We speak of three sorts of things as being true or false

  1. Sentences
  2. Beliefs
  3. Propositions

But what are sentences, beliefs and propositions?And for each of these three we can ask the following:

  • What is it for one to be true or false?
  • Is their truth objective?
  • Is their truth relative?
  • And if their truth is relative, what is it relative to?


We address propositions first because they are the fundamental bearers of truth and falsity.  A proposition is what is expressed by a sentence.  Sentences have meanings.  When a sentence admits of truth or falsity a proposition is what is meant.  A sentence is true if and only if it expresses a true proposition.  But a proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not a given sentence expresses it.  Propositions are also the contents of our beliefs.  Whether or not a belief is true depends on whether or not its propositional content is true.  But the proposition’s truth or falsity is independent of whether or not it is believed.

So we appeal to propositions in characterizing the contents of beliefs and what is expressed by sentences.  And for a belief or sentence to be true or false is just for its propositional content to be true or false.  But what is it for a proposition to be true or false?  Here we will introduce the notion of correspondence.  For a proposition to be true is for it to represent the world in a way that corresponds to the way the world actually is.  So, for instance, the proposition expressed by the sentence “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the world contains the intended cat and mat and the cat is on the mat.  This doesn’t sound very exciting, but there it is.  Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of truth is kind of dull.  We can say that the truth or falsity of a proposition is relative to the way the world is, but that’s it.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not subjective (or relative to belief).  And the truth or falsity of a proposition is not open to interpretation (or relative to meaning).  This last point is crucial.  The truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to what a sentence means. The truth or falsity of a sentence is relative to what proposition it expresses.  But the truth or falsity of a proposition is not relative to meaning and could not be for the simple reason that propositions don’t have meanings.  Rather, the proposition is what is meant.


Sentences are linguistic things made up of words that have meanings.  What a sentence means depends on what its constituent words mean.  A proposition is what is meant or expressed by a meaningful sentence.  In principle, we can assign any meaning we like to a word.  And the meanings of sentences are, in some sense, a function of the meaning of words.  So, in so far as sentences are true or false, their truth is relative to meaning.  More specifically, what proposition is expressed by a given sentence depends on the meanings assigned to its constituent words.  For a sentence to be true or false is just for it to express a proposition that is true or false.  To help see that sentences are distinct from the propositions they express, and that the propositions themselves are not relative to meanings, consider the following two sentences:

Schnei ist wiess

Snow is white

The first sentence is German for snow is white.  These are distinct sentences and this is clear because they belong to different languages.  But both sentences express the same thing.  So, the proposition expressed must be something independent of either language.  Propositions are not linguistic entities.  While propositions are the meanings of sentences, they do not have meanings themselves.  So, the truth of propositions is not relative to meanings the way the truth or falsity of sentences is.


Belief is a relation between a mind and a proposition.  To believe a proposition is just to take it to be true.  Objectively, beliefs can be true or false.  From a subject’s point of view, to believe something is just to take it to be true.  What is thought to be true in one belief system may well be thought false in another.  But this is not to say that truth is subjective (that is, relative to subjects).  To say that what is true according to one belief system is false according to another isn’t to say anything about the nature of truth.  This is just a fairly obvious and mundane observation about what is held to be true according to a belief system.




An argument is a reason for believing something.

Arguments consist of two or more claims, one of which is a conclusion.  The conclusion is the claim the argument purports to give a reason for believing.  The other claims are the premises.  The premises of an argument are offered as a reason for believing its conclusion.

Some arguments provide better reasons for believing their conclusions than others.  Evaluating an argument involves two essential steps:

  1. Determine whether or not the premises support the conclusion if they are true.
  2. Determine whether or not the premises are true.

The second of these tasks may involve evaluating further arguments in support of the premises.  There is an obvious question to ask regarding (1).  Namely, what is it for the premises of an argument to support its conclusion?  Here, I will introduce the two standards of support that have been recognized and developed by philosophers.  One is the standard of deductive validity and the other is the standard of inductive strength.

Here are two equivalent definitions of deductive validity:

(D) A deductively valid argument is an argument where if its premises are true, then its conclusion must be true.

(D’)  A deductively valid argument is an argument where it is not possible for all of its premises to be true and its conclusion false.

Deductive validity is the strictest standard of support we can uphold.  In a deductively valid argument, the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion.  Here are a few examples of deductively valid arguments

  1. If Socrates is human then Socrates is mortal
  2. Socrates is a human.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal
  1. All monkeys are primates
  2. All primates are mammals
  3. So, all monkeys are mammals

In contrast, the following argument is not valid:

  1. If Sue misses her plane she will be late for the conference.
  2. Sue is late for the conference.
  3. Therefore, she missed her plane.

To see why the last argument is not valid, try to think of a possible scenario that makes both of the premises true and the conclusion false.  One scenario is where Sue catches her plane, but her cab from the airport gets stuck in traffic.  The validity or invalidity of these arguments is fairly obvious.  But the validity or invalidity of many arguments is not so easy to see.  Formal logic provides us with tools for testing more difficult arguments for validity.

A deductively valid argument may or may not have true premises.  A deductively valid argument only provides one with a good reason for believing its conclusion if its premises are in fact true. If a deductively valid argument has all true premises, we say that it is deductively sound.  For an argument to be deductively sound is one way for it to pass both steps (1) and (2) for evaluating arguments.

The other widely recognized standard of support for the conclusion of an argument is inductive strength.  We can define inductive strength as follows:

(I) An inductively strong argument is an argument where it is not probable that its conclusion is false given that its premises are true.

Notice that the criteria for inductive strength in (I) looks much like the criterion for deductive validity in (D’).  The biggest difference is in the use of the word “probable” rather than “possible”.  This is a big difference.  Possibility is a yes-or-no-affair.  It either is possible for the premises of an argument to be true and its conclusion false or it isn’t.  On the other hand, probability is a matter of degree.  The conclusion of an argument may be more or less probable given the truth of its premises.

Corresponding to the notion of deductive soundness, an inductive argument that is both strong and has true premises is called a cogent inductive argument.  Unlike the notion of deductive soundness, it is possible for an inductively cogent argument to have true premises and a false conclusion.




Critical Thinking Note 20: Climate Change


Written in response to some discussion board activity in my online Intro to Philosophy:

Some of you have referred to climate change a few times in our discussions, most recently in connection with trying to get clear on the difference between something being true and something being believed (or something “being true for someone” as the confusing popular expression goes). It won’t do, however, to simply offer climate change as an example of something that is true but which many people don’t accept as true. Those who doubt human caused climate change obviously won’t find this a convincing example of the difference between truth and belief or opinion. Additionally, this issue affords good opportunity to exercise our skill at evaluating arguments which was our central focus last week.

In the flood of information, spin and fallacious manipulation surrounding climate change, it is not surprising that the average citizen has a hard time focusing on the key arguments, the central reasons for addressing the threat of human caused climate change. So here are the premises that lead inexorably to the conclusion that we have a problem that requires serious attention:

  • CO2 and assorted other gasses trap heat.More specifically, these gasses are transparent to full spectrum light from the sun but opaque to the infra-red spectrum light (radiant heat energy) that gets reflected back from the planet. To sunlight, these gasses are like a clear sky. To heat from the warmed surface of the planet, these gasses are like a blanket of fog.
  • We emit CO2 and other greenhouse gasses when we burn fossil fuels and we do so on a massive scale.Global emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are approaching 10,000 million metric tons per year. We should also note emissions from the production of meat and deforestation. Emissions of greenhouse gases on this scale is enough to change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and we’ve been tracking this for several decades.
  • The basic laws of physics tell us that matter/energy never gets created or destroyed; energy has to go somewhere and do some work.That would be the first law of thermodynamics.

None of these premises are open to reasonable doubt. We know this stuff. As a recovering gear-head myself, I’d love it if I could find some way to accept these well-established truths and avoid the conclusion that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the natural systems we depend on for survival. But the argument is valid and sound. The science is informing us in great detail about just how and how fast we are disrupting our natural systems. But there is no way to reasonably avoid the conclusion that human caused climate change is real. Anyone who thinks clearly about the three premises given above should be able to see this for themselves.


This morning’s news reports that the Earth set a new global heat record for the third year in a row in 2016.

Russ Payne

January 19, 2017

Critical Thinking Note 19: What’s going on with Black Lives/All Lives*


So here’s a now familiar exchange:

  • B: Black Lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!
  • B: Black lives matter!
  • W: All lives matter!

We pay close attention to logic in philosophy and from a logical point of view this is a sort of non-debate. That’s because “All lives matter” logically entails that “Black lives matter.” If all lives matter, then black lives matter. This is a truth of logic. B and W aren’t disagreeing with each other. So what is going on?

W might say something like this:

W: When you say, “Black lives matter” it sounds to me like you are saying that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter.

But that’s just not what “Black lives matter” says. To say that black lives matter more or that only black lives matter is to make a different claim altogether. In fact in clear headed moments, almost everyone, regardless of color, will say that it’s true that black lives matter and that it is false that only black lives matter or that they matter more. Our language is not such a hopeless mess that a simple clear obviously true sentence also says something false. The words “only” and “more” make a real difference in meaning and if this is W’s complaint, then she is reading something into the sentence “Black lives matter” that just isn’t there.

The sentence “Black lives matter” is beautifully simple and specific. It just says that black lives matter and we’ve already established that B and W recognize the clear and straightforward truth of this simple and specific sentence. So again, what’s going on?

“Black lives matter” says that black lives matter, not something more or something less. But even once we grant this, we might still see a difference in emphasis in the claims made by B and W. As the rallying cry for a movement, “Black lives matter” emphasizes that black lives matter. Emphasis doesn’t entail mattering more. Emphasis here simply draws attention to the fact that black lives matter.

W might feel that she is taking the moral high ground in emphasizing that all lives matter. All lives, after all, is the broadest, most inclusive class of lives. Why not give voice to this? Its truth seems just as compelling and worthy and maybe more so because it is more inclusive than the claim that black lives matter. So, W even has an argument for emphasizing that all lives matter.

All other things being equal, W’s argument for emphasizing that all lives matter would appear to be pretty compelling. But all other things are not equal and that is exactly why B finds it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter.

When we look just at the content of the “Black Lives/All Lives” exchange, what linguist’s call the semantics and the rest of us might call the linguistic meaning of the claims, it’s hard to see just what’s going on. Yet it is clear that there is a problem. The emotional clash is obviously real. The problem lays in the rhetorical roles the slogans play and particularly how the “All Lives Matter” slogan serves to obscure the very real reasons for emphasizing that black lives matter.

This central question that W needs to consider is why people think it appropriate to emphasize that black lives matter. The rhetorical role of merely insisting that all lives matter is to provide a way of avoiding this question. That is, the rhetorical role of the “All lives matter” slogan is to turn a non-disagreement into an interminable pseudo-debate that leads to emotional conflict based on talking past each other without listening. While we’d all grant the obvious truth of the claim that all lives matter, the role of that claim in this context is to divide people against each other.

Could W reasonably claim that the same is true of “Black lives matter”? Could she claim that it is also divisive? Clearly many white people feel that the “Black lives matter” slogan is devise. But it’s not so clear that this feeling is reasonable. To get some handle on whether it is, we need to consider why people would emphasize that black lives matter. Given a good reason, we can’t dismiss “Black lives Matter” as mere divisive rhetoric.

So why would people feel the need to emphasize that black lives matter? The answer here is that our social practices, the way we roll, sometimes at an individual level but always at a systemic level, treats black people as if they don’t matter or matter a good deal less. Emphasizing that black lives matter is a response to the standing situation, not just an arbitrary shout-out for black people.

The movement and slogan emerged as a response to a pattern of unarmed black men being shot or killed by police officers who were then never held accountable. There is ample evidence for this in the cases of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the list goes on. But this is just one of the more dramatic ways among the great many ways, some large and some small, that our society is hard on black people. Here’s a short list of some of the further ways:

  • The racially targeted way in which the war on drugs has been prosecuted.
  • Racial disparities in administration of the death penalty.
  • Disparities that fall along racial lines in school funding at the K – 12 level.
  • Racial disparities in pay and household wealth.
  • Racial disparities in employment.
  • Racial disparities in access to health care and life expectancy.

There is lots of basic unfairness here and it is systemic. This short list addresses injustices that are well documented with easily accessible data and evidence. A richer understanding of how our society stacks things against people of color really requires that you listen to some of those people. As a white guy, my usefulness is pretty limited when it comes to describing the black experience in America. But telling other people’s story isn’t required for making sense out of what’s going on, what’s going wrong, in America generally, and in the “All lives matter” backlash specifically.

It seems to me that there is exactly one good reason for emphasizing race, skin color, in public discourse and that is in response to the history and ongoing legacy of racial injustice our society suffers from. This one good reason is exactly what the “Black lives matter” movement is about.

Russ Payne

January 11, 2017

* I miss Marvin Gaye. This song, What’s Going On, was among the first hits I can remember hearing on the radio as a child. Now it brings tears to my eyes. It’s not as if the early 70s was an idyllic time of racial harmony. But people like Marvin Gaye infused that time with a sense of hope and joy. What he says remains worth emphasizing, “We got to find a way to bring some loving here today.”

Critical Thinking 18: About Orlando

Philosophers don’t often have much to say about LGBTQ issues. It’s been at least a decade since I addressed homosexuality in writing when a campus group invited a homo-phobic preacher to campus. The reason LGBTQ issues aren’t very high on the agendas of philosophers is that the ethical issues here are too easy. There are no interesting ethical problems raised by people having assorted sexual identities and orientations. Ethically, there just isn’t that much to figure out concerning matters of sexual identity and orientation. So why do some people feel differently? The answer has much to do with the widespread tendency to see morality as entirely a matter of cultural say so or religious authority.

At their best, culture and religion serve as vehicles in the human search for truth and aspiration towards goodness. But for some individuals there is an unfortunate tendency for culture and religion to become ends in themselves and operate as seats of authority rather than sources for inspiration and searching. The problem in this is that there is always the potential for arbitrariness in cultural and religious thinking about morality. Where morality is taken to be a matter of say so or tradition, whether God’s, one’s culture or one’s leader, anything can be deemed morally prohibited or imperative. This is the central objection against making morality a matter of say so or tradition. This is why philosophers unanimously reject both moral relativism and divine command theory.

When morality is reduced to a matter of tradition or authority, there is no rhyme or reason to it, only command and obedience. This is deeply at odds with what seems obvious in our day to day moral lives. Morality isn’t so unhinged from reason. We expect ourselves and others to have reasons for thinking they should or shouldn’t act this way or that. And when we dig at these reasons in a critically minded way, we unearth values that transcend our whims, the authority of others and the traditions of our social groups. Why should I not torture puppies just for fun? Not on account of anyone’s say so or the traditions of my culture, but simply because it hurts the puppy. The badness of pointless suffering and the goodness of happiness don’t require any special cultural or religious stamp of approval. Why is rape morally wrong? Again, the answer is easy. Rape violates the dignity of a person. That people deserve to be treated with respect is obvious enough when it we consider our own case. When we fail to treat others with the sort of respect we recognize that we deserve, we impose a double standard on the world, making a special and unjustifiable exception for ourselves. Understanding the straightforward moral reasons for thinking rape is wrong requires no special appeal to the authority, say so, or traditions of any culture or religion.

When we hold our moral judgments to standards of reasonableness that transcend culture and religion, when we treat morality as a realm of inquiry rather than command or tradition, it quickly becomes clear that there are no ethically defensible reasons for objecting to people loving the sorts of people they love or living in ways that suit their own sexual identities and orientations. The only way these things have ever come to be seen as wrong is as the result of culture or religion betraying our basic human capacities for reason and compassion. We have ample moral and intellectual grounds for objecting to this in the strongest terms possible.

Russ Payne

June 13, 2016

Critical Thinking Note 17: Cultural Relativism


Here are three very different theses, each of which I have heard on one occasion or another referred to as Cultural Relativism:

  1. What is considered good or bad is relative to culture.
  2. What is good or bad is relative to culture.
  3. We should suspend judgment about what is good or bad when trying to understand diverse cultures.

(1) we might aptly call “Descriptive Cultural Relativism”. (1) is no doubt true, even though the ethical differences among cultures are liable to be exaggerated in various ways. Different culturally laden views about what is right or wrong can often be understood on deeper analysis as different ways of expressing the same underlying moral values. So for instance, polygamy might be endorsed in a culture where males in the prime of life suffer high mortality as a means of providing for the vulnerable while charity serves the same end adequately in other cultural contexts. Also, apparent differences in the moral codes of various groups are often on closer analysis revealed to be differences in non-moral beliefs. Those who differ on the morality of abortion, for instance, usually differ on the metaphysics of the person but not so much the ethics of killing persons. But substantive differences on ethical matters do exist between various cultures. So (1) is probably true. But (1) doesn’t make what is right or wrong a matter of any cultures say so and leaves open the possibility that morality isn’t a matter of anyone’s say so and that a culture can get morality wrong.

(2) is an expression of “Moral Cultural Relativism.” This view makes good and bad relative to culture. Culture is deemed infallible in ethical matters on this view. On this view, whatever is deemed right in a culture is what is right relative to that culture. As soon as the very nature of right and wrong is taken to be relative to the culture, other group or even the individual, no possibility of normative evaluation of the practices of said party remains possible. Rightness relative to the culture, group or individual is guaranteed up front as a matter of tradition or some group or person’s say so or decision. “Who gets to decide” is a relevant question here. But the notion that right and wrong isn’t something we just get to decide but rather something we have to figure out is off the table. And it is taken off the table without argument on this sort of relativistic view. When we take right and wrong to be simply a matter of tradition, say so, decision or whim, no room for inquiry remains beyond the figuring out what the relevant authority dictates. On this view, the holocaust was right relative to Nazi Germany and any feelings others have to the contrary aren’t even about what is right relative to Nazi Germany. They are just about what is right relative to some other group, and as such, they have no bearing at all on what Nazi Germany should or shouldn’t have done. This view, to put it mildly, is a problematic view about the nature of morality.

(3) might best be termed “Methodological Cultural Relativism.” (3) is not a claim about culture or about morality, it’s just good advice when our aim is to understand a culture. Analysis aimed at understanding something, whether it is an argument, an ethical principle, a culture or an electronics schematic is not itself an evaluative activity. But it is an essential pre-cursor to any evaluation that aims to be at least relatively unbiased. We simply aren’t in a position to fairly evaluate things we don’t understand. But the methodological advice offered by 3 begs no questions against critical evaluation of ethical views that might be part of a culture’s traditions or embodied in its values. Methodological Cultural Relativism poses no obstacle to critical thinking in ethics. What is more, critical thinking in ethics and other areas of philosophy requires subject matter appropriate analogues of MCR. Any argument, principle or theory must be adequately understood before we can hope to do a competent job at evaluating it and goal of understanding something is not the same as that of evaluation.

Now consider 4b in the Big 5 offered by the Cultural Diversity GE Workgroup:

4b.      Ex. Within the frame work of cultural relativism, no culture should be viewed as better than any other and no cultural trait should be viewed as wrong, just different.

The basic problem with this claim is that it is entirely unclear which of 1-3 above it is intended to endorse. Of course different disciplines have their own special jargon. But that isn’t the problem here. We introduce discipline specific language when it aids clarity and specificity in ways that everyday English can’t. No jargon in 4b is serving this purpose. To the contrary, 4b is unclear and ambiguous in ways that are highly problematic for other disciplines.

Something close to (2), a version of moral relativism, has become the standard issue view about morality in this society. It is the dominant culture in the US and for reasons that are only tangentially related to cultural diversity. Moral relativism is much more the product of consumerism and represents the commoditization of values. It is also ultimately nihilistic. I hardly blame social scientists or cultural studies faculty or scholars for this. But the failure to be clear about the differences between 1-3 results in students hearing things like 4b as an endorsement of moral relativism. Undoing the damage is difficult work. Philosophers, who do teach critical thinking about ethical matters, need allies in social science that appreciate the differences between 1-3, and underscore these differences with students. A strong basis for that alliance should be a broad recognition that moral relativism is no friend to cultural diversity. Moral relativism endorses whatever moral code dominates relative to the groups morality is seen as relative to, whether or not that moral code is tolerant of diversity or respectful of our shared humanity.

Russ Payne

February 10, 2016

Critical Thinking Note 16: What Employers Want


The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently surveyed employers on a range of educational issues including the learning outcomes employers would most like to see emphasized in the course of a college education. Here are the top five in order.

(1)  Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
(2)  The ability to analyze and solve complex problems
(3)  The ability to effectively communicate orally
(4)  The ability to effectively communicate in writing
(5)  The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings

If you like statistics with your data, you can find plenty in the full report linked at the bottom of this executive summary:

Quantitative skills and knowledge about science and technology rank 10th and 11th out of the 17 outcomes on the survey. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, knowledge of the role of the US in the world, cultural diversity, civic participation, and democratic institutions and values come in at the very bottom of the list. Surely, public institutions of higher learning shouldn’t be solely concerned with what employers want from higher education. But here we’ll follow the typical trajectory for this conversation, nod sagely in agreement, and then get back to what employers want from institutions of higher education.

Clearly employers want better critical thinkers. Are we delivering? Not so much. Want some data? Look over degree requirements at BC and a typical quarter’s course schedule. We offer lots of sections of courses in writing (ranked 4th in the survey) and indeed two quarters of writing is required for every degree program on campus. We also offer lots of sections of courses in communications (ranked 3rd) and with the exception of the direct transfer associates degree, a communications course is required by just about every degree program on campus. Finally, we are currently running exactly 3 sections of Critical Thinking (ranked 1st) which is required by exactly one degree program on campus.

Hmm . . . .


Russ Payne

October 27, 2015

Critical Thinking Note 15: How Statistics Mislead, the case of the State of Washington Education Research and Data Center


Our state government has publicized data that misleadingly devalues Philosophy and the Humanities in general (see the first link below). My reply follows:


To Members of the Washington ERDC (Education Research and Data Center),

It would be nice to see what post degree earnings data look like when you disaggregate Philosophy and Religious Studies in your Earnings Dashboard ( Some religious institutions lump these together into single degree programs. But Philosophy and Religious Studies are not the same fields of study. Philosophy majors typically have no interest in Religious Studies. At institutions like UW, Philosophy majors are more likely to be interested in the natural sciences than in religion (a quick glance at UW’s Philosophy course listing shows nine courses in Philosophy of Science and only two in Philosophy of Religion, which still isn’t Religious Studies

Philosophy majors and Religious Studies students are also typically on very different career and life paths. Many Religious Studies students are preparing for seminary and the ministry, where very low initial pay will be partly offset by free housing and other benefits. Philosophy majors, on the other hand, are usually setting off into the great wide world where their ability to reason well and communicate complex ideas clearly will be highly valued by their employers. The resulting differences in compensation are reflected in the more detailed analysis of post degree earnings offered by Seattle based ( In this analysis, Philosophy majors earn in the top quarter of degree majors listed (mid-career), outperforming all humanities and social sciences with the single exception of economics. Religious Studies is over halfway down the list.

I’m also curious as to why your Earnings Dashboard displays only data from 2009. This looks like the first year for which you have raw data and as a result, your Earnings Dashboard looks only at earnings for newly minted degree holders. As your own raw data tracking subsequent years suggests, this builds a bias against the Liberal Arts into your most public presentation of earnings data. While starting pay in professions like IT and Health Care are significantly higher than for Liberal Arts majors, the earnings of Liberal Arts majors catches up significantly by mid-career. The reasons for this are not hard to divine. Students who study for more technical and professional degrees are aiming to fill jobs that already exist and are in high demand today. Liberal Arts students come out of college with a broader set of skills that render them less specialized but more adaptable. Higher initial pay goes to those who have trained specifically for the jobs we have today. While this is fine as it far as it goes, in our rapidly changing world we should also value those who are seeking educational goals that will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. Innovation is not a special strength of doctors and computer programs so much as a strength of creative and critical thinkers who are trained to be flexible life-long learners. This is the goal of a Liberal Arts education. (I’d recommend Michael Roth’s, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, for a more developed version of this line of argument


You may be accustomed to hearing college professors in the Arts and Humanities argue for the importance of their disciplines on other than purely economic grounds. But it looks like the state’s highly public Earnings Dashboard undervalues the Arts and Humanities generally and Philosophy specifically on purely economic grounds. I hope you’ll deem this matter worthy of corrective measures.


W. Russ Payne

Chair of Philosophy at Bellevue College
President, PLATO-WA (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization of Washington)
Bellevue College representative to the WaCLA (Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts)

June 12, 2015

Critical Thinking Note 14: The Security Blanket Paradox

It’s time to announce the first general release of my open source Introduction to Philosophy. If you are looking for some light reading for your spring break you can find this electronic text as a Word file or as a PDF on the Philosophy Department website here:

I’ll be hosting weekly faculty commons sessions next quarter where we will go through the text book club style. We’ll cover the 11 chapters in 11 weeks. Sign up for the lot or drop in for the chapters that interest you. Helpful critiques are more than welcome. One of the cool things about an open source electronic text is that I can revise at will. So I’m eager to hear about “areas for improvement” for this text. In the mean time, here’s a short excerpt from Chapter 1:

We humans are very prone to suffer from a psychological predicament we might call “the security blanket paradox.” We know the world is full of hazards, and like passengers after a shipwreck, we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. This clinging strategy, however, leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket just gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our own safety, we now are anxious about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. The clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.

While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins.

The primary value of philosophy according to Russell is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinion and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these in order to explore new ideas. The security blanket paradox should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Russ Payne

March 18, 2015

Critical Thinking Note 13 Free Speech


It’s been a little while since we put out a Critical Thinking note and this has partly been due to uncertainty about how to proceed given the loss of ALL BC-FYI. The note below was submitted to ALL BC-FYI Digest on Monday, but with no reply or explanation, it hasn’t run. I have worried that ALL BC-FYI Digest is really more about controlling the exchange of information at BC than saving people a few clicks in a workday filled with thousands of clicks. And indeed, it does appear that someone in IT or administration has commandeered editorial authority over what information gets passed on to the college community. This invites some rather delicious questions. Do we have Information Technology, or Information Tyranny at BC? Is IT a tool we make use of, or are we to be IT’s artifact?

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But freedom of expression is an issue that deserves some special vigilance on college campuses. Freedom of Expression doesn’t mean it’s perfectly OK to say anything. It is a freedom that comes with some responsibility. In denying us freedom of expression to the campus community at large, administration has also deemed us unworthy of handling that freedom responsibly. I find this rather insulting. But personal feelings aside, I think there are some pretty good reasons for valuing and protecting freedom of expression, and especially on a college campus.

Inquiry runs on the free flow of ideas. This carries with it the risk of exposure to uncomfortable, even offensive ideas. Inquiry goes best when there is a level of good faith among participants based on their shared value of getting at the truth, or at least at the most reasonable and illuminating understanding of issues we can manage. The freedom of expression that is essential to inquiry can be abused. It is abused when people try to advance ideas with fallacious arguments or weak evidence. Worse yet, freedom of expression is abused when people aim to offend and deride others. But free expression, in conjunction with other essential components of critical thinking, provides a way to hold people accountable for bad behavior. Where we have freedom of expression, we can always call out the fallacies and other abuses. There is adventure in inquiry, and part of this involves standing prepared to weather a bit of nonsense and the occasional cheap shot in the interest of hearing the things that are genuinely worth hearing, including new perspectives and ideas that make us uncomfortable but help us grow.

Freedom of expression and the tolerance for diverse viewpoints has an ethical aspect, of course. In the absence of special overriding considerations, it’s arbitrary and unjust to allow some to speak, and demand that others keep quiet. But where inquiry is concerned, there are independent epistemological grounds for upholding free expression and bearing what discomfort this might bring. Free expression is essential as matter of gathering evidence in a thorough and unbiased manner. When we don’t hear the views of others, even those views that make us uncomfortable, we can’t evaluate them. And when we can’t evaluate the reasons people have for holding the opinions they do, there is no way those reasons can help to guide us toward the truth or at least improved understanding. Given the ethical and the epistemological value of free expression, we should expect free expression to be highly valued at institutions of higher education. This, after all, is the social institution where inquiry is kind of the point. There may still occasionally be compelling grounds for restricting the flow of information and ideas. But given our mission, I’d hope we’d hold the bar pretty high for any restrictions.

So, how are we doing here at BC? Do we value and protect freedom of expression? I suspect we are doing okay in some ways and not so good in others. But I don’t think I have much of the relevant evidence at hand. It would be really great if we had a forum in which we could freely discuss this issue. Perhaps one that is electronic and easily accessible to all members of the campus community, a forum where we could conveniently ignore, follow, or participate in an open conversation about how we value free speech at BC. That sounds something like ALL BC-FYI email, which used to occasionally serve this purpose.

Russ Payne

February 4, 2015