Easing your way into a Worldview

I want to offer a brief reflection on a phenomenon I see often which strikes me as curious; namely, the phenomenon of easing your way into a worldview by piecemeal steps.

In certain religious traditions (most commonly in those traditions typically referred to derogatorily as ‘cults’), there is a proselytic strategy of conveying certain articles of the faith (which may seem intuitive, wholesome, or otherwise welcome) but keeping information about other articles of faith hidden or secret except to the appropriately initiated. Underlying this practice is this unarticulated recognition that several of that religion’s teachings are so outlandish and counterintuitive that to even admit them in public (or in the presence of the uninitiated) would do damage to the cause of winning people over to their faith. As slimy as I’m inclined to think this practice is, there is perhaps something shrewd about it in light of the way most of us form our worldview-sized beliefs. In fact, it may be the case that for most major worldviews (worldviews which, in the free marketplace of ideas, do exceptionally well at winning over a great portion of the human race) people naturally ease their way into them by finding good reasons to affirm them and then making counter-intuitive adjustments along the way to accommodate them. We can illustrate this, in my submission, even by taking a critical look at metaphysical naturalism.

Take naturalism to be, approximately, the belief that (i) ‘God exists’ is not true, (ii) there exist at least some of the theoretical entities postulated by our best science, and (iii) that there exist no entities belief in which cannot be motivated in principle by a scientific view of the world (with the possible exception of God, caveat in casu necessitas). Perhaps naturalism sounds prima facie plausible to many people; the tremendous success of the scientific project of making sense of the world, the apparent superiority of scientific explanations over pre-scientific explanations, the relative implausibility of worldviews competing with naturalism given our new scientifically updated background knowledge about the world, all seem to lend some credence to metaphysical naturalism. One might be led, for these reasons, to adopt a naturalistic worldview and then slowly adjust their auxiliary beliefs accordingly one at a time. First, they may give up robust (or at least traditional) moral realism. Second, they may give up on affirming that there are objectively true (in the correspondence sense) mathematical propositions, or even analytic ones.1 Next they may give up correspondence theory, and then finally they end up denying things like qualia and conscious states.2 Before too long the naturalist will go from sounding soberingly sane to talking about “the illusion that thought is about stuff,”3 and insisting that there are no true sentences (including this one). The conclusions to which one arrives end up being so obnoxious to common sense, so ludicrous to the man on the street, that no sane person could ever agree to them without being eased into accepting them one small step at a time. Just as the frog who remains in slowly warming water until it boils her alive, so too the stubborn naturalist complacently gives in, incrementally, to ostensible insanity; the more comprehensive the atheist’s guide to reality gets, the more it looks like a guide to the surreal.

The very same happens with (some popular versions of) fundamentalism; one begins by finding the Christian worldview plausible for a variety of reasons ranging, perhaps, from natural theology to historical biblical scholarship, from cute arguments (like C.S. Lewis’ trilemma)4 to (Josh McDowell’s)5 systematic apologetics. However, before long one is arguing that the light of supernovae, which has taken millions of years to reach us, was created by God merely a few thousand years ago in order to create the appearance of now-dead stars, or that cancer exists because a talking snake fooled our most primitive human ancestor, or that carbon-dating is so inaccurate that it doesn’t preclude the possibility that dinosaurs were roughly contemporaneous with mankind. In this manner one slides from apparently reasonable starting points to what may as well be Alice’s wonderland.

A similar pattern holds true for lone-wolf thinkers whose worldviews end up being hodge-podge syntheses which hardly anyone else will ever find plausible or intellectually satisfying. Original thinkers from Zeno to Berkeley, from Diogenes to David Lewis put forward philosophies regarded by most to be laughable grandiloquent fictions. It is not surprising, then, that so many should regard the history of philosophy as a museum of the absurd. Even the man who abandons philosophical inquiry altogether creates for himself a view of the world riddled with inconsistencies and idiocies to which he remains blind thanks only to his refusal to reflect critically upon them.

Given this situation, it seems reasonable to ask: is there any stopping the flood of myriad derisory beliefs? The question of how plausible a worldview is seems irrelevant to the assessment of its truth unless the presumption that reality is not too counterintuitive turns out to be correct. If reality turns out to be massively counter-intuitive, then plausibility provides no guide to truth. However, if plausibility is the primary litmus test for believability (after logical coherence, etc.), then we are proverbially up the faecal creek without a paddle.

My reaction to this line of thought is as follows; just as parsimony should be regarded as a signpost of truth in the sense that between any two views, ceteris paribus, the more parsimonious is more likely to be true, so closer alignment with common sense makes a view, ceteris paribus, more likely to be correct. What qualifies as common sense may not be so easily answered, but something like nearly universally shared intuitions about plausibility will qualify (we can leave the details to be worked out elsewhere). Obviously most people are prejudiced, to some degree, in advance of the following exercise, but I think one of the most valuable procedures when it comes to worldview-selection is to take inventory of a (prima facie sufficiently plausible) worldview’s most counter-intuitive consequences and compare them to the most counter-intuitive consequences of competing worldviews. This exercise won’t provide us the means for any definitive doxastic adjudication, but I think it remains one of the best approaches we have to comparing competing worldviews.

The alternative, realistically, is for us to unreflectively slide comfortably into a worldview by taking incremental steps towards the absurd, readjusting our plausibility assignments slowly and surely, and ending up with beliefs we would never have consented to accept had we seen clearly precisely to what it was we were inevitably committing ourselves when we adopted the overarching paradigm in question.

1 See: W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language (2000): 189-210.

2 See: William Ramsey, “Eliminative Materialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (2016), accessed March 27, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/materialism-eliminative/

3 Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. (WW Norton & Company, 2011), 95.

4 See: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Samizdat, 2014): 29-32.

5 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume to Answer Questions Challenging Christians in the 21 st Century, (Thomas Nelson, 1999).

An Amended Minimal Principle of Contradiction

The law of non-contradiction seems self-evidently true, but it has its opponents (or, at least, opponents of its being necessary (de dicto) simpliciter). W.V.O. Quine is perhaps the most well known philosopher to call the principle into question by calling analyticity itself into question in his famous essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” and suggesting that, if we’re to be thoroughgoing empiricists, we ought to adopt a principle of universal revisability (that is to say, we adopt a principle according to which absolutely any of our beliefs, however indubitable to us, should be regarded as revisable in principle, including the principle of revisability). Quine imagined that our beliefs were networked together like parts of a web in that we have beliefs to which we aren’t strongly committed, which we imagine as near the periphery of the web, which are much less costly to change than the beliefs to which we are most strongly committed, which we imagine as near the center of that web. Changing parts of the web nearer to the periphery does less to change the overall structure of the network than changing beliefs at the center of the web. Evolution has, in operating upon our cognitive faculties, selected for our tendency towards epistemic conservatism.

This, he thinks, is why we don’t mind changing our peripheral beliefs (for instance, beliefs about whether there is milk in the fridge or whether a certain economic plan would better conduce to long-term increases in GDP than a competing plan) but we stubbornly hold onto our beliefs about things like mathematics, logic, and even some basic intuitive metaphysical principles (like Parmenides’ ex nihilo nihil fit). Nevertheless, indubitability notwithstanding, if all our knowledge is empirical in principle, then everything we believe is subject to revision, according to Quine. He boldly states:

… no statement is immune to revision. Revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin Aristotle?1

This statement is far from short-sighted on Quine’s part. Those who defend his view have suggested that even the law of non-contradiction should be regarded as revisable, especially in light of paraconsistent systems of logic in which the law of non-contradiction is neither axiomatic, nor derivable as a theorem operating within those systems. This is why Chalmers calls attention to the fact that many regard Quine’s essay “as the most important critique of the notion of the a priori, with the potential to undermine the whole program of conceptual analysis.”2 In one fell swoop Quine undermined not only Carnap’s logical positivism, but analyticity itself, and with it a host of philosophical dogmas ranging from the classical theory of concepts to almost every foundationalist epistemological system. The force and scope of his argument was breathtaking, and it continues to plague and perplex philosophers today.

More surprising still is the fact that Quine isn’t alone in thinking that every belief is revisable. Indeed, there is a significant faction of philosophers committed to naturalism and naturalized epistemology, but who think that a fully naturalized epistemology will render all knowledge empirical, and, therefore, subject to revision in principle. Michael Devitt, for instance, defines naturalism epistemologically (rather than metaphysically):

“It is overwhelmingly plausible that some knowledge is empirical, justified by experience. The attractive thesis of naturalism is that all knowledge is; there is only one way of knowing”3

Philosophical attractiveness, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder. It should be noted, in passing, that metaphysical naturalism and epistemological naturalism are not identical. Metaphysical naturalism does not entail epistemological naturalism, and neither does epistemological naturalism entail metaphysical naturalism. I have argued elsewhere that there may not even be a coherent way to define naturalism, but at least some idea of a naturalized metaphysic can be intuitively extrapolated from science; there is, though, no intuitive way to extrapolate a naturalized epistemology from science. As Putnam puts it:

“The fact that the naturalized epistemologist is trying to reconstruct what he can of an enterprise that few philosophers of any persuasion regard as unflawed is perhaps the explanation of the fact that the naturalistic tendency in epistemology expresses itself in so many incompatible and mutually divergent ways, while the naturalistic tendency in metaphysics appears to be, and regards itself as, a unified movement.”4

Another note in passing; strictly speaking Devitt’s statement could simply entail that we do not ‘know’ any analytic truths (perhaps given some qualified conditions on knowledge), rather than that there are no analytic truths, or even that there are no knowable analytic truths. Quine, I think, is more radical insofar as he seems to suggest that there are no analytic truths at all, and at least suggests that none are possibly known. Devitt’s statement, on the other hand, would be correct even if it just contingently happened to be the case that not a single person satisfied the sufficient conditions for knowing any analytic truth.

Hilary Putnam, unfortunately writing shortly after W.V.O. Quine passed away, provided a principle which is allegedly a priori, and which, it seems, even Quine could not have regarded as revisable. Calling this the minimal principle of contradiction, he states it as:

Not every statement is both true and false”5

Putnam himself thought that this principle establishes that there is at least one incorrigible a priori truth which is believed, if at all, infallibly. Putnam shares in his own intellectual autobiography that he had objected to himself, in his notes, as follows:

“I think it is right to say that, within our present conceptual scheme, the minimal principle of contradiction is so basic that it cannot significantly be ‘explained’ at all. But that does not make it an ‘absolutely a priori truth’ in the sense of an absolutely unrevisable truth. Mathematical intuitionism, for example, represents one proposal for revising the minimal principle of contradiction: not by saying that it is false, but by denying the applicability of the classical concepts of truth and falsity at all. Of course, then there would be a new ‘minimal principle of contradiction’: for example, ‘no statement is both proved and disproved’ (where ‘proof’ is taken to be a concept which does not presuppose the classical notion of truth by the intuitionists); but this is not the minimal principle of contradiction. Every statement is subject to revision; but not in every way.”6

He writes, shortly after recounting this, that he had objected to his own objection by suggesting that “if the classical notions of truth and falsity do not have to be given up, then not every statement is both true and false.”7 This, then, had, he thought, to be absolutely unrevisable.

This minimal principle of contradiction, or some version of it, has seemed, to me, nearly indubitable, and this despite my sincerest philosophical efforts. However, as I was reflecting more deeply upon it recently I realized that it is possible to enunciate an even weaker or more minimalist (that is to say, all things being equal, more indubitable) principle. As a propaedeutic note, I observe that not everyone is agreed upon what the fundamental truth-bearers are (whether propositions, tokens, tokenings, etc.), so one’s statement, ideally, shouldn’t tacitly presuppose any particular view. Putnam’s statement seems non-committal, but I think it is possible to read some relevance into his use of the word ‘statement’ such that the skeptic may quizzaciously opine that the principle isn’t beyond contention after all. In what follows, I will use the term ‘proposition*’ to refer to any truth-bearing element in a system.

Consider that there are fuzzy logics, systems in which bivalence is denied. A fuzzy logic, briefly, is just a system in which propositions are not regarded (necessarily) as straightforwardly true or false, but as what we might think of as ‘true’ to some degree. For instance, what is the degree to which Michael is bald? How many hairs, precisely, does Michael have to have left in order to be considered one hair away from being bald? Well, it seems like for predicates like ‘bald’ there is some ambiguity about their necessary conditions. Fuzzy logic is intended to deal with that fuzziness by allowing us to assign values in a way best illustrated by example: “Michael is 0.78 bald.” That is, it is 0.78 true that Michael is bald (something like 78% true). Obviously we can always ask the fuzzy logician whether her fuzzy statement is 1.0 true (and here she either admits that fuzzy logic is embedded in something like a more conventional bivalent logic, or she winds up stuck with infinite regresses of the partiality of truths), but I digress. Let’s accept, counter-possibly, that fuzzy logics provide a viable way to deny bivalence, and thus allow us to give a principled rejection of Putnam’s principle.

Even so, I think we can amend the principle to make it stronger. Here is my proposal for an amended principle of minimal contradiction:

“Not every single proposition* has every truth value.”

I think that this is as bedrock an analytic statement as one can hope to come by. It is indubitable, incorrigible, indubitably incorrigible, and it holds true across all possible systems/logics/languages. It seems, therefore, as though it is proof-positive of analyticity in an impressively strong sense; namely, in the sense that necessity is not always model-dependent. At least one proposition* is true across all possible systems, so that it is necessary in a stronger sense than something’s merely being necessary as regarded from within some logic or system of analysis.


As a post-script, here are some principles I was thinking about as a result of the above lines of thought. First, consider the principle:

At least one proposition* has at least one truth-value.

To deny this is to deny oneself a system altogether. No logic, however esoteric or unconventional or counter-intuitive, can get off the ground without this presupposition.

Consider another one:

For any proposition* P, if we know/assume only about P that it is a proposition*, then P more probably than not has at least one truth-value.

I’m not certain about this last principle, but it does seem intuitive. The way to deny it, I suppose, would be to suggest that even if most propositions* were without truth-values, one could identify a sub-class of propositions with an extremely high probability of having a truth-value, and that will allow one to operate on an alternative assumption.

[Note: some of the following footnotes may be wrong and in need of fixing. Unfortunately I would need several of my books, currently in Oxford with a friend, to adequately check each reference. I usually try to be careful with my references, but here I make special note of my inability to do due diligence.]

1 W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No.1 (Jan., 1951), 40.

2 David J. Chalmers, “Revisability and Conceptual Change in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”.” The Journal of Philosophy 108, no. 8 (2011): 387.

3 Louise Antony, “A Naturalized Approach to the A Priori,Epistemology: An Anthology. Second Edition, Edited by Ernest Sosa, Jaegwon Kim, Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath. (Oxford: Blackwell publishing, 2000), 1.

4 Hilary Putnam, “Why Reason can’t be Naturalized,” Epistemology: An Anthology. Second Edition, Edited by Ernest Sosa, Jaegwon Kim, Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath. (Oxford: Blackwell publishing, 2000), 314.

5 Hilary Putnam, “There is at least one a priori Truth” Epistemology: An Anthology. Second Edition, Edited by Ernest Sosa, Jaegwon Kim, Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath. (Blackwell: 2000): 585-594.

6 Auxier, Randall E., Douglas R. Anderson, and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds. The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam. Vol. 34. (Open Court, 2015): 71.

7 Auxier, Randall E., Douglas R. Anderson, and Lewis Edwin Hahn, eds. The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam. Vol. 34. (Open Court, 2015): 71.

Naturalism and Supernaturalism

What, exactly, is Naturalism? The naïve definition would go: Naturalism is the belief that there are no supernatural entities. What, though, are supernatural entities? The go-to example would be God, but that’s an example rather than a definition. As far as definitions go, a typical place to start is to say that a supernatural entity is anything which is empirically undetectable, or not verifiable/falsifiable by the scientific method. However, plenty of unquestionably scientific beliefs are in things which are not strictly falsifiable (such as the existence of our universe), and a ‘scientific’ view of the world often involves commitment to beliefs which aren’t strictly verifiable (such as the legitimacy of inductive reasoning, or the reality of the past). Moreover, this definition entails that moral values, the laws of logic, the fundamental principles of arithmetic (and all mathematics), aesthetic qualities, facts themselves (as model-independent truth-makers), propositions (whether necessary, contingent, or necessarily false), the (noumenal) external world, and even purely mental phenomena (eg. qualia), will all be supernatural. Science itself, it turns out, is replete with presumptions of supernaturalism according to the stipulated definition.

Alvin Plantinga once defined Naturalism as the belief that there is no such being as God, nor anything like God. I used to think that this definition was serviceable, but I have come to see that it invites some of the most egregious difficulties of all. Buddhists and Mormons may qualify as Naturalists on this definition, and mathematical Platonists may not qualify as Naturalists! Surely that can’t be right. A definition of naturalism on which it turns out that Joseph Smith is a naturalist and Frege a supernaturalist cannot be right. The notorious difficulty of defining Naturalism should now be evident. What once looked like a trivially easy task now appears to be a herculean feat; how are we to draw the line between the natural and the supernatural? To echo (mutatis mutandis) a famous saying of St. Augustine: if nobody asks me what Naturalism is, I know, but if you ask me, I do not know.

One could always suggest that the term ‘Naturalism’ has no definition precisely because concepts have no definitions. Wittgenstein’s famous suggestion that concepts like ‘GAME’ have no definition,[1] and Quine’s famous skepticism about analyticity,[2] are just two of many factors which have contributed to the recent retreat from ‘definitions’ in the philosophy of concepts.[3] This trend has led to the wide embrace of prototype theory, theory-theory, and other alternatives to the classical theory of concepts. If we must give up on definitions, it seems to me that we must largely give up on the project of analytic philosophy, and that makes me considerably uneasy; but then, I’ve always been squeamish about anti-rationalist sentiments. It may turn out we can do no better than to say something like that Naturalists adopt belief systems related by a mere family resemblance, but which cannot be neatly subsumed under one definition. I, however, (stubborn rationalist that I am) will not give up on definitions without a fight.

On the other hand, if Naturalism cannot be defined then those of us who wish to remain analytic philosophers can just cut our losses and accuse self-identifying naturalists of having an unintelligible worldview; one the expression of which involves a fundamental theoretical term for which no clear definition can be given. In other words, when somebody claims that Naturalism is true we can simply retort: “I don’t know what that means, and neither do you.” What kind of rejoinder could they give? Either they will provide us with an acceptable definition (so that we’ll have finally teased it out), or they will have to reconsider the philosophical foundations of everything they believe they believe. Win-win by my count.

In the meantime, let’s try on some definitions for size. Here’s one:

P is a naturalist =def. P is an atheist who believes that all that exists is discoverable by the scientific method.

This definition is bad for several reasons. To begin with, it isn’t clear that a Naturalist need be an atheist; why couldn’t they be a verificationist,[4] or a Wittgensteinian? It seems, at first blush, sufficient that one not believe that “God exists” is a metaphysical truth, but then it also seems wrong to say that an agnostic can be a naturalist. An agnostic is agnostic with respect to supernatural entities, but a naturalist is not. So we’re left in a quandary with respect to the first half of our definition.

The second half doesn’t fair much better. Apart from the fact that scientists routinely commit themselves to the reality of entities which are beyond the scope of strictly empirical discoverability (such as the existence of alternative space-times in a multiverse), there is an puzzle involved in stating what, precisely, qualifies as scientifically discoverable. For instance, many of the fundamental entities in particle physics are not directly empirically observable (they are, in fact, often referred to as ‘unobservable entities’), but we have good reasons to think they exist based on the hypothetico-deductive method (i.e., we know what empirical effects they would have if they did exist, and we can verify those). However, that amounts to having good scientific and empirical motivation for believing in unobservable entities. Is it impossible to have good scientific and empirical motivation for believing in ghosts, or numbers, or God? W.V.O. Quine famously stated that if he saw any empirically justifiable motivation for belief in things like God, or the soul, he would happily accept them into his ontology. In fact, in a move motivated by his commitment to his Naturalized Epistemology,[5] Quine did eventually come to accept the existence of certain abstract objects (namely, sets). Quine leaves us with two choices: either we say that even Quine wasn’t really a (metaphysical) Naturalist in the end, or we find a way to allow Naturalists to believe in things like numbers, moral values, aesthetic facts, and other things which we don’t usually think of as ‘Natural’ entities. I suggest we make use of the notion of scientific/empirical motivation; in other words, we should make room for Naturalists to work out an ontology motivated by a scientific view of the world. The only danger I foresee in that move is that if even belief in abstract objects can be scientifically motivated, it seems as though belief in God, or anything, might turn out to be possibly scientifically motivated. Nevertheless, let us consider a second definition:

P is a naturalist =def. P believes that “God exists,” interpreted as a metaphysical statement, is untrue, and that the only entities which exist are the entities to which the acceptance of a literal interpretation of science commits us.

The first half of this definition seems fine to me, so that’s some progress. The second half is problematic because it implies that constructive empiricists, for instance, are not naturalists; the constructive empiricist agrees with the scientific realist that the statements of science should be literally construed/interpreted, but that when we accept a scientific theory we commit ourselves only to (i) the observable entities posited by the theory, and (ii) the empirical adequacy of the theory. Since the constructive empiricist adopts an agnostic attitude towards unobservable entities, none of them would qualify as naturalists on the above definition. In fact, anyone who adopts any version of scientific anti-realism (including the model-dependent realism of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, or even structural realism) will be disqualified from the running for candidate naturalists.

Let’s try a third:

P is a naturalist =def. P believes that “God exists,” interpreted as a metaphysical statement, is untrue, and P believes in some of, and only, the entities to which a literal interpretation of science commits us.

A possible problem with this definition might be that it threatens to include solipsists (though it isn’t clear what in science, interpreted literally, would commit anyone to the existence of persons). Perhaps we should replace “entities to which the acceptance of a literal interpretation of science commits us” with something like “entities to which our best understanding of science commits us.” That might be problematic since what the best understanding of science is seems up for debate. Perhaps it should be changed to: “entities to which a legitimate interpretation of science commits us.”

P is a naturalist =def. P believes that “God exists,” interpreted as a metaphysical statement, is untrue; P believes in some of the entities to which a legitimate understanding of science commits us; P does not believe in any entities belief in which cannot be motivated by a scientific view of the world (with the possible exception of God – caveat in casu necessitas).

This definition isn’t obviously problematic. It looks to be about as good as I can do, off the top of my head. Note that if this definition is successful, then we have also found the definition of supernaturalism, since (obviously) the definition of naturalism and the definition of supernaturalism bear a symmetrical relation of dependence to one another. This still has some notable disadvantages, including that naturalists will not be able to justify believing in moral facts unless they can generate motivation for believing in them given the resources of a scientific worldview. However, those disadvantages may just come with the territory; they may be the disadvantages not of our definition, but of the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism.

One final note; the term ‘supernaturalism’ has a bit of a bad rep because it is popularly associated with things like ghosts, energies, auras, mind-reading, witchcraft and (for better or worse) a variety of religious beliefs. Because of this many philosophers have opted for using synonyms such as ‘ultra-mundane’ to refer to things like moral facts, possible worlds, necessary beings, et alia. I don’t much mind which term is used, but one advantage to retaining the use of the term ‘supernatural’ is that it helps focus our attempt to define ‘natural’ and its cognates. If we had to define the terms ‘natural’ and ‘ultra-mundane’ it might be less apparent that whatever qualifies as unnatural is going to qualify as ultra-mundane, and vice versa.

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations second edition, transl. G.E.M. Anscombe (Blackwell Publishers, 1999). http://lab404.com/lang/wittgenstein.pdf

[2] W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in The Philosophical Review vol. 60, no.1 (1951): 20-43.

[3] For more see: Stephen Laurence and Eric Margolis, “Concepts and Cognitive Science,” in Concepts: Core Readings (1999): 3-81.

[4] A verificationist, I mean, ‘about’ Theism.

[5] http://iweb.langara.bc.ca/rjohns/files/2015/03/Quine_selection.pdf

Seven Perspectives on Theism

Many laymen seem to believe that there are at most three perspectives one may adopt concerning the question of whether God exists. More sophisticated thinkers are in general consensus that there are four. I believe that there are as many as seven different perspectives which one can adopt with respect to the question of whether God exists, and I’d like to outline them here.

First, with respect to the proposition “God exists,” one may adopt the propositional attitude of theism; that is to say, one may regard the proposition as being straightforwardly true. There are of course varieties of theism; some theists, for example, seem to believe in God for natural-theological reasons. Others believe in God for no such reasons. Some theists are quite certain that God exists, whereas others are less certain and hold theism more tentatively as the best available explanation for metaphysical puzzles. Many theists are religious (e.g., Christians or Muslims), but some are not (e.g., Deists). Regardless, everyone who adopts the view that the proposition “God exists” is true is a theist.

Second, one may adopt the opposite propositional attitude; namely that the proposition “God exists” has the truth-value ‘false‘. This is the position of the atheist, and again (unsurprisingly) there are varieties here. There are (or have been) atheists who have claimed that they can prove with deductive closure (i.e., logical certainty) that God does not exist. Some of the so-called ‘logical problems of evil’ were attempts to do just that. Other atheists have been more modest and have adopted atheism as the best explanation available, often emphasizing that it is far more parsimonious than theism.

A third position is agnosticism, according to which the sentence “God exists” has propositional content, it has a truth-value assignment in reality, but the agnostic simply doesn’t venture to say what that truth-value is. There are interesting varieties here as well. For instance, some agnostics are also self-proclaimed ‘apatheists’, a popular monikre meant to signify a profound apathy and nonchalance toward the question of God’s existence. Other more serious agnostics acknowledge that the question of whether God exists is greatly significant, but for one reason or another simply aren’t able to affirm either that God does, or does not, exist. Some agnostics are epistemically modest, claiming that they simply haven’t come to a verdict yet (though they understand they have a moral duty to everyone they know and love, including themselves, to answer the question), while other agnostics are militant agnostics and say things like “I don’t know, and neither do any of you” pointing to the atheists and theists.

It is popular today to confuse atheism with agnosticism, mostly because these two views hold one thing in common: they signify a lack of belief in God. However, atheism and agnosticism cannot meaningfully be reduced down to the absence of a mental state (otherwise, atheists and agnostics will have to join company with rocks and termites, for they also lack any mental state of affirming that the proposition “God exists” is true, and surely it is absurd, if not insulting, to class atheists and agnostics with (in)animate unthinking things). Moreover, apart from the absurdity of defining either (or both) atheism or (/and) agnosticism as a lack of a certain kind of mental state, rather than a genuine philosophical perspective, we should note that atheism and agnosticism are two very different propositional attitudes; according to one the proposition “God exists” is given a truth-value assignment of ‘false’, whereas the other does not give the proposition a truth-value assignment at all. It is usually popular level atheists who continue to insist on this conflation between agnosticism and atheism, and their agenda is more about social reform than about philosophical precision.

As Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy once said:

“If you describe yourself as “atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean atheist, I really do not believe that there is a god; in fact, I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one … etc., etc. It’s easier to say that I am a radical atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously.”[1]

These three perspectives offered above seem to many people to exhaust the pool of possible options, but they do not. A fourth option, which was very popular in the first half of the twentieth century, was the position of the verificationists, or ‘logical positivists,’ who maintained that there were many sentence-constructions which, with proper conceptual analysis, could be shown to be empty of propositional content. They maintained that statements of this kind were strictly meaningless, even if they gave the appearance of having a meaning. In brief, their position was that a statement was meaningful if and only if it was (i) an analytic statement which could be shown a priori to be true or false by reason its the terms and/or connectives, or (ii) a synthetic statement (a posteriori) about a state of affairs for which conditions could in principle be stipulated for when the statement would be empirically verified/falsified. Rudolf Carnap, one of the pioneers of this school of thought, wrote the following in his famous essay On The Elimination of Metaphysics: Through Logical Analysis of Language:

“In its metaphysical use… the word “God” refers to something beyond experience. The word is deliberately divested of its reference to a physical being or to a spiritual being that is immanent in the physical. And as it is not given a new meaning, it becomes meaningless. To be sure, it often looks as though the word “God” had a meaning, even in metaphysics. But the definitions which are set up prove on closer inspection to be pseudo-definitions. They lead either to logically illegitimate combinations of words… or to other metaphysical words (e.g. “primordial basis,” “the absolute,” “the unconditioned,” “the autonomous,” “the self-dependent” and so forth), but in no case to the truth-conditions of its elementary sentences. In the case of this word not even the first requirement of logic is met, that is the requirement to specify its syntax, i.e. the form of its occurrence in elementary sentences.”[2]

Although logical positivism ultimately fell prey to many devastating philosophical objections (not the least of which was the self-referential problem that positivism itself is neither an analytic nor synthetic and empirically verifiable position, making it, by its own standards, meaningless), many today continue to maintain that it had the right flavour. Thus, while the wider world of analytic philosophy has moved on from this clumsy scientistic stupor, there remains a minority of thinkers who have attempted to re-articulate a view nearly indistinguishable from logical positivism, but whose formulation is engineered to avoid the various difficulties which laid positivism to rest. These thinkers often identify their position as ‘logical empiricism,’ a name more closely associated with Hempel than Carnap (though stating what, precisely, is supposed to be the difference between logical positivism and logical empiricism is no easy task). Regardless of what one calls it, there remain those who believe that the sentence “God exists” is entirely vacuous, a pseudo-sentence (or, more accurately, a pseudo-proposition), and this represents a genuine alternative to theism, atheism or agnosticism. According to the positivist the theist, the atheist, and the agnostic are all equally at fault for thinking that the sentence “God exists” could be true or false.

Aside from these four perspectives there remain three more, all very philosophically eclectic. The first is the position of those who outright deny the ‘absolute’ status of the law of non-contradiction, and who suggest that God both exists and does not exist (at the same time and in the same sense). One might imagine that candidate occupants of this position would include, for instance, those Christian Protestants who follow the thinking of the great German Protestant theologian Karl Barth, or theological mystics like Simone Weil. One of the characteristic features of Barth’s thinking was his absolute insistence on paradox; he believed that the only way in which we can speak appropriately about God was in the language of paradox. God is merciful and just, God is immanent and transcendent, Jesus is man and God, and so forth. Simone Weil, for her part, is also remembered for saying extremely paradoxical things about God, including the following:

“A case of contradictories which are true: God exists: God does not exist. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure that my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”[3]

However, for several reasons I don’t think it is fair to dialectical theologians, or to Simone Weil, to characterize their views as fitting this fifth position on the question of whether God exists. Paradoxes, after all, are merely apparent contradictions, and not necessarily genuine logical or metaphysical contradictions. True, Barth did insist that it was impossible to argue for the existence of God, and it was impossible to fully capture the nature of God within the limits of language, so that even apophatic theology was, according to him, misconceived. Yet, Barth and Barthians do not (to my knowledge) generally argue with any philosophical precision that the law of non-contradiction admits of any exception. Moreover, Simone Weil disambiguated two respective senses in which she meant to affirm on the one hand that God exists, and on the other that He does not; the disambiguation itself is the way she dodges flat-out contradiction.

What I have in mind is more radical than neo-orthodoxy or paradoxical theology. Perhaps ironically, the groundwork has been laid for this radical position not by theologians, but by philosophical naturalists. The great naturalist philosopher W.V.O. Quine, arguably one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, gave a famous critique of analyticity in his essay Two Dogmas of Empiricism. He suggested that our beliefs are not divided into analytic propositions on the one hand, and empirical propositions on the other. Rather, all of our beliefs enjoy the very same empirical status. One consequence of this view, which Quine embraced, is that no belief is unrevisable; every single belief we have, including beliefs about mathematical and logical truths, are in principle subject to revision. The reason we have such a strong attachment to logical and mathematical beliefs, which makes it so hard to let them go, is just that these are more deeply entrenched in our belief systems. Quine imagines our beliefs fitting together as various parts of a web, and suggests that just as the shape of the web would change more radically if we were to change those strands nearest to the center of the web, so also our belief-set would change more radically if we gave up our more ‘central’ beliefs. Mathematical, logical and otherwise apparently analytic beliefs are clearly near the very center of our web of beliefs, whereas beliefs about sociology and politics are closer to the periphery of the web and would not be as difficult to abandon. The more peripheral the belief, the less it would cost to abandon it. However, no belief is analytic, and so every belief, at the end of the day, could be abandoned, and the web or network of beliefs could be adjusted accordingly.

Given this way of thinking about all of our beliefs, and rejecting the rationalist (and later empiricist) convention of dividing our beliefs up into analytic truths on the one hand, and synthetic truths on the other, Quine invited and embraced the claim that the law of non-contradiction, although very central to our way of thinking, could in principle be abandoned. Quine was also interesting for having come to believe, even as a naturalist, in the existence of certain immaterial entities (namely, sets, without which he thought it impossible to consistently conceive of science as a rational enterprise). Although Quine never came to belief in God, one can imagine Quine, or a follower of Quine’s philosophy, coming to believe in God for the same kinds of reasons Quine came to believe in the ontological reality of immaterial mathematical objects (namely that a commitment to science as a rational enterprise might give one reason to believe in God’s existence, either because science provides reasons to think such a being exists, as the Fine-Tuning argument tries to do, or else because God’s existence is, in some way, a presupposition without which the rationality of science could be called into question). In any case, it doesn’t matter whether or not there are any Quineans who would be willing to affirm both that God exists and that he does not exist. If we rounded up all of the people who held a certain philosophical view, and shot them all in the head, the view itself would not just disappear or cease to be a philosophical perspective. If this is right, then we needn’t find any theistic Quineans who are also atheists – we need only to see that Quine’s thinking has carved out a space for such people – he has, for better or for worse, made the position philosophically viable in some sense.

The sixth position is also inspired by Quine. Instead of rejecting the law of non-contradiction, a devout Quinean might reject the law of excluded middle (i.e., that every proposition is true, or false, or both, but not neither). In other words, the sixth perspective would be to claim that the proposition “God exists” is meaningful, but that it doesn’t have a truth-value assignment. It is, strictly speaking, meaningful and neither true nor false. Interestingly, although the revisability of the law of non-contradiction follows (logically) from his argument in the Two Dogmas, he doesn’t seem to have anticipated it as clearly as he anticipated revising the law of excluded middle. In the sixth section of his masterpiece essay he writes:

“… no statement is immune to revision. Revision even of the logical law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded Ptolemy, or Einstein Newton, or Darwin Aristotle?”[4]

Finally, the seventh position takes its inspiration from Ludwig (Josef Johann) Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s greatest contribution to philosophy was to the philosophy of language, and in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he outlines his general approach to philosophical questions in general. Where Carnap thought that sentences like ‘God exists’ were pseudo-propositions, Wittgenstein thought that all the deepest and most puzzling (even paradoxical) questions of philosophy were actually pseudo-questions. That, in other words, a careful examination of language will lead not to a solution to philosophical questions, but to the dissolution of the questions themselves.

“Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language… And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems.”[5] (Tr. 4.003)

The contours of language, on this view, are the contours of the world, so that, as Wittgenstein writes, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”[6] (Tr. 5.6). Nevertheless, Wittgenstein did believe that there was something beyond the world. He writes:

“There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”[7] (Tr. 6.552)

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.”[8]  (Tr. 6.432)

“At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. So people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they both are right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear conclusion, whereas in the modern system it should appear as though everything were explained.”[9] (Tr. 6.372 -373)

On the one hand, Wittgenstein clearly did believe that ‘the mystical’ is, and yet, on the other hand, the catch-22 is that the mystical falls outside of the world, and thus outside of the scope of language. As Wittgenstein famously put it: wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen (translation: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent [Tr. 7]). It was in this realm of the ‘mystical’ that Wittgenstein situated ethics. As Bertrand Russell has written:

“The whole subject of ethics, for example, is placed by Mr Wittgenstein in the mystical, inexpressible region. Nevertheless he is capable of conveying his ethical opinions. His defence would be that what he calls the mystical can be shown, although it cannot be said.”[10]

Could Wittgenstein have ‘believed in’ God in the same way in which he ‘believed in’ various ethical positions? The trouble is that Wittgenstein, by his own rules, wouldn’t have been able to tell us if he did. However, if Wittgenstein were following his own rules to the letter then how could he have left us with those tantalizing and mysterious statements about the mystical? The answer seems to be that Wittgenstein broke his own rules, but that this is all in keeping with his didactic methodology in the Tractatus. He explains:

“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.”[11] (Tr. 6.54)

Many Wittgensteinians today, such as D.Z. Phillips, think Wittgenstein has done (or intended to do) to Theology what he did to Ethics. Although Wittgenstein may have acknowledged ‘God’ as a reality, he disallowed any metaphysical conception of God; as D.Z. Phillips writes: “[Wittgenstein maintains] that metaphysical conceptions of reality obscure actual realities, including what is meant by the reality of God.”[12]

On this seventh view, therefore, God exists, and yet is beyond the reach of language. God is transcendent; He transcends the world. God is in the realm of the mystical. God, therefore, cannot fit into language at all. There is no way for us to talk about God; not via positiva, not via negativa, not via analogia, not via paradoxia. God just isn’t part of the world, which is the only thing about which we can speak.

Thus ends our survey of the seven positions which one can adopt concerning the question of God’s reality. There may be other positions out there, but they can each by categorized as one of the aforementioned, or else so likened to one of them as to be undeserving of separate mention. I hope this short catalogue of views is as interesting to the reader(s) as it has been for me, and may serve as a helpful guide (a kind of intellectual road-map) to this issue in the philosophy of religion.



[1] (Douglas Adams, from an interview with American Atheists; quoted from Warren Allen Smith, editor, Celebrities in Hell (2002); excerpted by Positive Atheism (2007). http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/douglas.htm

[2] Rudolf Carnap, “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language,” Trans. Arthur Pap, 66.

[3] Simone Weil, Gravity and grace, (U of Nebraska Press, 1952) 103.

[4] W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No.1 (Jan., 1951), 40.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf

[8] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf

[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf

[10] Bertrand Russell, Introduction to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf

[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. C.K. Ogden, Ed. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC., 1992). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf

[12] D.Z. Phillips, “Wittgensteinianism: Logic, Reality, and God,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion Ed. William J. Wainwright, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 450.

Natural Kinds and Informational Atomism: A presentation on Jerry Fodor’s view

The following is a written form of a presentation I had to give, for an honours metaphysics class, on Jerry Fodor’s closing chapter in his book Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, where he presents his view on natural kinds concepts and non-natural kinds concepts. I won’t bother trying to present the dynamics of his view(s) as a preamble; hopefully the presentation will be clear enough to stand on its own. Perhaps only a few notes: when something like a doorknob or water is spoken about, the concepts to which the word corresponds per se are written in capitals (eg. DOORKNOB), the properties per se are written as, for example, ‘doorknobhood,‘ and the things per se are just called by their names (eg. doorknob(s)). That should be enough to make what follows comprehensible, I hope.


We’re eventually going to have to swallow Informational Atomism whole. Accordingly, I’ve been doing what I can to sweeten the pill.[1]

In this closing chapter of the book, Fodor intends to give us a certain conscionable ontological story about conceptual atomism. He notes that we “aren’t actually required to believe any of what’s in this chapter or the last”[2] but intends, in them, merely to scout out the ontological geography of conceptual atomism conjoined to informational semantics; a thesis he aptly calls informational atomism. Conceptual atomism, pace the Standard Argument we saw in the previous chapter, also plausibly entails radical conceptual nativism; from the Standard Argument “it follows that you can’t have learned your primitive concepts at all. But if you have a concept that you can’t have learned, then you must have it innately.”[3] We already saw that Fodor avoided radical conceptual nativism by adopting a position which is “explicitly non-cognitivist about concept possession.”[4] According to Fodor, “having a concept is… being in a certain nomic mind–world relation… in virtue of which the concept has the content that it does.”[5] This is just the thesis of informational semantics (i.e., the thesis that “meaning is information”[6]) according to which “content is constituted by some sort of nomic, mind–world relation”[7] from which it evidently follows that “there must be laws about everything that we have concepts of”[8] including doorknobs. This, then, is the principle subject of this chapter: to tell a story about nomic regularities governing our ‘locking-to’ properties in the world, including properties like doorknobhood.

But how could there be laws about doorknobs? Doorknobs, of all things![9]

Before launching into Fodor’s account of the nomic regularities governing doorknobs, it may be useful, if not necessary, to review what it is philosophers mean by calling certain things, or species of things, ‘natural kinds.’ After all, Fodor’s explanation will tread upon the distinction between concepts of things which are natural kinds, and concepts of things which are not. The go-to paradigm case in the literature is most often the table of elements, as Alexander Bird and Emma Tobin explain:

“Chemistry provides what are taken by many to be the paradigm examples of kinds, the chemical elements, while chemical compounds, such as H2O, are also natural kinds of stuff. (Instances of a natural kind may be man-made, such as artificially synthesized ascorbic acid (vitamin C); but whether chemical kinds all of whose instances are artificial are natural kinds is open to debate. The synthetic transuranium elements, e.g. Rutherfordium, seems good candidates for natural kinds, whereas artificial molecular kinds such as Buckminsterfullerene, C60, seem less obviously natural kinds.) The standard model in quantum physics reveals many kinds of fundamental particles (electron, tau neutrino, charm quark), plus broader categories such as kinds of kind (lepton, quark) and higher kinds (fermion, boson).”[10]

The idea here is that when we identify a natural kind, we are discovering something about the way the world really is carved up, rather than conventionally cutting it up into arbitrary (though no doubt useful) categories. We are in the business of discovery rather than invention, science rather than manufacturing.

Natural kinds, per hypothesis, are the only things which ground the truth of nomic regularities (they act as the truth-makers for laws in science). Thus Fodor says “I suppose that natural kind predicates just are the ones that figure in laws.”[11] Whereas doorknobs, which are pretty obviously not natural kinds, do not, “a natural kind enters into lots of nomic connections to things other than our minds.”[12] How, then, could there be laws about such things as doorknobs? Fodor’s answer comes in two parts; first, there is only one law about doorknobs, and second that this is actually “really [a law] about us.”[13] The suggestion is that there isn’t anything “whose states are reliably connected to doorknobs qua doorknobs except our minds.”[14] This is perfectly acceptable, however, since, although doorknobs aren’t a natural kind, our minds clearly are. So, all the nomic regularities (namely, just one) which hold with respect to doorknobs, are really laws about our minds; they stipulate that our minds reliably lock to the property of doorknobhood to which our minds are (naturally?) calibrated. So, doorknobs, according to Fodor, are mind-dependent; “DOORKNOB expresses a property that things have in virtue of their effects on us.”[15]

The Auntie-esque Complaint

What consequences does this view have for Metaphysical Realism? Fodor’s answer, in a word, is ‘none.’ He provides two reasons for this. First,

(i)               (∃x)(Rx & MDx)
-There is at least one ‘x’ such that ‘x’ is Real, and ‘x’ is Mind-Dependent. So, (∀x)~(MDx ⊃~Rx)


(ii)               (∀x)(∃y)~(MDy ⊃ MDx)
-It is not the case that if at least one thing is mind-dependent, then everything is mind-dependent.

First thing’s first: Fodor insists that his commitment to ‘doorknobs’ being mind-dependent does not commit him to Idealism. Idealism, best I have ever been able to define it, is the idea that relations are ontologically prior to their relata.[16] However, this isn’t the case with Fodor’s story, since at least one of the relata (namely, the mind) in the nomic relation between doorknobhood and the mind, is ontologically prior to the relation between them. Fodor argues that doorknobs are real because minds are real, and so “there are doorknobs iff the property that minds like ours reliably lock to in consequence of experience with typical doorknobs is instantiated.”[17] To say that doorknobs aren’t real because they are mind dependent would be akin, in Fodor’s submission, to suggesting that fingers aren’t real because they are hand-dependent! Moreover, doorknobs are even ‘in the world’ since “Doorknobs are constituted by their effects on our minds, and our minds are in the world.”[18]

Fodor seems to think that it is obvious that our minds exist and that there are properties like doorknobhood, instantiated in the world,[19] to which we reliably lock, and suggests that to doubt this conjunction could only be motivated by a fear of malin génies. Evil demon(s) or no, while the first conjunct seems obvious to me too, I’m not so sure about the second; however, that was the topic of the previous chapter, so I will use my better judgment here and decide to leave well enough alone.

In any event, doorknobs are real just in case there is “simply nothing wrong with, or ontologically second-rate about, being a property that things have in virtue of their reliable effects on our minds,”[20] but is there? George Lakoff provides us with the example of Tuesdays, arguing to the effect that, at least in the case of Tuesdays, there is no property to which we lock in acquiring TUESDAY which is to be found in the world “external to and independent of human minds.”[21] Fodor complains that he isn’t sure what ‘external to human minds’ could mean, replying that “I would have thought that minds don’t have outsides for much the same sorts of reasons that they don’t have insides.”[22] Tuesdays, he suggests, may[23] be mind-dependent and tendentiously conventional, but “there are many properties that are untendentiously mind-dependent though plausibly not conventional,”[24] like, for example, doorknobs!

Second thing’s second: even though there are plenty of concepts like DOORKNOB for which the properties to which we lock are constituted by the calibration of our minds, there are plenty of concepts for which this isn’t so, like WATER. Water is, after all, a natural kind, and there are, after all, some natural kinds. In fact, “DOORKNOB isn’t [even] the general case,”[25] but WATER is. According to informational semantics, having concepts like WATER or H2O, is in either case “being locked to the property of being water; and being water is a property which is, of course, not mind-dependent. It is not a property things have in virtue of their relations to minds, ours or any others.”[26]

The introduction of natural kinds may help Fodor’s view go down easier for the metaphysical realist, but it may also introduce a problem to which Fodor will spend quite a bit of time offering a response. The problem is that even if we lock to the property ‘water’ and thus acquire WATER, and water is a natural kind, how could we possibly lock to water as a natural kind, and if we don’t, how is water’s being a natural kind any help to the story? Fodor here prefers to use the avenue of storytelling to get his ideas across, and his story is pretty familiar to most of us. It involves a snake, a garden and a gestalt shift.

Felix culpa; “from the Garden to the Laboratory”[27]

Back in the garden, in the state of epistemic innocence, Fodor imagines that we never had to draw an appearance/reality distinction, since all of our concepts were of mind-dependent properties. We simply had no concepts of natural kinds (as such). We could acquire the concept DOORKNOB without ever worrying about whether we were locking to the property of being a “Twin-doorknob.”[28] Then along came a snake, and the rest is history.

Back in the Garden, when we were Innocent, we took it for granted that there isn’t any difference between similarity for us and similarity sans phrase; between the way we carve the world up and the way that God does. [Then the snake came along and convinced us by saying:] If you want to carve Nature at the joints, if you want to know how the world seems to God, you will have to learn sometimes to distinguish between Xs and Ys even though they taste (and feel, and look, and sound, and quite generally strike you as) much the same.[29]

Thus was birthed the scientific enterprise, and with it, the notion of natural kinds. The idea here is just that the whole notion of natural kinds is bound inexorably up with scientific theory; it is bound up with an essence/appearance distinction which we make in science (at least, if one construes science as the scientific and metaphysical realist will want it construed). Science envisions ways in which we can get access to the (hidden) essence(s) of things (i.e., “the deep sources of their causal powers”[30]) like water. Things which, in other words, are natural kinds. “The moral [of the myth] is that whereas you lock to doorknobhood via a metaphysical necessity, if you want to lock to a natural kind property, you have actually to do the science.”[31]

It is, Fodor suggests, “intuitively plausible, phylogenetically, ontogenetically, and even just historically, to think of natural kind concepts as late sophistications.”[32] Natural kinds, according to Putnam (according to Fodor), “thrive best – maybe only – in an environment where conventions of deference to experts are in place.”[33] The point is that we don’t start out with natural kinds, but acquire ‘natural kind’ concepts as such through the toil and labour of scientific advancement. However, didn’t we say (or shouldn’t we say) that we had the concept WATER in the garden (which is to say, pre-scientifically)? Fodor wants, here, to make a clear distinction between merely having a concept of a thing which is a natural kind in fact, and having a concept of a natural kind as a natural kind. For instance, to have the concept ‘Giraffe’ is to have a concept of something which happens to be, as a matter of fact, a natural kind, but to have the concept of ‘Giraffe’ as a natural kind is quite another thing. It seems, prima facie, that the same problem threatens to rear its head in this matter as had to be dealt with in Chapter 5 under the heading The Pet Fish Problem. If the concept of something as a natural kind, requires the belief in a scientific theory, then mustn’t it not be primitive? Fodor’s answer appears somewhat two-faced at first:

Did Homer have natural kind concepts?

Sure, he had the concept WATER (and the like), and water is a natural kind.

But also:

Did Homer have natural kind concepts?

Of course not. He had no disposition to defer to experts about water (and the like); I expect the notion of an expert about water would have struck him as bizarre. And, of course Homer had no notion that water has a hidden essence, or a characteristic microstructure (or that anything else does); a fortiori, he had no notion that the hidden essence of water is causally responsible for its phenomenal properties.[34]

Now, before going on from here to tackle the issue of the legitimacy of this distinction, and then Fodor’s account of natural kind ‘as such’ concept acquisition, I want to interject with a drive-by criticism (time permitting). In response to Fodor’s fairy tale, I would like to offer a different epistemo-gony.[35] Suppose that in the garden we presumed that the way in which we carved up the world just was the way in which God did so; that is to say, suppose that we assumed that everything about which we had a concept was a natural kind, including Tuesdays! Suppose that upon hearing what the snake had to say we didn’t acquire natural kind concepts as such, but acquired mind-dependent concepts as such. In less cryptic language, suppose that we naturally assume that the way in which we carve up the world is the way in which the world is really carved up, and it is only when we lose our epistemic innocence that we begin to suspect that not everything is a natural kind after all. The fall doesn’t introduce us to natural kinds, it introduces us to artificial ones. Is this story true? Perhaps it is. Fodor notes, (in frustration?), that:

Much of what is currently being written about concepts—by philosophers, but also, increasingly, by psychologists—suggests that natural kind concepts are the paradigms on which we should model our accounts of concept acquisition and concept possession at large.[36]

Fodor also notes that psychologists may have reason to think the same is true of individual human development. He writes “the current fashions in developmental cognitive psychology… stress how early, and how universally, natural kind concepts are available to children.”[37] Perhaps Putnam is right that natural kind concepts thrive best or only given conventions of deference to experts, but it stands to reason that he may be right because of the fall. Even in the history of metaphysics the direction of the fall seems to be in the opposite direction, not towards natural kinds, but away from them. Galileo had to argue contra his medieval predecessors that feathers do not have some hidden essence in virtue of which they have the potency ticklishness – instead, the property of being ticklish was mind-dependent. Later Berkeley did the same for size and shape, and, in short, everything else.

Through experimentation we know that children are “clear that you can’t make a horse into a zebra just by painting on stripes,”[38] and Fodor candidly concedes that “it’s usual to summarize such findings as showing that young children are ‘essentialists’, and if you like to talk that way, so be it. My point, however, is that being an essentialist in this sense clearly does not imply having natural kind concepts.”[39] Why not? The reason, in his submission, is that “what’s further required, at a minimum, is the idea that what’s ‘inside’ (or otherwise hidden) somehow is causally responsible for how things that belong to the kind appear; for their ‘superficial signs’.”[40] Children, however, do not (seem to) have this additional commitment; “it is, of course, an empirical issue, but I don’t know of any evidence that children think that sort of thing.”[41] Surely, though, it seems plausible to think they do, and if they do (or, more modestly, insofar as it is plausible to even think they do) then Fodor’s story needs to be seriously amended. Fodor says “unlike Quine, I’m no Empiricist,”[42] but why on earth, I wonder, does he think children are? In any case, here ends my drive-by criticism.

So now all I owe you is a story about what “emerging” comes to… I’ll start with natural kind concepts and informational semantic and just let the “emerging” emerge…[43] Then I get to go sailing.[44]

Can an atomistic informational semantics really “honour that distinction”[45] we just saw between “merely having a natural kind concept and having a natural kind concept as such[?]”[46] Having the concept WATER, for instance, as a natural kind seems, prima facie, to require “also having, for example, concepts like MICROSTRUCTURE and HIDDEN ESSENCE and NATURAL KIND,” but if this is so then such concepts aren’t really atomistic/primitive after all. The pre-theoretic story about how we lock to WATER doesn’t do us any good here (it’s the very same story, after all, that Fodor used to explain how we acquire DOORKNOB); what we need, now, is a post-theoretic story. Instead of locking to the superficial (i.e., ‘empirical’) signs of water, as we do when we acquire merely the pre-theoretic concept ‘WATER,’ Fodor suggests that we lock to water “via a theory that specifies its essence.”[47] One pleasant consequence of this is that we would be locked to WATER as a natural kind not merely in all nomologically possible worlds (i.e., worlds in which, regularities being as they are, we would be appeared to WATER-ly[48] and thereby, via a scientific theory, be locked to the post-theoretic ‘WATER’), but also across all metaphysically possible worlds. He explains that “we’re locked to being water via a chemical-cum-metaphysical theory, that specifies its essence, and that is quite a different mechanism of semantic access from the ones that Homer relied on,”[49] or children, or animals. In other words, we acquire the natural kind concept WATER if and only if “we’re locked to water via a theory that specifies its essence.[50]

This story may at first blush sound as though it is creating a semantic Chinese-wall between the pre-theoretic WATER, and the post-theoretic WATER; the danger is that such a story seems to make these two concepts so distinct as to imply their incommensurability. However, Fodor deals with this difficulty with remarkable ease by arguing simply that “if you are locked to water our way, you have the concept WATER as a natural kind concept; if you are locked to concept WATER Homer’s way, you have the concept WATER, but not as a natural kind concept.”[51] Therefore, either way, you are locked to the same thing; namely, the property ‘water.’ Interestingly, this means the blind man can lock to the very same property as we who can see do, when we both lock to doorknobhood. It also means that if I were in the Matrix, and had not yet acquired the concept DOORKNOB, I might acquire it so long as I lock onto the property ‘doorknobhood‘ which, we recall, is a mind dependent property. Doorknobs really would exist in the real world, even if there existed no doorknobs outside of the Matrix I inhabit, so long as (i) my mind exists, and (ii) my mind has locked to the mind-dependent property ‘doorknobhood.’

To recapitulate, “all that’s required [for acquiring the concept WATER as a natural kind as such] is being locked to water in a way that doesn’t depend on its superficial signs,”[52] and instead depends upon locking to water qua its essence. To do this, however, our ‘locking-to’ properties which are natural kinds must be mediated by some (correct) scientific theory which has (successfully) ‘discovered’ the hidden essences of those properties; “science discovers essences, and doing science thereby links us to natural kinds as such.”[53] Thus, on Fodor’s story, “Homer did have the concept WATER (he had a concept that is nomologically linked to being water) and, of course, being water isn’t a mind-dependent property. So Homer had a concept of a natural kind. But WATER wasn’t, for Homer, a concept of a natural kind as such; and for us it is.”[54]

If you are locked to water either way, you have the concept WATER. (I suppose that God is locked to being water in still a third way; one that holds in every metaphysically possible world but isn’t theory-mediated. That’s OK with informational semantics; God can have the concept WATER too. He can’t, however, have the pretheoretic concept WATER; the one that’s locked to water only by its superficial signs. Nobody’s Perfect.)[55]

Fodor continues to insist that, here as well, “there are no concepts the possession of which is metaphysically necessary for having WATER as a natural kind concept (except WATER); all that’s required is being locked to water in a way that doesn’t depend on its superficial signs.”[56] Instead, “what you need to do to acquire a natural kind concept as a natural kind concept ab initio is: (i) construct a true theory of the hidden essence of the kind; and (ii) convince yourself of the truth of the theory.”[57]

The Luddite objection

If there is a genuine analytic-synthetic distinction, then conceptual atomism pretty obviously tears apart at the seams. I won’t here offer a full blown and proper response to Quine’s Two Dogmas, mostly because I am not presenting today on Quine’s Two Dogmas, but I will offer two versions of this ‘Luddite objection’ with Fodor as my target. First, it is self-evident to us that there are analytic truths, truths which are true come what may, and which delineate the parameters of logically possible worlds. For example, take the analytic truth ‘at least one statement is true,’ which is clearly an analytic truth (if it were false, then the statement “‘at least one statement is true’ is false” would be true). Notice that this is even weaker than Putnam’s “minimal principle of contradiction,”[58] according to which “not every statement is both true and false.”[59] Although Putnam is quite right that “for the purpose of making this point, one needs only one example,”[60] the idea here is the weaker the better. If Putnam’s example works, then it stands to reason that so does mine. The conclusion should be that we know Quine is wrong, come what may, and that we know Fodor is wrong come what may, at least insofar as his view rests on the abolition of the analytic-synthetic distinction.

I could follow this criticism up with any number of epistemological criticisms, such as that the analytic-synthetic distinction is self-evident, that it is a good candidate for being properly basic, and so on. However, I want to offer a Moorean response; just as G.E. Moore responds to the Cartesian skeptic that he is more sure that he has a hand than he is that the arguments for skepticism are sound, so we are all, in fact, in this same position with respect to Quine’s arguments. We may not know how to answer them, but we sure as heck know they are wrong, because we are more sure of the analytic-synthetic distinction than we are of the soundness of any argument concluding to the abolition of the analytic-synthetic distinction. That, I take it, is just a psychological-epistemic fact about us.

To conclude, Fodor has managed so far to give us a story, on the assumptions of conceptual atomism and informational semantics, about how there could be nomic regularities about both natural kind concepts (as such) and pre-theoretic (mind-dependent) concepts, like doorknobs. Fodor rejected meaning holism early on, precisely because meaning holism makes nomic regularities about concept acquisition impossible, and in this chapter he has attempted to cash out a theory of the laws of concept acquisition.


[1] Fodor, Jerry A. Concepts: Where cognitive science went wrong. (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1998): 162.

[2] Ibid. 161.

[3] Ibid. 124.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 12.

[7] Ibid. 146.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 124.

[10] Bird, Alexander and Tobin, Emma, “Natural Kinds”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/natural-kinds/&gt;.

[11] Fodor, Jerry A. Concepts: Where cognitive science went wrong. (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1998): 150.

[12] Ibid. 161. My underline.*

[13] Ibid. 146.

[14] Ibid. 147.

[15] Ibid. 148.

[16] Alternatively, perhaps that phenomena are entirely independent of noumena.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 149.

[19] If it is instantiated in the world by being instantiated in the calibration of our brains then what else could the properties be other than peculiar bundles of superficial-signs? Is that problematic? I’m not sure.

[20] Ibid. 148.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. 149.

[23] He never actually says this, so I’m reading between the lines.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. 147.

[26] Ibid. 150.

[27] Ibid. 161.

[28] Ibid. 151.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid. 153.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid. 154.

[34] Ibid. 155.

[35] The Greek ‘γέγονα’ means to be begotten or born, ‘to begin’, and I mean to use it here in the same sense it carries in the word cosmogony.

[36] Ibid. 154.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. 154-55.

[41] Ibid. 155.

[42] Ibid. 145.

[43] Ibid. 155.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid. 156.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid. 157.

[48] Perhaps here it should read Science-ly & WATER-ly.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid. 158.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid. 157.

[55] Ibid. 157.

[56] Ibid. 158.

[57] Ibid. 160.

[58] Putnam, Hilary. “There is at least one a priori truth.” Erkenntnis 13, no. 1 (1978): 156.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.