‘Eschatological’ verification

A rather different response to the Verificationist assessment of religious language as meaningless from those considered in the last post, and advanced on behalf of a theistic view, is an argument proposed by the English philosopher-theologian John Hick (1922-2012).

Hick’s idea is that we can respond to the Verificationist’s criticism of religious claims by insisting that they are meaningful, because they are after all verifiable, contrary to what Logical Positivists like A J Ayer assumed.

Hick himself adopts a version of verificationism, claiming that a statement is meaningful only if it is ‘factually significant’, and that a statement is factually significant only if its truth or falsity makes a difference to our experience.

Hick therefore holds that the sentence

There is an invisible, odourless, intangible, tasteless, and silent rabbit in this room

is meaningless: its truth or falsity would make no difference to our experience, which would be exactly alike whether it were true or false.

According to Hick, however, religious claims are verifiable; and hence they are meaningful.

They are verifiable, Hick says, by waiting till you’re dead, when (if the claims are true) you will be able to see for yourself that God and Heaven and angels and all the rest of it really do exist, just as the theist claims that they do. It’s true that the religious claims aren’t verifiable by us now; but since they are in principle verifiable in the afterlife, they cannot be dismissed as meaningless, even if the Verification Principle is correct. They are capable of eschatological verification.

(‘Eschatological’: from the Greek eschata = ‘last/final things'; ‘eschatological’ means ‘relating to the end of time, or the last things’ – this might just mean the afterlife, or it might mean something like the Last Judgement, for religious views that contain such a belief.)

Illustration: the Celestial City

The claim is illustrated by Hick in a what the literature has labelled the ‘parable of the Celestial City':

Two people are travelling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere, but since this is the only road there is, both must travel it. Neither has been this way before; therefore, neither is able to say what they will find around each corner. During their journey they meet with moments of refreshment and delight, and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of the journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City. She interprets the pleasant parts as encouragements and the obstacles as trials of her purpose and lessons in endurance, prepared by the sovereign of that city and designed to make of her a worthy citizen of the place when at last she arrives. The other, however, believes none of this, and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble. Since he has no choice in the matter, he enjoys the good and endures the bad. For him there is no Celestial City to be reached, no all-encompassing purpose ordaining their journey; there is only the road itself and the luck of the road in good weather and in bad.

As Hick comments:

… [W]hen they turn the last corner, it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong. Thus, although the issue between them has not been experimental, it has nevertheless been a real issue. They have not merely felt differently about the road, for one was feeling appropriately and the other inappropriately in relation to the actual state of affairs. Their opposed interpretations of the situation have constituted genuinely rival assertions…

In other words, the thing that the theist believed was genuinely meaningful – she was saying and thinking something meaningful that was different from what the atheist said and thought; and as it turned out in the story, the theist’s view was right – she was ‘thinking appropriately’ in relation to the state of affairs that became apparent only at the end of the journey.

It is of course also true, and is admitted by Hick, that if the theist is wrong and there turns out not to be an afterlife, then nothing at all will be verified: you’ll just be dead. For the same reason, religious claims cannot be falsified by experience either: if there’s no afterlife, then you’ll just be dead and having no experience at all; you won’t be having experiences that confirm the falsity of the theist’s view.

Hick on post-mortem personal identity

Hick’s view that religious claims can in principle be verified post mortem in this way depends on its being possible for a person to continue to exist after his death. He has to believe that death does not necessarily mean the end of a person’s existence.

Death does indeed raise interesting questions about personal identity, in particular because of the decomposition and destruction of the body. If we are capable of still being in existence after death, and after the decomposition of our earthly bodies, then these bodies must be inessential to us. Hick seems to assume that post-mortem existence will involve being given a new body. And the task as he sees it is to justify the view that a person could retain his identity through such a change of bodies.

Hick tries to demonstrate that this is logically possible, by considering a series of thought-experimental cases.

Case 1. Imagine that a person vanishes in America, and that an exact duplicate of his simultaneously appears in Australia. The duplicate looks exactly like the original person, has apparent memories as of events in the original person’s life, and in every other way is psychologically just like the original person.

Everyone would say, Hick suggests, that the new person in Australia was the same person as the original person.

Case 2. As in Case 1, except that the original person dies, as opposed to vanishing.

According to Hick, the difference about what happens in the USA cannot mean that we must alter our judgement about the identity of the person in Australia. So here too, Hick thinks, we must say that the new person in Australia is the same person as the original person.

Case 3. As in Case 2, except that the duplicate appears in Heaven rather than Australia. (I thought they were the same place, but apparently this is an error.)

According to Hick, the difference about where the duplicate appears cannot mean that we must alter our judgement about the identity of the duplicate. So here too, Hick thinks, we must say that the new person in Heaven is the same person as the original person.


1. Do we really need this?

The need for the whole argument is highly questionable: I personally find it much more attractive and rational simply to reject the verificationism. If you abandon the verificationism, then obviously there’s no need to argue elaborately for the claim that the truth of the theist’s statements is verifiable after death. You can assert that the statements are meaningful without needing to show that their truth can in principle be verified.

2. If we do need it, then OK… maybe

But it seems right that, if you must accept verificationism, this is a decent way for a theist to maintain that her/his claims are not meaningless. And it seems to me true that if there is an afterlife, then it is not unreasonable to assert that we will indeed be able to verify this for ourselves by experiencing it. A possible objection is that, with no previous experience of Heaven or of God, it is not clear how we would be able to recognise these items as Heaven and as God. It may furthermore be that these things are beyond our comprehension in some way; that will only make the task of recognition harder. But, if these objections can be dealt with, then post-mortem verification of the existence of Heaven and God seems possible in principle.

3. BUT

The arguments concerning personal identity, however, are laughably poor. This is not to say that the conclusion is wrong; only that the arguments’ support for that conclusion is utterly feeble.

In Case 1, I would say, there is no remotely compelling reason to assert that the person in Australia is identical with the original. Anyone who judged that it was the original person would be making a forgivable mistake, at best.

Since the proper verdict in Case 1 is not remotely in line with Hick’s suggestion, the rest of the argument collapses.

What Hick could and should have said is this: if post-mortem existence is possible for us, then it must be that we have a nature such that our bodies are inessential to us: we are essentially immortal souls, which part from the body at death and somehow go to the afterlife, whatever and wherever that is. The fact that the person in the afterlife is identical with the person who died on Earth consists in the fact that it is one and the same soul that is both here and there, before and after death.

Verificationism and religious language

Some notes primarily written for F1 and F2, but blogged because also relevant for U1.


Verificationism is the best-known candidate theory of meaning according to which religious language would be revealed as meaningless. It is the central tenet of the Logical Positivism developed by the Vienna Circle in the 1920s, and was brought to the attention of English Philosophy by A J Ayer in his 1932 book Language, Truth and Logic.

Verification Principle (“VP”)

A factual statement is meaningful if and only if

either (a) it is a tautology (it is analytic)
or (b) it is empirically verifiable in principle.

Application of the VP to the case of religious propositions like ‘God exists’ yields the result that such statements are meaningless – at least if they are understood in a fairly literal and traditional way.

For example:

•    Insofar as we speak of God as transcendent – existing outside space and time – it seems that we are talking about something whose existence could not possibly be verified by any empirical method. This is because neither our senses nor our scientific probes can reach beyond our world of space and time.
•    Similarly, if the claim is that there is an afterlife in a realm called Heaven or Hell that is similarly supposed to be causally isolated from the world in which we live. Nothing (or nothing that we can experience in this life) could count as empirical verification of the existence of such a world.

•    Similarly, if the claim is that we have immortal immaterial (non-physical) souls, or if the claim is that God, or angels, or any part of the Creation is immaterial. No such entities could be detected by our senses or our science.

Since the religious claims here are propositional in form, they are factual statements. But they are neither analytic nor empirically verifiable; therefore, according to the Verificationist, they are meaningless.


What is the attraction of the Verification Principle?

Well, what motivates it is really two thoughts:

1. If a statement is factual and meaningful, then there must be a real difference in the world between its being true and its not being true. The world is different, in some respect, if it is true, from the way the world would have to be if it were, instead, false.

Now, that thought is an excellent and persuasive one. If the world would be no different whether a statement was true or false, then, surely, that statement isn’t a factual statement about the world. It seems correct that the mark of a meaningful factual statement is that things would have to be one way for the statement to be true, and another – different – way for it to be false. To say that is to say that the truth, as opposed to the falsity, of a genuinely meaningful factual statement would involve a difference in the world – a difference in the ways things were.

2.The second, and more controversial, claim is the claim that scientifically-detectable facts about our world are the only facts that there are; and (?‘hence’) that the only things that we can meaningfully talk about are matters describable by science.

This seems to me much more dubious. First, we surely don’t know that there aren’t facts undetectable by science. Secondly, why can’t the meanings of our words stretch beyond what we can detect to be true or false? After all, we are very adept at manipulating concepts in our thought, by combining and relating and abstracting from simple concepts. We can accordingly construct complex concepts like immaterial realm causally disconnected from our world of space and time. But if we can construct such concepts, then why deny that we can create meaningful statements involving such concepts, even if we cannot tell whether such statements are true?

Objections to verificationism

1. Implausible results in certain areas of Philosophy

Verification leads to implausible results concerning certain subject-areas, including ethics and other minds.

In ethics, verificationists are forced (on pain of classing the whole of ethical discourse as meaningless) to adopt one of two views:

(a)    The ‘naturalist’ view that ethical facts are just facts about what is conducive to human happiness or well-being. This places them within the field detectable by science; but it is far from obvious that this is the best, or even a very plausible, moral theory.
(b)    The ‘non-cognitivist’ view that the meaning of ethical statements is not factual, but ‘expressive’ or ‘prescriptive’. Moral judgements like ‘torturing cats is wrong’ are not really statements of alleged fact, but disguised expressions of the speaker’s attitude, or disguised imperatives or exhortations to do or not to do certain things.

As to other minds, verificationism leads to the implausible ‘behaviourist’ theory that a person’s being in some mental state amounts to no more than his being disposed to behave in certain ways in response to certain stimuli. This is what verificationism has to do, in order to make the existence of other people’s thoughts verifiable by empirical means. Thus:

•    The fact that Jones believes that it is raining amounts to no more than a set of facts about Jones’s actual and possible behaviour: the facts, for example, that, if he goes out, Jones will carry an umbrella (other things being equal); that if he is asked what the weather is like, he will reply (other things being equal) that it is raining; and so on.

This deeply silly theory is now generally regarded as fatally discredited, not least because it seems to leave out what is really central to mentality – namely, what it is like for Jones: how things seem to him within the private, inner, mental, world of his thoughts and feelings.

2. Intellectual arrogance

Verificationism puts all meaningful factual statements within our epistemic reach – in principle, if not  in practice. We can in principle know everything that is a factual matter. But why think this? Why are we entitled to assume  that the world must be such that every aspect of it is accessible to us by empirical means?

Verificationism conflates factuality with our ability to tell whether something is the case. Factuality should (I think) be thought of, instead, simply in terms of truth-conditions: if a statement is factual, then it has truth-conditions: there are ways that the world would have to be if the statement were to be true. But there is no need – intellectual arrogance aside – to assume that we can always in principle tell whether the conditions are satisfied, for literally any and every factual statement. We have (I think) no right to assume that the question whether a factual statement is true or not is one that we must, in every case, be capable in principle of answering.

Verificationism is, as a result, unjustifiably arrogant about our intellectual capacities, and about the capacity of scientific methods to detect all factual matters. Surely, if we are intellectually modest, we should admit that there may be factual matters that are beyond our capacity to verify. Why think that our senses and our science must in principle be capable of detecting everything that is capable of being the case?

3. Intuitively wrong results

Many statements that the VP classes as meaningless don’t intuitively seem to be meaningless.

There is a wholly undetectable, because immaterial, elephant in the room.

There is an immaterial God who transcends time and space and who created the world.

Again, these seem (arguably – it’s a bit controversial) meaningful, at least in that we think that we can understand what would have to be the case for them to be true, even though nothing in our experience could confirm their truth.

4. Difficulties with universal statements

Statements of things like physical laws take the form of universal statements. For example:

•    All gases expand when heated

But it is obviously impossible to demonstrate their truth: it would be an endless task. When would you have finished verifying that every gas expands on every occasion of its being heated?!

5. Hollow victory over theism

Verificationism dismisses religious language as meaningless. But even from an atheist perspective, this is not really the desired result: it amounts to a rather hollow victory, because, since all talk of God is meaningless, if VP is true, the denial that God exists is just as meaningless as the assertion that He does exist.

Surely what we really want, if we are atheists, is to be able to say that we understand the theist’s claims all right; the problem is that there are powerful objections that suggest that the claims are not meaningless, but false.

6. Poorly motivated

Verificationism is poorly motivated, in that it is driven by the rather dubious assumption (see above) that scientifically-detectable facts about our world are the only facts that there are.

7. VP itself meaningless, by its own lights
Finally, there is a standard textbookish criticism that the Verification Principle doesn’t pass its own test of being meaningful.

The Verification Principle is not analytic – you cannot tell that it is true merely by reflecting on the meanings of the terms ‘meaningful’, ‘statement’, etc; so it must be synthetic.

If it is synthetic, then, by its own lights it is meaningful only if its truth can be empirically verified.

But how could the truth of the principle be empirically verified? You would have to identify all the meaningful statements, and check that all of them (and no others) were empirically verifiable. But this is impossible, for at least two reasons:

(a) To identify the meaningful statements, we would need a criterion of meaningfulness in order to do so. If the test were the one in the VP itself, then the exercise would be a pointless one. But if it were another criterion, then that criterion would be a competitor with the criterion given by the VP.

(b) Even if problem (a) could be overcome, the task would be impossible, for there is a potentially infinite number of meaningful statements.  But there is no possibility of empirically verifying an infinite number of statements.

So the VP fails its own test, and is therefore meaningless. It therefore cannot be true.

Magnificent dinosaur

Not Philosophy but there is a wonderful creature currently to be seen eating the multi-storey car park. It is very exciting.


Has the Council finally made a good planning decision? We shall see.

(While taking this photo I met a man who expressed sadness at the demise of what he called this ‘iconic’ building. I laughed in his face.)

Referential opacity


We said that, on a possible interpretation of paragraph 6 of the Second Meditation, Descartes offers there what amounts to an argument for the conclusion that he is not his body.

That argument trades on Leibniz’s Law (also known as the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals) – the principle that a thing and itself have all ‘their’ properties in common. If a is the very same individual as b, then a and b must be exactly alike in all respects. And that is dead obvious: after all, ‘they’ are not two things but one thing; and one thing cannot simultaneously be both this way and that way in the same respect. A thing cannot, for example, be both green all over and red all over, or both cuboid and spherical in shape.

Leibniz’s Law, though completely obvious, is a useful rule that we apply subconsciously every day. For example, if I have forgotten exactly where I parked it, I can pick my bicycle out of the crowd of bicycles not merely by looking for a bike with its features, but also by differentiating it from others: by spotting features of other bikes that I know my own bike does not share. My bike is green; so in scanning the racks I can instantly dismiss all the non-green bikes. My bike hasn’t got mudguards; so I can dismiss all the bikes with mudguards. And so on.

In doing so I can be thought of as subconsciously running arguments of the following kind through my head:

(1) My bike is green

(2) That bike is not green


(3) That bike is not my bike

My bike has a property – being green – that that bike lacks. So that bike is not my bike.

The argument that Descartes presents (if he is to be interpreted as so doing at all) is of similar form:

(1) I can coherently entertain doubt about whether my body exists.

(2) I cannot coherently entertain doubt about whether I exist.


(3) I am not my body.

That is: My body has a property that I do not have: It has the property of being able to be doubted by me. I lack the property of being able to be doubted by me. So I and my body must be two different things.

The fallacy

Descartes’s argument – unlike the one about my bike – is clearly fallacious. It is an instance of what is known as the ‘masked man’ fallacy – so called because it can be presented in a standard way as follows: imagine that you have witnessed a bank robbery by a masked man, and that in considering the possible identity of the robber you reason thus:

(1) I don’t know who the masked man is.

(2) I know who my father is.


(3) The masked man is not my father.

In doing so, you are applying Leibniz’s Law as before: you are reasoning that your father has a property (the property of having his identity known by you) that the masked man lacks; and concluding that your father and the masked man must therefore be different individuals.

But if you reason like that, you are making an obvious mistake: for it could be, for all you know, that it was your father who was robbing the bank. (It would hardly be surprising if he was, given the level of the school fees…)

The explanation of the inapplicability of Leibniz’s Law in these cases is that the principle cannot be applied where the properties on the basis of which a distinction is made are properties that involve reference to a person’s intentional states (doubting and knowing, in the two cases above).

You get a similarly fallacious result if you try to apply Leibniz’s Law on the basis of a difference in modal properties (properties including reference to necessity and possibility), as shown by the following fallacious argument:

(1) Michael Clarke is necessarily Michael Clarke. (True: everyone is necessarily self-identical).

(2) Michael Clarke is not necessarily the captain of the Australian cricket team. (True: the ACB could have appointed someone else)


(3) Michael Clarke is not the captain of the Australian cricket team. (False: he is)

Alleged difference between Michael Clarke and the captain of Australia: one of them but not the other has the property of being necessarily identical with Michael Clarke. But again, the argument is clearly fallacious: the premisses are true, but the conclusion is false.

OK but which properties? How to identify them?

The interesting question is this: What is the mark of these special properties that mean that you cannot apply Leibniz’s Law?

In most sentences, you can replace one name for a person or thing with any other name or definite description that refers to that same person or thing, and the truth value of the sentence will remain unchanged. We say that the different names or descriptions can be substituted, one for another, ‘salva veritate‘ (Latin: literally, ‘with the truth intact’ – i.e. without affecting the truth or falsity of the sentence).

(a) David Mackie is underpaid.

(b) The Philosophy teacher is underpaid.

(c) The father of Nicolas and Andreas is underpaid.

(d) Phoenix’s owner is underpaid.

Given that (a) is true, then (b), (c) and (d) are all equally true. And if (a) is false, then so are (b), (c) and (d). All the underlined phrases refer to the same individual, and using one name or description rather than another makes no difference to the truth-value of the sentence.

Where names and definite descriptions can be interchanged salva veritate, we say that the context in which the name/description appears is ‘referentially transparent’.

In other contexts, you cannot substitute salva veritate in the same way:

For example:

(e) Jones believes that David Mackie is David Mackie.

This is true. Jones would have to be an utter moron not to believe that: even if Jones had never previously heard of me, he would still believe it, because it’s obvious that such statements of identity that repeat the name of an individual must be true.


(f) Jones believes that David Mackie is Phoenix’s owner.

Sentence (f) may be false, even if (e) is true. If Jones doesn’t know that I own a thing called Phoenix, then he won’t believe that I am Phoenix’s owner; and so (f) will be false. So the substitution of ‘Phoenix’s owner’ for ‘David Mackie’ makes (or may make) a difference to the truth value of the sentence. You cannot substitute salva veritate.


(g) It is impossible that David Mackie should be someone other than David Mackie.

Obviously true: no one can be anyone other than the person that (s)he is.

(h) It is impossible that Phoenix’s owner should be someone other than David Mackie.

Obviously false: I could sell Phoenix.

Sentence (g) is true, but sentence (h) is false. But the only difference is that, once again, we substituted the definite description ‘Phoenix’s owner’ in place of ‘David Mackie’. So in this context too, you cannot substitute salva veritate.

Contexts in which you cannot substitute salva veritate are labelled ‘referentially opaque’. As you can see in the examples above, intentional contexts ‘Jones believes that…’ and modal contexts ‘It is impossible that…’ are the culprits.

Why does this happen?

Well, the point about the referentially opaque contexts is that they are contexts in which whether what is said of some individual is true or false depends on the way in which the individual is referred to – the truth or falsity of the sentence depends on how the individual is named or described.

The properties with which you cannot invoke Leibniz’s Law to demonstrate a non-identity are precisely the properties that create referentially opaque contexts.


All of the above is just a technical and fussy way of spelling out what is very obvious anyway, at least insofar as the Cartesian argument (if that is what it is) is concerned.

This is because, of course, Descartes is in no position to deny the possibility that his thought may in fact depend on his possession of a body: for all he knows, thinking requires the brain (as we all believe). The fact that he is unable to doubt his own existence, but at the same time apparently able to doubt the existence of his body, reveals only that he is ignorant of the essential link between thinking and having a body. If he knew all the facts, including the fact (if it is a fact) that thinking requires a brain, then he would no longer be able to doubt the existence of his body, given that he cannot doubt his own existence.

Jim and Jemima

Provoked by events today, a few more notes in the hope of clarifying this theory of knowledge as requiring true belief plus ‘epistemic virtue’.


It needs to be clear in your mind that this is just one among a whole series of rival theories, each aiming to offer a watertight analysis of what it is to possess propositional knowledge (to know that p, where p is some proposition.)

This part of the syllabus – the analysis of propositional knowledge – aims to give you an insight into the main rival theories that have been advanced, reflecting the fact that the recent history of this part of epistemology is one involving the sequential introduction of a series of theories, each of which has been introduced because it was supposed to be an improvement on its faulty predecessors.

The aim of such theories is to specify the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowing that p.

That is to say: each proposed theory claims that unless you satisfy all of the conditions that it specifies, you don’t know (each condition is necessary for knowledge); and that if you satisfy all the conditions, then you do know (the conditions are jointly sufficient for knowledge).

Each theory is tested by intuition: a good theory is one that gives the intuitively right answer in all imaginable cases. Theories are rejected when its is shown by this method that they give the wrong answer in some imaginable case or other.

Thus, for example:

The old tripartite (TB+J) theory says that a person knows that p iff (s)he has a true, justified, belief that p.

Gettier is generally taken to have shown that that theory is not good enough: there are imaginable cases in which a person has a true, justified, belief that p, but does not know that p. So the conditions laid down by the TB+J theory are not sufficient for knowledge.

So the old TB+J theory got refined: some people suggested the addition of a ‘no false lemmas clause’.

But there seemed to be imaginable cases where that revised theory didn’t give the right answers either. For example, the fake barns case: the subject there has a true and justified belief, not obviously inferred from any false belief, that she is looking at a barn; but the subject still doesn’t know that she is looking at a barn.

Back to the drawing board: another new theory gets proposed; some clever person comes up with what seems to be a counterexample. And so it goes on.

What this means for you is that if you are ever asked to talk about the TB + EV account of knowledge, you need to state matters in a way that at very least makes it clear that and why this theory is an improvement on the tripartite (TB+J) account.

What is ‘epistemic virtue’?

The fundamental idea behind this theory is that when we say that someone ‘knows’ something, as opposed to saying merely that they believe it and that it is true, we are saying that they deserve particular credit for believing the truth.

Why would such credit be deserved?

This is where you need to be careful to be absolutely precise.

Case 1 – randomly true belief

If you form your beliefs at random – just arbitrarily deciding to believe this or that, with no regard to any evidence that there may be – then clearly you deserve no credit at all for being right on the occasions when you are right. You are no better than a gambler at roulette who happens to have picked the winning number on some spin of the wheel. The gambler didn’t know that that number would come up. He was just luckily right.

Case 2 – the scam

More deserving of at least some epistemic credit (though not, perhaps, of moral credit) is a gambler who has a particular reason for thinking that his chosen number will come up. Consider, for example, a gambler (David) who has taken advantage of a special friendship that he has with the man (Jim) who makes the roulette wheels for the local casino. These two old friends, each of whom would do anything for the other, have agreed that Jim will ‘fix’ a particular wheel in such a way that, when David bets on the number 27, the ball will be caused to fall into the desired slot. The required technology is tested and found to be perfect in its operation. David bets on 27, believing (because of the agreement and because of the evidence that the scheme and the technology have worked in testing) that 27 will win; and it does. David had a true justified belief that 27 would win. Arguably, he also knew that it would win.

Case 3 – Gettier variant

But true justified belief alone is not enough for knowledge, as a Gettier-style variant on the same case shows. Suppose that things are as above, except that, unknown to David, Jim has fallen hopelessly in love with the girl (Jemima) who spins the wheel at the local casino. Jemima has promised to run away to France with Jim if he will fix the wheel in such a way that the ball will fall into whichever slot she chooses on some particular occasion. Jim’s hopeless infatuation with Jemima leads him to fall in with this new proposal and, abandoning any sense of loyalty to his old friend David, he therefore sets up a new secret mechanism that makes the roulette wheel responsive to Jemima’s wishes only. He completely neglects to tell David of these new arrangements. Such is the power of love.

David enters the casino and bets all his money on 27. The wheel is spun, and the ball lands on 27. (Hurrah!) David had a true and justified belief that it would do so, for the same reasons as before. But in fact, David was just lucky. The ball didn’t fall into the right slot because of the arrangement that David had with Jim, but only because the wheel had been fixed to respond to Jemima’s choices. David merely had the very good luck that Jemima happened also to bet on the number 27. Even if he knew what would happen in Case 2, David clearly didn’t know in Case 3 that the number 27 would win.

(That’s how easy it is to invent Gettier cases.)

So what and where is ‘epistemic virtue’?

It is against this kind of background that we need to view the TB + EV theory. There must be a difference between Case 2 and Case 3 that explains the fact that in Case 2, David knew that 27 would win, but in Case 3 he clearly didn’t.

David can’t reasonably be criticised for believing what he believed in Case 3. He formed his belief on certain strong evidence that he had – evidence consisting (as in Case 2) of knowledge of the scam plotted with Jim, evidence of the reliable technology invented for that scam, and evidence of Jim’s longstanding friendship and loyalty, which led him to believe – reasonably – that the scam would be successfully implemented. His belief that 27 would come up was undoubtedly justified, and this is an awful lot better than believing for no reason at all that 27 rather than any other number will come up. So David deserves some epistemic credit. His belief is not based on stupid reasons, or no reasons, like that of the random gambler in Case 1.

But this is not to say that David’s belief in Case 3 has ‘epistemic virtue’ in the technical sense required by the new TB + EV theory. That new theory is meant to be an improvement on the tripartite (TB+J) theory that seems to be refuted by Case 3 above, in which David has a true, justified, belief, but one that is too luckily right to count as knowledge. So ‘epistemic virtue’ must mean something special – something that goes beyond the mere justification that David had in the case described.

What more is required for ‘epistemic virtue’, beyond mere justification?

Well, the idea is that your true belief also has epistemic virtue if the reason why your belief is true is that you have used the justifying evidence available to you.

This cannot be said of David, in Case 3. His belief is true; but it is true only because of the amazing good luck that Jemima also happened to choose to bet on the number 27, out of the 37 options available to her. In particular it could not be said that David’s belief is true because of the arrangements with Jim, knowledge of which constitutes David’s justification for his belief.

So epistemic virtue is a very specific technically-defined phenomenon: it is a matter of owing the truth of your belief to the quality of the reasons that you have for believing it. You need to be right because of the care you take in forming the belief. If we count David as knowing in Case 2, it is because we believe that it is thanks to his knowledge of the precautions that he has taken to ensure that 27 comes up that he is right in thinking that it will.

‘Other’ traffic

You know how I’m always going on and on about reading your own work with a critical eye?

Here’s a nice example of what I mean.

Can anyone adequately explain the meaning of the word ‘Other’, as used on this Oxford road sign? (It’s on Speedwell Street, if you’re interested.)

Other traffic

The meaning of ‘other’

It’s a pretty basic and obvious fact about use of the word ‘other’ that it can’t meaningfully play a role in referring to anything unless reference has antecedently been made to something else from which the ‘other’ thing, whatever it may be, is being differentiated, or with which it is being contrasted.

If, for example, you and I were putting away the supermarket shopping together and I suddenly started telling you what I wanted you to do with ‘the other cheese’, without having previously mentioned some first batch of cheese for which I had (perhaps) different intentions, then you would rightly assume that I was losing my marbles – or at any rate that I had at least temporarily deserted from the general project of speaking to you in a clear, coherent and comprehensible way.

Now, you don’t need to be a whizz with the Highway Code to see what information is being conveyed by the road sign in question. Obviously enough, it tells you that the road that you are on will, not so very far ahead, become subject to a prohibition barring motor vehicles from using it; and that, before you reach the point where that prohibition comes into effect, there are some junctions: first, there are roads to right and left opposite one another, of which the one on the left leads to a dead end; and then there is a junction with a road to the left.

Question: What traffic has been referred to, with which the ‘Other traffic’ to which an attempt at reference is made on the sign may be contrasted?

None. The information described above is just that: information about what roads lie ahead and about a prohibition on one of them to motor vehicles. It makes no reference at all to one lot of traffic with which ‘other traffic’ may be contrasted.

And that means that the attempted reference to ‘Other traffic’ is just incomprehensible nonsense.

(You might be tempted to object that the prohibition to motor vehicles does constitute a reference to a class of traffic – namely, motor vehicles. But of course that cannot be the right answer; it cannot possibly be motor vehicles with which the ‘Other traffic’ is being contrasted. For the road on which the ‘Other traffic’ is directed to travel is one that is open to motor vehicles.)

So what was the person who designed the sign thinking?

Well, doubtless (s)he had in mind some vague feeling that the ‘no motor vehicles’ sign meant that there was only some traffic that could use that bit of road; and with it some equally vague feeling that the presence of the other roads indicated meant that you could in principle use those, if you were so inclined.

And so (s)he thought that (s)he had, ‘sort of’ (as (s)he will have said to her/himself), implied that, when you put together all the vehicles that might turn left into the dead end, and all the ones that might turn right, and all the bicycles and other non-motor vehicles that might be entitled to drive past the ‘no motor vehicles’ sign, there is, ‘sort of’, a set of things that you could ‘sort of’ think of as a class of ‘traffic’ to which (s)he had ‘sort of’ made reference and with which the ‘Other’ traffic could be contrasted.

Alternatively (and I suspect that this is probably closer to the truth): What (s)he really wanted to write was ‘All traffic’. This is because the person in question is a Council employee, or at least an agent of the Council; and the Council would greatly prefer that you didn’t turn left or right into either of those little roads, for various reasons: the one with the dead end is a bit of an embarrassment anyway, because it’s so hideous down there at the back of the courts with all the low-lifes and so on; and they really don’t like people to use the one to the right (which is presumably also why it is drawn so as to look so very short and insignificant on the sign), because it’s that handy little road that leads you up to the back of Marks & Spencer’s – but of course, if everyone knew that, it would be permanently clogged with cars belching yet more diseasel poisons into the atmosphere, and it would make the Council’s roads ‘strategy’ look even more catastrophically stupid than it already looks. And of course the Council doesn’t want you even to consider the possibility that you might be able to use the road that is barred to motor vehicles, because if they let you do that then you might mistake your car for a bicycle or something and end up using the road when you shouldn’t. All things considered, it’s just much better if we take decisions of this kind out of the hands of the public because it’s so much simpler and nicer to do so, and because that way the Council gets to tell people what to do rather than let them make intelligent and informed choices based on information about the law as it affects them, with all the confusion that that inevitably involves.

With that in mind, our sign designer wanted to write ‘All traffic'; perhaps (s)he even did put that in the first draft; but then (s)he saw that that was plainly absurd, given that the other options do undeniably exist, according to the sign itself; you couldn’t be said to be obliged to go down the road indicated. So ‘All traffic’ wouldn’t do, and (s)he ‘therefore’ chose what seemed to be the next best thing from among the phrases commonly used on road signs: ‘Other traffic’ – ‘that’ll do’, as (s)he said to her/himself.

And then (s)he buggered off home at about 11.15am or whenever it is that these people finish their so-called ‘working day’, leaving the draft to be approved by some supervisor or other, who didn’t give a damn either way and passed it on with no more than a cursory glance for ultimate approval by some Council roads sub-committee or other – none of whose members could be bothered to look at it with a critical eye either. At no point in the process did it occur to anyone involved that the purely graphical representation was perfectly adequate on its own to convey the only intelligible meaning that the sign could hope to convey, and that no words at all were in fact needed. And so the stupid item was manufactured and put in place to convey (‘sort of’) its incoherent and barely comprehensible intended meaning to the world, joining the hundreds of other ugly and idiotically unnecessary and/or nonsensical road signs with which this once attractive city is now littered.

A lesson to us all. Proofread your work with a critical eye.

What (exactly) is wrong with watching paedophilia?

A case that I have introduced in talking about virtue ethics with U1 is the following:

Consider a person who gains his/her enjoyment from watching videos of Chinese state, or IS, executions, or similar nasties, on the internet.

For the sake of argument, assume that the fact that (s)he watches and enjoys these videos causes no other ill effects in the world – it does not increase the number of such executions, nor does it encourage others to watch them or to perform any similar action; assume that it does not in any way deprave the imagined viewer by making him/her more brutal or violent in his/her dealings with others, or in any other way; the imagined person’s habit constitutes an entirely private pleasure that causes no ill effects to him/her or anyone else. Call this phenomenon ‘harmless’ viewing.

It is very tempting to say that there is something morally wrong with the character of a person who gains enjoyment in such a way. The same would be true if the videos were rape videos, or paedophilia videos, or similar.

Indeed, the same might be true in some instances even if the acts filmed were legally uncontroversial: what if they were, for example, videos of surgical operations in which the viewer had no intellectual interest, but which (s)he watched purely because (s)he enjoyed the sight of flesh and scalpel? It’s at least arguable that there’s something morally wrong with someone for whom this is a source of pleasure.

The case of ‘harmless’ viewing of this kind seems to present a strong argument in favour of a virtue ethicist approach to normative ethics. But there’s also (I think) a relevant practical application.

In the modern media and campaigning coverage, my impression is that a great deal is made – at least in the paedophilia case – of the claim that there is no such thing as watching such videos with no consequential effect. We are constantly told that by watching such videos we inevitably contribute causally to the perpetration of these and similar crimes.

In this, the campaigners are arguably missing a trick, and are certainly guilty of poor-quality thinking.

For, although it’s true that if there were no viewers, actual or potential, there would be no demand, and that if there were no demand there would be no supply of the product, it does not follow, and it is just not plausible, that every viewing necessarily plays a causal role in the creation of such materials.

Proof: It could be that it is a sufficient condition for the creation of the product that there be some market for it. So it could be that (for example) the viewing by (let’s say) Gary Glitter and half a dozen (or a hundred; or a thousand) other paedophiles is sufficient in causal terms to account for the existence of the video(s) in question.

Thereafter, once the product (or a market for it and similar products) exists, there could then be many (millions of) additional ‘views’ of it that make literally no causal contribution at all to the creation of the particular video, or of similar ones.

Since this is so, the claim that ‘we’ inevitably causally contribute to paedophilia insofar as we watch paedophilia videos is implausible. ‘Harmless’ viewing is not merely logically possible, but arguably a perfectly real and common phenomenon. An argument that relies on such an obviously false and indefensible premiss as the denial that ‘harmless’ viewing is possible renders its proponent less credible, and less worthy of serious attention.

The mistake that is being made by the campaigners (on this analysis) is the mistake of assuming that the wrongness of watching paedophilia videos has to be explained in consequentialist terms. That’s crazy, to my mind: what needs to be said as well is that there’s still something morally wrong in viewing paedophilia, even if viewing paedophilia doesn’t cause more of it.

… Discuss…?

The Saucy Sausage

My elder son’s foray into fiction. I think it’s rather enjoyable.

It was a lovely morning. The sun was shining brightly through the kitchen window as I stirred my mug of Nescafé and considered my breakfast options: toast and marmalade? Scrambled eggs?

But it wouldn’t stay lovely for long. It rarely does, in my line of work.

I heard the familiar rattle-clang as the paper-boy shoved the Oxford Times through the letter box. I walked through to the hall, picked up the paper, and on the front page noticed a story about the latest murder. I’d probably have heard all about it at the ‘office’ the previous evening, if I hadn’t been dragged out instead to that dull party.

Ah well: good for business, I suppose”, I thought. I’ve made my living out of people’s relentless enthusiasm for killing one another for so long that I rarely let the nature of the crimes get to me.

I was about to toss the paper aside, when something in the article caught my eye. It was far worse than I had realised. The crime had occurred close to where I live, and the victim was an old friend of mine. Simon Watkins and I had been at school together and, though we’d lost touch, I was vaguely aware that he was still in the city, and ran a successful local business. The paper said that he’d been found stabbed to death in his flat, where he lived alone.

No time for breakfast. I grabbed my coat and hurried out the door.

As a detective with seventeen years’ experience, I’m always interested in the latest violent crime stories. I like to think that I never leave a case unsolved. But the fact that the victim was a friend made me want to solve this one more than ever.

The police station was overflowing with people going about their business and talking over each other: drunks freshly pulled in off the street, the usual petty thieves protesting their innocence – never a very nice place. Chief Inspector Mullions called me into his office and briefed me about the Watkins case.

The trouble was that there seemed to be nothing to go on. The victim’s pockets contained nothing of interest – just his house keys, some loose change, and his wallet, in which I found £15 and a receipt for a meal at the Saucy Sausage in Botley. There was nothing else – no recent events of interest; no information that might hint at a reason why someone might want him dead.

For the sake of doing something, I decided to drive out to the Saucy Sausage; but I had no hope that it would lead to any useful clue. To tell the truth, I really went mainly as an excuse to have a bite to eat, since I had missed my breakfast.

The Saucy Sausage is an unpleasant, greasy, workmen’s café out near the Ring Road, mainly occupied by truck drivers, builders, and a selection of other characters who looked as though they had no particular job, but were clearly up to no good. But it serves a decent cooked breakfast, if you’re not fussy about the surroundings. I ordered a full breakfast, and ate it while examining the passing crowd of unsavoury characters.

When I had finished, I talked to the owner. He was a tall, strong man with an overall on, your typical owner of a run-down café like this. I showed him the picture of my friend.

Have you seen this man in here recently?” I asked him.

Simon Watkins? Yeah, he was here last Tuesday. He comes here quite often – for a change, he says. He was grumbling about the police and how they were not looking into his case.”

His case?” I asked. “What case was that, then?”

Well, you know he owns that fancy jewellery shop, don’t you? Watkins of Oxford? Caters for all them posh types in top hats and fur coats – you know the sort. I think that’s why he comes in here – it’s a chance to talk to real people, if you know what I mean. Anyway his shop was robbed a couple of weeks back – surely you heard about that? Proper mess they made of the place, I gather. Well, old Watkins reckoned the police hadn’t taken the trouble to investigate the crime properly. He said there ought to have been a lot of evidence but they never done the forensics – just sent a copper round who told him to claim the insurance money and forget about it. One funny thing though: that same Tuesday when Watkins was in here last, so was your Chief Inspector Mullions.”

What?” I asked. “Talking to Watkins, you mean? They were here together?”

Nah,” said the man. “Mullions didn’t even notice Watkins was here. Mullions was talking to one of the low-lifes we get in here – that gangster Billy Horn. People reckon he’s behind half the crime in this city. But I reckon Watkins saw Mullions, all right.”

Did Watkins mention the name of the policeman that was meant to be investigating his case?” I asked curiously.

Yeah, he did. Someone called Mr Jones,” he said in a low voice.

Thank you; you have been very helpful,” I said, hurrying out of the door and into the noisy street.

I returned to the station. Chief Inspector Mullions called me into his office.

Anything to report?”, he asked.

Nothing yet, sir,” I said. “I followed the only lead I had – went out to the Saucy Sausage, but I didn’t find anything out.”

The Saucy what? Never heard of it,” said Mullions.

Oh, but surely you…” I began, but then hesitated. “Oh, it’s just a greasy café out in Botley. Apparently Watkins was a regular. But there’s nothing to go on.”

Well, carry on. Let me know if you get a good lead.”

When I left the Chief Inspector’s office, my heart was pounding. Why had Mullions pretended not to know about the Saucy Sausage, when he’d been there himself just last week? And why, when he briefed me about the murder, had Mullions said nothing about the robbery at Watkins’s shop?

I found Detective Constable Jones. He was up to his elbows in boring paperwork, and was happy to be dragged out to the King’s Arms for a pint of beer. We found a quiet corner, and I quizzed him about the robbery at Watkins’s shop.

How do you know about that?” he asked. “The Chief Inspector told me to to bury all the paperwork about that – and that’s exactly what I did. Not a word to anyone – his express orders.”

Never mind how I know. Can you keep a secret?” I asked. “A big one?”

Sure,” Jones replied, intrigued.

What if I told you that Mullions was my prime suspect in the Watkins murder case?”

He almost dropped his glass. “Are you mad? The Chief Inspector?”

I’m not mad. But I need your help to prove it. And you can’t breathe a word of it to anyone – understood?”


At 11.45 that night, DC Jones and I were alone in the darkness outside Mullions’s office. The routine business of police work goes on 24 hours a day, but on the side of the building occupied by the offices of the top brass, the lights had been out since 6pm. We both knew that if we were caught here, it would be the end of our careers.

Jones was on his knees, picking the lock – a skill he’d picked up in his youth, in what he called the ‘wild days’ before he took to solving crime, rather than committing it. Mullions was behind the murder – I was sure of it – but we needed evidence – and the evidence had better be somewhere behind this door.

Got it!” I whispered triumphantly two hours later. DC Jones and I slipped silently out of the building.

‘It’ was an envelope addressed to Mullions, and which had been carefully hidden behind the filing cabinet in his office. It contained a short note, signed by Simon Watkins, in which he advised the Chief Inspector that if the robbery at his shop was not properly investigated, he would send a set of photographs to the Oxford Times, which he thought would be of great interest to the public. Copies of the photographs were enclosed. They clearly showed Billy Horn handing a large roll of banknotes to Chief Inspector Mullions in the car park of the Saucy Sausage.

I had my motive. Billy Horn must have been behind the jewellery shop robbery, and had bribed Mullions to close down the investigation. It was Watkins’s bad luck that he had stumbled upon the evidence. Mullions must have killed Watkins to silence him, and to protect his own career. The case was solved.


I am writing this down now from my prison cell. I was jailed for five years for gross misconduct. They don’t like the idea of police detectives secretly breaking into a superior’s office. Poor old DC Jones got three years – I do feel guilty about that. The evidence against Mullions was, sadly, inadmissible.

As it turned out, Mullions had a cast-iron alibi for the murder of Simon Watkins, having spent the night of the murder at his wife’s birthday party.

Billy Horn and his gang had been under close police surveillance, which confirmed that they had spent the entire night gambling at the Lucky Diamond in Woodstock. None of them could have killed Watkins.

The true facts only emerged later. Watkins, it was established, had for a number of years been inflating his shop’s profits by selling cheap fake pearls as real ones. He had had the bad luck to be caught out by a customer – the notorious ‘Mad’ Kenny Kitson – a well-known local citizen and Billy Horn’s sole rival for control of the Oxford underworld.

Kitson was less than pleased when a necklace for which he had paid £10,000, and which he had given to his daughter on her eighteenth birthday, turned out to be worthless. Any other customer would simply have gone to the police, of course. But since Kenny Kitson’s career had been largely spent avoiding the forces of law and order, he had decided, it seems, to take justice into his own hands by following Watkins home one dark night and plunging a kitchen knife into his chest.


It’s a very simple rule

If you have a sentence consisting of two clauses, each of which could stand on its own as a sentence, then they need something stronger than a comma to link them.


My brother is much wealthier than I am, he is a fund manager.

This breaks the simple rule and is therefore hideous English.

You have a host of options to fix it:

1. Use a full stop. Write them as two sentences.

My brother is much wealthier than I am. He is a fund manager.

2. Use a semicolon.

My brother is much wealthier than I am; he is a fund manager.

3. If (as in the example given above) the second clause does something to explain or elaborate on the first, then you could use a colon.

My brother is much wealthier than I am: he is a fund manager.

4. Alternatively, in the same circumstances, you could use a conjunction that makes the connection explicit.

My brother is much wealthier than I am because [or ‘in that’] he is a fund manager.

5. In the same circumstances you could turn the whole thing around and say something like

As [or ‘being’] a fund manager [or ‘since he is a fund manager’], my brother is much wealthier than I am.

6. If the facts stated are not related, or if, though they are related, you don’t want to make any relation between them explicit, you could just use a simple conjunction like ‘and’.

My brother is much wealthier than I am and he is a fund manager.

You all know this rule because I have told you it.
You all know that I expect proper proofreading.

So why am I still reading stuff like the following?

Descartes’s ontological argument involves appeal to the notion of ‘true and immutable natures’, these are qualities without which an object cannot exist.

Kant’s criticism consists of rejecting both the subject and the predicate of the statement ‘God exists’, saying instead ‘there is no God’, this means that there is nothing in reality that corresponds to the concept of God.

A property can be defined as a way of being, an object can have the way of being that is redness, or rectangularity.

There is an error in this argument as it is built on the assumption that God necessarily exists, this is an unsupported claim.

Descartes’s argument is flawed, this is due to the fact that thought is one thing, yet reality is another.

Kant’s next point is much more radical, it rests upon his distinction between analytic and synthetic statements.