Inborn knowledge

In Meno, Socrates asks Meno’s attendant (“Boy”) questions about geometry, and the boy is able to answer just by thinking about it. Having been asked the right question, he knows what the answer must be.

Socrates argues that the boy had knowledge about geometry before he ever learned about it in this life, and that he merely recollected this knowledge when he was asked the right questions. Socrates thinks that this is evidence of the boy’s having gained that knowledge in some sort of preexistent state before he was born.

These days many people would explain the same thing by suggesting that our brains are wired to “understand” geometry. It’s not that we have the answers to geometric questions already memorized. However, on being asked those questions we have a built-in ability to figure out the answer to the questions on the fly. Furthermore, those answers seem self-evident to us, which is why they are so similar to “recollection”. Having thought about the question, we are able to “just see” what the answer must be.

Suppose this is true: that our brains are wired to respond to certain questions in certain ways, to interpret the world according to certain principles of space and time and cause and effect and so on.

In that case, it would explain the boy’s awareness of basic geometric principles, but it would also have some important ramifications for what knowledge is. Some of our knowledge comes from the senses. Some comes from our culture and our family (by means of the senses). But some also would come from the way our brains our wired — presumably, everything that has the quality of “recollection” that Socrates pinpoints.

In the normal course of our thinking, what has this quality of recollection? A lot. Our understanding of space and time. Our understanding of things as things, with an identity that persists (think of Descartes and the wax). Our understanding of logic. Our assumption that memories of the past reflect a real past. Our sense of ourselves. Our recognition of other people as people and not just robots who act like people. Our sense of having the freedom of choice. Our recognition of cause and effect. Our assumptions that the universe works according to regular principles. Our preference for simpler explanations over complex ones. Perhaps our recognition of moral and esthetic and religious values.

Does all this count as knowledge? If not, it is hard to see how we can know anything.

Yet it is also hard to see why it should count as knowledge. Saying that it evolved in us isn’t quite an answer. Evolved beliefs wouldn’t have to be true, they would just have to have survival value. Some false beliefs might be very good for survival.

It’s a little startling to realize how much of everything we think is based on things we “just know”, whether we learned them before we were born or merely find them built into the architecture of our brains.

What do you all think?

The “Dark Ages” actually weren’t

When we talked about the medieval philosophers in class the other day, I mentioned that they were disregarded for a while in the 1900s, on the grounds that they hadn’t been doing real philosophy, but that recently scholars have begun to emphasize that there was a lot of good intellectual work being done in the so-called Dark Ages.

Here is a really interesting book review/article about the same topic. The author is an atheist who is tired of hearing his fellow atheists spread the myth of the evil Christian empire that squashed all intellectual inquiry during the middle ages. He focuses on science rather than philosophy, but still it’s good reading, especially if you have a tendency to picture the middle ages as being a time when the church quenched scientific progress.

Moral Intuition #2: Everyone is morally fallible

One of the things that I like most about Christianity is that it is forgiveness-centered rather than justice-centered. Even if you aren’t a Christian, though, I think a forgiveness-centered ethical framework makes sense. However, I’m not completely sure what a forgiveness-centered ethical view should look like.

Some ethical systems are justice-centered. They focus on the idea that for every action there is a fit consequence. If right is rewarded and wrong is punished, that is a good thing in itself. Promises should be kept, even if it is inconvenient to do so, because commitments in the past change responsibilities in the present. If I can do something for someone that will make their life better, but they don’t deserve it, then I don’t necessarily have to do it.

Other ethical systems are benevolence-centered. Utilitarianism, for example, assumes that the important thing is whether our actions makes people happier. Even if you deserve punishment, it would be wrong for me to give it unless I can show how it will make you or someone else happier in the long run. If promise-keeping is important, then it’s because of what it means going forward. If you freely break promises today, then no one will ever be able to trust what you say again, which will make you and others unhappier. Promise-keeping has value because it is pragmatically more likely to make people happier than to live in a world where people don’t keep promises. If I can do something for someone that they don’t deserve, but that will make their life better, then I have an obligation to do it.

A forgiveness-centered view would share the idea of just desserts with the justice-centered perspectives. It doesn’t make sense to talk of forgiving someone if they don’t deserve punishment in some sense. At the same time, forgiveness shares with the benevolence-centered views the idea that it is a morally good thing to let someone off the hook for their past mistakes.

One of the big problems with a forgiveness ethic is that it is hard to figure out whether forgiveness is a moral duty or not. It seems somehow like forgiveness is in its very essence something that is undeserved. Otherwise it wouldn’t be forgiveness. On the other hand, it seems wrong to say that we aren’t obligated to forgive. I wonder if I can say that you have an obligation to God to forgive me, but you have no obligation to me to forgive me. Will that work? I’m not sure.

An important concept in ethical philosophy is that of supererogation, which refers to things that are morally good to do, but not absolutely obligatory. We admire Mother Teresa for what she did, but don’t condemn other people for not doing the same things. I am certain that any ethical system needs to leave room for supererogation, but I’m not sure how that can be done with most systems. Is forgiveness supererogatory? I’m not sure. Does forgiveness of others’ moral failures somehow make room for supererogation? Again, I’m not sure.

Moral intuition #1: Law, tradition, and morality

(Our textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, by Shafer-Landau, lists several basic moral intuitions that we should keep in mind as we work out an ethical framework. I’m going through the list and considering them one by one.)

Moral intuition #1: Neither the law nor tradition is immune from moral criticism.

We have all heard of the Nazis in World War II who committed atrocities because they were “just following orders”. The usual conclusion is that they were still wrong, that when an order is ethically wrong we should disobey it. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were famous for teaching civil disobedience, that is, that we should be willing to disobey the laws when doing so is necessary to promote a greater good.

Cultural relativists would say that all ethical truths are relative to the culture in which people were brought up. If that’s completely true, though, then we have an obligation to obey the ethical dictates of our culture. Not only were the Nazis permitted to commit atrocities, it would actually have been wicked of them not to!

I don’t think cultural relativism makes sense, because I think we can ask whether one cultural mindset is morally better than another. Today a lot of people believe in being tolerant of other cultures, but they also believe that it is a good thing to be tolerant. They are glad we live in a society which practices tolerance for other people’s views. They are glad we uphold individual liberties. I agree; it is a good thing. I think it is nobler for us to value people’s rights than not to. I think if two cultures are exactly identical in every way except that one lets people be free and the other does not, then the society that promotes freedom is morally superior to the other one.

On the other hand, is there some moral value to obeying laws and traditions? There are good practical reasons to obey the laws: you might get into trouble if you don’t. That doesn’t mean that you have a moral obligation to obey them. I think perhaps we do, though; I think it’s a good thing to be willing to submit to the laws of the land.

How about traditions? If there is no actual rule that we do things a certain way, it’s just traditional, do we have some small moral obligation to follow tradition just because it is tradition? Once again, there may be practical reasons to do so: you will get along with everyone better if you follow tradition than if you don’t. Is there a moral reason though? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m biased by my own culture, though; the U.S. really emphasizes individualism.

(For those who are interested, the related post on my personal blog explores this idea from an explicitly Christian perspective.)


Preaching at atheists

Here is a blog by an atheist about whether there is a value for atheists in having a moralizing sermon preached at them now and then. She thinks there is. Is there any way to do this in an atheist context, for those who want it?

One of the commenters on that blog kept saying to her, “How could you, as an ethics professor, need something like that?” I think he’s missing the point. We don’t benefit from most sermons because they give us new information we didn’t have before;we benefit from them because they remind us of things we already knew but had forgotten.

I wonder if movies sometimes fill this role for the non-religious. Or if they do, whether they should. Or whether art in general should. Are there others who do or should fulfill the sermonizing role in our society? Oprah & Dr. Phil? Politicians? Other public speakers?


On a side note, I mentioned in class that when Anselm calls atheists fools, he does so because it says in a couple of places in the Psalms “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” I also said I didn’t think that’s the correct interpretation of those verses. Here‘s my case for interpreting them differently, for anyone who’s interested.



I was talking with another faculty member (Professor Richard Eichman) today about some research he’s doing. He’s studying the way that Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary changed everyone’s idea of what good literature should be.

As I understand it, before Flaubert, novels were expected to point to truths that were bigger than ordinary life. If characters in the story were good or bad people, the story was supposed to highlight that goodness or badness and celebrate or condemn it. It was supposed to present a noble picture of the great moral truths, to lift the reader above the humdrum view of things.

Madame Bovary had “bad people” in it but deliberately refrained from evaluating them in any way. It took a just-the-facts approach. Behind this realism is the idea that beauty in literature comes from truth. The story that needs to be told is the story of how things really are. Adding an artificial layer of moralizing to make it more beautiful only gets in the way of its real beauty.

One of the major areas of philosophy is the philosophy of aesthetics — analyzing what art is, what makes something good or bad art (if anything does), and so on. I would love to look at it in our PHL 102 class some semester, but so far I haven’t come across any good readings to use, and I don’t know enough about it to teach it on my own.

By the way, here’s my view about realism. I think there is beauty in truth, but I think that storytelling differs from life in that there is a story-teller. Trying to pretend that we can tell a story that shows how things really are without a slant imposed by the author, is not possible, and is not itself really “truth”. I think truth means recognizing that the story is not only about how things are but about a particular way of interpreting them. “Moralizing” can be a good thing — a beautiful and even an especially truthful thing — if it faithfully reflects the author’s vision of how to interpret the events in the story. It goes wrong when it’s done badly or when the moral isn’t true to the author’s own vision of things. I think realism can be done very beautifully, slanting the story in its own special way. So it works well as a technique to tell a story, but not very well as a rule about what all artists should do.

Do we need God to explain the universe?

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Cal-Tech, just published a paper in which he says:

Most modern cosmologists are convinced that conventional scientific progress will ultimately result in a self-contained understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe, without the need to invoke God or any other supernatural involvement.

Here is an interesting summary and assessment of Carroll’s paper by Kenny Pearce, on the philosophy of religion blog The Prosbologion.

The original paper by Sean Carroll is here.

Check them both out.

Is mystical experience a good reason to believe in God?

I grew up believing in God, but one of things that confirmed me in my faith was that I had a couple of experiences which I can only describe as personal encounters with God. They made God seem incredibly real to me. In theory, these “mystical experiences”, as I guess you could call them, can be explained apart from God — they could have been due to some sort of freak psychological quirk in me — but practical common sense, it seems to me, suggests that the better and more likely explanation is simply that God caused them.

So my belief is at least partly based on my own direct experience of God.

A few weeks ago, I talked to a friend that claims to have had supernatural things happen sometimes when she was praying for someone’s healing. I don’t believe most people who say things like that, but I trust her honesty so I believe her. She at least experienced what she says she did. In addition, I realized that if the same things had happened to me, I’d have decided to interpret them as supernatural, not merely psychological, events.

So my belief is also partly based on the direct experience of God that some of my friends claim to have had.

Is this kind of thing an appropriate reason for believing in God?

The reading for this week’s class, Religious Epistemology  by Kelly James Clark from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, talks about this.

It says:

… people who believe on the basis of religious experience do not typically construe their belief in God as based on an argument (any more than belief in other persons is based on an argument). They believe they have seen or heard God directly and find themselves overwhelmed by belief in God.

This is like what happened to me. I felt that I experienced God directly, and consider that experience to be a good reason to believe that God exists.

It also says this:

Richard Swinburne alleges that it is also reasonable to trust what others tell us unless and until we have good reason to believe otherwise. So, it would be reasonable for someone who did not have a religious experience to trust the veridicality of someone who did claim to have a religious experience. That is, it would be reasonable for everyone, not just the subject of the alleged religious experience, to believe in God on the basis of that alleged religious experience.

In other words, Swinburne believes it is reasonable to believe in God based on someone else’s mystical experience.

You may not agree.You may feel that taking any mystical experience seriously is already to lose touch with reality. Can give a reason for your view that doesn’t beg the question?

One student did so by saying this:

“Religious experiences do not count as evidence towards God because these happenings are not testable and are perceptively biased.”

The question of testability is an serious one. How do I know the difference between a real religious experience and a fake one? I don’t believe every claim someone makes to have experienced God. So why should I believe any such claim? How can I possibly distinguish between the reliable stories and the crazy ones? If there is no good way to test religious experiences scientifically, might there be other ways to test them?

Are testability and absence of perceptive bias the right requirements for being good reasons for belief?

Another student last week said that there is NO possible evidence that would convince him there is a God. Is belief in God so different from everyday beliefs that even testable evidence is not a good reason to believe? Are there other beliefs like that, or just belief in God?

I believe these questions are worth asking, even apart from the question of whether God exists or not.


Introduction to the blog


Welcome to my philosophy blog!

This blog is primarily directed toward my philosophy students. Hi there, philosophy students! Most of what I post will be philosophy-relevant. Everything in this blog is my personal opinion, and nothing I say is necessarily the opinion of Sauk Valley Community College, but I can’t imagine I’ll say much that they’ll object to. (I’ve got a personal blog page as well, which you can reach from the right if you’re so inclined, but it’s explicitly Christian and suppose there I might say something they’d object to.)