Type Book
Date 2015
Pages 153
Tags nonfiction, philosophy, Socratic dialogue, epistemology, ethics

Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong

A dialogue between four people who represent different philosophical viewpoints: Sarah, the scientific fallibilist; Bob, the naïf, who values direct personal experience; Zac, the relativist; and Roxana, the logician.

The four meet on a train. Sarah finds Bob, with whom she is on friendly terms, with a cast on his leg. He explains that his garden wall collapsed on his leg, but when Sarah commiserates about his bad luck, he insists that it was not luck: his neighbor used some mystical means to cause the wall to collapse. Sarah protests that there is surely a more logical, scientific explanation for the wall's collapse, but Bob is adamant:

You expect me to take that on faith? You don't always know best, you know. I'm actually giving you an explanation. (Mustn't talk too loud.) My neighbour's a witch. She always hated me. Bewitched my wall, cast a spell on it to collapse next time I was right beside it. It was no coincidence. Even if you had your precious scientific explanation with all its atoms and molecules, it would only be technical details. It would give no reason why the two things happened at just the same time. The only explanation that makes real sense of it is witchcraft.

The two argue about it for a while, and Zac overhears and steps in, asking them to consider the relativist position, that both of them are correct, from their own points of view. Sarah protests that they cannot both be correct, when they are advancing incompatible ideas. Zac responds:

Sarah, it's you who make them incompatible by insisting that someone must be right and someone must be wrong. That sort of judgemental talk comes from the idea that we can adopt the point of view of a God, standing in judgement over everyone else. But we are all just human beings. We can't make definitive judgements of right and wrong like that about each other.

Zac takes issue with absolutist notions of 'true' and 'false'. Roxana arrives and, hearing the argument, comments that they do not seem to understand logic, and offers a definition from Aristotle:

Aristotle said 'To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true'. Those elementary principles are fundamental to the logic of truth. They remain central in contemporary research. They were endorsed by the greatest contributor to the logic of truth, the modern Polish logician Alfred Tarski.

There is no point, she says, making an assertion but refusing to say that one's assertion is true.

During the balance of the book, they discuss epistemology and then ethics--primarily the question of whether there is some basis for ethics, and whether absolutist or relativist ethics is valid. Sarah initially takes a relativist position on ethics, but she is unwilling to take an absolutely relativist position on morals (as one might with regard to etiquette). For example, she says that she would support intervention to free slaves, even if the slaveholders believe they are behaving morally and cannot be convinced otherwise through discussion:

Maybe it doesn’t matter what I tell the slaveholders. There's probably nothing I can say that would ever change their minds. The slaves shouldn't have to wait in chains for the miracle of my finding an argument that convinces the slaveholders against all their prejudices.

Generally, it is Sarah's views being tested: the other three are primarily there to object to weaknesses in her arguments. It's a bit of a shame, really, that the others don't get to advance meaningful arguments except relative to Sarah's viewpoint.

Roxana (who is something of a caricature of a logician) objects when the others make some illogical argument, but offering very little herself. She might profitably have discussed formal reasoning, but she leaves it at "I listen to their dispute merely as an instructive example of the chaotic nature of debate between untrained persons."

Zac often refuses to take any position, backing away with "it's my point of view" when pressed. The others call him on it, but he still doesn't offer anything but vague claims that relativism is going to have a huge impact on society, some day, and absolutism is what has led to wars and other abuses. His relativist position is certainly not presented as terribly useful or defensible.

Bob has the most obviously wrong position, from the start--that witchcraft is real--but he actually makes some very worthwhile arguments about gaining knowledge from direct experience, which the dialogue pursues. Do dogs have knowledge, gained from their senses? Is there a higher standard for human knowledge? Does knowledge require verbalization? To what extent must we accept knowledge that others claim they have gained through experience--for example, Bob's 'sensing' that a woman is a witch?

The topics covered in the dialogue are fairly basic, and are unlikely to be new to anyone who has studied epistemology and ethics even very casually, but they are presented in a way that makes the problems of philosophy very easy to understand--even if there are not any satisfying answers to those problems.

It was occasionally frustrating when a character would make a weak argument, clearly for the didactic purpose of exposing the weakness. If you couldn't see the weakness immediately, or anticipate that they were likely to make the bad argument, it wouldn't be so bad. This would probably not be an issue for someone new to the ideas.

Tetralogue should provide a good introduction for a beginner wondering what this philosophy stuff is all about.

Name Role
Oxford University Press Publisher
Timothy Williamson Author