Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What are the facts?

In today’s world, articles expressing opposing viewpoints are labeled as “fake news” and falsehoods have been rebranded as “alternative facts”. We all have beliefs about the world. In many cases, we disagree with one another about what the facts are. But we can’t all be right. The sub-branch of philosophy known as epistemology, offers some useful concepts in discussing matters of truth, facts, and belief. In this post, I will use some of these concepts to clear up some of the conceptual confusion surrounding recent events involving President Trump and his spokespeople.

Philosophers define belief as a state of mind where a subject accepts that a given proposition is true. For instance, Joe believes that he has work in the morning translates to Joe accepts that it is true that he has work in the morning. Beliefs can be true or false, and they can be about anything, even things that are obviously true (e.g. the United States is in North America). 

A belief is true if it corresponds to how the world is. A belief is false if it does not. The world is the way it is independent of our beliefs. This conception of truth goes back as far as Aristotle and is the dominant view among academic philosophers. There are epistemic relativists and coherentists who hold alternative views about truth, but in our everyday conversation, I assume that we all share a common vocabulary and are making claims about the world under that shared framework. A shared conceptual framework is what makes disagreement possible in the first place.

Beliefs can be true or false even if we cannot know what the truth is. For instance, there is a determinate number of grains of sand at the beach. Likewise, there is a fact of the matter whether or not advanced lifeforms exist elsewhere in the cosmos.

Facts and justification
There’s a fact of the matter as to how many people showed up to Trump’s inauguration. We can safely rule out that only five people attended or that five billion attended. Estimates by crowd scientists, whom carefully studied aerial photographs of the event, put the attendance at around 200,000. Trump, relying upon how things looked from where he was standing, thought the number was over a million. We have two competing claims for how many people showed up to the inauguration. Which number is probably closer to the truth?

We can ask about the kinds of justification used by Trump and the crowd scientists. Which used the more reliable method for counting large crowds?

Crowd scientists look at objective measures, like aerial photographs and the number of metro tickets purchased. Aerial views enables one to see the crowd in its entirety.  Looking out from the ground level at front of the crowd leaves out of sight all of those standing (or not standing) in the back. Furthermore, the front of the crowd is exactly where you would expect to see a higher density of people, thus, providing a (potentially) misleading impression of how many people were there in total. We can see that these two methods of establishing crowd size are not equally reliable, and that Trump’s method is especially prone to error.

In response to crowd estimates conducted by experts, Trump’s counselor, Kelly-Ann Conway, referred to Trump’s belief as an “alternative fact”. Here, she is either misusing the word “fact” for political means, or she is confused about the concept. Sean Spicer, Trump’s main spokesman, has also made similar claims: Sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”

There aren’t the facts and alternative facts. Facts are facts. What we have in the current situation is a disagreement between two parties about what the facts are. I take it that Conway is not just saying that Trump disagrees with the crowd experts. She is also trying to say that Trump’s belief about the crowd size is a legitimate view to hold.

Given the unreliability of the methods Trump used to form his belief, there are strong reasons to discount his testimony and to side with the experts. Hence, if Conway is insisting that Trump’s view is a legitimate alternative, then she is simply wrong. Having an alternative view does not mean that you deserve to be listened to or respected. There are plenty of possible views one might hold, but many are nonsensical or can be rejected after carefully looking at all the evidence. Holocaust denial is an alternative view. Would Kelly-Ann Conway be prepared to say that Holocaust deniers are presenting “alternative facts”? I highly doubt it. Conway and Spicer are probably just using this rhetoric to try and stay on the President’s good side.

In cases like these, why would some people side with the president over experts? There are several explanations one could offer.

1)    Authoritarianism: Shut up and agree with what our president says!
2)   Conspiracy theorizing: The crowd scientists have doctored the photos. Trump is telling the truth.
3)   Anti-elitism: The academic elites and scientists act like know-it-alls, call those who disagree with them ignorant, but they are often wrong. Therefore, we shouldn’t trust experts.

I take all three of these explanations to be plausible when it comes to Trump’s most ardent supporters. It is hard to see how a rational discussion could take place with such individuals. However, there are plenty of reasonable people who voted for Trump—for instrumental reasons (e.g. Republican control of government) or because they believe his policies will lead to better consequences (e.g. making us safe)—that are amenable to reason and evidence.


We should all care about the truth, even if it is ugly or in conflict with our political views. Instead of demonizing those who disagree with you, hear out their arguments, first, to understand what their position actually is, and second, to see if their position has any merit. Before we begin to have a rational discussion about our disagreements, we need to share some common ground. One source of common ground is a shared understanding of the nature of truth. 

Take-home messages:
1)      There are alternative views, but not alternative facts.
2)    Truth is independent of our beliefs.
3)     Not all beliefs are equally justified.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Series on free will

In the coming weeks, I will be writing a six-part series on the topic of free will. I plan to sandwich posts about other topics in between this series. Here is a (tentative) list of post titles:

Intro to free will debate* (earlier post)

I.                  Free will and Determinism
II.               What compatibilism ought to look like
IV.             Threats to free will from social psychology
V.                Threats to free will from abnormal psychology
VI        A defense of compatibilism
VII.           Punishment and morality without free will

Part I: Free will and determinism

Could advanced robots ever make decisions of their own free will? I suspect there will be many skeptical that robots ever could attain such powers. Robots are programmed. Human beings are not. Nonetheless, certain philosophers argue that the actions of human beings, just like robots, are determined or fixed by the laws of nature and distant past events.

Determinism is a metaphysical thesis about how events unfold over time. To put it crudely, things happen because of how things were in the distant past guided by the laws of nature. Imagine a mile long chain of dominoes. Once the first domino collides with and knocks over the second, the chain will continue to move until it knocks over the very last one. The reason why the last domino fell was because of the chain of falling dominos that led up to it. The falling of the dominos was neither random nor inexplicable. Once there was a sufficient amount of motion imparted to the first domino, the remaining were knocked over because of the laws of physics (i.e. gravity). If determinism holds true in our universe, it is thought that the actions of human beings are just like the dominoes; a necessary result of past chains of events and the laws of nature. And if our actions happened necessarily, then we couldn’t have done other that what we in fact did.

A thought experiment, devised by the 19th century astronomer Pierre Simon-Laplace, further illustrates why determinism raises doubts about our sense of free will. Imagine a demon that knows everything about the initial state of the universe. It knows the location and all of the properties of every particle in the universe. Additionally, the demon knows exactly how all of the laws of nature operate. If determinism were true, the demon would be able to know the outcome of any future event, as every future event would be the eventual unfolding of the initial conditions evolving in accord with the laws of nature.

If our minds are made up of physical stuff (e.g. neurons, biochemical processes in the brain), as most scientists and philosophers now believe, then even our mental states are determined by the laws of nature and past events. If our mental states are determined, then the demon’s knowledge would include every decision that you and I will ever make, and every action that you and I will ever take. The demon could have predicted, say, your choice of career, a billion years ago, and you had no power to change the outcome.

It may still be unclear why the truth of determinism would be such a big deal. Philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen, forcefully argue that there is a deep incompatibility between determinism and our having free will/moral responsibility. 

“If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequence of laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it's not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.” (Van Inwagen 1983)

We think that we ought to hold people responsible for the actions that they were directly in control of. If none of our actions are not up to us, then how can we be held responsible for any of them? Assuming that determinism is true, one might be tempted to think we are in the same situation as the advanced robot. Instead of being determined by the programming and design of an intentional agent, human action would be determined by brain processes, the environment and situations we find ourselves in, and to some extent, our genes.

Why believe determinism is true? Many go to physicists to seek the answer, but even expert opinions vary. The answer is thought largely to depend on which interpretation of quantum mechanics turns out to be correct. One of the most plausible interpretations, in my view, results in a deterministic universe. With that said, the universe probably is deterministic but, as others have observed, I don’t think living in an indeterministic (or random) universe would suffice for having free will.

Determinism would seem to entail that we don’t have the ability to do otherwise. Our sense of choosing some other path for ourselves would be illusory. Some take the ability to do otherwise to be required for having free will. But many others, myself included, do not. Alternative conceptions of free will (e.g. compatibilist) make it possible to be morally responsible, whether or not determinism turns out to be true. The upshot is that determinism might not be a deal breaker after all. But it ultimately hinges on 1) whether alternative conceptions of free will are legitimate, 2) whether they give us moral responsibility, and 3) the extent to which they are supported by reason and evidence. 

In the next installment, I will give a rough sketch as to what a compatibilist view of free will ought to look like. I will contrast the view I propose with the compatibilist view that Dan Dennett defends, and argue that Dennett’s account amounts to a kind of pseudocompatibilism. 


Laplace, P. S. (2012). Pierre-Simon Laplace Philosophical Essay on Probabilities: Translated from the fifth French edition of 1825 With Notes by the Translator (Vol. 13). Springer Science & Business Media.
Van Inwagen, P. (1983). An essay on free will.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


We’re all familiar with the kinds of zombies featured on AMC’s show “The Walking Dead”. Philosophers talk a lot about zombies, but not the kind that come after us to eat our brains. Philosophical zombies are hypothetical creatures that are indistinguishable from human beings (behaviorally and physically), but that have no inner thoughts, sense of awareness, or mental life whatsoever. Philosophical zombies talk like us, walk like us, and are even as intelligent as us. They also have brains and bodies just like ours. The only difference is that they lack a mind—there is nothing it is like to be a zombie. One of the big areas of dispute amongst philosophers of mind is whether or not such beings are conceivable.

Zombies were (re)introduced into the philosophical debate by the philosopher David Chalmers in his 1996 book “The Conscious Mind”. In his book, Chalmers argues that zombies are conceivable beings, and that our ability to conceive of zombies entails that that they are logically possible beings (i.e. their possibility involves no contradictions, unlike e.g. a married bachelor). Chalmers then argues that the possibility of zombies entails that physicalism—the view which states that everything in the world is physical in nature—is false, and that we should be dualists (i.e. there exists physical stuff + mind stuff). If there could be a physical duplicate of a conscious being without consciousness, then consciousness would be a kind of property that is not physical in nature. The conscious mind would then be something over and above the brain. Additionally, we would need some explanation for why we have consciousness in the first place. What’s the point of having consciousness if there could be creatures like us without it?

The major assumption running through the zombie argument is that consciousness is irrelevant to the guidance and execution of complex behaviors. One may interpret this to mean that mental states (e.g. beliefs, desires, feelings) do not serve a function and are thus epiphenomena. That is to say, our conscious mental states are just like the humming sound of a computer. They do not serve a purpose and do not add anything to the functioning of the systems. They are instead, mere byproducts.
One may very well want to challenge this assumption. Consciousness probably does have a function (Seth 2009). It seems to be a trait that would have been advantageous for our evolutionary ancestors, allowing them engage in certain complex behaviors, and to solve certain problems. At the same time, it also seems like we can conceive of a being that solved problems and behaved just like us without consciousness. Which of these intuitions should be rejected?

 I think the right move is to challenge the idea that zombies are actually conceivable. The philosopher Robert Kirk argues that the zombie argument commits, what he calls, the “jacket fallacy” (Kirk 2007). Imagine watching an infomercial about an extra lightweight winter jacket. The jacket is described as paper thin, contains one layer of material, and weights only a couple of ounces. Given that most winter jackets tend to be thick, well-insulated, and heavy, one may be rightfully skeptical that the extra lightweight winter jacket will work as advertised. In fact, it seems like the typical features of a winter jacket (thickness, heaviness etc.) are what enable the user to keep warm. A winter jacket without any of the thermal properties would not be able to carry out the function of keeping someone warm. Likewise, having a human without its conscious mental properties may not be able to behave and act like a human with consciousness. The assumption that there could be a zombie actually begs the question against the physicalist. The physicalist would insist that consciousness is like the thermal properties of a winter jacket, in that, it is not something that can be eliminated without some other properties being stripped away as well.

What are we to say to the dualist who insists that we can conceive of zombies? I would say that it’s possible to be wrong about what one is conceiving. There are a number of instances—well known to philosophers of language—where our imaginative faculties are led astray. Not knowing that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same individual, one may falsely believe that it is conceivable that Superman could be dead while Clark Kent is still alive. Given that they are the same person, the death of Superman would necessarily entail the death of Clark Kent. Because we may be ignorant of certain facts, it is possible for us to believe that something is conceivable when it is in fact not. If certain physicalist theories are correct (e.g. mind-brain identity theory) it would not be possible for us to conceive of a mind existing without a brain or body.

Given that we have grounds for thinking that the zombie argument might be fallacious, I do not find it to be a compelling objection to physicalism or monist theories of mind. Nonetheless, I think there are better arguments against physicalism that deserve serious attention (e.g. the knowledge argument). In a future post, I will discuss some of these arguments and offer some of the physicalist responses that I find most plausible.

Works cited:

Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford University Press.
Kirk, R. (2007). Zombies and consciousness. Oxford University Press.
Seth, A. K. (2009). Functions of consciousness. Encyclopedia of consciousness, 1, 279-293.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Abortion and potentiality

According to a view on abortion I recently defended, it isn’t any more intrinsically wrong to end the life of a human fetus over that of a non-human animal fetus (e.g. a pig). Some will take this to be an outrageous thing to believe, and hence, a good reason to reject the view I defend. It can be argued—on solid grounds—that the likely futures of the two organisms are relevantly different. The fetal pig will grow up into an adult pig, capable of experiencing pleasure and establishing social bonds with other pigs. But the fetal human will grow up into a person, capable of self-awareness, rationality, and a conception of one’s self existing over time. While these differences do exist, I will argue that they are morally irrelevant with respect to the vast majority of abortions, and that for the most part, human and non-human fetuses possess equal moral standing. 

At a first pass, in order for some action to be morally objectionable, it must involve unjustifiable harm or a violation of rights. It may be argued that the fetal human has a potential right to life. But a potential right does not entail the possession of actual rights prior to eligibility. On one theory of rights, rights require there to be a conscious subject with certain interests and desires (rocks can’t have rights). The fetus is not eligible for the possession of any rights since fetuses do not have any conscious interests or desires. Hence, there are no rights violated in the case of killing the fetus. If there is no harm or violation of rights in the case of killing a human fetus, what is morally objectionable about the action?

One response is to say that, much like in the case of adults, the act of killing deprives the potential person of a good life that it would have otherwise had (Marquis 1988). I think this analysis might be plausible for later stage fetuses (for most species). But I take it that you aren’t depriving a zygote or a 12 week old fetus of a good life, as such organisms are incapable of possessing consciousness or self-awareness. In order for the early fetus and adult human to be considered different stages of the same ‘self’ existing at separate times, there would need to be a series of mental states linking the two (c.f. Tooley 1983). The fetus—at least in its earliest stages—does not have the capacity for mental states or experiences, providing no way of connecting it to the mental states of the future person. Therefore, there is no continued existence between the fetus and the future person in the relevant psychological sense. Hence, the fetus—at least in its early stages—is in fact not a potential person. There are those who would want to maintain that there is a psychological continuity between the fetus and the adult human, made possible by the existence of a God given soul. The soul of the fetus and future person is one and the same, therefore, the fetus and future person are psychologically linked together. If humans have souls, then my argument would not work. However, we have good reasons—both philosophical and scientific—to reject the existence of an immaterial mental substance.

But what about later stage fetuses (where on top of the capacities for consciousness, pain and pleasure, an 8-month old human fetus is also a potential person)? Would it then be morally worse to end the life of the 8-month old human fetus over a non-human fetus? First, it is not true that all human fetuses are potential people. Fetuses with severe brain abnormalities (e.g. anencephaly) will never have a mental life. Second, there may be non-human animals that are persons (e.g. chimpanzees, extraterrestrials), and thus, the fetal forms of such creatures would be potential persons as well. If we are to make a comparison of a late-stage fetal pig and a human fetus, I think it’s plausible to say that the human fetus has a higher degree of moral value. But the property of potential personhood does not give the fetus the same moral standing as an adult, or even a young child. Just as there is a clear difference between chopping down a tree and smashing an acorn, there is a clear moral difference between aborting a potential person and killing an actual person (Singer 2011).

Since most abortions occur before week 13, the vast majority of aborted fetuses are equal in moral worth to their non-human fetal equivalents. There are of course exceptions to the rule, but the claim that it isn't any more intrinsically wrong to end the life of a human fetus over that of a non-human animal fetus, is true much more often than not. 

Marquis, D. (1989). Why abortion is immoral. The Journal of Philosophy, 86(4), 183-202.
Singer, P. (2011). Practical ethics. Cambridge university press.

Tooley, M. (1983). Abortion and infanticide. Oxford University Press, USA.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Moral disagreement and the quest for an objective moral theory

“Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes”.   Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 1984

Ethical theories aim to explain why certain actions are right or wrong. They also aim to inform us of how we ought to make ethical decisions. Instead of approaching the subject of ethics by reflecting upon some abstract set of principles, some just appeal the moral authority of holy books or directly to the God those books were inspired by. Some would even consider the appeal to holy books to be an ethical theory of its own (i.e. divine command theory). Religious texts may offer moral wisdom and sound ethical principles to live by, but philosophers have been developing ethical theories—without appealing to God—for over two thousand years. Out of all of the theoretical options, is it reasonable to think that one ethical theory should be preferred? That is to say, is there an ethical theory that is objectively true, rendering all other theories false? There are several reasons for skepticism.

First, there are some who think that without God, morality has no foundation (*This problem arises particularly for philosophers because most are nonbelievers). The idea is that without some kind of objective standard of right and wrong—independent of anyone’s opinion—morality lacks a proper basis. Without an independent basis for morality, nothing is really right or wrong.There is much to say about this, but I will only raise two quick related objections. First, depending on how one understands the independence requirement, mathematical, logical, and scientific truths may also lack an “objective” basis. If morality has an objective foundation, it will be like mathematics or logic, starting from rationally intuitive, or self-evidently true starting axioms. Furthermore, on this reading of objectivity, even the existence of God might not be sufficient for objective morality. To cover some of the same ground as the old Euthyphro dillema, what makes the standards that God commands objective? Is it that since he is all knowing, he can perform all of the necessary moral calculations to determine what is right and wrong? Is it that the mind of God such that no moral calculations are necessary, and that God just automatically knows what is right and wrong via some inner moral sense that is perfect? Objectivity can be understood in weaker terms. Just like Descartes has been criticized for his defense of a strong conception of knowledge (i.e. requiring absolute certainty), we can criticize certain philosophers (e.g. William Lane Craig) for proposing a conception of objectivity that is too strong.

Second, there exists lots of disagreement about morality. The existence of moral disagreement across different cultures and individuals convinces many that moral relativism follows and that there just aren’t any objective moral truths to discover. The fact that there is moral disagreement does not refute objectivism, as it could be the case that most people are bad at moral reasoning or are ignorant of the relevant facts. Just as in the case of when you find people disagreeing on Facebook about the answer to a mathematical equation, doesn’t show that there isn’t a right solution, people disagreeing about the answer to a moral question doesn’t show there isn’t a right one. Some people are just bad at reasoning or ignorant of the facts relevant to solving a given problem. However, disagreement that obtains when two parties agree on all of the relevant facts, and employ sound logical reasoning, does seem problematic for objectivism. Persistent moral disagreement is not just thought to be theoretical, but actual, amongst experts in moral philosophy. To be clear, the presence of moral agreement is not required for objectivism to be true. It is not as if moral claims are made true by virtue of a consensus. That would be a really weird metaphysical view. The idea is that a consensus amongst experts would strongly suggest that there are objective answers to questions of right and wrong and that its absence suggests the falsity of objectivism.

The late philosopher Derek Parfit argued that most moral disagreement amongst experts is illusory. It is often assumed that the major ethical theories (e.g. utilitarianism, contractualism, and Kantianism) are incompatible with one another. But Parfit argued that once the views are properly understood, they actually complement one another and can be combined into overarching ethical theory he called ‘triple theory’ (1, 2). Parfit thinks the predicament moral philosophers find themselves in is similar to those of several hikers climbing different sides of the same mountain. It is only once the hikers reach the mountain’s summit, that they realize that they were all climbing the same mountain all along. Parfit’s claims are highly controversial, but worth taking seriously. For if his claims regarding moral disagreement are true, then there may be a strong case for moral objectivism.

It may be argued that constraining the analysis of ethical theories to those espoused by contemporary English speaking moral philosophers may be unjustified. What about all of the other forms of moral diversity in the world? For example, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the views of conservatives in the United States, all offer contrary accounts of morality than those of contemporary philosophers. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has deconstructed differing systems of morality around the world into five or six basic values: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, respect, and purity (3). Most moral philosophers, and political liberals, tend to view the first three values as central to moral theorizing, whereas religious conservatives tend to emphasize the importance of the last three. Haidt’s theory of moral foundations might show that there exist different starting points for moral theorizing, and that no one set of starting value assumptions is more valid than another. Moral pluralism, the view which states that there are several objectively true moral theories, might find support in Haidt’s work.

A response I find natural is to say that all of these differing value systems fail to stand up to the standards of rationality and logic. They appeal to a combination of false religious beliefs, the cultural practices or prejudices of one’s community, and negative emotional responses (e.g. disgust), all of which we have good reason to reject. The ethical theories proposed by philosophers are intended to be as far removed from prejudice and uninformed opinion as possible. Moral philosophers spend most of their lives developing objective reasons and arguments for why certain moral principles are plausible and should be accepted by any rational person. Since the ethical views espoused by religious believers are, for the most part, not well-considered, motivated by logical consistency, or backed by rational arguments, there is reason to suspect their beliefs about morality are mistaken. It may sound elitist to make such claims, but I think most of us would agree to the argument’s application with respect to most other domains of inquiry (e.g. science, mathematics). Scientists are much more likely to be right about an issue than laypeople who are completely uninformed. Why shouldn’t the same be true about ethics? To be clear, I do not want to say that the major religions get everything wrong about morality. I just want to make the point since their moral teachings were not based upon the same methodological standards as contemporary moral theories, we have some reason to doubt that they have equal claim to truth.

Assuming that most of the world’s population simply gets things wrong when it comes to morality, and that most moral philosophers are actually in agreement about the central tenets of an ethical theory, are there any other obstacles that may prevent the theory from being objective? One possibility is that aliens, very unlike human beings, may have systems of morality that are as well-considered, motivated by logical consistency and rational arguments, but that are incompatible with our “objective moral theory”. Here, the problem of fundamental moral disagreement resurfaces, but in the form of a disagreement between members of separate species. This would be a problem for objectivism, but it’s a theoretical possibility that obtains for mathematics, science, and perhaps even logic as well. We either could entertain relativism or pluralism regarding all domains of inquiry or we could maintain a faith in objectivism across the board and hope to find a consensus amongst all rational creatures.

A philosopher who, in my view, pioneered the path for an objective moral theory was the 19th century thinker Henry Sidgwick (4). Sidgwick defended a sophisticated version of utilitarianism that proved to be influential to the great moral philosophers of the 20th century (e.g. Parfit) (5). Reflecting upon the views of Sidgwick and Parfit have led me to seriously reconsider the merits of objectivism. While I did not flesh out either of their views in this post, I think there is much to admire about their philosophical projects, enough to spend several future blog posts discussing and appreciating.


1) Parfit, D., & Scheffler, S. (2011). On what matters: volume one (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
2) Parfit, D., & Scheffler, S. (2011). On what matters: volume two (Vol. 2). Oxford University Press.
3) Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage.
4) Sidgwick, H. (1907). The methods of ethics. Hackett Publishing.
5) de Lazari-Radek, K., & Singer, P. (2014). The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. OUP Oxford.