一、Give a clear account of Strawson’s criticism of Russell’s definite descriptions theory.
Strawson thinks some fundamental mistakes exist in Russell’s Theory of Descriptions.
As Strawson summarizes in his “On Referring”, according to Russell, the grammatical subject of a statement is not necessarily the logical subject of it. Expressions are classified by Russell to two categories: “logically proper names” and “definite descriptions”. The former alone can occur as subjects of sentences and such expressions must designate certain things. Russell thinks the statement of “the king of France is wise” (S) is significant but false. The statement S is equivalent to the following statement (S1): there is one and no more than one king of France and he is wise. S1 indicates existence, uniqueness and property, and if one of these three is false, then the statement fails to hold true.
Strawson criticizes Russell’s definite descriptions theory in the following aspects.
Strawson states that “there are no logically proper names”. According to Russell, logically proper names are expressions that can occur as subjects of sentences of the subject-predicate form and must designate something. In other words, the meaning of a logically proper name is the object it refers to. However, for Strawson expressions do not refer. The sentence of “the king of France is wise” is meaningful, but it fails to make a true or false statement under today’s context, because it refers to nothing.
- Russell allows propositions containing denoting phrases to own a truth/falsity value even if the phases denote nothing. Strawson thinks that referring to an object cannot be viewed the same as making a statement about its existence, and the speaker who makes this type of statement fails to refer to anything, thus there is nothing being true or false. In fact, it is neither true nor false; it is just a reference-failure.
- Russell fails to distinguish between a sentence (or expression), a use of a sentence (or expression) and an utterance of a sentence (or expression). The same sentence can be used in different occasions or uttered by different speakers and make different statements with different values of truth or falsity.
- Russell does not notice the difference between statements and sentences, and he thinks sentences are independent of their uses and have their own values of truth or falsity. Russell does not differentiate meaning and mentioning or referring. However, Strawson thinks that statements are utterances of sentences in a particular use; statements have values of truth or falsity, but sentences themselves have meanings.
- Strawson insists that expressions only have their referring in certain context. For example, in a certain use of the sentence like “the table is covered with books”, the expression “the table” has to be used to make a unique reference. We cannot analyze the truth/falsity values without the context.
二、The villain AJ Ayer says that religious statements are neither true nor false because they are nonsensical. Explain why you think that Ayer is wrong or right in making such a claim.
Ayer regards the principle of verification as the foundation of understanding the external world. A statement is true (or false) if it can be logically verified, or empirically verified to be true (or false); and a statement is meaningless if it cannot be verified as true or false. Ayer claims that any “transcendent reality” which transcended the phenomenal world can never be verified with logical deduction or empirical evidence, and concludes that any religious statements are nonsense, more generally, metaphysics and theology are “meaningless”.
It would be tricky to say whether Ayer’s claims are right or wrong, but I would say, I don’t totally agree with Ayer. Ayer’s statements have their rationale, but also have some flaws.
Ayer is true in the sense that ‘God exists’ is a metaphysical expression. God is not like a human being or any kind of creature which are known in the physical world, and god seems to exist nowhere except in some people’s minds. If we use Moore’s theory of the external reality, then we could say that god is not part of the external world because it does not exist independent of human’s minds and the religious people who believe in god perceive god in very different ways as religious experiences are unique for them.
Some people claim that god can be identified with and its existence can be proven by natural objects and empirically testable things. For example, “it is thundering” is a proof of “Jehovah is angry”, and some people say that natural disasters such as flood and earthquake are the punishments from god. I think, to make such assertion, one already presume that there is a “god” who are transcendent. Also, they cannot prove the causal relationship between natural phenomena and god’s anger. The connection is somewhat arbitrary. Suppose that a person has done something god dislike and then this person sees a thunder, and he might think “Oh, god is angry because of what I have done”; but this same thunder can be seen by many other people who have done things god encourage them to do and these people might get confused: “Why is god mad at me?”
Religious people have attempted to prove god’s existence by linking god with natural objects and religious people are eager to show that “see, we are not lying”, and this is a bad strategy. When god is super-empirical, there is no way to prove it is true or false. However, when god is involved in a causal relationship with physical objects, we can easily prove these religious statements are false. For example, the causes of many natural disasters have been scientifically discovered and can be empirically verified, thus the statement of “God punishes people with such disasters” is then proven to be absurd. Therefore, the religious beliefs are due to the limited knowledge regarding the world in human’s early stages, and god is the answer to things to which an answer cannot be found.
Ayer’s principle of verification has some drawbacks. As K. Popper highlighted, the verification principle essentially overthrows the foundation of science. Scientific laws themselves are not empirically verified. Furthermore, the principle of verification itself cannot be verified.
Wittgenstein suggested that the meaning of words is not about verification but “its use”. There are different types of language systems and scientific language system is only one of them. Others such as ethics, religion and arts are meaningful in their own language systems, for which the principle of verification does not apply.
三、Explain how Ayer’s theory of ethics differs from Moore’s. Do Ayer and Moore agree about anything?
Things in common:
The concept of goodness is a fundamental concept in Ethics. As GE Moore states in his The Subject-Matter of Ethics, basic questions in Ethics are what good conduct is, and how is good defined. He states that “good” denotes something simple and indefinable, and it either denotes a complex or it has no meaning at all. “Good” is an unanalysable notion. Anyone who concludes that X is good based on X’s natural properties has committed the naturalistic fallacy, because goodness cannot be reduced to natural properties such as needs, wants or pleasures. A definition states the parts which compose a certain whole, but “good” has no definition because it has no parts.
In his Critique of Ethics and Theology, Ayer agrees with Moore that goodness is an indefinable notion, and being good is not equivalent to being desired or being pleasant, because some bad things are desired and some good things are unpleasant. Ayer rejects the idea of defining ethic notions from the perspectives of utilitarianism and subjectivism. Ayer agrees that those fundamental ethical concepts such as goodness cannot be verified with empirical evidence.
Although Ayer agrees with Moore regarding the basic concept of goodness, Ayer’s theory of Ethics is fundamentally different from Moore’s. Moore respects the difference of ethical concepts and non-ethical ones; and he thinks the basic truths in ethics are self-evident and they can only be discovered with human intuition. On the other hand, Ayer thinks that there are no moral truths because moral statements cannot be verified by empirical evidence. Based on the principle of verification that a synthetic proposition is significant only if it is verifiable empirically, he insists that the indefinable ethic concept does not have any meaning. Although the ethical concepts cannot be defined, Ayer still provided an explanation: the use of ethical words serves for expressing and arousing feelings and stimulating actions. Ethical statements do not add to our knowledge, and there is no such a thing as ethical science. For instance, the statements “You acted wrongly in stealing that money” and “You stole that money” convey the same factual content, except the former adds an ethical judgement to the latter. Moral statements are simply subject based on personal values.
Moore object to subjectivism for the reason that there would be no disputes of values if subjectivism were true. Moore holds the opinion that there are various disputes over ethical values all the time and these are clearly genuine disputes instead of expressions of feelings. Contradictorily, Ayer thinks these disputes are regarding the specific applications of the ethical values, which are empirical facts, rather than the value system itself.
Overall speaking, Ayer’s theory of ethics can be classified as emotivism, which is a version of non-cognitivism, whereas Moore is a supporter of moral cognitivism.
四、In his article on the external reality Moore says that certain phenomena are difficult to classify as to whether they are external or internal (in the mind). Discuss two of these phenomena that Moore discusses in his article. Are these phenomena really difficult to classify?
In his “Proof of an External World”, Moore provides two examples, including any pains which animals may feel and any after-images animals see after their eyes are shut, to demonstrate that there are certain things external to human’s minds but are not to be met with in space. For these things in animals’ minds, I would describe them as “the internal part of the external world”, and state that “I know they exist, but they are not there in space”. In most cases, the things external to our minds are “to be met with in space”, however, such things as animals’ pain and their after-images do not follow the rule. This is why Moore thinks it is difficult to classify them as to whether external or else. As such, Moore concludes that the conception of “external to our minds” (A) should be distinguished from the conception of “to be met with in space” (B). Specifically, the conception (B) entails (A), whereas (A) does not entail (B).
Because Moore’s objective in his book was mainly to provide proof of an external world, thus he did not bother to classify these difficult things, instead he focused on the physical objects that are external to our minds and independent of our perceptions. I would say, things like animals’ pain and after-images are not in our minds, because human beings cannot feel what animals feel and see what they see. They cannot be called “physical objects” because they are not to be met with in space, however, they are still part of the external world, and I would classify these things as “the mental phase of the external physical world”. The external world, which exists independent of our minds, consists of all sorts of objects, such as tables, chairs, sheets of paper and animals. These animals have their brains and feel all kinds of feelings; and they can be mentally healthy or ill. The bodies of animals are physical objects which can be seen and touched, and the minds of animals, hidden behind their physical bodies, are the mental phases of the physical world.
How can we prove the existence of the mental phases of the physical world? As we cannot meet animals’ feelings and after-images in space, nor can we perceive animal’s minds, there is no direct way to find a proof. Nevertheless, animals convey their feelings into actions, thus we can trace their physical activities back to their mental status which would affect their physical performance. How they eat, how they sleep and how they behave are all reflections
Moore says that he can only prove the existence of things that “are to be met with in space” or “are presented in space”, however, the things like animals’ pains and after-images of animals do exist independent of human minds, and the mental phases rely on the physical phases, and are embodied in the physical phases.