Saving The Unobservable Phenomena (2017)

Walter Tay Ann Lee

Associate Professor Kuldip Singh

UNL2210 – Mathematics and Reality

22 September 2017


In this paper, I will consider the arguments that have been offered for the ‘common conception’ of constructive empiricism. I will claim that this ‘type’ of constructive empiricism is problematic because the argument from underdetermination supporting it contradicts the scientist’s belief in the existence of causality. However, I will further argue that van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism is more nuanced and does not have the same contradiction.





What is the ‘common conception’ of constructive empiricism and how does it differ from van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism? Dyck (2007) has made a powerful commentary on the apparent misreading of van Fraassen’s The Scientific Image (1980) and the supposedly imaginary arguments for constructive empiricism that scientific realists attribute to him. Some realists such as André Kukla (1998) even note, “Yet it’s curiously difficult to locate the exact place in van Fraassen’s writings where this argument is presented in fully general form.”

Thus, I shall, for brevity, introduce an imaginary single author of the ‘common conception’ of constructive empiricism and call him CE (in the style of Psillos 1997). CE begins his argument by first defining constructive empiricism, which is perhaps best defined as the denial of scientific realism. To be a constructive empiricist, one must at least be sceptical about the two main tenets of scientific realism:

[1]    That science aims at truth about the world

[2]    That if we accept a theory, we must also believe that whatever objects the language of the theory “picks out” from nature must be true, or approximately true

CE denies [1] because for him, the aim of science is not to produce true theories, but rather to produce empirically adequate theories. To clarify, CE does not deny the realist that truth exists. It is clear from van Fraassen’s (1980) writings that he himself adopts a correspondence theory of truth: “I would still identify truth of a theory with the condition that there is an exact correspondence between reality and one of its models.” CE believes that the claims our theories make may sometimes accurately describe the actual state of affairs in the external world, however, CE denies that such truth is possible from empirical data alone. This is explained in CE’s denial of [2].

CE’s denial of [2] is supported by his ‘argument from underdetermination’. To understand his argument, we must first consider three key distinctions that CE (as well as van Fraassen) makes:

[3]      Observable/Unobservable Distinction

[4]    Truth/Empirical Adequacy Distinction

[5]    Acceptance/Belief Distinction

What is the observable/unobservable distinction, [3]? For van Fraassen (1980) and CE, observability is always relative to an epistemic community and depends upon what the members of that community are able to detect with their unaided senses. For example, Mars, Singapore, and Obama are all observable; electrons, genes, and gravitational forces are not. We can see the red-ness of an apple (thus it being an observable feature), however we do not see the atoms that the apple is being composed of (thus it being an unobservable feature). For CE, observable facts are just facts that involve the observable features of observable objects.

Distinction [3] allows CE to draw a further distinction [4], which leads us to our argument from underdetermination. CE believes that all evidence is observational because if we cannot observe the unobservables, then we can never ‘know’ it to be true. CE invites us to imagine an infinite amount of empirically equivalent rivals of a theory (Psillos 1996). Since empirically equivalent theories all save the same phenomena and are equally supported by all possible evidence, all of them will always be equally believable (Dyck 2007). Thus, this implies that the belief in any specific theory among empirically equivalent rivals must be arbitrary and unfounded.

What about the belief is unfounded? For CE, it seems that scientific theories make claims about both the observables and the unobservables. Thus, CE believes that a theory is empirically adequate if everything the theory says about the observables is true (thus, saving the phenomena). Hence, from [4], a theory may be both true and empirically adequate; the theory perfectly depicts the actual state of affairs in the external world, and consequently is able to save the phenomena it purports to save. However, a theory may also be false and empirically adequate; the theory wrongly depicts the actual state of affairs in the external world, but is still able to save the phenomena. For CE, we are making a deductive leap from empirical adequacy to truth (realists call this IBE or Inference to Best Explanation) when we ‘believe’ [2] since the only thing we have is empirical data.

When discussing what the aim of science is, it seems that we are also concerned with the criteria to which a theory is accepted. And this is the main distinction [5] that leads CE to a constructive empiricist view on the aim of science. CE asks, “Do we need the belief that the theory is true to accept a theory?” For CE, there is no such need. When we accept a theory, we are merely saying that what the theory says about the observables is true. However, to believe a theory, we are also saying that what the theory says about the unobservables is true. Thus, begins CE’s scepticism about ‘general theories and explanations’ that intend to give an account of the observable world in terms of unobservable entities and processes (van Fraassen 1989). On CE’s view, we should surely accept a theory that is empirically adequate, however, belief in the truth of a theory (that is, believing what the theory says about the unobservables) can never be warranted.

Hence, it is clear why CE believes that the aim of science is to generate empirically adequate theories. However, this does not sit well with many scientific realists.





In this section, I will be expounding on a contradiction briefly mentioned in two sentences by Psillos (1997), “If IBE is generally abandoned, then we are left with a poor epistemology that admits only judgments about observed things. Cartesian scepticism might well be evaded, but Humean scepticism is in the offing.”

What is the contradiction between CE’s argument from underdetermination and our belief in the existence of causality? To begin, we must first understand the two sceptic hurdles that a scientist must overcome:

[6]    Cartesian Scepticism

[7]    Humean Scepticism

Very briefly, Cartesian scepticism [6] is an extreme form of scepticism whereby the truth of any anything cannot be known if one is able to doubt it. For example, because I am able to doubt whether my hand is actually my hand (because I could be in a dream and possibly not have hands in the real world), I can never know for sure that my hand is my hand. It is clear why Cartesian scepticism is an important hurdle for scientists. If we cannot know about anything in the world (or even if the external world exists), what are our scientific theories actually saying? However, in this paper we are not concerned with Cartesian scepticism since both scientific realists and CE seem to assume (or possibly even have an argument for) the existence of an external world, and that we can ‘know’ about the external world (or its representations) through observation.

Humean scepticism [7] is the one we are mainly concerned with. Hume is largely sceptical about the existence of causality. Hume (2007) begins his argument by dividing “all objects of human reason or enquiry” into Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact.

Hume (2007) explains that Relations of Ideas are propositions that are discoverable  by the mere operation of thought. That is, they do not depend on our observations of what exists in the external world. For example, he says “that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the two sides” is a proposition that can be validated with merely logical thinking. The idea here is that Relations of Ideas are not validated by observations of the external world.

Matters of Fact, on the other hand, must be validated by observations of the external world. For example, how do we know that the sun will rise tomorrow? We can only ‘know’ that the sun will rise tomorrow by observing it.

Now, it is important to note a very crucial distinction made by Hume between Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact. The principal distinction is that the denial of a true relation of ideas implies a contradiction. What does this mean? Take, for example, the Pythagoras’ Theorem. If I say, “a2 + b2 < c2”, this denial of the true relation of ideas (that a2 + b2 = c2) implies a contradiction. We know that this proposition is false by means of logic alone. However, for Matters of Fact, its denial cannot be known independently of experience. For example, it is not inconceivable to imagine the sun rising from the west to the east rather than from the east to the west. The negation of the “true matter of fact” does not imply a contradiction. What this means is that for Matters of Fact we cannot use logic alone to assess the claim, we must validate it by means of experience and observation.

Why does this distinction matter? Hume is particularly sceptical about the nature of causation. He gives the example of a billiard ball colliding into another billiard ball. By relation of Cause and Effect, we can determine that the act of the first billiard ball colliding into the second billiard ball has caused the latter to move. However, it is not inconceivable for us to imagine that the movement of the second billiard ball was not due to the collision with the first ball, but that the two events of the balls moving just occurred in conjunction with each other. That is, Hume invites us to doubt, “Do we actually see causation? Have we seen one ball cause the other to move? Or do we just see one ball moving after the other?”

Now, because it is not inconceivable for us to imagine such a denial of causation, this implies that causation must be a matter of fact! Why? Because if the denial of causation cannot be proven to be a contradiction by means of logic alone, then it must be a matter of fact. If causation is a matter of fact, that means that the truth of causality must be in some way, dependent upon experience. For Hume (2007), the existence of causality cannot be assumed without validating it with experience, since it is a matter of fact. But what is causality and have we observed it before? There lies the crux of the problem.

Now, how does this tie in to CE’s argument from underdetermination? The key to Hume’s scepticism about causality is that because we cannot observe it, thus we cannot believe that it exists. Notice how similar this sounds to the case that CE makes for the unobservables. That is, because we cannot observe the unobservables, thus, we cannot claim that it exists. Putting it together, because causality cannot be observed (and thus, is an unobservable for the CE), we cannot ‘know’ it to be true. However, this presents a contradiction.

If we accept CE’s observable/unobservable distinction [3] and the criteria to which we believe things to be true [5], we must then reject the existence of causality. Recall that for CE, we must reject belief in the unobservable entities that are “picked out” by a scientific theory. However, if we reject causality, what then is the mechanism by which our scientific theories explain reality? Constant conjunction? Since the assertion that causality exists and the distinctions made in [3] and [5] cannot be held simultaneously, then by contradiction, CE’s argument from underdetermination must be wrong.




In this section, I will argue that van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism is more nuanced and does not have this same contradiction. A closer reading of The Scientific Image (van Fraassen 1980) causes one to realize that van Fraassen makes a much weaker claim than CE. As Cartwright (2007) explains, “This kind of argument is not available to van Fraassen. For he is not trying to talk the realist into disbelief. He is positively endorsing a specific set of beliefs.”

Recall that the goal here for van Fraassen is not an epistemology, but a view on what the aim of science is. Van Fraassen (1980) is mainly concerned with the criterion of success for science, not the epistemic reasons for believing in the unobservables. Nowhere in his book does van Fraassen claim that it is irrational to be a scientific realist (Dyck 2007). In fact, the argument from underdetermination commonly attributed to van Fraassen is in conflict with his own epistemological beliefs. To quote van Fraassen (1980):

“A complete epistemology must carefully investigate the conditions of rationality for acceptance of conclusions that go beyond one’s evidence. What it cannot provide, I think (and to that extent I am a sceptic), is rationally compelling forces upon these epistemic decisions.”

Here Dyck (2007) finds that van Fraassen is explicitly denying that there can be epistemic rules that force (dis)belief on us. That is, van Fraassen himself does not seem to believe that there can be rules that will compel us to full belief in a theory, or even belief in empirical adequacy. Van Fraassen is not trying to call all scientific realists wrong. All that he is saying is that constructive empiricism is a possible position, and we should not discount it so easily.

How does this remove the contradiction? Remember that van Fraassen (1980) has been stressing that constructive empiricism should be seen as a view of science, not as an epistemological position. That is, it doesn’t tell us what we should or should not believe, but it gives us an answer to the question ‘what is science’ (Dyck 2007)? I claim that in creating the observable/unobservable distinction, he is not compelling realists to become constructive empiricists, but rather to highlight a problem in science: that we seem to naively take as truth many of the unobservable entities that we do not observe. That is, he does not say that we are irrational in believing that unobservable entities exist, rather, we should take note of the fact that such a belief is unwarranted before believing in such entities. I believe that van Fraassen himself would accept the contradiction made in section II, however, he would take it as further proof for why we should have a distinction between what we accept and what we believe. He might even use Hume’s scepticism towards causality as a much stronger example of something that we take for granted to be true, but is ultimately unwarranted.




We cannot deny the realists their beliefs (due to the contradiction), and likewise, we cannot deny the constructive empiricists their disbeliefs (due to the unobservables). Thus, in being a constructive empiricist, all that van Fraassen (2008) is saying is that, since we have reached an impasse on the truth of the unobservables, the main aim of science should be on the observables, that is, empirical adequacy.


[2529 words]


Works Cited

Cartwright, Nancy. “Why Be Hanged for Even a Lamb?” Images of Empiricism, Jan. 2007, pp. 32–45., doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199218844.003.0003.

Dyck, Maarten Van. “Constructive Empiricism and the Argument from Underdetermination.” Images of Empiricism, Jan. 2007, pp. 11–31., doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199218844.003.0002.

Forrest, Peter. “Why Most of Us Should Be Scientific Realists.” Monist, vol. 77, no. 1, 1994, pp. 47–70., doi:10.5840/monist19947712.

Fraassen, Bas C. van. Empirical Stance. Yale University Press, 2008.

Fraassen, Bas C. Van. “Laws and Symmetry.” Feb. 1989, doi:10.1093/0198248601.001.0001.

Fraassen, Bas. C. Van. “The Scientific Image.” Nov. 1980, doi:10.1093/0198244274.001.0001.

Hume, David, and Stephen Buckle. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Hume, David, et al. A Treatise of Human Nature. Clarendon Press, 2009.

Kukla André. Studies in Scientific Realism. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ladyman, James, et al. “A Defence of Van Fraassen’s Critique of Abductive Inference: Reply to Psillos.” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 188, 1997, pp. 305–321., doi:10.1111/1467-9213.00061.

Monton, Bradley John. Images of Empiricism: Essays on Science and Stances, with a Reply from Bas Van Fraassen. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Psillos, Stathis. “How Not to Defend Constructive Empiricism: a Rejoinder.” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 188, 1997, pp. 369–372., doi:10.1111/1467-9213.00066.

Psillos, Stathis. “On Van Fraassen’s Critique of Abductive Reasoning.” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 182, 1996, p. 31., doi:10.2307/2956303.

Spaghetti Universe Hypothesis (2017)

Walter Tay Ann Lee

Associate Professor Kuldip Singh

UNL2210 – Mathematics and Reality

Due 20th November 2017


In this paper, I will show how ontic structural realism (OSR) aims to solve the issues that plague traditional scientific realism. I will then look at Max Tegmark’s (2008) radical take on OSR, his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH), and attempt to draw an analogy between his argument for MUH and the “no-miracles” argument typically made by scientific realists. Finally, I will show how we can refute his “no-miracles” argument, and lead to our Spaghetti Universe Hypothesis.



Scientific realism is the view that scientific theories correctly describe the nature of our mind-independent world. This is arguably the most commonsensical view of science and is usually supported by the “no-miracles” argument. The idea behind this argument is that, the best explanation for why our scientific theories are so successful at describing and predicting phenomena, is that they correctly describe the nature of the world, or at least, are very close to doing so. It would be a miracle for our theories to be able to describe and predict phenomena, without what the theory says about the nature of the world to be true. And we shouldn’t accept miracles, especially if there is a non-miraculous alternative (Putnam, 1978).

However, scientific realism has since been discarded by many philosophers of science because of problems that it is unable to resolve or explain. In the following sections, I will show one of the biggest issues that plagues scientific realism, as well as how ontic structural realism (OSR) seeks to resolve it.



Firstly, what is a scientific realist being realist about? He is being a realist about the entities in nature that are picked out by the language of our scientific theories. That is, the realist believes that whatever the theory says about those entities is true. By true, we mean that what the theory says about the entities is exactly, or approximately, what is happening in the external world.

Scientific theories typically make claims about both observable and unobservable entities. Now, it is easy (and even, intuitive) to believe in the existence of observable entities. Observable entities exist, and they affect us in such a way that we are confident, by virtue of their affecting us (us perceiving them), that they exist (Chakravartty, 1998). However, is there a good reason for us to believe in the unobservables picked out by our scientific theories?

Note that the antirealist is not necessarily saying that unobservable entities do not exist. Merely, he is posing the question, do our scientific theories really give us epistemic access to unobservable entities (Ladyman, 1998)? Let us consider a few examples. The luminiferous Ether which used to be the propagation medium of electromagnetic waves is now believed to be non-existent. What used to be gravitational forces acting on two bodies over a distance is now, instead, better described by the curvature of space-time. Even more remarkable is that our idea of an electron has changed drastically over the years from being interpreted as a particle, a wave, and even both (as it exhibits both wave and particle properties). Is it meaningful to ascribe a reality to these unobservable entities if we were wrong about their existence in the past, and may very well be wrong now as well? And if our meaning of an unobservable entity (like the electron) changes, to what extent can we be said to be discussing the same entity (Chakravartty, 1998)?



Ontic structural realism (OSR), as presented by Ladyman (1998), seeks to resolve this issue with scientific realism. Ladyman’s (1998) argument begins with a tribute to Worrall (1989), who originally introduced structural realism.

A good summarizing statement of Worrall’s (1989) view is from his paper, “What we can know for sure on the basis of observation, at most, are only facts about the motions of macroscopic bodies, the tracks that appear in cloud chambers in certain circumstance and so on”. Worrall is a skeptic about the nature of the unobservable entities picked out by scientific theories, and is a realist about the structure of scientific theories. He argues, what retains across theory change is not the unobservables, but the structure. This allows him to seemingly solve the problem of unobservables changing, or ceasing to exist, as we make progress in science. That is, we can believe in the existence of the structure that remains, and it does not matter what we say about the unobservables because we are, fundamentally, interested in the structure.

However, this solution brings in a different problem. This ‘version’ of structural realism seems to presuppose a distinction between the form and content of a theory (Psillos, 1995). Are we able to tell the difference as to whether our theories are talking about unobservable entities or the structure of our world? For example, what gives us an idea of the electron is the description of its behaviour in terms of its laws, interactions, and so on in our theories. However, can we tell the difference between what the theory is saying about the properties of the electron, and what the theory says about the structure of the world in which these properties interact with? Is this any different from being a scientific realist? Scientific realists, too, advocate a structural understanding of the unobservable entities. This is what it means for the language of our scientific theories to “pick out” objects in nature. Thus, there seems to be no meaningful difference between structural realism and scientific realism.

Now, one can argue that there is a retention of structure across theory change. And it is this unchanging structure that we should be a realist about, not the ever-changing unobservables. However, it gains no advantage over scientific realism because it tells us nothing about how we should distinguish between what we should believe, and what we shouldn’t believe about our current scientific theories. It is easy to look at older theories and explain which parts are the structures that are retained, and which are thrown out in the form of unobservable entities, however, this distinction is dubious when it comes to our current theories. How do we know which parts about our current theories will be retained, and which parts will be discarded in future? As Papineau (1996) puts it, “restriction of belief to structural claims is in fact no restriction at all”. Similarly, the scientific realist can easily posit that the some properties about an unobservable are retained across theory change, and it is these properties that the realist is being realist about (Chakravartty, 1998). But this doesn’t solve the epistemological problem with current theories at all!

Another problem is the issue of metaphysical underdetermination. That is, even without considering theory change, we do not seem able to agree on the metaphysical implications of a theory. For example, there are multiple formulations of Newtonian mechanics (action at a distance, variational, field-theoretic, and curved spacetime formulations) that describe different realities (Roger Jones, 1991). Another example is French and Redhead’s (1988) paper, which concludes that quantum physics does not determine whether quantum objects are individuals or non-individuals. This is an alarming issue. Despite similarities in the structure of the theory, the reality and existences that we believe to exist are different depending on how we formulate those structures.

To resolve these problems, Ladyman (1998) advocates for a complete shift on how we understand existence. He argues that, we should not take objects to be the fundamental building blocks of reality, but should “shift to a different ontological basis altogether, one for which questions of individuality simply do not arise”. That is, he is arguing that we should take the ontology of quantum physics (and even fundamental physics in general) to be one of only relations.

What sort of relations? Weyl (1931) and Ladyman’s (1998) approach is a group-theoretic definition of the symmetry relations of objects. We can have various representations which may be transformed or translated into one another, but we still have an invariant state under such transformations which represents the objective state of affairs (Ladyman, 1998). The way to look at what we believe to exist, and what we do not believe to exist, is to look at the invariance with respect to the transformations relevant to it. Thus, on this view, unobservable entities (such as elementary particles) are just sets of quantities that are invariant under their symmetry groups (Ladyman, 1998). This seems to resolves the problem of metaphysical underdetermination.

Notice how this also serves to solve our earlier problem of theory change. With Ladyman’s (1998) ontic structural realism, we do not have to posit a difference between what we believe to be the unobservables and what we believe to be the structures of our world that are laid out by a scientific theory. What we believe, instead, is that the fundamental building blocks of reality is not unobservables, but structures. What structures? We should choose to believe in the existence of what remains invariant under a set of transformations, and be agnostic about everything else.

Now, I would like to reiterate how radical this view is. Ladyman (1998) is redefining what it means for something to exist, and not merely saying that what exists is just relations (with our previous notion of existence). With Ladyman’s (1998) view, what we typically understand as an object that ‘exists’ is an illusion, we have to understand existence in structural terms because of the problems that can’t be explained with scientific realism or Worrall’s structural realism. And thus, it seems that the only objects that exists are just structures.



    With an understanding of Ontic Structural Realism (OSR), we are now better equipped to talk about Max Tegmark’s (2008) radical take on OSR, his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH).

The idea behind MUH is the same as OSR, the only difference being that Tegmark explicit embraces a Pythagorean form of OSR, whereas Ladyman (1998) is not so committed to a mathematical universe. To elaborate, Tegmark similarly believes that the world is just made up of structures, because objects are structures, which are then related to each other by more structures, and turtles all the way down. However, he takes it a step further, the world is not only described in structural terms mathematically, but it is itself a mathematical structure.

His main argument for MUH starts with a description of scientific theories as having two components: mathematical equations and “baggage”. Tegmark (2008) describes “baggage” as words that explain how our theories are connected to what we humans observe and intuitively understand. He further argues, if a future physics textbook contains the Theory of Everything (TOE), which would be able to describe and predict all phenomena in the universe, it would be of mathematical form. Since the external world is isomorphic to the mathematical structure described by the TOE, he argues, there is no meaningful sense in which they are not one and the same. From the definition of a mathematical structure, it follows that if there is an isomorphism between a mathematical structure and another structure, then they are one and the same (Tegmark, 2008).



Tegmark (2008) makes other assumptions and arguments for his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH), however, I shall choose to focus on the parts of his arguments as laid out above and attempt to draw an analogy to the “no-miracles” argument put forth by Putnam (1978).

Recall that scientific realists typically argue that, antirealism makes the success of science a miracle. The antirealist has no explanation as to why ‘electron calculi’, ‘space-time calculi’ and ‘DNA calculi’ are able to correctly predict observable phenomena if, in reality, there are no electrons, no curved space-time, and no DNA molecules. If those objects don’t exist at all, then it is a miracle that our theories are successful at predicting phenomena (Putnam, 1978).

Now, let us take a look at Tegmark’s (2008) “isomorphism” argument for MUH. He argues that since the external world is isomorphic to the mathematical structure described by the TOE, there is no meaningful sense in which they are not one and the same. You could say that, it would be a miracle for our scientific theories to be isomorphic to a mathematical structure, and yet not be a mathematical structure. How would one explain that?

I argue that because Tegmark’s argument is so similar to the no-miracles argument, we are able to use a similar argument typically made against the no-miracles argument: The Argument from Underdetermination. It goes as follows:

Two isomorphic groups can differ from each other; they just do not differ as groups, there is no difference if we take only the group operations into consideration. Symmetry, isomorphism, relevant sameness are all context-dependent notions (van Fraassen, 2006). Now, it is also possible to imagine an infinite number of structures that are isomorphic to the mathematical structure of the universe, but is itself not a mathematical structure. What good epistemic warrant, then, do we have to believe in the existence of a purely mathematical structure over a physical one?

What sort of structures can exist other than mathematical ones? One radical alternative to MUH is that the physical structure of the universe is a structure made of spaghetti that is isomorphic to the mathematical structure described by the possible Theory of Everything assumed by Tegmark (2008). What would this mean? Here, I would like to introduce the two different ways of viewing the external physical reality proposed by Tegmark (2008) himself: the outside view or bird perspective of a mathematician studying the mathematical structure of the spaghetti and the inside view or frog perspective of an observer living in it. In the four-dimensional spacetime of the bird perspective, these particle trajectories resemble a tangle of spaghetti. If the frog sees a particle moving with constant velocity, the bird sees a straight strand of uncooked spaghetti. If the frog sees a pair of orbiting particles, the bird sees two spaghetti strands intertwined like a double helix. To the frog, the world is described by Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. To the bird, it is described by the geometry of the pasta, obeying the mathematical relations corresponding to minimizing the Newtonian action. What about the observer? The frog itself must be merely a thick bundle of pasta, whose highly complex intertwining corresponds to a cluster of particles that store and process information (Tegmark, 2008).



What does this mean for us? Do we really live in a world made of spaghetti? I doubt so. Merely, I wish to show that when construed in such a way, Tegmark’s arguments for MUH can be attacked using the argument for underdetermination, or even other arguments that typically counter the no-miracles argument.


[2500 words]


Works Cited

Aguirre, Anthony, Brendan Foster, and Zeeya Merali. “Trick or Truth?.” (2016).

Chakravartty, Anjan. “Semirealism.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 29.3 (1998): 391-408.

Ghins, Michel. “Putnam’s no-miracle argument: A critique.” Recent themes in the philosophy of science. Springer Netherlands, 2002. 121-137.

Halvorson, Hans. “What scientific theories could not be.” Philosophy of Science 79.2 (2012): 183-206.

Ladyman, J. “What is Structural Realism?.” Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 29.3 (1998): 409-424.

Putnam, Hilary. “What is mathematical truth?.” Historia Mathematica 2.4 (1975): 529-533.

Tegmark, Max. “The mathematical universe.” Foundations of physics 38.2 (2008): 101-150.

Van Fraassen, Bas C. “Structure: Its shadow and substance.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57.2 (2006): 275-307.

Worrall, John. “Structural realism: The best of both worlds?.” dialectica 43.1‐2 (1989): 99-124.


Bilingual Twins: The Similarity between Oriya and English (2017)

For privacy purposes, I have removed all images from this paper

Professor Name: Peter Vail

Subject Name: UHB2207 Language, Cognition and Culture

Due 19th November 2017

Bilingual Twins: The Similarity between Oriya and English

In this paper, we build a case for what seems to be a striking similarity between Oriya and English by looking at bilingual Oriya-English speakers and the gesticulations that they produce. We find that these bilingual speakers, despite the wide variety of stimulus events, seem to consistently construe events in the same way in both Oriya and English. Then, we also show that one can infer the “thinking for speaking” hypothesis (Slobin, 1991) from this. However, we give an example that contradicts this idea, and show that bilingual Oriya-English speech and gestures are more complicated than initially thought. We then argue that McNeill’s (1998) hypothesized Growth Points may be a better representation, and provide another example (encoding aspect) of the complexity of Oriya-English bilingual gestures.


Our participants, Varun, Arun[1], and Sritam[2], were exposed to 3 different stimulus events each:

  1. Jackie Chan’s famous ladder fight scene
  2. A Tom and Jerry video
  3. Tweety video (McNeill & Levy, 1982)

Participants then recounted their experience of the video in Oriya to another Oriya speaker. We repeated the experiment 2 days later, but in English. Participant Sritam’s Oriya and English data were collected within the same day.


We compared the patterns of verb usage between Varun, Arun and Sritam, while keeping the stimulus event constant. More specifically, we looked at verbs that encode different motion information (path and/or manner) about the same event.

Oddly, all 3 participants have very consistent patterns of verb usage in Oriya and English. This might sound slightly ambiguous, we do not mean that all 3 participants choose to use the same spoken and gestured expressions in response to the same set of stimuli. What we mean is, despite differences in the spoken and gestured expression across participants, within individual participants themselves, their spoken and gestured expressions consistently encode the same motion information across languages.

This is better explained through the following examples:

3.0      DATA

For brevity, we shall focus on data from the Tweety video.

Gestured parts of the speech are bolded.



Speech (Varun)

Oriya: (at 28:11)      ball bajiki, siye authire pipe ru bahiri padigala

Oriya TL:      ball hit, he then pipe out fell

English: (at 24:35)   and out of the pipe, reaches the bowling alley

Gesture (Varun)




Here, we see Varun encoding information about the path sylvester takes, but not the manner, in his speech. Similarly, he gestures with a swooping motion the path that Sylvester takes, but does not gesture the rolling.


Speech (Arun)

Oriya: (at 27:01)      bhari thila sethi payin expel hei gala gote thare talu paula

Oriya TL:     heavy, therefore, expel happened at once, down went

English: (at 22:38)   and it was heavy and the ball pushes him out of the pipe

Gesture (Arun)




Here, we see Arun speaking about Sylvester being expelled (manner) and going down (path) in Oriya, and the ball pushing (manner) him out (path) in English. This example is slightly more complicated, Arun does a repeated sweeping motion in Oriya to show Sylvester being expelled and coming out of the pipe, but does a sort of pushing motion with his fingers to show the ball pushing Sylvester out of the pipe. At first glance, it might seem like Arun is encoding different information, however, when we focus on the verb categories and compare gesture and speech, we see that both path and manner is encoded in Oriya and English.

Speech (Sritam)

Oriya (at 2:17): aue siye tala pipe adu puni asigala, gadi gadi jaiki

Oriya TL:          and he down pipe towards again came, rolling went

English (at 2:00):     and then he comes out from the bottom rolling

Gesture (Sritam)

Oriya (down pipe):

Oriya (rolling):

English (comes out):

English (rolling):

Here, we see Sritam encoding path in speech (Sylvester comes out of the pipe) and gesturing path as well (with a sweeping motion), in both English and Oriya. Additionally, he also encodes manner in speech (rolling) and draws a small arc to gesture this as well, in both English and Oriya.


Now, to see the pattern more clearly and understand how similar Oriya and English are at encoding information for speaking, refer to the following table. For example, the first tick (✔) indicates that an English word indicating path is present in Varun’s speech.

  Information Encoded Path Manner
Language English Oriya English Oriya
Varun Speech
Arun Speech
Sritam Speech

Table 1


Looking at Table 1, notice how speech and gesture both seem to always be encoding the same information. Throughout our data, we see this as a consistent pattern (Sylvester thrown out the building, climbing the pipe, Tom flying after the hammock string is cut by Jerry, etc.). Whatever the speech encodes in Oriya/English, the gestures will mimic the encoding of information, for all 3 participants. If both path and manner are encoded, similarly, both path and manner will be expressed in gesture.

Additionally, whatever they encode in one language, will also be encoded when they speak in a different language. If Varun encodes path in Oriya, then he will also only encode path in English (both spoken, and in gesture). This pattern is also seen throughout our data.

Does this suggest thinking for speaking (Slobin, 1991)? There are 2 possible scenarios here:

Scenario 1 (No thinking for speaking, speakers attend to similar features of an event despite having to use different verb categories when speaking) Different verb categories Path/manner information encoded by gestures is different from the verb categories
Scenario 2 (Thinking for speaking, speakers construe events differently because the habitual use of verb categories differ, and this shows up in our gestures) Different verb categories Path/manner information encoded by gestures is the same as the verb categories


Unfortunately, we do not see any use of different verb categories across English and Oriya for us to be able to consider either scenario when looking at individual speakers. However, when we look across all 3 participants (comparing, say, Varun’s English with Sritam’s Oriya), we see that speakers use gestures that match up with the information encoded by the verb categories. Thinking for speaking?

If true, does this also suggest that due to how similar participants construe events in English and Oriya (at least, when looked at individually), that thinking for speaking is the same for English-Oriya bilinguals?


In this section, we will show why it is not as simple as “Thinking for Speaking” for these Oriya-English bilinguals by looking at the only example in our data that seems to break the consistency we have observed earlier:


Speech (Sritam)

Oriya (climbing, at 1:32): chadi chadi gala vele

Oriya TL: climb climb going

English (climbing, at 1:35): instead of climbing outside the pipe

Gesture (Sritam)

Oriya (climbing):

English (climbing):

In the English example, we see the same consistency, Sritam is speaking about Sylvester climbing up the pipe, and gestures the manner in which Sylvester does so with grasping motions using both hands.

In the Oriya example, things suddenly get very different. Sritam is speaking about climbing in Oriya (“climb climb”), and we know that he is encoding information about the “climbing” manner in which Sylvester approaches Tweety. However, his accompanying gesture does not encode manner at all and instead, shows the path taken by Sylvester (he swoops upwards using an indexical).

Is it really true that different languages structure events differently when thinking for speaking? According to McNeill and Duncan (1998), it is not so easy to just separate our structuring of events into just thinking about path and manner. The image of an event in our minds is not just simply filtered through the grammatical framework of language when thinking for speaking. McNeill and Duncan (1998) argue that image and language category are interplaying with one another when thinking for speaking, that they are separate things instead of speech being supervenient on language which is then supervenient on the images in our minds. Thus, they hypothesize a growth point where image and linguistic categories grow simultaneously to produce gesture and speech. This might be a better explanation for why we see the contradiction above.



In the previous sections, we saw how it is not so simple to say that bilingual Oriya-English speakers are thinking for speaking in the same way when recounting the same stimulus event. That is, it is not easy to say that Oriya and English structure the speakers’ view of stimulus events in the same way. This is because when we look at their gestures (more specifically, Sritam’s contradictory climbing gesture), we see that it is possible to have a gesture in Oriya that does not encode the same information as the verb category used in speech. Now, a further question is, does gesture only encode path and manner?

Duncan (2002) showed that for both English and Chinese speakers, grammatical aspect seems to be one of the meanings that are encoded in gestures. For example, verbs where AKTIONSART expressed stasis but ASPECT was imperfective such as “sitting”, and “listening” were expressed with an agitated hand gesture, even though the objects being described are technically motionless. Does this occur in languages other than English and Chinese, for example, Oriya?







Speech (Sritam)

Oriya: (at 1:05): binoculars neiki dekhuchi

Oriya TL: binoculars use watching

Gesture (Sritam)


Sritam curves his hand to form a circle at the word “binoculars” and slightly shakes his hand at the oriya verb “dekhuchi” (watching). While the first is a normal iconic gesture representing the shape of the binocular, the later shaking resembles the agitated hand mentioned in Duncan (2002). This happens at the verb for watching which does not imply any motion. Thus we can see how Sritam’s gesture expresses the aspect of the action in progress.


We have found one contradiction which breaks the identicalness between Oriya and English, however, it remains interesting that Oriya and English are nearly identical when we look at just path and manner. We have also shown that the relationship between gesture, speech, language and thought is more complicated than initially conceived.


Works Cited

Duncan, S. D. (2002). Gesture, verb aspect, and the nature of iconic imagery in natural discourse. Gesture, 2(2), 183-206.

McNeill, D. & Levy, E. T. (1982). Conceptual representations in language activity and gesture. In R. Jarvella & W. Klein (eds.), Speech, place, and action (pp. 271-295). Chichester: Wiley & Sons.

McNeill, D., & Duncan, S. D. (1998). Growth points in thinking-for-speaking.

Slobin, D. I. (1991). Learning to think for speaking. Pragmatics. Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association (IPrA), 1(1), 7-25.



[1] Arun is Varun’s identical twin brother. Varun has moved to, and lived in, Singapore for 8 years, while his twin brother Arun stayed in India.

[2] Sritam also moved to Singapore 8 years ago and has a similar background to Varun.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Bilinguals (2017)

Walter Tay Ann Lee

Associate Professor Peter Vail

UHB 2207 – Language, Cognition and Culture

30th September 2017

Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Bilinguals

In this paper, I will consider the arguments put forth by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) for their Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) as well as the critiques of CMT by Vervaeke and Kennedy (1993, 1996, 2004). I will also consider CMT in the context of bilinguals and how it relates to linguistic relativity.



Lakoff and Johnson (1980) begin their argument by distinguishing between:

  • Linguistic Metaphors, and
  • Conceptual Metaphors.

Our commonsensical notion of metaphors tells us that metaphors are a sort of play of words or figure of speech. For example, when we talk about “throwing someone under the bus”, we don’t really mean to physically handle the person and throw him under a bus (although we could mean exactly that in a different context). We are talking about sacrificing someone for selfish reasons. In this sense, metaphors are taken non-literally; As artistic ways of speaking or writing about the same phenomena. The underlying meaning or thoughts behind the words do not change, it is just the words that have changed.

This traditional concept of a metaphor is what we call a Linguistic Metaphor (1), or what Lakoff and Johnson (1980) calls, ‘metaphorical linguistic expressions’. Now, because the underlying meaning does not change, it seems as if metaphors are merely used for rhetorical flourish or special effects. That is, it seems as if we can get along perfectly well in our day-to-day lives without the use of metaphors. More importantly, because metaphors do not affect the meaning we are trying to communicate, they seem rather uninteresting to philosophers and scientists compared to ‘literal language’. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) contests this simplistic view of metaphors and claims that a second type of metaphor exists: Conceptual Metaphors (2).

What are conceptual metaphors? The first example Lakoff and Johnson (1980) gives for conceptual metaphors is “ARGUMENT IS WAR”. In this example, ARGUMENT is the concept that is being metaphorically structured in terms of another concept, WAR. What does it mean to metaphorically structure a concept? Lakoff and Johnson (1980) gives numerous examples of metaphorical structuring using expressions that fall under the “ARGUMENT IS WAR” metaphor such as “Your claims are indefensible” and “He attacked every weak point in my argument”. Here, we can see that we employ vocabulary typically used in the context of war in the way we talk about arguments. However, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war, but that many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by war. That is, we ‘understand’ and act out arguments in a war-like structure. But what does it mean to understand arguments in terms of war? Do we have flashbacks of Vietnam or war movies playing in our heads when we argue or think about arguing?

For Lakoff and Johnson (1980), to understand arguments in terms of war is to map elements in the source domain (WAR) onto elements in the target domain (ARGUMENT). To illustrate this, consider the following diagram:

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that this mapping is not just a characteristic of language, but also of thought. That is, the concept of war structures (partially) the way we think about arguments. They further claim that these mappings are implicit and are deeply engrained in our conceptual system; We were probably not aware of the metaphor “ARGUMENT IS WAR” when uttering expressions such as, “his criticisms were right on target”, and it seems that metaphor exists at a deeper level than linguistic expression. This may be why we don’t have war images playing in our heads when we argue or talk about arguing.

It is important to note that most of the support Lakoff and Johnson (1980) provides for Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) is on the basis of linguistic evidence. They claim that since communication is based on the same conceptual system in terms of which we think and act, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like. However, is their evidence sufficient?



At the heart of the controversy is the claim that conceptual metaphors influence in important ways the basis of our thinking. Vervaeke and Kennedy (1993, 1996, 2004) seem to strongly object to the idea that conceptual metaphors are implicit and structure much of abstract thought without our knowing. To understand this problem, we must first consider Johnson’s (1991) position on grounding for conceptual metaphors.

Recall that conceptual metaphors are mappings of elements from a source domain (such as war), to a target domain (such as argument). Now the question is, what constitutes the source domain? Johnson (1991) argues in favour of embodied experience (source domain) as the basis of meaning. He describes metaphors as being derived from ‘basic experiences’ (or embodied experience), and elements of these experiences are mapped onto abstract concepts in order for us to understand them.

However, Kennedy and Vervaeke (1993) contend that Johnson’s (1991) arguments is riddled with problems. Firstly, they notice that Johnson (1991) changes his description of what was merely a connection between the source domain and the target domain, to what has become a projection without any basis for such a substitution. That is, the leap from embodied experience having commonalities with abstract concepts to being able to structure said concepts seems unjustified. Additionally, they contend that even if we are able to make such a leap, it is unclear what counts as a basic experience or what concepts should be considered indispensable schema (structures).

Johnson (1993) in his reply to Kennedy and Vervaeke (1993) argues that they have misrepresented his position, which he seems to have stated before (Johnson, 1987), is merely a tentative hypothesis concerning the experiential motivations for logic. Johnson (1993) argues that he does not make such a leap and is merely providing a starting point to which we can find the makeup of the source-to-target mapping. Moreover, Johnson (1993) agrees that it is not the case that we have metaphors whenever two domains have commonalities.

In a later paper, Vervaeke and Kennedy (1996) introduce a powerful argument against the idea of conceptual metaphors being implicit (implicit, in the sense that, it structures how people think without them knowing it). They provide linguistic evidence for other conceptual metaphors for ‘ARGUMENT’ such as, ‘ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING’ or ‘ARGUMENT IS A BODY’. They argue, on what basis do we decide which metaphor is the implicit one? That is, how do we know which source domain is structuring the target domain (ARGUMENT)? The problem here is any metaphor about argument that does not fit the ‘WAR’ will be used as evidence for another theme, such as ‘A BUILDING’ or ‘A BODY’. Thus, it seems to Vervaeke and Kennedy (1996) that the idea of implicit metaphors is unfalsifiable.

Now, one might argue along the lines of Ritchie (2003) and say that regardless of what metaphors we use (WAR, BUILDING, or BODY), they all seem to be grounded in embodied experience when we take a closer look. Ritchie (2003) says, “it is likely that our experience of both argument and war are grounded in the common experience of frustrated desires and the consequent conflict of wills”. However, Vervaeke and Kennedy (2004) argue, does this mean that the underlying conceptual metaphor is ‘ARGUMENT IS INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT?’ For them, this conceptual identity claim is no longer a metaphor but a literal class inclusion statement. Vervaeke and Kennedy might not deny that our experience of argument and war are grounded in interpersonal conflict, however, they would deny that this is considered a metaphor, and that this is evidence for the existence of implicit metaphors.

For clarification, my understanding of Vervaeke and Kennedy (1993, 1996, 2004) is that they see conceptual metaphors as a sort of tool for expressing an idea. Their view is that a metaphor is often chosen from a set of alternative metaphors with widely differing implications to express an idea that is literal. In this sense, it is not the conceptual metaphor that is implicitly structuring our abstract concepts, but that we use them to draw out certain elements in an abstract concept. That is, the conceptual metaphor explicitly structures our abstract concepts.



Without getting too deep into the “online-offline” controversy of the different forms of metaphorical understanding, recent studies (Gibbs, 1997; Boroditsky, 2001; Bylund and Athanasopoulos, 2017) seem to show that even when we process highly conventional metaphorical expressions (offline understanding), we still seem to rely on metaphorical mappings which activate the related source domains.

In the experiment by Bylund and Athanasopoulos (2017), they studied the ‘TIME IS DISTANCE/AMOUNT’ metaphor by considering two kinds of primes: a prime for horizontal distance (increasing length of a line) and a prime for amount (increasing fill level of a container). This distinction between the two primes is important because the subjects studied (Swedish-Spanish bilinguals) speak languages which represent time differently; In Swedish, the passing of time is viewed as increasing in distance whereas in Spanish, the passing of time is viewed as increasing in amount. Bylund and Athanasopoulos hypothesized that if the ‘TIME IS DISTANCE/AMOUNT’ metaphor exists in the conceptual systems of the Swedish-Spanish bilinguals, then there should be crosslinguistic differences in time reproduction. Their results showed that switching the language context in the same bilingual individual also transforms the way they estimate duration.

In the context of CMT, this might suggest that bilinguals not only use metaphors to talk about time differently, but when they comprehend metaphorical expressions online, their source domains are clearly activated and interfere differently with their processing of an abstract concept (in this case, the concept of time) depending on which language is in use and what conceptual metaphor is contained in that language.


The phenomena of linguistic relativity can possibly be explained by the mechanism of conceptual metaphors, since, our understanding of abstract concepts seems so deeply rooted in metaphor, and that different languages seem to have different conceptual metaphors for the same abstract concept.


Works Cited

Boroditsky, Lera. “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time.” Cognitive Psychology, vol. 43, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1–22., doi:10.1006/cogp.2001.0748.

Bylund, Emanuel, and Panos Athanasopoulos. “The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration through the Language Hourglass.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 146, no. 7, 2017, pp. 911–916., doi:10.1037/xge0000314.

Gibbs, Raymond W., et al. “Metaphor in Idiom Comprehension.” Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 37, no. 2, 1997, pp. 141–154., doi:10.1006/jmla.1996.2506.

JOHNSON, Mark. The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Johnson, Mark. “Conceptual Metaphor and Embodied Structures of Meaning: A Reply to Kennedy and Vervaeke.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 6, no. 4, 1993, pp. 413–422., doi:10.1080/09515089308573101.

Johnson, Mark. “Knowing through the Body.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 4, no. 1, 1991, pp. 3–18., doi:10.1080/09515089108573009.

Kennedy, John M., and John Vervaeke. “Metaphor and Knowledge Attained via the Body.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 6, no. 4, 1993, pp. 407–412., doi:10.1080/09515089308573100.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. “Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 77, no. 8, 1980, p. 453., doi:10.2307/2025464.

Ritchie, David. “‘ARGUMENT IS WAR’-Or Is It a Game of Chess? Multiple Meanings in the Analysis of Implicit Metaphors.” Metaphor and Symbol, vol. 18, no. 2, 2003, pp. 125–146., doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1802_4.

Vervaeke, John, and John M. Kennedy. “Conceptual Metaphor and Abstract Thought.” Metaphor and Symbol, vol. 19, no. 3, 2004, pp. 213–231., doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1903_3.

Vervaeke, John, and John M. Kennedy. “Metaphors in Language and Thought: Falsification and Multiple Meanings.” Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, vol. 11, no. 4, 1996, pp. 273–284., doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1104_3.



Howe, James. “Argument Is Argument: An Essay on Conceptual Metaphor and Verbal Dispute.” Metaphor and Symbol, vol. 23, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–23., doi:10.1080/10926480701723516.

Kövecses Zoltán, and Benczes Réka. Metaphor: a Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ortony, Andrew. Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

carlahilpert. “A Course in Cognitive Linguistics: Metaphor.” YouTube, YouTube, 2015,

Language Switching Practices of 3 Penang Multilinguals (2017)

Walter Tay Ann Lee

Associate Professor Peter Vail

UHB 2207 – Language, Cognition and Culture

Due 25th October, 2017

Codeswitching Practices of Three Penang Bilinguals

In this paper, I will examine the codeswitching practices of three bilinguals from Penang, Malaysia. I will argue that these codeswitching practices serve certain social functions, and that we can infer a certain language ideology to be driving these codeswitching practices.


The three participants whose codeswitching behaviour is examined, are all bilinguals from Penang, Malaysia who are fluent in both Chinese and English. They also have a certain level of fluency in Malay, and dialects such as Hokkien and Cantonese. Additionally, all 3 participants have similar educational backgrounds, and moved to Singapore in 2016 to further their studies in NUS.


The conversational data comes from two video recordings. The first video recording involves an informal, face-to-face conversation with me, and participants LS and WS. The second video recording involves another informal, face-to-face conversation with only me and participant JY.



Participants were initially under the impression that they were being interviewed for an academic project. This is true, however, this has lead to participants LS and WS to speak only in English for the first 13 minutes of the video. This phenomena of English being the ‘proper’ language is more obvious in the second video, where an interesting conversation about the ‘marked’ language goes as follows:

1    Walter: The first question is, how would you describe your socioeconomic background compared to the average Singaporean student… like, uh, like do you feel like 你要做的东西比较难 or 比较贵-(The first question is, how would you describe your socioeconomic background compared to the average Singaporean student… like, uh, like do you feel like it is more difficult to do the things you want or it’s more expensive-)

2    JY:Hah, can speak Chinese meh?

3    Walter: Ya, ya. No no, as in, like, speak naturally. Cause like, like, for, for, I, I feel like most-

4    JY: Never mind I speak English la

5    Walter: No no no English is, you don’t normally speak English right

6    JY: Oh yeah. Half half lo7    Walter: Half half la, 随便 la, up to you

(Half half la, doesn’t matter la, up to you)

8    JY: When I speak to you is half half la

In line 1, I begin by asking my first question and codeswitching halfway (on purpose) to Chinese. Interestingly, participant JY notices this and in line 2, explicitly inquires about the appropriateness of the usage of Chinese in such a setting.

There is a possible ideology at play here: For academic settings, English is the appropriate language or code. This is more obvious in line 3, where participant JY says that he is fine with speaking in English. Implicit here is that participant JY is concerned that using Chinese might cause my data to be rejected by the university or my professor.

In line 6, JY also mentions that for more informal settings (day-to-day conversation), it is more normal for him to speak in ‘half Chinese and half English’. That is, codeswitching between Chinese and English codes is very common when speaking informally to other fellow Malaysians.  This is more obvious in the following example with participants LS and WS:


1    LS: So, 在Malaysia没有 experience过 hall life 啦 没有住过宿舍啦。And then like 这里住宿舍,okay, 给我给一点 comparison with local uni 的宿舍跟这边的宿舍。 我觉得这里的宿舍比较 shag. 因为我看了照片啦,朋友在宿舍。他们有一点events but 他们 actually 是参他们的 uni 的 CCA 然后如果有, like, achievement 就可以住在宿舍。他们的,自己宿舍没有所有的CCA. But 他们 的一些宿舍有搞一些event也是啦。呢你每次看那些照片啊。他们穿一些coat很美啊。Like, 做pose and then 放 like, 什么 Chinese, 什么 Mid Autumn Festival bla bla bla and then like 叫大家一起来那种东西。

(So, in Malaysia never experience before hall life la never lived in a hall la. And then like living in halls here, okay, to give a small comparison with local uni hall and the hall here. I feel that hall life here is more shag. Because when I look at pictures of my friends in their halls back home. They have events but they actually are joining their uni’s CCA and then if they have any, like, achievement, they can stay in their hall. Their halls don’t have any of their own CCA. But their halls also do organize some event of their own. You know every time you look at their pictures. They wear those coat that looks nice. Like, do pose and then put like, what Chinese, what Mid Autumn Festival bla bla bla and then like call everyone to join that kinda thing)


2    WS: But 他们的 CCA 很 limited as in 他们会参加 CCA 啦。But,像我在USM的朋友right,他们也 quite,有很多, 那种, activities啦,like, debate, then go let’s say cultural exchange to thailand, then actually 他们的activity是quite fun 的啦 but 也不能讲他们的不 shag 啦。

(But their CCA is limited as in they will join CCA la. But, like my USM friends right, they are quite, have a lot of, those, activities la, like debate, then go let’s say cultural exchange to thailand, then actually their activity is quite fun la but we can’t say that their isn’t shag la)

3    LS:也是有很多工作

(they also have a lot of work)

4    WS:也是有很多东西做啦

(they also have a lot of things to do la)

5    LS:But, 就是不懂为什么这里读做了很不爽。Especially AAC.

(But, what I don’t understand is why it’s not as nice here. Especially AAC)

6    WS:可能,可能 就是讲你join的 CCA 比较 那种 functional and serious 的。Not like,不是那种比较文化类型culture。像你跟他讲他们每次都去那种华文,华文节。那种都是 for fun only 吗。现在你做 let’s say, green comm, 你也要去种树。你叫一个 uni student 去种树你当然不爽咯。

(Maybe, maybe because you join those CCA that are more functional and serious. Not like, not like those with more cultural type culture. Like you told them that they always go to those chinese, chinese events. Those are for fun only ma. Now you are doing let’s say, green comm, you have to plant trees. You ask a uni student to plant trees of course not nice lo)


Immediately obvious here is that there are a lot of codeswitchings going on between Chinese and English, and that the participants are very comfortable with these codeswitchings. What we are looking at seems similar to the integrated bilingualism norm described by Ag and Jorgensen (2012) in their paper about language ideologies. That is, participants LS and WS are able to use features from Chinese or English in the same production when appropriate.

What are the features that they are selecting and strategically using? It is interesting that many of the organisations or events associated with academic settings (e.g. in university) are mentioned using English words rather than Chinese words. For example, words such as ‘hall life’, ‘local uni’, ‘events’, ‘CCA’, ‘Mid Autumn Festival’, ‘Cultural Exchange to Thailand’ and ‘green comm’. Note that this seems to be a motivated switch rather than a lexical gap as the participants not only claim to be more fluent in Chinese, but they also know the ‘Chinese version’ of those words when prompted. If they know the Chinese words that mean the same thing, and they also claim to be more fluent in Chinese, why codeswitch at all? What sort of meanings are they bringing in when using English words to describe these things?

I argue that the language ideology “English is the appropriate code for academic settings in Singapore” is motivating these codeswitchings. Ag and Jorgensen (2012) talks about how ideologies not only associate values with linguistic features, but also construct relations between linguistic features and languages. In this case, academic values are being associated with the linguistic features that are tied to English. On this point, I am on the same page as Ag and Jorgensen (2012) in my belief that the participants are not really using “English”, but rather, they use linguistic features which are associated with “English”. This ideology is used to motivate extended normativity with respect to language practices even outside of academic settings, as we have seen. This is even more obvious in one example of participant WS talking about his midterm paper:


1    WS:Actually 我quite chill 的 then, 那种 senior 讲那个 midterm 会很难 then 分数 expected 就是 median 大概就在, mean啊 mean在 one quarter of the total mark. Then, then, “eh, why ah”

(Actually, I am quite chill one then, that senior told me that midterm will be very hard then the marks expected is the median roughly at, mean ah mean at one quarter of the total mark. Then, then, “eh, why ah”)


Here, WS uses English terms to describe things that are very obviously related to an academic setting such as, ‘senior’, ‘midterm’, ‘median’, ‘mean’, and ‘one quarter of the total mark’.

It is also interesting to look at the codeswitch to Chinese from when they were initially speaking in ‘purely’ English. In both videos, participants only switched to speaking in Chinese when they realized that the setting is an informal one. Now, an important question is, how do we know that the situation determines the proper code, rather than the codeswitching redefining the situation? We can observe this from my failed attempts at getting participants LS and WS to codeswitch:


1    Walter: The first question is, how would you describe your socioeconomic background compared to the average Singaporean student… like, do you feel like 你要做的东西很难做因为你 like 没有钱 or something like that, you know what I mean?

(The first question is, how would you describe your socioeconomic background compared to the average Singaporean student… like, do you feel like the things you want to do are more difficult to do because you like have not a lot of money or something like that, you know what I mean?)

2    LS: Socioeconomic background?

3    Walter: Yeah socioeconomic background

4    LS: Uh, does my nationality-

5    Walter: Yeah as a Malaysian la

6    LS: Ok

7    Walter: Or a penangite, whatever you identify as

8    LS: So, as I come from Malaysia, I would say that, uh, I, my spending power is quite limited so I can’t buy stuff. I can’t buy anything that I want. Usually when I go out with my friends I will try to buy like, to save money

Despite my intentional codeswitch to Chinese, participants LS and WS did not codeswitch to Chinese at all, and only started codeswitching when I explicitly redefined the situation. Thus, it seems that it is the situation that determines the proper code, at least, for these Malaysian participants.


Participants LS and WS also seem to codeswitch when trying to express certain ‘emotions’. For example:


1    LS:Like for example 我,actually 我前天我应该有跟你讲过。我那个 Japanese 的 project. Then 我很爽的是,我问那个学生,他,like, 觉得  NUS 很亮, like, 他觉得 NUS 很好应为你去外面找工的时候他们都一直要拉 NUS 的 student

(Like for example I, actually I should have told you already the other day. My Japanese project. Then the thing that I like is, I ask that student, he, like, feels that NUS is really bright, like, he feels that NUS is really good because if you go outside and look for a job they will try to get an NUS student)

2    WS: You sure or not?

3    LS:我听他这样子讲啦。At least in Japan 啦。

(That’s what I heard him say la. At least in Japan la)

4    WS: Mi gui 啦(hokkien for “What nonsense is this”)

5    LS: 我听了就觉得哇很爽哦。应为 at least for 日本 他们很喜欢拿 NUS 的学生。

(When I heard it I felt really good. Because at least for japan they really want to get NUS students)

In lines 2 and 4, we see participant WS codeswitching to English and Hokkien to express a sort of disbelief in what LS is saying. In examples (2) and (3), we also see participants LS and WS codeswitching to English to express emotions like chill and shag. Do they feel different when speaking in different languages?

Participants LS and WS describe themselves as feeling the same when speaking in either Chinese or English. For example:


Walter: Do you feel pressured to act or like speak in certain ways in Singapore compared to in your hometown like Penang? Or maybe in Penang you feel 比较 natural, you know what I mean?

(Do you feel pressured to act or like speak in certain ways in Singapore compared to in your hometown like Penang? Or maybe in Penang you feel more natural, you know what I mean?)

LS: Um

Walter: 这边会比较 different 吗? Like weird

(Here is it more different ma? Like weird)

LS: Different in terms of the language we speak like, in Penang, I speak Chinese. I rarely speak English with my parents. In Singapore, I would say that the difference is just only the language. Aside from that, I’m still me, I still speak the way that I speak

Walter: Mmm. 你 leh?

(Mmm. You leh?)

WS: I think it’s about the same la. Because like the cultural is not too different and then uhh, so just the language lo


If they don’t feel different, it’s possible that the codeswitching here is to evoke a culture-specific conceptual representation of their emotion (Jarvis and Pavlenko, 2012). That is, they feel the same, however, the preference for which word to use is possible driven by what seems most appropriate in representing the feeling that they are trying to convey. What sort of culture are these emotions specific to? Possibly academic culture, and we can relate this with the ideology we have inferred earlier, “English is the appropriate code for academic settings in Singapore”. I argue that the preference to codeswitch to English emotion terms such as ‘shag’ and ‘chill’ is ideologically driven. That is, participants LS and WS believe that ‘pure’ English should be spoken in academic settings in Singapore, and thus, have become habituated to associate those words with how they are feeling, rather than, say, other Chinese emotion terms.

English (or more precisely, Singlish) terms such as ‘shag’ and ‘chill’ are more typical in the scripts of participants LS, WS and JY. Expressions of disbelief, like the ones shown above, are much more uncommon. Additionally, it is difficult to see how codeswitching to express disbelief can be tied to the ideology we have inferred. However, what we have shown here is that, at the very least, emotional concepts seem to be a useful case in studying conceptual transfer from English to Chinese in Malaysian bilinguals.



Codeswitching seems to play an important role in bringing certain meanings in the daily interactions between these bilinguals from Penang and other Malaysians.


Works Cited

Ag, Astrid, and Jens Normann Jørgensen. “Ideologies, norms, and practices in youth poly-languaging.” International Journal of Bilingualism 17.4 (2013): 525-539.

“Jer Yong – LCC.” YouTube, 2017,

Jiménez, Antonio F. Jiménez. “Crosslinguistic Influence in Language and Cognition by Scott Jarvis and Aneta Pavlenko.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, vol. 16, no. 3, 2012, pp. 432–436., doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2012.00539_7.x.

Kerckvoorde, Colette Van. “Bilingual Minds: Emotional Experience, Expression and Representationedited by PAVLENKO, ANETA.” The Modern Language Journal, vol. 91, no. 4, 2007, pp. 708–710., doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.2007.00639_13.x.

“Leong Seng and Wai Seong – LCC.” YouTube, 2017,

Rampton, Ben. “Language crossing and the redefinition of reality.” Code-switching in conversation: Language, interaction and identity(1998): 290-317.

Woolard, Kathryn A. “Simultaneity and Bivalency as Strategies in Bilingualism.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 8, no. 1, 1998, pp. 3–29., doi:10.1525/jlin.1998.8.1.3.

Can a person be immoral while holding moral beliefs? (2016)

Note: This is another paper from my freshman year (2016). However, compared to my first semester the writing is a huge improvement.

Walter Tay Ann Lee


Class 1: UWC2101Y – Issues In and Around Justice

Dr Jeremy Arnold

In this paper, I will consider Kitcher’s arguments against moral realism and an externalist view of morality, as presented in “Biology and Ethics (2007)”, and some problems that arise with his evolutionary story of morality. I will claim that his evolutionary story is merely a “story” and that Brink’s views on the nature of morality (realism and externalism) are not undermined by his evolutionary story. I will argue, that the crucial claims about the nature of morality in Kitcher’s evolutionary story can be interpreted in such a way as to remove any real inconsistencies with Brink’s views.

Kitcher introduces his argument by first, defining biological and psychological altruism and second, explaining how such forms of altruism are possible (Kitcher 4 – 9). For Kitcher, biological altruism happens when an organism behaves in a way that benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. Kitcher then defines psychological altruism as the agent’s conscious intentions to help others, even if the act of helping may not affect their biological fitness (which would not count as altruistic in the biological sense). His argument for the plausibility of altruism involves thought experiments and computer simulations, and is rather straightforward so I will not discuss it here. More importantly, he believes our altruistic dispositions and capacity for fellow-feeling is insufficient and claims that morality was evolved to account for this insufficiency (Kitcher 9).

His argument begins with Hume’s claim that our capacity for fellow-feeling is limited (Kitcher 9). Kitcher then provides real-world examples which show that Hume’s claim makes sense; animals have self-directed desires which can override their altruistic dispositions. Kitcher explains, “There is a delicate interplay of opposing forces – the altruistic dispositions drawing animals to act together and the selfish disruptions threatening to decompose the social group – and this interplay is mediated by time-consuming activities of peace-making” (Kitcher 10). That is, our primate ancestors spent enormous amounts of time grooming each other to repair the ruptured social bonds. However, this is not how we humans live today; humans don’t spend hours each day grooming one another. Kitcher’s conjecture is that normative guidance (what he calls morality, roughly speaking), and our capacity for normative guidance was evolved to reinforce the pressures that would preserve the social fabric, thus, replacing the need for social grooming (Kitcher 10). Simply put, we have developed a capacity for articulating rules and we use those rules to shape our wishes, plans and intentions. In this way, we do not have to live under the constant threat of overt conflict and are able to live in enormously bigger groups.

We can see why this makes Kitcher an antirealist (and at odds with Brink’s moral realism); if morality (normative guidance) was evolved for the sake of social cohesion, there is no need to say that moral facts exist to explain morality. Kitcher asks, can we see these ‘moral facts’ that Brink talks about (Kitcher 14)? He draws an analogy, when setting light to a cat, do we perceive the wrongness of the act? From Brink’s perspective, setting light to a cat has a ‘wrongness’ to it. But what kind of property is wrongness? Are we able to verify or observe the existence of this ‘wrongness’ property? For Kitcher, we are just trained to respond in a certain way when we see the cat lighted on fire. Is it necessary to invoke the ‘fact that it is wrong’ to explain the judgment? Kitcher doesn’t seem to think so.

I argue, however, that this does not undermine Brink’s position on moral realism. Kitcher makes a sharp distinction between science and morality – science is about tracking facts of the world but morality isn’t. But why is that true? Kitcher gives no explanation and says “…my conjectural genealogy has no analogous consolation” (Kitcher 15). That is, he tells you to ‘look at his story’ and see that, according to his story, the social training given to us for moral judgments is not about detecting facts of the world but for the purpose of social cohesion. Thus, Kitcher has already presupposed antirealism when writing his story and provides no support for his assumption. Similarly, a realist, like Brink, could construe his own biological story by presupposing realism.

To construe such a story, we shall first look at the link between biology and ethics. On this view, both Kitcher (2) and Brink (144 – 170) seem to believe that ethical naturalism is defensible. What they really disagree about is whether moral facts exist. For argument’s sake, we will grant Kitcher that the purpose of morality is to foster social cohesion. However, the moral realist can still say that this grounds morality in reality or framework that is neither the result of human decision nor rationale. That is, human decision does not decide what is good for social cohesion (moral good), evolution does. Thus, the realist can say that moral facts are just facts about social cohesion.

Now, the antirealist might argue that people disagree on what is better for social cohesion. For example, Nazi culture versus American culture. But of what importance is disagreement? Ultimately, what a realist is being realist about is that there is a fact of the matter on whether something is right or wrong – that there is a correct answer. In the evolutionary case, a realist is just saying that whether something is good or not for social cohesion is a fact; it is not constituted by individual or collective opinions. As Brink would put it, we might disagree on what is better but we don’t say that there is no such fact of the matter. We don’t say that there is no correct answer to the question of what is better for social cohesion.

Of course, the realist might not believe that moral facts are just facts about biology. Because then, which evolutionary facts are the moral ones? Facts about the eyes, ears, or nose? However, for this story it does not matter. Ultimately, whatever facts they are, we still agree that facts do exist. What I’m arguing is that even if we grant Kitcher the ability to derive an ought (“what we ought to do”) from an is (“natural properties of the world that we can observe”), it remains that facts of the matter still exist, whatever the facts are. Thus, the realist can conjecture a similar story to Kitcher’s one while presupposing realism.

We can also see why Kitcher’s story makes him an internalist. Kitcher makes internalist-sounding statements in his paper, such as, “…evolutionary biology supports the idea that the function of moral attitudes is to create motivation for the kinds of altruistic behaviour that improve social cohesion” (Kitcher 1). Here, you can observe that Kitcher seems to believe that moral attitudes must “create motivation”, quite similar to an internalist view. That is, because moral good is defined (roughly speaking) as altruistic behaviour that improves social cohesion, his statement above says that the very function of moral attitudes is to create motivation to do moral good. Notice how this is an internalist view; that moral considerations must motivate or provide reasons for action.

Before we attempt to conceptually combine Brink’s externalism with Kitcher’s evolutionary metaethics, we will first examine how Brink uses the ‘amoralist’ to argue in favour of externalism. This is important because I will use the same amoralist to argue in support of an externalist view of Kitcher’s story. We will begin with the amoralist scenario.

Now, we are at a bar where poor Jack has stolen 5 dollars to pay for his drink. Very convincingly, Jack states and believes that stealing is indeed wrong, and that ‘stealing is wrong’ can be a true statement. Yet, he holds on to the 5 dollars, and shows no inclination to change his stealing behaviour.

We would think that someone who sincerely believes that the act of stealing is wrong to feel motivated to not steal. Moreover, we expect moral considerations to motivate people to act in certain ways, or at least to provide them with reason to act in those ways.

Brink begins his argument by defining internalism and externalism (Brink 37 – 43). The belief that there is a conceptual connection between moral judgments and motivation is the internalist view that Kitcher holds. The internalist believes moral judgments are action-guiding, so if someone like Jack sincerely believes that stealing is wrong, they will be motivated to not steal. That is, moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reason for action. Additionally, for internalists, the concept of morality itself shows that moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reasons for action (Brink 39). A moral ‘fact’ must motivate us to act, otherwise it is not moral.

However, Brink denies that moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reasons for action and is what moral philosophers call an ‘externalist’ (Brink 42). Externalists like Brink believe that moral considerations only contingently motivate or justify. However, what are the motivations and justifications contingent upon? Do moral considerations contingently motivate and justify simultaneously, or does motivation and justification take turns? Brink himself does not provide a straightforward answer because to him, it does not really matter. Externalism, to Brink, is just the denial of internalism. The main idea is that moral considerations do not necessarily motivate or justify. Motivational power depends on things other than the concept of morality, such as what the content of morality turns out to be, a substantive theory of reasons for action, or facts about agents such as their interests or desires (Brink 42 – 43).

Brink (37 – 80) argues in favour of externalism by pointing out the many flaws of internalism. He begins by showing why internalism seems to be more plausible or commensensical. This is well explained by using one of Mackie’s (15 – 43) arguments for antirealism:

  1. If there are any genuine moral requirements, then they must be intrinsically motivating and intrinsically reason-giving.
  2. Nothing is either intrinsically motivating or intrinsically reason-giving.
  3. Therefore, there are no genuine moral requirements.

Here, you can clearly see that Mackie holds an internalist view; he believes that moral facts should be intrinsically motivating. This view is very attractive initially because it seems to be the only view able to account for the action-guiding character of morality. In fact, accounting for this action-guiding character of morality is so important that Brink believes we should “…hesitate to accept any metaethical or normative theories according to which moral considerations are considerations to which well informed, reasonable people might always be completely indifferent” (Brink 38).

However, Brink starts to see a few problems with internalism. For example, internalists are unable to account for the ‘amoralist’ and generally insist that the ‘amoralist’ is a conceptual impossibility. Why is this so? Because according to the internalist, it is conceptually impossible for someone to recognize a moral consideration and remain unmoved (Brink 46). That is, internalists believe that the “Stealing Jack” scenario we discussed before is impossible (where Jack believes stealing to be wrong, and continues to steal while making that moral judgment). A typical internalist reply to this scenario is that amoralists are able to use moral language like us and express certain moral views, but not wholeheartedly believe in said moral views. That is, what the amoralists regard as moral considerations are not what we regard as moral considerations; their own views about morality are completely different from conventional views (Brink 46). Hence, the amoralist seems to sincerely make a moral judgment, however, is merely expressing such a judgment and does not really take it to be true.

Brink (47) says this reply is inadequate and believes the internalist does not take the amoralist challenge seriously enough. This is because Brink (48) believes we can conceptually conceive of the amoralist. That is, we are able to imagine someone who genuinely believes something to be wrong, and yet remain unmoved by such a belief (such as the ‘Stealing Jack’ example). This is best said by Brink himself, “We may think that such a person is being irrational and that she can be shown to be irrational. We may even think that such a person is merely possible and has never existed and will never exist (…). But we do think that such a person is possible…” (Brink 48). Thus, if the amoralist is conceptually possible, and the internalist believes the amoralist to be impossible, then the internalist assumption must be false.

However, the internalist argues that we are unable to conceive of the amoralist because the amoralist question of “Why should I be moral?” is preposterous. The internalist believes moral considerations to be intrinsically motivating, and thus, it is odd to ask the amoralist question. That is, the internalist argues that the question of “Why should I be moral?”, is the same as asking, “Why should I do what I ought to do?”. The internalist would find it, in many cases, to be odd for a person to ask, “Why should I do what I ought to do?”. Because if you ought to do it, and you recognize that you ought to do it, then you should know why you ought to do it!

Brink, however, says that the internalist does not recognize the amoralist question because the internalist does not distinct between the two different versions of ‘should’ (Brink 59); what ‘motivates’ the agent to do what he ought to do, and what gives ‘reason’ for the agent to do what he ought to do. To Brink, this is a very important distinction because he believes that moral considerations can ‘motivate’ one to do moral acts, however, they do not necessarily provide sufficient ‘reason’ to do moral acts (which is also not derived from moral considerations alone). Thus, for Brink, what the amoralist is really asking is, “What is a good reason I should do what I ought to do?”. By applying this distinction, we can see how the amoralist question makes sense. The amoralist makes a sincere moral judgment, and because of that is motivated to act morally, however, has no (or insufficient) good reason to act morally.

A final argument the internalist can make is to resort to weak internalism (Brink 60). Weak internalism claims that moral requirements provide the agent with a reason for action (singular), whereas strong internalism that moral requirements provide the agent with conclusive, overriding, or sufficient reason for action. Consequently, weak amoralism denies that agents have sufficient reason to be moral, while strong amoralism denies that agents have any reason to be moral. Weak internalism is able to take weak amoralism seriously, but treats strong amoralism as incoherent (Brink 60). So we do not need to reject internalism in order to take one form of amoralism seriously.

However, Brink replies, “Although weak internalism may be more plausible than strong internalism, it is still implausible. For even if strong amoralism is less plausible than weak amoralism (…), it is still coherent, and it is evidence against weak internalism that it makes strong amoralism incoherent” (Brink 60). That is, because the weak internalist is still unable to take the strong amoralist seriously, and Brink believes the strong amoralist to be still conceptually conceivable, internalism is still less plausible than externalism. But how does Kitcher’s evolutionary story disprove Brink’s externalist view?

Going back to Kitcher’s story, Kitcher believes that humans evolved a capacity for normative guidance (morality) and this capacity can reduce the frequency in which our selfish desires override what we believe we ought to do (Kitcher 10). In other words, we have evolved the ability to articulate rules and feel motivated by our rules (moral beliefs), which is an internalist view. Assuming Kitcher’s story is correct, that means that our moral beliefs necessarily motivate and provide reasons for actions, which also means Brink’s arguments for externalism are invalidated by Kitcher’s story. In fact, Kitcher’s view can be construed as a form of weak internalism. He recognizes that our capacity for normative guidance does not necessarily force us to act in accordance with our moral beliefs. Merely, we feel more compelled to act that way, and the tendency for our selfish desires to override our moral considerations is diminished (Kitcher 10). That is, our moral beliefs still necessarily motivate or provide reasons for actions, however, they might not provide sufficient motivation or reasons for action.

However, recall that Brink still finds weak internalism to be problematic (and less plausible) because it cannot account for the amoralist. For most humans, we can surely agree that moral beliefs necessarily motivate and provide reasons for actions. However, the amoralist might not have evolved the capacity to feel motivated by their moral considerations. Recall that there are 2 key features of Kitcher’s conjecture for our evolved capacity for normative guidance (Kitcher 10):

(1) Capacity for articulating rules (express or hold certain moral beliefs) and,

(2) Capacity for using those rules to shape our wishes, plans, and intentions, so that the frequency with which the altruistic tendencies that underlie cooperation are overridden is diminished (obtaining motivation or reasons for action from moral beliefs)

The amoralist might have evolved the first ability to hold moral beliefs, but not have the second ability to feel motivated by the moral beliefs that they hold. Since we can conceptually conceive of such an amoralist, however improbable it may be, externalism is not invalidated by Kitcher’s story and might be more plausible than internalism (since it can account for the amoralist). But if Brink’s externalism is correct, what motivates us to act morally if not moral considerations themselves?

For Brink, what motivates us to act are contingent psychological states (Brink 49). That is, the motivational force of moral judgments and moral belief depends on both the content of people’s moral views and their attitudes and desires (Brink 49). Simply put, moral motivations don’t necessarily come from our moral beliefs, but they could come from our moral beliefs, and other factors (such as our attitudes and desires) can also motivate us to act morally.

I claim that our social training is an example of an external factor that motivates us to act morally. Or rather, it is exactly what Brink refers to when he means ‘contingent psychological states’ (Brink 49). I argue that we feel motivated to do things because we are trained in that way, not because moral judgments themselves motivate or provide reasons for us to act morally. We react with strong disapproval when we see the cat lighted on fire, not because of the moral belief we hold that ‘lighting cats on fire is bad’, but because we are trained to react in that way. Our moral belief that ‘lighting cats on fire is bad’ could motivate us to react with strong disapproval, but it doesn’t necessarily motivate us to react in that way. Why? Because moral beliefs alone do not motivate the amoralist to react in that way. Thus, they can’t be necessarily motivating. That is, the amoralist might receive the same social training that we receive, sincerely believe the same moral beliefs that we believe, and feel motivated to act morally because they are trained to act that way (external factor), but have insufficient reason to act morally (because they lack the second feature of the capacity for normative guidance). Alternatively, the amoralist could have the moral belief that “lighting cats on fire is morally good”, but because of their social training (external factor), feel motivated to not light cats on fire, which is contradictory to their moral beliefs. Hence, even if we accept Kitcher’s evolutionary story of morality, the amoralist is still conceptually possible, and it still makes sense to ask the amoralist question of “Why should I do what I ought to do?”.

Thus, if my arguments are correct, Kitcher’s evolutionary metaethics is certainly compatible with Brink’s realist and externalist views and only serves to strengthen them. Kitcher’s evolutionary metaethics has no bearing on Brink’s views and the two major metaethical views – realism and antirealism – still remain on the table.



Brink, David. Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Kitcher, Philip. Biology and Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin, 1977.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. Ethical Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

What you trade matters | Summary (2016)

Note: This is quite an old summary. I wrote this when I was a freshman (2016), so it doesn’t read as smoothly as my current writing.

Also, one of the constraints was for the summary to be written in a single page. Hence, the horrible formatting.

Dorussen’s (2006) primary  research  question  asks,  “Do  different  types  of  trade,  varied  across industry sectors, have different pacifying effects on dyadic conflict?”

Despite extensive work done on building support for the commercial peace theory, few have tried  to  assess  trade  at  a  lower  level  of  aggregation.  Dorussen  believes  that  the  pacifying effects of trade could vary across industrial sectors, and if true, will have serious implications for previous estimations using aggregate data.

Dorussen’s argument centers on opportunity costs, that higher levels of trade make conflict costlier, thereby reducing the likelihood of conflict. He mentions two sources of opportunity costs: factor mobility (elasticity of supply and demand), and asset specificity (costs associated with readjusting to the loss of a specific trade relation). Additionally, he adds that opportunity costs are not necessarily the same for importers and exporters. Dorussen also argues that the composition of trade matters; appropriability of resources can influence the pacifying effect of trade.

Consequently,  Dorussen  proposes  3  hypothesesfirstly, that  conflict  is  less  likely  between states that trade more. Secondly, trade is more pacifying if states exchange more goods with high opportunity costs. Third, trade is less pacifying if states exchange more goods that are more easily appropriable. To test his hypothesis, he uses logistic regression to estimate his model, with the absence of dispute being the reference category.

His  unit  of  analysis  is  dyad-year,  for  ease  of  comparison  with  Russett  and  Oneal’s  (2001) results, while his temporal range is from 1970-1997, because of limits in the trade data. Not surprisingly, his spatial domain also covers all pairs of states in the international system.

The dependent variable is the existence of a militarized interstate dispute, as collected by the COW project using the Maoz correction for the pre-1992 period. Furthermore, the analysis is limited to disputes that involve the threat with or actual use of force by at least one side. This means that only MID values of 0 (no conflict), 4 (threat) and 5 (use) were considered.

To analyze the effects of the composition of trade on conflict, the main independent variable is the proportion of trade attributable to a particular industry sector relative to total dyadic trade in a given year. The main source for the data on disaggregated bilateral trade flows is the United Nations Statistical Office.

To  ensure  the  robustness  of  his  results,  Dorussen  controls  for  economic  dependence (DEPENDL, DEPENDH), openness (OPENL), level of democracy (DEMOCRACYL, DEMOCRACYH), international  organizations   (IGOs),   defense  pacts   (DEFENSE  PACT),   logged   power  ratio (POWER-RATIO), non-geographical contiguity (NONCONTIGUITY), logged distance (DISTANCE), and presence of both minor powers in dyad (MINOR-POWERS). He also controls for temporal correlation by lagging all independent variables by one year, controlling for the number of years  a  particular  dyad  has  been  without  a  militarized  dispute,  and  includes  three  cubic splines.

His results show that trade still generally reduces the likelihood of conflict, even when using partially different data and measurements. This demonstrates the robustness of his results and  lends  support  to  his  first  hypothesis.  His  findings  also  largely  agree  with  his  third hypothesis, that risks of appropriation of trade also matter; trade in nonmanufactured and food  products  is  least  pacifying  compared  to  trade  in  manufactured  goods  and  primary chemical  and  metal  products.  However,  hypothesis  two  has  little  support;  the  differences between manufactures compared to nonmanufactures and agriculture does not correspond in and obvious way with their respective opportunity costs.


Dorussen, H. (2006). Heterogeneous trade interests and conflict: What you trade matters. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(1), 87-107

Trade Blocs, Trade Flows, and International Conflict | Summary (2016)

Note: This is quite an old summary. I wrote this when I was a freshman (2016), so it doesn’t read as smoothly as my current writing.

Also, one of the constraints was for the summary to be written in a single page. Hence, the horrible formatting.

Mansfield  and  Pevehouse’s (2000) primary research  question  asks,  “How  do  preferential  trading arrangements (PTAs) influence the likelihood of military disputes between two states?” Many empirical  studies  were  carried  out  in  attempt  to  resolve  the  debate  on  the  relationship between international trade and political conflict by analyzing the effects of trade flows on conflict. However, these studies have largely ignored the institutional context in which trade is conducted.

Mansfield  and  Pevehouse  argue  that  preferential  trading  arrangements  (PTAs)  dampen military disputes by generating the expectation of future economic gains by members. Since the outbreak of hostilities threatens to scuttle these gains, participants in the same PTA have reason to avoid involvement in military conflicts. Additionally, many PTAs create a forum for bargaining  and  negotiation  that  reduces  the  tensions  among  participants,  helps  resolve conflicts  that  do  occur,  and  promotes  the  establishment  of  focal  points  that  shape  states’ expectations and facilitate the identification of deviations from accepted norms. Consequently, Mansfield and Pevehouse propose 3 hypotheses; firstly, that military disputes are less likely to occur between PTA members than between other states. Secondly, parties to the same PTA are less prone to conflict as the flow of trade expands between them. Third, heightened commerce is more likely to dampen hostilities between parties to the same PTA than between other states.

Since  the  observed  value  of  MIDij   is  dichotomous,  the  model  is  estimated  using  logistic regression. They also estimate their model with a technique developed by King and Zeng to correct for any rare-events bias. Like Oneal and Russett, Mansfield and Pevehouse use the dyad-year as their unit of  analysis, to facilitate comparisons of their results to prior work. Additionally, their temporal range is also the same as Oneal and Russett’s, that is, during the period from 1950 to 1985. Not surprisingly, their spatial domain also covers all pairs of states in the international system.

Mansfield and Pevehouse use a redefined version of MIDij as their dependent variable; MIDij is redefined as a nominal trichotomous variable, equaling 2 if a violent military dispute breaks out between i and j in year t, 1 if a nonviolent dispute begins between i and j in year t, and zero otherwise. To test their first hypothesis, the main independent variable is preferential trading arrangement membership, PTAij. Moreover, data on the dependent and independent variable are obtained from  Oneal and Russett’s (1997) dataset. PTAij equals 1 if  i and are parties to the same preferential trading arrangement in year t – 1, and zero otherwise. To test their second hypothesis, they include TRADEij X PTAij, as well as both GDPL X PTAij  and GDPH  X PTAij. To test their third hypothesis, they include bilateral trade flows, TRADEij. To ensure the robustness of their results, Mansfield and Pevehouse control for the regime types of i and j (DEML and DEMH), economic growth (GROWTHL), alliances (ALLIESij), geographical contiguity (CONTIGij), differences in capabilities (CAPRATIOij), national income of each state in the pair (GDPL, GDPH), and the relative strength of each state (HEGEMONY).

Their results show that hypothesis 1 finds support; military disputes are less likely to occur between  PTA  members than  between  other  states.  Additionally,  the  findings  indicate  that PTAs  have  conditioned  the  effects  of  trade  flows  on  military  disputes;  the  tendency  for heightened trade to dampen conflict is much larger and stronger between PTA members that between  other  states,  and  preferential  arrangements  are  increasingly   likely  to  inhibit hostilities as the flow of commerce rises. This is in line with both hypothesis 2 and 3. Overall, their results show that the institutional setting in which commerce promotes peace cannot be ignored.

Mansfield, E., & Pevehouse, J. (2000). Trade Blocs, Trade Flows, and International Conflict. International Organization, 54(4), 775-808. doi:10.1162/002081800551361

Peace Through Trade? Or Free Trade? | Summary (2016)

Note: This is quite an old summary. I wrote this when I was a freshman (2016), so it doesn’t read as smoothly as my current writing.

Also, one of the constraints was for the summary to be written in a single page. Hence, the horrible formatting.

McDonald’s (2004)  research  question  asks,  “Is  free  trade,  and  not  just  trade,  the  key  to  dyadic peace?”. His motivation for the study stems from a lack of consensus concerning the precise nature of the link between commerce and conflict. Consequently, McDonald argues that free trade  promotes  dyadic  peace  by  removing  protective  barriers.  To  clarify,  he  argues  that protective barriers play an important role in decisions to use military force, e.g., enhance the domestic power of societal groups likely to support war, reduces the capacity of free-trading interests to limit aggression in foreign policy, and simultaneously generates political support for the  state  often used to  build its war  machine. Furthermore, McDonald  argues  that his mechanism connecting free trade to peace is more relevant than others because it includes state-society  interactions  to  explain  foreign  policy  behavior,  which  others  have  failed  to include.  By  including  state-society  interactions,  McDonald  is  able  to  explain  how  trade promotes peace by connecting the domestic distributional consequence of commercial policy with the domestic politics of international conflict.

McDonald’s  hypothesis  is  that  greater  levels  of  protection  increase  the  probability  of interstate  conflict.  Given  the  dichotomous  dependent  variables,  McDonald  estimated  his model  with  logistic  regression  and  the  Beck,  Katz,  and  Tucker  (1998)  correction  for  time- series, cross-sectional analysis with a binary dependent variable. His unit of analysis is the dyad-year while his temporal domain is a function of how protection is measured, e.g., when using data on import duties, the cases span from 1970 to 2000. However, data utilizing the Hiscox  and  Kastner  indicator  (gravity  model  of  trade)  are  available  from  1960  to  1992. Moreover, all interstate dyads in the international system provide the spatial domain of cases. The dependent variable is the onset of a new militarized interstate dispute between dyad members i and j, sourced from the revised MID data version 3.0 and derived from Eugene 3.03 (Bennett and Stam 2000). As a categorical variable, MIDON, takes on a value of 1 in the first year  of  a  new  dispute. McDonald’s main  independent  variable  is protection  or  openness, which is operationalized in two ways. The first indicator of protection (PROTECTH), with data obtained from the World Bank Development Indicators, measures the proportion of customs revenue divided by total imports in the state possessing the greater such ratio in the dyad. The  second indicator (for  data from Hiscox and Kastner, 2002) follows a similar  logic; they present protection scores as deviations from the sample maximum, or free trade, state in their data set – the Netherlands in 1964. Both indicators of protection (PROTECTH) are continuous variables and measure the  score of the state in the dyad that possesses higher barriers to trade. Additionally, PROTECTH is measured in period t – 1 to account for potential endogeneity effects between conflict and protection. To ensure the robustness his results, in the baseline regression model, McDonald controls for the level of democracy (DEMOCRACYL), relative size of  the  largest  economy  (GDPH),  changes  in  short-term  economic  conditions  (GROWTHL), similarity of political interests (ALLY), alliance portfolio similarity (INTERESTS), differences in capabilities (CAPRATIO), presence of a great power (MAJORPOWER), geographical contiguity by land (CONTIGUITY), and logged distance (DISTANCE).

McDonald’s results show that PROTECTH is consistently positive and statistically significant, indicating that the probability of a new military dispute increases as the level of protection increases. These results support the domestic version of commercial liberalism presented by McDonald.  Additionally,  he  finds  that  when  including  both  PROTECTH  and  DEPENDL  in  his model, the coefficient on DEPENDL shrinks and is no longer statistically significant. This casts doubts on the opportunity cost and sociological variants of commercial liberalism. Overall, his results seem to support the claim that free trade enhances the prospects for peace.


McDonald, P. J. (2004). Peace through trade or free trade?. Journal of conflict resolution, 48(4), 547-572.