Philosophy Challenge of the Week

Well, first of all, I’m sorry for the late post. I was pretty wiped last night, and I wound up going to bed early and completely forgot to post before doing so. However, I do have an interesting issue for you today. Epistemology is the study of how we know–specifically it is the study of knowledge, what it means to know something, how we can be said to know something, and the process that knowing follows. Ethics is the study of morality–specifically it is the study of right and wrong, what we mean by these words, whether there is a moral truth, what that moral truth might be, how we can practice it, and whether we should practice it. Now, a number of philosophers posit a strong connection between the two, even to the point of arguing that they are actually one field of study. We speak of good and bad theories and beliefs, and we also speak of morally correct and incorrect actions. We often evaluate beliefs on their impact in the world (moral), rather than on their correspondence with reality (epistemical based on a correspondence theory of truth) or their internal cohesion (epistemical based on a coherence theory of truth). So, these philosophers argue that morality and epistemology are one field–that they are both evaluations of right and wrong, good and evil in regard to the reality or coherence of the world around us.

Other philosophers argue that there distinct connections between the two fields, but that they are distinct and necessarily separate fields. These philosophers will often point out that there are wrong beliefs that are not immoral (for instance, the belief that 2+2=7) and immoral actions that are require intellectual rigor (such as successfully scamming a professor by passing off famous research as your own original work).  These thinkers argue that epistemology is a field dealing with theoretical things (i.e. knowledge generally) and ethics is a field dealing with practical things (i.e. what we should do), but that the two necessitate one another. For instance, I cannot do what I should do (ethics) unless I first know what is best to do  or what the rules say I should do (epistemology). Thus, some of them posit a sub-field that combines the two and call this moral epistemology (i.e. the study of how we know right and wrong).

Lastly, some thinkers have argued that there is absolutely no connection between the two fields. Knowing truth is one thing and doing what you should do is something else entirely. These thinkers may point out that sometimes it is a sign of virtue to believe something that seems patently untrue (for instance: a man who, contrary to all evidence, believes that his wife is not and would not cheat on him may be seen as morally virtuous, but he may also be seen as irrational). These philosophers argue for a strong distinction between ethics and epistemology that is as strong as the distinction between ethics and mathematics. They argue that it is entirely plausible for a person to be intellectually perfect (i.e. having a perfect knowledge of truth) and yet morally repugnant, and vice versa.

However, it is also generally true that, when faced with a great scientist, philosopher, or theologian who lived a morally abysmal life, or a morally upstanding man who is clearly a blithering idiot, we tend to be stymied. There is naturally a feeling that something is off, even if we can’t quite put our fingers on what that some thing is.

So, here is your question for today: given this common experience, what is (or is there) the connection between ethics and epistemology? Between morality and knowledge?

As always, write me a story of 1000 words that clearly presents and defends your answer to the question.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Well, I think my exam yesterday went fairly well… as long as my instructor can read my handwriting anyway… if he can’t then there could be problems. So, today’s philosophical challenge post is going to be fairly difficult I think. Metaphysics is a discipline of philosophy dealing with higher things such as being, knowing, the nature of truth, etc. It stands above disciplines such as ethics, politics, philosophy of law, medicine, science, etc as a discipline that deals with first order concerns. For instance, metaethics is the study of metaphysics as it is applied to ethics. Where as ethics deals with conceptions of right and wrong and how we can discern right from wrong, metaethics deals with questions of whether we can discern right from wrong, whether right and wrong even exist to be discerned, and whether conceptions of right and wrong are meaningful in the first place.

So, two of the major subdisciplines in metaethics are ontology and epistemology: the study of being and the study of knowing respectively. These two disciplines are often and easily confused because they are very closely related to one another. For instance, if I say that I am a moral realist, I am making a statement of belief concerning the ontological nature of morals: I am saying that morals have an actual, objective existence apart from myself. If I say that I am a moral irrealist, then I am making the opposite ontological claim. However, if I say that I am a cognitive moral realist, then I am making both an ontological and an epistemological claim: i.e. that morals have objective, real existence, and that they can be known by man. Similarly if I say that I am a non-cognitive moral irrealist, then I am making the opposite ontological and epistemological claim (though it’s kind of redundant… I’ll get to why in a moment). But, if I claim that I am a non-cognitive moral realist, then I am making three claims at once, two of which are possible contradictory: first I am making the ontological claim that morals have a objective existence, second I am making the epistemological claim that I cannot in any way know the objective nature of morals, but thirdly these two claims together make the third claim that nothing I say about morals can be objectively meaningful. Because I can’t know anything about morals, then whatever I claim about the objective existence of morals is meaningless because I can’t know anything about their objective existence, which means that (for all practical purposes) they may as well not exist.

Are you confused yet? I told you this one would be hard. Here’s your challenge: What is the distinction and relationship between ontology and epistemology?

As always, provide a 1000 word long story that presents and defends your answer to the question.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

99a4b9e837c2398c6d700d326bf3631bOkay, so I have an issue that’s been bouncing around in my mind for a few years. It’s a complicated issue that I don’t actually have an answer to at all. So the question has to do with two epistemological theories: Foundationalism and Coherentism. The best way that I’ve found to explain Foundationalism is that it sees knowledge like building a house. You start with the foundations, which are properly basic beliefs (i.e. my senses generally tell me the truth about the world, 2+2=4 in base 10 math, two contradictory claims cannot be true, etc). From these properly basic beliefs then you build your more complicated beliefs (i.e. I need to be careful about sugar because diabetes runs in my family, I should read books assigned by my professors in order to do well in school, etc, etc). Foundationalism argues that any complex belief must be able to trace a direct line to a suitable properly basic belief or it is an invalid belief (much of Enlightenment philosophy is based on Foundationalistic epistemology). However, Foundationlism has two major problems: 1) it isn’t generally the way we think (i.e. I hold both of the above complicated beliefs, but I’m not sure I could trace them back to properly basic beliefs, and certainly I haven’t traced them back to properly basic beliefs). 2) It is difficult to determine what is or is not a properly basic belief. Aside from some obvious examples (which severely limit the nature of the knowable world), they aren’t clear and can often be argued.

Coherentism, on the other hand, is more like building a web. Coherentists posit the claim that there are no properly basic beliefs. Instead, every belief must be put to the test (though how you test the claim that two contradictory claims cannot be true I’m not entirely sure), and thus only an interconnected web of beliefs that is completely consistent can given us confidence in our beliefs. Coherentism has the advantage of being much more like the way that we generally think, but it lacks the foundation that Foundationalism provides. Consider that it is entirely conceivable that a completely consistent web of beliefs could be formed that includes many false beliefs (i.e. for instance, Shintoism and Christianity may serve as an example of two consistent sets of beliefs that cannot both be true).

So, here is my question for you today: which is a better theory, Foundationalism or Coherentism? Would you support one over the other? Is there another theory that you would support?

As always, write me a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your response to the question.

A Very, Very, Very, Very Brief Introduction to Ethics and Why It Matters for your Writing (Part 3)

So, a while back I started a series introducing general ethics and why they matter for writing. I’m notorious for not finishing the series I start (as those who have been long-time readers can tell you), but amazingly I actually want to finish this series. I think it’s important. As anyone who’s been reading for a while knows, I argue that philosophy is very important in writing. It shapes who we are, what we choose to write, and the way we write it. Our beliefs come through in our writing (whether we want them to or not), and its generally better if we try to be intentional in presenting them rather than incidental. This doesn’t mean that we beat people over the head with our dogma and doctrine (trust me, I get into plenty of that and it never works out well), but that we intentionally write from the world-view of our beliefs. I am a Christian, thus I am not likely to come up with a fantasy world the bleeds materialism (i.e. the belief that nothing exists beyond the physical world).

So, in my last post I discussed Naturalistic (or Materialistic) ethics. In this post I want to give a brief overview of Ideological Ethics. As you know, I’m going to be discussing each broad category along six different lines: metaphysic, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, teleology, exemplar, and method.

Ideological ethical theories share different versions of the same general metaphysic: something non-material exists that most (or all) people don’t have access to. This non-material world could be embodied in Plato’s world of the forms (i.e. a non-material world of perfect ideas that give shape to physical realities such as ‘the form of love’ or ‘the form of bed’ or ‘the form of man’), Aquinas’ divine mind (i.e. divine knowledge forms the building blocks of all that exists), or Immanuel Kant’s noumenal realm (i.e. a non-material world of perfect reality that is completely inaccessible to man). While the theories vary in some way, they all agree that some non-material reality exists that gives shape to the material world.

However, ideological theories disagree about epistemology. For instance, Kant argued that the phenomenal (i.e. material) world that men inhabited could never contact or ‘know’ the noumenal world that gives it shape, and thus men are left with hopeful belief that could never progress farther than that. Alternatively, Plato argued that some men could, through rigorous education and inward thought, access the world of the forms and know it. Thus, some men could know true reality and thus pass it on to others. Aquinas argued that man could know those parts of the Divine mind that God chooses to reveal through scripture, contemplation, prayer, and meditation. So, some ideological theories argue that we can know true reality, and others argue that we can’t.

Again, ideological theories tend to disagree over whether man is good or evil. Plato assumes that man is generally decent while Aristotle assumes that man is a blank slate, and Augustine assumes that man is generally wicked. Most ideological theories, however, believe that there is some way for man to become good, even if they don’t start out that way. These ways fit into the methods of ideological ethics.

Ideological theories tend to fit into one of two categories: primarily teleological (i.e. goal-oriented) or primarily deontological (i.e. rule-oriented). Kant, for example, argues that we have duties that must be fulfilled and that discovering those duties is the goal of ethics. Plato and Aristotle, on the other hand, argue that man has a natural end that should be achieved and thus the goal of ethics is finding a way for man to achieve that end. There are also some scholars who attempt to combine deontological and teleological thought into a unified whole, and others who argue that it can’t be done. One key point here is that, while naturalistic ethics tend to be consequentialist (i.e. good and evil are determined by what actually comes out of an action, and so no action can be determined to be good or evil before its consequences are known), Ideological ethics are much more focused on motive, goal, and action.

Ideological Ethics tend to have exemplars of some sort. Aquinas points to Christ, Aristotle to the ‘Great-Souled Man’, Plato to the ‘Philosopher-King’, Confucius to the ‘Sages’, etc. As far as I know Kant didn’t present any particular exemplar, but it could just be that I haven’t read enough of him.

Methods tend to differ between teleological and deontological ideologies. Deontological ethical theories tend to focus on establishing clear systems of rules. Following the rules and doing one’s duty is the way to be moral. On the other hand, teleological theories tend to focus on character. The way to be moral is to establish moral habits that build a moral character and make you a moral kind of person rather than following strict rules that attempt to cover every possible situation.

So, how is this useful? Consider that there aren’t many religions that preach materialism. In general, if you have a religion, it’s going to have some kind of ideological ethical thought: something exists out there that makes reality what it is and that thing is what determines how we can be moral (i.e. what is good and what is evil). Similarly, even people who reject knowledge of that thing (like Kant) can accept that they should be doing their best to figure out how to live like it, and thus how to be moral. There’s also a distinct difference between hard deontologists (i.e. the Pharisees) and hard teologists who seek to establish a ‘whole and good man’ who instinctively does what is right in every situation. This could be fodder for some interesting character conflicts in your writing. So, that’s enough for now. Enjoy!

A Very, Very, Very, Very Brief Introduction to Ethics and Why it Matters for Your Writing

philosophyWell, like Selanya, I am ridiculously busy at the moment. I still have five books to finish this month, a 5 page, 10 page, 14 page, and five 3-4 page papers to write, a presentation to give and a final exam to take all by the first week in December. This is the last stretch of my semester though, and then I can start my reading for next semester (my plan is to get five books read before the semester starts :P, maybe six (they’re all long…). So, I am admittedly busy, and I’m still trying to synthesize everything that I’ve learned this semester. So, I’m going to set out to write a series of blog posts broadly outlining the various approaches to Ethics that have been taken in the past 2500 years and discuss how a basic understanding of them can help you in your writing. So, as a primer I want to introduce a few concepts that are going to be important in this discussion and give a general outline of the topics that I’m going to discuss.

At a basic level there are six things that every ethical system must handle in some way. Some systems attempt to combine these features, others attempt to remove one or more (this generally doesn’t end well), and some simply assume answers to certain questions rather than actually asking those questions. However, every ethical system must provide a basic metaphysic, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, teleology, exemplar, and method. So, a brief overview of what I mean in using these terms:

Metaphysic: Metaphysics is the philosophy of being. This is actually an entire branch of philosophy devoted to explaining the nature of existence, being, potential being, non-being, etc. However, here I am using it in a much more basic form to refer to the basic understanding of the universe that an ethical system is built on. For instance, is existence purely material? Should we accept the immaterial as real? If so, how do we differentiate between the material and the immaterial worlds? Can the two intersect in any way? Every ethical system either presents arguments defending or simply assumes an understanding of the world in which we live, and then builds its model of ethical knowledge off of those assumptions. For instance, Plato spends a significant amount of time in his ethical thought developing his concept of the forms, which are fundamentally real immaterial entities that the material world mirrors. For instance, there is a form of beauty, truth, goodness, etc that beautiful, true, or good people/actions/etc in the material world reflect like a mirror.

Epistemology: Another entire field of philosophy, Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Plato, for instance, distinguished between true opinion and knowledge (which is related to his theory of the forms) and argued that the majority of people could only have true opinion, and only those who have sought to understand that forms could actually have knowledge of the forms. Epistemology seeks to answer questions like ‘can we know anything?’ If so, what can we know? How do we know it? What is knowledge? How do we defend knowledge that we have? Along with a metaphysic, every system of ethics either defends of assumes a particular concept of knowledge. For instance, Plato’s theory of the forms assumes that there is an immaterial world that we can have knowledge of, but that such knowledge is difficult to obtain. Kant, on the other hand, accepted the idea of an immaterial world (the noumenal), but rejected the idea that we can have any knowledge of it. Alternatively, many scientists today (Stephen Hawking if I’m not mistaken), argue that existence is entirely material and that we can only have true knowledge of reality through an arduous process of repeated experimentation and observation commonly referred to as the scientific method.

Metaphysical EducationPhilosophical Anthropology: This refers to the concept of man’s moral nature. While not a distinct philosophical field in and of itself it is important in ethics as this attempts to answer questions such as what does man start with? Is he born a blank slate? Born thoroughly wicked with no hope of redemption? With little hope of redemption? Born saintly and only corrupted by a wicked world? Born with a variety of good or bad genetic dispositions that must be encouraged or discouraged appropriately? Just as every ethical system assumes or defends a basic nature to the universe, every ethical system assumes or defends a basic nature of mankind. For instance, Wang Yangming, a Confucian scholar, argued that man was born with a morally perfect nature that was simply clouded with desires. If the desires are paired away, then the perfect man will emerge. However, Augustine argued that man was born thoroughly wicked and only through the active grace of God could he have any hope of becoming even remotely good.

Teleology: This refers to the end goal. While many ethical systems simply assume a metaphysic, epistemology, and anthropology, the teleology of the system is generally more intentionally presented or defended. This asks the question: what is the proper end of man? What is the point? The mark that we are aiming at? The place that the system wants it followers to end up? In my reading thus far I’ve found that there Teleology is one of the major sticking points of ethics. There are many ethical systems that claim to be non-teleological, or to have no ‘end point’ in mind. For instance, the ethics of Immanuel Kant are deontological (i.e. duty-based) rather than teleological (i.e. end-based), and many deontologists claim that the system has and needs no end goal. However, what I’ve noticed is that non-teleological systems always have a teleology… it’s just an under-developed one. For instance, the teleology of Kantian ethics is to become ‘the person who does right’. Now, this might sound fine, but it also raises a lot of questions. More on that later :).

Exemplar: This is a clear picture, conception, or ideal that the ethical system shoots for. While there are a number of ethical systems that don’t provide a clear exemplar, I am going to argue that any strong ethical system needs a clear exemplar. For instance, as I just said, in Kantian ethics, the goal is to become ‘the person who does right’. This sounds good, but it’s extremely general. What does that look like? Kantian ethics doesn’t actually provide an example of it’s teleological goal (mostly because it attempts to ignore the goal). Alternatively, Confucianism presents the Sage Kings Yao and Shun as exemplars for men to strive for. Another good example of this is Christianity which presents a clear exemplar in the person of Jesus Christ as the perfect man.

Method: This is the method of means by which an individual follows the ethical system. Kant’s categorical imperative or Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic calculus are good examples of this. Further, in Confucianism the rites serve as a good example of method, and in Judaism (especially Hasidic Judaism) the law serves as a good example of method. The method of an ethical system seeks to answer the question: what do I do? Again, while every good ethical system has some form of method, some are stronger than others. For instance, the hedonistic calculus of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism is attractive precisely because it is a clear, simple method that can be applied to any decision. The teleology and metaphysic of Bentham’s system may be highly problematic, but his method is clear and simple. Alternatively, Plato has a fairly strong metaphysic and epistemology for his ethical theory, and a clear teleology, but his anthropology and exemplar seem to vary from book to book, and he has a fairly unclear method.

102So, over the next several posts I intend to provide a broad overview of ethical categories including Naturalism, Idealism, Confucianism, Existentialism, and Christian Ethics and discuss each of them in light of these six categories and how each may be useful for your writing. However, I hope that after reading this post you’ve already got some ideas about how some of these might be useful. Metaphysic in your writing is an obvious part of world-building. What is your world like? What is real and what isn’t? Epistemology is similar. How do people in your world actually know things? Can they know anything? What does it mean for them to ‘know’? Similarly, where do the people in your world start and where are they going? What is the goal of life, or is there a goal? How do they get there? All of these are important world-building questions for any particular culture that you want to work through.

Philosophical Story Challenge

41w69X7v-8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Good morning everyone. I apologize for the late post; my power was out briefly last night and when it came back on I had completely forgotten that I needed to write this. Regardless, it’s Saturday so I’ve come to bring you another philosophical story challenge. I’d like to make this week’s challenge revolve around some theories of knowledge so without further ado let’s begin. Two of the main theories of knowledge are known as Idealism and Empiricism and they can roughly be defined as follows: Empiricism believes that all knowledge is gained by empirical means (e.g. through experience via our senses) whereas Idealism is the belief that knowledge (or at least certain knowledge) is innate. Some common examples of innate knowledge would be things that are definitionally true. For example, if you tell me that a person I have never met is a bachelor I can know without seeing or meeting him that he is an unmarried male. If you tell me that you work in a triangular building I know roughly what your building will look like without ever seeing it. In our world today we are just beginning to emerge from a time period of radical empiricism where science has reigned as the only means to true knowledge; but before this there was a period where Idealism held a strong footing; where it was recognized that empiricism has its limits. It seems to be a bit of an ebb and flow throughout the history of philosophy going back and forth between these two ideas (or descendants of them). For your challenge today I want to choose one of these ideas and write a story with it as a theme. As always, have fun, and try to keep it under 1,000 words if you want to post it up here, otherwise feel free to write more.

Philosophical Story Challenge

screen-shot-2011-12-11-at-9-03-25-pmHey guys it’s Saturday again so it’s time for another Philosophical Story Challenge. This week I want us to take a step away from the ethical challenges we’ve been dealing with and instead focus on Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Specifically I want us to focus on the Gettier problem. The Gettier problem comes from the Philosopher Edmund Gettier who published a short article called “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Prior to the publishing of this work it was commonly accepted that if you had a justified true belief you had knowledge. What this means is that you hold a belief to be true which actually is true and you are justified in believing it to be true then you have real knowledge; Gettier, however, disagreed with this and posed two scenarios which challenged this idea. The easiest way to explain the problem involves a man with a broken watch. His watch stopped working at a certain time without his knowledge and 12 hours later exactly he decides to casually glance at his watch for the time. He believes his watch to still be working so he believes the time that it tells and he is justified in this belief, and it happens to be true–is this real knowledge? Gettier didn’t think so and most philosopher’s today don’t think so either. Your challenge today is to write your own short story that portrays the Gettier problem of a justified true belief being true by chance alone (making it really an unjustified true belief that is only thought to be a justified true belief). As always please try to keep your stories under 1,000 words if you want to post them on here; otherwise feel free to write more!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

tumblr_liz8iqo5Pe1qbd1pdo1_400Well everyone, it seems another week has rolled around and its time for another Philosophical Story Challenge. This week the prompt is the question, “how do you know?” How can we really anything? If you follows Berkeley’s school of thought, the material world and all our experiences of it are really contained in our own heads. If this is true, how much can we really know of the external world? Descartes also wrestled with this and it led him to his famous quote “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes doubted everything he could doubt and it led him to the simple conclusion that he knows he exists, because in order to doubt, which is a type of thought, one must exist. From that standpoint he tried to base his entire system of knowledge. If we require 100% certainty on anything, we cannot truly say that we know it, which ultimately leads us to ask the question: “if we cannot be 100% certain of anything external, what is an acceptable level of certainty for us to claim knowledge?” There are many theories and ideas regarding this, so if you want to dig deeper for this challenge you might find it beneficial to do some research on theories of knowledge. As always, please keep your stories between 100-1000 words if you want to post them on here.

Philosophical Story Challenge

This picture was found here, along with a fun article on the Indian philosophy of knowledge.

Well, I had some fun coming up with an extra challenge post this week! However, I’ve been working for most of my day, so I’m going to keep this brief. Your challenge this week is to write a story, 1000 words or less, in which you answer the question: What does it mean ‘to know’? This is a foundational philosophical question, and is followed by the question: How do we ‘know’? There are many theories of knowledge, and whether you are a skeptic who believes that nothing can be known, you rely on justifiable basic beliefs upon which to found your knowledge, you found your concept of knowledge on the coherency of your beliefs, or you believe only what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste (or whatever you think knowledge is) you must present your beliefs in the form of a fictional story. Make sure that you avoid creating characters who are nothing more than mouthpieces for your own beliefs, and avoid the basic logical fallacies*. You want to write an interesting and compelling story that leads the reader to your conclusion, instead of explaining to the reader what your conclusion is.

*Here is a good website listing and explaining several of the basic logical fallacies.

Story Challenge of the Week

Well, like I said yesterday, I spent the weekend judging a forensics tournament… and dealing with my classes… and dealing with a training class that I’m taking… and trying to learn lines for a play I’m in… and church… and… and… and… Yeah, it was a busy weekend.  Lots of fun, but really busy.  As I’m typing this it’s ten pm Sunday night (that is last night) and I still haven’t had dinner yet.  Going to make it right after I get this post scheduled.  Hummus… yum.  So, anyway, your story challenge awaits you below.  I’m sure you probably know the rules by now.  If not… check last Monday’s post, I’m exhausted.

Your theme: Untrustworthy Senses

This is kind of continuing my theme of philosophical issues in fiction.  Properly basic beliefs are the basic assumptions upon which we found all of our other beliefs and assumptions.  These basic assumptions can be anything from ‘God exists’ to ‘My senses tell me the truth’ to ‘Aliens abducted me!’ (although that last one probably couldn’t be called ‘properly’ basic).  Our basic assumptions serve to format the way we interact with the world, and the kinds of beliefs that we form about it.  So, one of the major questions that often comes up is ‘are the human senses trustworthy enough to be a basis for knowledge?’