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Damrosil Themes (Realism/Anti-Realism, The Problem of Evil, The Limits of Knowledge)

Several philosophical themes underlie this campaign. During the course of the game, we will explore these themes, and perhaps, attempt to answer them through development of the story. Some of the themes are basic questions that have always preoccupied mankind throughout the course of history. Others are relatively modern queries, albeit based on classical philosophical thought. These questions are worth pursuing, and I have attempted to make them somewhat palatable by enshrining them within a framework that we all share and understand. I don’t expect that we will engage in weighty philosophical debates each session. I do expect that these questions will be explored by your characters as the story evolves. Ultimately, I hope that you’ll have as much fun as I do, in being your DM. And who knows, maybe in your next life, you’ll be a philosophy major in college. <G>

Briefly, the themes are:

1. What is realism and how does it relate to a coherent theory of truth? For that matter, what is truth, and how can we know truth from falsity?

2. In certain traditions, there is a Being which is omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good. However, evil is manifestly present in the world. Therefore this Being cannot be omniscient, omnipotent and/or perfectly good. This campaign will attempt to present a discussion of the nature of the problem of evil.

3. What is knowledge, and is there a limit to the extent of human knowledge?

I. Realism and Anti-realism

To assert that something is somehow mind-independent is to move in the realist direction. To deny it is to move in the opposite direction. No sane position is reached at either extreme. Not everything is in every way independent of minds; if there were no minds, there would be no pain. Not everything depends in every way on minds; if I forget that Halley’s comet exists, it does not cease to exist. Many philosophical questions have the general form: Is X mind-independent in Y way? Given specifications of X and Y, one may call someone who answers “Yes” a realist. Since different philosophers take different specifications for granted, the word “realist” is used in a bewildering variety of senses.

In medieval scholastic philosophy, realism was a theory of predication opposed to nominalism and conceptualism. On a realist analysis, the sentence, “Snow is white” is true if and only if the substance snow has the property of whiteness; whiteness exists independently of our thought and talk, just as snow does. Unlike substances, properties are predicative: their nature is to be properties of something. In contrast, conceptualists deny that anything predicative exists independently of thought; the truth of “Snow is white” requires only our concept of white to apply to snow. Nominalists go further, holding the only predicative item required for the truth of “Snow is white” to be the word “white” itself, whose existence depends on a particular language, mot just on a kind of thought.

Kant opposed realism to idealism, distinguishing transcendental and empirical versions of each. The empirical realist holds (like Kant) that we can have knowledge of the existence and nature of material objects in space and time. The transcendental realist holds (unlike Kant) that the existence and nature of the objects so known is wholly independent of our knowledge of them. Kant argued that the two kinds of realism make an untenable ledge only of appearances. Thus the empirical realist should be a transcendental idealist, for whom material objects are nothing beyond their appearances to us; the transcendental realist should be an empirical idealist – a/k/a a skeptic. However, the argument relies on the dubious premise that perception yields knowledge only of appearances. Realists may deny that the nature and existence of what we perceive (e.g., a tree) depends on our perception of it. Perhaps the dependence is the other way around: my perception of the tree depends essentially on the tree, because I could not have had that perception without perceiving that tree. If so, the combination of transcendental and empirical realism may be defensible.

After Kant, “realism” meant above all the view that we perceive objects whose existence and nature are independent of our perceptions. The issue has subsequently been generalized. For any linguistic or psychological act (e.g., a judgment, a perception), one can ask whether it involves a relation to something independent of it. That something (e.g., a property, a material object) would constitute an independent standard of correctness for the act. The standard makes the act correct only if they are related. Realists see anti-realists as sacrificing the independence to the relation. Anti-realists see realists as sacrificing the relation to the independence.

An independent standard of correctness need not be a particular thing. To discuss whether the judgment “Rape is wrong” is correct independently of being judged is to discuss the objectivity of moral truth, not the existence of moral objects (to paraphrase Kreisel, what matters is the objectivity of mathematical truth, not the existence of mathematical objects). The existence of objects is relevant only when it is required for a judgment to be true. The truth of perceptual judgment may depend on the existence of trees, that of a scientific theory on the existence of electrons.

Realism is still accused of leading to skepticism by disconnecting our beliefs from their standard of correctness. To know something is to believe it because it is true, but to assume that a belief is true in the realist sense is not to explain why it is believed. the problem is particularly acute where the realist cannot postulate a causal connection between the facts and our beliefs. How, for example, could our belief that 5+7=12 be caused by a fact about abstract objects? Even where a causal connection is postulated, e.g., between the existence of electrons and our belief that electrons exist, the question is whether it is of a kind to help the realist. If the observational evidence can be explained by many mutually inconsistent theories, how except by luck can we choose the correct one?

Anti-realist alternatives take many forms:

Emotivists treat moral principles as expressions of approval or disapproval. Formalists treat mathematical proofs as a series of moves in a formal game like chess. Instrumentalists treat scientific theories as calculating instruments used to predict future experience. In each case, apparent judgments are treated as not really candidates for truth. Emotivists say, “Rape is wrong” while denying that “Rape is wrong” is generally true. This risks inconsistency: given that the usual practice in speaking of truth, if rape is wrong, then “Rape is wrong” is true.

Error theorists treat morality as a vast illusion; moral judgments are untrue because no values exist to make them true. Eliminativists believe that neuroscience has refuted everyday psychology by showing that beliefs and desires do not exist. Even the truth of arithmetic has been denied on the grounds that numbers do not exist. On such views, we are mistaken in judging “Rape is wrong”, “I want a drink”, or “5+7=12”; although what we say may be useful, it is not literally true.

For realists, a proposition is true or false even if we can never know which. Anti-realists ask how we can grasp such a standard of truth, if not by magic. How can we refer to conditions whose obtaining we cannot recognize? Many reject the challenge, arguing that such notions cannot be reduced to more basic terms. Others accept it. Some argue that reference is a causal relation; our use of, for example, the word “rain” is causally related to a condition that also obtained in the inaccessible past. The idea that the world contains mind-independent conditions, properties, and relations is central to such an account; scholastic realism supports modern realism.

Further suggested reading:

M. Devitt, Realism and Truth, 2nd. ed. (Oxford, 1991).
M. Dummett, Truth and Other Enigmas (London, 1978).
T. Nagel, The View From Nowhere (Oxford, 1986).
H. Putnam, Realism and Reason (Cambridge, 1983).

II. The Problem of Evil

In Christianity and other Western religions, God is supposed to be omnipotent (i.e., able to do anything logically possible), omniscient (i.e., to know everything logically possible to know), and perfectly good; yet evil is present in the world (e.g., pain and suffering). Atheists have argued that since an omnipotent Being could prevent evil if he chose, an omniscient Being would know how to do so and a perfectly good Being would always choose to do so, there is no God of the kind supposed.

The problem of evil has always been the most powerful objection to traditional theism. The usual response of theists to this problem is to deny that a perfectly good being will always choose to prevent evil, claiming that allowing some evils may make possible greater goods. If God is to allow evil to occur, it must not be logically possible to bring about the greater goods by any better route. Some theists have held that, being only human, we cannot be expected to know for which greater goods the evils of our world are needed. But it seems unreasonable to believe that there are any such goods without some demonstration as to what they are, i.e., without a theodicy.

Central to most theodicies is the “free will defense”. This claims that the greater good of humans having a free choice between good and evil involves no one, not even God, preventing them from bringing about evil. Theodicy needs one or more further defenses to explain why God allows evil of all kinds for which humans are not responsible, such as the pain of currently unpreventable disease. The “higher-order goods defense” claims that such evils give humans opportunities to perform, in response to them, heroic actions of showing courage, patience, and sympathy, opportunities that they would not otherwise have. This does still leave the problem of what justifies God in allowing some (e.g., battered babies) to suffer for the benefit of others (e.g., parents, social workers, etc. having free choices). The theist may argue in reply that God who gives us life has the right to allow some to suffer for a limited time, that it is a privilege to be used by God for a useful purpose, and that there is always the possibility of compensation in an afterlife. The crux of the problem is whether such defenses are adequate for dealing with the kinds and amount of evil we find among us.

Further Suggested Reading:

M.M. Adams and R.M. Adams (eds.) The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 1990).
A. Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (London, 1975), part 1a.
R, Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford, 1979), chs. 9-11.

III. The Concept of Knowledge and Limits Thereof

Virtually all theorists agree that true belief is a necessary condition for knowledge, and it was once thought that justification, when added to true belief, yields a necessary and sufficient condition for knowledge. Its sufficiency, however, was disproved by Gettier as follows: Suppose one justifiably believes Q although it is false; then one reasonably infers P, which is true. The result is a justified true belief in P, yet one cannot be said to know that P. Can the problem be solved by requiring that no intermediate conclusions like Q be false? No; other counter-examples remain. Sam believes, through visual experience, that a lighted candle is before him. There is indeed a candle there, but Sam sees only a hologram of a candle, not the real candle, which is blocked from view. Then Sam lacks knowledge, although he has justified a true belief that rests on no false intermediate conclusions.

Other theories of knowledge put less weight on justification. According to causal theory, knowledge consists in true belief that bears an appropriate causal connection to the fact in question. This handles the candle case because its presence is causally unconnected to Sam’s belief. Reliability theories say that someone knows only if his true belief is acquired by a reliable process or method. This may be understood to entail the counterfactual requirement: Sam would not believe P if P were false.

Is human knowledge completable? The incompletability of scientific progress is compatible with the view that every question that can be asked at any particular state of the art is going to be answered – or dissolved – at some future state: it does not commit one to the idea that there are any unanswerable questions placed altogether beyond the limits of possible resolution. How could we possibly establish that a question Q will continue to be both raisable and unanswerable in every future state of science, seeing that we cannot now circumscribe the changes that science might undergo in the future? If a question belongs to science at all – if it reflects the sort of issue that science might possibly resolve in principle and theory – then we shall never be in a position to put it beyond the reach of possible future states of science as such.

Further Suggested Reading:

K. Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge (Boulder, Colorado, 1990).
R. Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981).
N. Rescher, The Limits of Science (Berkeley, California, 1984).
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