Thursday, January 13, 2022

PHILOSOPHY NOTES Part 8 The Fly in the Fly Bottle


Philosophy Notes, Part 8

At the conclusion of Part 7 of Philosophy Notes, I promised to give some examples of philosophical problems that can be “made to disappear” (Wittgenstein) by showing the fly (the philosopher) the way out of the fly bottle, that is, by showing that what is presented as a problem is not a problem at all.  My hope is that a few frustrated philosophers who are reading this blog can also be shown the way out of their own fly bottle.

Let’s start by going far back in time to Plato’s answer to the question “How is it possible for one and the same person to be angry at himself for giving in to an appetite that he wants to suppress?”  Plato’s example is the character Leontius who is walking past the execution grounds outside the walls of Athens.  Leontius does not want to look at the bodies lying on the ground but at the last moment he gives in and rushes over to get a better view of them.  Later, he is angry at himself for having done this.  He did not want to look at the bodies, but the appetite to do so overtook him.  Plato asks, “How is this possible?” (Republic, 439 - 441)

Plato’s answer is the theory of tripartite parts of the soul (436).  If we think of the soul as having three parts (appetite, passion and reason), then we begin to understand how a person can be angry at himself.  One part of his soul (the passionate part) is angry about what another part of his soul (the appetitive part) has led him to do.  Problem solved.

But the problem is not solved.  The tripartite theory of the soul does not take Plato out of the fly bottle.  It keeps him in the bottle because the next question is: “What is it that directs each part of the soul to go to war against another part?”  Don’t the parts require souls to do this?  

This is called the Homunculus Problem).  Each part of the soul is itself a type of person, an invisible person (a homunculus) residing in the soul.  It battles with other parts of the soul for domination.  As Professor Julia Annas explains it,  if each part of the soul is itself a kind of person, then wouldn’t these sub-persons also have souls with  parts, and so on, ad infinitum? (Annas, 442; Houlgate, 8.5.2)  Trapped in the fly bottle, again.

But there is a way out of the bottle.  The way that Plato got trapped is found in the question itself.  Suppose I eat too much birthday cake and later regret it.  I tell this to my wife.  She responds by saying, “Well, it was your birthday after all.  If you are worried about putting on a few pounds, eat less tomorrow.”  Having not read Plato’s Republic, she does not raise questions about the logical impossibility of giving in to an appetite and later regretting it.    She understands what I mean when I say, “I regret having eaten five slices of birthday cake yesterday. I couldn’t stop myself.”

Plato created a problem by assuming that cases like mine must be like a situation in which a person is standing in one spot and waving her arms up and down.  She is both moving and not moving at the same time.  Plato asks, “How is this possible?  How can one and the same person be moving and not moving at the same time?”  The easy and obvious answer is, “Her body has parts.  One part of her body is stationary (her trunk) and the other part (her arms) are moving.”

If we replace the key words in the previous question with the words “want to eat more cake” and “not want to eat more cake,” then we get the new question “How can one and the same person want to eat more cake and not want to eat more cake at the same time?”  The easy and obvious answer is, “He loves to eat cake but he does not want to gain weight by eating more cake.” 

But Plato does not accept the easy answer.  Instead, he proposes the tripartite theory mentioned above:  “I have a soul and the soul has parts. The part that wants to eat cake is called ‘appetite,’ (the appetitive part )and the part that does not want to eat the cake is called ‘reason’ (the rational part).

In other words, Plato wants an answer that corresponds to his answer to the earlier question about how one person’s body can be stationary and moving (not stationary) at the same time.  If the explanation is that the body has parts some of which move and others which don’t move, then the same explanation can be used to show how a person can want and not want to eat cake. 

It is all pure invention.  It makes sense to say that the human body has parts (arms, legs, trunk, head, feet).  These are things we can observe.   But it makes no sense to use the human body as a model for creating the concept of an unobservable thing called “soul” and then breaking it down into invisible parts, each of which has a soul that presumably performs tasks assigned to the part. 

Plato and those who follow him are still stuck in the fly bottle.  Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul solves the problem of how a person can both want and not want the same thing at the same time but the theory is subject to the homunculus problem described above.

The way out of the fly bottle is to not get in the bottle.  Don’t try to solve a problem that does not exist.  When we asked the question, “How can one and the same person want to eat more cake and not want to eat more cake at the same time?”  the easy and obvious answer was, “He loves to eat cake but he does not want to gain more weight by eating more cake.”  This presents no problem at all.  There is no logical conflict between “loving to eat cake” and “not wanting to gain more weight by eating more cake.” 

There is no need to create a philosophical theory to answer a question that can be easily answered.  Nothing is to be gained and a lot is lost by adopting Plato’s theory of the tripartite soul.   The question “How is it possible for one and the same person (Leontius) to be angry at himself for giving in to an appetite that he wants to suppress?”  does not lead to a problem that needs to be solved.  The easy and obvious answer is “Leontius likes looking at the executed dead bodies but he hates and is angry with himself when he does so – he does not want to the kind of person who enjoys such things.”  Like the birthday cake example, this presents no problem.  There is no logical conflict between “liking to look at the dead bodies,” and “hating or being angry at oneself for enjoying such things.”  

If there is no conflict, then there is no problem that needs to be solved.  There is no need for the fly (the philosopher) to enter the fly bottle.


Annas, Julia. 1981. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Houlgate, Laurence. 2016.  Understanding Plato: The Smart Student’s Guide to the Socratic Dialogues and the Republic. Amazon Kindle.

Plato. ca. 375 BCE. Republic. 

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

PHILOSOPHY NOTES Part 7 How to Test Philosophical Beliefs and Theories


How to Test Philosophical Ideas and Theories

 Plato's Allegory of the Cave

1. Empirical and conceptual beliefs

Beliefs, whether true or false, have consequences.  Believing that she had the grades to get into college, Juanita applied and was admitted.  Believing that COVID-19 was a hoax, Fred took no precautions, tested positive, was hospitalized, and nearly died of the disease.

Philosophical beliefs also have consequences.  While enrolled in his first philosophy class, DeShawn came to believe the solipsist theory that there is no valid ground for believing in the existence of anything but one’s own mind.  As a consequence, he is anxious, miserable, and feels very alone.

His classmate Winifred came to believe that there are sound arguments for the determinist belief that no one has free will.  She is convinced that every act, every emotion, and every thought is caused by events in her past, events about which she has no knowledge or control.  As a consequence of this belief, she no longer feels guilty nor does she condemn anyone for immoral or criminal behavior.

There is a significant difference between the first set of beliefs (Juanita and Fred) and the second set (DeShawn and Winifred).  The first set of beliefs is empirical and verified or falsified by data gathered from observation and experience.  The second set of beliefs is philosophical and subject to verification or falsification only by logical  or conceptual analysis.

If we have doubts about the truth of Juanita’s belief that she has the grades to get into college, or the truth of Fred’s belief that COVID-19 is a hoax, our doubts can be tested by empirical means, for example, checking Juanita’s high school grades and looking into the scientific data about the existence and spread of the disease to test Fred’s belief.

But there are no empirical tests for confirming or falsifying the philosophical beliefs of DeShawn and Winifred. We can join the arguments for or against each belief but the arguments will not be settled by the presentation of empirically derived data.

No observation or experiment convinced DeShawn that there are no human minds other than his own.   No observation or experiment convinced Winifred that she and others never act of their own free will.

The reason why there are no empirically based experiments for these beliefs (theories) is that the beliefs themselves are not empirical.  When DeShawn reports that there are no minds other than his, he is telling us about the conclusion of a deductive argument.  When Winifred tells us that no one ever acts of their own free will, she tells us about her understanding of the relations between the concepts of action, free will, causation and control. 

To put this in the words of David Hume, the beliefs that have troublesome consequences for DeShawn and Winifred originate from the way they have related ideas (concepts) not the way they perceive matters of fact.

In previous blog posts, I have explained the difference between empirical (matter of fact) and conceptual claims.  For example, if your Social Science instructor asks you to find out whether widows want to remarry, you would do this by gathering and reporting the marital desires of a large number of widows. The result of your poll supports the probability not the certainty of the conclusion. (“90% of the widows polled want to remarry”).

By contrast, if your Philosophy instructor asks you to find out whether widows are women who have a deceased spouse, you would do this by thinking about the logical relation between the concepts of “widow,” “spouse,” and “deceased.”  Your finding can be tested, and the test supports the certainty not the probability of the relationship between these concepts.

The test is simple.  All you need to do is to ask whether a particular widow’s spouse is deceased  (“I know you are a widow but has your spouse died?”).  This is a closed question, answered by an examination of the concepts alone. It is not an open question, that is, it is not a question that would take you outside the concepts in the question into the world of widowed women, where your question would be taken as a joke or as a sign of your ignorance about the meaning of “widow.” 

2. How to test philosophical theories and beliefs 

Let us suppose that DeShawn got to the conclusion that there are no minds other than his own after reading Meditation II of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.  He is convinced that he cannot be certain of anything except the content (the ‘ideas’) of his own mind.[1] 

It is best to put this argument in the first person.

I cannot doubt that I exist and that I have frequent visual and other perceptions of what appear be other humans. But I can doubt the veracity of these perceptions. I do not know with certainty that what appears to me is happening in a dream or is a hallucination.   I only know with certainty that I am, I exist, and that I frequently have ideas (perceptions) that might or not be ideas of an external world. “There is nothing more easily and clearly apprehended than my own mind.” 

1. If I know a proposition with certainty, then I can easily and clearly apprehend it.

2. If I easily and clearly apprehend a proposition, then there are no circumstances under which the proposition is false.

3. There are circumstances under which the proposition “There are other minds” can be false (e.g. I might be dreaming or hallucinating).

4. Therefore, I do not easily and clearly apprehend the proposition “There are other minds.”

5. Therefore, I do not know with certainty that there are other minds.


Using the same set of concepts, we can turn the argument around and derive the conclusion that “I “know with certainty that I have a mind.”  There are no circumstances under which the propositions “I have a mind” like “I am, I exist” could be false.


Rene Descartes


Returning to Descartes’ negative conclusion “I do not know with certainty that there are other minds,” we should note that it derives entirely from a deductive argument.  He begins with a definition of certainty (premise 1), applies it to a proposition about the existence of other minds (in premise 3), and draws a negative conclusion. 

Both arguments (positive or negative) are deductive.  This means that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true.  Descartes is not telling us about matter-of-fact discoveries.  If this is what he is doing, then his conclusions would be probable, not certain.  Instead, he is linking concepts, step-by-step, to get to a conclusion that is certain: “I have a mind,” “I am a thinking being.”

There is another way to express the connection between the premises and the conclusion of a deductive argument.  If you present their relationship as a question, it would be a closed question.  For example, suppose we ask DeShawn “If premises (1), (2), (3), and (4) are true, then is it true that we do not know with certainty that there are other minds?”  The answer is “Yes.”  The answer is in the premises.  The question answers itself. 

Let us turn now to Winifred’s belief in Determinism.  The argument that convinced her is very short: 

1.  Every event has a cause

2.  My actions, desires, and thoughts are events.

3. Therefore, every act, desire, and thought has a cause (no acts are done without a cause).

4. An act done from an actor’s free will is an act done without a cause.

5. Therefore, no act, desire, or thought can be done of the actor’s free will.


Winifred asks the question: “I believe that everything I do is determined by prior events, but is it possible that some of my actions are done of my own free will?”  The answer is “No,” not because empirical research of human behavior shows that some human acts are done of their own free will but because the question is closed.  The argument is valid if we assume the truth of premises (1), (2), (3), and (4). 

Let’s see what happens if we take the advice of Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and define “free will” by the way these words are used in ordinary language to describe situations we confront in everyday life.  For example, “You are now free to go,” says the jailer as he opens the jail door.  Or “She is doing it of her own free will,” says the teacher who watches in amazement as his young student takes a broom and cleans the hallway floor without being told to do this. 

In the jailer example, the words “free to go” mean that there is no impediment to leaving the jail.  In the teacher example, the words “of her own free will” mean that no one forced the student to sweep the floor.

The Determinist philosopher dismisses these cases and insists that doing an act of one’s own free will can only mean “actions uncaused (undetermined) by prior events.” This is what makes Winifred’s question closed.

But the Determinist definition also makes the argument empty.  It is not possible that human actions are free because only one meaning of “free will” is used in the Determinist argument. If it is acknowledged that free will has alternate meanings (“no impediment,” or “not forced”), then there is plenty of empirical data showing that we often act of our own free will.

3. A final word about the future of philosophy. 

Compared to the long history of discoveries in science, it is almost as if thinking about a philosophical problem is like thinking about your next move in a game of chess.  The chess move has little or no popular consequence.  Philosophical problems are fun to think about not because they are consequential but because trying to solve them is an escape.  We temporarily forget about troubles at home, school or work, and of course, we say to ourselves, “Hard thinking is good for the health of my brain.”

If you get serious about the study of this concept-game called “philosophy,” you might change your major, go to law school and use the critical thinking skills you acquired in the study of philosophy as a high paid corporate attorney.  Or you might go on to graduate school, get a doctorate in philosophy, take vows of poverty, and eventually get a teaching job.[2]  

Ludwig Wittgenstein

The 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a quite different evaluation of philosophy.  The problems of philosophy are like the complaints of a hypochondriac. They exist only in the minds of the philosophers who created them (my words, not his). 

Philosophical problems are bogus. Wittgenstein writes that “a philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” (Philosophical Investigations 123), and  the real job of the philosopher is “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle. (PI 309)." 

For example, suppose that the fly is the philosopher who believes that there is a problem about the existence of free will.  The fly bottle is the network of concepts that entrap the philosopher and make her think that there is a problem when in fact there is none.  The consequential work that philosophers can do is convince the freewill debaters to stop banging their heads against the walls of the fly bottle.  They can do this by disentangling concepts in a way that shows there is no problem at all.  When this is done, the confused philosopher, like the fly, can now fly out of the bottle. “And this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear” (PI, 133). 

And that, my philosophy friend, is the end of philosophy as our professors understood it.   If Wittgenstein is right, then the only task of the philosopher is to make traditional philosophical problems disappear.

Is Wittgenstein right? It has been 68 years since he predicted the disappearance of philosophy and it is still going strong. It would seem that philosophers have no more to fear about the demise of their profession than fear itself. 

In the next episode of Philosophy Notes, I will give some examples of philosophical problems that Wittgenstein had in mind when he said they are trapping some philosophers in the fly bottle when they need not be in there at all. 



Descartes, Rene.  1641. Meditations on First Philosophy.  Many editions.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651.  Leviathan.  Many editions.

Houlgate, Laurence. 2018. Understanding Rene Descartes: The Smart Student’s Guide to Meditations on First Philosophy.  Amazon Kindle.

_______________.  2017. Understanding Thomas Hobbes: The Smart Student’s Guide to Leviathan.  Amazon Kindle.

_______________,  2019. Understanding David Hume: The Smart Student’s Guide to Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Other Essays.  Amazon Kindle.

Hume, David.  1739-1740.  Treatise Concerning Human Nature. Many editions.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 1953, G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell.


[1] See my study guide on Descartes’ Meditations for critical discussion of the method of doubt.  Laurence Houlgate, Understanding Rene Descartes: The Smart Student’s Guide to the Meditations on First Philosophy ( ).

[2] Average pay nationwide for philosophy majors after graduation is about $29,000 per year, but that varies from one college to another.  The annual pay for philosophy majors with a B.A. degree from the University of Pennsylvania is about $68,000, and the pay from a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Southern California is about $44.000, See more data at