Wednesday, March 28, 2018

John Locke on natural rights and natural law

Understanding John Locke

John Locke on Natural Rights and Natural Law

According to John Locke, A natural right is a right that a human being has prior to the formation of political or civil society.  In the state of nature, natural rights are reciprocal with natural obligations to not harm others in their life, health, liberty and possessions.  These obligations are commands embedded in the law of nature: Do not kill, do not injure, do not restrain, do not steal.   

The claim that there are natural rights implies the existence of natural law.  In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke says that there is a law of nature and “reason…is that law.”  Unfortunately, Locke never explains what he means by this, nor does he bother to offer a proof.  

Reason is a faculty, not a law.  Laws command behavior, but reason does not command anything.  We can use our mental powers of reasoning to reach a conclusion about what we ought to do, but this is a process not a command.  Reason might tell me that Socrates is mortal because Socrates is a man and all men are mortal, but this conclusion, though valid, does not recommend a course of action.

The only credible explanation of Locke's identification of reason with the law of nature is that reason is a method for discovering the law of nature.   Locke elsewhere defines reason as a mental ability or power to discover “the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deduction…” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV. XVIII. ii. p. 689).  For example, if I am certain that Socrates is mortal because Socrates is a man and all men are mortal,” then this is due to a deduction I have made from the premises “Socrates is a man” and “All men are mortal.”  I am certain because I cannot deny the conclusion while accepting the truth of the two premises.  Reason forces me to accept the conclusion that Socrates is mortal.  In this sense, we might come to think of reason, like the law of nature, as having a prescriptive function.

But does this get us any closer to affirming the existence of natural rights and natural law?  I'll say more on this in my next post.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Plato and Hume on Life Before Birth, part 2

Plato on Life Before Birth, Part 2

In a previous post I wrote that the attempt to prove Plato’s claim that there is life before birth is not a matter of relating ideas/concepts but is best understood as a claim about a matter of fact.  That claim can be stated in this way: “The human soul exists before the birth of the human body it now inhabits.”    The effort to prove that each individual human being lives a life before birth is now removed from the hands of the analytic philosopher and is put into the hands of the scientist. 

The scientist will attack this problem in the same way she would attempt to solve any other scientific problem.  She would begin by stating the problem as a hypothesis, as formulated in the prior sentence.  But before she starts down this path, she must show that the hypothesis is testable and falsifiable.  She must show not only that there are ways that the hypothesis can be tested and confirmed, but she must show that there are ways to disconfirm or falsify it.   

Here is an analogy:  Suppose I tell you that my success at growing prize-winning tomatoes in my garden every summer is due to the fact that God helps me tend my garden.  If you ask me how I know this, I say “I just know it. I feel the hand of God as I till the soil.”  You are sceptical, but upon thinking about it, it occurs to you that there is no way to show that my claim is false.  There are no observations you or anyone could make that would show that God does not guide my hand as I tend my garden.  

Is there a way to falsify the hypothesis that the human soul exists before the birth of the body it now inhabits?  There is no experiment that a scientist could perform that would answer this question.  A scientist can trace the gradual development of a newborn child from the moment of conception.  For example, they know when the first nerve cells develop in the fetus.  If other scientists want to show that this timeline is false, they know how to go about proving this.  But there are no experiments scientists could use to prove it false that the newborn’s soul inhabits the fetus prior to the birth of the infant.  Like the analogy of God tending my garden, the scientist does not know what the evidence confirming or disconfirming the soul hypothesis would or could look like.

To sum up:  David Hume’s reaction to Plato’s theory of the immortality of the human soul (see Part 1) is that it is a hypothesis that cannot be supported by either the method of showing a relation of ideas (concepts), or the method of proving it as a matter of fact. If there are people who still believe that the human soul exists before the birth of the body, then they will have to profess it as a matter of faith, not as a matter of reason.

[see more discussion of this topic in my books Understanding David Hume and Understanding Philosophy  The latter book is new and is free to those who subscribe to the website]

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Plato and Hume on life before birth: Part 1

Plato and David Hume on Life Before Birth: Part 1

In the Socratic dialogue Meno, Plato has the character Socrates prove that there is life before birth.  Socrates bases this on an inductive argument designed to prove that our ability to solve problems in mathematics and philosophy can only be explained by the “fact” that we must have known the answers to these problems all along.  And if it is strongly probable that we were not taught the answers in this life, then we must have had this knowledge “in” us at the time of our birth.  All we neede is a good teacher (like Socrates) to help us remember what we already know.  From this breathtaking premise, Socrates makes the even more breathtaking (and invalid) leap to the conclusion that we have been alive before the birth of our physical body.
I do not want to repeat Plato's detail account of Socrates getting an unschooled slave boy to correctly deduce the answer to a series of questions posed by Socrates about a geometrical theorem. You can read all about it in Meno, and of course it has been discussed ad infinitum in the literature.

Instead, I want to discuss a common response to Plato:  It is not logically possible to prove the proposition that there is life before birth.  

David Hume
The first thing we should notice is that claims about the existence of objects or events are claims about matters of fact.  To prove this, the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume made an important distinction between matters of fact and relations of ideas.  If it is claimed that “the Kiwi bird exists,” I am expressing this as a matter of fact.  If I claim that “Bachelors are unmarried,” then I am expressing this as a relation of ideas (between “bachelor” and “unmarried”).  

To find out whether “Bachelors are unmarried” is true, all we need to do is to examine the meaning of the words “bachelor” and “unmarried.”   We would not confirm that “Bachelors are unmarried” is true by interviewing bachelors to find out whether they are indeed unmarried.  This is unnecessary because the idea of “unmarried” is logically related to (contained in) the idea of “bachelor.”  The proposition “Some bachelors are married” expresses a contradiction.   It is false, not because  we have searched for and failed to find a married bachelor, but because the term “bachelor” logically implies “unmarried.”

By way of contrast, we cannot confirm the truth of “the Kiwi bird exists” by analyzing the meaning of “Kiwi bird.”  There is no relation of ideas between the concept “Kiwi bird” and the concept “exists.”  To say “Kiwi birds do not exist” might be false, but it does not express a contradiction.  If I am concerned about the existence of such birds, I would attempt to make the relevant observations in those places where Kiwi birds are said to exist.  In general, we discover the whether a matter of fact proposition is true or false not by an analysis of the concepts in the proposition (“Kiwi bird” and "exists"), but only through experience and observation.

Let's apply Hume's distinction to the search for the existence of life before birth in order to determine whether it is about (1) the relation of ideas, or  (2) matters of fact. 
(1) If it is about the relation of ideas, then we should be able to analyze the relevant ideas (concepts) to find the answer.  Someone might say this: Suppose that “birth” means “conception” and the life of a human does not begin until conception.  Then to say that there is life before conception is to say, “There is life before life,” or “I was alive before I was alive.”   This is either tautological nonsense, or it requires an explanation.  

(2)  Any explanation puts the ball in the matters of fact court.  If we substitute different meanings for the word "life" in the previous sentences, then we get (for example) "I existed as a disembodied soul before I was born into this body," or "I existed as a snail before I came to live in this body."  It is now abundantly clear that the problem to be solved is no longer about a relation of ideas. The search for the existence of life before birth is about matters of fact.  The relevant terms makes the quest for life after birth amenable to an empirical search.  

This may be what Plato is attempting to do in Meno.  The life one lives prior to incorporation in the human body is the life of a soul, not the life of a physical substance.  Hence, to say that there is life before birth is to say that there are souls that exist prior to the birth of a body, and they inhabit the body when it (the body) is born (is conceived, is a viable fetus, emerges from the womb).  The attempt to prove that there is life before birth now becomes an attempt to confirm the truth of a matter of fact proposition: “Our soul exists before the birth of our physical body.”   This takes the problem out of the hands of the philosopher and into the hands of the scientist who must collect relevant evidence discovered by careful observation and experience. 

I’ll discuss possible scientific attempts to prove life before birth in my next blog post.

For my student guides on Plato and Hume, go to my website