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Part I: Knowledge and Truth


Mary M. Litch


Book Outline by James Fieser




1. Skepticism (Films: Total Recall and The Matrix)

What is Skepticism

Definition: I cannot know with certainty whether proposition P is true or false

Sextus Empiricus: leads to blissful detachment

Descartes’ formulation

Excerpt: Meditation 1 from Descartes

Quaid and Neo as Embodiments of Descartes’ problem

Nonlinear progression of storyline in the movies

Theory of representative perceptions: a perception is genuine if it is caused by and accurately represents the external objects that give rise to it (e.g., the visual representation of the telephone in my hand is genuine if there really is an extra-mental telephone)

Descartes’ problem: explaining how a perceiver could get evidence that a current perception is caused by and accurately represents an external object

Tactile sensations are not sufficient: we directly experience our own sensations, but not external things themselves

Berkeley’s view: genuine perceptions are more intrinsically vivid than their nongenuine counterparts: (1) vividness of perception, (degree of independence from our will, and (3) its connectedness to previous and future perceptions

Quaid and Hume’s radical skepticism

Hume’s view: we have no idea (or experience) of a unified self over time

“The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations”

Solipsism of the present moment: extreme version of skepticism about identity

Responses to skepticism

Berkeley: Descartes’ theory of representative perceptions leads to absurd consequences

Berkeley’s solution: idealism: to be is to be perceived

Problem: succumbs to other forms of scepticism (Berkeley’s three criteria of genuine perception apply to Neo in the Matrix)

Dialog between Berkeley and Descartes

Kant: knowledge is sufficiently grounded in the phenomenal world, not the noumenal

Kantian revolution: assume that we have knowledge, and then see what the conditions of knowledge are

Don’t begin with mind-independent objects, as Descartes did

Problem: can’t distinguish between genuine and nongenuine perceptions

The Dangers and Lessons of Skepticism

Hume: we can’t maintain skepticism in our normal lives; skepticism is a safeguard against dogmatism

2. Relativism (Film: Hilary and Jackie)

What is Relativism

Types of relativism

Cognitive relativism (most broad): the truth of all statements is relative to some set of background conditions and assumptions

Aesthetic relativism (less broad): the truth of aesthetic judgments is relative

Moral relativism (less broad): the truth of moral judgments is relative

Types of objectivism

Cognitive objectivism: (a) there is a mind-independent world, and (b) statements are true when they correspond to facts in that world (correspondence theory of truth)

Conceptual scheme: the set of concepts that a perceiver uses to interpret his/her perceptual stream

Kant: the conceptual scheme is uniform for all people

Cultural anthropologists: (1) environment shapes our perceptions, (2) our conceptual scheme is determined by the language that we learn, (3) learning is supervised

Historically, skeptics tended to be relativists

What Really Happened

The movie Hilary and Jackie present a story relative to the two sisters’ unique perspectives

Philosophical aspect of the film is found in its structure, not its content

Objectivist leaning: natural attempt to reconcile divergent perspectives to find the hidden truth

Four options in attempting to reconcile differences

Reject an interpretation if based on misinformation

Reject an interpretation if the result of lying

Reject an interpretation if the result of self-deception

Accept both interpretations as true by adopting a relativistic stance

Differing opinions does not in and of itself demonstrate cognitive relativism

One or both parties may be mistaken (e.g., people who believe in a flat earth)

Proof for cognitive relativism rests on incompatible but equally valid conceptual schemes

Comparing conceptual schemes

Duck/rabbit; young/old woman; bird antelope

Truth relativism

Different kinds of (epistemological) relativism:

Cognitive relativism: the truth of all statements is relative to some set of background conditions and assumptions (discussed above)

Physical-perspective relativism: whatever someone perceives must be perceived from a particular physical vantage point

Weak conceptual relativism: perceptions must occur within the framework of some conceptual scheme or other

Truth relativism: denies correspondence theory of truth (element 2 of the objectivist position)

Relativism of rationality: rationality (proofs, warranted beliefs) are relative to a conceptual scheme (in a particular culture and period)

Relativism of logic: laws of logic are merely social norms

Justification for truth-relativism:

There is an enormous mismatch between our concept of the world and the mind-independent world itself

Truth-relativism is not the most extreme form of relativism: different conceptual schemes can be ranked according to their overall rationality

Nietzschean Perspectivism and Postmodernism

Nietzsche and post-moderns both espouse truth relativism and the relativism of rationality

Nietzsche: the first philosopher to defend the relativism of rationality

“There are no facts, only interpretations,” “as though there would be a world left over once we subtracted the perspectival”

Perspectivism: there are competing perspectives of the world, and the winner is the one whose conceptual scheme best facilitates life

Uses a pragmatic standard: a conceptual scheme is adequate if it allows me to thrive


Legitimization of all points of view

No objective truth, no universal rationality, no universal logic, no pragmatic criteria for adjudicating between conceptual schemes

Deconstructionism: first show the gap between language and reality, and then show that reality is created by language; by taking apart our linguistic constructions, we can see we can see how language is the source of our notions of reality

Sources of Disparity in the Narrative

Three reasons for differences in visual experiences

Informed by expectations

Level of expertise has an impact

Interpretation of visually ambiguous data

Types of relativism in Hillary and Jackie

Endorses truth relativism

Does not endorse relativism of rationality (thus is not post-modern)

Is Relativism Correct?

Arguments for relativism

Empirical argument: different groups of people have different views

Theoretical argument: all observation is theory-laden

Tolerance argument: we decrease social discord by holding that everybody is correct

Arguments against relativism

Prevents us from condemning deplorable actions, such as genocide

Success of science

Relativism is self-refuting: relativism may be deemed false from some perspectives, and thus it would be false from that perspective



3. Personal Identity (Films: Being John Malkovich and Memento)

Introduction: do we retain identity over time?

Bodily identity: this changes

Mental identity: this changes (memories, dispositions)

Immaterial soul:

Conceivability of an afterlife

Thesis: there will be someone who exists after your body dies, and that person will be identical to you (i.e., truly identical, not just similar)

Key question: is this possible?

Category mistake: giving qualities to an object that don’t belong to its physical or temporal category (e.g., Green ideas sleep furiously”)

The above thesis is probably not a category mistake.

Physical Continuity theory: you are the same person you were at birth if your body has existed continuously from then until now

Every day notions of personal identity are based on observable physical attributes of a person, which is a stand-in for

Problem: life after death does not pass the physical continuity test (bodily decomposition)

Psychological Continuity theory: what makes me me are my psychological characteristics

Three possible features: stream of consciousness, dispositions, memory

Life after death might pass the psychological continuity test

Same Soul Theory: what makes me me is my soul

Problem: souls can’t be perceived in any way

The general problem of identity over time

General problem: by virtue of what is object A identical to object B

Ship of Theseus: all the boards in a boat are replaced over time; the old boards are then reassembled; which is the original boat (Litch uses the example of a car)

Does Craig succeed in being John Malkovich, Does Leonard succeed in being Anybody?

Leonard has a “feeling” of identity:

Criticism: Hume argues that we have no feeling of identity

Leonard’s memories give him a sense of identity:

Criticism: identity through memory requires memory links from once time slice to another, which Leonard lacks

“Leonard’s memory lapses produce too many distinct contenders for being the post-incident continuation of the pre-incident Leonard.”

Craig doesn’t succeed in becoming John Malkovich because he lacks Malkovich’s memories

Three theories of personal identity

Physical continuity theory

Physical attributes: DNA is the only contender

Criticism: identical twins have the same DNA, but have different identities

Physically continuous spatio-temporal path

Criticism: we can conceive of the same person having a broken path (e.g., people entering Malkovich, physically disappearing, and then being dumped on the New Jersey Turnpike)

Same soul theory

Cartesian dualism: matter and soul have totally independent existence

Criticism: I cannot perceive my own soul, much less yours

Psychological continuity theory


Criticism: dispositions may radically change (e.g., Leonard)

Continuous stream of consciousness

Criticism: there are breaks in the stream (sleep, comas)


Memory Transitivity: if A remembers the thoughts of B, and B remembers the thoughts of C, then A is identical to C

Criticism: Leonard fails this test when he wakes of from sleep (also, Derik Parfit’s example of sleeping pills that produce one-time short term memory loss, thus cutting off one’s identity with the future)

Evaluating the theories

Memory is the leading candidate for personal identity over time

Radical skepticism: there is a final problem of distinguishing between genuine and non-genuine memories, which we cannot do


4. Artificial Intelligence (Film: AI: Artificial Intelligence)


One main issue: whether advanced robots could be persons

Personhood: a being has various moral rights, such as the right not to be harmed without just cause

What is Artificial Intelligence

Artificial vs. fake (simulated) intelligence

The game playing model

Initially thought to represent a good model of human intelligence

Criticism: we don’t solve problems with brute force such as Deep Blue

Criticism: game playing is different from the tasks that make up the bulk of a human day (e.g., object identification, movement, interpreting ambiguous data); robots don’t do these very well

Three issues at the intersection of Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence

Three philosophical issues surrounding AI

Understanding what the mind is and what it does

Determining whether a computer could be a moral person

Determining what the world would be like when robots surpass human intelligence

What does it mean to have a mind? (analyzed from the outside)

Soul-based theory of mind

Criticism: we can’t perceive other people’s souls (or our own); we make judgments about other people’s minds based on how people behave

Skill-based theory of mind

Tool-making (animals do this too)

Complex Language (animals might do this too)

Turing test: a human blindly interviews a computer and another human to determine which is human; if the computer fools the interviewer 50% of the time, then the computer is human

Criticism: too dependent on language; using language is not the same as understanding what you’re saying

Criticism: too skill-based, without reference to what is going on inside the mind/machine (e.g., Eliza, the psycho therapy machine which tricked people into divulging intimate secrets)

We infer other minds through analogy: X has a body like me and behaves like me; I have a mind; thus X has a mind

Robots don’t have human bodies, and, so, we can’t draw a conclusion about its mind

Conclusion: we need to examine both what a robot does and how it does it

Consciousness (analyzed from the inside)

Consciousness1: sensing the environment and acting based on received data

e.g., perceiving a wall and not walking into it (robots can do this)

Consciousness2: awareness of what we are sensing and doing

e.g., monitoring all of my bodily movements to make sure I get from home to work

Robots can do this: internal monitoring, such as a high level process that monitors what goes on at lower levers

Consciousness3: subjective feelings (feely properties)

External senses, emotions, and even higher cognitive states have feely properties (the Aha experience)

Searle’s Chinese Room example (aims to show that computers do not have consciousness3 even if they successfully manipulate language

A guy is in a room with rule books for manipulating language; scribbles on paper given to him, he follows the rules and writes more scribbles as indicated. In time he masters the technique, without understanding any meaning to the scribbles. He thus successfully manipulates the language without understanding its meaning.

Criticism: to “understand something” and to “feel we understand something” do not always accompany each other (thus, the man in the room might understand the language even if he feels that he doesn’t)

Conclusion: we don’t know how consciousness arises in humans, so we don’t know whether it arises in computers

Can computers be moral persons

Speciesism: denying a thing personhood simply because it does not belong to the human species

Personhood: an individual is a person if and only if that individual has property P*

Contenders for P*: homo sapiens, rationality, sentience (feeling pleasure and pain)

Science fiction Dystopias and Reasonable Prudence

The movie AI takes place just before a dystopia, and asks what our responsibility is to future generations of humans that might be affected by the emergence of super robots

Question 1: do we have responsibly to future generations?

Yes: e.g., it’s wrong to plant a time bomb that will go off 150 years from now

Question 2: do super robots pose a threat to future generations of humans

Not clear: distopias are only on of several possible scenarios



5. Ethics (Film: Crimes and Misdemeanors)

What is Ethics

Example of an ethical issue (deriving ought from is):

S1: Some of Hitler’s actions indirectly caused the death of millions of people (statement of fact)

Moral principle 1: any action that indirectly causes the death of millions of people is morally wrong

S2: Some of Hitler’s actions were morally wrong (value judgment)

Problem: where did moral principle 1 come from?

Distinction between actions that are morally right, morally wrong, and morally neutral

What is special about morally right and wrong actions (as compared with morally neutral ones)

Different theories: consequences vs. intentions vs. character traits

Moral Objectivism and Moral Relativism (whether there are moral facts)

Three  kinds of moral relativism:

Moral subjectivism: moral judgments are true or false relative to an individual’s moral standards

Cultural moral relativism: moral judgments are true or false relative to one’s cultural moral standards

Moral nihilism: moral statements are meaningless

Emotivism: moral utterances express our feelings (S1 simply means “Some of Hitler’s actions – yuck!”

Arguments for moral relativism

Cultural variation (cultural anthropology)

Argument: Intercultural diversity plus intracultural uniformity implies moral relativism

Criticism 1: some people are just wrong in their moral views

Criticism 2: there’s not as much diversity as relativists claim, and there are some common underlying moral values (caring for children

Might makes right (Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, supports nihilism)

Arguments against moral relativism

Gives too much tolerance to horrible conduct

i.e., can’t morally condemn practices in other cultures, e.g., slavery, subjugation of women, genocide

Moral progress is impossible

Anything contrary to one’s culture is thereby wrong

Ethical Theories in Crimes and Misdemeanors

Key issue in Crimes and Misdemeanors: what happens to ethics when justice is not enforced either by God or the evil-doer himself?

Consequentialism: rightness or wrongness of actions is based on their consequences

Act utilitarianism: the consequences of everyone count (egalitarianism)

1. Enumerate all alternative actions

2. Figure out the total amount of happiness that would result for each alternative

3. The alternative with the greatest utility is morally right

Moral egoism: only the consequences of the actor count

Nonconsequentialism: rightness or wrongness of actions is based on something other than consequences

Kant: an action is morally right if the actor had a good intention (to follow his duty)

Theory 1: duty is indicated by universalization: rules that we can will for everyone to follow

Theory 2: duty is indicated by treating people as an end (recognizing intrinsic worth) and not as a means to an end (manipulating people for one’s own adavantage)

Natural law theory: an action is right if it accords with nature

Theistic: “nature” involves following God’s purposes

Nontheistic: “nature” does not involve God (e.g., sociobiology)

Divine command theory: an action is right if it accords with God’s will

Evaluating Ethical Theories


Judah’s act of killing his mistress may be justified on consequentialist grounds

Criticism: act utilitarianism doesn’t account for rights

Criticism: the problem of omniscience, that is, we need to know a lot about how the future of the world would be affected by our various choices

Where does the “ought” come from in moral theories?

Utilitarian: human psychology

Kantian: human rationality

Problem posed by Crimes and misdemeanors

In the end, Judah’s guilt diminishes, and life goes on as usual; there is no punishment for him

In the absence of divine judgment, morality seems meaningless

Levi’s solution: the universe is indifferent, but we give it meaning through love

6. Free Will, Determinism and Moral Responsibility (Films: Gattaca and Memento)

What is Determinism

Universal determinism: every event has a cause that fully determines it

For everything that happens, there are antecedent conditions whether known or unknown such that that event could not be other than it was

Laplace’s demon: if some being had knowledge of the causal laws, a complete description of things as they are now, and unlimited calculating ability, he would be able to predict with perfect accuracy everything that would happen thereafter

The future is just as fixed as the past

Criticism: creation itself would be an uncaused event

Criticism: subatomic particles (movements occur at undetermined times)

Human determinism: all human actions are fully determined by preceding events

Human determinism is not fatalism

Human indeterminism: at least some human actions are not fully determined by preceding events

Voluntary action (strong freedom): the ability to do something different under exactly the same circumstances

Evidence for indeterminism (and against determinism)

No absolute proof against determinism: we can’t replay a situation under exactly the same circumstances

Evidence 1: the same individual makes a different choice under similar circumstances

Evidence 2: we have a subjective feeling that alternative possibilities are open to us

Evidence for determinism

Evidence 1: physical and social sciences have been successful in predicting what our bodies will do

Evidence 2: the feeling of freedom may be an illusion (e.g., hypnotists making people perform actions, while those people feel that their actions are free)

Evidence 3: EEGs detect special brain activity a half second prior to an action, while we have conscious awareness of our actions a quarter second before (i.e., the feeling occurs after the brain as determined the action)

Conclusion: the truth or falsehood of human determinism is not for philosophy to decide

Two Interpretations of Freedom of the Will

Incompatibilism: free will and determinism are incompatible

Strong freedom: the ability to do something different under exactly the same circumstances

Hard determinism: determinism is true, and strong freedom is false

Indeterminism (libertarianism): determinism is false, and strong freedom is true


Weak freedom: some actions are not caused against our wishes by something external to us (i.e., at least sometimes our choices proceed from the determined motives within ourselves, not from outside forces)

Soft determinism: determinism is true and weak freedom is true

Criticism 1: weak freedom is not real freedom and has us powerlessly follow the laws of nature

Criticism 2: weak freedom does not allow for moral responsibility


Indeterminacy and the slight swerve: there are uncaused events at the subatomic level, which is the source of indeterminism

Criticism 1: if it occurs late in the action process (between decision and bodily motion) then our bodies will not carry out our decision

Criticism 2: if it occurs early in the action process (prior to our decision) then our decisions are prompted by random undetermined causes

Agent causation: I as a freely acting agent have the ability to start up and terminate causal mental chains

Endorsed by analytic and continental philosophers

Criticism 1: agent causation does not adequately the causal limitations that we have (we cannot jump over the moon)

Criticism 2: its not clear what kind of causation “agent” causation is (i.e., is it different from normal causation

Criticism 3: libertarians have been slow to respond to scientific studies that undercut the view that voluntary actions occur from within our minds/brains

Hard Determinism and Moral Responsibility

Basic argument:

Moral responsibility requires freely chosen actions; hard determinism denies freely chosen actions, thus hard determinism denies moral responsibility.


The connection between freedom and moral responsibility seems most pertinent regarding punishment: if there’s no moral responsibility, then punishment isn’t justified (as with the insanity defense

Response: even without freedom, punishment is still justifiable in utilitarian grounds (though not perhaps on retributive ones); e.g., preventing harm, rehabilitating criminals

Negative implications of hard determinism

Hard determinism will create a kind of apathy since we see ourselves as powerless

Response (Dennett): the power comes from within ourselves, not outside us

Response: hard determinism doesn’t mean that we are puppets being controlled against our wills; our wills are simply controlled by factors inside of us

Relevance of Nature-vs-Nurture

Whether human behavior is genetic or environmental

Both sides assume human determinism

However, if the “nature” side is true, then punishment for rehabilitation would not be justifiable

The Soft Determinism Compromise?

Weak freedom (again): at least sometimes our choices proceed from the determined motives within ourselves, not from outside forces

I am the author of that action

Problem: we need to distinguish between internally and externally compelled actions

Internal: selecting chocolate ice cream over vanilla

Problem case: robber makes me hand over my wallet

Problem case: the presence of a cop keeps me from speeding

Frankfurt’s solution:

First order desire: basic desire for a thing, such a desire for world peace (or heroin)

Second order desire: desire to have a desire, such as desire to desire world peace (or the desire to not desire heroin)

Solution: a free act is one in which our first and second order desires coincide




7. The Problem of Evil (Films: The Seventh Seal and The Rapture)

The Two Faces of the Problem of Evil

Theistic proofs

First cause argument: God must exist because it is only the existence of an eternal, powerful creator that can explain why there is a world at all.

Design argument: the world and everything in it shows evidence of being the product of intelligent design and creation.

Theistic God: a got that is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and wholly good (omnibenevolent)

Added point: God is also involved in the world and changes the course of events at will

Problem of Evil

If God exists, then God, being omniscient, knows of the existence of unnecessary pain and suffering in the world

If God exists, then God, being omnipotent, can get rid of all unnecessary pain and suffering.

If God exists, then God, being wholly good, would get rid of all unnecessary pain and suffering

If God exists, then there would be no unnecessary pain and suffering

There is unnecessary pain and suffering in the world

Therefore God does not exist.Three positions

Theism: belief in theistic God, defined above

Atheism: believes that no entity exists with the properties of the theistic God

Agnosticism: neither belief nor disbelief in the existence of the theistic God

Theodicy: explains why suffering is necessary for the accomplishment of some greater good

Must account for human-caused and nature-caused suffering

Must show how the amount of suffering is compensated for by the resulting greater good

Must show that good could only be accomplished by that amount of pain and suffering

Modified Problem of Evil

Questions God’s praisworthiness

The Christian Apocalyptic Tradition as a Special Case

Apocalyptic suffering: suffering depicted in the book of Revelation, which is explicitly caused and foreknown by God

Jesus’ suffering: God allowed Jesus to go through such suffering

The Silence of God

Problem of evil is exacerbated by God’s refusal to offer open, unambiguous instructions (e.g., Sharon believing that God was instructing her to kill her daughter)

The Free Will Defense and the Ultimate Harmony Defense

Free Will defense

First order good and bad: pleasure (happiness) and pain (suffering)

Second order good and bad (character traits: compassion, courage, forgiveness, fortitude; malice, jealousy, and greed

Both of these involve first order bad

Free will defense stated: second order good requires first order bad

God values second order good so highly that he is willing to put up with suffering and the occasional misuse of free will


Does not explain nature-caused suffering

God should intervene to keep the effects of poor choices from being so disastrous (e.g., giving Hitler laryngitis)

Ultimate harmony defense

Limited humans cannot see God’s larger plan

Criticism: the amount of suffering turns religion into a farce

Other Responses to the Problem of Evil

Evil is caused by Satan, not God

Criticism: God is still indirectly responsible for it by creating (or not getting rid of) Satan

Suffering is necessary to serve as a contrast to good (so that we can see good)

Criticism: this amount of suffering isn’t required

Suffering draw humans to God

Criticism: it also drives humans away from God

Suffering is the result of natural forces

Criticism: God is responsible for making the world in this way

Suffering tests humans’ faith

Criticism: if God is omniscient, he already knows what we’d do

Suffering is punishment for sin

Criticism: doesn’t explain the suffering of infants

8. Existentialism (Films: The Seventh Seal, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Leaving Las Vegas)

Is Life Meaningful

Importance of the question

Leads some people to consider suicide (Tolstoy)

Camus: “The meaning of life is the most urgent of questions” “Judging whether life is or is not worth living... [is] the only true serious philosophical problem.”

Concept of life

Is my individual life meaningful?

Is the life of my species meaningful?

Is there some purpose or meaning to the existence of living things?

Is there some purpose to the existence of the universe as a whole?

Concept of meaning

Objective meaning: involves God

One’s role in God’s plan for the world

How one’s actions impact one’s place in the afterlife

Subjective meaning: non-theistic, humanistic framework

The Theistic Response in the Seventh Seal and Crimes and Misdemeanors

Tolstoy’s struggle is exemplified in both movies

The Seventh Seal:  Block longs for objective meaning, but can’t find it in nonrational faith

Crimes and Misdemeanors: Rabbi Ben describes fundamental differences in perceiving the world: “It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel it with all my heart a moral structure, with real meaning, and forgiveness, and a higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to live.”

Embracing Meaninglessness

By removing God from the picture, we eliminate the problem of evil, a divinely imposed plan for our lives, and the rules that go along with this

Camus finds this exhilarating; Sartre finds this frightening (in view of the burden that freedom places on us)

The Humanistic Response

Enjoy the basic pleasures of life

Block does this when having a meal with Mia and Jof; he also endorses this in his one meaningful act (i.e., distracting Death so Mia and Jof can escape)

Levy recommends this at the close of Crimes and Misdemeanors

Problem: on this subjectivist view we might find meaning by embracing suicide or prostitution (as Ben and Sera did in Leaving Las Vegas).

The person becomes the ultimate arbiter of what they value, not society or traditional morals

Suicide as a Response to Meaninglessness

Two approaches to suicide

Suicide from resignation: involves meaninglessness

Suicide from passion: consistent with subjective meaning

Three unique features of Ben’s suicide:

The deliberate act is a difficult accomplishment

Mental faculties grow dimmer

He sneers at fate by using alcohol (the cause of his initial problem) to achieve his final purpose

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