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‘Common Sense’ versus ‘Pragmatism’

Some words or terms are thrown about in casual conversation – but also have formal meanings, and meanings that still have practical (including political) importance.

“Common Sense” and “Pragmatism” are two examples of this.

The “Common Sense” School of philosophy (sometimes known as the “Scottish Philosophy” – see James McCosh’s book of 1877 with that title) grow up in opposition to certain doubts promoted by David Hume and others.

“Common Sense” philosophers such as Thomas Reid held the following things:

That the physical universe actually existed – that it was not just an illusion in the mind.

That the mind itself (the “I”) also existed that it was not an illusion (for if the mind is an illusion – who is having the illusion?), that thoughts really did mean a thinker. An agent, a being – that we exist and that (as agents/beings) we have the ability to choose (agency). And that our choices are real ones – not illusions hiding either a series of causes and effects going back to the start of the universe, or random chance. For choice is neither predetermined (for that is no choice) or random chance (for that is no choice either) – choice is what it is, neither predetermined or chance. Choice is choice.

And that as we have the ability to choose we can choose between good and evil – and that these are real things also, not just “boo and cheer words” (to take a line from the Logical Positivist A.J. Ayre – for a refutation see C.E.M. Joad “A Critique of Logical Positivism” London, 1950), but are objective things which we as subjects (not just objects) can choose between.

On all of the above the Common Sense school are in agreement with the Aristotelians. Both religious Aristotelians (such as the Roman Catholic scholastics who stretch from the Schoolmen in the Middle Ages right to people in our time) and atheist Aristotelians – such as Randian Objectivists.

Although the forms of words (the methods) are very different the Common Sense school were even in agreement with the Aristotelians are on what are good acts and what are bad acts – for example the Non-Aggression Principle was broadly accepted, as much by scholastics in the Middle Ages as by 18th and 19th century Common Sense thinkers as by modern thinkers of these schools of thought.

But why is the name important? After all, for example, the 17th century Englishman Ralph Cudworth supported all of the above – without ever calling himself a “Common Sense” thinker?

Also the 20th century Oxford thinkers Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross and others (have no fear I am not going to get into details over disputes over the exact difference between the “right” and the “good” – I am trying to deal with basic principles) held all the above – again without calling themselves “Common Sense” thinkers.

Indeed I think our learned friend Antony Flew would agree with all the above – the universe really exists (is objective), our minds (our selves) really exist as beings (we are agents – we have the ability of agency, we can choose), and good and bad (right and wrong) really exist – calling rape “good” does not stop it being evil.

However, I can not remember Antony Flew calling himself a “Common Sense” thinker. So, again, why the importance of the words?

Because they still have an impact – when a person who says they are offering “common sense solutions” it is likely they are going to support certain principles (all of the above) – it is even a sign (at least in an American context) what there political opinions are.


This term also has a deeper use than ordinary conversation might suggest (although even ordinary conversation does sometimes suggest it).

The “Pragmatist” school of American philosophy.

I must be careful here – after all Charles Pierce (considered the founder of the school) was more interested in logic than in ethics, and John Dewey (the best known of the school) had different philosophical positions in his long life, and towards the end of his life actually became rather hostile to what I am about to describe…

However, when one uses the term “Pragmatist” in ethics it is still the words of William James that define what one is talking about – “the right is just the expedient in our way of thinking”.

No objective good and evil, no right and wrong. Whatever James intended it is not a streatch to go straight from “the right is just the expedient in our way of thinking” to the “good and evil are just boo and cheer words” of A.J. Ayer or even the ends-justify-the-means evil (for it is evil) of people like Saul Alinsky and his modern political followers.

Of course there are other streams than “Pragmatism” in this river of thought.

For example, the thinking of the Apostles Club at Cambridge and Bloomsbury Set in London was dominated by what J.M. Keynes called (and he intended it as praise) “immoralism”.

Any tactic – any lie or deception (even in a formal academic work) was justified if it furthered the cause. And what was the cause – the rule of an “enlightened” elite. People like Keynes did not need American Pragmatists to tutor them – but only because they came to the same conclusions by different roads.

It is an old conclusion – the belief that right and wrong are for lesser beings, that one is beyond such things (they being just silly subjective myths anyway).

In politics the followers of “Pragmatism” wish to “get things done” – regardless of what wickedness must be used to do them, for they smile with contempt at the word “wickedness” just as they do the words “right and wrong, good and evil”.

Their great strength is that they will do anything (anything at all) to achieve their objectives – and their objective is power, influence, control.

But this is also a weakness – in a way that they can not understand.

Lastly a warning:

It is sometimes said that we should “use their methods against them”, this is often a terrible error. For their methods tend towards their objectives.

For the religious this indicates that God so designed the universe that evil methods tend towards evil conclusions – the atheist may reject the idea of a “God”, but accept that the universe is like this. The result is the same – not only do the ends not justify the means, but the means have a way of influencing the ends (the results) to be in their own form.

42 comments to ‘Common Sense’ versus ‘Pragmatism’

  • John B

    “It is sometimes said that we should “use their methods against them”, this is often a terrible error. For their methods tend towards their objectives.”

    You are 100 per cent correct and this is something that libertarians and the lovers of peace and freedom should bear in mind.
    Your Common Sense folk.
    There is no scientific, rational, logical way that one can prove what what thinks to be true, is indeed, true.
    The rejection of thought as an illusion is not possible, scientifically. It could be an illusion.
    My basic premise: Order cannot occur spontaneously in chaos, holds as true as anything I know.
    We know that certain things work. And one can work within a perceived order. But it is as much a leap of faith as believing in angels in terms of provable reality.
    We cannot prove the universe exists. All our calculations are done from within the box. We cannot be objective. But we can explore by questions that at least demolish assumptions.
    Is the universe infinite? As a part of that universe am I also infinite? We can play around with mathematical concepts of curved space but what does that actually mean?
    I accept God very simply as an outworking of exploration. Not for any religious reason. I have found Jesus to be the bridge at the point where everything else ran out. I would not want to accept something as truth simply because I was forced to, either.
    The further researchers explore, the closer, in my opinion, they will come to the unseen.
    Which road they then choose to go down (because there is a choice) will be up to them.

  • “It is sometimes said that we should “use their methods against them”, this is often a terrible error. For their methods tend towards their objectives.”

    Yes but only to a point… I am all for emulating some aspects of their methods, certainly some of the subversive techniques used in academia should be turned 180 degrees and used against statists.

    This is a fight for high stakes and I am not too fussed about the niceties of how our enemy gets stomped, just as long as they get stomped.

  • William H Stoddard

    That’s an excellent piece and has some quite worthwhile ideas. I discovered Thomas Reid a decade or so ago and find a lot of value in his philosophy. I’m glad, too, to see you recognizing Ayn Rand as a thinker in the Aristotelian tradition (though I think it would be even more accurate to call her an atheistic Thomist); I don’t agree with all of her conclusions, or find all of her arguments convincing, but I’m impressed by how high a percentage of good choices she made for positions to defend. In particular, her arguments against skepticism strike me as completely sound.

    Recent philosophy has shown a tendency at least to recognize the Aristotelian positions as possible and coherent views. There are philosophers writing, for example, about realistic philosophy of science (that is, philosophy of science that affirms that physical reality really exists and is not just a convenient hypothesis) and virtue ethics. Back when I was an undergraduate in the 1960s these were much less respectable views.

    Common sense, in the nontechnical sense, has flaws: It approximates to what Aristotle called rhetoric (as opposed to dialectic or demonstration), relying on taken-for-granted assumptions, and not distinguishing between facts, traditions, and faiths as sources for those assumptions. We really need rigorous demonstrative thinking. But common sense often gets hold of things by the right end. The current anti-political class movement in the United States is nothing like a principled libertarianism, but it’s more cause for hope than I’ve seen in some time.

  • Brad

    Whether one is in the “common sense” camp or is in the “pragmatist” depends on what level you are analyzing reality. Science has revealed that the Universe is made up energy in various states. There is no morality, ethic. or meaning at the sub-atomic level on up through flora. It’s a cauldron of chaos without objective. But given the vastness of space and time, stable eddies of predictable patterns emerged, enough so that “higher life” was able to spring, and even more so that such life was able to identify itself separate from the rest of the chaos.

    When that occured, and some of these beings were able to communicate the consistencies within the chaos with each other, “common sense” functionally came into being – that describable world we all can sense with our natural five senses. Philosophically the rest (from a libertarian point of view) springs from that root – self awareness that makes one an individual, and the desire to leave alone and be left alone, and to associate at will. Those who think they have devined more than that out of the relative calmness within the overall chaos are the ones who wish to inflict Force on others. They commandeer “common sense” into some axiomatic higher meaning (usually from superstitions founded from angst – the irony that that very self awareness that we enjoy is so keen that one knows that one is also mortal). They inject meaning from the individual outward as to what perceived patterns are, or that they have some greater meaning than just simply being a dependable pattern for the self aware entity to use advantageously.

    Again, it depends on which way you want to look at the same thing. I tend to see myself as more than the slow vibrating energy that makes me up by the very fact that I can value judge. As a “mind-stuff monist” I do not believe that there is anything more to me than the matter that makes me up (no soul) but I AM self aware and desire to MAINTAIN being so. PRAGMATICALLY I will do whatever is necessary to do so, but will set aside naked Force through civil society that can be formed from the proper utilization of functional common sense. Unfortunately I live in a world now so tainted with various forms of superstition, grafted onto a self perpetuating Force machine known as the State, that I find it hard to WANT to continue.

    The only meaning to my life is the one that I give it, and if I have to live my life according to someone else’s warped perceptions or face punishment, and have little hope that will ever not be so, then life has no meaning whatsoever – we can’t survive constantly having our meanings truncated or erased. We all struggle for the meaning of life (for me the meaning is the acquistion of positive memories) and I’ll be damned if I am going to be cowed to live MY life according to someone else’s meaning. I’ll either set aside the non-Force agreement inherent in common sensical social intercourse (and face retribution from those who are already initiating superstition laden Force) or punch my own ticket off this mortal coil.

    Having said all this, I do have a great appreciation that though I am self aware and self possessed I do see that much of what we are is conditioned and we act and react outside of COMPLETE self awareness many times. I am also aware that in very short order, in the wrong hands, I can be reprogrammed fairly easily (we all could be reduced to babbling madmen within a few weeks with the right programmer). That is WHY I demand maximum liberty. If we exist in a natural, harmonic world we become one person, in the hands of brutish thugs who torture and brainwash we easily become another. There is no rock hard, indestructible ME, there is the self aware, self prepetuating, peace and production seeking me trying to live in harmony with what naturally exists or the zombie corpse that I will be as an amoral serf of the State.

  • I’m slightly curious as to what prompted this post Paul, given your usual attention to electoral events in the U.S. I’m reminded of William Hague’s “It’s time for Common Sense” campaign in 2001, but somehow I doubt you had that in mind!

    The term “common sense” is now maybe a hundred years or more out of date, since the kinds of Aristotelian positions on knowledge and ethics you refer to are no longer commonly understood. I say “maybe” because, to varying degrees, some of these positions may actually be implicitly held if not understood.

  • “Common Sense” philosophers such as Thomas Reid held the following things: That the physical universe actually existed – that it was not just an illusion in the mind. That the mind itself (the “I”) also existed that it was not an illusion.”

    Surely, that amounts to the view that our minds are capable of knowing reality? Rand’s view of actual noumenal reality as opposed to “kant touch this” subjectivism.

  • Common sense is very significant in our daily life.christian shoes

  • Common sense is very significant in our daily life.christian shoes

  • Paul Marks

    First of all I do not hold that being fashionable (the meaning of “in date” and “out of date”) is a measure of truth in philosophy or any anything else. Of course that is obvious when one remembers my position as regards economics (if I wanted to be “up to date” I would accept the “Keynesian revolution”, but as I regard the basic doctrines of Keynes as a load of dingo’s kidneys, I do not).

    As for Aristotelian concepts – there are many Aristotelian philosphers (Aristotelian does NOT mean “slavish followers of everything Aristotle himself said” of course) right now – even in the universities. So a dismissak of Aristotelian principles as “out of date” is a dog that does not hunt.

    Turning to related matters…..

    The word “science” has narrowed its meaning over time. Once it meant any formal body of knowledge – so to talk of the “science of history” or even the “science of philosophy”.

    However, now the word “science” has come to mean the experimental “scientific method” of the physical sciences – especially physics.

    That has made talk of (say) the “science of history” or “the science of economics” misleading and, indeed, dangerious. As these subjects should not really use the same basic method as physical sciences like physics.

    But this does NOT mean that “everything is science [physical science] or nonsense” as the Logical Positivists taught.

    After all even Karl Popper (often considered one of them – although he denied that) said that NO the principle really was “science or nonscience” not “nonsense”.

    There are other methods to study bodies of knowledge (the old definition of “science”) than the experimental method of physics – and for some subjects these other methods are better.

    For ecomomics Ludwig Von Mises’ “Human Action” (1949) does not contain much about the outcome of experiments (or indeed much statistical data of any kind) but that does not make it an inferior or “out of date” work on economics – quite the contrary.

    As for philosophy……

    I have been (privately) opposed for expanding my posting from ETHICS (which is what it really is about – i.e. the division between the morality of one side, the Common Sense people and the Aristotelian people and so on….., and the imorality [the wickedness] of the other side, the Pragmatists and so on…..).

    “Yes Paul – we accept that the Pragmatists (and so on) HAVE NO HONOUR and that (also) that the various streams of thought (Pramatism and other) that make up the river of evil [for that is what it is] dominate collectivist politics”.

    “But why on Earth did you add the other stuff – why not just say that whilst our side can do wicked things (very wicked things indeed) the other embraces evil ON PRINCIPLE – because they reject morality (they have no honour) and hold that any action is justified for their cause”.

    The reason I included the “other stuff” is that I refuse to be afraid of it – and because it is actually LESS disputable than the ethics. And the ethics DEPENDS ON IT.

    For example if the physical universe does not exist (if it is just an illusion) – why should we care about it?

    What is wrong with killing millions (or tens of millions of people) if they are just “dreams” (illusions in the mind) and have no real existance?

    It is not up to the person who believes in the objective reality of the universe (such as the existance of other people) to “prove his case” – it is up to the person who denies it, for the “burden of proof” must surely be upon the person who denies everything we know from our whole lives.

    It is even more important (and more clear) with the existance of the self – AS A REASONING AGENT.

    For if the mind does not exist – is just an illusion, who is having the illusion?

    And how can thoughts exist without a thinker?

    In short the “I” is NOT an illusion – the mind (the agent) really does exist.

    If physcal science denies any of the above – then too bad for physical science, for it is gone beyond the bounds of its subject and is indeed UNDERMINING ITS OWN FOUNDATIONS.

    The point of physical science is to help human beings understand the universe – but if there are no “beings” (no reasoning agents) the whole thing COLLAPSES IN ON ITSELF – for there can be no “understanding” if there are no agents (no beings – no one to “understand”).

    Also the EXISTANCE of ethical conduct depends on CHOICE.

    If we can not choose between good and evil (if our choices are “really illusions”) then there is no such thing as moral responsibility.

    Indeed there is no moral difference between a human being (not really a “being”, an agent, at all according to this vile and absurd doctrine) and a clockwork mouse.

    Killing people (who would not really be “people” at all remember) would have no moral importance whatever – for example cutting the head of a person (nor really a “person” an agent – as this view holds their is no such thing as “agency”) would be no worse than cutting the head off a clockwork mouse.

    “Prove the above”.

    Our own existance (as self aware reasoning AGENTS – things with the capacity to choose) is SELF EVIDENT – the very act of denying it is AN EXAMPLE OF IT.

    This is not “weaker” than the empirical evidence of natural science – actually it is stronger, for it leads us to certain (logically certain – truth we can not deny without proving its truth by the very act of our denying it) TRUTH – whereas (as Popper pointed out) in the physical sciences even strong empirical evidence may sometimes be overthrown by later evidence.

    So, no, it would not have been correct to just deal with ethics in my posting – because (as both the Common Sense school and the Aristotelians and others, taught) ethics is related to other matters which should not be ignored.

  • David Roberts

    Paul for me this is a cast iron case where Pascal’s wager applies and utterly refutes the pragmatic approach to existence.

    The Pragmatist must be certain, either they don’t exist or they are automata, for their approach to existence, to apply. They therefore exclude themselves.

    David Roberts

  • We have a prime example all over the tabloids.

    Tiger Woods has been pictured being treated for “sex addiction”.

    Is that a genuine medical condition or has he just been a naughty boy?

    As far as the physical universe is concerned. Deniers of it’s existence always wind-up engaged in pointless, ludicrous sophistry.

    I’ll just say one more thing. On pragmatism. Pragmatic arguments are very often defended with statistics. Statistics are ticklish things. You can correltae4 all sorts of stuff and it doesn’t mean there is a causal link. This is why theory is so important. Let’s imagine I predict football results on the basis of the word-count of Paul’s articles here. Clearly that’s hogwash.

    As Arthur Eddington put it never trust an experiment until it’s confirmed by theory. At a practical level we can see this in the world of high finance with the likes of Nick Leeson. He had no idea what a derivative was. He might as well have been playing roulette. Oh, it worked for a bit but…

    So there is a practical as well as ethical dimension to what Paul wrote. And that’s good because doing well is often doing good and I like that.

  • John B

    What you would seem to be saying is that it is inconvenient to believe that there is no such thing as good or bad, or that our reasoning is an illusion.

    Whatever. It does not make sense to think that order can spontaneously arise in randomness.

    Brad reckons that by chance it happened that in some place in the randomness energy all lined up at some stage and order occurred – by chance?

    Nick, I am not denying the existence of the universe. I am pointing out that an uncreated universe does not really comply with any sense of order (because it was a random event and can go any way) as Brad would have to accept. And where did it all come from, anyway.
    (Why, indeed, as Tony Hollick of Bristol pointed out, is there anything at all? – LA blog)
    The chance version of order does not sound like a very ordered order! It will revert to randomness as soon as this eternal split second is over? And is actually chaos. Perhaps it is lapsed chaos?
    But, hey, I don’t want sophistry, I want to understand this thing.
    And Paul, how can thoughts exist without a thinker?
    Well, what is thought. I think current science has thought as random electrical charges running through the brain along paths established by what the brain has experienced.
    Those experiences, of course, being the out workings of the “great randomness”.

    What I do think is that it is actually profoundly intersting and that one should pursue it down, honestly and without compromise, and where one has to admit that one cannot know, to admit it.

  • Paul Marks

    David Roberts – agreed.

    Nickm – yes.

    John B – not “inconenient” ABSURD is closer to the correct word.

    If we do not exist (as reasoning agent – i.e. I am not a person and neither are you) then how could that be “inconvienent” for us? There would be no “us” – just two lumps of matter with no agency (no true “I”).

    Of course the people who also deny the existance of the physical universe (as if the burden of proof was on those who believe in it – rather than on those who claim that everything, our whole lives, is an illusion) would deny that there are even two lumps of matter than are called me (Paul Marks) and you (John B).

    “Thoughts are just electrical charges in the brain” – O.K. the brain is where the “I” is (if you deny the existance of yourself as an agent you are in error – for your very act of denial is proof of your own existance).

    To say “I do not exist” (there is no agent) is just absurd.

    “Order canb not arise from randomness”.

    Choice is NOT “randomness” and nor is choice determinism (in the sense of choices being “illusions” that are really predetermined), choice is NEITHER of these things.

    This Ralph Cudworth pointed out back in the 1600’s (and so have so many others).

    However, you may mean that the physical universe did not arrise by chance – that it was created by God.


    One does not have to be religious to accept the SELF EVIDENT truth that oneself exists (I repeat that if physical science tries to deny that it undermines its own foundations – for physical science is an effort to understand the universe, how can it exist if there are no agents, no beings capable of understanding).

    Nor does one have to be religious to believe in the physical universe (not a “self evident” belief perhaps – but it is up the person who DENIES the existance of the physical universe to prove his case, the burden of proof is on him because of the evidence of our whole lives).

    Nor does one have to be religous to believe in good and evil – right and wrong (no I am not going to get into disputes over the exact difference, if any, between “good” and “right”).

    As Francisco Suarez put it (and please do not get hung up on the words “natural law”).

    “Natural law is God’s law – but if God did not exist natural law would be EXACTLY THE SAME”.

    Of course one can dispute the athiest position.

    For example one can say “if the mind is just the brain how can free will exist?” (that does NOT refute free will as some people suppose – if anything that argument would refute materialism and prove the existance of the soul).

    HOWEVER, the athiest can reply “I fully agree that free will (agency) exists – but I maintain my view that it resides within the physical brain and dies with it”.

    Depressing perhaps – but not something that one can reject as a contradiction or absurdity.

    I repeat that the denial of agency (the denial of the real choice) IS an absurdity.

    But far from all athiests are absurd – if only materialism did mean there could be no agency for (as I have already mentioned) that would not refute agency, it would refute materialism.

    However, such an easy refutation is not open to us – as some materialists (such as the followers of Ayn Rand and others – such as Antony Flew in his athiest years) were careful to guard their position against it by never denying agency (quite the contrary – they were firm defenders of freedom).

  • John B

    You are claiming I state things which I have not stated.
    I have not denied anything. I have questioned the basis of our belief for something. I agree that belief is implied in any situation where you say or do something. If you sit in a chair it implies your belief that it will hold you up. If you blog it implies your belief in its relevance. But for the rationally scientific mind, nothing is provable by its own terms. Every single thought or judgement we make is subjective. I am saying that rationally you cannot prove the validity of your thoughts. (But I am not saying you should stop thinking!)
    I am not saying it is all an illusion or a delusion. I am saying that to the rationally scientific mind, it is not provable that it is not a delusion. In other words, rationally, it could be. A purely rational person is establishing their thought process as the ultimate arbiter of reality.
    And that is where I mention inconvenience. It is inconvenient for the rational mind to have to accept that its thoughts and verifications are ultimately all subjective. Because then he can’t really claim anything to be true on the basis of observed, empirical, data.
    I am not saying that is my take on things.
    Neither is it necessary to be religious to look for reality. If, in that search you happen to encounter God, then that is simply the perceived reality you have found. You wouldn’t call a scientist “religious” because he discovered electricity, would you?
    You are correct that one has to make some assumptions in order to even begin to think. And I accept that and do that (even though rationally, while convenient, it might not be strictly honest, or realistic.)
    I do not say I do not exist! I do say that, rationally, it would seem that order cannot occur spontaneously in randomness.
    If there was no “ordering force or inflence” and this whole thing began as random, then either what we believe is order is in fact “lapsed chaos” (as per comment to Brad’s thought that randomly everything lined up for a while) or, what we believe is randomness is in fact, order.
    Regarding Francisco Suarez’s words, yes, reality is whatever it is. Whatever I choose to believe will not change that, except as part of the process.
    Please, I do not deny existence, free will, choice. But I have those as a result of what I have come to see and accept.
    I am questioning the reasoning on which we base our assumptions.

  • Paul Marks

    John B.

    If I have got you wrong I apologize fully and unreservedly.

    My dispute is with people who believe one of the following three things:

    That there is no objective reality to the universe – or that (for some reason) people who believe that the universe is real have to “prove their case” (as if the burden of proof is on us – rather than on someone who says the universe is an illusion).

    That humans are not beings – that we are not agents, that we have no real power of CHOICE.

    That good and evil do not exist – that anything is justified “as long as it gets things done” with “getting things done” meaning establishing collectivism.

    If you believe in none of these things then I have no dispute with you.

    I again repeat that I apologize.

  • John B

    Hey. Even if I was offended, I would have no right to be. There would be no cause for any apology.
    And I truly appreciate being able to find some intelligent people to bounce ideas off!
    I guess it is me that owes any apology.
    But not really.

    (PS: I would indeed say that one would be hard put to find rational, objective, scientific proof that the universe exists, that cannot be questioned. It is a subjective perception whichever way one takes it! But nobody owes anyone an explanation.)

  • Tony Hollick

    The statement “The Universe exists” is a metaphysical statement, and science cannot decide it one way or another. However, In practice, life is more worthwhile if we behave as if it does exist.


  • However, In practice, life is more worthwhile if we behave as if it does exist.

    It is more than that, and what is ‘science’ is not ‘rational enquiry?

    To have a thought, any thought, it means that existence exists. I may in fact be an extra-dimensional squid dreaming I am a human (I cannot prove otherwise, I just have a critical preference for the theory I am not an extra dimensional squid as there is not much evidence for that, but I cannot prove it)…

    …but even if I am a sleeping extra-dimensional squid and this is all a delusion, existence still exists, it just don’t look like my dreams indicate. But even if I know bugger all about the nature of existence (what with me possibly being a dreaming squid who is imagining you), that there is ‘existence’ is the one things I can be pretty certain of, as even having a delusion requires there to be ‘existence’ of some sort.

  • Paul Marks

    Agreed Perry.

    And, of course, there can be no “rational enquiry” if there is no reason – i.e. no agents capable of rational enquiry.

    If someone wants to deny the existance of the planet Earth I would ask him what his evidence was for believeing that the planet did not exist (or that we were squids – or whatever) for the “burden of proof” would be on him (not on someone who did not hold this opinion).

    However, if someone denies that they themselves exist – i.e. that there is no “I” that they are not agents (not beings – whether with two legs or squid like) then they have gone much further. They are caught in a basic contradiction.

    The contradition of “I do not exist – there is no I”, to assert this position is to refute it.

    “But Paul – you might be mistaken in thinking that someone is saying that they were not an agent”.

    Well I might be insane and just having a fantasy of talking to someone – but then what would be the point in replying to them (it would be just talking to myself).

    “No, no, no – we exist, but not as agents……”

    Well if something is not an agent it is also rather pointless to talk to it (yes I know about satnavs and so on – but someone who does not understand, or pretends not to understand, the difference between an agent and a talking clock is sad case indeed).

    I am not in the habit of having long conversations with (for example) a brick.

    Basic object, subject distinction.

    A subject (a reasoning agent) is a mind – rather than JUST an object.

    Something that looked like a human being but had no agency (no mind – no capaity to CHOOSE) can have no morality – no honour. It would not be a “being” at all.

    Whereas a squid who was an agent (i.e. did have a mind – did have the possibity of CHOICE) could have honour, could be a moral being.

  • John B

    “To have a thought, any thought, it means that existence exists.”

    I think therefore I am?
    But if thought is electrical charges running along conductors in our brain (the scientific, biological view?), does this mean that a computer which also has electrical charges running around it to achieve logical ends can also declare the same?
    It does not seem to prove anything. It certainly does not deny anything either!
    Everything we claim to know rests on the assumption of the validity of the perception of the brain.
    The rational, scientific approach has the human brain as the final arbiter of reality. The truth about things.
    But, rationally, what is the brain?

  • Paul Marks

    “A thought does not mean a thinker” so claim some – but they are talking nonsense, for thoughts do indeed mean a thinker (an “I”).

    Our existance is SELF EVIDENT – it is more sure than any “scientific evidence” for anything.

    However, yes many people accept that we exist (as reasoning agents – as “I”, as a being, something that has real choice), but also say that mind is just the product of the physical brain.

    It would be sad if that were true – but it may be, and it may well be that the mind (the soul) dies with the brain.

    As for a computer comming to consciousness (becomming an agent – an I – a being – something with real choice) many science fiction writers have wrote about such a possibility. But (as far as I know) it has not happened yet.

    We await what John B. might call the “declaration” – a computer becomming self aware, a true being.

    Of course a religious person could claim that God gave a soul to the computer at the moment it became conscious.

    But I know of no way to prove that.

    I repeat it would be very nice if materialism meant that there was no free will – for that would refute materialism (not refute free will). But it is quite possible that materialism is compatible with agency – that the mind exists, but is the product of the brain and dies with it.

  • John B

    To clarify my position – what I am saying is that in rational, scientific terms, there is no way to prove that the brain is a valid operating system.
    But I am not saying it is invalid.
    Rational, critical, scientific thought indicates it is not provable either way. If you conceptualise the brain’s function in a rational, scientific manner, you will describe it as objective electro/chemical processes.
    At what point do those objective processes cease to be simply something happening and become “I”, the arbiter of reality?
    Personally I believe in the Lord Jesus, His death and resurrection. And that we are conscious spiritual as well as mortal beings, that do, indeed, have choice.

  • Paul Marks

    I also am a Christian – and a conservative one.

    However, many athiests have exactly the philosphical principles I try and explain above.

    Being an athiest does not mean conforming to some ACLU sterotype.

    An example from the March for Life on Friday (East Coast march) – and no I was not there (I am thousands of miles away and a bald middle aged man like me would look marching with all those, mostly, young people anyway).

    A group of people were marching under a banner “Athiests for Life” and one of the reporters for EWTN said something like (I can not remember the exact words) “well they only think they are athiests” (or something like that).

    NO – they are athiests. They just do not believe in killing babies (as pro life people see abortion).

    Being an athiest does not mean that someone also believes in unrelated things.

  • David Roberts

    Given awareness, common sense, only assumes, choice.
    What is the difference here between common sense and faith.

    David Roberts

  • John B

    Yes. Pavlov, or whoever, reduced choice to the reaction to: the more powerful incentive. That was rats. (A rat’s choice?)
    Does it apply to humans? It could be argued that our choices are simply reactions to input. That would be the more scientific non-God approach of say, Mr Dawkins.
    I think as soon as one allows for free will one has to allow for more than the physically, empirically, verifiable or you do arrive at the Pavlov conclusion. (How’s that for a Ludlum title?)
    I don’t really think an atheist has much to base their position on when it comes to good and bad other than what makes people feel better or worse. Which in turn leads logically to “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody”, and, “what the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve”, etc, so, why not do whatever you want as long as you can get away with it. Everything becomes relative, honour becomes obsolete, and we do, indeed, turn into rats.
    Is that what has happened to the West?

    Even if it is what has happened, it would not justify a position that one must believe something in order to hold the world together.
    I can only accept as true, that which I find to be true.

  • John, how does “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody” sit together with “what the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve”? Surely, one can knowingly hurt their fellow human without actually seeing the other suffering?

  • John B

    It is a progression.
    If one starts off trying to define what is good (because we have chucked that God stuff out), and in order to find some standard, way mark, to give definition to: “good”, adopt the position of, say: That which makes people feel better or does not harm them.
    The whole definition of “good” becomes relative.
    If we accept ‘what makes people feel happy’ as a definition then I guess, without any genuine absolutes, we can progress to something being good as long as it doesn’t go against someone’s wishes?
    Being as human nature is to get what we can it is then not a far distance to justifying, well as long as he doesn’t see me eating the fruit from his tree, he will never really miss it, so that’s okay, too.
    A year or two ago there was the cannibal in a German court who had advertised for “participants” on the internet, and then killed and eaten someone. Was that good seeing as they both participated willingly, it seems?
    BUT. This whole point was only relevant to choice. Are we independent agents, with freedom to choose? – David seemed to ask.

  • Well John, I always held that ‘good’ is a purely objective value, no matter how many individuals may subscribe to the same kind of ‘good’.

    Was that good seeing as they both participated willingly, it seems?

    Absolutely, if, indeed, the whole thing was freely consentual.

  • Paul Marks

    David Roberts.

    A self aware being is an agent – BY DEFINITION. Of course I have the CAPACITY to choose (I may not be able to put my choices into effect, if I am tied up or whatever, but I can choose whether I can put my choice into practice or not).

    It is not “faith”.

    For example – I believe that God exists (I have faith), but it is possible that God does NOT exist.

    It is not possible that “I do not exist”.

  • Paul Marks

    John B.

    It is nothing to do with “holding the world togther” – our existance as agents is a SELF EVIDENT truth.

    Such a truth is vastly stronger than any “scientific evidence” – indeed if we were not agents science would not be possible.

    It may be possible that the world is wildly different from what “science” tells us it is (as Perry pointed out – although this is unlikely), but it is not possible that “I do not exist” or “I am not an agent” – in fact such statements are ABSURD.

    As for cravings……..

    Of course they exist.

    For example – try and starve yourself to death. You will find it is difficult (because you will have a craving for food).

    The craving for water is worse – it takes great effort to refuse water when you are dying of thirst.

    However, even if you fail you are still an agent – you made a choice, you just failed to succeed.

    For example, I can choose to run a mile in less than four minutes – but it is doubtful whether I will be able to put my choice into practice.

  • David Roberts

    Oh dear Paul, I think I turn out to be a Pragmatist. Your “A self aware being is an agent – BY DEFINITION.” is true within logic, but logic is a tool of the same agent. This is part of what John B, I think, was saying. Outside of the agent’s awareness therefore, anything is possible. My faith, is based on the worth of each human individual, which I take to be equal to my own worth. I follow Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in this. I chose though, to act, according to Common Sense.

    David Roberts

  • John B

    I’m just saying that from a rational (believing one’s own mind to be the authority as to what is true or false) scientific point of view you cannot say that human thought is any more valid as a “self evident” process than chemicals and electrical charges passing down conductors and through switches.
    Because, from I’ve read and seen on the TV and heard from scientists, that is what thought is generally accepted as being.
    In those terms, the concept of “I” is somewhat of an illusion.

  • Paul Marks

    The “I” is not an “illusion” – “somewhat” or otherwise.

    Nor has this got anything to do with television or with scientists.

    For Pete’s sake (or for Paul’s sake) get a clue.

    By his own “aguements” the scientist who says the “I” does not exist is saying that HE DOES NOT EXIST – NOT AS AN AGENT.

    And if the scientist is not a person (not an agent – not an “I”) then he is not a scientist (not someone capable of rational investigation – because he has no “reason” no “I” no “agency”).

    In fact if there are no agents (no human BEINGS, no AGENTS, no “I”) then there can be, by defintion, no science.

    Whether the “I” (the self aware person – the mind) is just the product of the brain or is something else is A DIFFERENT QUESTION.

    That is materialism versus nonmaterialism – not whether the “I” exists.

    For a person to deny their own existance (as a person) is a self contradiction – litterally.

  • Paul Marks

    David Roberts – “outside of the agent’s self awareness anything is possible”.

    Perhaps (as long as it did not violate the laws of logic) – however, I hold it to be rather unlikely (to use Perry’s example) that I am really a squid – or that I have no body at all (that I am just dreaming it – or whatever).

    And even if it is “possible” – surely the burden of proof is on the person who claims the universe is an illusion, not on those of us who do not say this?

    However, it makes no difference to the other question.

    If I am a squid, or if I am a spirit (or whatever) I am still an I.

    Should anyone claim (NOT that I am saying you are) that “outside self awareness anything is possible – therefore self awareness (the “I”, the mind, agency) does not exist” they are being absurd – utterly absurd.

  • John B

    Paul, I can see we are in danger of going round in circles! But not a problem to me.
    What, to your average science orientated bloke who doesn’t believe in God and thinks rather more that we occurred in a swamp when a bolt of lightning hit it, or similar theory, is the brain?
    He sees it as a purely physical functioning piece of apparatus that operates by electrical charges and chemical reactions.
    And that, to the materialistic, western post-Darwin mind, is indeed more or less, it.
    At what point does a functioning piece of apparatus take on self hood?
    Are you saying that because I can feel that I am, therefore I must be. The very act of being aware says that I am?
    I don’t have a problem with that because I do, now, accept the reality of God.
    But for someone who thinks they are simply a functioning piece of apparatus that has developed over time (in contradiction of the reality that seems to indicate things tend to decay rather than improve) how on earth do they impart this functioning, highly complex machine, with a sense of “I” ?
    It makes as much sense as R2D2.

  • Paul Marks

    The materialism versus religion argument is really a different one from the agency versus determinism (as in all actions being predetermined – no choice for any action) position.

    UNLESS a determinist says – “materialism is not compatible with agency”, i.e. the mind being just the product of the physical brain is not compatible with real choice (free will).

    If a determinist proves his case on this he has indeed refuted something – but the thing he has refuted is not agency (free will) the thing he has refuted is materialism.

    As Dr Johnson put it – we know we are free and there is an end to it.

    We know – because otherwise there would be no “we” (just as a collection of clockwork toys are NOT a “we”).

    If materialism (i.e. the brain is all) is not compatible with this – then too bad for materialism.

  • Tony Hollick

    Anyone interested in mind-body problems will enjoy “Self and its Brain” by Karl Popper and John Eccles. The interactionist dualism flag flies proudly!


  • John B

    Please leave religion out of it. It’s one of those loaded words. 🙂
    If I find that God is true, then that is it. I have not got religion. Religion is a menace to the truth. Truth is what I find to be true.
    You say:

    UNLESS a determinist says – “materialism is not compatible with agency”, i.e. the mind being just the product of the physical brain is not compatible with real choice (free will).

    I am afraid, for your normal average Joe scientist that is it:
    The brain is a piece of functioning, material, apparatus. Ask Robert Winston.
    It does not matter what a group clockwork toys is programmed to call themselves! Or I to call myself.
    Yes, I heard about Dr Johnson kicking a tree and saying something along the lines of: It is there I can kick it.
    To say that he is relying on his brain, of course.
    What is interesting is to question what, exactly is “I” ?

  • Paul Marks

    Either John Winston is a scientist (a reasoning being trying to understand the universe) or he is not.

    If he is a reasoning being any argument that there are no such things as reasoning beings (no “I”s) is refuted by the existance of John Winston (regardless of any “scientific” thing he says).

    And if he is not a reasoning being (not a scientist – just a doll of some sort) then why should I be interested in the sounds comming out of his mouth?

    After all a toy can be made to speak – but the words are the product of someone else (the toymaker – a reasoning “I”).

    “But the “I” is just the creation of the brain”.

    Perhaps it is – this is NOT RELEVANT.

    If the mind is the product of the brain and dies with it that is unfortunatate – but it does NOT mean that the mind is an “illusion” of some sort (who is having the illusion?) or that the mnd does not exist.

    Thoughts do mean a thinker – even if that thinker is just a few pounds of gray flesh.

    And a thinker is an agent (someone – not just something), a reasoning “I”.

    To try and reduce something into something it is not (for example agency, free will, into determinism) goes beyond “reductionism” into abusdity.

    We exist, we are responsible for our actions – for the choices we make.

    Saying they are predetermined (not real choices) is the worst sort of bad faith.

    Sorry but we can escape the “crushing and terrible burden of freedom” by pretending that calling it “unscientfic” will make it go away.

  • John B

    It’s Robert Winston, Prof at Imperial College. He does popular science exploration of the mind on the Telly.
    Not sure what his final say on the matter would be, but me, seeing his reasonings and taking that as the popular post-Darwin accepted norm, seems to me the mind is understood to be the functioning of the brain, which functioning is those electrical and chemical interactions and not much else. But, yes, a purely physical explanation.
    And if one regards the mind as purely physical interactions, much like any other physical interaction, where does freedom of choice, or the responsible “I” fit into that? Cause and effect. A long process of cause and effect.
    Again, this is not my position. I am exploring the reasoning of someone who regards the world as purely physical.
    Freedom is no crushing burden to me, by the way. I love liberty.
    Individual freedom. Individual responsibility.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes I have heard of John Winston – my bad (as the Californians say).

    But what does it matter what his name is – if he is not an agent.

    For example, some years ago a young lady gave me a teddy bear (as a present to remind me of a role playing campaign).

    On this toy is the tag with “my name is Silver” on it.

    Now if changed the label to “John Winston” and transmitted words out of its mouth on television – would that make the toy a scientist?

    Of course not – because a scientist is a reasoning mind (an “I”) engaged in the rational study of the universe (for a rational study one needs reason – i.e. an “I” – a reasoning will).

    “Cause and effect”.

    I am not even going to bother presenting the arguments of modern physics (assuming I could do so correctly) or of mathematics. Q. physics and chaos theory are not my concern – other than to point out that the clockwork view of a determinist universe went out of fashion some time ago.

    I thought it was me who was supposed to be old fashioned – surely John Winstton is not telling the children “God does not play dice with the universe” (because it seems he does – or the dice play themselves).

    I am not going to bother with this because CHOICE IS NOT RANDOMNESS.

    I am going over ground I have been over before – and ground that many others have dealt with before me.

    Choice is NEITHER determinism (cause and effect predetermined) or random chance.

    Choice is choice – choice is itself (not some other thing).

  • John B

    Si Señor!
    I think my position is, that to be consistent, people should realise what they actually do believe, and live with it fully. Change it where necessary.
    But not live with inconsistent parts that ultimately don´t make sense when taken together.