Assignment 6


1. A universal is any word that stands for an object, quality, or action in general. Universals do not include words such as proper nouns that refer to particular instances of objects. Examples of universals include nouns such as “chair” or “house,” adjectives and adverbs such as “delicate” or “quickly,” and verbs such as “run” or “believe.” Prepositions such as “on” and “beside” are also universals.


2. Certainly, a language as complicated as human language is not necessary for learning universals. In fact, animals without much language at all are capable of learning basic universals such as shapes. For example, a lab rat might learn that whenever it pushes a square button, it receives a treat, but whenever it pushes a circular button, it gets a shock.1 However, this is a specialized case, and the universals in question are concrete. An animal such as a rat has little hope of understanding more complicated universals such as “brotherhood” or “believe.” Because there is no tangible way to represent these concepts, abstract thinking is a prerequisite for understanding them, and abstract thinking is severely limited by lack of language.


3. Universals, even relatively simple ones, are surprisingly hard to define completely. Simple definitions tend to ignore all the intermediate cases found in real life. Taking this into account, it is something of a miracle that communication functions at all. We use universals so automatically and thoughtlessly, but if we stop and ponder the definition of any one universal, its meaning dissolves into confusion. I find it incredible that even despite this inescapable ambiguity, humans are able to use language so effectively to share ideas.2


4.         Many beliefs can be justified with more fundamental beliefs, which can in turn be justified with beliefs that are still more basic, and so on. Eventually, however, every chain of justification ends with a principle so basic it cannot be justified. Often, this is the principle of induction, which is impossible to justify except with itself. As Russell writes, “from blank doubt, no argument can begin.” We must accept some principles as a foundation for the rest of our beliefs.


5.         I think that the difference lies in the type of beliefs that we accept without reason. Most people accept only very basic, intuitive beliefs without justification, for example belief in the validity of induction, the existence of sense-data, or the reality of an external world. Many psychotics hold much less fundamental beliefs for no reason. Suspecting that your next-door neighbor is plotting against you is a different level of assumption than believing that induction is valid.

            This idea is somewhat of an oversimplification, however. The validity of sense-data is one principle that we must accept without reason. This raises a problem, because many psychotics truly do experience sense-data completely unrelated to physical reality, for example hearing voices when no one is speaking. How do I know whose sense-data (mine or the psychotic’s) is valid? I think that the best way to tell is an examination of long-term consistency and consistency between people. If someone goes fifty years only hearing voices when someone is speaking, and then suddenly begins to hear voices when no one is speaking, it is reasonable to say that the experience of fifty years is more valid. In a crowded room, if fifty people hear nothing and one person hears a voice, it is probable that the one hearing the voice is hallucinating, because that is the solution that is more consistent between people. (A similar strategy can be used to differentiate between dreams and wakefulness.)



What follows from a true premise must be true.

Evolution can explain the origins of many aspects of human psychology.

Artificial intelligence will soon reach the same level of consciousness that humans possess.

People experience the same qualia.

There are objective ethical rights and wrongs that can be discovered from a close study of the universe.3


7. At cross country, we are occasionally visited by a meditation/visualization specialist. While it is generous of her to spend time working with us, her views often lack a certain credibility with me because of their lack of coherence. My problem with her message is that she makes no distinction between metaphor and fact. The world of scientific knowledge provides one internally coherent system. A well-developed metaphor possesses its own miniature coherence. These two systems, however, are separate and must remain so. There is nothing inherently wrong with discussing positive energy as a metaphor for the emotions that arise from meditation and visualization. What is wrong is the mixing of this energy metaphor with the scientific idea of energy, for example in the suggestion that there is actually some kind of physical positive energy emanating from meditating people. When this sort of logically illegal transition occurs multiple times in the same lecture on meditation, coherence—and with it credibility--disappears.4


8. Russell values skepticism as a tool for analyzing which intuitive beliefs are actually true. Through the process of methodical doubt, philosophers examine each of their beliefs and assumptions one by one, discarding the views that, on reflection, are likely false. Without skepticism, philosophy would be trapped in automatic acceptance of all intuitive beliefs. For this reason, I do think that Russell is right to value skepticism. In addition, doubt often leads to progress. If no one ever stopped to reassess knowledge, neither philosophy nor society would ever move forward, because old mistakes would never be recognized and fixed.



1. Here, again, the answer depends upon how one interprets words like “learns” and “understands”.  A rat who, through operant conditioning, may behaviorally demonstrate an ability to distinguish between square and round buttons.  Does the rat now understand the concepts of square and round?


2. We tend to try to understand complex phenomena with simpler models, but there may be cases (such as human language), where there are no simpler, yet qualitatively equivalent models.


3. You’ll get a chance to support this belief in the twelfth assignment.  I’m skeptical.


4. This is a good example and a point Reichenbach often stresses in his little treatise.