Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Magdalen College Oxford last night - THINK week.

Had an interesting debate with Richard Swinburne, Ard Louis and Peter Atkins yesterday evening as part of THINK week. Richard Dawkins was in the audience and contributed quite a bit. Richard D's dislike of philosophy was apparent again, as was Peter Atkins's, so I was for a while fighting for philosophy alongside Richard Swinburne against Richard Dawkins. Religion was also an issue, though, so Richard S and I were also occasional opponents, with Dawkins, Atkins and myself then on the same team. It was fun, and of course also flattering to be in such prestigious company. There will be a video recording available shortly.

My opening statement (correctly anticipating an anti-philosophical tirade from Peter Atkins) is below, if you're interested (though I did deviate a bit from these notes), followed by a brief comment on Richard Dawkins's subsequent criticism of what I had to say.

I am a philosopher. So it will come as no surprise to you that I am going to argue that philosophy is:

(i) a worthwhile activity, and
(ii) that, for many of the most baffling and important questions and puzzles, the armchair methods of the philosopher, rather than the scientific method, is the right approach to adopt.

Many will of course question this. How, they will ask, can you discover ANYTHING of significance from the comfort of your armchair? To find out ANYTHING about the world, you need to OBSERVE IT. You need to collect data, perform experiments, and so on. And that’s just what philosophers don’t do. So philosophy is a waste of time, concludes Peter Atkins.

Well, I agree that if you want to find out about how things stand out there in the world, the scientific method IS indeed the best method to adopt. You are not going to discover much about reality sitting in your armchair, with your eyes closed, having a think.

But, actually, that’s not to say that EVERY significant question or puzzle is best answered or solved by the methods of science.

Some of the most baffling puzzles and questions are puzzles and questions that would appear to lie outside the remit of empirical science and investigation.

Here’s a simple example. You probably look into mirror everyday. They are familiar everyday objects. And yet they generate a baffling philosophical conundrum – one that baffled Plato back in Ancient Greece, and which philosophers are still writing about today.

The puzzle is this: why do mirrors reverse left to right, but not top to bottom?

You might think – well, this is just a scientific question. If we get in all the data and find out how light behaves, including how it is reflected off a mirror, then we’ll have the answer. But actually, even when all the scientific facts about how light behaves are in, the puzzle remains. Light bounces of mirrors the same way whether it comes in top to bottom or left or right.

The correct theory of how mirrors reflect light provides no solution at all to the mirror puzzle.

So what IS the solution? I think that something like this is correct….

Why do we say the mirror reverses left to right? Because when we imaginatively place ourselves where the mirror version of ourselves appears, we see that the mirror persons left hand is where your right hand is, and vice verse. Yet the head and feet remain top and bottom.

But what if you place yourself where the mirror person appears not be rotating yourself around a vertical axis, but on a horizontal axis. Then your feet would be where your head appears and vice verse, whereas your left hand would remain where your left hand appears.

In short, mirrors only reverse left to right if we take for granted a vertical axis of rotation. Take a horizontal axis, and mirrors reverse top to bottom not left to right. There is no asymmetry. The asymmetry has nothing to with mirrors – it’s generated by what we took for granted – one axis of rotation over another.


(i) this is not a puzzle that can be solved by empirical research.
(ii) It’s a conceptual puzzle that requires a conceptual solution. It’s a puzzle that takes armchair reflection to solve.

So not every puzzle is a puzzle that is best solved by empirical investigation. Some of the deepest and most baffling puzzles can, in fact, only be solved by armchair reflection.

In fact, all sorts of interesting discoveries can be made from the armchair. Mathematical discoveries, for example, can be made from the armchair. They can be achieved by pure thought alone – without doing any data collection or laboratory experiments.

We can also RULE OUT certain hypothesis from the comfort of the armchair.

Suppose an explorer claims to have discovered a four-sided triangle on their travels. Should we mount an expedition to go and check whether this momentous claim is correct? Of course not. We can figure out, from the comfort of our armchairs, that no such triangle exists. Triangles, by definition, have three sides. So a four-sided triangle involves a contradiction. It cannot possibly exist.

This is a rather obvious example. It’s obvious that four-sided triangles are ruled out conceptually. They involve a logical contradiction. But sometimes what is ruled out conceptually is NOT so obvious.

Aristotle claimed that objects of different mass will fall at different speeds. A large, heavy metal ball will fall faster than a small, light metal ball.

Back in the late 16thC, Galileo proved that Aristotle was wrong. Some say he did this by dropping two balls off the top of the leaning tower of Pisa. The two balls landed at the same time. Neil Armstrong did the experiment with a feather and hammer on the Moon

But actually, Galileo probably didn’t perform that experiment. He actually performed a thought experiment – one that he describes in his book On Motion. And of course thought experiments can be run from the comfort of ones armchair.

Galileo reasoned like so…

Imagine two balls, one heavier than the other, connected by a string. Drop this system of objects from the top of a tower. If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter ball drags on and slows the fall of the heavier ball. But the system considered as a whole is heavier than the heavy ball alone, and therefore should fall faster than the heavy ball on its own. So Aristotle’s theory, just like the claim that there exists a four-sided triangle, generates a contradiction. Galileo could establish that it is false from the comfort of his armchair.

True, this is a scientist doing a scientific thought experiment, but it illustrates the point that highly significant discoveries can indeed be made from the armchair.

Of course, philosophers need to scientifically literate. Scientific discoveries can be of philosophical relevance. But, at heart, philosophy IS an armchair discipline. And it is none the worse for that.

Philosophy is about conceptual investigation and clarification. Philosophers make conceptual discoveries. I have illustrated how they tackle conceptual puzzles – puzzles that the scientific method just isn’t equipped to solve.

They also probe what we take for granted, our common sense assumptions, sometimes with dramatic results. Philosophers may reveal that what we believe has quite shocking unacknowledged consequences, for example.

This can lead to important breakthroughs. Particularly in moral philosophy. Many of the most important developments over the last couple of hundreds years or so have come about because of philosophical reflection – questioning of, and thinking through the consequences of, some of our most basic moral assumptions and principles.

So philosophy, it seems to me, is not just fascinating, it is also hugely valuable. Blah blah…

Richard Dawkins thought the mirror puzzle and solution was science not philosophy (really? - the last two papers I read on it were in philosophy journals, and I cannot imagine they'd be published in a science journal as they were purely conceptual and involved no empirical claims). Richard wondered why what I do is labelled "philosophy" at all. It's just thinking, he said.

Actually, I don't much care what Richard calls what I do. He can use any label he likes. Relabelling it doesn't mean it's not a legitimate intellectual activity. It seems to be the word that Richard objects to, rather than the activity.


Tony Lloyd said...

Surely, if Atkins and Dawkins were right that there was no point in philosophy then there would be no need to have had the discussion.

They would both just have presented their lab results that, yes, philosophy was bunk.

Sitting down and figuring out that figuring out is useless seems just a tad self-defeating.

Tom B said...

Dr Law,

I really enjoyed the debate last night. As a philosophy and theology student at Oriel myself, I have to say I found Atkins' trenchant denial of the usefulness of philosophy almost self-refuting. This was illustrated by Prof. Swinburne's very first point, in which he correctly stated that the debate about which methods of investigating the universe are valid is itself a philosophical question.

The mirror problem is one I shall read about further! Many thanks for your lucid introduction to it.

Tom, student

jules said...

Very enjoyable and lively debate!

I was pretty impressed by Richard Swinburne, but then I'm totally ignorant of Natural Theology. I suspect his books are hard going though.

Atkin's point about there being no 'grey area' between philosophy and science didn't seem right to me; he must be aware that Scientists used to be known as 'Natural Philosophers'?

If science is all about generating hypotheses (or models), deducing their consequences, then testing those consequences against the natural world, then surely all philosphers are in a sense scientists too (and vice-versa).

You could argue that 'pure' philosphers don't take into account empirical evidence, but since deduction ultimately depends on induction, isn't it a matter of degree?

There's an entertaining article in Philosophy Now which is relevant -

Dominik Miketa said...

Tony: Well, if you start off from premise P, 'armchair thinking is useful' and come to the conclusion not-P, 'armchair thinking is NOT useful', then not-P is the case. It's a classic logical argument and not self-defeating at all. Just thought I'd point that out.

I was present at the debate and even got a question in (the very last one about Swinburne's alleged simplicity of the agent explanation - I was actually quite puzzled why you wouldn't bring that up; Richard Dawkins did, in a sense, but didn't really flesh it out fully). I was somewhat impressed by Swinburne's opening statement, but in hindsight I'm not so sure anymore; since it is not self-refuting to make a philosophical argument that philosophy is not very useful. I would rather agree with Richard Dawkins and his emphasis of thinking in the context of science; this is very much my approach to philosophy as well. (I'm a first year student of physics and philosophy at Oxford.) But after that, Swinburne's points started to crumble and by the end, I was actually quite furious that a renowned philosopher would be so unacquainted with cognitive science and psychology; my question reflected that, I think.

Ard Louis was... meh. I especially didn't appreciate that weak argument about the immorality of murder. I wish Peter Atkins had more time to explain exactly why evolution prevents us from killing people randomly.

That leads me to Peter Atkins himself, who was, simply put, hilarious - in a good way. I agreed with him on most points; essentially he argues for a primacy of science. It seems to me, and, presumably, to Atkins as well, that science could refute a philosophical statement, but it could never work the other way around. Maybe you can find a counterexample, Steven?

And last of all I liked your performance, Steven, though I was surprised to see you on Team Swinburne. He made some really terrible arguments, which reminded me why I object to taking philosophy on its own too seriously. It is a project driven mainly by our intuitions and habitual behaviour and usage of words, I find. Science is much more than that, as it shows how agency is emergent and complex, rather than simple, as Swinburne would like to assert. I think you should have intervened there and taken the bullet, rather than argue, as a classic philosopher would, that agency truly is simple. It is simple in the sense that it doesn't take much willpower to think of it and understand it - our brains are MADE to understand agency - but it's not simple once you start uncovering where it's coming from.

Otherwise it was a very enjoyable evening and a very welcome break in my periodical essay crisis. :)

Tony Lloyd said...

But Dominik, it's useful to decide whether or not something is useful. So conclusion not-P is, necessarily false.

(And I bet that arguments like this irritate the hell out of Dawkins and increase the likelihood of one of his entertaining footnote-rants, which is all to the good)

unitedandy said...


Sounds interesting, and I can't wait to here it.

On Dawkins and Atkins dismissal of philosophy, this strikes me as no better than creationists wading into a topic they show ignorance and contempt for, leading to them to inevitably engage with it at a superficial level.

Dawkins, in particular, may be a great scientist and fantastic communicator, but he really annoys me when he comes out with this stuff. Perhaps if he actually read some philosophy before he wrote his book, he wouldn't have produced a logically invalid argument, and some terrible treatment of theistic arguments along the way.

On Swinburne, I'd be interested to see his response to the evil God challenge. Hopefully, it will be better than Craig's.

Bernard Hurley said...

I used to take take yoga lessons in a ballet studio which had a mirror over the whole of one wall. On one occasion a large map of the world had been pinned on the opposite wall. While doing a headstand while looking at myself in the mirror I it seemed as if it was swapping left and right but looking at the map it seemed to be swapping top with bottom

Stephen Law said...

Dominik - the concession that God is "simple" was not intended - just me expressing myself sloppily. what I meant was, even IF God is pretty simple, this is a simple hypothesis that is in any case not consistent with, not the best explanation of, the available evidence.

I suspect I didn't make this conditional clear though, which is why Dawkins picked me up on it. In which case I mispoke.

Dominik Miketa said...

Tony - Well, let me express that again in a slightly more detailed form. The contention is that philosophy is not *that* useful; that it is indeed of much less use than science, which philosophy can kickstart, however.

Your remark reminded me of the argument that there isn't a smallest uninteresting natural number (because that's quite interesting). But there could be a smallest natural number, one that's only interesting because it's otherwise the smallest uninteresting natural number. (If there's a contradiction involved, I'm not aware of it.)

Stephen (sorry for misspelling your name earlier!): Yeah, I think that's how both me and Dawkins understood it. Seeing as that worry is dispelled, I take no issue with the argument you've given.

Anonymous said...

I've just watched you're last discussion with Atkins/Dawkins and the subject matter seems similar to what you describe above (barring discussion of God). What struck me most was how shockingly dogmatic Atkins' stance once, and how he was reluctant to actually address the arguments you were making. How could you stop yourself from banging your head against the wall? I hope yesterdays discussion was more sophisticated.

PaulJ said...

Looking forward to seeing/hearing this discussion.

I'd take issue with this, though:

"In short, mirrors only reverse left to right if we take for granted a vertical axis of rotation. Take a horizontal axis, and mirrors reverse top to bottom not left to right. There is no asymmetry. The asymmetry has nothing to with mirrors – it’s generated by what we took for granted – one axis of rotation over another."

I don't think it has anything to do with axes of rotation. When you look at yourself in a mirror, the image you see is not reversed "left to right" — it's reversed "front to back" (such that actual distances from the object to the reflecting surface are the same as virtual distances from the image to the reflecting surface).

Maths Tutor Wirral said...

How did Galileo determine that mass was an additive scalar quantity without any empirical data on what happens when one mass is juxtaposed with another mass?

'In short, mirrors only reverse left to right if we take for granted a vertical axis of rotation.'

I agree with the commentator.

No combinations of rotation will produce a reflection.

Stephen Law said...

Paul J

Yes mirrors produce a front back reversed image. But that doesn't explain the top/bottom left/right asymmetry. That's explained in the manner I explained it.

Maths tutor Wirral. You seem to be missing the point. Aristotle's theory entails (with some common sense assumptions e.g. that the string will behave as per normal) that the combines balls will fall both faster and slower than the heavier ball. So Aristotle's theory is ruled out conceptually.

That the weight of two objects combined is greater than their individual weights is part of what's assumed (as is the thought that tying two balls together with string won't cause them instantly to explode. Galileo takes it for granted that Aristotle would agree with these assumptions - which of course he would. Hence the thought experiment is effective against Aristotle's theory.

André said...

I like Atkins. A lot. I like his books, his prose.

But I always had problems with his views abouto philosophy and poetry. And not just because I intend to be a professional philosopher and a man from "humanities".

I think that when you understand philosophy, specially in its greek sense, you can't see it as an useless and separated field from philosophy. That's why my first interest in philosophy was thanks to the pressocratics.

Dawkins, at least according to my lectures, always had a more soft and generous view of philosophy. His distrust is understandable, given the unfair critics about his SCIENTIFIC works from some philosophers (example? Mary Midgley).

I think Dennett might be REALLY interesting on this issue. But professor Law, yout text is great, so you were really interesting at Magdalen.

That is it.

Maths Tutor Wirral said...

'That the weight of two objects combined is greater than their individual weights is part of what's assumed'

Surely that is a matter of empirical evidence.

'Why do we say the mirror reverses left to right?'

Because if you turn a glove inside out, it changes from left-handed to right handed.

A left-handed coordinate axis changes to a right handed coordinate axis when one of the axis is reversed in direction, exactly as explained by Paul J when he pointed out that mirrors reverse along a line normal to the plane of the mirror.

Stephen Law said...

"Surely that is a matter of empirical evidence."

Yes it is. So is the fact that Bert is a bachelor. Yet from that fact I can deduce, a priori, from the comfort of my armchair, that Bert is unmarried. As I say, you seem to be missing the point...

"Because if you turn a glove inside out, it changes from left-handed to right handed."

True, but that's because our left and right hands (and indeed sides) are indeed fairly close mirror images of each other (whereas our tops and bottoms are obviously not)

But now imagine beings whose tops and bottoms are mirror images of each other - that are like hands pointing up and down from a shared wrist). By turning inside out their top-half glove-like-clothes, they end up with glove-clothes that fit only their bottom halves.

You say that inside-out mirror reversal of your left glove reverses it from left to right, not top to bottom. But these hypothetical beings will say that such inside-out, mirror reversal of their glove-shaped top-half clothing reverses that clothing (same shape as your left glove) not left to right, but top to bottom. It now only fits their bottom half.

Stephen Law said...

PS the punchline to the above is that your explanation of why mirror reversal is left/right but not top/bottom fails.

Heresiarch said...

Stephen law is correct in what he's saying about the mirror, but he has phrased it somewhat confusingly. Perhaps I can clarify.

Choose an ordered triple of orthogonal vectors and call them "up" "forward" and "right" respectively. This is your left handed system. If you replace "right" with it's opposite "left", you get a right handed system. However, you can also get to a right handed system by replacing "up" with it's opposite, "down".

My point? A transition from a left handed to a right handed system can be accomplished by exchanging up and down instead of left and right.

This might be more obvious if you think about what you see when you stand on a mirror.

However, this has nothing to do with philosophy and is just maths. I did my undergraduate degree in mathematics and philosophy, for what it's worth.

Heresiarch said...

Also, a mirror in front of you will invert front/back, as Paul J said. A mirror to your side will invert left/right, a mirror underneath you up/down.

Perhaps your confusion is coming from imagining something like a webcam image? If the mirror in front of you didn't reflect or rotate the image at all, you would see the back of your head.

ReventonRage said...

I am usually not one to criticise science over philosophy but I think that both Dawkins and Atkins are way out of line to criticise philosophy in the way that they have.

I surfing the Net recently and I found an article that featured Dr. Mary Midgley (whom Andre has mentioned) stating in an interview that "Dawkins is very angry with anyone who says there are mysteries, but science cannot answer some questions. We raise all sorts of questions beyond the material world. Then it's understanding we're after rather than information. These are not questions like 'is there a box on the table?' but questions of inner life, that can't be settled in the lab."

I think Prof. Swinburne was fundamentally correct when he said (something along the lines of) the question of which approach (philosophy or science) is the more appropriate in tackling a particular question is itself a philosophical one. To add to Prof. Swinburne's point, I think that if Dawkins (and, perhaps, Atkins) can claim that philosophy is "just thinking", you'd think that they would have came up with some scientific, empirical evidence to support their claims by now.

We should also not forget that the first advocates and practitioners of the scientific method during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries were eminent philosophers such as Sir Francis Bacon. Simply put, without philosophers such as Sir Francis Bacon in the first place, it is very likely that the scientific method would not have advanced as quickly as it has.

Thus, I contend that the criticisms raised against philosophy by both Prof. Richard Dawkins and Prof. Peter Atkins are very much mis-guided.

Furthermore, I would think that both professors are also very much out of their depth insofar as philosophy is concerned. This is very evident especially in Prof. Dawkin's book, The God Delusion, which I very much enjoyed reading. While Prof. Dawkins used very accessible science (at least on the Net) and expressed in a very appealing way, his articulation of the arguments for theism and his attempts to refute them were less than impressive. It is no wonder professional philosophers like Prof. William Lane Craig would criticise the book as "hollow". I also would think that Prof. Dawkins' lack of background in philosophy is perhaps one of the reasons he has continually refused to debate Prof. Craig.

Paul P. Mealing said...

There is a continuous dialogue between science and philosophy that all scientists take part in, so I’m always bemused when they claim that they can manage without it. The best example is quantum mechanics, because the science of quantum mechanics is beyond dispute yet the philosophical implications have never been resolved and have stumped the greatest minds, including Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman.

The issue about the mirror is that science provides the answer, not philosophy. As Paul J points out mirrors do not reverse top to bottom or right to left, but back to front. Mirrors are 2 dimensional but we live in 3 dimensions, and a mirror reverses everything along the dimension perpendicular to the plane of the mirror. This is a scientific fact, as is the fact that chirality is reversed.

There is an illusion of left-to-right reversal because we normally have to rotate an object to see it reversed and we normally reverse objects along their vertical axis (as Stephen states). We are symmetrical about the vertical axis which contributes to the illusion. A mirror simply reverses without rotation.

The point is that only science can provide the answer, and this is what separates philosophy from science, because philosophy deals with questions for which there are no definitive answers. And this is why some scientists, like Dawkins, Atkins, Hawking and Feynman (now deceased) are dismissive of philosophy. But there are scientists who do explore philosophical questions, like Paul Davies, Roger Penrose and Douglas Hofstadter.

Regards, Paul.

Stephen Law said...

Is it science? Is it maths? No, I still think it's philosophy.

The bafflement we feel - which Plato felt - is removed not by noting the mathematical relationship between the actual object and it's mirror image, nor by noting the scientific facts about how light behaves, etc. but by realizing that the asymmetry is generated by the assumptions we make in setting the problem up, and the resolution achieved by exposing those assumptions.

As to *why we make* those assumptions, well now that is at least partly a scientific question, as Paul says. But that's not the same question/issue.

André said...

In this sentence:

"I think that when you understand philosophy, specially in its greek sense, you can't see it as an useless and separated field from philosophy. That's why my first interest in philosophy was thanks to the pressocratics."

Where I wrote "from philosophy" I meant "from SCIENCE".

Best wishes,

Paul P. Mealing said...

The most celebrated discovery of the 20th Century, Einstein’s theories of relativity, started off as thought experiments, which I would argue was pure philosophy, before any mathematics, let alone empirical verification, was involved. In fact, Einstein was arguably the master of the thought experiment.

Regards, Paul.

Mildred Hubble said...

Hello Dr Law,
I loved the debate, and it was brilliant to be reminded about your evil God challenge after seeing you in London with William Lane Craig.
I think that it's important to have someone like you at the forefront of the fight for Philosophy, while Richard Swinburne might be criticised for doing so in defence of religion. If I make my offer I'll be going to Cambridge in October to read Philosophy, so it's important to have some good responses at the ready when people ask me about the importance (or lack of it) of the subject.
In other news, I asked Richard Swinburne a question about how God can be omnipotent if he can't choose evil, and he gave a good answer about that being logically impossible. It did make me think, though, that Jesus' 40 days and 40 nights can't have been that bad, if he could only choose good- but perhaps the answer to that lies with the difference between God and Jesus.
Anyway, thank you again for a great debate!

Stephen Law said...

Thanks Octavia - glad you enjoyed it. Swinburne is certainly no fool.

Jonny said...

Here's what happens when philosophy and scientific experimentation overlap:

BenYachov said...

>Richard D's dislike of philosophy was apparent again, as was Peter Atkins's, so I was for a while fighting for philosophy alongside Richard Swinburne against Richard Dawkins.

BTW. Whatever I think of your lame EGA for this act alone you I feel major major major respect for you.


Anti-Philosophy Atheism is just Young Earth Creationism for Infidels. It's not an intelligent form of non-belief. By definition it is anti-intellectual.

Peter said...

Hi Stephen,

I've really enjoyed watching your lectures and debates before, any idea when this one will become available and where I can find it on the internet? I've checked the THINK week site and a lot of stuff seemed not to have been posted. Thanks!


Ray said...

If you're trying to get the right answer (does the mirror image flip top and bottom in addition to left and right? no.) Then you're doing math/physics. If you're trying to find a set of words that will get rid of "bafflement", that's a psychology problem. Both are problems whose solutions can be verified empirically.

I think, then, that philosophy is best thought of as a sort of psychological-linguistic engineering, rather than as something wholly separate than the sciences.

(as a side note, the way a physicist would solve the problem: Let the mirror be the yz plane with the z axis pointing up. The mirror flips the x axis and not the other two. Left and right are not defined by the direction of the positive y axis, but are instead defined as a cross product of x and z, hence flipping either x or z, but not both, will flip left and right. Or more simply, up is a vector, left is a pseudovector.)

Impraxical said...

I do believe philosophy is a useful pursuit, but your mirror question is actually detracting from your case. We say that mirror images are reflected left to right because that is what we observe. Asking why they aren't reflected top to bottom is trying to manufacture a problem that doesn't exist. At best you can say that you are talking about how we perceive reflections and not the workings of how light reflects off a flat surface, but that is not how you framed the question.

Will said...

The mirror problem is a question about how we define left and right, NOT a question thats actually about mirrors.

Mirrors don't flip top-to-bottom because we define top as "towards the ceiling", and bottom as "towards the floor." We define left and right via an interplay of multiple directions (if I'm facing north, my right hand is east).

The philosophical mirror puzzle can teach you a lot about what we mean by left and right. It teaches you nothing about mirrors. Philosophy is a fine tool for analyzing the abstract constructs that are human ideas. Its a less useful tool for exploring the outside world.

Will said...

Dr Law, to see why your explanation of the mirror problem fails, imagine you are wearing a ring on your left hand. The mirror image will be wearing a ring on his RIGHT hand, no matter how you try to rotate yourself into the mirror world (horizontal or vertical axis).

David B Marshall said...

I wrote one of the first Christian critiques of the New Atheism, published in 2007. After several years of interacting with those who associate themselves with that school, I've come to recognize three related phenomena, which I am tempted to describe as laws. First, every Gnu who is a scientist, will make great use of philosophy in his or her public arguments against religion. (Often while disparaging philosophy.) Second, he or she will do so poorly. Third, the best defenses of atheism will be written by people with training in philosophy.

So I am almost inclined to hope that the Dawkins-Atkins-Krausse "philosophy" of argumentation will win -- were it not for my occasional tendency (after Swinburne) to want to see opposing arguments in stronger forms. At the least, attacks by scientists on philosophy and theology (and sometimes history) seem generally to be signs of confused thinking.

Though of course, philosophers make mistakes, too.

Stephen Law said...

Thanks Will. See my comment February 22, 2012 11:24 PM. That's the explanation for that asymmetry.

David B - thanks - I hope the video of this will appear soon. I certainly enjoyed the exchange with Dawkins, Atkins and Swinburne....

Richard Wein said...

Hi. I've just come here via Stephen's post at the Secular Outpost, and thought I'd add something, even though the discussion's a bit old.

I've thought about the mirror question several times in the past, and never found an answer that satisfied me. This time I think I've come up with the right answer. And it's basically the same as Will's.

Like many philosophical problems this one is the result of semantic confusion. We feel that what's true for left and right should be true for top and bottom because there seems no relevant difference between those pairs. Left and right refer to the two directions of my lateral axis; top and bottom refer to the two directions of my vertical axis; the two axes are both parallel to the mirror and there seems no relevant difference between them. But in fact left/right and top/bottom are significantly different concepts. They don't just differ in terms of which axis they relate to. They both refer to directions on an axis, but they don't refer to them in the same way. (I would call this a distinction between sense and reference.)

Suppose we just think of my body as having 4 sides in the plane parallel to the mirror. I'll refer to them by means of physical features: head, feet, heart and appendix, where the heart side is what we would usually call the left side and the appendix side is what we would usually call the right side. I'm choosing this terminology so as to treat all directions in the same way. I don't want to privilege the head and feet sides by calling them "ends", and I want to avoid for now the problematic terms "left" and "right". Our bilateral symmetry normally causes us to treat the head-feet axis differently from the heart-appendix axis, and that's what leads to our semantic confusion here.

When we adopt this unbiased terminology we see that neither pair of sides is reversed in the mirror. My heart side is opposite my mirror image's heart side, just as my head side is opposite my mirror image's head side. Still, my left and right sides get "reversed" in the sense that my left side is opposite my mirror image's right side. So the same two sides do or don't get "reversed" depending on whether I call them left/right or heart/appendix. That's why I say the problem is one of semantic confusion. But I can't find any words that cause the head/feet sides to be reversed in any way, because we don't have any words that relate to those sides in the way that the words left/right relate to the heart/appendix sides. The words top/bottom just don't work that way.


Richard Wein said...


How do the words left/right work? My left is the direction which has a certain angular orientation relative to the way I'm facing. This explains why my left side is opposite my mirror image's right side: left is defined relative to the way one is facing and my mirror image is facing the opposite way from me. Top and bottom are not relative to the way I'm facing, and so the same does not apply to them.

That should be enough to resolve the apparent paradox. But I'll add something more about the meaning of top/bottom, because I disagree with Will on that point. Will says that we define top as "towards the ceiling". I don't think that's correct in this context. I could pose just the same puzzle if I was looking in a mirror while lying on my side. I would still want to contrast my head/feet axis with my left/right axis, even though it would then be my left and right which are towards the ceiling and floor. I would probably still refer to my head side as my top.

That said, I don't think my top side is defined purely by its physical characteristics (such as the presence of my head). The reason I call my head side my top is because that's the side which is usually pointing upward (against gravity). If I'd spent most of my life standing on my hands, it might be difficult to know which side to call my top. Is it the side which is usually pointing upward for me (the feet side) or the side which is usually pointing upward for most people (the head side)? There's no right answer to that. Standing on one's hands is unusual enough that no conventional usage has been established for those circumstances.

G said...

regarding the “mirror problem”, there’s a video on YouTube ft Richard Feynman commenting on it, which you might find interesting. here’s the link:

G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.