Tag Archives: rationality

The Folly of Scientism

By Austin L. Hughes
The New Atlantis

‘When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived. But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable.

The temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’

‘The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science. More recent advocates of scientism have taken the ironic but logical next step of denying any useful role for philosophy whatsoever, even the subservient philosophy of the positivist sort. But the last laugh, it seems, remains with the philosophers—for the advocates of scientism reveal conceptual confusions that are obvious upon philosophical reflection. Rather than rendering philosophy obsolete, scientism is setting the stage for its much-needed revival.

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’

‘Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.’

Austin L. Hughes is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

Excerpts reblogged with permission from The New AtlantisView original post


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Francis Bacon on critical thinking

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban, QC (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626), was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, essayist, and author. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England.  After his death, he remained extremely influential through his works, especially as philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method during the second scientific revolution. (Note: Francis Bacon is not to be confused with Roger Bacon).


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Thomas Paine on useless arguments


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Searle against the rejection of realism

Prof. John Searle (born July 31, 1932) is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Widely noted for his contributions to the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and social philosophy, he began teaching at Berkeley in 1959. He received the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000; the National Humanities Medal in 2004; and the Mind & Brain Prize in 2006. Among his notable concepts is the “Chinese room” argument against “strong” artificial intelligence.

“I actually think that philosophical theories make a tremendous difference to every aspect of our lives. In my observation, the rejection of realism, the denial of ontological objectivity, is an essential component of the attacks on epistemic objectivity, rationality, truth, and intelligence in contemporary intellectual life. It is no accident that the various theories of language, literature, and even education that try to undermine the traditional conceptions of truth, epistemic objectivity, and rationality rely heavily on arguments against external realism. The first step in combatting irrationalism – not the only step but the first step – is refutation of the arguments against external realism as a presupposition of large areas of discourse.” – John Searle


Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books, 1995 p.197.


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No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Firstly, what’s an opinion?

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.[1]

Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.

Read more from Patrick Stokes: The ethics of bravery

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

Reblogger’s note: 

[1] This is a fallacy known as false balance.


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The Paradox of Thrift

The paradox of thrift (or paradox of saving) is a paradox of economics generally attributed to John Maynard Keynes, although it had been stated as early as 1714 in The Fable of the Bees and similar sentiments dating to antiquity.

Keynes argued that consumer spending contributes to the collective good, because one person’s spending is another person’s income.  Thus, when individuals save too much instead of spending, they can cause collective harm because businesses do not earn as much and have to lay off employees who are then unable to save.  The paradox is that total savings may fall even when individual savings attempt to rise.  In this way, individual savings rather than spending can worsen a recession, and therefore be collectively harmful to the economy.

Consider the following example:

thrift boxes

In the above example, one consumer increased his savings by $100, but this cause no net increase in total savings.  Increased savings reduced income for other economic participants, forcing them to cut their savings. In the end, no new savings was generated while $200 income was lost.

This paradox is related to the fallacy of composition, which falsely concludes what is true of the parts must be true of the whole.  It also represents a prisoner’s dilemma, because saving is beneficial to each individual but deleterious to the general population.

The paradox of thrift is a central component of Keynesian economics, and has formed part of mainstream economics since the late 1940s, though it is disputed on a number of grounds by non-Keynesian economists such as Friedrich Hayek.  One of the main arguments against the paradox of thrift is that when people increase savings in a bank, the bank has more money to lend, which will generally decrease interest rates and thus spur lending and spending.

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Determinism, free will and compatibilism

by Tim Harding

The idea that the future is already determined is known in philosophy as determinism.  There are various definitions of determinism available; but in this essay, I shall use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition, which is ‘the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future’ (McKenna, 2009:1.3).

This idea presents a difficult problem for the concept of free will: how can we make free choices if all our actions are determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature?  A related but distinct question is: how can we be held morally responsible for our actions if we have no free will? Undesirable consequences like these are not sufficient reasons for declaring determinism to be false; but they can act (and have influenced many philosophers) as a powerful motivator towards resolving the apparent conflict between determinism and free will. 

Some philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen have gone as far as arguing that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will (Iredale 2012: 8).[1] There are various other philosophical arguments in favour of free will – one of these is an apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass. Some scientists, such as Sam Harris argue in favour of determinism and claim that free will is an illusion. Leading contemporary philosopher John Searle thinks that the issue has still not been resolved, despite two centuries of philosophical and scientific debate. 

Most people who are neither philosophers nor scientists seem to intuitively feel that they have free will and so when presented with this dilemma are more likely to choose free will over determinism (Iredale 2012:13).  On the other hand, in my personal experience, scientists who think in terms of causes and effects are more likely to side with a determinist view.  In this essay, I intend to argue that a solution to this dilemma lies not in choosing free will over determinism, nor vice versa; but in the theory that determinism and free will are compatible – known as compatibilism.

Before going on, let us be clear about what we mean by the term free will.  Clarke & Capes (2013:1) have provided a useful definition:

‘To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely. When an agent acts freely—when she exercises her free will—it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action’.

So what does it take to act freely?  Taylor (2012: 40) states that there are three essential characteristics to free actions.  One is able to act freely only if:

(1) there is no obstacle that prevents you from doing A, and

(2) there is nothing that constrains or forces you to do A, and

(3) you could have done otherwise.

There is a diversity of philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will; but the higher-level taxonomy of these views may be summarised as follows.  Those who hold that determinism and free will cannot both be true are known as incompatibilists.  Within this category, those who claim that determinism is true – and therefore free will is impossible – are known as hard determinists.  Those who claim that determinism is false and therefore that free will is at least possible are known as metaphysical libertarians (not necessarily related to political libertarians).  Those who think that determinism and free will are compatible are known as compatibilistsThere is also a range of sub-categories within the compatibilist camp; but I will only discuss a couple of them in this essay.  This higher-level taxonomy can be visually described by the following diagram.


To be more specific, the following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5) as the Classical Formulation of the free will problem:

1)      ‘Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.

2)      Actions are events.

3)      Every event has a cause.

4)      If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.

5)      If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.

This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox.  How can these inconsistencies be reconciled?  Compatibilists would deny proposition 5).  Incompatibilists, on the other hand, might move in a number of different directions, including the denial of propositions 1), 3) or 4) (McKenna, 2009:1.5).

According to Taylor (2012: 40), all versions of compatibilism (which he calls ‘soft determinism’) have three claims in common:

(i) Determinism is true.

(ii) We are free to perform an action A to the extent there are no obstacles that would prevent us from doing A, and we are not externally constrained (not forced by external causes) to do A.

(iii) The causes of free actions are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent himself, e.g., an agent’s own acts of will or volitions, or decisions, or desires, and so on.

Claim (i) is made in common with hard determinism.  Claims (ii) and (iii) are where the compatibilists part company with the hard determinists and attempt to explain how free will can be compatible with determinism.

Taylor’s objection to compatibilism is essentially a challenge to Claim (iii); that is, that the certain states, events, or conditions within the agent herself are themselves caused by external factors, consistent with determinism.

My response to Taylor’s objection is that the certain states or conditions within the agent could include the person’s values, ethics, loyalties, priorities, and so on.  Let us call these states or conditions within the agent ‘values’.  These values may have external causes accumulated over the agent’s lifetime.  The important point is that an agent’s values could give rise to more than one possible action by the agent, all of which are consistent with the agent’s values.  Let us call these possible consistent actions ‘options’.  When faced with a decision to make, a rational agent would be likely to consider the options available to her and choose the best option.  In this way, the options available to the agent stem from causes but the agent is making a free choice within the range of options available.

A simple way of modelling this limited version of free will has been referred to by some philosophers as a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ after the novel of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges (McKenna 2009:2.1; Iredale 2012: 14).  In other words, there are alternative paths an agent could choose to take, but the paths available have been predetermined.  Within this model, the agent meets the criterion of acting of her own free will, because she could have acted otherwise.  Her ability to have acted otherwise is underwritten by her ability to have selected amongst, or chosen between, alternative courses of action (McKenna 2009:2.1).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Garden with forked path (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind.  Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness.  Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists.  If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.

Daniel Dennett (2003) has proposed a more elegant version of compatibilism with an evolutionary basis.  Although in the strict physical sense our actions might be determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved.  Seen this way, free will is the freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself.  To clarify this distinction, he coins the term ‘evitability’ as the opposite of ‘inevitability’, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones (Dennett 2003:56).  Evitability is entirely compatible with, and actually requires, determinism; because without it, an agent cannot anticipate likely consequences and avoid them.  Dennett provides us with the following explicit argument:

‘In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms. Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided. Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable.  Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable. Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability’ (Dennett 2003:56).

Dennett (2003:58) also argues that there is a concept of chance that is compatible with determinism, which has been invoked to explain evolution via natural selection.  Through these means, he endeavours to unyoke determinism from inevitability (Dennett 2003:60) [2].

In conclusion, I have offered two accounts of how free will may be compatible with determinism – my own and Daniel Dennett’s.  However, I do not claim that either of these accounts has solved the dilemma.  There are also, of course, many other accounts of compatibilism as well as objections to them, plus alternative theories such as hard determinism and metaphysical libertarianism.  Indeed, resolving the dilemma between free will and determinism is very complicated and may be ‘one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy’ (Nichols and Knobe 2007:1).


[1] Peter van Inwagen’s argument that free will is required for moral judgments  is:

  1. The moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X implies that you should have done something else instead.
  2. That you should have done something else instead implies that there was something else for you to do.
  3. That there was something else for you to do implies that you could have done something else.
  4. That you could have done something else implies that you have free will.
  5. If you don’t have free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X (van Inwagen 2009).

[2] For those who would like to read more on this topic, there is an interesting online debate between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett critiques Harris’ book on Free Will in a review titled Reflections on Free Will. Then Harris responds to Dennett’s critique in a rejoinder entitled The Marionette’s Lament.


Clarke, Randolph & Capes, Justin, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/incompatibilism-theories/&gt;.

Dennett, Daniel. 2003 Freedom Evolves. London, Penguin.

Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/compatibilism/&gt;.

Nichols, S. & Knobe, 2007 ‘Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous 41(4):663-85 in Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

Taylor, Richard. (1976) ‘Freedom, Determinism and Fate’; printed in Time, Self and Mind Study Guide, Monash, 2012:40-47.

van Inwagen, Peter (2009). The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will. Oxford.

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Some Origins of Western Quackery

 By Tim Harding

             (An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2013, Vol 33 No 3 p.16. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in April 2013 ).

‘By definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work or has been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? Medicine.’ – Tim Minchin

A corollary of Tim Minchin’s rhetorical question might be ‘What should we call alternative medicine that has been proved not to work?’  I recently asked this question at my local Skeptics in the Pub meeting, eliciting an immediate and resounding chorus of ‘Quackery!(When you think about it, if the part of ‘alternative medicine’ that works is medicine, and the part that doesn’t work is quackery, there is nothing left in the category of ‘alternative medicine’).

On his Quackwatch web site, Dr. Stephen Barrett defines quackery as ‘the promotion of unsubstantiated methods that lack a scientifically plausible rationale’.  This definition includes questionable ideas as well as questionable products and services, regardless of the sincerity of their promoters.  In line with this definition, Barrett reserves the word ‘fraud’ only for situations in which deliberate deception is involved.

So where did quackery come from?  The word ‘quack’ derives from the archaic word ‘quacksalver’, of Dutch origin, literally meaning ‘hawker of salve’.  The quacksalvers sold their wares on the market by shouting in a loud voice.  In the Middle Ages, the word ‘quack’ meant ‘shouting’.  These days, we tend to associate quackery with dodgy products and practices from the nineteenth century such as snake oil, miracle hair tonics, magnetic bracelets and homeopathic remedies.  But the origins of western quackery actually go back much further – to the cradle of western civilisation in ancient Greece and Rome.

In those ancient times, scientific experimental methods had not yet been developed – let alone clinical trials.  Medical observations were largely confined to patients as individuals rather as a cohort or group.  Ancient physicians were not much better than naturopaths when it came to empirical evidence.  Without scientific data from treatment groups versus control groups, it was difficult to know which treatments worked and which didn’t.  As a result, there was no clear dividing line between medicine and quackery.  Ancient ‘medicine’ consisted of a mish-mash of well-meaning but misguided treatment by physicians and surgeons, faith healers, herbal remedies, aromotherapy, other superstitions – and even sorcery or magic. Sounds familiar? That’s right – many of these weird ancient beliefs have carried through to the quackery of today as a legacy of the vast Roman Empire.

Ancient Greek medicine

The first notable Greek physician may have been the poet Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BCE.  In his Iliad, Homer describes various medical techniques such as the extraction of arrows, the treatment of wounds, the application of dressings and the dispensing of soothing drugs.  The Homeric poems provide a glimpse of ancient medical ideas and practices long before the formal documentation of medical literature.  It is significant that practical medical treatment appears to have been provided in this early period, probably as a matter of military necessity, so that wounded soldiers could be saved to fight another day.


Reliance on the gods or faith healing seems to have come later, to some extent in parallel with advances in medical treatment.  The god of healing, Asklepios, had a shrine at Epidaurus in southern Greece, where miraculous recoveries were said to have been made by the sick and lame by sleeping in the temple overnight.  A Greek lyric poet from Thebes named Pindar (c.522– c.443 BCE) wrote:

‘[Asklepios] delivered all of them from their different pains, tending some of them with gentle incantations, others with soothing potions, or by wrapping remedies all around their limbs, and others he set right with surgery.’

The following picture is of a cast showing a physician examining a patient while Asklepios stands nearby holding the symbol of medicine, a snake coiled round a staff.


There were also apothecaries who harvested herbs and prepared drugs, accompanying their ministrations with important rituals and incantations.  Theophrastus (c.371 – c.287 BCE), who was a student of Aristotle, described some of these weird rituals in his History of Plants:

‘They say that the peony, which some call glykyside, should be dug up at night, for, if a man does it in the day-time and is observed by a woodpecker while he is gathering the fruit, he risks the loss of his eyesight; and if he is cutting the root at the time, he gets a prolapsed anus’.

‘One should draw three circles around mandrake with a sword, and cut it with one’s face to the west; and at the cutting of the second piece one should dance around the plant and say as many things as possible about the mysteries of love’.

On the other hand, the medical literature subsequently found in Greece differs markedly from that found elsewhere.  It includes reasoned arguments and debates, reflecting an intellectual openness consistent with Greek philosophy, rather than medicine as some sort of secret mystical art.  The links between medicine and philosophy can be traced back to Parmenides, Empedocles and even Pythagoras, whose ideas on appropriate living included a ban on eating beans!

Athens was one of the first city states to employ a publicly funded physician as a more rational alternative to traditional folk medicine.  Other Greek cities also maintained a public physician as well as several private practitioners.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells the tale of the early Greek physician Democedes of Croton, who started his career in the civil service of Athens and Aegina.  In 522 BCE, Democedes was captured by the Persians and sent to Susa.  The Persian King Darius once sprained his ankle while he was hunting, and his Egyptian doctors seemed to make it worse.  Darius then summoned Democedes, who was able to heal the ankle using Greek remedies.  Democedes was richly rewarded and hired as a physician of the Persian court.  Darius’s wife, Atossa, later had a breast ulcer.  When Democedes cured her ulcer, he was allowed to visit Greece as a reward.

Schools of medicine had existed for some time in various regions of Greece, most notably on the island of Kos, associated with the famous name of Hippokrates, a younger contemporary of Herodotus.  Hippokrates’ contribution to medicine is best remembered today by the ethical oath bearing his name.  Very little is known of Hippokrates himself, or how much of the Hippokrates medical treatises he personally wrote.  Hippokrates is cited in later works by Aristotle and Plato; but the Greek habit of composing imaginary speeches or letters by famous people from the past gradually blurred the distinction between the genuine and the false.  The following references to Hippokrates are actually references to the large body of medical literature bearing his name, the Hippokratic Corpus.

Hippokrates attempted to put medical diagnosis and treatment on a rational basis.  He viewed the human body as an organism whose parts must be understand as a whole.  Hippokrates thought that human physiology was comprised of four fluids or ‘humors’: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, corresponding to the four inanimate elements of earth, air, fire and water, as shown in the diagram below.

Four humours

Disease was thought to result from an imbalance of these humors, resulting in a disturbance of the natural harmony and order of the world so important to Classical Greek thought.  Hippokrates also placed emphasis on prognosis as well as diagnosis, so that the course of an illness could be predicted.  The more familiarity a physician showed with a disease, the more confidence his patients would have in him.  Prognosis also had practical benefits in planning the medical interventions that would be needed at different times.

In the absence of the modern germ theory of infectious disease, the danger to health from overcrowding within the Long Walls of Athens was not foreseen, resulting in a devastating plague in 430BCE.  Thucydides did not attempt to explain the reasons for the plague, but in the prognostic tradition of Hippokrates, he tried to describe its symptoms and effects so that if it struck again it could be recognised.

Active medical interventions included cauterisation and blood-letting, as well as surgery, the rectification of dislocations and the setting of bone fractures.  Other therapies included cupping, special diets, herbal remedies, potions, purgatives and exercises, consistent with the idea of ‘bringing the body back into balance’.  One rather spectacular treatment often performed in public was succussion, where the patient would be tied upside down to a ladder and then repeatedly dropped from a height of several feet as illustrated below.


It is unclear what succussion was supposed to achieve, but it is worth noting that succussion is a word still used by homeopaths to describe a shaking step in the preparation of their water doses.  The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann falsely believed that succussion activated the ‘vital energy’ of the diluted substance and made it stronger.

The rise of quackery in Rome

Traditional Roman medicine was initially an amateur activity using simple home remedies based on easily available agricultural ingredients such as wool, eggs and the humble but miraculous cabbage.  Cato the Elder wrote in his treatise On Agriculture:

‘For those who are troubled by colic, cabbage should be steeped in water…. ‘

‘Now as to patients for whom urination is painful or dribbling. Take cabbage, put in boiling water, boil briefly till half cooked…. ‘

‘If any sore or cancer develops in the breasts, apply ground cabbage …’

‘In case of dislocation, foment with hot water twice a day and apply ground cabbage: it will soon cure it…’

The Romans were a highly superstitious people.  For instance, the Roman Senate only sat on ‘auspicious days’.  In around 78 CE Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History:

‘I find that a bad cold in the head clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose.’

‘Some people keep a weasel’s heart in a small silver container, for swollen glands.’

The number three was regarded as a ‘lucky number’.  An anonymous Roman inscription reads:

‘To Julian who was spitting up blood and had been despaired of by all men the god revealed that he should go and from the threefold altar take the seeds of a pine cone and eat them with honey for three days. And he was saved and went and publicly offered thanks before the people’

Later Roman culture was greatly influenced by the ancient Greeks in many things, including philosophy, literature, art, science and medicine.

Galen of Pergamon (c. 129-200 CE) was a leading surgeon, physician, and philosopher of Greek origin.  In 162 CE, he established a large and successful practice in Rome, where he attended the Emperor Marcus Aurelias.  Amongst his voluminous works was a short essay entitled That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher, where he urged physicians to emulate Hippokrates and to embrace logic and rationality:

‘What reason, then, remains why the doctor, who practises the Art in a manner worthy of Hippocrates, should not be a philosopher? For since, in order to  discover the nature of the body, and the distinctions between diseases, and the indications for remedies, he must exercise his mind in rational thought, and since, so that he may persevere laboriously in the practice of these things, he must despise riches and exercise temperance,  he must already possess all the parts of philosophy: the logical, the scientific, and the ethical’.

Consistent with this approach, Galen saw the bodies of living things and their various parts as designed and operated by a craftsman-like nature with a purpose in mind; thus an important key to anatomical and physiological knowledge is an understanding of nature’s purposes.  This form of ‘intelligent design’ has been described as a teleological view of biology by modern reviewers of Galen’s writings.  Galen held that nature rules the body from three anatomical centres – the liver, the heart and the brain (in contrast to the Aristotelian view that all faculties are centred in the heart).  He claimed that human physiology can be explained by the principal activities of nature, which are genesis, growth and nutrition.

Like Hippokrates , Galen believed in the need for the ‘four humors’ to be in balance: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.  He thought that the human body had three physiological spheres: the nutritive, the vital and the logical.  According to Galen, stomach cooks food to what was called ‘chyle’ and sends it to the liver.  The liver adds ‘natural spirit’ and sends it to other organs and the heart.  The heart adds ‘vital spirit’ and sends it to the brain.  The brain adds what was called ‘pneuma’ and sends to the body through nerves.  Such views were the likely origin of the modern naturopathic belief in ‘vitalism’ that persists today.  Naturopathy posits that a special energy called ‘vital energy’ or ‘vital force’ guides bodily processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and adaptation.  Such energies and forces are unknown to modern science.

For religious reasons, there was little or no dissection of human corpses in ancient Rome.  Nevertheless, Galen believed in the supreme importance of anatomy, so he regularly performed dissections on animals.  Although he was conscious of the limitations of extrapolating from animals to humans, he did express some erroneous views about human anatomy, such as the following description by Galen in his work On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body:

‘All the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, which must be kept in mind throughout the discussion, namely, that in women the parts are within [the body],   whereas in men they are outside, in the region called the perineum. Consider first whichever ones you please, turn outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak and fold double the man’s, and you will find them the   same in both in every respect’.

Women were treated by male physicians and the gynaecological treatises of the Hippokratic Corpus were almost certainly written by and for men.  Part of the deficiency of observational evidence stems from the failure of male medical writers to speak to women about their illnesses.  Women were traditionally presented as being incapable of knowing what was wrong with them or telling a doctor if they did know.  Galen’s teleological view of biology also appears to have influenced his attitudes towards women:

‘So too the woman is less perfect than the man in respect to the generative parts. For the parts were formed within her when she was still a foetus, but could not because of the defect in the heart emerge and project on  the outside, and this, though making the animal itself that was being formed less perfect than one that is complete in all respects, provided no small advantage for the race; for there needs must be a female. Indeed,  you ought not to think that our creator would purposely make half the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation’.

These biased attitudes impacted wider Greek and Roman society.  For example, it was believed, on false medical grounds, that a man’s seed was most potent when he was about 30 years of age; and a woman’s body best suited for childbirth when she was still a teenager.

The medical theories of ancient Greece and Rome formed the foundation of Western medicine for centuries, even if they were eventually rejected.  The main reasons for this rejection were the development of empirical scientific methods after the Renaissance; coupled with advances such as the invention of the microscope and the germ theory of infectious disease.  Whilst there were observations of individual patients, there is no evidence of any organised medical experiments being conducted in ancient Greece and Rome, let alone clinical trials.  In some ways, the Greek philosophical traditions of logic and reasoning held back a more empirical scientific approach to medicine.  Instead of conducting practical experiments on illnesses, ancient Greek and Roman physicians became diverted into a search for the underlying purposes of diseases – a relatively fruitless ‘search for meaning’ rather than for empirical evidence.  This mystical and unscientific approach is one of the hallmarks of quackery today.


 Ancient Sources

Aristotle On the Generation of Animals excerpt translated by A.L. Peck.  Published online http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-medicine339.shtml

(Accessed 20 September 2012)

Galen That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher translated by Brain, P., 1977, “Galen on the ideal of the physician”, South Africa Medical Journal, 52: 936–938.

Galen On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body excerpt translated by M.T. May.  Published online http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-medicine351.shtml

(Accessed 20 September 2012)

Herodotus The Histories R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Herodotus, Quercus, London, 2008.

Thucydides A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Thucydides, Free Press, New York, 1996.

Modern Sources

Brain, P., 1986    Galen on Bloodletting: A Study of the Origins, Development and Validity of his Opinions, with a Translation of the Three Works Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Flaceliere, R., 2002    Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles. Phoenix Press, London.

King, H., 1995    ‘Medical texts as a source for women’s history ‘  in The Greek World Anton Powell (ed.) Routledge, London and New York.

Martin, T. R., 2000    Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Nutton, V., 2004    Ancient Medicine Routledge, London and New York.

Pagel, W., 1970    Book Review of Galen and the Usefulness of Parts of the Body in Medical History/ Volume14 / Issue04 / October 1970, 406-408.  Published online: 16 August 2012

Roberts, J.W., 1998    City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens (2nd edition), Routledge, London.

Roebuck, C., 1966    The World of Ancient Times Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Waterfield, R., 2004    Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

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Welcome to Tim Harding’s blog of writings and talks about logic, rationality, philosophy and skepticism. There are also some reblogs of some of Tim’s favourite posts by other writers, plus some of his favourite quotations and videos This blog has a Facebook connection at The Logical Place.

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The Case of the Falling Fat Man

by Tim Harding

Is it justified to kill an innocent threat in defence of oneself or others?

An ‘Innocent Threat’ is a person who poses an imminent threat your life, but who is not the originating cause of that threat, as in the ‘Falling Fat Man’ case hypothesised by Thomson (see below).  Some philosophers such Thomson argue that it is morally permissible to kill an Innocent Threat in self-defence (Thomson, 1991); whilst other philosophers such as Otsuka argue that it is not permissible (Otsuka, 1994).  In this essay, I intend to argue that it is justified to kill an innocent threat in defence of oneself or others, but on different grounds to those used by Thomson.  My grounds are (1) the traditional conditions for justification of self-defence; (2) the Doctrine of Double Effect (which is rejected by Thomson within this context); and (3) utilitarianism, in cases of defending more than one person.

In her 1991 paper on ‘Self-Defense’, Thomson provides three hypothetical cases in which she thinks it is morally permissible for you to kill a person in self-defence (‘Yes cases’); and three cases in which she thinks it is not permissible (‘No cases’).  These cases are:

      Yes cases        No cases
  • Villainous Aggressor
  • Innocent Aggressor
  • Innocent Threat
  • Substitution-of-a-Bystander
  • Use-of-a-Bystander
  • Riding-Roughshod-over-a-Bystander

A Villainous Aggressor intends to kill you, as in the case of a truck driver deliberately trying to run you over; whereas an Innocent Aggressor is not to blame for his aggression (for example, if he or she is insane).

An Innocent Threat does not intend to kill you, but will nevertheless do so unless you kill him or her.  For example, in Thomson’s Falling Fat Man case, you are lying in the sun on the balcony of your apartment and a fat man pushed by another person is falling towards you.  The only way you can prevent him falling on you and killing you is by moving an awning, which will deflect his fall on to the road below, where he will die.  If you do not deflect his fall in this way, your body will cushion his fall and he will live (but you will die).  The important point is that not only is the Falling Fat Man innocent, but he is not the cause of his fall towards you (Thomson, 1991:287).


Thomson argues that there is no moral difference between the three ‘Yes cases’ – in each case the threat will kill you if you do not kill him or her.  She says that, other things being equal, every person Y has a right against X that X not kill Y.  In summary, she concludes that the threats in the ‘Yes cases’ will violate your rights that they not kill you, and therefore they lack rights that you not kill them (Thomson, 1991:300-305).

In contrast, bystanders are not threats – they are not causally involved in the imminent threat to your life.  Thomson concludes that bystanders do have rights not to be killed and therefore may not be killed in self-defence against a threat not caused by the bystander (Thomson 1991: 298-299).

On the other hand, in his 1994 paper Otsuka argues that there is no moral difference between an Innocent Threat and a bystander.  He thinks that it is never justified to kill innocents in self-defence.  It is morally impermissible to kill a bystander and therefore it is also impermissible to kill an Innocent Threat.[1]

The implication of Otsuka’s theory that you are morally obliged to lie back and let the Fat Man fall on you is counter-intuitive and likely to be rejected by most people.  Appeals to intuition and public opinion are, of course, not philosophical arguments, but I think they can sometimes act as a ‘reality check’ to indicate that there might be something inadequate with a moral theory like Otsuka’s; and that alternative approaches need to be considered.

For a start, Otsuka’s theory conflicts with the Hobbesian account of self-defence that if one will die unless one does X, then one has a right to do X.  However, this right needs to be limited in some way.

The traditional conditions for justification of self-defence are that (a) the threat must be imminent; (b) the defensive violence must be necessary; and (c) the force used must be proportionate to the threat.  I would argue that conditions (a) and (b) are an intrinsic component of the ‘Falling Fat Man’ case.  The proportionality condition (c) is demonstrated in DDE criterion (1) below.

The Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) states that we may do what will cause a bad outcome in order to cause a good outcome if and only if (1) the good is in appropriate proportion to the bad and (2) we do not intend the bad outcome as our means to the good outcome (Thomson, 1991:292).  For example, it is morally permissible to give a terminally ill cancer patient enough morphine to relieve excruciating pain even if we know that this dose will kill the patient.  Thomson rejects the application of the DDE to the cases under discussion on the grounds that a person’s intentions are morally irrelevant (Thomson, 1991:293-296).

My view is that intentions are relevant to the morality of killing in general and to the killing of Innocent Threats in particular.  For example, in general terms, the essential moral difference (leaving aside the legal difference) between a murder and a manslaughter charge is one of intent.  All other facts of the case may be identical.

I think that Innocent Threats meet the criteria for the application of the DDE, as follows:

(1)  the good is in appropriate proportion to the bad because either you will be killed or the Innocent Threat will be killed.  Either way, one person will die; and

(2)  your intent in defending yourself from an Innocent Threat (for example, by shielding yourself from the Falling Fat Man) is merely to save your own life.  The death of the Falling Fat Man is an unavoidable consequence of the necessary action you take to save your life, rather than the purpose of your action.

The DDE can also apply to the defence of others – the above criteria could also be met in such cases.  In cases where more than one person is being defended, the good may even outweigh the bad.

Utilitarianism is of little assistance in the Falling Fat Man case.  Both you and the fat man are likely to have a preference to live.  Either way, one person will die.  The life of one of you may be more valuable to the community than the other and therefore have better consequences from being saved, but that is an assessment you are unable to make when a fat man is about to fall on you!  However, in other cases Utilitarianism may be relevant to the defence of more than one other person, on the grounds that saving more than one life would be a better consequence than saving only one life.

In conclusion, I think it is justified to kill an Innocent Threat in defence of oneself or others on the grounds of the traditional conditions for self-defence; the Doctrine of Double Effect; and utilitarianism in cases of defending more than one person.


 Otsuka, M. (1994) ‘Killing the Innocent in Self-Defense’ Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter, 1994), pp. 74-94.

Thomson, J. (1991) ‘Self-Defense’ Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 283-310.

[1] Otsuka also argues that it is morally impermissible to kill an Innocent Aggressor, but that issue is outside the scope of this essay topic.

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