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Degree: Philosophy (Bachelors) - Glasgow University
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Consciousness seems like a very different kind of thing to the inert matter of the physical world. Yet we, who are conscious, are made out of such matter, complete with our brains and nervous systems. Furthermore, it seems that without our brains and nervous systems we would not be conscious. So, the puzzle arises, how do creatures like us, entirely made out of matter, become conscious? One influential answer comes from Descartes: consciousness is the essential feature of the mind, and mind is simply a completely different kind of thing from matter. We humans are a composite of both - the so-called ‘ghost in the machine’. This answer might well seem extraordinary to contemporary ears, especially to those of a scientific bent of mind. Many today tend to think that the world is made of matter alone, moving according to the laws of physics. We humans are the product of millions of years of evolution. So consciousness, whatever it is, must be something fundamentally physical, no doubt something to do with those incredibly complex brains and nervous systems that we have evolved. But hang on: intuitively, there seems to be more to it than this. Imagine for a moment the taste of chocolate, the texture of velvet to the touch, the chill of ice on your skin. It seems as though there is something it is like to have those experiences. In other words, they have a felt subjective quality to them, known only to the person having them. But if consciousness is essentially characterised by this felt subjective quality then it looks like there’s something substantial about consciousness that’s simply being left out by an explanation in terms of physical properties. This apparent gap in the explanation of consciousness - of how to understand the essentially subjective nature of consciousness in purely objective physical terms - has come to be known as the ‘hard problem’. What are its implications? Are we forced to agree with Descartes, that mind and matter are just fundamentally different and distinct kinds of things, consciousness belonging to the mind? Should we find ever more clever ways of trying to bridge the gap and make consciousness compatible with a physical world? Or will it remain, as some philosophers think, a problem shrouded in mystery that creatures like us simply cannot solve.see more
The ‘is-ought’ fallacy, associated most notably with David Hume, is a fallacy committed in reasoning from descriptive premises to normative or prescriptive conclusions. Descriptive statements describe things: they tell us how the world is (and as such typically contain an ‘is’). However, normative or prescriptive statements tell us how the world ought to be (and as such typically contain as ‘ought’). Reflect for a moment on this argument: (1) either that flying object is a bird or it is a plane; (2) that flying object is not a bird; therefore, (3) that flying object is a plane. This argument is what logicians call valid because the premises entail the conclusion. In other words, so long as the premises are true it’s impossible for the conclusion to be false. Compare this kind of argument: (1) Evolution is a competition for survival; (2) we humans are the products of evolution; therefore, (3) we humans ought to compete to survive. Is this argument valid? It may appear to have some initial plausibility, but it doesn’t seem at all obvious that it is. From the fact that evolution is a competition for survival and the fact that humans are the result of evolution, it doesn’t follow that humans ought to compete to survive. All that really follows is that so far we have - successfully - competed for survival. It’s important to note that that’s not to say that humans ought not to compete to survive, only that these facts alone do not establish any conclusion about what ought to happen whatsoever. This kind of fallacy is often committed by so-called Social Darwinists, who believe that evolutionary theory has implications for how we ought to arrange society or live our lives.see more
Moral non-cognitivism is the view that moral claims (e.g. 'Suffering is evil', 'Kindness is a virtue', 'Stealing from others is wrong') are not true or false, indeed, do not aspire to be true or false. Rather, they serve other purposes. One prominent version of non-cognitivism that I will focus on is expressivism. Expressivism is the view that moral claims are, despite appearances, just expressions of feeling or emotion. When I see you steal from your friend, and I tell you, 'Stealing from your friend is wrong!', what I am really doing is expressing my feeling of disapproval. Critics have labelled this the 'Boo-Hurrah theory', since moral claims seem to amount to no more than jeering and cheering, rather than telling us anything informative about the moral sphere.
One crucial problem for moral non-cognitivism is that we often engage in moral reasoning. Having seen you steal from your friend, I might present you with the following argument to show you the wrongness of your actions: (1) stealing from others is wrong; therefore, (2) stealing from your friend is wrong. In this piece of reasoning, it seems like (2) follows from (1). It seems, that is, that these moral claims, (1) and (2), are subject to logical laws. But logical laws only apply to claims which have a truth-value - that is, claims which are true or false.
To make this clearer, let’s take any two claims - sentences - P and Q, and assume that P follows from Q. Now, P can only follow from Q if there is no way that Q could be true at the same time as P is false. Applying this to the stealing case, it seems (2) could only follow from (1) if there is no way that (1) could be true at the same time as (2) is false. Think about it: if it’s wrong to steal from others, then doesn’t it follow - necessarily - that it’s wrong to steal from your friend? But it seems that the moral non-cognitivist has to deny this chain of reasoning: after all, if moral claims amount to no more than mere expressions of emotion and the like - that they are really just cheers and jeers - then they are simply not the sorts of things that can follow from one another. Think about other expressions of emotion: nothing follows from my crying out in pain, shaking my fist at a horse at the races or celebrating the victory of my home team. Logic just doesn’t reach such expressions. It is very intuitively plausible that moral reasoning is a legitimate and important part of our everyday lives; and so moral non-cognitivism, and specifically expressivism, seems tied down to a very implausible position.