top of page
  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Much philosophical and religious theorizing is fueled by the sense that humanity is in some sort of predicament, or condition, from which we ought to be liberated in order to truly flourish. A world view is partly distinguished by how it characterizes this predicament -- what we could call its diagnosis. The nature of the diagnosis will of course largely determine the proposed cure, or means of liberation -- what is sometimes called a worldview's soteriology (from the Greek soteria = 'deliverance') Platonism is no exception to this rule. Most have heard of Plato's memorable 'allegory of the cave', which expresses an understanding of the human predicament that would shape Western philosophy for centuries to come. Recall, humans are likened to prisoners in a cave, who can only see the shadows cast on the cave wall in front of them. One of the prisoners somehow escapes the cave and sees the outside world. Though the sunlight initially hurts his eyes, he is amazed at what he sees -- the sun, sky, water, trees etc -- and judges it to be far superior to the world down below. He quickly returns to his fellow cave-dwellers, to tell them of the other world he has just seen. They aren't convinced and brush him off, and some even try to kill him. As is well known, the cave wall is meant to symbolize the world as it directly appears to us, while the outside world is meant to symbolize the world as it really is -- in particular, the perfect, immutable forms. The prisoner who escapes and sees the outside world represents the philosopher, who, not content with the immediate deliverances of the senses, wants to see the world for what it is: a perfect, harmonious kosmos governed by an intelligent mind. What really matters for our purposes is that, for Plato, the human predicament is epistemological. That is, our problem is that we lack knowledge of the world as it really is. This profound ignorance prevents us from accessing the happiness and peace that come with the unhindered contemplation of the good. This perspective of the human condition dominated Greek philosophy since Plato. The Stoics, for instance, famously held that suffering is a consequence of a failure to understand that the kosmos is fundamentally good, and hence that 'evils' like the death of loved ones are really meant to be. Interestingly, the notion that ignorance is the root cause of the human predicament is also very widespread in Indian philosophical traditions, in which knowledge of reality 'as such' (jñāna) is typically deemed crucial to the achievement of liberation from suffering (moksha).

St Paul the Apostle, the most prominent New Testament author and first great Christian theologian, like Plato, believes that humanity is mired in an unfortunate condition, from which it ought to be freed. His diagnosis is laid out in the first chapter of his magnum opus, the epistle to the Romans. A cursory reading of this chapter should make it clear that Paul's diagnosis of the human predicament is very different to Plato's. Notice that Paul explicitly denies that our problem is fundamentally about ignorance. To the contrary, he tells us that we already have knowledge of ultimate matters, or at least have easy access to them:

"Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made"

The passage goes on to say that though humans 'knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him". Paul's use of words is important here. 'Honor' and 'give thanks' have to do with your attitude towards someone. The term 'honor', however outdated it seems today, refers to the kind of humble reverence that is owed to, say, a parent, a teacher, or perhaps even an older, wiser friend. To 'give thanks' is to gratefully recognize someone's generosity. An attitude of gratefulness and deep respect is a necessary precondition for a healthy relationship with someone whose responsibility it is to look after us (again, like a parent or teacher). Failure to (sincerely) honor and give thanks to God, then, can only mean that our relationship with God will fail as well. In short, our predicament, for Paul, is fundamentally relational rather than epistemological: humanity has somehow collectively alienated itself from God. The result of that, according to Paul, is that humans are "futile in their understanding", arrogantly "claiming to be wise" despite having become "fools" who worship idols or "images". God's initial response is to "give them up" to their madness, which further exacerbates their alienation, and leads them to be alienated even from one another (as they become'selfish', 'murderous' 'slanderers' and so on).

This take on the human condition is of course not original to Paul. In fact, Paul's account reveals his deeply Jewish mindset, since it really retells the Ancient Jewish narrative of the 'Fall of Man'. Human corruption and suffering comes into the world when Adam and Eve break fellowship with God, preferring to be their own gods. This pattern is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible, not least in the Prophets, where oppression and injustice invariably arise when Israel rejects its covenant with God in order to pursue idols of their own making.

To sum up, then, for Plato, humans do not truly flourish because they are ignorant of the divine. It is quite telling that Plato rejected the possibility of akrasia, i.e. acting against your better judgment. If you really know the good, he tells us, then, necessarily, you will follow it.

For Paul, humans do not truly flourish because they do not have fellowship with the divine. Against Plato, Paul directly affirms the possibility of akrasia: "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (...) For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Rom. 7:14-20). To put it informally, ours is a 'heart' rather than a 'brain' problem.

As I said at the start, different diagnoses suggest different cures, or soteriologies. For Plato, the cure lies in ridding ourselves of our ignorance through the philosophical contemplation of the perfect forms. This consists in a kind of recollection (anamnesis) since, for Plato, the soul had direct access to the forms prior to being embodied in the physical world. Hence it is fair to say that Plato and his followers advance an intellectualist soteriology. For Paul, since our predicament is a lack of fellowship with God, the cure lies not in contemplation but in reconciliation (what theologians call atonement, literally "at one"-ment). This is a point on which his fellow Jews would have agreed. Paul parts company with his more conservative Jewish brethren when he declares that this reconciliation is somehow achieved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God: "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation." (2 Cor. 5:19).

An application: Christians sometimes present salvation as simply a matter of understanding and accepting a set of religious doctrines. In doing so, we are perhaps being more Platonic than Paulinian. An observation: it speaks volumes that platonistic pseudo-Christian cults in the Ancient World called themselves 'gnostics' (gnosis = 'knowledge') and held that liberation is attained by acquiring esoteric knowledge of the divine.

88 views0 comments
  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Property dualism: at least some mental properties are fundamental, i.e. not identical to any non-mental properties, like neurochemical or functional properties. Typically, property dualists contend, against materialists, that what philosophers call a phenomenal state, i.e. the undergoing of an experience with a distinctive qualitative character, is not identical to any neurochemical (or functional) state. For example, an experience of pain is not identical to the undergoing of C-fibre stimulation, even if C-fibre stimulation always occurs when we experience pain, and vice versa. Hence, the phenomenal property of being in a state of pain is not identical to the neurochemical property of being in a state of C-fibre stimulation, or any other neurochemical (or functional) property. As we have seen, property dualists generally argue that there is an unbridgeable explanatory gap between neurochemical and phenomenal facts. That is, we lack an explanation as to how it is that phenomenal states 'just are' neurochemical states. If two things X and Y are numerically identical, then it is logically impossible for one to exist without the other. Thus, we may say that a logically necessary connection holds between X and Y, such that the existence of X logically entails that of Y, and vice versa. The dualist complaint is that there is no explanation as to why such a connection should hold between, say, the state of experiencing pain and the state of undergoing C-fibre stimulation. For many dualists, this is strong reason to reject the thesis that the state of experiencing pain 'just is' the state of undergoing C-fibre stimulation, as well as all identifications of phenomenal states with neurological ones.

We can reconstruct the argument as follows:

(1) There is no explanation as to how phenomenal states are identical to neurochemical states.

(2) If there is no explanation as to how phenomenal states are identical to neurochemical states, phenomenal states are not identical to neurochemical states. (3) Therefore, phenomenal states are not identical to neurochemical states. Notice that the argument's begins with the statement of an explanatory gap (premise (1) ) and ends with the statement of an ontological gap (conclusion (3) ). That is, the argument, through premise (2), infers a claim about the manner in which things exist, from a claim about a lack of explanation. As some materialist critics of the argument have shown, e.g. Papineau 1998, one can try to block this inference by putting pressure on premise (2). One can accept the argument's first premise, but deny that the ontological gap follows from the explanatory gap, by arguing that the demand for an explanation is unreasonable. If two things X and Y are identical, it makes sense to ask how we know that they are identical, but it seems odd to ask why they are identical. For example, if you tell me that Bruce Wayne is Batman, I may ask you how you know this, but you'd be surprised if I asked you, 'But why is Bruce Wayne Batman?' You might interpret my question along the lines of 'Why did Bruce Wayne become a masked vigilante?', but you'd be very puzzled if I replied with 'No, I mean why is the person Bruce Wayne the same person as the person Batman?'. This is like asking, 'why am I the same person as myself?'. Things just are what they are, and, on the face of it, it makes little sense to ask why this is so. Thus, it could be argued, the absence of an explanation for the identity of, say, the experience of pain and C-fibre stimulation is nothing to be worried about, and, against premise (2), certainly shouldn't lead us to deny that they are identical. I think this objection rests on an ambiguity in the request for an 'explanation'. If I ask you to explain to me why my phone has disappeared, I am asking you to give me the cause of my phone's disappearance, i.e. the prior event or fact that brought about its disappearance. If on the other hand I ask you to explain Spinoza's theory that God is the only substance, I am asking you to make the theory intelligible to me.

The way I see it, the 'explanatory gap' problem is not that we know of no prior cause of the identity between the experience of pain and C-fibre stimulation, but rather that such an identification is unintelligible. If things X and Y are identical, their identity, while not 'caused', is nevertheless made true by some other fact. The identity of Batman and Bruce Wayne is made true by the fact that they are the product of the same particular fertilization event, i.e. involving the same sperm and egg. The fact that my Dad's car today is the same as the car that existed three years ago is made true by the fact that there is some special kind of causal continuity between the two. Given such facts, the non-identity of X and Y is inconceivable: for example, given that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the product of the same particular fertilisation event, it is impossible to conceive of their non-identity. Arguably, it is part of the very concept of identity that identity-claims be made true by some other fact in this way. And therein lies the problem for the identification of the experience of pain with C-fibre stimulation: materialists cannot give us any fact by which the relevant identity-claim is made true. This is why thought experiments about, say, the conceivability of C-fibre stimulation existing without the experience of pain, or vice versa, are so prominent in the case for dualism. If the experience of pain and C-fibre stimulation were identical, there would be some fact given which it would be impossible to conceive of one without the other. But, we know of no such fact, and we can't even conceive of a fact that would do the job. This last point allows us to deal with a common rejoinder to dualist arguments. It used to be thought that the Morning Star and the Evening Star were two different stars, though we now know that they are in fact the same planet, Venus. But before this discovery, people presumably would have been able to conceive of the Morning Star existing without the Evening Star, or vice versa (or, at any rate, it would have seemed to them that they could conceive of this). Hence, we are told, the conceivability of pain without C-fibre stimulation, or vice versa (or the appearance of this conceivability), is no good reason to disbelieve that they are the same thing. But there is a key difference between the two cases: if I was born before the discovery of the identity of the Morning Star with the Evening Star, I wouldn't know how they are identical, but, after a bit of thinking, I would know how they could be identical. That is, I could imagine that they are the result of the same particular planet-formation event, and understand that this would entail that they are the same thing, though perceived from different perspectives. Indeed, I would understand that, if it were the case that they were the result of the same particular planet-formation event, the existence of one without the other would be inconceivable. In contrast, in the case of pain and C-fibre stimulation, I can't even see what sort of fact would make true the statement of their identity, and hence do not understand how they could be identical. I can think of no possible neurochemical (or other) state of affairs such that, if it obtained, the existence of C-fibre stimulation without the experience of pain would be inconceivable. It is in this sense, I think, that the (alleged) identity of phenomenal states and neurochemical states lacks an explanation: it is unintelligible, because we cannot see how they could be identical. And if that's right, then it seems to me that, insofar as a metaphysical system ought to minimize unintelligible claims, this is strong reason to reject the identification of phenomenal states with neurochemical states. This, in my view, is how the explanatory gap leads us to an ontological gap.

59 views0 comments
  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Call property dualism the theory that at least some mental properties are fundamental. That is, at least some mental properties are not identical to neurochemical or functional properties (or any other, non-mental properties). For example, property dualism is true if the mental property of being in pain, cannot be identified with a neurochemical property like being in C-fibre stimulation, or a functional property like being in the state of 'screaming and quickly removing one's hand from the hot stove' (or any other property other than 'being in pain'). Thus, property dualists say that some mental properties -- usually conscious, or phenomenal properties -- are irreducible. 'Being in pain' is just that -- 'being in pain', and nothing else. Call substance dualism the theory that selves are fundamental. That is, I, i.e. my 'self', am not identical to my (living) body, or my brain, or anything other than I. Hence, it is at least in principle possible for me to exist without my (living) body, and even without my brain. Thus, substance dualists say that a self is irreducible. I am just 'I', and nothing else. Traditionally, the self is thought to bear mental properties, in the way that ordinary objects are thought to bear properties like solidity or colour. To use a common metaphor, the self is supposed to be the seat of mental properties. Substance dualism is arguably the 'default', intuitive view of the self. Humans of all cultures and backgrounds have always imagined ghosts and other disembodied spirits, but such things would be impossible in principle if a self is just a living body. Interestingly enough, the implicit assumption of substance dualism in the hugely popular science-fiction TV series Black Mirror shows that the theory's intuitive appeal is alive and well (cf. season 3, episode 4 San Junipero). Philosophers, on the other hand, aren't quite as enthusiastic about substance dualism. It is true that property dualism has experienced a striking resurgence in recent times, thanks to the work of dualist philosophers like David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel. Such 'neo-dualists' have persuasively argued that phenomenal properties, like the property of being in pain are irreducible. But the majority of philosophers still reject dualism of any kind. And even the neo-dualists tend to steer clear from substance dualism, which is seen as a relic of a religious, unenlightened past. Even so, substance dualism still enjoys vigorous support from renowned philosophers like Dean Zimmerman and E.J. Lowe. I'm not going to argue for the truth of either of property dualism or substance dualism. Instead, I will argue that an alleged reason to be a property dualist, if it is a conclusive reason, is also a conclusive reason to be a substance dualist as well.

I have in mind the notorious 'explanatory gap' problem, first put forward by Joseph Levine in a classic (and accessible) paper. Here is the problem, as I understand it. If two things X and Y are identical, it is logically impossible for one to exist without the other -- that is, there is a necessary connection that holds between them, such that in all possible worlds where one exists, the other must also exist. So, if Bruce Wayne is identical to Batman, it is logically impossible for Bruce Wayne to exist without Batman. This doesn't mean that Bruce couldn't possibly have refrained from becoming a masked vigilante, but that the person Batman can't exist unless the person Bruce Wayne also exists, since they are the same person. But in such cases, it seems that we are owed an explanation as to why the necessary connection holds. After all, it is very striking that two things should be necessarily linked in this way. To truly understand the identity relation between X and Y, we need an answer to the question, 'by virtue of what are X and Y identical?'. This is easily done with Batman and Bruce Wayne: they are identical by virtue of the fact that they have precisely the same origin, i.e. they are the result of the same particular fertilization event, involving the same particular sperm-and-egg combination. Once you accept the latter story, it becomes impossible to even conceive of Batman existing without Bruce Wayne, or vice versa. The fact about their origins entails, and thus fully explains the necessary connection that holds between them. When it comes to conscious states, things aren't so encouraging. Take the particular pain state which I am now in, and C-fibre stimulation, a particular neurochemical state that exists at the same time as my pain state. Opponents of dualism want to argue that the pain state is identical to the neurochemical state, rather than, say, the neurochemical state causing the pain. But then, as with Batman and Bruce Wayne, we are owed an explanation as to why a necessary connection holds between the neurochemical state and the pain state. But, in contrast to Batman and Bruce Wayne, no such explanation exists. No matter how much we know about C-fibre stimulation, we cannot understand why it is that the existence of my pain state must necessarily follow from my neurochemical state. In this case -- and again, no matter how much neurochemical knowledge we acquire -- it is perfectly possible to conceive of my particular neurochemical state existing without my pain state. For example, I can conceive of my particular neurochemical state existing with a very different kind of conscious state, or with no conscious states at all. Thus, the necessary connection between the neurochemical state and the conscious state remains unexplained: this is the explanatory gap. Levine concludes that the identification of conscious (or 'phenomenal') properties with neurochemical ones is "unintelligible", and many dualists have argued that this unintelligibility problem is conclusive reason to adopt property dualism. Now consider an analogous argument concerning the identification of the self with, say, the brain (the argument could also apply to the identification of the self with the living body):

(1) The identity of my self and my brain would be unintelligible.

(2) If the identity my self and my brain would be unintelligible, I have a conclusive reason to deny the identity of my self with my brain.

(3) Therefore, I have a conclusive reason to deny the identity of my self with my brain.

Premise (1) is true for the same reasons given with respect to conscious and neurochemical properties: there is no explanation as to why a necessary connection holds between the brain and the self. No matter how much we know about brains, we would still be able to conceive of a brain existing without a self, i.e. an entity capable of conscious experience. Hence, we have no answer to the question, 'by virtue of what are my brain and my self identical?' Property dualists must apparently also accept premise (2). If the lack of explanation for the identity between mental and neurochemical properties is enough to motivate the rejection of this identity-claim, it is difficult to see why the lack of explanation for the identity between the self and the brain is not enough to motivate the rejection of this identity-claim. (1) and (2) jointly entail (3), so it looks as though consistent property dualists must accept (3). But, if I am right in thinking that the same kind of argument would apply to the identification of the self with the living body, or with anything other than the self, then it seems that property dualists are committed to substance dualism as well -- unless they can point out a relevant disanalogy between selves and mental properties. If property dualism does in effect 'lead' to substance dualism in this way, this would be good news to substance dualists, but perhaps not so good news for those property dualists who don't wish to be associated with such a fringe, 'wacky' position.

39 views0 comments
bottom of page