Monday, November 09, 2015

Philosophical paradoxes

Paradoxes are a type of puzzle cases not mentioned on the website on action puzzles in my last blog. Nevertheless, they can be useful in clarifying concepts in the philosophy of action. I suppose that every reader of this blog will know the most famous of all paradoxes, the Liar Paradox: Epimenides said: Every man from Crete is a liar. The paradox becomes clear, if we know that Epimenides himself is a man from Crete.
I have discussed already extensively a well-known paradox in my blogs above, namely the Ship of Theseus, which is also known as Theseus’ paradox. Also one of the leading ideas in the philosophy of action actually is nothing but a kind of paradox, namely the idea that what we do – our actions – is dependent on the way we describe it. This idea has been introduced by Elizabeth Anscombe. Here I’ll use the version of E.J. Lowe: “A man is described as poisoning the inhabitants of a house by pumping contaminated water in its supply from a well, which the inhabitants drink with fatal consequences. There are various ways of describing what this man is doing: ... moving his arm, ... depressing the handle of the pump, ... pumping water from the well, contaminating the water-supply ..., ... poisoning the inhabitants of the house, ... killing the inhabitants ... [A]re these six different things he is doing, or just six different ways of describing one and the same thing?” (p. 240) In the former case, we would call him a juggler, so Lowe, but also the latter case – the one accepted in the philosophy of action – is problematical. Moving his arm is considered then to have different descriptions, but suppose that we want to know when and where the man is killing the inhabitants of the house. Depending on the way we describe what the man is doing, he kills them at different places and at different times, for the arm-moving takes place outside the house and the killing (which take place later) occurs within the house. (pp. 240-241) “So, it seems, we have to say that the man kills the inhabitants outside the house and quite some time before they die. But that is surely absurd”, so Lowe (p. 241). Lowe presents an alternative approach to resolve the paradox, but I refer those interested in it to Lowe, for here I want to talk about paradoxes.
I end this series of blogs on puzzle cases with a paradox that can be used to cast light on the idea of intention. The question is: Can we intend what we surely will not do? Generally philosophers of action support the view that intending to do a supposes minimally the absence of the belief that one will not a. However, take this paradox, which is known as the toxin paradox and which has been developed by G. Kavka (here quoted from an article by Stephanie Rennick): “You are offered a million dollars to form the intention of drinking a vile potion which, though not lethal, will make you unpleasantly ill. Once you have formed the intention the money is handed over, and you are free to change your mind. The trouble is that you know this, and it will prevent you from forming the intention, since you cannot intend to do what you know you will not do”.
This brings me back to the question whether I can try to do what I cannot do, discussed in my blog last week. Suppose now that I know that I cannot break the world record 5.000 m running, if my personal record is still three minutes slower than the world record after many years of hard training. Can I say then that nevertheless I can try to break the world record? Just as we cannot intend to do what we know we’ll not do, we cannot try to do what we know for sure we cannot do. Nevertheless I think there is much truth in the conventional wisdom saying “who doesn’t try doesn’t win”, even if you know that you have no chance.

Sources: - E.J. Lowe, An introduction to the philosophy of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 (
- Stephanie Rennick, “Things mere mortals can do, but philosophers can’t”,

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