A Brief Analysis of the Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro Dilemma is typically considered to be a problem for divine command theories of moral properties. The dilemma in this guise usually goes like this: Either X is good/right because God commands it, or God commands X because it is good/right. The dilemma afflicts versions of divine command theory that take the good to be prior to the right as well as versions that take the right to be prior to the good. While the dilemma is definitely an issue for divine command theories, it is not a special problem for them. The Euthyphro Dilemma can actually be raised against any theory that aims to account for something general in terms of something particular.

The Euthyphro Dilemma will be a problem for any theory that attempts to account for the general in terms of the particular. For example, exemplar nominalism has to deal with the dilemma because it attempts to account for the appearance of commonly had properties (the general) in terms of an exemplar (the particular). To account for the seemingly common property of being red, the exemplar nominalist will pick out an exemplar particular that is red and then account for commonality by introducing a resemblance relation. So, something is red if and only if it resembles a or the red exemplar. This account has to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma, though. Either X is red because it resembles the exemplar or X resembles the exemplar because it is red. The nominalist will opt for the former horn, since the latter is to introduce universals or at least tropes.

Ideal observer theories also have to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma. The structural similarities between these theories and divine command theories will give rise to the dilemma, because both kinds of theories attempt to account for moral properties in terms of a particular. In the case of divine command theories, the particular is God, but for ideal observer theories, the particular is usually a hypothetical, idealized member of the moral community. Call the ideal observer, “Jeffrey”. Either X is good/right because Jeffrey approves of it, or Jeffrey approves of it because X is good/right. Like the theistic dilemma, this secularized dilemma arises because the Jeffrey is a particular, and he is supposed to account for something general, which is the good and the right in this case (and the bad and the wrong).

Trying to account for moral properties in terms of Jeffrey isn’t the only way the Euthyphro Dilemma can manifest itself as a problem for ideal observer theories. If we attempt to account for aesthetic properties in terms of Jeffrey, the same dilemma arises. Either X is beautiful because Jeffrey thinks so, or Jeffrey thinks so because X is beautiful. If we try using Jeffrey to account for cognitive/epistemic goods, the same dilemma will also arise. The same thing goes for attempting to account for truth in terms of a cognitive community, which is itself a very large particular.

So, it seems to me that the common thread running through these manifestations of Euthyphro is that each theory attempts to account for something general in terms of a particular. One issue that I have not yet explored is if it is the concreteness of the particular that raises the issue, or if abstract particulars like numbers could also be problematic when used to account for the general. Let me know what you think of my analysis of the Euthyphro Dilemma in the comments below.

Are Facts Socially Constructed?

I enjoy watching YouTube videos. The sorts of videos I usually enjoy discuss academic topics I’m interested in, like philosophy. I’m especially fond of videos that put forward ideas that are commonly regarded as radical, or even indefensible. I like the debates that those videos engender among the video-makers who discuss those topics. In the vein of being a fan of YouTube debates, I want to add my two cents to a topic that has been gaining traction within certain communities. The topic is social construction. In particular, I want to discuss a thesis put forward by Dr. Kristi Winters in several videos. Her thesis is that facts qua facts are socially constructed entities. I will put the links to the videos I reference below this post, and I will add links to the end notes that direct to the times I reference.

What are facts? There is a lot of debate in analytic philosophy about facts, such as their internal structure, their nature, and how we should represent them formally. Typical, contemporary views take facts to be true truth-bearers, obtaining states of affairs, or some kind of entity in which individual objects exemplify properties and stand in relations.[1] While there is a lot of debate going on in the literature, one thing that isn’t hotly debated is whether all facts are socially constructed. Save for various kinds of idealism,[2] most mainstream views don’t take all facts to be dependent on minds.[3] So, facts can be either mind-dependent or mind-independent.

I’ll throw out a particular view about the ontology of facts to get things rolling. What this view is meant to do is show that there are quite intuitive points of view on the nature of facts which don’t take them to be essentially socially constructed, despite Dr. Winters’ implication to the contrary.[4] I will take facts to be obtaining states of affairs. To obtain is just to be the case, or to be actual.[5] A state of affairs is a distribution of properties over individuals that (can) stand in relations to other individuals. There can be states of affairs with just one individual that exemplifies some properties, and there can be states of affairs where several individuals exemplify properties and stand in certain kinds of relations to each other.

Dr. Winters likes the example of Pluto being reclassified as a dwarf planet. She believes that this demonstrates that facts about planets are socially constructed, because whether or not something is a planet is partly dependent on the classificatory conventions adopted by astronomers, and those conventions are products of social interactions among astronomers. If they changed the classificatory conventions, facts about the number of planets would change. So, facts about the number of planets are socially constructed. I hope I am not misrepresenting Dr. Winters with this reconstruction of her argument. I will now respond to this reconstruction.

If we are going to be scientific realists, then we should think that astronomers produce theories about things that exist independently of mental activity of any sort.[6] In other words, as realists, we should think of astronomy as developing an ontology of a certain aspect of the world we inhabit, namely the realm of celestial bodies and events. What their theorizing aims to do is reveal astronomical facts, which are constituted by properties distributed over individuals.

That astronomers changed the classification convention for planets such that it now excludes Pluto is one thing. That Pluto has the properties that qualify it as a dwarf planet rather than a planet within the classification convention is not socially constructed, but rather it is a mind-independent fact. The fact that Pluto has properties (p1…pn) is not dependent on the theories that astronomers believe, or any theories at all.

Furthermore, the fact that astronomers have such classification conventions is itself not socially constructed. That fact is just the distribution of properties over individual astronomers, wherein that distribution determines or grounds those naming conventions. That astronomers accept a classification convention is a fact about astronomers, and not the content of the classification convention. So, that fact is not constructed by the social processes that determined the contents of the classification convention.

If Dr. Winters objects at this point, I must ask, if the fact that astronomers accept some classification convention is mind-dependent, then what about the fact that that fact is mind-dependent? Is that fact also mind-dependent? If so, we end up with an ascending order of mind-dependency that either terminates in some super-mind, or keeps going to infinity. Think about it, if the second-order fact about the distribution of properties over astronomers is itself mind-dependent, on whose mind does it depend? The individual astronomers taken as a collective? What about the third-order fact that the second-order fact is mind-dependent? This process can repeat to infinity, and the minds of astronomers are not capable of housing this many facts. Unless we want to formulate this as some weird argument for the existence of God based on the social construction of facts, something’s gotta give. As far as I’m concerned, what’s gotta give is the implausible idea that all facts are socially constructed.

Now, I could just be misinterpreting Dr. Winters by imputing onto her ontological commitments about facts when she’s just making claims about epistemology.[7] However, she also claims that knowledge is constructed via social processes. Knowledge decomposes on analysis into various conditions, and any mainstream analysis includes truth as a necessary condition.[8] If knowledge is constructed, then presumably what that knowledge is about must also be constructed, otherwise there isn’t much to the claim that (some) knowledge is socially constructed.

Dr. Winters also talks about Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal distinction. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help make sense of the social construction of facts. Perhaps she is adopting transcendental idealism, and she thinks that humans have a conceptual manifold along with pure intuitions of space and time, and these shape our experience of the world. Our experience of the world expresses itself within the conceptual boundaries allowed for by our constitution. The phenomenal realm is just what we experience as it is shaped by our mental constitution, and the noumenal realm is beyond our conceptual grasp. My worry here is that this is probably false. Even if it isn’t false, there are interpretations of the phenomenal/noumenal distinction that aren’t purely epistemic. Dual aspect views and two worlds views allow for metaphysical understandings of the phenomenal realm.[9] So, it isn’t obvious that Dr. Winters, if she is embracing transcendental idealism, is skirting by any ontological commitments when she says that facts are socially constructed.

Another worry is we would need an argument for why intersubjectivity determined by shared conceptual manifolds and pure intuitions of space/time entails that we ought to embrace a social constructionist ontology of facts. Up to now, we haven’t been provided with one.

So, if some truths are constructed, we’re back into the territory of metaphysics rather than epistemology. Whether or not truth-bearers are true or false must be sensitive to how the truth-bearer-independent world is at a given time.[10] Whatever aspect of the world that true truth-bearers must be sensitive to will be socially constructed, if knowledge of those truths is itself constructed. So, this isn’t just about epistemology if we take knowledge to be socially constructed. Dr. Winters could have stayed in the realm of epistemology by constraining talk of social construction to issues of justification and warrant in various social spheres. Perhaps standards of testimony are based on social norms, and those norms bias those standards in ways that are conducive to testimonial injustices against marginalized groups. However, she did not restrict herself to the realm of justification and warrant, so she does take on ontological commitments.

What Dr. Winters ought to do is check out the literature on the ontology of facts. She can then adopt a position that allows for some facts being socially constructed, such as facts about gender and race, perhaps. I actually recommend thinking about social construction in terms of grounding and dropping talk of facts entirely. So, to be socially constructed is to be grounded in distinctive social patterns.[11] The trick, then, is uncovering which social patterns are salient when considering particular social constructs such as gender or borders.


[1] Mulligan and Correia 2013.

[2] Some forms of idealism may allow for facts that are mind-independent, such as transcendental idealism. Transcendental idealism will come up again in this post.

[3] Mind-dependence is a necessary (albeit probably not sufficient) condition for something being socially constructed.

[4] Cf. 16:43-17:06. The way she states it implies that it’s quite obvious, given a certain amount of reflection on the nature of science, that facts are constructed by the social processes embedded within the institution of science.

[5] I’m leaving questions of modality aside. Assume that I’m talking facts as things that obtain in the actual world.

[6] Dr. Winters may not accept realism, especially if she has sympathies for transcendental idealism.

[7] Cf. 21:06-23:16 for her clarification about ontology and epistemology.

[8] Setting aside the knowledge-first theorists, who presumably also take knowledge to be factive, just not subject to analysis into other concepts.

[9] Cf. Stang 2016.

[10] Besides claims about truth-bearers, but let’s set that complication aside.

[11] Schaffer 2016.

Works Cited

Mulligan, Kevin and Correia, Fabrice, “Facts”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/facts/>.

Schaffer, Jonathan. “Social Construction as Grounding; Or: Fundamentality for Feminists, a Reply to Barnes and Mikkola.” Philosophical Studies (2016). Web.

Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/>.

Dr. Winters’ Videos I Address

What Sargon of Akkad Doesn’t Know About Social Constructs
A Chat With Prof. Philip Moriarty on YouTube Atheism

Logic as Theory, Not Dogma

There are many interesting remarks that arise when people are discussing areas of disagreement, perhaps especially in areas of philosophical disagreement. These include:

  • “That’s illogical!”
  • “It’s logically impossible for that to happen!”
  • “That violates the Laws of Logic™!”
  • Etc. etc.

There are a number of interesting questions that can be asked here: “What is logic? What is the relationship (if there is one) between logic and reality? What are these ‘Laws of Logic’ and why are they special?” However, let’s stick with the question of what logic itself is. This can be phrased a number of ways:

  • The study of valid argument forms
  • The study of the correct principles of reasoning or inference
  • The study of the logical consequence relationship
  • The study of what follows from some set of truths, and why it follows

And so on. One fundamental reason we want to have the correct answers about how to reason is that we want to be able to discern how to determine what else is true, given some set of known truths. And if a party makes an invalid inference, we want to be able to point out that there is a gap between what’s asserted & what is concluded.

But there’s an interesting quality to the discourse about logic. When speaking about whether or not some piece of reasoning is valid, the remarks I mentioned at the beginning seem to conceptualize logic as some concrete, unchanging thing. It seems to view logic and logical rules as something handed down, rather than as a topic that has changed over time. And this is flatly untrue.

Without getting into the discussion about Non-Classical Logics, logic has changed over time. For about 2,300(-ish) years, Aristotelian Logic was the dominant logic in Western Philosophy. However, around the end of the 19th century, logicians began to realize that Aristotelian logic was unable to account for the inferences that were being made in mathematics at the time. In order to make logical sense of the reasoning mathematicians were engaging in, the systems of logic we now call “Classical Logic” were born. Logicians like Frege intended for this new logic to form the foundation of mathematics (a program known as “Logicism”). This project, however, ended in failure thanks to the work of other logicians like Kurt Gödel and Bertrand Russell.

But there is something important to note here: Logic changed. And it didn’t change by the pure light of natural reason or some intuition about a priori truths. Rather, logicians had data which they needed to account for – the reasoning mathematicians were engaging in at the time. The new logic had a different logical consequence relation than the old one.  Some argument forms which were valid in Aristotelian Logic were no longer valid, & some previously invalid argument forms were now valid. Take the following syllogism:

  • All Bs are Cs
  • All Bs are As
  • Therefore some As are Cs

Aristotelian logic considers this a valid argument, but it is invalid when translated into Classical Logic. What I aim to get at is fairly simple. The picture of logic as this inscrutable, unquestionable entity is blatantly ahistorical. Logical systems are theories about what follows from what, and why they follow. Just as other fields construct theories to account for the relevant data, so too are logics created to ascertain what the norms of correct reasoning are. Unsurprisingly, there are many debates about the respective virtues of logical systems and the problems they purport to solve.

But what exactly should qualify as correct reasoning is a complex topic. Is there only one correct system of reasoning, one true logic (logical monism)? Or perhaps different logics are apt to different domains, so that there is no one true logic (logical pluralism)? How do we decide between logical systems in the first place? And in doing so, must we privilege a particular logic?

Irrespective of your view on these & other related philosophical problems, you must be able to account for the historical facts about how logic has developed. Otherwise you seem to be giving a baseless “just so” story, and this makes it difficult to take your view as anything other than dogma.

If you’re interested in why exactly Classical Logic superseded Aristotelian Logic, I’ve uploaded an edited part of a talk Graham Priest once gave. It outlines the history & reasons behind the shift from Aristotelian Logic to Classical Logic. I hope this is helpful!

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3gMR0qVjRc


Priest, Graham. Doubt Truth to Be a Liar. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006. Print.

Coherence or Correspondence: The Schlick – Hempel Debate

In the Vienna Circle there occurred a debate about how to characterize truth. On one side was Moritz Schlick, an adherent of the correspondence theory. The representatives on the other side were Otto Neurath and Carl Hempel. Schlick accused Neurath of holding a coherence theory of truth. Neurath could not distinguish science from fantasy, according to Schlick. In this paper, Schlick’s objection to Neurath will be examined, as will Hempel’s attempt to dodge Schlick’s criticism.

Schlick believed that science needed a foundation to ground the practice of observation and confirmation, and that serves as a test for figuring out when sentences match the facts (Schlick 209-227, 215-16, 220-222). The sentences that are relevant to these tests are constructed from demonstrative indexicals such as “this”, “here”, and “now”.  An example would be an hypothesis predicting a certain color experience if a certain surface is observed, and a person having that experience. She would pick out what she experiences by saying “blue here now” while pointing at the surface (Schlick 225). Those utterances, called “affirmations”, form a set of unrevisable sentences that constitute the test for when we are in contact with the facts. These affirmations would be so thin that they could not be mistaken in the way that a more detailed description of the situation could be, and so would be unrevisable. A description that picked out the time, date, and other factors without only employing demonstrative indexicals has room for a mismatch between itself and what it describes.

According to Schlick, a coherence theory of truth characterizes truth as the mutual agreement of statements within a system (Schlick 214). According to both parties engaged in this debate, coherence is merely the lack of contradiction within a set of sentences. Schlick accuses Neurath of being a coherentist because Neurath believed that the notion of comparing sentences with “facts” or “reality” was unintelligible at best, and metaphysics at worst (Hempel 50-51).

The reason why Hempel and Neurath’s views were Schlick’s targets is because they represented a move away from the correspondence theory. They disagreed over what’s required for confirmation; rather than a set of unrevisable sentences against which hypotheses are tested, there is a shifting set of sentences that is relevant for particular acts of confirmation, but also stands in need of confirmation by other statements in other circumstances. That shifting set of sentences constitutes the background knowledge held by scientists, and as such it becomes the resource from which they draw to craft hypotheses and entailed predictions in need of confirmation or disconfirmation. Science is like a ship that needs to be altered at sea, where some parts serve as foundations but can also be called into question at a later date (Hempel 54).

Since all sentences are open to revision, Schlick’s criterion for truth cannot exist. There aren’t unrevisable sentences that serve as the point from which other sentence alterations occur, and this is why Schlick has a big problem with coherentism. If there is no criterion from which we can distinguish legitimate inquiry from practices like myth making, then there is no distinction between science and fantasy. Science is supposed to be aimed at getting us in contact with facts, so it cannot be concerned with truth as Schlick sees it if Hempel’s and Neurath’s views are correct (Schlick 212-216). All that’s required for a true set of sentences is for those sentences to be consistent. So, truth becomes relativized to systems of sentences lacking contradiction.

Hempel and Neurath have sufficient resources to defend their theory from Schlick. One way is to show that science can be distinguished from myth making empirically. It is possible to observe which cultural group assents to sentences when they are predicted by hypotheses formed from common background knowledge. When these predictions are confirmed, this particular group assents to the sentence(s) entailed by that confirmation, and when the predictions are disconfirmed, the group dissents from those sentences. “Scientific truth” becomes consistency within the language of science (Hempel 57). Scientists indeed aim at truth, but “truth” means that they aim to make their background set of sentences consistent in light of confirmations made through observations. Scientists and myth makers are methodologically distinguishable. In other words, the institution of science and its practice of forming hypotheses against the background knowledge scientists share, which involves confirming or disconfirming the predictions made by those hypotheses is its distinguishing feature.

Schlick’s charge that there is no distinction between science and fantasy turns out to be false. Science can be characterized by the methods and practices of a particular cultural group, and those methods are distinct from myth making by virtue of their goal – forming hypotheses from background knowledge, and then making predictions entailed by those hypotheses, and engaging in observation to confirm or disconfirm those predictions. Scientists are engaged making observations and revising their beliefs in light of recalcitrant observations, whereas the people we call myth makers are spinning yarns for entertainment. The myth makers are not worried about the role of observation and confirmation. What makes science so special is its methods, and those can be empirically discovered by observing scientists engaged in their daily activities.

The response from Hempel would not satisfy Schlick. He would ask what makes these methods of this particular group so important that we should privilege them over some other group’s. What exactly grounds the observations we make if there is no privileged class of sentences? Couldn’t the set of sentences that constitutes the background eventually be revised so much so that it resembles the sentences that constitute a fairytale?

Hempel and Neurath should dig in their heels. The description of the institution of science is enough to provide grounds for privileging the sets of sentences to which scientists assent. The methods involved in forming fairytales would exclude them from being the background of this particular group. Furthermore, they have three reasons not to embrace Schlick’s criterion. One reason is that “facts” as objects of correspondence are sentence-like slices of reality which sentences aim to represent. But representation requires metaphysical notions like “intentionality”.

The second reason is that affirmations are not the sorts of things that are intersubjectively accessible. Occasions of affirmation cannot be repeated because of their indexical nature; each repetition is actually a different affirmation, so they cannot be considered publicly accessible. There is no way for somebody to repeat an affirmation such that it can serve as a public criterion for confirmation. Since these affirmations are private, they serve no purpose for scientists. Schlick’s criterion has no behavioral difference in the practices of scientists, so there is no reason to think that they employ it in their daily activities.

The last reason is that Schlick’s criterion can either serve no inferential role in scientific theories, or loses its status as unrevisable. The instances of seeing blue aren’t the things that play an inferential role within a set of sentences, since only sentences can stand in entailment relations with other sentences. So affirmations have to be the things which stand in inferential relations with sentences. But in this case, it becomes a comparison between two or more sentences, and not experiences and sentences. We end up using sentence comparisons as the litmus test for truth, and this is exactly what Neurath affirms.

So, Hempel and Neurath preserved the distinction between science and fantasy. While Schlick’s was an historically important criticism in light of the persecution faced by many members of the Vienna Circle, it ends up toothless in light of the resources at Hempel’s and Neurath’s disposal.


Works Cited

Hempel, Carl G. “The Logical Positivist’s Theory of Truth.” Analysis 2.4 (1935): 49-59. Print.

Schlick, Mortiz. “The Foundation of Knowledge.” Logical Positivism. Ed. A. J. Ayer. New York: Free, 1959. Print.