The Philosopher’s Dress

I’ve recently started mentoring a group of year 7s at school. In the last session, we were discussing whether we could trust our senses and the different ways they can be fooled. Before we had gotten too far, the kids were immediately bringing up the black and blue dress that looked gold and silver. I thought this would be a great opportunity to look at the problem perceptual variation creates for direct realism.

Image result for black and blue dress

Direct realism is the idea that objects exist (along with their properties) externally from the mind. So, when I see a red door, what I am perceiving is an object in material time and space as part of an external world. When other people also see the red door, they also see the door and see it exactly as I see it.

This would seem a pretty straight-forward idea and matches what we intuitively know. Why wouldn’t there be an external world (that’s a question for another time)? However, most philosophers reject this theory of perception. Why? Because of the dress above. In one set of lighting, the dress appears gold and white. However, in another set of lighting the dress appears blue and gold. It is impossible for the matter the dress is made of to be changing, as the external world is constant, so we can’t be perceiving the object directly. This criticism is known as the perceptual variation challenge.

So, if we have to reject this theory of perception, then what theory are we left with? Most philosophers believe in indirect realism. This is the idea that the object is still external, but secondary qualities (such as colour) are mind-dependant and are produced in the mind by primary qualities. This may seem a bit confusing, so let’s go back to the dress. What indirect realism argues for is that, when we view the dress, the primary properties create a causal process (such as a sound wave, or a light wave) which travels towards our sense organs. Our sense organs then interpret this into sense data (termed by Russell) which is what we view. This means what we view and what the real world looks like are two separate things. 

A clear example of this is the table that Russell uses. When we view a table, we know that it is rectangular. However, if we were to draw the table, we would not draw a rectangle but a rhombus like shape. This is because when we perceive the table from a certain angle, we perceive the table as a rhombus instead of the rectangle we know it is. This demonstrates that what we view is not necessarily how things are in the external world. Therefore, we cannot be viewing the world directly, but indirectly via sense data.

A key philosophical idea, brought up by a single person wearing a dress. Who says philosophy can’t be applied to the modern era?

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Etiquette at the Theater According to Utilitarianism

So my sister and I (Hello if you are reading. Are you proud you are mentioned in a blog post?) went down to the Edinburgh Fringe for a weekend and while we were down there we went to go and see “La Boheme”. It was absolutely beautiful and we were sat next to a lovely Italian couple who didn’t speak English but somehow we managed to convey to them how to get a spoon out of the ice cream lid. However, as always we, and the people around us, were faced with the awkward task of shuffling past people to get to our seats. As awkward people, we all did not want to annoy each other by pushing past many people to get to our seats. In answer to this, one person decided it was better to walk behind our row (shuffling past only 2 people) and then climbed down to get to her seat. I thought this posed an interesting question in terms of utilitarianism on whether this was a more moral thing to do than pushing past the 7 of us and what factors would change this.

Let us start with the situation we were presented with. Is it really the right thing to do to push past only 2 people and climb over seats instead of pushing past the 7 of us. In this case, according to utilitarianism it is a straight forward case. Utilitarianism is the idea that the end that we should pursue is that of pleasure, and a good act is one that maximizes pleasure of everyone. Everyone’s pleasure is counted as equal, so when it comes to upsetting 2 or 7 people, then only the 2 should be upset and you should climb over as this maximises the general happiness.

Seems a simple enough idea. However, the question is then made more difficult by considering exactly who the minority are. For example, what causes more happiness; walking past seven healthy teenagers or pushing past a serve rely arthritic old lady? Yes, going past the old lady would create happiness for the 7 teenagers, but does the suffering of the old lady struggling to stand up outweigh this. Is there a situation where the suffering of the arthritic old lady is justified as more happiness is created by others?
Another dimension that complicates the matter further is what are the preferences of the individuals involved? The 7 may prefer to be pushed past rather than making the arthritic old lady stand. Or they may not and the old lady would prefer to be pushed past. Someone in the back of the auditorium may want you for some strange reason to push past the old lady. Should these preferences be taken into account? How relevant should the preferences be and when should they be bipassed?
The situation is also complicated by the relationship you have with the people. For example, do you push past the seven people or do you push past one that has been making inappropriate sexual comments about you through the first half? It makes you feel uncomfortable, but utilitarianism is about aggregate happiness of everyone, not just yours. So, theoretically, if it caused the 7 other people enough happiness it would be the right thing to do to push past the guy who was inappropriately hitting on you. And, the action is only bad if it genuinely occurs as utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory that judges an action as good based on its ends. So, the guy may not cause you any harm and so total maximal happiness increases. Would it be the right thing to do to make such a risk?
This scenario shows exactly why ethics is a difficult idea to handle, and why generalised theorise often fail at creating a solid rule of what we should do in situations. My opinion of the situation above? Make more room between the rows so people can walk past without making others stand up! But even that has its own utilitarian consequences…

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God’s Greatest Book

How can we use books we read everyday to describe the problems between omniscience and free will when looking into the properties of God?

Trying to get your head around the concept of God and the various issues that each of His characteristics have is a complicated one. Certainly, when I’ve been trying to explain it to other people it is always the area they get confused on. However, there are certain analogies that we can follow to get a better understanding of the properties of God. For instance, God’s relationship with time can be illustrated by the metaphor of a book.

Imagine that we are characters in a book written by God. It may be a fairly boring story for some, but no less a book. As the characters in the book, we cannot know what is going to occur next in our lives or what other people are thinking or feeling. We can only know what has happened and what is happening in the present. However, because God wrote the book, he knows everything from the past to the future and what everyone was thinking during that time.

What aspects of God’s characteristics does this pull up? Firstly, it describes his property of being eternal. God must have existed for an eternity, otherwise it denounces him as the perfect being, worthy of worship, as something must have been before God meaning his existence is contingent (depending on something else), undermining his omnipotence. The way of doing this is to for God to be outside of time, and so he has no start or end, making his existence necessary. This is represented by God being outside of the book instead of caught up in the actions of the characters. He is a completely separate entity, but the book depends on his existence.

Secondly, it clearly shows how his omniscience (being all knowing) is possible. One of the criticisms of God’s omnipotence is presented by Kretzmann, who asked whether God could really know everything in a changing world. He argued that, in order for God to have knowledge of a changing world, God himself must change to gain knowledge. This creates a problem for our idea of God as God needs to be perfect otherwise there may be something out there better than him, making him unworthy of worship. If God changes, then he can’t have been perfect in the first place and therefore makes God imperfect. The book metaphor avoids this problem as it explains, if God is outside of time, how he can know what’s going on inside time without changing. He is the author, the creator of the book and so has all the knowledge. However, he is not affected by the events within the book

This would make it seem that our idea of God is accurate if we are using the book metaphor. Unfortunately, the book metaphor also illustrates one of the major issues with the characteristics of God, raised by Kenny, about free will. Kenny argued that if God knows what is going to happen, and creates the events of the future, then it is impossible for humans to have free will in their actions. This is a large problem for Christianity as Christians believe in Judgement Day, where God judges us for our actions and decides whether we go to heaven or hell. However, if we are not in control of our actions, then it is not reasonable for God to judge us and God becomes unjust. It also creates the same problem with the idea of the Original Sin and creates a problem when talking about evil and suffering.

This makes the idea of God being omniscient less likely, and for some, it makes it incredibly difficult to believe in God. However, this isn’t necessarily the end of the conversation when it comes to omniscience, as it could be we have just reached the limit of the book analogy.. Some philosophers prefer to use the following metaphor;

Imagine that God is standing on a mountain and is looking down at a path that winds by with travelers walking along. God can see all of the events unwinding at the same time, but he has no effect on the events and is outside of the time line taking place.

This analogy fixes the problems we had above; It makes all events occur at the same time so God can be omniscient and know what’s going on. However, the events of the people are still decided by the people, creating free will. Therefore, God can be the perfect God in this aspect.


This was an incredibly brief analysis of God as being omniscient, and isn’t even a slither of the main debate. Want something covered about God in a future blog? Comment it below. Don’t forget to share!

Reductio Ad A Tape Measure

Can the humble tape measure be used to understand the reductio ad absurdum involved in the cosmological argument. 

So, a couple of weeks ago, my dad was playing with a tape measure by seeing how far the metal tape ruler could reach without breaking. As I watched the multiple failed attempts, I couldn’t help but say, 
“What a beautiful metaphor for the cosmological argument.” 
Dad just looked at me; my family love philosophical debate, particularly my dad, but even this was a step too far. However, I couldn’t help but see how far I could push this metaphor. 
A lot of cosmological arguments depend on using reductio ad absurdum to disprove the idea of infinite regress as a step in proving that God created the universe. That is to say, the idea that the universe has always existed must be false so something must have caused the universe. An example of this is Aquinas’ first way.
The argument states that some objects are in a constant state of motion. For example, wood is changing from being a branch to being ash in a fire. However, nothing can be moved or changed by itself; wood doesn’t spontaneously combust by itself. Something must have caused it to catch on fire. There are two options for this cause; a primary mover (something that can move itself and others without being moved itself) or a secondary mover (something that can move itself and others only once it has been moved itself). Everything within this world is a secondary mover, so we can trace the chain back through cause and effect. At this point, we have two options; either the chain goes infinitely back via secondary movers (known as infinite regress) or we eventually get to a primary mover which caused the chain. However, infinite regress is proved false via reductio ad absurdum as if there was no primary mover, then there would be no secondary movers as nothing would have caused the chain. This is clearly wrong, as we can see the chain of secondary movers within the world. Therefore, there must be a primary mover which caused the existence of the universe, who Aquinas labels “God”.
So how does a tape measure fit in to the cosmological argument? Well, it demonstrates why there can not be an infinite chain of secondary movers. Imagine that the metal ruler is the chain of secondary movers. No matter how hard you try, you would not be able to stop the metal ruler from breaking, let alone if the chain went on for infinity. Therefore, like the tape measure, there must be something supporting/causing the chain of secondary movers, demonstrating Aquinas’ reductio ad absurdum above. 
However, Mackie would suggest that Aquinas had the wrong idea about the chain of secondary movers and that he was confusing a very long chain with an infinite one. To demonstrate this, he uses a chain of hooks going vertically upwards. If it was just a long chain of hooks, then indeed at some point there would be something supporting the chain, such as an attachment to a wall. However, this would not be the case if there was a chain of infinite regress as there would be no beginning and no end to the chain, otherwise it would go into the category of a very long chain. Therefore, it could be argued that a chain of infinite regress needs no cause and it still remains a possibility, defeating the point of the cosmological argument. 
Despite this, we can still argue for the cosmological argument because of scientific evidence that shows there was a start to the universe. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Hubble’s discovery of red shift, and CMB radiation.  These clearly show that the universe is expanding leading to the conclusion that there was a “Big Bang” that created the universe (hence the name the Big Bang Theory). If this was the case, then there must be a cause as it is a very long chain. 
Even so, can we really use a tape measure as a metaphor for reductio ad absurdum? There are some issues which we can’t ignore. For example, the metal part of the tape measure is not a chain, it is a continuous piece of metal and therefore cannot be used to represent the cause and effect of secondary movers. However, it could be argued that if we had a chain of hooks in Mackie’s example, then it would still not be able to support itself and so the use of a tape measure instead of a chain doesn’t really impede our understanding of the cosmological argument. 
A more pressing matter is whether we can compare an object that is within time and space to the idea of events that link together to create time. When it comes to the tape measure, the tape measure has to abide to natural laws that govern the external world. The reason why the tape measure can’t support itself is because it is pulled down by gravity, a rule of the world. Therefore, it is possible (although not certain) that time can support itself due to the nature of time. However, this can’t be certain due to our limited knowledge of time. 
In conclusion, a tape measure can be used to represent the cosmological argument as it demonstrates how infinite regress is false because it cannot support itself without having a primary mover. However, this metaphor, along with the cosmological argument, does have it’s flaws, such as the dependence of the tape measure on the laws of nature.

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Harry Potter and Perception

Many of us grew up avidly reading and watching the Harry Potter series, and attempting to (in vain)  use it in real life. Though we may live in a muggle society, it is an interesting question to consider whether magic could be possible with our philosophical ideas of perception.
Direct realism is the idea that objects exist in material space and time, and retain their own qualities. That is to say, that if you saw a red door, then you are perceiving an object that is in an external world and is indeed red. This is often the most criticized theory of perception, but for the sake of the question it does have it benefits; the fundamental concept of magic is that there are set spells that can be taught to all wizards that have the same effect for every single witch or wizard. For this to work, everybody needs to perceive the object as the same, otherwise the same spell would work differently for everyone who cast it. This would challenge the idea of teaching magic, and therefore the idea of spell books or Hogwarts would be impossible. This doesn’t mean magic wouldn’t exist, but it does provide a strong challenge. However, using direct realism solves this problem as the properties belong to the object, not our mind.
This would make it seem that magic would be plausible with direct realism. Unfortunately, direct realism fails to stand up to the objections that have been raised by philosophers, such as perceptual variation. Locke, for instance, illustrates this with the use of water. If you put one hand into hot water, then one hand into cold water followed by placing both into lukewarm water, then one hand will perceive the water as hot and the other as cold. This is impossible as the vein of water could not possibly change its qualities in the external world. Therefore, the properties cannot belong to the object but our mind as sense data (termed by Russell). This goes directly against direct realism and leans itself to indirect realism.
Indirect realism is the idea that objects are external and exist in material time and space, possessing some primary qualities (such as shape and size) but not all. In fact, some secondary qualities are created in the mind as a result of the primary qualities (such as colour, smell and taste). This theory of perception does have a benefit in the fact it explains the casual principle involved in magic. Boyle proved that sound cannot travel in a vacuum demonstrating that in order for us to perceive sensations there must be a causal process linking us to the object.
This idea is important to the concept of magic because there must be a causal process between the object and the witch or wizard. In the case of indirect realism, the causal process would be magic. In fact, magic would be a great way of proving indirect realism as we could physically see the causal process instead of relying on an invisible causal process proved by the evidence of science.
However, unfortunately for indirect realism, magic does not exist and it is opened to a wide range of criticisms which mostly focus on not being able to prove the existence of the external world. For example, Descartes came up with the idea of the Cartesian Devil, a devil which gives us the perception of the real world, but does not actually exist. It is impossible for us to disprove this idea as, in the case of demons, we could not trust what our senses where telling us.
On top of this, the benefits of direct realism are lost when we turn to indirect realism. In direct realism, secondary qualities are interpreted by the brain, and as all our brains are different (for example, take those who are colour blind) there is no guarantee that we perceive secondary qualities exactly the same as the next person. As a result, it would be extremely difficult to label spells as doing certain things, as they would have different effects on different people. This creates a strong challenge to our concept of magic.
A far more damming argument to this perception is that it is impossible to separate primary and secondary qualities. In fact, some believe that all properties are secondary qualities, such as Berkeley’s Idealism. This is where there is no external world and all objects, plus their properties, are mind dependant. That is to say, all objects are bundles of ideas produced by the mind.
There is a benefit to this as our minds would be controlling the objects around us which would be a form of magic. However, this is one of the only ones and is far outweighed by the negatives. For example, Berkeley’s idealism relies on the idea that we are somehow in control of what we perceive. If that was the case, then surely we would live in utopias. We could eat ice cream all day without getting fat, we could get rid of suffering and we would have no need for schools as we knew the information anyway. It is clear that we don’t live in such worlds and therefore it cannot possibly be concluded that actually we are in control of such a world.
Despite this, Berkeley still sticks to his argument by defending it via the use of the all-perceiving perceiver – God. The idea is that everything that we perceive in this world is just a bundle of ideas that have been produced from the mind of God. We do not have control over such ideas.
We could list flaws with this argument indefinitely, but instead we are going to use the one that is relevant to the question, and that is the fact that if we come to this conclusion, then we must accept the fact that God is the only one with any magical power. For most of you hoping to be witches or wizards I’m sure you will agree that that is rubbish and defeats the idea of a magical society if God is the only one in possession of magic. Therefore, the price we pay for using idealism is far too great for the magic we gain.
In conclusion, magic would be best suited towards indirect realism, due to magic supporting the idea of the causal process. However, we must acknowledge that there are still flaws with this theory of perception. Therefore, it pains me to say that we must carry on living in the muggle world we currently reside in.


Thank you for reading! What do you think? Could magic be possible with our ideas of perception? Comment below your ideas. Have an idea you want to be discussed on here? Comment below and it could appear on a blog post soon. Don’t forget to share on social media and follow the blog!
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