This page gives my answers to 42 of my favorite bad ideas in philosophy, along with my own condensed answers. It functions as an outline of much of my philosophical project, especially focusing on epistemology. Many future posts will elaborate on the points found here.
As you read the blunders, try quizzing yourself. If you know it’s wrong, can you explain the issue? Enjoy!
1) There is no point to asking why, why, why. Philosophy asks questions that cannot or need not be answered. I don’t have a philosophy and I don’t need one.
Everyone has a philosophy, whether they know it or not.
2) Life is full of contradictions. Reality isn’t black and white. It’s mixed and full of paradoxes.
Existence is Identity. To be is to be something. Everything is what it is. Nothing is what it isn’t. Contradictions do not exist.
3) The rules of logic can’t be proven.
Consciousness is Identification. Just as existence has identity, consciousness has identity. In grasping that an object has a characteristic, we have at the same time grasped that it does not not have that characteristic. The law of non-contradiction merely makes this observation explicit.
4) Ideas can be good in theory but not in practice.
If consciousness is identification, then a good idea is one that successfully identifies the facts. A good idea is one which is good in practice.
5) Wishing can make it so.
Wishing cannot make it so. Existence has primacy over consciousness.
6)The senses distort reality and deceive us.
A man’s sensory organs have identity and act in accord with cause and effect. No matter the form of the perception, the senses do infallibly provide information about the object of perception. The senses are necessarily valid.
7) You can’t prove that everything around you isn’t an illusion or a deception.
Sensory qualities are real. The perceptual level is the given.
8) A person’s character is fundamentally shaped by forces outside his control. People can’t really help who they are or what they do.
The primary choice is the choice to focus or not. As a man makes this choice, he forms his own character. Man has volition.
9) Even if we can chose to think, there is no way to know if our thinking is correct. Logic is limited. Logic is really only good for mental puzzles, and it doesn’t have anything to do with brute facts of observation. If something can be logically deduced, then of course we can be sure about it, but that only works for questions of definition, where the answer is contained in the very question. For real life, logic doesn’t always apply. And we don’t need logic most of the time.
Logical Induction is a process of forming valid generalizations by integrating observations into the sum of all of our knowledge. We do it by means of concepts. Concepts are man’s way of holding his observations in view as a non-contradictory sum. Logic is key to all of man’s processes of knowing. It must never be violated.
10) Concepts aren’t reliable. They change all the time as we learn more about the world. How can you know your concept of something is correct? Your concept of something is not necessarily the same as the actual thing. A concept is an awareness of special “abstract” objects.
Concepts are categories to let us achieve unit-economy so we can form integrations on the basis of differences in observed data. A concept is the particulars, as viewed by man’s distinct method.
11) You can’t ever know when you have formed a concept correctly. We just group concretes based on vague, unanalyzable resemblances.
We group concretes based on our knowledge of their essential similarities. These are determined by observed fact.
12) “Essences” are an idea rejected by philosophers since Aristotle, because there is no way to demonstrate them.
Aristotle understood essences as metaphysical, but they are, in fact, epistemological. The “essential” of a concept is that characteristic of the object which, within our current knowledge, explains the most other characteristics. The essential of a concept may change as our knowledge increases.
13) If we have to choose the essential similarity then concepts become a matter of convention. You agree on a definition, and the definition is the concept.
The meaning of a concept is not exhausted by its definition. The concept is the particulars, viewed as units of a category. Definition is merely the final step in concept-formation. A definition notes what broader group the concept fits into (the genera), and it notes what sets it apart from other concepts in the broader group (the differentia). A definition helps us understand the relation between sets of concepts. But individual concepts must be understood as groups of observed particulars before they can be interrelated to other concepts.
14) How do we know a concept is correct? Can’t we just make up arbitrary concepts that have nothing to do with reality? How do we know our ideas aren’t subjective?
Concepts are objective when they are based on observation and the needs of the mind. They are groupings necessitated by the limitation of mind’s scope of focal awareness. We know a concept has been formed correctly when it serves a purpose of highlighting a relevant similarity between particulars.
15) We always bring preconceptions to into our thinking, so full objectivity is impossible. Objectivity would require disinterest.
Objectivity is volitional adherence to reality by the method of logic. Disinterest is not a feature of objectivity. Man should passionately desire to know the truth.
16) New knowledge can invalidate old definitions and knowledge. In order to know anything fully, we would have to know everything.
We form knowledge by making observations and by reasoning about the interrelation between these observations. One need not know everything about a concept in order to know something about it. Human knowledge is contextual, but valid.
17) There is no necessary starting place or order in knowledge. It doesn’t matter where my concepts come from—they are here, so I can use them.
Knowledge is hierarchical. Concepts are built on other concepts, which are ultimately built on observation. It is fallacious to use a concept while denying a hierarchically earlier concept on which it depends.
18) Even if concepts are objective, people can’t be truly objective because people are irrational. We have emotions that fight against our reason, so we cannot be free of bias.
Emotions are a product of ideas. Ideas can be identified and validated. Objectivity is possible.
19) Sometimes emotions are tools of cognition. Sometimes our feelings tell us what is true. Reason has its limitations. Sometimes we have to know things by other means, such as divine revelation. Reason is good, but we have to keep it in its place. It’s not an absolute.
Reason is man’s only means of knowledge. Since emotions are products of ideas, they are not cognition. An emotion may or may not relate to reality. Only reason grasps reality. Even revelation must be apprehended by man’s reason. In that way it is no different from other kinds of evidence. Reason is an absolute.
20) Every claim is either true or false.
The arbitrary is neither true nor false. An arbitrary statement makes no attempt to connect to observed data. It is impossible to consider an arbitrary statement’s truth status. The arbitrary is worse than the false. It is an attempt to circumvent the very process of thinking.
21) You can never really prove the validity of your conclusions. No one can be certain of anything. Man is doomed to perpetual doubt.
Certainty is possible. It is contextual. Certainty is the end result when one follows an objective process. We may be certain and also be wrong. Certainty does not mean infallibility. A proposition is certain when all the evidence points to its truth, and none of the evidence points to its falsehood.
22) I don’t see how ideas about logic and concepts matter for what I need to do to life my life.
Ideas lead to actions, and actions have consequences. Reason is your basic means of survival. You have long-range needs, and you to achieve these needs you must focus your mind and determine a code of values to guide your actions. You cannot afford to only be rational sometimes.
23) I don’t need to invent my own moral code. The morals of my society are sufficient for me.
Reason is the primary virtue, and reason is an attribute of the individual. To the extent that you passively absorb values from others, you do not truly have values, and you do not truly live.
24) Individualism is dangerous.
Since reason is an attribute of the individual, the individual is the primary unit of consideration. Every man is an end in himself. He lives for himself and for no one else.
25) All I need to know about right and wrong is in the Bible. An action is good because it conforms to God’s moral law.
While the Bible contains all that we need for life and godliness, we must still think for ourselves about what the Bible says. We may know that an action is good because God has stated it in his moral law. But God’s commands reflect reality. On a daily basis we must apply the Bible’s moral principles to our own circumstances. We must also look to reality itself to determine what is good and evil for us as individuals.
26) It is subjectivism to say that “good” and “evil” are contextual to the individual. The nature of a thing makes it either good or bad. The “good” is good apart from any particular person. “Goodness” is an entity in a higher reality.
Life is the essential root of value. Values imply a valuer. The “good” is only good in reference to particular people.
27) Morality transcends reason. Reason cannot help us discover morality. I should do what is right because it is my duty. There are unconditional imperatives.
Man’s life is the standard of moral value. The needs of man’s life must be discovered by reason. “Right” means self-interested. “Moral” has no meaning apart from the primary choice to live. All imperatives are conditional upon the choice to live. For the person who chooses to live, every “is” implies an “ought.”
28) The highest virtues are love and humility. Morality exists mainly to show men how to relate to one another—a man on a desert island would not need morality.
Virtues are a means of attaining values. The primary value is life. For a man, the primary way of attaining life is by thinking. Therefore rationality is the primary virtue. All other virtues depend on it. A man would need rationality and morality even if he was alone. To “love” may mean to help something or to value it. To succeed in helping or in valuing, man must be rational. Humility is rationality in regard to one’s own self-evaluation.
29) It is impossible to determine a code of values by reasoning from observation. It’s impossible to logically prove that an action is moral or immoral, because you need a value judgment to get started. It is impossible to obtain an “ought” from an “is.” Values are arbitrary and there is no logical starting place in forming a moral code. Value judgments are not open to scientific study. There is no way to choose between conflicting values. Moral principles cannot be objective or absolute. Morality is subjective—it is either determined by culture norms, or perhaps by the individual.
Morality is objective because values are objective—they are based on the actual needs of one’s own life.
30) Our standard of value should not be our own lives. To be virtuous I need to be selfless and have no interest in my own benefit. I should live for the sake of others. I have a duty to sacrifice for others. The good is that which is good for my neighbor. Morality consists of giving away values. Everyone is his brother’s keeper, and we all have an obligation to one another. We have the duty to help people even if they do not deserve it. It may be our duty to love a murderer, or to feed someone who refuses to work. My moral worth depends mainly on how much I help others. Selfishness is evil.
The individual is the proper beneficiary of his own moral action. Selfishness, rightly understood, is good. It is rational self-interest.
31) Christianity is about abandoning ourselves. We are not supposed to love ourselves. “Death to self” is the essence of morality. Although it may be in our self-interest to worship God, that is not the proper motivation.
Faith actually is a transaction—a covenant. God wants our worship because it pleases him. And we worship God because he is a value to us. God himself is selfish. Jesus didn’t die on the cross only to secure our happiness, but for the joy set before him. God’s highest concern is not our well-being, but his own glory. I glorify God by seeing him as a value to me as an individual. I chose to follow God exclusively out of self-interest. I trade value for value: God loves me and I love him.
32) Love is unconditional. You should love the giver, not the gift. You should not love God because of what he can do for you. That doesn’t work in our relationship with God or with other people.
We trade value for value in our relationship with God and with other people. The currency is not money, but the enjoyment we receive from the existence of the other person. To love a person is to see that they are a value to one’s own life. If love is understood as “valuing,” then unconditional love is a self-contradiction.
33) It’s wrong to pass judgment on other people. We should not seek to penalize evil people.
Justice is a virtue.
34) People shouldn’t have to suffer just because they make mistakes on the job. After all, society is a whole, and we need the whole to contribute. Who is to say how much one person or another really contributed?
Productivity is an achievement of individual minds.
35) It is not good to be too independent-minded.
All minds are independent. Independence is a precondition of thinking and of valuing.
36) That kind of independence leads to the sin of pride.
Pride is not a sin, but a virtue. Pride means valuing one’s self. It means caring about the state of one’s own morality and achievements.
37) It won’t work if you act like you know best all the time. You need to make sure you don’t step on toes. Fit in. Let others think they are right, even if they aren’t.
Honesty is always the best policy in the long-term.
38) To be honest on principle, you would need to tell the truth even to a Nazi.
Honesty does not mean always telling the truth. It means never seeking to gain a value by faking reality.
39) If people took rational self-interest as the basis of morality, they would obtain values by initiating force against other people. That is what is in their best interest. That is the way people would try to obtain values.
There is no self-interest in initiating force against others. Trampling others is not selfish. There are no conflicts of interests between rational men. The initiation of physical force is evil. It hurts both the victim and the perpetrator.
40) The initiation of force means stopping someone from having or doing what they want.
The initiation of force means starting an action of force against someone.
41) But people can obtain values by force, such as by crime. It is not always practical to act on principle. Sometimes it is necessary to compromise one’s principles for the sake of practicality. It may even be necessary to take an immoral action to avoid an even more immoral action.
Virtue is practical. Principles are practical. Immorality is never necessary. The “moral” must always be conceived in terms of the possible.
42) Even if it was good for the individual to act for his own self-interest, a society could not function that way. Governments need to use force to tax people so they can create a safety net to help people in trouble. Besides that, governments need to make laws to keep people moral, to protect people by regulating business, and to make the world a better place by spreading the wealth around. Everyone has the right to be happy and healthy, and to have a good education and job. We must bind the freedom of individuals in order to benefit the collective.
There are no such rights. Our right is to our life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. These are individual rights and they are absolutes. Government is an agency to protect rights. The choice between statism and capitalism is the choice between unreason and reason. One leads to destruction, the other leads to life and prosperity. Capitalism is not merely the only practical system—it is the only moral system.
(I learned most of the above ideas from the writings of Leonard Peikoff. I highly recommend his work.)