The Problem of Many Modalities


When it comes to perceptual justification, there are three main foundationalist theories: internalist reliabilism (Steup 2004), phenomenal conservatism (Huemer 2007), and dogmatism (Pryor 2000).[1] In this paper, I will be concerned with James Pryor’s dogmatism. Whether or not the problem I raise for Pryor’s view generalizes to the other two theories is a topic for another paper. This paper will be broken down into two main sections. In section one, I will show that James Pryor’s dogmatism entails that there is an infinite number of potential perceptual modalities. Then, in section two, I will explain why I take that entailment to be problematic.

1. Many Modalities

According to James Pryor, dogmatism is the thesis that, “. . . whenever you have an experience as of p, you thereby have immediate prima facie justification for believing p” (Pryor 2000). An entailment of Pryor’s view is that even if the belief in the reliability of a perceptual modality[2] is discredited by strong evidence of unreliability, that modality still functions as a source of justification. Pryor’s articulation guarantees this result by virtue of using the word, “whenever”.  So, for example, if I had strong evidence indicating that my gas gauge is unreliable, when I see that the gauge is on full according to dogmatism, I have some, albeit very weak, reason to believe that my gas tank is full. Perceptual modalities can be said to necessarily function as justifiers for perceptual beliefs. Giving necessary and sufficient conditions for a modality to qualify as perceptual is probably impossible. Suffice it to say that a perceptual modality is typically seen as a way in which we directly form and justify beliefs about the external world.[3]

A problem for Pryor is that he cannot give a principled account of which perceptual modalities are justifiers and which ones are not. There are many possible, and prima facie suspect, sources of experience, such as sensus divinitatis, remote viewing, and mind-reading.[4] The issue for Pryor is that he is committed to all of these alleged sources of experience being perceptual modalities, and by virtue of that, also being sources of justification.[5] Since perceptual experiences as of P is broad enough to include experiences of God’s will, what’s happening 500 miles away, and what’s on a stranger’s mind, Pryor must admit all of them within the scope of his theory. So, if  S has the experience of  a bear attacking a deer in the woods, 500 miles away from S’s location, by virtue of S having remote-viewing-like perceptual experiences, then S is prima facie justified in believing that such an event is occurring 500 miles away. Furthermore, the problem is not merely that Pryor must allow many more possible sources of perceptual justification. Rather, he must allow an infinite number of them. For any perceptual faculty F, there could be a faculty F* that produces conjunctive beliefs that include the contents of F’s outputs as well as an arbitrary, false proposition. For such a faculty F*, there could then be a faculty F** which produces conjunctive beliefs with the contents of F* as well as some other arbitrary and false proposition. Such a pattern can be iterated to infinity. The problem, then, is that Pryor is committed to an infinite number of potential sources of justification, many of which seem epistemically suspect.

Pryor cannot appeal to defeaters to cut down on the potential sources of perceptual justification. According to Pryor’s view, defeaters for perceptual beliefs merely undercut their justification; there can be no way to completely destroy the justification of perceptual beliefs, so anything that qualifies as a perceptual modality necessarily qualifies as a justifier. So, Pryor’s view entails that there is an infinite number of possible justifiers for perceptual beliefs, despite how epistemically suspect those alleged justifiers and their outputs are. Even if Pryor could provide overwhelmingly strong defeaters for the perceptual beliefs produced by, say, remote-viewing, such a perceptual modality would still provide some, albeit undermined, justification, as in the gas gauge example. Furthermore, he cannot appeal to any background beliefs about the correct theory of perception for the purposes of individuating potential perceptual justifiers, because such beliefs would merely constitute undermining defeaters, so we would still be in the realm of the gas gauge example. The appeal to background beliefs only works for theories which take perceptual justification to require antecedently justified beliefs about our perceptual modalities. For instance, a coherentist can appeal to our current scientific theories about perception and cognition to individuate our perceptual modalities such that we can determine what counts as a perceptual modality prior to evaluating any particular perceptual beliefs.[6] The coherentist can completely undermine the status of any particular perceptual modality as a justifier. Pryor cannot completely undermine the status of any particular perceptual modality as a justifier because any evidence she brings against the justifier-status of a modality will, at best, undermine rather than defeat the justificatory force of that modality. So, Pryor cannot individuate perceptual modalities by utilizing defeaters, since defeaters can never disqualify a possible perceptual modality from being a justifier, despite how epistemically suspect that modality and its outputs are.

2. Epistemically Suspect

But why consider the entailment that there is an infinite number of possible perceptual modalities to be problematic? In the previous section I alluded to some of the possible modalities being epistemically suspect. By epistemically suspect, I mean that there is good reason to at least suspend judgment about the status of that alleged modality as a justifier. It seems to be the case that we have good reason to at least suspend judgment about the status of remote-viewing as a justifier. There is no detectable causal connection between the experiences had by remote-viewers and the events they allegedly predict and/or describe. Moreover, there have been no credible, replicable studies showing that remote-viewing is a reliable method of predicting and/or describing events in the external world. Remote-viewing is also considered a pseudoscience by many experts (Alcock 1981) (Marks and Kammann 2000).

Furthermore, as my disjunctive belief formation faculty example in section one showed, there can be an infinite number of alleged perceptual modalities. We can now see how an infinite number of possible perceptual modalities is a problem for Pryor. An alleged source of experience that produces beliefs whose contents are conjunctions qualifies as a perceptual modality given Pryor’s view.[7] The perceptual modality of conjunctive remote-viewing produces beliefs about what is happening 500 miles away from the viewer and that the moon is made of green cheese. One can fill the conjuncts in with any wildly implausible propositions that one wishes. At this point, biting the bullet and claiming that this perceptual modality functions as a justifier is pushing dogmatism near the threshold of complete implausibility.

Now, this would not be such a problem if no other theory of perceptual justification could present a principled way of ruling out epistemically suspect sources of experience. However, coherentism is able to do this. Explanatory coherentists can appeal to current scientific theories of perception to rule out sources of experience such as remote-viewing. Since belief-sets containing beliefs produced by remote-viewing are less explanatorily virtuous than belief-sets without such beliefs, we can rule those beliefs and their source out as epistemically relevant. While this is not a knockdown argument against the dogmatist, it does put pressure on him to show how the theory fares better than competitors in other areas to mitigate the damage from biting this bullet.


Pryor’s view is stuck with the implausible entailment that there is no way to individuate perceptual modalities such that we can rule out cases of modalities that do not provide even some justification for their outputs. At best, we can give a descriptive taxonomy of perceptual modalities claimed to be had by various people. The reason why Pryor is stuck with this individuation problem is that he cannot allow for the complete defeat of any particular source of justification, as long as that source qualifies as a perceptual modality. The necessary connection between a source being perceptual and its outputs having at least some justification is what makes this a problem for Pryor. If Pryor allowed for the complete defeat the outputs of any particular perceptual modality, revoking its status as a justifier, then he could rule out epistemically suspect perceptual sources like remote-viewing. But then he would no longer be a dogmatist, since he would sever the necessary connection between perception and justification that lends dogmatism its attractiveness in the dialectic between the skeptic and the dogmatist.


[1] Huemer’s view can be interpreted as a particular form of dogmatism rather than conservatism (Steup 2016).

[2]  By, “modality” I mean any perceptual faculty or sub-faculty, such as hearing and sight.

[3] Some perceptual beliefs can be inferred, but the mark of a perceptual modality is that it epistemically connects us with the external world without any additional intermediary. A priori justified beliefs about the external world, if there are any to begin with, would have to be justified mediately by virtue of inference from beliefs directly justified a priori.

[4] These are perceptual modalities because they produce beliefs about the external world, and such beliefs aren’t mediated by anything further.

[5] Since Pryor does not give further conditions on what constitutes perceptual experience, besides not allowing the a priori to qualify, he must grant that the alleged sources of experience listed above qualify as perceptual modalities, and therefore are sources of justification.

[6] See (Poston 2014) for a contemporary defense of explanatory coherentism.

[7] Nothing in his (2000) indicates otherwise.

Works Cited

Alcock, James. (1981). Parapsychology-Science Or Magic?: A Psychological Perspective. Pergamon Press. Print.

Huemer, Michael. “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74.1 (2007): 30-55. Web.

Marks, David and Kammann, Richard. (2000). The Psychology of the Psychic. PrometheusBooks. Print.

Poston, Ted. Reason and explanation: a defense of explanatory coherentism. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.

Pryor, James. “The Skeptic and the Dogmatist.” Nous 34.4 (2000): 517-49. Web. Steup, Matthias. “Internalist Reliabilism.” Philosophical Issues 14.1 (2004): 403-25. Web.

Steup, Matthias. “Destructive defeat and justificational force: the dialectic of dogmatism, conservatism, and meta-evidentialism.” Synthese (2016). Web.

Steup, Matthias. “Internalist Reliabilism.” Philosophical Issues 14.1 (2004): 403-25. Web.


Free Will, Agent Causation, & Metaphysical Naturalism: A consistent and plausible combination



It’s no longer uncommon for free will to be met with suspicion. This suspicion is even greater when it comes to libertarian free will, and overwhelming regarding agent causation. This belief is largely arrived at via the notion that agent causation or even free will in general is inconsistent with Metaphysical Naturalism. This attitude is mistaken. Here I propose to show that even an agent causal account of action is consistent with Naturalism, which implies that free will in general is. Finally, I’ll close by arguing that at least some people are justified in believing in free will.


Metaphysical Naturalism (MN) is a meta-philosophical position regarding the fundamental nature of Being, the world, etc. What it entails is largely debated, but I will be using two definitions that are generally accepted.

MN1: Everything that exists is natural. There are no supernatural entities or forces.

MN2: Reality is exhausted by space-time and its contents, or an ensemble of space-time manifolds.

MN1 is the most common version, but it’s largely uninformative because “natural” is left unaddressed. We’re merely left with picking out paradigmatic supernatural entities/forces such as ghosts, gods, magic, and the like, and asserting that nothing of the sort obtains. I prefer M2, but I think assuming the truth of either one of them is sufficient for what I hope to demonstrate.

Free Will

To understand why people assume agent causation is inconsistent with MN, we have to clarify what free will is. First, the will is the power of the agent to deliberate, make decisions, and translate those decisions into action1. I take the folk conception of free will to mean that persons are sometimes able to exercise their will such that they could have done otherwise. That is, at least some decisions aren’t necessitated by their nature and/or environment2

More clearly, an action is free only if it satisfies the following conditions:

Sourcehood: The agent is the actual source of ones action (e.g. no manipulation).

Intelligibility: The agent performs actions for reasons that are understood by the agent (e.g. a spontaneous jerk isn’t a free action).

Leeway: The agent is able to refrain from performing the action.

It’s often assumed that naturalism entails determinism, and that determinism is in conflict with the leeway condition, and by this very fact naturalism is in conflict with free will. But this entailment does not hold. There’s nothing about naturalism itself that implies that all causal relations are determinate (necessitated by the relevant antecedent conditions). All that’s required of causality on MN is that nature is causally continuous. Which means that there is only one metaphysical causal kind within the world (i.e. Dualism is false), and that there aren’t external non-natural causal forces affecting the natural world. For these would almost be by definition supernatural. Further, contemporary physics already admits indeterminism in at least six interpretations of quantum mechanics (three remain agnostic, and four are explicitly deterministic)3. So if one is going to reject free will in virtue of MN, it can’t be because of MN entailing determinism. One might object that indeterministic events don’t take place in higher-level settings, such as the firing of a neuron, so a naturalistic interpretation of human behavior will be deterministic. First, there’s nothing about naturalism in itself that requires this. Second, whether some events in the brain operate indeterministically is an empirical thesis that remains to be settled, and there are already models of how this might work4

Given what has been outlined above, we can make sense of an event causal libertarian account of free will fitting within MN. In these sorts of instances, one’s mental states cause one to act but in such a way that you could have done otherwise. That is, the features of yourself that cause the action wouldn’t necessitate the action. You could have refrained or performed an altogether different action. It’s also helpful to note that this model fits nicely with the reductive account of mind, where any token mental state is identical to a particular brain state. Most philosophers specializing in free will recognize event causal libertarianism as a possibility worth considering, even if they remain skeptical of its reality5.

Agent Causation & Substance Causation

This charitable tone tends to drop once agent causation is proposed. This is typically followed by accusations of anti-scientific and “spooky” metaphysics. This is primarily grounded in the assumption that agent causation implies substance dualism. They can’t imagine what this agent could be besides a disembodied mind that interacts with the body. I think the agent causal picture people have in mind is much like how Kant thought freedom of the will worked. Essentially, the physical world that we experience is fully deterministic. Everything runs like clockwork with the exception of human action. In addition to bodies, persons are also noumenal selves that transcend the empirical world, making sovereign unconstrained choices each time they deliberate and act. So on this picture, the world consists of two different sorts of causes, natural events and agents. Given this sort of description, it’s of little surprise that so few philosophers take agent causation seriously.

Before we contrast the previous description with how agent causation has been recently updated, it will be useful to offer a brief description of what event causation is supposed to be. Event causation essentially involves some complex state of affairs or process causing another. For example, a heart pumping causes the movement of blood or a brick being thrown causes the window’s shattering. Further, the way these events unfold are explained by whatever laws of nature happen to obtain, be they deterministic or probabilistic. Causation cashed out as event relations can either be understood as ontologically primitive or reducible to something more basic such as facts concerning the global spatiotemporal arrangement of fundamental natural properties or sequential regularity.

Timothy O’Conner offers two similar, but philosophically distinct analyses of causation which clearly sketch the relevant difference between event and agent causation6:

Event causal analysis: “The having of a power P by object O1 at time t produces effect E in object O2.”

Agent Causal analysis: “Object O1 produces effect E, doing so in virtue of having power P at time t.”

In the first case it is the “possessing a power”, an event, which is the cause of the effect; in the second it is the object. What’s of crucial importance here is that the agent causal analysis isn’t actually just one of agent causation, but is of the more general theory of substance causation. Substance causation is just the theory that substances or objects are what cause effects. So on this account, it’s not the throwing of the brick that causes the window to shatter; properly speaking, it’s the brick. Now this might sound absurd; how could the throwing of the brick not be a cause of the windows breaking? The absurdity drops once we consider the thrower. Really, the thrower and the brick jointly cause the windows shattering, where the throwing is a manifestation of a power possessed by the thrower. Powers theory is crucial to any plausible theory of substance causation. It’s not merely the object in itself that causes the effect, but the nature of the object that is constituted by the powers it possesses.

Most of the mysteriousness of agent causation disappears once we understand it as a species of substance causation. So take any ordinary substance, a rock, an electron, a water molecule, etc; any time any substance causes an effect on another substance, we have an instance of substance causation. What distinguishes agent causation from ordinary instances of substance causation is that there is an intention behind it. This entails that agent causation is fairly common place within the animal kingdom, which itself is good reason to believe that agent causation is consistent with naturalism.

A robust defense of substance causation is beyond the scope of this paper, but I can briefly sketch some reasons for accepting it. One is the numerous problems with alternative theories of causation. The constant conjunction or sequential regularity theory is currently one of the most popular and has been since Hume proposed it. On this account, for x to cause y is just for it to be the case that every time x occurs, y occurs. So on this view there is no intrinsic or necessary connection between the fire and the smoke that follows; this is just the way the universe happens to unfold. A contentious assumption on this theory is that all instances of causality are temporarily ordered. But we can make sense of non-temporal causation such as two cards propping each other up or a ball making an impression on a pillow that it’s been resting on for eternity(i.e. there was no prior time where ball was not affecting the pillow).

The other popular account reduces causation to counterfactual dependence, which is something like this,

1) If A had not occurred, B would not have occurred.

2) If A had occurred, B would have occurred.

3) A and B both occurred. “ (Scholastic Metaphysics, pg. 60).

So the throwing of the brick causes the window breaking because if you remove the throwing of the brick then the breaking would not have happened. One problem with counterfactual dependence is the infinite number acts of omission that are involved in any causal sequence. So my successfully walking across the street was dependent on not being crushed by an elephant, not being transported, the earth not blowing up, etc. Another issue that’s applicable to both theories is that both of them seem to get the dependence relation wrong. It’s because of causation that there is constant conjunction and counter factual dependence. They are symptomatic of causation.

Next, here is a simple argument in favor of substance causation7:

1. Some actual substances possess causal powers.
2. If a substance possesses a causal power, then it is efficacious.
3. If a substance is efficacious, then it can be a cause.
4. Some actual substances’ causal powers are manifested.
5. Therefore, some actual substances are causes.

The only premise I can imagine being rejected is (1). On the face of it, this might sound absurd; as if it means that nothing has the power to do anything. Though really the individual who rejects causal powers would have alternative explanations for why things do what they do. A not uncommon answer is that we only need appeal to the laws of nature to understand and explain how events unfold. This is problematic. On one hand, if you take the laws of nature just to be descriptions of regularity, then the laws themselves don’t do any explanatory work. On the other hand, if you take the laws of nature to be something that dictates and enforces the activity of things from the outside, then you’ve committed yourself to a form of platonism, where naturalism must be rejected. Finally, you can take the laws themselves to be the causal implications of the intrinsic natures that the substances possess, and in that case we’re back to powers theory.

Metaphysical Irreducibility

One might object to my earlier claim that agent causation is fairly common place because in reality there are no agents, merely matter in motion or atoms in the void.This is where the possible reducibility of macro-level objects becomes an issue. So a largely reductionist metaphysics will hold that much of what we consider ordinary objects are nothing over and above their parts. So what they are is wholly reducible to a set of fundamental constituents and relations. Another way to think of about this is that if we were to take an inventory of everything that really exists, much of what we take to exist would turn out to not. At its most extreme, the reductionist thesis holds that there’s nothing over above quarks, bosons, or whatever a complete theoretical physics takes to be fundamental. Ordinary objects will be described as simples (indivisible physical objects) arranged in a particular way. So to be a cat is just to be simples arranged cat-wise.

If one were both a reductionist and a substance causation theorist, then one could rightfully reject agent causation because there would be no agents in the relevant sense. In order for agent causation to obtain, the agent has to be a unique substance that’s not merely the sum of its parts. If agent causation were true, then agents would be irreducible substances whose persistence conditions are picked out by their higher-level causal powers(e.g. Purposiveness, narrativity, & self-reflection). That is, we are unique irreducible substances because we possess capacities that aren’t exemplified by our constituents. The constituents have come together in the right way; they are not merely a collection of them. A unique form is exemplified that puts constraints on the activity of its lower-level constituents. Which is an example of top-down causation if anything is. On reductionist substance causation, the lower level substances do all of the causal work.

A possible strategy for motivating a non-reductionist account mirrors the demystifying of agent-causation. That is, if irreducible objects aren’t special cases that are essentially restricted to persons, then there’s less reason to be suspicious of irreducibility in general. This does not mean that I think that all ordinary objects are irreducible substances. I take objects of artifice to be clearly reducible to their chemical constituents. So houses, cars, computers, tools, etc are reducible to their constituent parts. Edward Feser offers a clear description of the distinction I have in mindviii,

The basic idea is that a natural object is one whose characteristic behavior – the ways in which it manifests either stability or changes of various sorts – derives from something intrinsic to it. A nonnatural object is one which does not have such an intrinsic principle of its characteristic behavior; only the natural objects out of which it is made have such a principle. We can illustrate the distinction with a simple example. A liana vine – the kind of vine Tarzan likes to swing on – is a natural object. A hammock that Tarzan might construct from living liana vines is a kind of artifact, and not a natural object. The parts of the liana vine have an inherent tendency to function together to allow the liana to exhibit the growth patterns it does, to take in water and nutrients, and so forth. By contrast, the parts of the hammock – the liana vines themselves – have no inherent tendency to function together as a hammock. Rather, they must be arranged by Tarzan to do so, and left to their own devices – that is to say, without pruning, occasional rearrangement, and the like they will tend to grow the way they otherwise would have had Tarzan not interfered with them, including in ways that will impede their performance as a hammock. Their natural tendency is to be liana-like and not hammock-like; the hammock-like function they perform after Tarzan ties them together is extrinsic or imposed from outside, while the liana-like functions are intrinsic to them” (Scholastic Metaphysics, pg. 182)8

I don’t commit myself to the idea that all natural particulars are irreducible or simple (without parts) or that only objects of human construction are reducible. For example, a rock made of limestone would reduce to a collection calcium carbonate, that may or may not have an irreducible intrinsic nature. The correct account of reduction/non-reduction relation is a severely under-explored issue in metaphysics. The hope here is merely that this example is useful in communicating an idea of what an irreducible relation/substance is supposed to be.

Final Arguments

Before summing up the arguments, it’ll be useful to explain what sort of advantage an agent causal account of freedom has over an event causal one. It stems from what’s called the “disappearing agent” objection to event causal libertarianism. The idea is that on the event causal analysis the agent-involving events (the particular mental states, preferences, reasons, etc) that non-deterministically cause the decision don’t actually settle which option is selected. The leeway condition is satisfied in that we could roll back the event and you could have otherwise but you, yourself don’t actually choose it. Your agent-involving states merely constrain which options are possible for you. Where it goes from there is a matter of luck. This can be thought of as claiming that an event causal view doesn’t satisfy the sourcehood condition for free will. The events, which do the work, merely flow through you, but you don’t really settle which option occurs. Agent causal theories have the advantage of saying that you certainly do play an explanatory role.

With this work behind us, we can abridge the essential story into a few brief arguments.

1. Substance Causation is consistent Naturalism.
2. The metaphysical irreducibility of certain substances (persons among them) is consistent with Naturalism.
3. If (1 & 2), then agent-causation is consistent with Naturalism.
4. Therefore, Agent Causation is consistent with Naturalism.

I think 1 and 2 are fairly straightforward in that nothing about my description of them implied that they transcend space and time, and 3 isn’t much more than the definition of agent causation.


1. The leeway condition is consistent with Naturalism (i.e. Nothing about naturalism implies that all causation is deterministic or that all causally relevant neural sequences are deterministic).
2. The sourcehood condition is consistent with Naturalism (since the most demanding form of satisfying it (agent causation) is consistent with Naturalism).
3. The intelligibility condition is consistent with Naturalism (I can’t say much more than I’d be completely puzzled if someone denied this, beyond maybe saying that all of our reasons are post hoc confabulations).
4. If (1,2 & 3), then Free Will is consistent with Naturalism (A priori true).
5. Therefore, Free Will is consistent with Naturalism.


1. Substance causation is a plausible theory of causation.
2. The irreducibility of certain biological substances is not implausible.
3. Indeterminism is plausible.
4. If (1,2, & 3), then free will is plausible.
5. We’re justified in holding independently plausible positions if they cohere with our background beliefs*.
6. Therefore, at least some people are justified in believing in free will.

Plausible: A position is plausible just in case it is coherent, contains sophisticated arguments or evidence in favor of it (ones that are aware of and address the relevant issues and objections that might undermine it) and is void of any obvious insurmountable objections.

*Epistemic axiom: We’re justified in believing what seems to be true unless we have sufficient reason to think it’s false.

*Phenomenological claim: Some of our decisions seem to be free, to at least some of us.

Without question, this is the weakest of the arguments I’ve offered. Plausibility is context dependent, which means many will find this unconvincing. Some of the most obvious candidates are committed reductionists, scientismists, eliminativists, determinists, and event causal theorists. Though this is not my target audience. My hope is that fence sitters, or anyone who’s just generally skeptical yet open to free will and agent causation might be persuaded to take the position seriously. No one should be moved to believe in free will merely based on what I’ve offered here, but it might be sufficient to motivate some to re-assess their position.


1 Franklin, Christopher Evan, Agent-Causation, Explanation, and Akrasia: A Reply to Levy’s Hard Luck, Criminal Law and Philosophy 9:4, (2015): 753-770.

2 I’m assuming incompatibilism, but even a compatabilist might find the agent causal argument interesting and useful. See

Markosian, Ned 1999: ‘A Compatibilist Version of the Theory of Agent Causation’. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 80, pp. 257–77.

——2012: ‘Agent Causation as the Solution to all the Compatibilist’s Problems’. Philosophical Studies, 157, pp. 383–98.


4 Peter Ulric Tse, Neural Basis of Free Will: Criterial Causation, MIT Press, 2013, 456pp.
-Christopher Evan Franklin, The Scientific Plausibility of Libertarianism’, Free Will and Moral Responsibility, eds. Ishtiyaque Haji and Justin Caouette. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2013): 123-141.
-Indeterminism in Neurobiology. Marcel Weber. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 72, No. 5, Proceedings of the 2004 Biennial Meeting of The Philosophy of Science AssociationPart I: Contributed PapersEdited by Miriam Solomon (December 2005), pp. 663-674

5 For an excellent treatment of event causal libertarianism see:

Balaguer, Mark. Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem. MIT Press, 2010

-Balaguer, Mark. A Coherent, Naturalistic, and Plausible Formulation of Libertarian Free Will. Noûs, Vol. 38, No.3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 379-406

6 O’Conner, Timothy. “Free Will and Metaphysics,” in David Palmer, ed., in Libertarian Free Will (ed. D. Palmer, Oxford), 2014

7 Whittle, A. (2016). A Defence of Substance Causation. Journal of the American Philosophical Association , 2(1), 1-20. DOI: 10.1017/apa.2016.1

8 Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Editiones Scholasticae, 2014, 302pp.

Pragmatism and Two Forms of Naturalism: Guest Post by Danny Krämer

American Pragmatists and the first wave of Naturalism

What I call the first wave of naturalism took place in the early 20th century and includes such philosophers as Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, Roy Wood Sellars and – one of the great figures of American pragmatism – John Dewey. Dewey was the one of the pragmatists that saw himself explicitly as a naturalist. Nowadays there is a debate about how to understand naturalism. What does a naturalist view entail and what not? Is it mainly an epistemological or a metaphysical position?

The situation was even worse at the time of the first wave of naturalism. All these philosophers said was that philosophy should be more closely connected to the sciences and that everything that exists is natural. But of course everything depends on what you mean by the word “natural”. I will argue that Dewey’s naturalism is of a different kind than the one that was made popular by the second wave of naturalism.

Two forms of Naturalism

What I will call the second wave of naturalism is the movement that started with the work of W.V.O. Quine. Quine famously denounced the project of “first philosophy”. The classical aim of philosophy was to build a structure of fundamental knowledge for the empirical sciences to rest on. With Quine’s critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction and therefore of the notion of a priori knowledge that is prior to science, this project was said farewell. Philosophy must talk from inside the sciences. But this rejection of “first philosophy” developed into a more radical way of seeing the things. The main thesis of a – what I call it – “strict naturalism” are as follows:

  • The epistemological thesis: The methods of the natural sciences are the only one that yield genuine knowledge.
  • The ontological thesis: The only entities that exist are the entities of our most well established sciences – especially fundamental physics.

This form of naturalism is a reductive physicalism of a very hard nosed sort. Of course, there are very few that hold such a strong view but some philosophers hold it and it is one picture of naturalism that floats around in the public discourse. The other form of naturalism is nowadays often called “liberal naturalism”. It is non-reductive in ontology and even though it has great respect for the natural sciences, it has also respect for other forms of rational inquiry. (We will come to this in a minute.)

The interesting part of this is that Dewey wrote a paper with Hook and Nagel, where they answered some critiques, which accused them to be crude 1 mechanists. The paper is called “Are naturalists materialists?” and it defends a form of non-reductive materialism, that could stand model for some of the views that liberal naturalists develop nowadays.

The core of Naturalism

What makes these two forms of naturalism forms of naturalism? I think there are three main themes a naturalist position is about:

  1. Anti-supernaturalism: All forms of naturalists deny, that we need things like god, angels, immaterial souls etc. for our best explanations of the world and therefore we should not accept that they exist. Of course there are many other things that seem to be supernatural, for example numbers, moral values, possibilities etc. You could say it in this way – using some phrases from Roy Wood Sellars son Wilfrid Sellars: There are many things in our manifest image of the world that seem to be incompatible with our scientific image of the world. While the strict naturalist tries to eliminate or reduce the things of the scientific image, the liberal naturalist takes them at face value as long as he needs them for the best explanations of the world. Some entities cannot be reduced to entities of the natural sciences, not because they are supernatural, but because they are nonnatural in the sense of dependent on human actions and intentions. So one has to be cautious of not conflating the natural/supernatural distinction and the natural/artificial distinction. The concepts of common sense and the human sciences on the one hand and the concepts of the physical sciences cross classify. (For more details one should see for example Jerry Fodor’s Special Sciences or John Dupre’s The Disorder of Things)
  1. Scientific Realism: Every naturalist should be a scientific realist. (Not every naturalist, actually, is a scientific realist, but I think that is wrong. But that is another discussion.) If you do not belief that the entities of the scientific image really exist, but are only useful fictions for empirical prediction, then the conflict between scientific and manifest image does not even arise. But the manifest image has some supernatural things in it and if you do not want them in your ontology, you should have to say how the world functions without them. But at least every naturalist has great respect of the development of the natural sciences since the scientific revolution. That is one motivation to even become a naturalist.
  1. Second Philosophy: This phrase I borrow from Penelope Maddy. If there is no “first philosophy” left after Quine, what to do? The strict naturalist would say, “Nothing! Let’s just do science!” Penelope Maddy’s answer is we just do second philosophy. We do not try to find a fundamental part of our knowledge that grounds science. Science needs no grounding. But there are still some philosophical questions left. What makes a question to a philosophical one? Well, these questions are the one that scientists do not ask, because they are either too abstract and not of great interest for the practitioner or they are about the interpretation and the integration of scientific theories into our overall theory of the world. Certainly, in questions of physics the physicist has authority. But if it comes to how we understand a physical theory and how we integrate it with our other theories, there is some work to be done.

Two pragmatist traditions

That fits well with the project Dewey had in mind. The empirical method he mentions for example in Nature and Experience, and that he also wanted to use in philosophy, is not what is nowadays known as the search for the scientific method. Famously there was not one method of science to be found, neither by the Vienna Circle nor by Popper or anyone else. And there is also no special philosophical method to be found. Interestingly Quine, who was at times a hardliner, said, in a softer mood, that under science he understands our entire web of beliefs and that he regrets that the word science in English only means natural sciences. As it seems he had a broader field of empirical investigation in mind. And if we take Anti-reductionism seriously, we should take seriously that there are phenomena that cannot be understood in the same way as bosons and fermions.

All of our rational inquiry – natural science, the humanities, social sciences, philosophy – are connected through – to use Wittgenstein’s term – family resemblance. While the strict naturalist only takes natural sciences serious the liberal naturalist also admits that the humanities or literary criticism can provide us knowledge as long as they take place in our family of rational inquiry. The liberal naturalist does not discriminate between evidence of the natural sciences, which is real evidence and evidence from the social sciences which is only derivative. He only discriminates between good and bad evidence, no matter where they come from. (Where the border between rational inquiry and pseudoscience lies, is of course another question.)

This division of perspectives can also be found in the interpretation of classical pragmatism. For Richard Rorty the most important thing the pragmatists did, was to replace the metaphysical notion of truth with a epistemological one. Rorty himself advocated eliminativism about the mental and his pragmatic understanding of truth led directly to his post-modernism. On the other hand there is Hilary Putnam’s work. He rejected the anti-realist theories of truths that the pragmatists got famous for. (At least the early and the late Putnam did. He talked about his anti-realist phase as a mistake in his philosophical career.) What was important for Putnam and why he was interested in the pragmatist tradition was, that philosophical problems should bear a connection to problems of everyday life and the pluralistic picture in ontology and epistemology. So, even Putnam never called himself a pragmatist, Putnam could be seen as a pragmatist and liberal naturalist par excellence.

Danny Krämer holds an MA in philosophy and is now working on a PhD. Danny’s research is on liberal naturalism, and you can find his blog here.

A New Consequentialism

Consequentialism is a family of theories that take the consequences of actions to be the location of the right or good-making features of those actions. For the sake of simplicity, let’s work with a very basic consequentialist view, which is that ought to maximize the good. The good is identified with happiness. So, we ought to maximize happiness with our actions.

The problem with this view is that it says the right thing to do, what we ought to do, is maximize happiness. However, intuitively, there are situations where maximizing happiness is not what we ought to do. For instance, nobody but the most committed act utilitarian would say that it’s ok to kill a homeless person to supply his organs to five needy recipients, even if nobody would ever find out.
So, this simple consequentialism fails to give a satisfying analysis of deontic concepts, like RIGHT and WRONG.[1] In other words, it gives the wrong application conditions for RIGHT and WRONG, because it entails that certain actions which fall within the extension of WRONG actually fall within the extension of RIGHT.

What could we do to revise our simple consequentialism? Well, we could try not giving an analysis of deontic concepts. So, we could become scalar utilitarians, which is to say we could be people who think actions are ranked on a scale from best to worst.[2] Maybe moral judgments that involve deontic concepts are just wrongheaded. We could just do without concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, let’s just talk about better or worse actions; actions which we have more or less reason to do.

This just isn’t satisfying, though. Clearly torturing children for fun isn’t just worse than not torturing them for fun, it’s wrong. We ought not to torture children for fun. There’s nothing wrongheaded about that moral judgment. So, we need to give an account of deontic concepts if we want a theory that captures what we do when we engage in moral discourse and deliberation.

Here is what I take to be the best way to deal with this problem. If we try to give a consequentialist analysis of deontic concepts, we get the extensions of those concepts wrong. If we try to avoid giving an analysis, then we exclude a large portion of our moral discourse from our theory. So, we should analyze deontic concepts as conventions based on contingent social arrangements. We still should employ deontic concepts in moral judgment, and they play an indispensable role in our moral lives. But they do not reflect some fundamental structure of the moral world; rather, they reflect contingent social arrangements.

The role that consequentialism can play in this theory is a means by which we can critique these contingent social arrangements. So, we could give consequentialist critiques of the ways in which deontic concepts are deployed in specific classes of moral judgments. For instance, if the concept RIGHT once had within its extension returning escaped slaves to their so-called owners, then that deontic concept could be revised according to a consequentialist critique of the institution of slavery. Our deontic moral judgments, judgments of right and wrong, permissibility and impermissibility, are ultimately subject to a consequentialist evaluation if the need arises.

Is this just rule utilitarianism? I don’t think so. Typically, rule utilitarians think we ought to obey a certain idealized set of rules which pass the consequentialist test of goodness-maximization. What I’m proposing is we work with the rules we already have, and revise as the need arises, rather than reason according to an idealized set of good-maximizing rules. Besides, a rule utilitarian analysis of deontic concepts will probably fall victim to the extension problem I raised above against our simple consequentialist analysis.


[1] Assume I’m talking about moral rightness and moral wrongness, not something like the wrong or right way to play an instrument.

[2] If there’s an upper or lower limit to goodness/badness. If there isn’t, then it’s a limitless scale of better/worse.

Why I’m Skeptical of the Horseshoe Theory

Are you a liberal? Are you a conservative? A libertarian? Left or right? Are you an anarcho-capitalist? Are you an anarcho-communist? An anarcho-syndicalist? Do you think government ought to be structured as a republic or as a direct democracy? These are all questions about people’s political ideologies. We typically individuate or distinguish between these ideologies according to a system of two independent axes that aims to pick out spectra of independent ideological positions, one economic and the other having to do with authority. There are problems with this view. For example, ideologies about political economies and the use/abuse of political authority are not neatly separable into independent spectra. Obviously, your views about if and when the state can justifiably use force to extract money from its citizenry to finance its policies will be influenced by your economic views and your views about political morality.

Opposed to this view of the political landscape is the horseshoe theory, which was developed by Jean-Pierre Faye. Horseshoe theorists view the political landscape as a single spectrum which bends like a horseshoe. As one reaches either end of the horseshoe, one approaches the extremist versions of left or right wing political ideologies. The point of this is that the left and right wings, as they go further left or right, end up converging such that the political spectrum becomes a horseshoe. While they don’t completely touch, they resemble each other enough to be more like their left or right wing extremist rivals than the centrists occupying the curved portion of the shoe. So, in essence, as left wingers and right wingers get more left wing and right wing, respectively, they end up resembling their ideological opposition on the opposite end more and more.

The problem I see with this view is that it conflates the contents of a political ideology with the tactics for implementing those contents that are seen as permissible by the proponents of those ideologies. So, a defender of horseshoe theory will point to how extremist right wingers and extremist left wingers are both willing to use violence as a means to the end of implementing their political ideologies into the social order. This is problematic, because we should individuate political ideologies based on their contents rather than the tactics contingently endorsed by their proponents. There are proponents of political ideologies who would typically not be classified as extremist who would be willing to use violence or tactics usually ascribed to extremists. The question is what the morally salient conditions are for justified uses of violence, and that is a question answered by the contents of particular political ideologies. So, ultimately we need to look to the contents rather than the tactics when individuating political ideologies.

Now, the horseshoe theorist may push back and claim that when we consider the so-called extremist left and right, their ideologies have quite similar standards by which violence or other extreme tactics are morally justified. The problem with this reply is that it’s outright false. It takes just a few minutes to look up so-called extremist left and right wing ideologies’ views about the justified and unjustified use of extreme tactics, and once you do that you’ll see that they differ significantly with respect to the reasons that they deploy to justify the use of tactics that the horseshoe theorist thinks makes them so similar.

So, while I don’t endorse the dual axis view of the political landscape, it’s clearly better as a tool for individuating contemporary political ideologies than the horseshoe theory.

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence (Book X of The Laws)


In Book X of The Laws, the Athenian provides an argument for the existence of god. Unholy acts are committed by those who suffer from three kinds of misconception, which are that gods do not exist, or they exist but do not care about human affairs, or that they can be bribed with sacrifices (Jirsa 239; Laws Book X 885e). The Athenian believes that the atheist ought to be provided with proof of the existence of gods before any punishment is imposed on them for impiety (885c-e).[1]  The Athenian aims to provide a proof that soul is fundamental (892c-d).[2] The proof that the Athenian provides is an argument from motion (Stalley 169-170). In short, a thing can have one of two properties: (a) the property of moving other things without moving itself, and (b) the property of moving other things as well as itself (894b-c). All motion has an absolute origin, which cannot be type (a), because things of that type can only transmit motions to other things by virtue of themselves being moved by something external to them (894e). To be the originator of motion, a thing must be of type (b), because it must have the potential to originate motion within itself, as there is nothing but itself to transmit motion to other things at the beginning of the sequence of moving things. Things of type (b) are said to be alive, or ensouled (895c). So, the originator of motion is soul, which makes soul more fundamental than physical things (892c-d; 896b-c). Since soul is more fundamental than physical things, the properties of soul are more fundamental than the properties of material things (896c-d). Soul, being fundamental, is the source of everything less fundamental, which includes values like good and bad (896d).

Soul controls the heavens and the earth because they are also in motion (896d-e). The goodness or virtue and rationality of the originator of motion is inferred from the fact that the motion of the heavens is orderly and rational, which means that the originator of that motion must also be virtuous, orderly, and rational (896e-898c). This paper will be structured as follows. In section one, I will explain the doctrine against which the Athenian is arguing. In section two, I will lay out the argument’s premises, and explain the rationale behind them. Finally, in section three, I will assess the validity and soundness of the argument.

  1. Physicalism

The Athenian’s opponent is the physicalist. Physicalism is responsible for the attractiveness of atheism (887b-c). In the context of the Laws, physicalism is the doctrine that all things that come into being do so by virtue of nature, change, or art (888e).[3] The physicalist believes that the basic elements (earth, air, water, and fire) exist by nature, and they combine in various ways by chance to produce everything else that exists (889a). Things that exist by virtue of art are secondary to those that exist by chance or nature (889c). Examples of things that exist by virtue of art are things crafted by humans and human conventions (889c). When it comes to crafts that involve mixing labor with the natural world, the products such as fresh produce and meat are considered natural (Jirsa 242-243). The secondary, or less fundamental (derivative) entities are those that do not involve outright mixing of human labor with the natural world. Statesmanship, for example, seems not to involve the natural world, so it is secondary to the natural by virtue of the object of its inquiry (the state) being a product of art (889c-e). Furthermore, on the physicalist view, the gods are the products of human activity, and therefore are not ontologically primary (889e). Clearly, this threatens the notion that the laws which structure Magnesia are from the gods, so it is important for the Athenian to refute the doctrine of physicalism (886e-888e). So, the Athenian, encouraged by Clinias, sets out to formulate an argument against physicalism, which establishes the existence of god.

  1. The Argument

The Athenian begins his exposition of the argument by laying out a taxonomy of motion, which seems to be ordered according to ontological priority (Jirsa 244). The motion I classified as type (a) is identified with that which can move other things but cannot move itself, and the motion I classified as type (b) is identified with that which can move other things and itself (894b-c). Types (a) and (b) motion are considered to be the most basic kinds of motion in the Athenian’s taxonomy (Jirsa 244). Since the Athenian aims to refute the doctrine of physicalism, which says that earth, air, water, and fire are natural, or fundamental, which is to say that they are ontologically primary, and everything else derives its being from them (Jirsa 243; Laws Book X 889a). So, the Athenian must find the fundamental kind(s) of motion, and he must show that it does not fall within the set of things considered natural (fundamental) by the physicalist.

The Athenian proceeds by showing that type (b) motion is more fundamental than type (a) motion. Since all motion must have an absolute origin, there must be an originator of motion (894e). The originator cannot be of type (a), because it would have no source for its ability to move other things. If there is no prior motion to move the originator, then the motion that the originator transfers to other entities in motion must come from within the originator, which is to say that the originator is of type (b). So, the originator of motion must be self-moving and capable of moving other things. Self-motion, therefore, is the fundamental kind of motion (895b). The first premise of the argument is:

  1. Self-motion is prior to all other motion.[4]

The Athenian bolsters the first premise by considering a thought experiment. If all things in motion stopped moving and were stationary, which would be identifiable as the first motion? Type (b) must be the first, because if it were type (a), it would require a prior transfer of motion to enable the first motion to move other things, which, ex hypothesi, cannot exist (895b).

The Athenian then aims to show that soul is identical to self-motion. When we examine the world around us, those things we consider self-movers are what we classify as alive (895c). Things that are alive are also ensouled (895c). So, self-movers are ensouled, since self-movers are alive, and the set of living things is a proper subset of ensouled things (Jirsa 246). The second premise of the argument is:

  1. Soul is self-motion.[5]

The Athenian backs up the second premise by mentioning that we can see three aspects of something, namely its being, its name, and its definition (895d). The Athenian’s definition for the entities picked out by the name “soul” is just, “that which is self-moving” (895e-896a). So, the thing denoted by the name “soul” is the same thing as is defined as, “that which is self-moving.” So, to say that something has a soul is to say that it is capable of self-motion (Jirsa 246). From premises one and two, the Athenian infers that soul is prior to all other motions and entities that are or could be in motion (Jirsa 253; Laws Book X 896b-c). So, the first conclusion is:

3. Soul is prior to all other motion.[6]

The notion of priority that the Athenian employs seems to be both temporal and ontological (895b). So, soul is temporally and ontologically prior to all other motions, including the motions of the elements that the physicalist posits as fundamental. The Athenian has shown so far that soul is ontologically and temporally prior to the physical, which means that soul, rather than the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) falls in the category of natural that the physicalist employs (892c).

At this point in the argument, the Athenian suggests that it could be two souls that govern the heavens and the earth, one good and the other one bad (896e-897c). The Athenian aims to show that it is a good soul that governs the heavens and the earth, which would entail that the world we presently inhabit is ordered rationally and virtuously.[7] He points out that the products of soul guided by virtue and reason are different than those of soul not guided by reason (897b). The products of soul guided by virtue and reason are better than those produced by a soul not guided by virtue and reason. Because the heavens move in a way that resembles reason, the soul which orders the heavens must be guided by virtue and reason. But if the heavens were ordered by an irrational soul, the motions of the heavenly bodies would not be as they actually are (897b-898b). From this we get the next steps in the Athenian’s argument:

  1. If the heavens move rationally and virtuously, then soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.
  2. The heavens move rationally and virtuously.[8]
  3. Soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.

The second conclusion of the Athenian’s argument, then, is that the heavens are ordered by a rational and virtuous soul, because to be guided in action by virtue and reason is to be virtuous and rational. Finally, to get to god, the Athenian points out that the soul guiding the sun must be regarded by anybody as a god (899a). Since the other heavenly bodies move in ways resembling the sun in relevant respects, it follows that the souls guiding those bodies must also be regarded as gods (899b-c).

Now, to complete his case, the Athenian must show that the gods care about human affairs, and are not capable of being bribed. Since the gods are all powerful, all knowing, and all good, they cannot disregard human affairs, because doing so would call into question their power, knowledge, and goodness (901d-e). For the gods to disregard human affairs would be for them to succumb to indolence and idleness, but given their attributes, they cannot succumb to such things. Furthermore, to take bribes would be to succumb to self-indulgence, which would call their goodness into question (901e). So, the gods concern themselves with human affairs and are not susceptible to bribery.

  1. Evaluation

The Athenian’s argument seems valid. The first conclusion (3) follows from the first two premises (1 & 2) by virtue of substituting co-referring expressions (soul and self-motion). The second conclusion (6) follows from premises four and five by modus ponens. Finally, the Athenian’s conclusion that the gods concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed follows from the properties he ascribes to the gods. If those properties logically exclude disregarding human affairs and being bribed, then it is a valid form of argument to move from some set of properties being possessed by some entities to the negation of the proposition that the properties logically excluded by that set are possessed by those same entities.

The Athenian’s argument is quite ingenious, but it is susceptible to various criticisms which call its soundness into question. First, the notion of ontological priority employed by the Athenian to justify his first premise can be questioned. If one embraces the (contemporary) orthodox way of doing ontology, the notion of levels of being will become unintelligible. It is only given the idea that some things are more fundamental than others such that they form more basic levels of being that the justification given for the first premise can work. Second, the reasons given to think that there must be a first motion were insufficient. Merely thinking of a hypothetical situation in which motion is stopped, and we are free to judge which motions are more fundamental than others is not enough to justify the claim that there was a first motion. The defender of the view that there is an infinite series of motion-transference that stretches backwards eternally will not see that, given a stoppage of all motion, there must be a first motion. Furthermore, Parmenides doubted the reality of motion (Stalley 170).

The fourth and fifth premises of the Athenian’s argument are also questionable. Setting aside anachronistic reasons such as the falsity of the Athenian’s thesis that the heavenly bodies move in perfectly circular orbits, there are still other reasons to doubt his premises. First, premise four is a conditional, and it seems not to be true. There are possible states of affairs where the heavenly bodies happen to move in virtuous and rational ways merely by virtue of chance, or by virtue of the nature of the elements composing them. In other words, the physicalist thesis examined in section one seems to have the resources to account for the appearance of the virtuous and rational guidance of the heavens. Perhaps the intrinsic properties of each kind of element constrains the range of possible combinations of those elements, and the possible motions of those composite objects such that they inevitably would move in apparently virtuous and rational ways. The Athenian does not address this possibility at all. So, on the physicalist view, the fourth premise is questionable because the consequent of the conditional has not been shown to be a consequence of the antecedent obtaining.

Finally, moving from the claim that the soul which guides the heavens is rational and virtuous to the claim that that soul is all powerful, all good, and all knowing seems to be a non sequitur.[9] The soul which guides the heavens may be only capable of moving the heavens and nothing else, perhaps by virtue of a limitation on its power, or on its knowledge. Maybe all such a soul can do is move the heavenly bodies in a circular fashion, forever. That soul could not concern itself with human affairs, because it would be outside of the scope of its power or knowledge to do so. Even if we grant the Athenian’s claim that the soul has the properties of maximal power, knowledge, and goodness, it may not follow that the soul could not be bribed. It could be the case that we humans are so limited in our moral knowledge, that the soul could allow the wicked to prosper by bribing it with sacrifices because doing so allows for some greater good which we cannot currently comprehend. So, even granting the set of properties that the Athenian ascribes to the soul he calls god, it does not obviously follow that that set logically excludes the ability to be bribed.


I have examined the argument in Book X of The Laws presented by the Athenian. The argument’s premises are all questionable, which means that it is within the physicalist’s rational rights to doubt the conclusions. The Athenian aimed to provide reasons to believe in gods which would be provided to atheists before punishing them for impiety (885c-e). The gods, given the Athenian’s argument, concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed. They are not fictions created by humans, as the physicalist maintains (889e). However, the Athenian underestimates the resources available to the physicalist. The physicalist can resist the Athenian’s argument while remaining within her own ontological framework. So, the Athenian has failed to supply the atheist with reasons to believe in gods.


[1] Whether or not the proof is supposed to be rationally compelling or just sufficient for rational acceptance is an open interpretive question (Jirsa 241).

[2] Plato seems to use the term “natural” in the same way as “fundamental” is used by Jonathan Schaffer, which is to denote ontological priority (Chalmers 2009; Jirsa 243).

[3] I am using “physicalism” to characterize the Athenian’s opponent because his opponent holds to the view that the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) are fundamental or primary, and those elements seem paradigmatically physical entities (Jirsa 2008).

[4] See (Jirsa 253).

[5] See (Ibid 253).

[6] See (Ibid 253).

[7] By virtue of being ordered by a rational and virtuous soul.

[8] See (Book VII 822a-b) for a description of the moon, sun, and stars following a circular path, and compare with what is said at (Book X 897d-898b). Both the moon, sun, and stars and the image chosen to represent reason are circular (Jirsa 252). So, the motions of the heavenly bodies and of reason are the same.

[9] I am using the singular instead of “souls” for stylistic purposes. The Athenian’s argument actually entails that there are multiple souls that are virtuous and rational. But this does not affect my criticisms.

Works Cited

Chalmers, David John, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman. “On What Grounds What.” Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford: Clarendon, 2009. 347-83. Print.

Jirsa, Jakub (2008). Plato on characteristics of god: Laws X. 887c5-899d3. Rhizai. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 5:265-285.

Plato, Malcolm Schofield, and Tom Griffith. Plato the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Print.

Stalley, R. F., and Plato. An Introduction to Plato’s Laws. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983. Print.

Two Arguments for Hedonism

In value theory, or axiology, there are two kinds of theory: monistic and pluralistic. Monistic theories posit one kind of intrinsic value, whereas pluralistic theories posit more than one. Hedonism is a monistic theory of value which posits pleasure as the single kind of intrinsic value.

There are two interesting ways of arguing for hedonism that I want to explore. First, there is the argument from moral disagreement. The second one is the evolutionary debunking argument. Both strategies trade on an alleged fact about pleasure, which makes them variants on a more general kind of argumentative strategy. The alleged fact that both trade on is that we are directly acquainted with pleasurable mental states. Pleasure, on this view, is a property of mental states (I won’t go into what sort of property here). Since we are directly acquainted with at least the phenomenal qualities of our occurrent mental states, and pleasure is a phenomenal quality of mental states, we are directly acquainted with pleasure.

Direct acquaintance can be spelled out in various ways, but for now let’s just take it as a factive relation between a subject and some property. The relation is factive because the property must actually exist and be accessible to the subject for that property to be a member of an acquaintance relation. You can’t be acquainted with something that doesn’t exist. Similarly, you can’t know something that isn’t true. To be directly acquainted with some property is to have a special epistemic perspective on that property. For example, being in pain is an acquaintance relation because subjects are in pain, and a particular subject’s pain is had by that subject, which means that no other subject can have that same pain.[1] The subject in pain has a privileged epistemic perspective with respect to her pain. She is directly acquainted with her pain, which means she does not need to make an inference to know that she is in pain, having it is sufficient. Others cannot have this privileged perspective on her pains, but rather they must infer that she is in pain from her behavior.

Before unpacking the first argument for hedonism, we need to consider the argument from moral disagreement:

  1. In any moral disagreement, at least one party must be in error.
  2. There is widespread moral disagreement.
  3. If there is widespread error about a topic, we should retain only those beliefs about it formed through reliable processes.
  4. If there is widespread error about morality, there are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs.
  5. There is widespread error about morality (from 1 and 2).
  6. We should retain only those moral beliefs formed through reliable processes (from 3 and 5).
  7. There are no reliable processes for forming moral beliefs (from 4 and 5).
  8. We should give up all of our moral beliefs (from 6 and 7).[2]

The hedonist responds to this argument by denying 4. There is a reliable process of forming moral beliefs, which is the process of phenomenal introspection. Engaging in phenomenal introspection reveals that we are directly acquainted with certain phenomenal properties, such as pleasure. Since we are directly acquainted with pleasure, we can see that pleasure is good. According to Neil Sinhababu, “Just as one can look inward at one’s experience of lemon yellow and appreciate its brightness, one can look inward at one’s experience of pleasure and appreciate its goodness.”[3] There is a link between the goodness of pleasure and badness of pain, and the reasons why we morally praise and blame people. When somebody tortures an innocent person, a main reason we consider the torturer bad is because we know that pain is bad, and inflicting it for no reason is also bad. We morally blame the torture for inflicting gratuitous pain, which means that there is moral disvalue in pain (and ipso facto, moral value in pleasure). So, hedonism about moral value is true.

The second argument goes like this. Our moral judgment and belief formation processes evolved under conditions which did not select for their reliability. We should not believe things produced by unreliable processes. So, we should suspend our moral beliefs and refrain from moral judgments. However, we are directly acquainted with pain and pleasure, and by virtue of that acquaintance we know that pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. The origins of those beliefs do not undermine their reliability. So, pain is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. Assuming no other kind of moral belief can be saved from debunking this way, it follows that we should be hedonists.

Peter Singer and Katarzyna De Lazari-Radek provide a thought experiment to back up the argument:

Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt hypnotized subjects to feel disgust when they read an arbitrarily chosen word – in this case, the word ‘often’. The students then read the following,

‘Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He often picks topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.’

Students who had been primed under hypnosis to feel disgust at the word ‘often’ were then asked to judge whether Dan had done something wrong. A third of them said that he had. The negative moral judgment was, of course, an illusion, created by hypnosis, and it gives us no reason at all to believe that Dan’s conduct was wrong. Presumably once the experiment was over, and the students had been debriefed, they would agree that Dan had done nothing wrong. Now suppose that the students had been hypnotized to believe that when they read the word ‘often’ they would develop a blinding headache. Soon after being given information containing the headache triggering word, they held their heads, moaned, asked for analgesics, and tried to find somewhere quiet to rest. Asked to rate how they are now feeling on a scale rating from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’, they rated the experience as ‘very bad’. After the experience was over and they had been debriefed, would they change their judgment that they had a very bad experience because the judgment was induced by hypnosis? Presumably not.[4]

The point is that they were directly acquainted with the bad experience (headache pain), and regardless of the origins of the judgments made about the badness of their experiences, they were justified in believing that their experiences were very bad. Direct acquaintance is still doing the heavy lifting here, because it is by virtue of it that the students are still justified in maintaining that their judgments were reliable. In the first experiment, the students were not directly acquainted with the alleged badness of Dan’s actions, so there was nothing there to defeat the genetic defeater of their judgments (that being that they were formed by hypnosis). In the case of pain, direct acquaintance becomes a defeater-defeater, which means that it undermines the unreliable origins of judgments formed on its basis. Presumably, we can run a similar thought experiment about pleasurable experiences as well. So, the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain are not undermined by evolutionary considerations, whereas other evaluative judgments are. So, hedonism is true.

Both of these arguments are interesting in their own right. But what I find most interesting is that they rely on direct acquaintance as a means of arguing for hedonism. It seems like arguments for hedonism will typically take this form: Judgments about the value of things with which we are not acquainted are subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted are not subject to epistemically unacceptable doubt. Judgments that are subject to unacceptable doubt are not justified. Hedonistic judgments are judgments about the value of things with which we are acquainted. So, hedonistic judgments are justified.[5] The way I would suggest challenging this kind of argument is by questioning whether direct acquaintance is the only way to mitigate skeptical doubt. Perhaps intuitions could do the job as well, which would open up the possibility of intuitionist ethics (which tends not to be hedonistic).


[1] Sameness being numerical identity in this case.

[2] Cf. Sinhababu, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.

[3] Ibid.

[4] (Singer and Lazari-Radek 267-268).

[5] Presumably, the hedonist’s definition of ‘pleasure’ will cover other phenomenal states, like aesthetic appreciation, otherwise there could be other phenomenal states that seem to have intrinsic value that are not hedonic.

Works Cited

Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna De., and Peter Singer. The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2014. Print.

Sinhababu, Neil, The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.


A Thought About Arguing Against Moral Realism


Could there be a moral argument against moral realism? I’ve been thinking about that question a lot since encountering the work of Melis Erdur. If we consider meta-ethical theses like moral realism to be substantive moral claims which carry potential moral implications, then it seems like a moral argument against moral realism is a real possibility. Admitting this would call into question the (increasingly less) common assumption that meta-ethical theories don’t have moral implications. However, it seems like this assumption is false. For instance, moral realism being true would mean that we have moral reasons to act or refrain from certain actions. That we have moral reasons to act seems like a moral implication. If error theory was true, we wouldn’t have any moral reasons to act, so the truth of realism over error theory would entail moral implications.

If we admit that the boundary between ethics and meta-ethics is fuzzy, then we may have room to think about a moral argument against moral realism. For example, moral realism entails that the moral wrongness of an act is conditional on there being a human-independent moral reality which makes that act wrong (Erdur forthcoming). But is the existence of a human-independent moral reality morally relevant to the wrongness of the act? Is the realist going to admit that if we were to discover that there is no human-independent moral reality, we should drop our commitment to the moral wrongness of a certain class of actions?[1] Remember that we are assessing moral realism, and not whether or not there is an anti-realist theory which lets us admit that an act is wrong even if there is no human-independent moral reality. The realist is going to think that a commitment to realism, and nothing less, is needed to put our moral practices onto secure foundations. So, she probably won’t immediately turn to a form of anti-realism as a form of moral palliative care.

It seems like we have the makings of a moral argument against moral realism. I won’t try to provide anything more than a brief sketch in this post, but I hope to explore this notion in more depth soon. In short, if we eschew a hard and fast distinction between meta-ethics and ethics, there opens up the possibility of considering meta-ethical theories as substantively moral, and as such evaluable by first-order moral standards. For instance, we could assess moral theories by the adequacy conditions provided by Theresa Tobin and Alison Jaggar (Tobin and Jaggar 2013). If moral realism fails to live up to our evaluative standards, then it would constitute a substantive moral mistake (Erdur forthcoming). The same could go for various forms of anti-realism, like expressivism and error theory.


[1] I am unsure if this question ought to be answered by a survey of self-proclaimed moral realists. I can think of good reasons for and against doing so.

Works Cited

Erdur, Melis (forthcoming). A Moral Argument Against Moral Realism. _Ethical Theory and Moral Practice_:1-12.

Jaggar, Alison M., and Theresa W. Tobin. “Situating Moral Justification: Rethinking the Mission of Moral Epistemology.” Metaphilosophy 44.4 (2013b): 383-408. Web.