The Fallacy of Personal Autonomy Part 1 of 3: Context

June 5, 2011

For present purposes, Identity is the group of characteristics that makes one thing distinct from everything else.  For example, the identity of “a” in “car” is something like the combined identities of:

1) the English letter A, 2) lowercase, 3) between the letters “c” and “r” in a three letter American English word for automobile, 4) written in this font and size.  So, the above “a” is not c”A”r or c”a“r.  But it is also not 5) c”a”t (different word), or 6) I love my c”a”r (combined with other words to form a different expression).  Ok?

Now imagine the English Language Literati decide the letter C is confusing, redundant, and unnecessary (after all it merely combines the sounds of two existing letters: K and S).  So they excise the excess.  C is no longer recognized as a letter and S and K are substituted for C where it used to appear.  What used to be spelled “car” is now “kar.”

Does this change the identity of the particular “a” referenced above?  Of course – it’s no longer part of a (pardon the pun) real word.

Point being, the above “a” depends for its identity on many, many factors outside of itself.  Things seemingly unrelated to that “a” – ie the abolition of the letter C – can greatly impact the very essence of that it is to be that particular “a.”

To a certain extent, this is true of all things – physical, psychological, simple, or complex.  That is, the identity of one depends on traits of others that seem to be separate from and outside of itself.

For example, a circle requires a point from which all locations on the circle’s perimeter are equidistant.  Where the point changes, so does the circle.  1+1=2 is only true within the context of certain numeral systems, eg true in base-10 but false in base-2 (binary).  Color depends on light frequency and reflective/absorptive properties of material.  Et cetera, et cetera.

Next, Part 2: Personal Identity



The Absurdity of Theological Debate

April 15, 2009

At present time, all accounts of the physical world are wildly incomplete.  The biggest issue, of course, is how the universe came to be.  Neither religion nor science can explain how, for example, a higher power could be self-caused or where all of this physical matter came from (specifically, what created God or what happened prior to 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang).

Yes, most religions claim something like God has always existed or was the cause of him/her self, but it’s quite obvious that these explanations fall well short of complete understanding – for there exists no account of how anything, let alone God, could be the cause of itself (or have always existed).

Similarly, modern day scientific understanding stops at “approximately” 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang, and prominently lacks a unified theory of the physical universe (we use two very different models – Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum theory – to govern large and small bodies).

New discoveries suggest it may even turn out that time does not actually exist – which is not nearly as implausible as it may seem at first glance (for we already know that time is not a constant, a nice explanation of this is here – choose the 4th video link).

The point is there are gaps in our understanding.  Huge gaps.  Consider the following (paraphrased) metaphor from Baruch Spinoza’s letter to Henry Oldenburg:

Imagine a worm, living in the bloodstream, able to distinguish by sight the particles of blood, lymph, etc., and able to think about how each particle is related.  This little worm would live in the blood [a part of the body], in the same way as we live in a part of the universe.  The worm would consider each particle of blood, not as a part, but as a whole. He would be unable to grasp the larger truth, namely the role the blood plays as a part of the body, and that the blood (his entire world) is only a part of something larger [the body], which in turn is part of something larger still [the universe].

It is impossible for the worm to get on to the larger, ultimate, reality of the universe from the evidence of his world (the blood).

While it may be possible for mankind to expand its understanding beyond that of the worm’s at some point in the future, modern day knowledge of some ultimate reality is on par with the worm.  This is evidenced by our inability to answer the most fundamental of all questions – how we came to be – and those referenced above.

The tired athiest/theist/agnostic debate – three worms in blood, confusing hubris for enlightenment.

Gottlob Frege and the Nature of Identity

March 26, 2009
Gottlob Frege

Gottlob Frege

The following is a paper on the views of Gottlob Frege, a 19th Century German philosopher  who founded modern logic and analytic philosophy.  In two of his most famous works (Begriffsschrift and On Sense and Nominatum) he tried to determine what kind of thing an identity statement (like A=A or A=B) is.

In Begriffsschrift, Frege suggested identity is a relation between names or signs of objects.  This means that what is expressed by something like A=B is simply that the name “A” and the name “B” both refer to the same object.  This seems like a reasonable view but it is wrong.  Frege realized his error more than a decade later and returned to the topic in On Sense and Nominatum to explain why he previously thought identity was a relation between names, why this is wrong, and what to make of identity now.

The text is marginally dense but does not require prior knowledge to understand.  Do pay attention to footnotes, they serve as guideposts to keep the wayward reader on course.

I In this section I will explain why Frege correctly rejected the view that identity (an identity is something like A=A or A=B where true) is a relation between objects, the problem of viewing identity as a relation between names[1], and how he tries to resolve these problems with his theory in On Sense and Nominatum.

The problem with viewing identity as a relation between objects is A=A and A=B, if true[2], would not be different in any important respect.  Both would state a logical, a priori truth (namely that some object is identical to itself) because the names “A” and “B” would both stand for the same object and nothing more.  However, there are many cases in which A=A and A=B express genuine, non-a priori knowledge.

Imagine A represents “the sun in the sky today” and B represents “the sun in the sky yesterday”.  A=A (the sun in the sky today is the same as the sun in the sky today) is an obvious, somewhat trivial point, but A=B (the sun in the sky today is the same as the sun in the sky yesterday) represents real, scientific knowledge[3].  Thus, identity cannot simply be a relation between objects because there are identity statements that express genuine knowledge, and identity relations between objects are not capable[4] of expressing genuine knowledge.

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Donnellan and Descriptivism

March 14, 2009

This is a less technical version of a paper I wrote last year.  It deals with the issue of meaning.  That is, how a word gets its meaning and what this meaning represents.  (In other words – what does “meaning” mean?).

Meaning is a huge subject in and of itself so this post only deals with one specific theory of meaning called “descriptivism” and explains why descriptivist theories of meaning are ultimately incorrect.

So what is “descriptivism”?

Descriptivists believe two things:

  1. The reference of a word (the things that word is used to pick out, for example the reference of the word “cat” is a real life cat) is determined entirely by a description of the word.  This means our ability to use the word “cat” to pick out real life cats is solely dependent on our description of the world “cat”. (If something seems fishy about this – pun intended – you’re right, this position is highly problematic)
  2. The meaning of a word is associated with a description associated with the word.  So the meaning of “cat” has something to do with our description of what a “cat” is (a sometimes living thing that most often has four-legs and a tail, and is a member of the feline family, etc.)

The important point is according to descriptivism, the purpose of description is to aid us in picking out specific referents (think: real life examples of the word)

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Chuck Norris Can Cure Cancer but is Baffled by the Principles of Logic

November 25, 2008


Chuck Norris put forth the following argument in an editorial piece he wrote for

  1. Because Obama was elected by the popular vote, I accept his presidency
  2. Proposition 8 was passed by popular vote
  3. Therefore everyone should accept Proposition 8

I know what you’re thinking – this argument isn’t even valid, let alone sound! What kind of moronic imbicile penned this drivel? Unfortunately it was authored by the prophet himself, Mr. Walker Texas Ranger.

To review, here’s a valid argument:

  • If A then B – If I eat then I’m happy
  • A – I eat
  • Therefore B – I’m happy

The conclusion (I’m happy) will always be true if the premises are true (If I eat then I’m happy; I eat)

A sound argument is just a valid argument with all true premises; so the argument above is both sound and valid. However, if it wasn’t true that “If I eat then I’m happy” or “I eat” then the argument would be valid but not sound.

Make sense?

Here’s Mr. Norris’s argument in symbolic terms:

B= Barack Obama

e= was elected/passed by a popular vote

a= should be accepted by the general public

P= Proposition 8

  1. Be -> Ba
  2. Be (implied premise)
  3. Pe
  4. Pa – conclusion

This argument isn’t valid becuase even if premises #1,2, and 3 are true, the conclusion (Pa) could be true or false.

Thus, little Chucky’s “serious” political diatribe is actually quite funny becuase even if the premises he puts forth were true (e.g. points 1&2) there’s still absolutely no reason for concluding “people should accept Prop 8.” It’s cute really. Kind of like the boy in Kindergarten who draws a purple dog… not exactly right but at least he’s trying.

What’s missing, and the most difficult part of the argument (no surprise Norris left it out) is this:


Meaning there are enough similarities between B and P that for the purposes of the argument everything that applies to B also applies to P.

Barack Obama and Proposition 8… why, they’re virtually twins!

Why a Cause and Effect Can Occur Simultaneously

June 24, 2008

This isn’t the most exciting piece of literature I’ve ever created but it’s fairly well done and provides good information about how Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle viewed the world.

Thomas Aquinas claimed that an efficient cause (a technical term that I will explain later) must be simultaneous with its effect. First I will outline Aquinas’ metaphysical views regarding causes and principles and then turn to the specifics of the efficient cause and why it is simultaneous with its effect.

Aquinas cites Aristotelian doctrine for many of his philosophical views so some of what I attribute to Aquinas, strictly speaking, should actually be credited to Aristotle. This paper is concerned with the argument not the author so I do not feel especially obligated to be precise on this point. That said, first I will explain the distinction between principles and causes. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but as Aquinas notes there are a few relevant distinctions between the two. To understand the distinctions we must first delve deeper into the subject of causes.

There are four causes: material, formal, efficient and final. The material and formal causes are intrinsic because they are inside of the thing, the efficient and final causes are extrinsic because they are outside of the thing. More on this later, but for our present purposes it is only necessary to understand there are two categories of causes – intrinsic and extrinsic – and the intrinsic causes are inside the causer while the extrinsic causes are outside the causer.

This distinction is important to understanding the difference between causes and principles because the intrinsic causes (material and formal) are both causes and principles but the extrinsic causes are only causes and not principles. A principle is “what is first” regardless if something follows from it. For example in the act of lighting a dark room, darkness is the principle of that movement because it is that from which the movement of dark to light begins. However, darkness clearly cannot be said to be the cause of the movement. Now consider the example of an artist forming a sculpture. The artist is the/a principle of the sculpture because the sculpture comes into being as a result of the artist’s actions. That is, to a certain extent the artist (like darkness) is that from which the sculpture came. But in the case of the artist and the sculpture the artist is also a cause of the sculpture because the sculpture comes into being because of the being of the artist. Thus, a cause “is that from the being of which another being follows.”

So I hope to have established the difference between a principle and a cause. A principle is that from which a movement begins and a cause is a principle that has being and creates another thing with being. However, this description makes it appear that every cause is a principle but not every principle is a cause. We know this isn’t true because, as I have noted above, Aquinas believes that only intrinsic causes are principles while extrinsic causes are not. Next I will investigate the nature of each of the four causes and show why only intrinsic causes are principles in Aquinas’ metaphysical view. I will introduce the material, efficient, formal, and final causes in that order.

The material cause is that out of which the thing is composed. For example, the material cause of a gold coin is gold, the material cause of an oak table is oak, and so on. Again, this is an intrinsic cause because it is inside the final thing – oak inside the oak table, gold in the gold coin, etc.

The efficient cause is a little more complicated. In short, it is the thing and the act which brings about the change. For example, the efficient cause of a house is the builder building the house, the efficient cause of a gourmet meal is the chef preparing/cooking the meal. However, it is important to understand that the efficient cause is not the home builder or gourmet chef in themselves. The efficient cause is the builder in the act of building, the chef in the act of cooking. On the surface then it seems like the efficient cause is really two separate causes – the thing doing the act which brings about change and the actual act itself that brings about the change. While this is not exactly incorrect, it is not the best way to view the efficient cause. Strictly speaking, when the builder is not building he is not a builder. If he is at home with his kids he is being a father, if he is playing a game of pickup basketball at the local gym, he is a basketball player. So in this view the thing doing the act (e.g. the builder, chef, minter, sculptor, etc.) cannot be separated from the act itself because the identity of the actor is dependent upon doing the act itself. In other words, it is impossible for a man to be a builder and not be building, for a person to be a chef and not cooking, and for a sculptor to be doing anything other than sculpting. This is the correct way to view the efficient cause and the reason why although it may appear at first glance to be a combination of two separate causes, it actually is only one.

The formal cause is the other intrinsic cause (along with the aforementioned material cause). Like the efficient cause, the formal cause can also be seen as having two parts. First, it is the form of the final being. For example, the formal cause for the builder is the form or structure of the house, for the artist the form or physical shape of the sculpture, and so on. Second, while the change is taking place – raw wood to a table, building materials to a house, gold to a coin – the formal cause is also the form of the thing the other causes are working to create, kind of like an idea or abstract notion. So the formal cause is both the form of the thing to which the actor (builder, minter, artist, etc.) is striving to bring into being as well as the actual form of the finished being. Again, like with the efficient cause I (as did Aquinas) believe it is right to view the formal cause as one cause with two aspects rather than two separate causes.

Lastly, the final cause (appropriately titled) is the purpose or end of the thing that comes into being. This is easier to see with immaterial things rather than the physical objects that I have been using as examples to this point. For instance, it is quite easy to see that the final cause of recreational running is good health, not to go from point A to point B (or perhaps point A back to point A). This is true because the individual doesn’t run because he or she wishes to achieve physical displacement (which could be achieved a number of other ways) but because he or she wants to maintain or gain a certain level of physical fitness. If the final cause of recreational running were not good health then treadmills would have no use. Now I was careful to say recreational running has a final cause of good health because it certainly is the case that running in other situations can have a number of other different final causes. An Olympic sprinter’s final cause for running may be to increase physical abilities or, possibly more to the point, winning a gold medal. A number of other instances of running can be imagined where the final cause could be getting rich, avoiding jail, seeing something beautiful, talking to someone, or winning a game. Now the final cause gets slightly more complicated when we deal with material objects because the final cause isn’t the thing itself (because this would be a combination of the material and formal cause) but thing’s purpose. The final cause of a pen is legible writing, of a house is shelter, of a gourmet meal something edible that pleases the senses.

Now I have described the four causes, we can now try to understand why only the intrinsic causes – material and formal – are also principles, while the extrinsic causes – efficient and formal – are only causes and not principles also. First, let’s examine Aquinas’ third principle, privation. Privation is the absence of a quality in something that is capable of having it. A privation of a piece of white paper is the possibility of being green or red, a privation of me is the possibility of having a six pack of abs, a privation of ice is the possibility of being a liquid. Privation is different from the other two principles and Aquinas recognizes this, calling privation an accidental principle. It is not necessary to spend further time on privation, it is sufficient for our purposes to simply understand what it is and that it is the third of Aquinas’/Aristotle’s principles.

Now the question is – what do privation, and the formal and material causes have in common that the efficient and final causes lack? They are all internal to the object. The material cause, formal cause, and privation all deal with aspects of the thing itself that is undergoing the change. They don’t rely or depend on anything external to the thing. In contrast, the efficient and final causes are both external to the thing undergoing the change (which is obviously why they are called external causes). This is significant when it comes to the distinction between principles and causes because again, a principle is “what is first.” The external causes are dependent upon the internal causes for their existence in a certain respect, and for obvious reasons they cannot be “what is first.” One may argue the chicken or the egg but not the egg or the omelet.

At this point I hope to have explained the differences between a cause and a principle, intrinsic and extrinsic causes, and the four kinds of causes all according to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas philosophy. The purpose of this paper is to discuss why, how, and if an efficient cause must be simultaneous with its effect and now we are in a position to do so.

First, I’ll outline Aquinas’ view and explain why he believes the efficient cause is simultaneous with its effect. Let’s begin by understanding that although it is not possible for an effect to precede its cause, it is possible (generally speaking) for an effect to occur at the same time as its cause. Consider the following situation – a train engine car is attached to a freight car with a piece of metal with 0% absorption, meaning every ounce of force exherted by the engine is automatically transferred by to the freight car. In the case of the freight car moving, the efficient cause is the train engine and the effect is the freight car moving. The exact moment the efficient cause begins to act on the freight car (when the train engine begins to move) the freight car moves, which is the effect. Thus, in this thought experiment the efficient cause and effect are simultaneous. Now we have established it is possible for a cause and effect to occur at the same time, let’s turn to the efficient cause specifically and discover if it too is the kind of cause which can occur at the same time as its effect.

Recall the efficient cause is an extrinsic cause and is both the thing and the act which brings about the change; the builder in the act of building, the chef in the act of cooking, the artist in the act of sculpting and so on. So that is what the efficient cause is, now let’s determine the effect of the efficient cause. In the case of the builder the effect is the construction of a house, in the case of the chef the effect is the preparation and creation of a scrumptious meal, and in the case of the artist the effect is the creation of a sculpture. Note that in each of these cases by effect I do not mean the final product (house, meal, statue) but simply a physical step in this process. For example, the first effect of the builder is breaking the ground, the first effect of the chef might be portioning the meat, the first effect of the artist might be depressing a squared corner of clay.

So now we know what the efficient cause is and what the effect of the efficient cause is. The final task is to determine whether these two occurrences happen simultaneously and the answer I believe is yes, in fact it is necessarily so. Recall what I said about the builder and the efficient cause when explaining why the efficient cause should be viewed as one cause and not two. The builder is only the builder when he is in the act of building. Thus, the efficient cause exists only when building is taking place. Similarly, the effect of the efficient cause occurs when building is taking place. For the builder, the very first moment of ground breaking is also the very first moment of both the efficient cause and the effect. Therefore the two are simultaneous.

Could it be any other way? Could the efficient cause precede the effect? No, because as I have established the efficient cause and its effect are inextricably linked, it is impossible to have one without the other. By definition, if the efficient cause is happening so to must its effect because without an effect no efficient cause is at work – without actual building taking place (the effect) it cannot be said that that an efficient cause is under way, and without an efficient cause no actual building can take place. This is simply a matter of definition from how Aquinas establishes the meaning of “efficient cause” and “effect.”

In conclusion I believe Aquinas is correct in maintaining that the efficient cause is simultaneous with its effect. To show support this view I established what causes are as opposed to principles according to Aquinas, explained the four causes (material, efficient, formal, final) and the difference between the intrinsic and extrinsic causes (and the consequence of this distinction), established that it is possible for an effect to occur at exactly the same time as it’s cause (recall the railroad car thought experiment), and finally that because of how the efficient cause and effect are defined it must necessarily be so that they happen simultaneously and it really can’t be any other way.

Locke’s Philosophy on Material Rights = Common Sense

June 9, 2008

There is absolutely nothing profound in this paper, and unlike virtually any other philosophy paper I’ve ever written the trick was stretching it to 5 pages rather than limiting it to said length.

The CliffsNotes version: regarding material rights Locke “astonishingly” (insert sarcasm here) believes (1) If there is an unlimited amount of resources, a person has the right to take as much as he or she can use (2) If there is a limited amount of resources (which is almost always the case) a person has the right to take the smallest amount that he or she can make use of.

Granted there are exceptions and special circumstances but on the whole this is pretty basic stuff that’s already fairly well covered under the Golden Rule.

That said, if anyone has the fortitude to actually read this paper have at it. I apologize in advance to both of you.

Locke’s Provisio as Independent of Abundance

This paper will argue that Locke’s provisio given in section 27 of the Second Treatise does not depend on abundance. The provisio states: every man has a right to what he is or once was joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. First I’ll explain exactly what this means and then turn to the issue at hand.

A bit about Locke and his philosophy regarding a person’s right to property. It seems self evident (or at least reasonable to believe) that every man has a right to the property of his own person. Locke ascribes to this position but to Locke “his own person” includes both the physical body and the labor of the body[1]. So the crops a farmer harvests are also personal property to which the farmer has a right to. Additionally, in Locke’s metaphysical view humans are privileged beings, superior to all except God, and “the earth and all inferior creatures”[2] are property common to all men. Thus, by saying every man has the right to his own person Locke actually means every man has a right to himself and all that he gathers.

But taken at face value this seems far too broad so Locke qualifies his position with a provisio – every man has a right to himself and all that he gathers at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others

We can see the consequences of adding the proviso by observing the form of Locke’s position with and without the provisio. His thesis with the provisio is a conditional – If x then y – in which x represents “where there is enough left for others” and y is “every man has a right to himself.” However, without the provisio Locke’s position is a categorical statement “y” which is significantly stronger. Thus, the provisio acts to weaken Locke’s strong categorical assertion that every man has a right to himself and all he gathers.

Now it should be clear (1) what Locke’s provisio is (2) the role this provisio plays in Locke’s philosophy. With these formalities addressed we can now investigate the issue of abundance.

Taken at face value, Locke’s provisio does depend on abundance. Simply put it states: if there is an unlimited amount of resources, a man has a right to all he can gather. However, it is never the case in our world that there is an unlimited amount of resources, so if the provisio is only given this very narrow reading it would be meaningless. Locke obviously knew this so what was he trying to accomplish with this passage? I believe the correct way to view the provisio is as something like a jumping off point for Locke’s position on the subject of man’s right to material possessions. It signals the beginning of his investigation, hardly the definitive conclusion. My point is, yes literally the provisio depends on abundance but it is clearly wrong to view it as a stand-alone part of Locke’s philosophy. It is the introduction to his theory on a man’s right to material possessions and that theory can be applied to all situations regardless of the abundance of resources, which is the real question at hand. Again, this is the correct interpretation because:

1. The provisio by itself is meaningless and does not apply to our world. Locke knew this, therefore he did not intend it to be taken or evaluated on its own.

2. This is further evidenced by “At least” as in “at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” Adding “at least” makes it so certain criteria must be met before a man has a right to himself and what he gathers, and the following example (when there is enough left for others) is one instance in which a man has this right but there may be others or further qualifications.

3. Finally, after putting forth the provisio in Section 27 Locke continues on to develop his theory on material rights through (at least) Section 33.

In the above section I hope to have established (1) it is wrong to evalutate Locke’s provisio outside of his larger theory on material rights (2) why this is so. I will now provide support for an assertion I made in the previous paragraph – that Locke’s theory on material rights can be applied to all situations regardless of the abundance of resources. I will outline Locke’s theory and then explain why this is the case.

As I have said previously, the provisio is the beginning of Locke’s position, so we start with:

1. Every man has a right to his own body

2. God is supreme, men were created in his likeness and the earth and all its creatures were made for man

3. Thus, man has a right to his own body and the fruits of his body (what he gathers/creates) so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of other men (aka Locke’s provisio – every man has a right to himself and all that he gathers at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others).

But even with the provisio this is still rather strong. What about waste? Even if there are enough, let’s say deer, for everyone is it right to kill more than one can use? Locke doesn’t think so.

4. “If gathering the fruits of the earth… makes a right to them then any one may ingross as much as he will. To which I answer, not so.” One can take “as much as any one can make use of… before it spoils”[3].

So Locke clearly isn’t holding to his provisio literally, for a few paragraphs later he begins refining it. He notes here that it’s not enough to simply avoid infringing on the rights of others when gathering material possessions, but one must also not be wasteful. This seems like a reasonable provision. But now we are back at the question of abundance. Locke’s theory is all well and good up to this point but it says nothing about how we should manage living in a reality of scarce resources. He finally gets to this point two paragraphs later in Section 33.

5. “He that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all”[4]. I understand this passage like – if there is enough X for 10 people then I have a right to take 1/10th of the total amount. If I take less than 1/10th it is of no use to me, and if I take more I am not leaving “enough and as good in common for others” (again, from the provisio). Obviously this isn’t an exact or perfect system and should be taken in the spirit intended rather than the literal words. It would be absurd to say to people, “before taking anything measure the total amount of resources and divide it by the number of people who want or need it”; and Locke isn’t suggesting this. His point is simply, when we recognize there is a limited amount of whatever we are taking, then we only have the right to take the smallest amount we can use. Yes there may be exceptions and special circumstances (Utilitarian philosophy comes first to mind) but on the whole this is a reasonable rule by which to live.

Thus, Locke’s position regarding material rights can be succinctly put as:

a. If there is an abundance of resources a man has the right to take as much as he can use

b. If there is a limited amount of resources a man has the right to take the smallest amount he can make use of.

So now I hope to have explained (1) what Locke’s provisio is and its significance (2) how the provisio should be properly viewed in relation to Locke’s theory of material rights on the whole (3) what Locke’s theory of material rights entails (4) why this theory is reasonable and does not depend on abundance.

[1] Second Treatise Sec. 27

[2] Second Treatise Sec. 27

[3] Second Treatise Sec. 31

[4] Second Treatise Sec. 33