The Meno Paradox

The “Meno Paradox” is the argument that it does no good to seek for knowledge about something, because a) if we know what it is we don’t need to look, and b) if we don’t know what it is we won’t know how to recognize it when we’ve found it.

I wrote something about it for my philosophy students. If you are interested in logic and the philosophy of knowledge, feel free to check it out here.


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A new blog

When I started this blog, I had two audiences in mind. One of them was my philosophy students.

I’d like to be able to point them to my blog in the classes I teach, but this blog is so explicitly Christian that I’m a little uncertain about doing that, so I created a separate blog for them.

It’s called

If the posts there seem relevant to this blog, I may cross-post them here or link to them from here. In the meantime, if you are really interested (*I* think they will be interesting :-)), be sure to check that blog out from time to time. There are a couple of posts there already.

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Jacques Ellul

I’m currently reading Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, and finding it really fascinating. It’s a study of the way that the city in Scripture stands for the pride of man as he attempts to live without God (like a smaller version of “the world”). Babylon, especially, tends to signify this, all the way from the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) to the fall of Babylon near the end of Revelation.

In the most recent chapter, Ellul was talking about how we are called to live in the city as Christians and seek its welfare without adopting its values or worldview (like being “in the world but not of the world”). I’ve been feeling more and more in recent years that God is calling me to do the best I can in my secular job – teaching at a community college – and have been sorting out how to do this without getting tangled up in world-centeredness. Ellul’s ideas have made it a lot easier for me to think clearly about that question.

Ellul has also been emphasizing the judgment God has already pronounced upon the city (and the world), and that Christians wait for that judgment. That’s something else that resonates with me because in the last few years I’ve become aware how much the expectation that Jesus was coming back to earth one day was an important part of the gospel for the first-century Christians. In our day, we’ve replaced it by the hope of going to heaven, which means we’ve made the gospel something relevant only to individuals. We don’t see Jesus as the Lord and eventual Redeemer of society as well.

Ellul closed the chapter I just finished reading by emphasizing that even though we are waiting for judgment to fall, we should also be praying for mercy and revival, praying that it won’t fall yet. That’s an important corrective for some of the things I’ve been struggling with as I sort out our political duties as Christians.

Finally, Ellul’s approach to interpreting Scripture is one I find really valuable, although I was keenly aware as I was reading that most Christians would say it was bad interpretation. That’s got me reconsidering and expanding my views of what it means to interpret Scripture. I think we have sometimes been too narrow in our understanding of what the right kind interpretation must look like.

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Schopenhauer and I are kindred spirits (apparently)

I just started reading a book with selections from Schopenhauer. To my mild surprise, I *love* what I’ve read so far. Half the time it’s made me think “Hey! That’s just what *I* believe too!”, and the other half I’ve thought “Oh! Great idea! I should have thought of that!”

In particular, his view of the relationship between direct intuitive perception and reasoning about concepts is close to mine.

My belief is that there is a world out there that we experience at a pre-verbal level. Then when we *think* about this experience, we frame it conceptually. That means, essentially, that we form abstract concepts to represent what we experienced. Those concepts are a model of our direct knowledge, but are no longer direct, and there is always a small gap between the concepts we have and the truth we are trying to capture using them. That gap can be exploited to create liar’s paradoxes and other strange things.

Schopenhauer adds that by means of concepts we can make our knowledge last beyond the experience. We can reason about what we’ve seen without having to *see* it right now. We just manipulate the concepts logically and follow where they lead. But we do well to remember that we aren’t dealing with the direct perception anymore, and so there is always the possibility of error being introduced — even if our conclusions are based on valid deductions, they may not map directly to what we *meant* by the concepts.

For example, suppose I want to understand justice. I may start by defining it, but I will test the definition’s plausibility by “trying it out” — by thinking of examples in which I just *know* what justice is, and checking to see if the conceptual definition I am using matches that knowledge. Then I work out the consequences of my concept of justice, abstractly, without worrying much about intuition. Finally, I check the consequences against what I intuitively know about justice again. At this point, I may say, “No, that’s wrong somehow. That must not really be what I meant by justice”, or I may say, “Wow, that seems right, but I never noticed that before. Now that I notice it, I can see (intuitively) that it is true.”

Is this exactly how things work? Of course not. (It couldn’t be. My description is itself an abstract conceptualization of how things work, and so if it is true there must be a gap between what I’ve said here and how things *really* are.)

But I think it’s pretty close.

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Why students assume that machines can think

I’m planning philosophy lectures for the coming semester. One of our topics is the nature of being human. We compare people to machines or computer programs and ask whether we are any different in principle. Is there something that humans have that a machine could never be programmed to have? Self-awareness, or free will, or feelings, or a soul, or something?

Last year when we got to this subject, I found it surprisingly hard to generate discussion because almost all of the class thought it was obvious that there is no real difference. Clearly, they felt, someday computers will be programmed to think just like (or better than) humans. They wondered why there was even a question. This is odd to me, because I am pretty sure that 30 years ago most people would have felt the opposite way about it.

So what has changed, that people’s first reaction to this question is so different that it used to be? At first I assumed it probably had something to do with all the impressive things computers do these days, and how much they are a part of our lives. It’s easier to believe a computer can think when you can google everything.

On reflection, though, I don’t think computer science achievements have much to do with it. I think what changed things is that Spock was replaced by Data: for four decades we’ve had a steady stream of movies and books and games in which artificial intelligence is a given. HAL, Deckard, the Terminator, the kid in AI … the list is very long. The self-aware computer / robot has become such a familiar literary trope that its plausibility isn’t even questioned anymore.

If so, it’s fascinating (and a little unnerving) the difference that mere storytelling makes to people’s most basic intuitions.

Obligatory xkcd comic:

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Political hubris

Here’s another interesting quote from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Discussing political activity, she says:

[T]he old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds, is indeed one of the political virtues par excellence, just as the political temptation par excellence is indeed hubris … and not  the will to power, as we are inclined to believe.

This is really important, I think. We assume the primary danger comes from people who are power-hungry, who do what they want from selfish motives. In fact, the greater danger comes from those who think they know how to legislate for everyone else, for their own good. It happens on both the left and the right. Politicians on both sides want to pass laws to save people from themselves, and it never occurs to them all the unintended consequences their well-meaning control might have.

The biggest problem is that when someone is doing this, he knows he is acting from unselfish motives. He is not power-hungry like so many others. Consequently, he will not listen to objections because he is confident there can be none from anyone who really gets it. His political purity in his own eyes makes him immune to counter-arguments.

That is one of the most important downsides of the political polarization in our country: not just that it produces incivility or unpleasantness, but that it cultivates this kind of hubris. It insulates each side from having to take the other side’s beliefs seriously.

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Arguing for or against God’s existence

Just a quick thought about something I will write up in a lot more detail later.

I’ve been reading lots of philosophical arguments about the existence of God this past year — some arguing that God does exist, others arguing that God does not exist.

All of them start from the assumption that we are unbiased, rational observers able to decide on the basis of the evidence we find whether or not God exists. But if Christianity is true, that isn’t really the case.

We have the God-given ability to reason logically (usually), but logical arguments are only as strong as their premises, and premises are only as reliable as the conceptual framework within which they are articulated, and those frameworks are anything but unbiased.

In 1 Cor 2 Paul said:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.  (1 Cor 2:14).

I think the word “appraised” there refers to the fact that our intuition about what is good and bad and right and wrong and real and fake and true and false is gravely distorted by the fall. We have an anti-God bias built into us. We can reason about things, but we can’t properly judge the likelihood of the premises or the significance and relevance of our conclusions.

Earlier, Paul said:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:18-21.)

Our unbelief is a moral problem, not an intellectual one. I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the philosophical practice of looking for good arguments for or against the existence of God.

I’ve heard that a fideist is someone who believes there is no rational proof of God’s existence; that we just have to take it on faith. I’m not sure I’m a fideist. I think there are good reasons to believe in God, but I believe we are incapable of seeing them without the grace of God to open our hearts to them. Is that fideism? I’m not sure.

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Work and labor and joy

I’m reading The Human Condition by the philosopher Hannah Arendt. She distinguishes between labor, work, and action. The chief difference between labor and work is that labor is what we do just to stay alive, just because we have to. Whatever we produce through labor we consume soon afterwards. Work is when we start producing things we hope will last. We build houses and paint pictures.

Labor is something we do as part of the life cycle of nature. Work is something we do to escape from merely being a part of that cycle, to achieve a kind of immortality. We produces things. We make our world by making the things in our world.

The Greeks, says Arendt, recognized that work (and action) were only possible for someone who had been freed from the necessities of labor. The male property-owners of Athens were free to be craftsmen and citizens and philosophers because they had slaves and wives to do the labor for them!

Even though work is borne of freedom and labor of necessity, there is a natural joy inherent in labor. That joy comes not from accomplishing anything, but from participating in the cyclical processes of living and dying, of producing and consuming.

In that context, she wrote this very interesting statement:

The blessing of life as a whole, inherent in labor, can never be found in work and should not be mistaken for the inevitably brief spell of relief and joy which follows accomplishment and attends achievement.

In other words, the joy of labor doesn’t come from the joy of accomplishment. It doesn’t come from creating something lasting. If we are trying too hard to make a difference, we miss the joy of labor.


I’ve been thinking in recent years about how much of my life has been spent chasing the goal of making a difference to the world. I wanted to accomplish things for God and for other people. I wanted to make my mark in the world.

As the years have passed I’ve begun to think that’s not a goal worth pursuing. This may be saying something similar.

God doesn’t need our help. In one important sense, our job isn’t to accomplish anything for him or the kingdom. It’s just to live our lives out in dependence on him and find joy in the process. Whatever he accomplishes through us, that’s fine. Whatever he doesn’t accomplish through us, that’s fine too.


Ecclesiastes says something similar. After emphasizing that nothing we do has lasting significance, that it’s all part of a never-ending cycle, there is this:

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. (Eccles 3:9-13, NIV)

God has set eternity in our hearts. We have a yearning to be more than merely part of the cycle. We want to be part of something eternal. Yet we cannot. We cannot even fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

What we can do is to find joy in labor. We can simply enjoy producing and consuming and living out our days in grateful dependence on God.


Every few days I have to clean my office again. It’s become unusable until I de-clutter it a little. If I think of tidying things up as work, as having to achieve something, it just gets depressing. I never make any progress, because a few days later I have to do the whole thing again! But if it isn’t work, if it’s labor, if it’s part of a never-ending cycle of living and and dying and growth and decay and so on, then there can be joy in the process.


I think sometimes that I’m a good teacher but not an effective one. I spent a lot of time this semester doing whatever I could to make my classes good for my students. At the end of the semester I assign grades and that’s that. Did it all have a point to it?

I suppose, looking back, that there were some exceptional moments. There were times when I saw the light bulb turn on for a student, times when a class suddenly came alive in discussing a particular math problem or philosophy question, plenty of times when I saw students stretch mentally to grasp a complicated idea.

Most of the time, though, teaching (and taking) classes is like everything else — lots of routine. Nothing memorable. A long, slow process of talking and asking questions and walking through the important material. A lot of the work I put into my classes just disappears at the end of the semester without a trace. Most of the students’ effort does the same.

Maybe that’s normal. And maybe it’s perfectly okay. I don’t think this has to be bleak. I don’t feel bleak, I think. Just sort of drained after a long semester, and glad not to have to reach for greatness.

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The liar’s paradox

There are a number of logical paradoxes that philosophers don’t quite know what to do with. The most famous is the liar’s paradox:

This sentence is false.

If it’s true, then it is false. If it’s false then it is true.

So which is it?

The typical answer is to claim that the sentence is not a genuine statement; that is, that it is neither true nor false. Indeed, we can prove that it is not true or false by simply considering each the two cases above.

There are other sentences that do not have truth values: “Shut the door.” and “How are you today?”, for instance. Perhaps the liar’s paradox is just an odd example of something similar.

One problem with this is that the liar’s sentence certainly seems to have a truth value. If sentences that appear to be statements are not, then what prevents us from discovering one day that some other thing we thought was a statement isn’t one after all? It’d be nice to be sure that what we have been claiming over the years is at least coherent!

Perhaps the reason the liar’s sentence is not really a meaningful statement has something to do something with its self-reference. However,

This sentence has five words.


This sentence is in English.

seem unproblematic. What justifies our accepting them as meaningful statements and rejecting the liar’s sentence?

To put the issue more pointedly, consider the related sentence known as the liar’s revenge:

This sentence is not a true statement.

If this is a true statement, then it is not, but if it is not a true statement, whether that is because it is false or because it is not a statement at all, then it certainly speaks the truth about itself, and so is clearly a true statement after all.

I have lots of thoughts about the liar’s paradox, but one of them is that most analytic philosophers should take it a lot more seriously than they do. They seem to regard it as an oddity which can be safely ignored. It’s “just playing with words”, and has no real import.

I think the man or woman on the street is justified in thinking this way, but not analytic philosophers, because “just playing with words” is what analytic philosophy is all about. The analytic philosophy game is to translate subtle ideas into precise statements and then manipulate those statements logically to see what else we get as a result. The liar’s paradox calls the usefulness of that procedure into question.

Personally, I think the liar’s paradox runs deep. I think that any time we translate ideas of any kind into precise statements, we introduce a gap in translation between the idea we are trying to articulate and the actual thing we ended up saying. We never directly prove anything about the ideas we started with, we just prove something about the statements we used to articulate those ideas. The liar’s paradox, in my opinion, is a way to exploit that gap, to show that what we say and what we mean by what we say are never completely the same. (That includes, of course, this post.)

What we say and what we mean by what we say are never completely the same. Continental philosophers seem to realize this. Analytic philosophers, as far as I can tell, conveniently ignore it, but they shouldn’t.

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Atheism and folly

One of my strong beliefs is that both atheists and theists can be reasonable, intelligent, well-meaning people. I get irked when Christians assume atheists are just being stupid or hypocritical, and I get annoyed when atheists assume evangelicals are irrational or brainwashed.

For that reason, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Psalm 53:1 NIV.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Doesn’t this verse say that atheists are being irrational? I’ve heard Christians use it that way, but I believe they are misunderstanding the verse.

I’d like to explain how I think this verse should be interpreted. I’m going to post this in the category of “general audience”, which is posts aimed at people who are not necessarily believers, because if you are an atheist and someone uses the verse against you, I think you should be able to say, “You know, that’s not what that verse really means”, and then point them to this post. 🙂

Let me emphasize that I believe strongly in the inspiration of Scripture, so I take this verse seriously. If it really means that atheists are automatically irrational then I am prepared to believe that. But that’s not the meaning of it, in my opinion.

So let’s start out with four clarifying observations.

  • First, note that this does not say,

    The one who says in his heart, “There is no God,” is a fool.

    Technically, that would imply that every atheist is a fool, but not that every fool is an atheist. Instead, the verse says,

    The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

    Technically that implies that every fool is an atheist, but not that every atheist is a fool.

  • Second, the word “fool” in the wisdom literature of the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) has practical and moral connotations. If someone is called a fool, it doesn’t mean that he is unable to reason, but that he makes bad decisions. Foolishness is not the opposite of logic; it’s the opposite of moral and spiritual wisdom.
  • Third, note that it says the fool says in his heart that there is no God. It is focusing on what the fool believes inside, not what he claims to believe.
  •  Fourth, note that in the culture in which this was written, hardly anyone claimed to be an atheist. The Israelites weren’t surrounded by atheists, they were surrounded by polytheists.  So “the fool” in this verse was unlikely to be referring to someone who claimed there was no god. It was almost certainly referring to someone who did claim there was a God (or gods) but who in his heart didn’t believe.

Putting all that together, we get the meaning of the verse: when someone acts wickedly instead of righteously, they show that they don’t really believe, down deep, that God is watching and will judge them. In fact, ignore whatever they tell you about their religious beliefs – in their heart, they are saying to themselves that God does not exist.

So there you have it. Every fool (in the moral sense) really is an atheist deep down. But his atheism does not make him foolish; his folly makes him an atheist.

Does that mean that some atheists are atheists because they secretly are fools? Because they want to do what is wrong, and don’t want to be held accountable for it by God?

Of course. And it shouldn’t offend anyone that I said so. In just the same way, some professing Christians only believe because deep down they are afraid of a universe without God in it. Neither side is immune to silly reasons for belief. So if that’s you – if your atheism is merely a defense mechanism against having to be moral – then stop it! But if you’ve considered the evidence, and decided against believing in a God, then this verse does not say you are irrational because of that.  I’ll pray that God will show Himself to you, but I’ll respect your intellect in the meantime.

(Now, atheists, please stop assuming in turn that everyone who believes in God is a fool. That’s not true either.)

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