagai. There is no fact of the matter as to whether the native is referring to “rabbit” or “undetached rabbit parts” [2]. But similarly, would not this argument also show that there is no fact of the matter as to what Quine means by naturalism when he says “naturalism is true”?

So we might develop the argument as follows:

  1. If naturalism is true, then there is no fact of the matter as to what someone’s thought or statement is about.
  2. But there are facts about what someone’s thought is about. (Implied by the existence of rational inference.)
  3. Therefore, naturalism is false.

Some philosophers of mind, known as eliminative materialists, maintain that since intentional states will probably not be found in the course of brain science, it follows that there are no intentional states of the human person. So, for instance, eliminative materialists maintain that there are no beliefs. The obvious question that occurs to most people when they hear this sort of thing is to ask, “You expect me to believe that?”

Although advocates of eliminative materialism have argued that the eliminativist position is not really self-refuting, attempts to defend eliminativism against this charge seem not to be successful, as Lynne Baker, William Hasker and I have argued in print [3]. Rather than going into a detailed discussion of this debate, I will just point out that to accept eliminative materialism is to accept something akin to the belief that we are brains in vats, or that in some other way we are massively deceived about everything. If this expedient is necessary to save naturalism from the argument from reason, it is a desperate one indeed, one that undermines the foundations of the very scientific enterprise on which it is based.

— V. Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (InterVarsity Press, 2003), pp. 74-76.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967), p.64

[2] W. V. Quine, Word and Object (MIT Press, 1960), chaps. 1 and 2.

[3] Lynne Rudder Baker, Saving Belief (Princeton University Press, 1987); Victor Reppert, “Ramsey on Eliminativism and Self-Refutation”, Inquiry 34 (1991): 499-508; Victor Reppert, “Eliminative Materialism, Cognitive Suicide, and Begging the Question”, Metaphilosophy 23 (1992): 378-92; and William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Cornell University Press, 1999), pp.1-26.

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 4:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Soviet Union

According to evidence released from secret archives since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (which some experts consider understated), during 1937 and 1938, when the Great Terror was at its height, the security organs detained for alleged “anti-Soviet activities” 1,548,366 persons, of whom 681,692 were shot — an average of 1,000 executions a day. The majority of the survivors were sent to hard-labor camps.

Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (Modern Library 2003), p. 67

Thousands of ‘kulaks’ were evicted from their farms and sent to labour camps in Siberia. In Estonia as many as 80,000 people were deported in 1949 alone. The total numbers deported in 1944-52 have been estimated at 124,000 for Estonia, 136,000 for Latvia and 245,000 for Lithuania.

— John Hiden and Patrick Salmon, The Baltic Nations and Europe (Longman 1991), p. 129

On the Soviet side of the demarcation line the NKVD carried out an undisclosed number of summary executions followed by several waves of deportations, first in the eastern Polish provinces (kresy) and then in the Baltic States and Bessarabia. Stalin’s population policy was intended to be more ‘selective’. The aim was to destroy the old elites, but the implementation of this policy, as N. S. Lebedeva’s article demonstrates, turned out to be less discriminating. Estimates of the total number of former Polish citizens who were deported or recruited for labour in the Soviet Union range from Andrei Vyshinskii’s figure of just under 388,000 to the Polish government-in-exile’s total of 1.25 million. Over half of those deported were ethnic Poles and under 30 percent were Jews. The deportations were brutal and may have cost the lives of 300,000 civilians. The arrest and subsequent execution of some 4,500 Polish officers and police in the Katyn camps was a particularly severe loss to the ruling elite.

— Alfred J. Reiber, Forced migration in Central and Eastern Europe, 1939-1950 (Psychology Press 2000), p. 15

The result of Stalin’s policies was the Great Famine (Holodomor) of 1932-33 — a man-made demographic catastrophe unprecedented in peacetime. Of the estimated six to eight million people who died in the Soviet Union, about four to five million were Ukrainians. The famine was a direct assault on the Ukrainian peasantry, which had stubbornly continued to resist collectivization; indirectly, it was an attack on the Ukrainian village, which traditionally had been a key element of Ukrainian national culture. Its deliberate nature is underscored by the fact that no physical basis for famine existed in Ukraine. The Ukrainian grain harvest of 1932 had resulted in below-average yields (in part because of the chaos wreaked by the collectivization campaign), but it was more than sufficient to sustain the population. Nevertheless, Soviet authorities set requisition quotas for Ukraine at an impossibly high level. Brigades of special agents were dispatched to Ukraine to assist in procurement, and homes were routinely searched and foodstuffs confiscated. At the same time, a law was passed in August 1932 making the theft of socialist property a capital crime, leading to scenes in which peasants faced the firing squad for stealing as little as a sack of wheat from state storehouses. The rural population was left with insufficient food to feed itself. The ensuing starvation grew to a massive scale by the spring of 1933, but Moscow refused to provide relief. In fact, the Soviet Union exported more than a million tons of grain to the West during this period.

The famine subsided only after the 1933 harvest had been completed. The traditional Ukrainian village had been essentially destroyed, and settlers from Russia were brought in to repopulate the devastated countryside. Soviet authorities flatly denied the existence of the famine both at the time it was raging and after it was over. It was only in the late 1980s that officials made a guarded acknowledgement that something had been amiss in Ukraine at this time.

— Encyclopædia Britannica, Ukraine – The famine of 1932-33, available online:

A provisional balance sheet of statistics on the terror might run as follows:

  • 6 million dead as a result of the famine of 1932-33, a catastrophe that can be blamed largely on the policy of enforced collectivization and the predatory tactics of the central government in seizing the harvests of the kolkhozy.
  • 720,000 executions, 680,000 of which were carried out in 1937-38, usually after some travesty of justice by a special GPU or NKVD court.
  • 300,000 known deaths in the camps from 1934 to 1940. By extrapolating these figures back to 1930-1933 (years for which very few records are available), we can estimate that some 400,000 died during the decade, not counting the incalculable number of those who died between the moment of their arrest and their registration as prisoners in the one of the camps.
  • 600,000 registered deaths among the deportees, refugees, and “specially displaced”.
  • Approximately 2,200,000 deported, forcibly moved, or exiled as “specially displaced people”.
  • A cumulative figure of 7 million people who entered the camps and Gulag colonies from 1934 to 1941 (information for the years 1930-1933 remains imprecise).

— Stéphane Courtois, Nicholas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Margolin (trans. Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer), Livre Noir du Communisme (Harvard University Press 1999), pp. 206-207

Part of this mass killing was genocide, as in the wholesale murder of hundreds of thousands of Don Cossacks in 1919, the intentional starving to death of about 5,000,000 Ukrainian peasants in 1932-33, or the deportation to mass death of 50,000 to 60,000 Estonians in 1949. Part was mass murder, as of the wholesale extermination of perhaps 6,500,000 kulaks (in effect, the better-off peasants and those resisting collectivization) from 1930 to 1937, the execution of perhaps a million party members in the Great Terror of 1937-38, and the massacre of all Trotskyites in the forced labor camps.

Moreover, part of the killing was so random and idiosyncratic that journalists and social scientists have no concept for it, as in hundreds of thousands of people being executed according to preset government quotas…

I call all this kind of killing, whether genocide or mass murder, democide. Throughout this book, democide will mean a government’s concentrated, systematic, and serial murder of a large part of its population.

In sum, the Soviets [between 1917 and 1987] have committed a democide of 61,911,000 people, 7,142,000 of them foreigners. This staggering total is beyond belief. But… it is only the most prudent, most probable tally, in a range from a highly unlikely low figure of 28,326,000 (4,263,000 foreigners); to an equally unlikely high of 126,891,000 (including 12,134,000 foreigners). This is a range of uncertainty in our democide estimates — an error range — of 97,808,000 human beings.

— Rudolph J. Rummel, Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder since 1917 (Transaction Publishers 1990), p. 3

“If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.”

— George Galloway, in an interview published by The Guardian, 16th September 2002, available online:

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 6:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Procrustean Metaphysics

I suspect the vast majority of mankind does not concern itself with metaphysical speculation. Nevertheless, one cannot help having a position on metaphysics. One may be unable to articulate one’s position, having simply assumed the unspoken assumptions of one’s culture or peers, one may even be convinced that metaphysics is a meaningless waste of time, yet one’s actions and beliefs all necessarily betray metaphysical assumptions.

The uncritical assumption of prevailing cultural norms is probably the best course of action for most people, who have more immediate concerns than recondite philosophy. But if one wishes to make certain assertions, to claim that such and such a practice is right or that so and so’s beliefs are wrong, then one is obligated to take a stand on metaphysics and to declaim one’s position.

The first position that I wish to consider is that of Scepticism. It is necessary to distinguish between the critical methodology that goes by that name, which might be described as the opposite of gullibility, and the philosophical theory which denies the validity of all truth claims that are not logical tautologies. While the former is a laudable approach to life, the latter is confused. As a metaphysical position, scepticism fails to grasp the nature of reason. It asserts that the only valid truth claims are those that can be proved by logical deduction but fails to provide any convincing rationale for why this should be so. Perhaps the best debunking of scepticism, at least by a modern philosopher, can be found in J. R. Lucas’ Reason and Reality.

Second, consider the Mechanistic Philosophy. This has many different flavours — such as Materialism, Physicalism and Naturalism — but all have at their heart the assertion that everything either is or can be explained in terms of the mechanical interactions of matter obeying the laws of physics. This metaphysics owes its prominence — it is probably the most widely adopted system in the modern West — to its association with the great achievements of science. It is the key assumption of the scientific method and thus every scientific success lends credence to its tenets. But the methodological naturalism of science does not imply metaphysical naturalism, however much it might encourage it. Furthermore, in Reason and Reality, J. R. Lucas shows that neither ontological nor explanatory reductionism is viable. Besides there being no particularly good reason to accept the Mechanistic Philosophy, V. Reppert argues convincingly in C. S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea that it is self-refuting.

Less conclusive, although to my mind still quite compelling, are arguments that identify what appear to be basic facts of human existence and experience which do not fit easily into a mechanistic metaphysics. Although such things (for example, intentions, morality and truth) can be explained away by mechanistic philosophers, the explanations tend to feel like rather desperate attempts to cram inconvenient facts into an incompatible philosophy. I am reminded of mediaeval attempts to fit inconvenient astronomical observations into a Ptolemaic model of the solar system: epicycles on epicyles on epicycles…

The failure of scepticism leaves me obligated to choose some metaphysical system and the failure of mechanistic philosophy prevents my adoption of what would otherwise, given my upbringing, have been the obvious choice. The next most obvious choice is Christianity. The inconsistencies of which mechanistic philosophy is charged do not appear in the classical theism of Christianity. Indeed, in many respects, Christian doctrine appears to better fit the facts than much of modern philosophy. For example, J. P. Moreland argues in The Recalcitrant Imago Dei that the Christian doctrine according to which humans are “created in the image of God” is more realistic than naturalism.

As I explained in a previous blog post, I have already come to the conclusion that theism is more rationally plausible than atheism. However, I have yet to accept any particular orthodoxy: I find it hard to make the jump from the philosophical principle of theism to any particular religion. How does one derive Christian doctrine, for example, with its bold historical claims of the Incarnation and other miracles, from rational theist metaphysics?

It seems that one cannot perform such a derivation. Perhaps to attempt it is to miss the point. Maybe the best we can do is to consider the alternatives open to us. Which systems of metaphysics, which worldviews, are possibilities? Then which of those possibilities best fits the facts available to us? It is neither necessary nor possible to derive every element of one’s worldview from first principles, since it is one’s worldview that determines what one considers to be a first principle anyway, thus one looks not for an incontrovertible logical deduction but rather for a best fit.

J. R. Lucas ends his discussion of scepticism in Reason and Reality like so:

The final counter to the sceptical questioner is to ask what alternative he has in mind. Since reasoning is typically two-sided, it often involves an assessment of alternatives. If alternatives are offered, we can compare them with what we ourselves have put forward, possibly finding them preferable, but more probably finding them less well supported than the position that is under attack. But if, as often, no alternative is offered, we are not engaged on a serious exercise. It is the converse of an argument of Hume’s, who concluded that “a total suspense of judgement is . . . our only reasonable resource”, arguing that, since “every attack and no defence . . . is successful, victory must go to the man who remains always on the offensive and has himself no fixed station or abiding city which he is ever, on any occasion, obliged to defend”. But guerilla warfare wins no territory. The metaphysician is looking for a position in which he can abide, and which he would be willing to defend. His thoughts and communications may sometimes be troubled by a Humean sceptic, but he will have no incentive to abandon his position for another, if no other is on offer. For he is serieux; metaphysics is not a dilettante occupation, but a guide to life, and life is short and will not allow an indefinite suspense of judgement.

— J. R. Lucas, Reason and Reality, published on the author’s website, pp. 76-77

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Scientific Theism

A universe with a God would look quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. So the most basic claims of religion are scientific. Religion is a scientific theory.

— Richard Dawkins [1]

Well, what does the universe look like? Apparently:

There is mystery, but the world is not frivolous nor light-fingered in its changeability. If you put a brick on a table it stays there unless something moves it, even if you have forgotten it is there.

— Richard Dawkins [2]

Now, is that what a universe with a God would look like or is it what a universe without a God would look like? Since it is the premise of Aquinas’ First Way, I am inclined towards the former.

[1] Dawkins, Richard. Lecture from ‘The Nullifidian’ (Dec 94), available online:

[2] Dawkins, Richard, Unweaving The Rainbow, Houghton Mifflin (1998), p. 29. (Admittedly, this is actually Dawkins’ description of what makes good science fiction rather than an explicit claim about the real world. However, it is obvious from the context that he intends this statement to be a true description of the real world, which is precisely why he believes it makes for good science fiction.)

Published in: on September 28, 2010 at 3:39 pm  Leave a Comment  


“A job is more than a job, you know,” Mr. Mielock said. “It’s where you fit in society.”

For the Unemployed Over 50, Fears of Never Working Again, The New York Times, Monday September 20th 2010, p. A22

Published in: on September 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

The price of happiness

Does happiness rise with income? In one of the more scientific attempts to answer that question, researchers from Princeton have put a price on happiness. It’s about $75,000 in income a year.

They found that not having enough money definitely causes emotional pain and unhappiness. But, after reaching an income of about $75,000 per year, money can’t buy happiness. More money can, however, help people view their lives as successful or better.

The study found that people’s evaluations of their lives improved steadily with annual income. But the quality of their everyday experiences — their feelings — did not improve above an income of $75,000 a year. As income decreased from $75,000, people reported decreasing happiness and increasing sadness, as well as stress. The study found that being divorced, being sick and other painful experiences have worse effects on a poor person than on a wealthier one.

“More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain,” the authors wrote. “Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.”

What does it take to be happy? About $75,000, Chicago Tribune

So earning more than $75,000 (which is currently worth less than £50,000) per year does not improve the quality of one’s day to day feelings. Yet the study notes that higher incomes are correlated with better self-evaluations, which only shows how self-deluded and money-obsessed Americans are.

I find it interesting that the only genuine benefit of higher incomes, according to the study, is their ability to mitigate the pain of sickness, divorce and other unpleasant experiences. I wonder if this also applies in societies that provide communal “safety nets” that perform just such a mitigating function.

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 9:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Why be good?

What is it that compels good people to be good? It is not fear of punishment. That may be a factor in some people’s decision to abide certain rules but it is not the only motivation to be good. The kindness of strangers, when uncaring would not have been punished, cannot be understood as an attempt to avoid punishment. There is a positive force at work: a desire to be good rather than merely a desire not to be bad.

Atheists scoff at the notion, proposed by some religious believers, that without religion humanity would be amoral. They point out that many people who act in a moral manner do so without believing that if they did otherwise they would suffer divine retribution. Indeed, it is hard to believe that most religious people, were they to suddenly lose their belief in divine judgment, would immediately set out to murder and rape (and it is a sad fact that many who claim to believe in divine judgment nevertheless carry out unspeakable acts of evil).

But it is hard to understand just what good and evil might mean, and why a person might strive for one rather than the other, in the absence of a religious conception of morality. If there is no sense in which a person’s actions and decisions can be in accord with a principle of goodness, in what sense might they be considered good? Similarly, how is the deliberate torture of a child evil, in a way that tragic disease is not, if it does not contradict the principle of goodness?

William Vallicella wrote, “No animal can be bestial, only a man can be.” There is a sense in which, though red in tooth and claw, the activities of animals and nature in general cannot be considered immoral. In contrast, the actions of a man can be profoundly immoral. We do not think the killing fields of Cambodia, or Stalin’s purges, were tragic accidents. We do not even think they are the regrettable way of things, as a sentimental person might think the lion’s practice of killing his rival’s cubs. We think they are evil. We think the men who did these things are evil people, perpetrators of a crime against… against what? Humanity? If we cannot use the language of religion, of God and goodness, then how do we explain the qualitative difference between the evil of man and the tragedy of natural accident?

Among atheists, morality is generally assumed to be a result of cultural evolution. It is a system of learned behaviour, perhaps with a biological component, that has developed over the history of humanity to serve the interests of human social groupings. This sounds plausible, although no more inherently likely than any other Just So story in evolutionary psychology, but it is rather besides the point. The origin of our sense of morality, although an interesting topic of research in itself, has little bearing on what morality actually is. To suppose otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. By proposing such an origin, atheists seem to think that they have adequately explained morality without recourse to God, divine law or any other concept of objective goodness. But they have done no such thing: all they have done is to ignore the problem of good and evil entirely. As so often happens in naturalistic philosophy, the problem is not answered but instead is claimed not to exist.

If morality is no more than a social convention, then an evil act is on a par with a social faux pas. That this is not the case, that murder is qualitatively different from a breach of etiquette, is a given fact of human experience that cries out for an explanation. How, within the framework of naturalistic philosophy, can it be explained?

In traditional theism, we find that to be good is to act in accordance with an objective principle of goodness and justice, a divine standard, whereas to be evil is to reject that standard and defy God. If man is not merely an animal but rather partakes of both a spiritual and an animal nature — in Pascal’s words, “Man is neither angel nor beast” — then our desire to be good is a manifestation of our yearning for communion with the source of our spirituality. We wish to live up to our potential, to fulfil the promise of our human nature.

The rejection of morality, the denial of our spirituality and defiance of goodness, is rightly seen as a perversion of human nature and an abhorrent act. Such a deliberate debasement is perceived as far worse than indifferent natural disaster. Thus Vallicella: “No beast can act the beast the way a man can. No beast is bestial in the way a man can be bestial. The difference is that while the beast acts according to his nature, man freely degrades himself contrary to his nature.”

Vallicella, William. Man and Beast, Maverick Philosopher (5th July 2010),

Vallicella, William. Neither Angel Nor Beast, Maverick Philosopher (30th November 2009),

Published in: on August 10, 2010 at 12:27 pm  Leave a Comment  


When I was in Iraq last year one refreshing difference was the lack of vague spirituality. Soldiers believe or don’t. Vague spirituality is useless flying to toward the Iran-Iraq border in a Blackhawk or riding in a Humvee on convoy security. Anesthesia and riches keep spirituality at bay, making death even more terrible when it comes. But I really do pray that the approach of death brings real clarity to those whose only hope is vague spirituality.

— Neil Gussman, commenting on an article in First Things: Spirituality Without Spirits

Published in: on May 30, 2010 at 6:36 pm  Leave a Comment  


The purpose of new technology is to partially compensate for the deleterious effects of old technology.

Published in: on May 21, 2010 at 7:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vallicella’s Theism

It may well be that one cannot prove the existence of God: one will be hard-pressed to produce a theistic argument with power sufficient to compel acceptance from everyone who understands it. But then no argument for any broadly philosophical thesis has this sort of power. If one is unprejudiced, however, one will have to admit that there are arguments for the existence of God that satisfy the following conditions: (i) they are valid in point of logical form; (ii) they fall afoul of no informal fallacy such as petitio principii; and (iii) they feature premises that it is reasonable to accept given the present state of scientific knowledge. [1]

At the end of the day you must decide which of these interpretations to accept. You will not find some plain fact that will decide it for you.  There is no fact you can point to, or argument you can give, that definitively rules out theism or rules it in. [2]

In general, I do not try to convince anybody of anything; I am satisfied if I can get my ‘opponents’ to appreciate the merit of the positions they oppose. (For example, I would not try to make a theist out of an atheist; I would simply try to get him to stop saying stupid Russellian things like, ‘God is as incredible as a celestial teapot.’) [3]

I am quite at a loss to explain why anyone should think the Teapot analogy any good. It leaks like a sieve. [4]

[1] Vallicella, William. From facts to God: An onto-cosmological argument, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 48: 157-181, 2000.

[2] Vallicella, William. Is Atheism Intellectually Respectable? On Romans 1:18-20, Maverick Philosopher.

[3] Vallicella, William. Simone Weil and the Illusoriness of Worldly Goods, Maverick Philosopher.

[4] Vallicella, William. Russell’s Teapot: Does it Hold Water?, Maverick Philosopher.

Published in: on May 21, 2010 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment