Pathways to PhilosophyKindle eBooks by G Klempner




on this page

Or send us an email




Application form




Pathways programs

Letters to my students

How-to-do-it guide

Essay archive

Ask a philosopher

Pathways e-journal

Features page

Downloads page

Pathways portal



Pathways to Philosophy
Home



Geoffrey Klempner CV
G Klempner



International Society for Philosophers
ISFP site






1st series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]  2nd series [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] [39] [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] [49]

  View the latest questions and answers at askaphilosopher.wordpress.com
pathways (ask a philosopher)

Ask a Philosopher: Questions and Answers 23 (1st series)

Here are some of the questions that you Asked a Philosopher from September 2003 onwards:

  1. Humankind's greatest achievement
  2. I want to become a philosopher
  3. Why philosophers think differently
  4. 'If there is no God, then I am God'
  5. Killing innocents for the greater good
  6. Why people are skeptical
  7. The filters through which one perceives the world
  8. How we learn to philosophize
  9. Male managers and female managers
  10. What Kant and Mill would have thought of cloning
  11. Looking for Spencer's "Seven Great Prejudices"
  12. Definition of a 'tautology'
  13. Monty Python's advice to Mrs Brown
  14. The first philosophical question
  15. Kant's approach to morality
  16. P4C and The Rainbow Fish
  17. Making sense of the death of an eleven year old
  18. 'Woman' and 'man'
  19. Criticizing Descartes' evil genius
  20. Why God allows suffering
  21. Studying The Apology
  22. P.F. Strawson on freedom and responsibility
  23. Defining 'holy'
  24. Denying a proposition you do not understand
  25. Descartes and animal consciousness
  26. How do I know you see the same red as me? (I)
  27. I want to teach myself about right and wrong
  28. Heidegger on the ecstasies of time
  29. What all areas of philosophy have in common
  30. Is gender purely a social construct?
  31. 'Relativism' and 'absolutism'
  32. Lessons from 'The Grey Zone'
  33. The challenge of terrorism
  34. Teaching philosophy to K-8
  35. How to think about a bouncing ball
  36. Importance of memory
  37. Thinking about heart and mind
  38. Advice from Socrates
  39. Evaluating Descartes' argument for dualism
  40. Meaning of 'arx axiom'
  41. 'I do not exist'
  42. Ayer on ethical statements
  43. Is life absurd if there is no God?
  44. Suffering on account of love
  45. Dawkins on body and soul
  46. Human behaviour
  47. Plato and Aristotle on body and soul
  48. I'm infuriated and baffled by Kant
  49. Studying the sources of knowledge
  50. Jehovah's Witnesses on 'Christ' and 'God'
  51. Universal and relative 'truths'
  52. Non-verbal meaning
  53. Zealous advocacy on trial
  54. A question about life and death
  55. Strengths of the argument from design
  56. Under 18s and pornography
  57. Why do we bother with long dead thinkers?
  58. Husserl's epoché and the external world
  59. How to be moral and happy
  60. The rule of recognition
  61. Difference between the real you and your image
  62. Non-cognitive interpretation of religious language
  63. Socrates, Bhagavad Gita and Tao Te Ching on self and soul
  64. Can good exist without evil?
  65. Does it matter if I'm a brain in a vat?
  66. A contrived question about evolution
  67. Arguments for God
  68. Philosophical definitions of 'killing'
  69. 'Epoché' and 'reduction' in Husserl's phenomenology
  70. How do I know you see the same red as me? (II)
  71. How one person can decide another's guilt
  72. I don't need to go to school to study philosophy
  73. Philosophy for school principals
  74. Mind and brain
  75. Why the environment does not need to be protected
  76. Defining 'eudaimonia'
  77. Speculations about Heaven
  78. How behaviour reveals the mind
  79. Where to read about Democrats and Republicans
  80. I am a cynic about love
  81. Why we believe in UFOs
  82. In praise of philosophical eclecticism
  83. Do we exist?
  84. Where to find about about St Thomas Aquinas
  85. The universe from Koko the gorilla's point of view
  86. Where to read about Plato, Aristotle and Buddhism
  87. Is time an object or a perspective?
  88. Value judgements and objectivity in social research
  89. Why philosophy is not subservient to science
  90. Idea of a phenomenology of death
  91. Does the universe have an edge?
  92. Source of the term 'positivism'
  93. How we can tell we are not dreaming? (I)
  94. How we can tell we are not dreaming? (II)
  95. Wittgenstein and cognitive psychology
  96. Why human beings are violent
  97. Serious answer to the meaning of life
  98. Why we shouldn't ask about the meaning of life
  99. Philosopher who discussed 'wearing masks'
  100. Time travel, artificial intelligence and UFOs
  101. 'Chance favours the prepared mind'
  102. Modal logic and counterfactual conditionals
  103. Epicureanism as bourgeois Buddhism
  104. Why we shouldn't need passports
  105. The real philosopher's stone
  106. How do I know that someone else hasn't thought of my idea?
  107. Judging God's morals
  108. Why PhDs are called PhDs
  109. Describing nothing
  110. Meaning, truth, knowledge and the external world
  111. Thinking about a parallel universe
  112. Varieties of intelligence
  113. Philosophies of mathematics
  114. Philosophy 101 in the military
  115. Where evolution will go next
  116. Is the world an illusion?
  117. Como inicio la vida?
  118. Husserl's pre-predicative judgement and the unconscious
  119. How do you find out about Comte?
  120. 'Everything follows from a contradiction'
  121. I don't need qualifications to be a philosopher
  122. Idea of a unique soul mate
  123. An elementary introduction to capitalism
  124. Lots of questions about truth
  125. What's really real
  126. Curious question about birds
  127. Why journalists ought to protect their sources
  128. Traps for the would-be altruist
  129. Fatalism and Taylor's 'Story of Osmo'
  130. Importance of delegation in a Police Unit
  131. The problem of evil revisited
  132. Doubts about time travel
  133. Kantian morality and the Euthyphro dilemma
  134. Did Heidegger ever take magic mushrooms?
  135. Assumptions of sociology
  136. How a realist can admit subjective elements in perception
  137. Defending Popper's falsificationism
  138. Human mind and artificial intelligence
  139. Analysing 'Windmills of Your Mind'
  140. How science leads to philosophy
  141. Why we're here
  142. When the universe will end
  143. Would we be better off being atheists?

Ask a question Answer a question

Giles asked:

What is humankind's greatest achievement?

We have been adaptable enough to have survived, so far. Could we have survived without language, I wonder? But language is just one way of communicating meanings. Perhaps the ability to invest things with significance and to understand and explain meanings is our greatest achievement as a species. Without it we would not have culture and society — no collective identities, no art, mythology, religion, metaphor or symbolism, no promising, reconciliation, philosophy or humour...

Graham Nutbrown


The Ask a Philosopher web site.

Jonathan Ichikawa

back


Duunyia asked:

Well my question is simple but I don't think it is easy to answer. How can a person become a philosopher? If so, I do want to become one. But how?

This is a very good question. Recently I heard someone suggest that if we knew how to be a philosopher, that would be the end of philosophy. The point is that being a philosopher is a process of becoming one.

I think that you will find that in some ways you already are a philosopher — especially since you are asking questions like this. You are a philosopher any time you think about the fundamental questions of life that have no easy answer (or no answer at all). Why are we here? What kinds of beings are we? What's morally right? What is beauty? and there are many more.

But to be a philosopher, you need to think about them not in a way that would give you an immediate answer that you would immediately be satisfied with. You have to look for reasons for your answers and for the things that you believe, and to ask more questions.

To see how philosophers think, it might be helpful to read some philosophy. Try Plato, for a start.

You become a philosopher by reading philosophy and thinking about what you have read in a disciplined and rigorous way. This means you try not to take things for granted (of course, it's impossible not to take anything for granted, but at least you need to be clear about what you are assuming) but look for reasons and justifications. Eventually, you will come to your own idea about how one becomes a philosopher.

Alya Diarova


I'd say you must be one already, because philosophers are people who ask simple questions which are not easy to answer.

Tim Sprod

back


Adam asked:

Do philosophers think differently than political scientists or historians or writers or mathematicians or scientists? If so why?

Putting the question that way is not very helpful. It is better to think in terms of how different kinds of intellectual practitioners go about their trade. It is the kinds of questions that the respective intellectual disciplines take as their concern that holds the key to understanding what it is to be a philosopher, mathematician, scientist, historian. Different kinds of questions demand different kinds of responses if they are to be addressed successfully. What really sets philosophy (and hence philosophers) apart from other areas of intellectual activity is its second order nature. When a historian is making sense of some past event in those ways characteristic of doing history, he is being a historian. When he or she is reflecting on the nature of historical understanding (say) philosophy of history is being done. Likewise with mathematics, science etc. Philosophy reflects upon issues like what kind of understanding does history give us, and how is it possible, and how does it differ from the kind of understanding given us by the physical sciences. Is explanation in history as dependent upon causal generalisations as is so much of the natural sciences or does history afford us a different kind of insight into why events occurred as they did?

In the same way as there is philosophy of history, there is philosophy of maths, science, art, literature,education etc. The concerns are always the same: conceptual clarification, laying bare the presuppositions informing these important human concerns, vetting such presuppositions for consistency, plausibility. In that sense philosophy is a parasitic activity but this assertion needs to be tempered by the recognition that there is a canon of concerns — ethics, logic, epistemology, metaphysics — which is largely driven by professional philosophers addressing issues raised by other philosophers. But again the same distinctive clarificatory set of tasks.

Perhaps the philosophical task is not (quite) exhausted by the task of clarification, but it is a mighty important part of it. And the difference between so called analytic philosophy and 'continental' philosophy is the emphasis placed upon clarity, rigour of argument, the desire for consistency within the former tradition. All intellectual disciplines demand the hardest thinking. But not all kinds of thinking are the same. The object and ambitions of philosophical thinking set it apart from other (equally) important kinds of thinking. Philosophy is not history, is not maths, is not science. It is what it is even if so many of its tasks are set by these other areas of intellectual challenge.

Ian Gregory

back


Thien asked:

Who is the author of the philosophical phrase "If there is no GOD, I am God"?

Kirillov, a character in Dostoevsky's novel The Devils is one person I know of who says something like this. If you're scared off by this long (but wonderful!) book, check out what Camus says about Kirillov in The Myth of Sysiphus.

Berta Black

back


Kelvin asked:

Is murder of innocent people wrong according to classical utilitarianism? If so explain why or why not.

Any ethical theory that wants to be taken seriously will have the murder of innocents fall into the "wrong" column. This includes utilitarianism. But since utilitarianism doesn't give absolute prohibitions to specific kinds of acts, the technically correct answer is "almost always."

Classical utilitarians think that the right action is the action that maximizes the amount of happiness in the world. The murder of innocents will not maximize happiness, for two fairly obvious reasons (there may be more):

First, and most importantly, murdering an innocent person deprives that person of all of the future happiness of his life. Second, if people were permitted to run around killing one another, then everyone would live in constant fear of being killed. This, of course, is a pretty unhappy consequence.

Some people who have more deontological leanings (i.e., believe that things like "don't kill" should be absolute moral rules) aren't satisfied with the utilitarian account. They point out that under some circumstances, it might actually maximize happiness to kill the innocent person — for example, if by killing one person, we could save several innocent people's lives, or if by killing an innocent murder suspect, we could increase the deterrent effect on future potential murders.

This is a serious challenge for utilitarians. There are responses available, but it takes some fairly sophisticated arguments. The best source that's easily understood to follow up on the utilitarian response that I know is Chapter Four of William Shaw's Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism.

Jonathan Ichikawa

back


Alexandra asked:

Why are people skeptical?

This is a rather odd but very interesting question. First, is it a philosophical question? I'm not sure that it is. Certainly, it seems true that in the Western philosophical tradition, skepticism is a normal, even a preferred, stance. And this comes at least in great part from people like Socrates, who (as far as we know) preferred death to being prevented from questioning his contemporary customs and beliefs. For more on that, take a look at this recent book: Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, by Jennifer Hecht.

This might conceivably answer a question about the origins of a skeptical tradition, but I don't think it answers the general question of why people are skeptical. One could cite animal studies showing that rats, cats, monkeys, and other animals seek out new and unfamiliar stimuli... in other words, that we all get bored and want something new; and that this might imply the beginnings of skepticism, i.e., the rejection of the old for the new.

But even more interesting, I think, are some recent results in human development relating to infant development and to moral development. First, you might look at:

Gopnik, A. and A. Meltzoff (1987). "The development of categorization in the second year and its relation to other cognitive and linguistic developments." Child Development 58: 1523-1531.

Gopnik, A. and D. M. Sobel (2000). "Detecting Blickets: How Young Children Use Information about Novel Causal Powers in Categorization and Induction." Child Development 71(5): 1205-1222.

Piaget, J. (1978). The grasp of consciousness. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Zelazo, P. D. (1999). Language, levels of consciousness, and the development of intentional action. Developing theories of intention: social understanding and self-control. P. D. Zelazo, J. W. Ostington and D. R. Olson: 95-117.

Zelazo explicitly relates development to increasing 'degrees', to use a metaphor, of recursive self-consciousness. That is, child development only occurs because children become more and more able to, in effect, not merely be aware of, but to critique, to criticize, themselves... and so to alter thinking, emotional responses, and behavior. Piaget might easily be read the same way, I believe.

As far as moral development goes, you might look at Dawson on Kohlberg: Dawson, T. L. (2002). "New tools, new insights: Kohlberg's moral judgement stages revisited." International Journal of Behavioral Development 26(2): 154-166. A fascinating paper, which among other things, indicates that 'an important prerequisite of moral development is direct and repeated experience with moral conflict in social contexts'. Thus to progress morally, it seems, one must be forced to question one's beliefs.

As you can see, then, skepticism is useful, perhaps essential, in intellectual, emotional, and moral development.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Josaphine asked:

I'm a student in Thailand and I was wondering if you could help me with the question: "In order to find out how things really are, one must understand the filters through which one perceives the world. Discuss and evaluate this claim." I'm not too sure as to what they mean by 'filters.'

and Nazirrajput asked:

"In order to find out how things really are, one must understand the filters through which one perceives the world." Discuss and evaluate this claim.

and Christian asked:

I am of the belief that every person has a certain type of filter and that depending on this filter we perceive the world differently. Is there any philosophical text or quotes that can back this theory up?

"Filter" could mean anything from necessary structures of cognition (Kant) to physiological differences (e.g. human eyes and dog's eyes) to social and cultural conditions (e.g. differences in upbringing, different practices in different societies). In one sense it is obvious that all of us perceive the world differently. No two people's background and situation in the world is entirely identical. We all have our own perspective on the world. But the question is 1) How far these differences are significant, and precisely which factors are significant, and in what circumstances? 2) Is there such a thing as "how things really are" (e.g. Nietzsche would say that all we have are perspectives and there is nothing "behind" or "beyond" the possible ways in which the world might appear to human beings (but this is not a relativism, he does not say that anything goes).

Ultimately, I don't think that the world filter is very helpful, because it implies that there is or can be something like pure perception or a god's eye view of the world and a real world independent of any possible perspective on it but this seems to me to be the very question at issue.

Alya Diarova

back


Emmanuel asked:

How to we learn philosophy or understand it?

and Ady asked:

How do we learn?

and Bill asked:

Can you provide a brief dialogue (discussion) about "how we learn" from the philosophical positions of a rationalist, feminist and scientist?

On one level we "learn" philosophy in the same way as we learn any other humanities subject, by reading, thinking and rehearsing ideas in our own words. But there are differences. Whereas the student of literature, say, doesn't have to write novels, plays or poems to be a successful student, the student of philosophy does, to some extent at least, have to "do" philosophy. That is, s/he has to evaluate arguments, assess their cogency, attempt to justify opinions. You could argue that the student of literature is studying how to respond to literary texts in the same way as the student of philosophy is studying how to respond to philosophical texts, but the difference is that the focus for the literature student is the text itself, whereas the focus for the philosophy student is the philosophical issue dealt with in the text. The philosophy text is assessed by its success in elucidating the issue. So, how do we learn philosophy? By reading philosophy texts and evaluating them critically. There is no substitute for that.

How do we understand philosophy — or anything else, for that matter? This takes us straight to difficult philosophical questions (as well as to questions that are the province of psychology). What is the conceptual connection between the concept of learning and the concept of understanding? Can we have learning without understanding? This is likely to take us into normative areas, to questions of value, of relative worth. We can learn things by rote without understanding them. We can understand how items of information relate to one another without understanding the significance of the whole structure. So, neither learning or understanding are all-or-nothing concepts: in many cases, at least, we can be said to have learned something or to have understood something a bit, to some extent, partially, in a way, etc.

How should we think of understanding? As a psychological state, something going on in the mind or brain? Or should we think of it in more behavioural terms: you can be said to have understood something when you can behave appropriately or utter the right sentences? Can we ascribe understanding to others in the same way and with the same meaning as we ascribe it to ourselves? These are questions that take us into the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language.

To understand "learning" we would need to be clear about what we mean by "understanding". To be clear about "understanding" we would need to understand the meaning of "meaning", including the kinds of meaning that are conveyed by language and especially by sentences expressing propositions that such and such is the case, that point to external objects. We would then have to be clear about the relationship between the meaning of these sentences and the beliefs of the person who utters them, and then about the connection between beliefs, thoughts and whatever private experiences occur in the speaker's mind. From there we could think about the mind/ brain issues, and the ultimate connection between brain states and meaning and understanding.

There's a range of theoretical attitudes at each stage. Some people would be interested in establishing a scientific, physical, causal connection between external objects and internal brain states, and therefore in either explaining concepts like learning and understanding in physical terms (or in eliminating them from the discussion entirely, as remnants of a discredited "folk" psychology). Others would emphasise social and conventional factors, and might perhaps look at the different ways in which we can be said to learn and understand things, both within and between different cultures. For example, we talk about paintings, myths and sunsets having meaning, as well as words and sentences. They might be interested in not reducing meaning, learning and understanding to any one psychological or physical process. They might link scientific or reductive approaches to meaning and understanding to issues of ideology and power. Some feminists, amongst others, might take this approach.

As for rationalism, its perspective on learning and understanding would emphasise innate knowledge and cognitive capacities with which we are born, as opposed to the information that we acquire through our senses. This might be expressed in term of specific capacities of the brain. Even if we reject the notion of innate knowledge, we might still agree that the ability to learn and understand depends on such capacities. But this would not be equivalent to saying that learning and understanding were identical with them.

A rationalist perspective might also emphasise analytical understanding — that is, understanding the internal relations of ideas and the logical implications of concepts, and using deductive, rather than inductive, inference.

Graham Nutbrown

back


Rodette asked:

Do male and female managers think different ethically?

Well, female and male managers might think differently, and this might be an ethical difference, but it depends on your idea of the nature of ethics. I think ethics is about human relations and so that if there is a difference between female and male managers it would be an ethical difference.

If you take ethics to be about following principles, then I don't see why there should be a difference in the behaviour of men and women. There isn't known to be a difference in the ability to follow principles between men and women. If you take a utilitarian stance about maximising benefits for as many people as possible, again there would be no known difference.

Rather than looking at ethical theory the answer to your question means we have to look at accepted gender differences. Males in positions of responsibility are supposed to be patriarchal and authoritative and females are supposed to be more nurturing. I receive a leadership newsletter and the latest issue makes a distinction between a boss and a leader. The boss is said to have male authoritative qualities and the leader nurturing female ones. It seems there is a drive to make those in charge more female. According to this newsletter, the boss inspires fear while the leader inspires enthusiasm. The boss says 'I', and the leader says 'we'. The boss 'commands' and the leader 'asks'. On this view the leader/ female is more ethical in her concern for human relations.

Personally I don't believe in accepted gender distinctions. We are all individuals. My husband is probably a boss in terms of being authoritative but he also nurturing and sent his secretary on an assertive course when he found she wasn't easily able to cope with his authoritative ways. Though whether this is 'developing her' as a leader/female would do or 'using her' as a boss/ male would do is unclear.

If the ethical attitude is to treat someone as a unique individual we shouldn't be thinking that categorising people has anything to do with ethics.

Rachel Browne

back


Melody asked:

What would Immanuel Kant's views be on cloning? I would also like to know what John Stuart Mill's thoughts on cloning would be as well.

What these questions are asking you to do is to think of the general principle that Kant or Mill advocates for making moral decisions, and apply it to the issue of cloning. This should give you a determinate answer: this is what Kant (or Mill) thinks of cloning.

But there is a problem. Let's consider Kant. Is the act of cloning universalizable? Can I consistently will that everyone should make clones? It doesn't seem to me that there is any contradiction in accepting universal cloning, like there is in universal lying, for example, which would undermine all communication. But wait: maybe universalizing cloning would contradict respect for other humans (the alternative formulation of the Categorical Imperative). Doesn't this depend on what we are cloning for? And what respect means? And so on... This points to a problem with Kant's account — in order to apply the Categorical Imperative, we need to take into account the context, the particularities of the situation. So it is no easy matter to use Kant's views to come up with the morally right thing to do.

So, turn to Mill. Cloning would be right if it leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. So how do we calculate the amount of happiness that would flow from cloning? And are we talking about the general case of cloning (rule utilitarianism), or the specific case of creating just this particular clone (act utilitarianism)? In either case, the arithmetic looks hard.

In other words, I don't think that we can decide the answer to your questions, short of resurrecting them and asking them. This points to the weakness of both of their moral theories: they do not issue in straightforward answers to moral questions.

Tim Sprod

back


Gwilym asked:

Herbert Spencer, the now deeply unfashionable Victorian philosopher and social commentator, once wrote of the "seven great prejudices". I am trying to locate where he said this and what he thought they were. I have tried all the standard quotation books and the Internet. Any ideas?

I haven't heard of "seven great prejudices", but a good place to start when looking for material like this is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online. Check out http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spencer/.

Near the end, there's a list of internet and book resources. Good luck.

Jonathan Ichikawa

back


Molly asked:

What's the term for a conclusion that is based only on its premise, e.g. "We do the things the way we do, because we do the things the way we do."

I know this is not a syllogism. I don't think its a truism, either, but I'll look that up while I await your reply.

A tautology.

It is also a syllogism (a valid deductive argument).

It is also a truism (something that is obviously and trivially true), but while tautology and syllogism are used as technical terms in logic, truism is not.

Berta Black

back


Jeffrey asked:

When faced with incalculable questions and thoughts, how does one maintain a sense of ground or stability? It's frightening to feel that I could think myself into madness. Is there a way to put things into a manageable perspective?

Well it's really quite simple... just reflect on the song below:

Title: Galaxy Song
From: Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown,
And things seem hard or tough,
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you've had quite eno-o-o-o-o-ough,

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine thousand miles an hour.
It's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
The sun that is the source of all our power.
Now the sun, and you and me, and all the stars that we can see,
Are moving at a million miles a day,
In the outer spiral arm, at fourteen thousand miles an hour,
Of a galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred million stars;
It's a hundred thousand light-years side to side;
It bulges in the middle sixteen thousand light-years thick,
But out by us it's just three thousand light-years wide.
We're thirty thousand light-years from Galactic Central Point,
We go 'round every two hundred million years;
And our galaxy itself is one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, that's the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Veronica asked:

What is the first philosophical question?

and Rachelle asked:

My professor asked me to find the first philosophical question.

and Warwin asked:

Why is, "Who am I?" the first philosophical question?

What do you think your teacher was trying to do when he/she asked you this question? I'm sure he/she didn't want a factual answer, if such a thing could be found — how would you go about discovering what the historically first philosophical question was? Well, first of all you'd need to know what a philosophical question is. And I think that's the point of your teacher's question. He/she wants you to think about how philosophical inquiry might begin.

So, what is a philosophical question? They are usually very general questions about some basic aspect of reality and our existence. Why does anything exist at all? Is there a god? Who am I? Just look at the questions asked (and answers) on this site, and you'll know what a philosophical question is.

Then, think about how people could have begun asking such questions. Philosophy is about wonder, so what do you find most puzzling about the world? The first philosophical question is where philosophy begins for you, before you have studied any philosophy.

And you might also have a look at writings by presocratic philosophers, to see what kinds of questions the people who were the first (at least in the West) to start thinking about these things had. Are they similar to the questions you have? Why or why not?

Berta Black


The notion that there has to be a first philosophical question suggests that knowledge and understanding must be built up systematically from a foundation of certainty. For Descartes this was certainty about our own existence. The cogito ergo sum (I am thinking, therefore I am) argument was supposed to prove that as long as I am thinking I can be certain of my own existence. The problem then was to move from this private certainty about my own mental experience to certainty about the external world outside my mind. So, Descartes' question was not "Who am I?" but "What can I know for certain?" The "I" there was defined as a thinking thing.

If we take a reversed perspective, and assume the existence of the external world, the question becomes "How do I know what I think?" This is because the assumption that I have a certain and privileged access to my own mind, falters when we consider that our thoughts are at least partly individuated by the facts about the objects they refer to, i.e. facts in the external world. If we don't know enough about the facts to be able to distinguish between one object and another, or between one substance and another, then we could be having identical psychological experiences whilst having what must be two different thoughts or beliefs, whose truth conditions are bound to be different. The relationship between the propositions that express the thoughts or beliefs and the private mental experience is in question. In could be that what we mean by our mind is at least partially determined by facts about the external world. Therefore, the question "How do I know what I think" is very relevant.

Whatever we decide, it seems to me that the questions about the possibility of self-knowledge have to precede the question "Who am I?" because I might not be able to answer that if my self-knowledge is unreliable.

Graham Nutbrown


Plainly the first philosophical question is the first one you're asking. This would be your individual first philosophical question.

Historically it seems as if the ancient Greek philosophers started all philosophy by asking "What is the origin (Greek: arche) of all?", or as Nietzsche put it in his Philosophy During the Tragic Age of the Greeks: "Greek philosophy seems to begin with a preposterous idea, with the proposition that water is the origin and mother-womb of all things".

More interesting than the chronological aspect of this "first question" is its qualitative one.

If there is any justifiable "first philosophical question" in this respect, then I think we can agree with Heidegger to term the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", originally recorded (surely being asked much earlier) by Leibniz as the fundamental and widest possible question of philosophy (An introduction to Metaphysics, 1). It is the core of the branch of philosophy called ontology, or the study of existence and existence is undoubtedly the precondition for anything else, including asking questions.

Simone Klein
www.sophiasworld.at


Wow, guys, that's some professor you've got. Now, my first question is, why should I do your homework for you? My next question is, what does "first" mean? First in time, in importance, in interest, in profundity? Next, how does anyone know what the "first" question is? Did someone write them all down in order, 2000 years ago? Or was there an opinion poll of philosophers? And why should we believe anyone who says they know what the first question is, or was, or will be? Or should be?

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Sunshine asked:

What is Kant's approach to morality? Is he in favour of the rational approach to morality or the virtue/ character approach to morality?

I had to write an essay entitled: "Discuss the difference between a rational approach to morality, and one that focuses on character. Is either approach better than the other?"

It is supposed to be 1500 words and it is only 750! I ran out of things to say! Could you give suggestions of good points?

Kant's approach to morality is extremely rational. According to Kant the main principle of morality is the categorical imperative, which says that the maxims (principles) on which you act have to be such that they can be universalised, ie that you can will them to become a universal law.

Someone's feeling, their character or the consequences of the action is completely irrelevant to assessing the morality of an action.

You might want to think about the consequences such a formalist approach has. E.g. an action could be morally right according to Kant's theory but have terrible consequence. Also, and this is more relevant to the contrast with character ethics, a person who follows Kant's rules might actually be a very unpleasant person. E.g. they could lack any kind of sympathy or love for anyone, they may not care about anyone's feelings, their actions might have horrible consequences, but they would still be considered a (morally) good person by Kant. Would you want to call such a person good? Character ethics is more about asking what makes someone a good person, and giving the answer not just in terms of the rules they follow, but also the kind of person they are, the qualities of their character. (And note that it may be difficult/ impossible to be a good person in this sense without doing at least some of the actions that the categorical imperative would prescribe, but this would not be the only or main thing that would count.)

Alya Diarova

back


Lynda asked:

I am currently taking a philosophy class for children. We have to make a manual for a children's book. The book is Rainbow Fish. Some of the topics I picked are Beauty — What makes something beautiful? Sharing — How much do we share? Friendship — what makes someone a friend? If someone is untrustworthy are they still a friend? I am having a hard time making up philosophical questions regarding the topics of friendship, beauty and sharing. Any advice?

I am a teacher in a Montessori nursery school, working with children from 2 years — about 4. They are a bit young for philosophical enquiry, most of them, but I did my degree in Philosophy and so am interested in Philosophy with Children.

I have had some involvement with SAPERE (http://www.sapere.net), the British association for Philosophy with Children. An associated organization, Dialogueworks (http://www.dialogueworks.co.uk), produces a resource called Storywise that gives ideas for how to use selected picture books as stimuli for Philosophy with Children.

I always understood that it was normal in Philosophy with Children to ask the children to formulate questions that interest them, so I'm not sure quite why you need to concern yourself with making up too many of the questions. Which questions would be most effective will depend very much on the age of the children you are teaching, which you do not state in your question.

Here are a few questions that occur to me as I read through The Rainbow Fish. Most of them are not abstract philosophical questions, but you might want to start from more practical questions that the children can answer by reflecting on their own experience, and gradually move to larger, more abstract issues.

Friendship: Would you want to play with a proud and silent person (as the Rainbow Fish is described at the beginning of the story)?

Why did the incident with the little blue fish suddenly make the other fish stop wanting to play with Rainbow Fish? (couldn't they see before how proud and haughty he was?).

"Why doesn't anybody like me?" Rainbow Fish asks the starfish. Why don't they like him?

(All these questions are about what qualities are likeable, the qualities of a good friend, and how they can be recognized.)

Beauty: Why is Rainbow Fish beautiful? Is Rainbow Fish beautiful? Rainbow Fish is male. Can males (male fish? men? boys?) be beautiful?

(All these questions are about what qualities make something beautiful, and how we decide whether something is beautiful.)

Sharing: Should Rainbow Fish have to give everyone presents in order to win their friendship?

Rainbow Fish is not actually sharing his scales, but giving them away — giving away his most prized possessions. Can we become happy by giving away our possessions?

(These questions are about why sharing, or perhaps generosity, is valued, and why we should share.)

Katharine Hunt


I don't know the book Rainbow Fish. However, you have already identified the themes. You also have a couple of good questions on each of the themes. How do you go on from there?

There are several ways. Firstly, you could look at a philosophical account of each of your themes. What issues get raised? What are the difficulties? Then you need to try to devise a set of questions that will lead children to asking, and attempting to answer, these questions.

I always think that the best way to get a good, flowing set of questions is to start in the concrete — either the text of the book itself, or in the lives of the children (or both). Look for the problematic there. What difficulties or puzzles did the characters in the book have with (say) friendship? What experience do the children have of friendship — and what difficulties might arise? Then you can gradually ask a series of questions that moves from these particularities towards more general and abstract questions.

Of course, another way to devise your questions is to look at the examples of manuals that have already been written, and to modify and adapt them. Look for the general principles that seem to lie behind the way they were put together, and use them in your own task. I'm not sure what access you have to these, though.

Tim Sprod


Friendship: what makes someone a good friend? A bad friend? Who is your best friend and why? What makes someone trustworthy? Think about examples. (e.g. if I steal someone's toy and my friend tells the teacher, is she being a bad friend? why or why not?)

Sharing: What kinds of things do we share? With whom? Do we share different things with different people? Why might we not want to share things with someone? You can link this to questions about friends. What do we share with friends? Again examples might be helpful.

Beauty: different kinds of things that are beautiful — flowers, pictures, people.... words, sounds, images.... Is a flower beautiful in the same way as a picture of a flower? Is a real thing more beautiful than a picture? What makes a person beautiful? Why do we like beautiful things?

Berta Black


Friendship gives rise to several important questions in normative ethics. What special duties are owed to friends? If I have a choice between helping a friend and helping a stranger, where the stranger needs help more than the friend does, whom should I help?

Sharing: How far does our duty to share extend? If I have plenty of food, and others around me are starving, then most people think I should share some of my food with them. But how much? Do I have to keep giving until I'm as hungry as they are? Or where do I draw the line?

Jonathan Ichikawa

back


Laura asked:

A young boy of eleven who was full of life and talent was tragically knocked down and killed the other day. Everything happens for a reason and I believe that. However, I am having great difficulty in understanding this reason. Do you have any answers?

I sympathise with your feelings, but find it difficult to understand what is meant by, "Everything happens for a reason". I hazard a guess that you are referring to some sort of spiritual reason, as the physical reason for the tragedy could probably be explained by the events and conditions leading up to the fatality. A long time ago my wife and I lost a daughter at the tender age of seven; the reason was obvious, she contracted a virus which attacked her brain and led to three years of deterioration until she died. No one could do anything about it, even the most advanced medical care at the time. Are we to say that all this was sufficient reason for our daughter to die? If we wish to close the book on it, the answer is yes. However, if our world view involves a spiritual or mystic dimension the answer is no. It is this latter view which I believe your question addresses.

The christian religion offers comfort through the belief that God is in complete control over all things, and can supply sufficient reason for anything that happens. You may say that there is nothing in this concept to allay concerns and grief, when an explanation is required for taking the life of a child. However, we are dealing with a spiritual matter, and to come to terms with spiritual matters we have to rid ourselves of preconceived secular notions received from the society in which we are brought up. One of these notions is the idea that all humans are entitled to a designated life span. Many derive this idea from the christian concept of three score years and ten; anything beyond this is a bonus, anything less and the person has, in some way been cheated: the terms 'unjust' and 'unfair' are often used. For example, why should David live to the age of ninety and Peter die at sixty, particularly as David was a chain smoker and heavy drinker, and Peter neither smoked nor drank. Of course, by worldly standards such a thing is grossly unfair.

Perhaps, then, when society draws a line in the sand, and declares that humans are all 'entitled' to reach the age of, say, seventy, people are likely to be disappointed or angry when a loved one, or close friend, is seemingly unfairly cheated out of their entitled life-span, and particularly when the victim is a child. As we tend to recognise degrees of fairness, the more years lost below the deadline and the more unfair the situation. Seen as unfair for a person to die at sixty, it is more unfair at forty, and grossly unfair at the age of eleven. This notion of receiving what we believe we are entitled to causes great confusion within society, and in the broader concept, between nations. The general beliefs are, that we are entitled to a roof over our heads, we are entitled to food, clothes, warmth, a comfortable retirement, a peaceful existence, etc.. A world view like this causes great concern and agonizing over reasons when a tragedy occurs.

Yet, people who hold secular views, as well as those who hold spiritual views, believe that we live within the bounds of natural law; stepping outside that law we suffer the consequences. My mother was killed on the road when she ran from the back of a parked vehicle into the path of a car travelling at 30 mph. The 'reason' for her death was obvious, natural law does not allow elderly ladies who collide with heavy vehicles moving at 30 mph. to survive. Followers of religion pose a strong argument when they point out that God, having given us the laws we live by cannot keep intervening to change them for specific events: when He does, they are called miracles. Why miracles should be granted in some cases but not in the majority of others is beyond me. But as many things that happen in this world are beyond me this is not unusual.

Perhaps this answer still leaves you confused, but it may help to bear in mind that we have still a great deal to discover about the world, our origins, the purposes of life, and whether indeed this life we lead is the be all and end all of our existence.

John Brandon


I feel for you, Laura, especially if you were close to the boy.

There are two ways that we can take the phrase "everything happens for a reason". It can mean "everything happens for a purpose", or it can mean "everything that happens is caused".

In my view, the second version is true, but the first is not. For everything to have a purpose, it all would have to happen under the guidance of a being that can have intentions and make plans. If one believes in a certain sort of God, then one can go along with this. But if one doesn't believe in God, or one believes in a God that does not keep an eye on every event in the universe and plan each of them towards some purpose, then it is not true that everything happens for a reason (purpose).

However, if one believes that all events have causes — one of the basic assumptions of science — then everything does happen for a reason (because it was caused). This tragic event had numerous causes, I imagine — inattention on one or more people's part, distractions, unusual conditions — I don't know exactly what they are. But the death of the boy was not planned by anyone or anything, and in that sense it is just a tragic and horrible accident.

The question you ask (although you do not mention God) is a very personal and particular version of the much wider question of evil. See Derek's question on this page for a wider version of it, and my answer there.

Tim Sprod

back


Kimberly asked:

What is man?

What are some criticisms to Descartes's evil genius argument?

Is it an argument? Surely it is a thought experiment, designed to get us to expand our imaginations in order to contemplate the implications of a world in which we could be deceived about absolutely everything (except our own existence). These days we would probably prefer a science fiction scenario, but in Descartes' day, inventing a powerful supernatural being served the same purpose. One criticism of the move could be that he might have been a bit bolder and just called it God — omniscient and omnipotent, but wicked. Introducing the evil demon allows him to keep the idea of God uncontaminated. If his version of the Ontological Argument (the one that "proves" the existence of a perfect, and therefore undeceiving, divinity) fails, as most philosophers think it does, he may have left us with the possibility of an evil, less than perfect God who would be all too happy for us to be fundamentally deceived.

Another criticism is that such widespread deception as that created by the Evil Demon, is not possible, because the concept of error and deception has to be defined in relation to a general background of authenticity and reliability. A forged bank note has to be identified against a background of publicly recognised authentic ones. It just isn't possible for delusion about reality to be the norm. What do you think of that argument? I'm not convinced by it.

Graham Nutbrown

back


Derek asked:

With so much cruelty and suffering in both the animal and human world, it makes it very difficult to believe in a loving, caring God. The insect world there are horrors where eggs are inserted into another creature and when they hatch they eat their victim alive from the inside. Why too are the poorer countries always victim of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes etc? Is it really just a matter of survival in a world of uncontrolled chaos where there does not appear to have a infrastructure of any lasting security and that the inevitable is oblivion? No religious superficial "God works in mysterious ways" answers please!

You pose the question of whether it is possible for both evil and God to exist. As you say, God has to be seen as loving and caring (benevolent or all-good) to get the problem going. He also needs to be all-knowing (omniscient) so that he knows there is evil in the world, and all-powerful (omnipotent) so that he could do something about it, for the problem to really bite.

So, one solution is to deny one or more of these attributes of God. He could still be loving and caring if he either didn't know about the things you list, or he knew but lacked the power to stop them.

Since your examples of evil are natural — not causes by human action — the defence against the argument that evil rules out the existence of God that relies on God having given people free will, which they can then misuse, is not available.

The "God works in mysterious ways" defence is not necessarily superficial, I don't think. If God is omniscient, it may be that he can see a greater good arising from the evil you mention, and the fact that we are very limited in our knowledge means that we can't. I don't buy this argument, mind, but I think it is a respectable attempt.

You probably won't like Leibniz' related argument any more either. He claims that God created the best of all possible worlds. That is, this world has evil in it, but there is less evil than in any other world it would have been possible to create, and more good (you need the last part to avoid the question "why not just create a world with only rocks in it?"). Voltaire's book Candide is an excellent fictional ridiculing of this idea.

Tim Sprod


Well if you want to approach it from the religious viewpoint, you might look up the literature on "the problem of pain". There's lots of it, from St. Augustine on through a millennium or so. But as far as I can tell, given that you assume a benevolent, "good", god of some sort, you either have to be a fairly straightforward sadist (and maintain that being a sadist is good), or say, one way or another, "god works in mysterious ways". The "mysterious" could be in its ultimate aim, in its the definition of "good", and so forth, but that's what it amounts to, given the assumption of "goodness" (which I have happily put in scare quotes).

Speaking as an atheist, I think that your picture of "a world of uncontrolled chaos where there does not appear to have a infrastructure of any lasting security and that the inevitable is oblivion" is not too badly off the mark, if a bit exaggerated. After all, to take just one example, the global warming which we're experiencing now is rather directly due to human efforts. So we are in a sense in control, and could be very much more so if we could get it together. I'd say that the sooner we stop relying on the "goodness" of whatever god happens to be at the top of the current opinion poll this century, and get cracking on maintaining our environment ourselves, the sooner we'll be able to reduce the amount of "chaos" (which of course will never completely go away) and clean things up a bit.

Steven Ravett Brown


The difficulty you refer to is known as the Problem of Evil, although it should really be called the Problem of Suffering. Part of the problem is reconciling God's various properties: omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, etc. If he could prevent suffering, why doesn't he, if he is morally perfect? Religious justifications of suffering are called theodicies. One theodicy argues that God gave humans free will so that we could be like him, autonomously choosing to do good rather than evil. But since he gave us genuine free will, without any biasing in favour of good, we can, and do, choose often to do evil. In the long run, the argument implies, humanity will choose the path of righteousness. There are several difficulties associated with this argument. One is that it doesn't deal with the suffering caused by natural phenomena, such as earthquakes. Another is that it implies that morality and God are independent: God is not the source of goodness. This undermines some of the arguments for the existence of God.

The "God moves in mysterious ways" response certainly is irritating. Could a morally perfect God be as devious (and slow) as God is often portrayed as being? Some of the theodicies imply that he allows mass suffering in order for a few people to exhibit outstanding courage and charity, and to inspire thereby. This suggests that God does not have a high respect for either innocence or life.

But perhaps we are wrong to look at the question from a short-term human perspective. Personally, I think we should not assume that the human race is as good as it gets. We are likely to be wiped out by a disaster event at some point, but some animal species will survive; eventually it is possible that a different highly intelligent species will emerge, also capable of morality (and philosophy). It might have no place for the idea of God, but it might itself be a little more angelic. Even then, it probably won't last!

Graham Nutbrown

back


Jane asked:

"What universal human characteristic is shown in the Apology?" — How would you answer something like that?

I like it that you're not asking someone to answer it for you but want to learn HOW to answer such questions. Here are some ideas....

1. Read the Apology. More than once, preferably.

2. Think about what a "universal human characteristic" is. Well, to start with, a characteristic that all humans have. Think of examples. Having two legs is a trivial one. But obviously here were are not talking about such physical characteristics. What other kinds of characteristics are there? Psychological? Moral? ....

3. Think about how what people say reveal what kinds of people they are. Think of someone you know. How would you describe him/ her? What has the person said/ done that makes you describe him/ her like this?

4. Now think about whether this person has any qualities that all human beings have. How is he/she similar to you? To other people you know? Are there things that are common to all of you? How is this reflected in your words and actions?

5. repeat 3. and 4. for Socrates in the Apology.

Berta Black

back


Sarah asked:

What does Strawson [in "Freedom and Resentment"] say about moral responsibility, and the claim that] no one is ever morally responsible for anything they do?

The "compatibilist" answer to the question of whether humans have free will or not is that all the freedom we need have in order to be said to have free will is the freedom to do as we choose to do — that is, freedom from external constraints. In order for you to be choosing to do as you desire, you have to be acting consistently, in accordance with your character. If your character, and therefore your choices, are ultimately the result of a causal chain stretching back through your desires and values to your past experience and genetic inheritance, so be it. Determinism of that kind is compatible with autonomy.

The problem is: if you neither create not control your character, why should you be blamed and punished for your actions? Strawson's position is that holding people responsible for their actions fits within a framework of attitudes that make possible our rich social existence and personal relationships. These include "reactive attitudes" such as resentment, as well as those more central to responsibility, such as praise and blame. They are natural, interactive and integral to our form of life. To hold people responsible for their actions is to accept them as full participants in this form of life. We can suspend our reactions when we excuse behaviour for some reason, or when we judge that it has the wrong kind of cause and an "objective stance" is more appropriate. In some cases we may see the person more as a patient than as a responsible agent — as being, temporarily, outside the moral frame.

Strawson argues that previous positions have "over-intellectualised" moral responsibility by suggesting that we ascribe it on the basis of a judgement that a theoretical or pragmatic condition (such as metaphysical freedom or social efficacy) has been satisfied. Rather, to hold someone responsible is to react to them as full participants at that moment in the moral community. The "threat" from causal determinism is irrelevant because being seen as someone to whom we can react personally is not dependent on your possession of autonomy or the capacity to self-create. To question the rationality of moral responsibility in the context of the truth of causal determinism is to overlook this point, and how deeply embedded in our way of life the associated attitudes are. I think Strawson also hints at the irrationality of giving up such a source of enrichment.

Three questions about Strawson's argument. 1. He maintains that we cannot criticise the reactive attitudes from a position within the framework: does he exaggerate the interdependence of the various attitudes? 2. What is it exactly that actually qualifies us for membership of the moral community and for the accolade of "person"? 3. Is determinism really irrelevant to the concept of responsibility, and would accepting its truth necessarily necessitate a universal adoption of the objective stance?

Graham Nutbrown

back


Vito asked:

What is holy?

We often think that holy means greatness, goodness, sacred, a tipping of the divine into the human, or as a way of understanding the glory of god. And yet the word 'Holy' finds it's root in the Hebrew equivalent kadesh, which expresses the notion of being separated from, or elevated above and at the same time a dedication to. Holy is the special (ultimately ethical) relation to what is separated from me.

But how is it possible to maintain a relation to something that remains separate? Isn't a relation a notion that implies a meeting a union (if only partial) of two terms? This is correct only so long as we confine ourselves to a thinking that maintains the reality only of what is immediate, of what is present, before us, a relation that holds between the is-ness of things. The concept of relation is one which applies to knowledge, we understand things through relations. Relations are a tool we use to comprehend. Whereas the Holy forces us to think about what is absent, that can never be present or fully before us, that escapes knowledge and comprehension. Hence the relation enabled by the holy is no ordinary relation, it is a relation that must maintain or even create make possible the difference and separateness of the terms.

The holy would be what Levinas calls a relation without relation, that is, a relation that does not have the characteristics or defining parameters of a relation. How is this possible? Levinas suggests that it is possible in ethical terms, which in his sense of the word is the meeting of two people face-to-face, without that other person being reduced into any prejudices or previous ideas I may have, but is encounter with that which is irreducible to me any knowledge I may have; in other words with that which is separate from me and maintains this status through our interaction. For Levinas, ethics is responding to this person's needs and wants, providing for their physical subsistence. The Holy is simply the responsibility for the other person, the Holy is ethics.

Brian Tee


An interesting question, which has been debated a fair amount. You might take a look at these:

Eliade, M. (1961). The sacred and the profane. New York, NY, Harper & Row.

Frazer, J. G. (1951). The golden bough: a study in magic and religion. New York, NY, The Macmillan Company.

James, W. (1968). The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature. New York, Collier Books.

They are classics in the field of comparative religion.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Michael asked:

I am an undergraduate philosophy student who hopes to attend a graduate school next fall. Last term I took up an independent study, and wrote a paper in which I presented a point that I couldn't quite convey to the two philosophy professors in my department whom I have developed relationships with. I think that they see my argument as an evasion, a sidestepping of metaphysics, and yet it seems to me that it is important and must be addressed. I don't imagine that my argument is original, but I would very much like to know what philosopher(s) have made it before or taken it seriously, so that I might explore the idea further and find a better way to express it (unless every sees it as an evasion!).

It is simply this: No one can deny a proposition that they do not understand. For example: If I encounter someone who maintains that square triangles exist, it can not be the case that they are referring to two-dimensional polygons that have both three and four sides, for that is a contradictory expression.

Well without seeing the paper it's hard to comment. Offhand, I'd say that if you showed something like that to me, I'd want to be (and you to be) very very clear on what you think "understand" means. If you're claiming that we (or the "genius") have direct access to the world, to truth, then perhaps you're saying something metaphysical... maybe. But on the face of it, all you're saying is something psychological, which is pretty trivial, isn't it. And even given direct access, you'd have to be very careful about simple mistakes, illusions, etc. Further, what do you mean, really? That no one can meaningfully deny such a proposition, right? Because certainly I can deny anything I like. Ok, now what does "meaningfully" mean? Something like, a denial is worthless unless you understand. Ok... now what? Is a denial meaningless? No. Then you mean something like, we should place no credence on it, it has no useful function, right? But all that is merely psychological, or at best has something to do with verification, which is an epistemological issue.

It seems to me that the only way you're going to relate this to metaphysics is to become a Platonist of some sort, so that you can say that in order to understand something you have access to a world of ideal forms or essences. Then you can make epistemology a branch of metaphysics. If you really want to go this route, you might check out Edmund Husserl; he felt somewhat the same way. But he spent a lot of time denying that he was a Platonist, without convincing many people. However, I think that his approach may be what you're really looking for. Speaking for myself, I think that he was radically mistaken, and I'm not the only one who has that opinion (really, I should say, "who has come to that conclusion"). But look him up.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Luciano asked:

Descartes believes that animals have no souls, and presumably no inner lives. Yet one can observe behavior in animals which seems to suggest that they do in fact experience emotions. How might Descartes attempt to reconcile his theories about animals with empirical evidence that seems to refute them? Do you think he could do this successfully?

I agree that animals do seem to behave in ways that suggest they experience emotions. My dog certainly appears happy, ashamed, angry. He also twitches and yelps in his sleep, as if dreaming. If you take a dualist view of mental states, then we are in the same position with regard to animal mental states as we are to another person's: we may infer that their behaviour is in response to internal experiences similar to our own, but they might be zombies or, as Descartes said of animals, automata. Descartes, of course, associated the mind with the immaterial and immortal soul, and this prejudiced him against animals (also androids and aliens). By definition, there could not be empirical evidence for the existence of the soul — other than, in the case of our own, our private mental experience (which is the foundation of all empirical evidence, according to Descartes). I do not know how Descartes could have made a distinction between inferring other minds from human behaviour and inferring animal minds from their behaviour.

The mind-brain identity theory is the opposite of Cartesian dualism, but only in some ways. Most identity theorists and other materialists are, like Descartes, internalists. Internalists hold that mentaL states are located inside us (in the brain, for example) and are possessed by us in a way that gives us a direct, privileged access to them. There are many problems associated with this view, some of which were emphasised by the Behaviourists and by Wittgenstein. Your question implies that you are thinking of emotions as private, internal experiences.

An alternative view, externalism, holds that the meaning of mental state terms is at least partly located outside of the person (or animal), in objects in the world around us. If this view is correct, then when we say a person "experiences an emotion", the phrase indicates more than just a internal private experience. This mean, amongst other things, that we cannot reduce emotions, and other mental states, to brain activity (you cannot point to an MRI scan and say "That's anger"), nor to any kind of internal mechanism, human or otherwise.

We certainly do have subjective experiences. Does my dog? Yes, I think so. To me, he is person-like, and this means that I credit him with emotions and some at least of the other baggage that goes with believing that others experience emotions too. It would be hard to separate the external, behavioural, social and moral elements of emotion concepts from any subjective phenomena there might happen to be.

Graham Nutbrown

back


Aris asked:

We may both agree that something is red. But I cannot be sure if you see the same color I see. So we may both stop our cars or come to the conclusion that someone is bleeding but do we see the same thing? how can we know that there is such a thing as an ultimate nature of things even if we could perceive it and agree about it?

The short answer to your last sentence is: we can't. In fact the question as a whole touches on one of the great pseudo-issues that are clobbered to death in the literature for no really good purpose. The point is that our sense of vision does not deliver "absolute" colour values. There is a certain tolerance of variation in the frequencies and chromatic hues in what you and I (assuming we have more or less "normal" vision) would recognise as blood red or pretty much any other primary or secondary colour. Disputes only arise in the finer shades in between those. There are two further considerations: (a) that there is a very good evolutionary rationale for this supposed imprecision in our visual acuity, namely: that we must detect the "same" colour (e.g. blood) under many different qualities of daylight, room light, in semi darkness, under water etc. The second is that blood itself tend to have subtle colour variations from one person to another. So in the end, if a colour detector were programmed to deliver a "blood red" reading if it detected just one fixed "absolute" frequency, its success record would be very much poorer than our own.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Asad asked:

My question is not really a philosophic question but it matters a lot for me. I had a lot of questions about life, our purpose, myself and stuff like that, and philosophy seems to be the only field of study which even address that issue. I cannot join any college or school (personal reasons), but that should not be any hindrance in my zeal and love toward knowledge. That's why I started reading books on it. But now I am kind of lost in difficult and abstract books. I need guidance about the better course of study for me like where to start and list of books not to be missed. The main purpose is only to have the knowledge of right and wrong and my place in this rather difficult picture.

Quite admirable, if difficult. There was a book around at one point called College On Your Own, and it was pretty good. You might still be able to find it in libraries, etc. It gives reading lists for various courses, and so you can get a systematic introduction to subjects. In addition, why not simply ask people what they use for their courses? For example, if you want an introduction to ethics, go on the web, find some good schools, find the philosophers teaching there, and ask them what books they would recommend. I'd wager you'll get quite friendly responses, for the most part.

Also, you might take a look here: http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html. This is the MIT OpenCourseWare site, and everyone should know about this. MIT is putting, for free, all its course materials on the web, eventually for all its courses, so that anyone with web access can teach themselves anything. It's quite amazing, and I highly recommend it, although really they're just starting and may not yet have posted just what you're interested in. Again, I'm sure you could go ask individual professors there for their reading lists.

Good hunting!

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Margaret asked:

How are the ecstasies of time articulated in language (Heidegger's philosophy)?

Heidegger's Being and Time doesn't say. It essentially deals with ecstasies in terms of circumspection and the ready-to-hand (hammer).

As unities operating together is the past (reflection) an objectifying factor?

Heidegger does allocate a section of Being and Time to deal with language and time; it is the section preceding his discussion of circumspection. Section 68(d): 'The Temporality of Discourse'. He says there that discourse does not temporalize itself primarily in any definite ecstasis.

He identifies however identify three connections between time and language: (i) That language can discuss time, we can talk about time (ii) That discourse takes time, it is a temporal event (iii) That discourse in itself is temporal.

On these points take a look at Francoise Dastur's Telling Time — sketch of a phenomenological chrono-logy.

On the point of the past as reflection acting as an objectifying factor it seems to me that this would not really qualify as the past as such. It would rather here be a modification of the present, in the act of reflection or recollection (which is happening now). It is the now (in various guises) which acts as the unifying factor, for the past to be really past it would have to be beyond reflection and recollection, incapable of unified.

Brian Tee

back


Greg asked:

Philosophy is about investigation our world and seeking answers to certain of life's questions. In fact there is a philosophy fo just about everything (philosophy of science, of religion, of language, etc). But all of these disciplines and areas of study have certain things in common that make them all part of Philosophy. What do all areas of Philosophy have in common? What makes a question a philosophical one? What is the common thread that connects these?

Well, this is a deep question in itself, and I don't think I can cover it all here. However, I will offer one observation (with acknowledgement to Laurance Splitter, from whom I have pinched the idea).

All disciplines share one thing in common: they use concepts. Concepts are the life blood of thought, and hence of the disciplines. Philosophy explores concepts, and helps us to use them well. The concepts that philosophy is best equipped to explore have three features: they are common (they come up all the time — people use them a lot), they are central (they are very important in making sense of things) and they are contestable (while everyone uses them, when you look closely at what they mean, it is difficult to pin them down exactly — different views of exactly what they mean can be advanced, and each of them seems to have its strengths and its weaknesses).

The concepts across disciplines are not always the same, though there is some overlap. When there is overlap, it isn't always clear that the same concepts work in the same way in each discipline. A few examples of some concepts from the disciplines you mention. Science: proof, evidence, explanation, beauty. Religion: God, proof, evidence, symbol, faith. Language: meaning, symbol, intention, explanation.

Tim Sprod

back


Gonzalo asked:

I am enrolled in a class about Gender and Politics. In it we read books about people who use constructivists or postmodern methods of analysis to show how institutions create the concept of "gender", "natural," "male" and "female". I think that even though it is important to know the nature of those concepts, postmodernism can be taken to ridiculous extremes. Most of the writers insist that most, if not, all of what we think about ourselves is a social construct. I understand how this can be used as a tool to get rid of ideologies based on bigotry, but I also think it is damaging to blame psychology, and science in general as well as economics for the evils of society. As I stated earlier even though it can do good it can also harm by negating the possibility of real knowledge about our surroundings. If they insist in the use of the subject of social constructs then it reaches a point where everything is excusable, because there was no agency involved in the process of making decisions.

[...] I also wanted to know how, if is possible at all, one can reconcile the concepts of responsibility, the concept of good and bad and postmodernism. I would like to know if you could recommend a few critiques of postmodernism. I hope that my request is not too demanding. I hope to hear from you soon.

Your request is, actually, extremely demanding. I will answer you here briefly... but I cannot possibly do justice to this issue in this forum. Anything I can say here can only be a very rough approximation to what I'd consider a reasonable argument. But, given that caveat, I'll proceed. So... I agree with you about postmodernism as usually presented. That is, as "cultural relativism" for morality, ethics, construction of concepts, and so forth, it is, in my very strong opinion (and I'm not alone, as you will see) basically a form of nihilism. The problem here, that is, the problem for one, like myself, holding this position yet sympathetic to many of postmodernism's motivations, is that postmodernism is in part a response to very real inequities: toward women, toward minorities, and so forth... and it is certainly correct that social factors enter into, to varying extents, such concepts as gender.

But to address those inequities by claiming that the culture (let us say, as a rough categorization) which possesses them, or people within that culture, are motivated solely by considerations of power and of status (and there's no doubt that those are very powerful motivations for many) is to denigrate both the culture and those within it who are attempting to act morally. In addition, to claim that one can toss out one set of values and substitute others because all values are ultimately equal is simply to claim that there are no values, merely whatever considerations move one at the moment. This has been argued, indeed... and it is nihilism, or at best the reduction of values to those of animals. On the other hand, there is certainly a point to publicizing the inequities which do exist.

Thus, I regard such social constructivism not as philosophy but at best as rhetoric; and as such its proper venue is not academia but literature, popular magazines, works of art, and so forth. And indeed, many writers in the field employ those latter venues, quite appropriately, in my opinion. One might, against this, argue that art, for example, is a form of philosophy... and indeed that has been argued. However I don't agree with that viewpoint; but I simply don't have the space to follow that up here (and there are those who explicitly attempt to straddle the gap, e.g., Derrida, J. (1993). Memoirs of the blind: the self-portrait and other ruins. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press... a wonderful book; but I'd argue that it isn't philosophy).

So one problem with my point of view is of course to specifically state why I hold this position. Another problem is to present a reasonable alternative. Instead of doing those things, I'm going to give you some references that argue those issues tremendously better than I could in this limited space.

Why, then, deny cultural relativism? Well, what if we can show, or at least present a strong case, that there are some cultures whose values are objectively bad? What could that mean? Well, what if people in those cultures holding those values simply do worse than those who do not, and worse than people in other cultures who do not? Wouldn't that be a good argument that those values are just wrong? I mean, if people holding a certain set of values are poorer, more diseased, etc., than people in comparably wealthy cultures, with comparable resources, but different values, then we'd at least have to entertain the possibility that there was something wrong with the former values, wouldn't we? So look at these (and of course they have lists of references to lead you further):

Edgerton, R. B. (1992). Sick societies: challenging the myth of primitive harmony. New York, The Free Press.

Gintis, H. (2003). "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Altruism: Genes, Culture, and the Internalization of Norms." Journal of Theoretical Biology 220(4): 407-418.

Harrison, L. E. and S. P. Huntington, Eds. (2000). Culture matters: how values shape human progress. New York, NY, Basic Books.

Lopez, S. R. and P. J. Guarnaccia (2000). "Cultural psychopathology: uncovering the social world of mental illness." Annual Review of Psychology 51: 571-598.

Now, what alternative positions to relativism are there? Well, first, there's always my favorite book relating to truth: Kitcher, P. (1993). The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

And here are some more readings on naturalizing morality:

Held, V. (1998). Whose agenda? Ethics versus cognitive science. L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark. Cambridge, The MIT Press: 69-87.

Jackman, H. (1999). "Prudential arguments, naturalized epistemology, and the Will to Believe." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 35(1): 1-37.

May, L., M. Friedman, et al. (1998). Mind and morals: essays on cognitive science and ethics. Boston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rachels, J. (1986). The elements of moral philosophy. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Annis, D. B. (1978). "A contextualist theory of epistemic justification." American Philosophical Quarterly 15(3): 213-219.

Clark, A. (1998). Connectionism, moral cognition, and collaborative problem solving. L. May, M. Friedman and A. Clark. Cambridge, The MIT Press: 109-128.

Dewey, J. (1988). Human nature and conduct. 1922. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press.

Flanagan, O. (1991). Varieties of moral personality: ethics and psychological realism. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Gintis, H., S. Bowles, et al. (2003). "Explaining altruistic behavior in humans." Evolution and Human Behavior 24: 153-172.

Henderson, D. K. (1994). "Epistemic competence and contextualist epistemology: why contextualism is not just the poor person's coherentism." The Journal of Philosophy 91(12): 627-649.

Johnson, M. (1993). Moral imagination: implications of cognitive science for ethics. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (1988)."Non-relative virtues: an Aristotelian approach." P. A. French, T. E. J. Uehling and H. K. Wettstein. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press. 13: 32-53.

Williams, B. (1985). Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

All the above is just the tip of a huge iceberg of controversy and writings, pro and con, on this subject. This is why I started with my initial disclaimer.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Amy asked:

This is my first time on here. Just started uni and studying philosophy for the first time. I was wondering if anyone could tell me sources to look in order to find definitions or explanations of the terms 'relativism' and 'absolutism'. I am struggling with absolutism. I have to write an essay contrasting and comparing the two and am struggling. So if anyone could help with ideas I would be extremely grateful.

You could be talking about moral, metaphysical, aesthetic or epistemic relativism. They share the key idea of something (values, reality,beauty, knowledge) being relative to a particular standpoint or conceptual scheme, whether personal or cultural, and they all deny that there is an objective means of determining that one standpoint is preferable to others.Absolutists assert the opposite.

For articles on moral and cultural relativism, you could try this link:

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/infocusprint.php?num=15&subject=cultural.

(Look especially at the article by Simon Blackburn, or you could read the relevant chapter of his book Think.)

You could also try this article:

Swoyer, Chris, "Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2003/entries/relativism/.

Graham Nutbrown

back


Derek asked:

I have watched the Movie 'The Grey Zone' about the Sonderkomandos in the concentration camps during World War II. There is one question that stands out from all the others: What is the destiny of mankind when horrors and man's inhumanity to man still exists today?

If you are asking for a prediction I can't give you one, and given what is important in your question is the issues it forces us to confront it is probably best that I cannot.

What are these issues? Let me try to unpack them. I haven't seen the film, but I believe the phrase 'The Grey Zone' originates with Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, it's a chapter title from his book The Drowned and the Saved, a chapter concerned with the Sonderkommandos (SK) or the Jewish groups who maintained the death camps, who while themselves prisoners were 'responsible' for the running of the ovens and gas chambers. Responsible is in scare quotes here because for Levi these Jews represent the crossing over into the grey zone, where our need and our ability to judge falters. Can we even ascribe responsibility to these people? Certainly they would have been killed if they refused but then they were killed anyway (so that they would not be able testify as to what had occurred) So why did they do what they did? why didn't they rebel, or face death rather than collaborate with the Nazis? Surely they were criminals just as much as the Nazis were.

Conceiving and organising the squads was however, according to Levi National Socialism's most demonic crime. This institution represented an attempt to shift on to others — specifically the victims — the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. The Grey Zone has subtle and shifting borders, such that ordinary black and white concepts of right and wrong fail to apply, to such an extent that Levi tells us: I believe that no one is authorised to judge them, not those who lived through the experience of the Lager and even less those who did not live through it.

But maybe the implications of the possibility of the SK are more worrying than placing us in a grey zone of moral judgement, in the face of the desolation of the holocaust maybe a revolution in our thought is called for:

The Holocaust demands interrogation and calls everything into question. Traditional ideas and acquired values, philosophical systems and social theories all must be revised in the shadow of Birkenau. Novelists and politicians, poets and moralists, theologians and scholars all feel compelled to examine their consciences with regard to the holocaust. Not to do so would mean to live a lie.

Elie Wiesel

That's the demand we are confronted with at the gates of the death camps: that Auschwitz and Birkenau could happen means that they can happen again, and they are more likely to happen, if things carry on in the same way they did before the holocaust. Of course, as you recognise the horror is still with us, genocides repeat themselves and with it repeat the demand of Auschwitz: Not to let this happen again. Maybe we are not trying hard enough to follow this new categorical imperative ( T.W. Adorno's phrase).

Given the fact that we keep repeating our mistakes, refusing to learn from the demand of Auschwitz may lead you to conclude that the destiny of mankind is to destroy itself. But this would be still to remain within the mode of thinking that we need to overcome. That is, if by destiny you mean some determinate history, some necessary outcome of human affairs, and a predictable conclusion. For this kind of thinking this idea of destiny is what drove (under various guises) the perpetrators of the twentieth century worst atrocities.

The Holocaust calls into question the sense of destiny; there are no longer any certainties. Further respecting the demand of Auschwitz i.e. rethinking our ways of talking about the world, of space and time, of interacting, of treating other people, of writing, of organising society, means that we cannot predict what will be the outcome. Right now we cannot say what a post-holocaust thinking would be. Auschwitz has shown us that anything can happen, and we have to be prepared for that. (This is one reason why I can't offer a prediction.)

Although exactly how we can be prepared for the unexpected seems like a contradiction, maybe that's just the kind of situation we find ourselves in after Auschwitz: to be alert, wakeful or to maintain what Levinas (an important thinker on these questions) calls an absolute insomnia toward a future which is completely unpredictable.

Levinas has argued that a person has an infinite responsibility to an other person, that is to whoever happens to come along. When faced with this Other I am obliged to help to give the Other what ever (s)he needs. Of course part of the risk in this ethic of absolute insomnia is that after Auschwitz, I can never be sure what the other is. After Auschwitz it is no longer possible to tell the difference between gods and monsters anything can happen but this time that's another reason why I can't offer a prediction, but what ever happens, this time we cannot escape our responsibility for it.

Brian Tee

back


Brandalyn asked:

What are your thoughts on the events of September 11th?

I'm not even sure that this is the right forum for this question. As a philosopher, I can say that a terrorist act like that is immoral, and feel reasonably sure that I'm correct. I'm not qualified to answer as a sociologist, which I think is really the most relevant field for this kind of discussion. I mean, once I say that I think it's immoral, where do we go from there? To my views of morality? But so what? And you're not going to find any philosophers considered decent who don't agree, not to mention that none — without exception — of the mainstream religious movements condone such acts. Overtly, at least. Recently, anyway. The question to ask, I believe, is not whether the wholesale slaughter of innocents and non-combatants is moral or not — clearly it isn't, whoever is doing it, whether it's small groups of terrorists, religions, or governments — but what can be done to prevent such acts in the future. And that's not a philosophical question. There is a book that's just come out; you might look at it: Jessica Stern's Terror in the Name of God.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Vicki asked:

I was given an assignment to make a lesson that would teach students K-8 about philosophy....I was wondering if you had any ideas to throw my way.

In my view, the best thing to do would be to get the students doing philosophy. Of course, exactly how you do this depends on exactly what age you are aiming at — there is a lot of difference between kinder kids and Year 8s. Nevertheless, the basic approach is the same — read with the kids some story that raises philosophical questions, ask them what puzzles or interests them about the story, and then go into a whole class discussion, trying to answer their more philosophical questions. Once they have done that a number of times, you might discuss what philosophy is.

That's a very brief answer, and there is a lot more to the detail of doing it. There are many resources around from people who have already looked at doing philosophy with school children. I'm not sure where you are, or what access to resources you have, but a search in a catalogue on Philosophy for Children, or for names like Matthew Lipman, Ann Margaret Sharp, Laurance Splitter, Gareth Matthews, Philip Cam, or myself would show if some of these materials are available to you. If you are interested in learning more, email me.

Tim Sprod

back


Edaw asked:

If we think of a ball bouncing, then we stop thinking about it, and then we think again of the ball bouncing, has the ball being bouncing the whole time?

Hopefully you mean "has the ball we were thinking about" been bouncing... Well I'm really not sure why I'm answering this... look. Suppose you think of (i.e., visualize, rather than merely, for example, read the first sentence above) a ball bouncing. Ok. Then you stop. For how long? A millisecond, a minute, an hour, a week, 10 years? What does "stop" mean? Completely switch consciousness to other experiences? The answer is: if you stop (in that sense) for a very short interval, then the neural processes realizing the experience you're having (visualizing the ball) may not have had time to completely stop, to dissipate, to realize something else. So if you switch back really fast, probably on the order of at most about 1/2 second, you might be able to claim that the "ball", i.e., the visualization of the ball, has in some sense continued. Otherwise, no.

Steven Ravett Brown


Suppose you ask me to think of a ball that has been bouncing for a while. It would be absurd to think that in order to do this, I have to picture the ball as it starts to bounce, then return to my mental image of the bouncing ball some time later.

When we consider the nature of thinking, we are tempted to think of it as simply picturing, using imaginary coloured pencils or paints on my mental drawing paper. But that can't be right. I can make the ball red by putting red in the picture, but I can't make the ball heavy or light by putting 'heavy' or 'light' in the picture. (As an exercise, think how you one actually might try to do this: picture a man, grimacing with effort as he holds the ball. What makes this picture, a picture of a heavy ball rather than a picture of a very weak man?)

Similarly, my mental picture of a ball that has been bouncing a long time might have paint flaking off, the surface of the ball badly scuffed, and so on. But these marks alone do not suffice to mean 'a ball that has been bouncing for a long time'. Obviously, there are other ways in which the ball could have been marked in this way.

What makes my image of the ball what it is, what gives the ball I am thinking about its qualities depends on the verbal description I would be prepared to give.

But here's a reason for second thoughts. While I was typing the last sentence, I started a tune in my head,

A very old friend
came by today
'cause he was telling everyone in town
of the love that he just found...

As I concentrate on continuing to write, did Elvis Presley stop singing or did the tune merely fade into the background? I stop writing and notice that I have now reached the second verse,

He talked and talked
and I heard him say
that she had the longest, blackest hair
prettiest green eyes anywhere...

This looks like an empirical question. How would one devise an experiment to decide, one way or the other? Come to think of it, why can't I start a mental ball bouncing to mark the passing seconds, '1 bounce, 2 bounce, 3 bounce...' and return to discover that it took just 12 seconds to finish this sentence? Doesn't that show that I can make my mental ball bounce when I'm not attending to it?

What does that prove? Nothing. All it shows is that to think about a ball bouncing is not the same as bouncing a mental ball. One can think about a ball bouncing without conjuring up any image of a ball, just as one can run a mental tape of a bouncing ball — or Elvis — without thinking about a ball or about Elvis.

Geoffrey Klempner

back


Vinh asked:

What do you think of the following question?

"Memory: Is there a more fragile human faculty? Without it, what are we? It is the only record we have of who we were and what we want to become. Take it away and only a spiritless machine is left, free of conviction, free of purpose."

Memory provides the narrative structure to our lives whereby we (re)claim and presume our identity. Take away the memories and the answer to the basic question of identity 'who am I?' is very hard to answer.

And of course in a wider cultural sense memory is an important reference point: forgetting our history or letting the past die is an injustice to the victims, sufferers of actions that have a direct relation to the present (wouldn't ignoring the testimonies of holocaust survivors give National Socialism a posthumous victory? Isn't there then a duty to remember?).

Memory is the capacity to carry the past in the present to unite time and identity in a consciousness in a 'now', such that my life is understood as a continuity of events, maintained in the container of the 'I'. Take this away and all we have left is as you say, a spiritless machine and yet it seems that I could have had any other memories and still be me. For example I have a memory of my dinner, but that memory could have been different if I had decided to go fishing today. My memories seem to be contingent, they could have been anything. How does this harmonise with the claim that memories make us who we are?

Is that account really what happens or all that happens? Doesn't the question of memory answer not 'Who am I' but 'What am I'?

Imagine a case of an amnesic asking us 'who am I?' we try to answer the person in terms of what they do, where they live, their family relations, there achievements. That is we try to answer the question of who by responding in terms of what, in terms of events, Memory constructs a life for consciousness. But is the who question saturated by the what? In other word 'Does consciousness exhaust the notion of subjectivity?' (This is a question raised by Levinas.)

Is there something about us that escapes the unity of consciousness, that is not continuous, in memory that escapes the confines of the present?

Levinas thinks so and he thinks he can locate it in the ethical responsibility I have regarding other people, a responsibility that cannot be transferred or assumed by anyone else. Levinas' basic idea is this: I am who I am due to the fact that there is no one else able to take my place in the world, a fact that is generated in being singled out to answer to the other person's needs and wants. It is this singularity that is essentially mine and makes me, me.

Being a subject for Levinas means being subjected, being held responsible, to the point of dying for the other. As a responsible subject I am not for myself, not enclosed in the structures of time and identity of memory and consciousness, but am for-the-other. Being for-the-other means that there is no self or I' of self-identifying consciousness. It means ultimately that I am not even at the origins (the base, the ground floor) of myself. What makes me me is beyond, outside the realm of memory of recall of any past that could be maintained in the present. the other precedes and makes possible my subjectivity.

Here we have a situation where meaning, purpose and conviction is entirely separate from memory we are no longer spiritless machines, at the mercy of contingent experience but the very embodiment of spirituality.

Brian Tee

back


Sagar asked:

What did the great thinkers think about heart and mind? How did they distinguish between subjects related to heart and mind?

This is an interesting question but one that can be taken in different ways. What is the mind? That is a long-standing philosophical topic, still very much debated. What is the heart? Well, on one level it is obviously a physical organ, and it's not more complicated than that. Unlike the mind, the heart isn't said to have an additional kind of property: it isn't thought to be conscious, and it is no longer thought to be the site of the emotions. So the heart is straightforwardly a physical object, no different in principle from the liver or the kidneys.

However, we do still talk about the heart in connection with the emotions, but only metaphorically. It is not to be taken literally. In this usage, the heart symbolises passions, especially love. That's why heart shapes are associated with love. In the middle ages some people believed that there was an image of your loved one in your heart. Anatomy (in the seventeenth century) put paid to that idea, but we have the remains of it in our use of silver or gold lockets to keep a photo of a loved one in. If the heart was for the passions, such as love, the mind was for the more rational, cognitive activities.When love is so important to us, it is somehow appropriate to associate it with the organ that keeps us alive and that pumps blood around our bodies in order to get oxygen to our brains. It represents how vital and central love is.

You asked about great thinkers. Well, the seventeenth century French philosopher Descartes was someone who helped to make anatomy respectable. By associating the mind with the non-physical soul, he left what was left of us, our bodies, as purely physical things that can be examined when we are dead and our souls/ minds have departed. Resurrection will involve just our immaterial souls/ minds, so it won't matter if our bodies are cut up.

For Descartes, the emotions that had once been associated with the heart are just mental states — in other words, they belong to the mind, not the heart. They are private, subjective experiences inside us — as are, he thought, beliefs, desires, intentions, sensations and all other mental states. This is a view that still causes debates in philosophy. Is it true that we know our own emotions first and best, that we have a special privileged access to them because they are inside us, in our minds (or, as materialists think, in our brains)? Or are emotions not so much private experiences as concepts, involving at least some reference to external things such as behaviour?

Take love. When we tell someone that we love them, are we simply reporting an internal experience (a feeling), or are we making a statement which means, in part at least, that we will behave towards them in certain ways? Aren't we implying all sorts of beliefs, intentions and desires (that will depend on the context of the relationship): e,g, that we believe s/he is nice, attractive, smart; that we intend to see him or her as much as we can; that want more physical intimacy?

It's a complex concept. That is why we have to be very cautious when scientists (on TV programmes and elsewhere) tell us that they have located love in the brain. That is just as absurd, really, as locating it in the heart. Just because certain brain chemicals and certain neuronal regions are activated at certain moments, it doesn't mean that they equal love, anymore than your heart going 'boom-didi-boom' does. The term "love" can be used in many, many varied situations ("I love my partner", "I love chocolate biscuits", "I love it when the teacher forgets to set an assignment") — do they all have the same brain state associated with them? It's hardly likely. Can't I love my partner even when I'm not actually thinking about her? Love is a concept, not any one kind of event. You won't find it "in" my mind (because you won't find my mind!), nor in my brain, nor in my heart.

If love was a purely private or internal experience, no-one could ever correct a partner who swears love: "I don't care what you say, you don't love me. I know because you don't phone, you don't give me flowers, you never give me compliments, you're just not there for me!" Surely, third person evidence of that kind can over-rule the first person assertion of love?

Graham Nutbrown

back


Carrie-Anne asked:

What is the Socratic maxim?

Descartes provides the following argument for Cartesian Dualism:

(a) I can doubt that my body exists.

(b) I cannot doubt that I exist.

(c) If (a) and (b) then I am not my body.

(d) So I am not my body.

(e) If I am not my body, then Cartesian Dualism is true.

(f) So Cartesian Dualism is true.

How would you explain why Descartes accepts each step of this argument?

(a) According to Descartes, I can doubt that my body exists for exactly the same reasons as I can doubt the existence of anything that I know about through the senses. My senses can be deceived. It is impossible to know whether I am perceiving correctly or hallucinating or dreaming. I could even be the victim of a systematic Matrix-like delusion about reality, brought about by an evil demon.

(b) I cannot doubt that I exist because, according to the cogito argument, in the very act of doubting I presuppose my own existence. Doubting is a kind of thinking: I am thinking, therefore I am.

(c) My body and my "I" must be separate substances, therefore, because it is not possible both to doubt and not to doubt the existence of one and the same thing. It would be a contradiction comparable to both knowing and not knowing that David Beckham is the captain of the English soccer team.

(d) So, if my body and my "I" are separate substances, "I" cannot be my body. My body is a physical thing; my "I" must be a non-physical.

(e) Therefore, the doctrine of dualism, that asserts the reality of the physical body and the non-physical mind or soul, is true.

We can question Descartes' argument at various points. Is it, for example, true that we can doubt the existence of our own body in exactly the same way as we can doubt the existence of other objects? Do we not have an awareness of our body, an inner awareness, that is closer to a mental experience than a perceptual experience? Against that point, however, we could point to phantom limb experiences, whereby amputees are still "aware" of limbs that have been amputated. We would, perhaps, have to class some types of mental experience as vulnerable, leaving only the more cognitive mental processes (essentially, thinking) as demon-proof, at least in so far as if there is thought at all then there must be a subject doing the thinking, an "I". Even this, however, is thought to be an unjustified assumption by some commentators.

Another problem with Descartes' argument is that it just isn't true that knowing for certain that "I" exist and not knowing for certain that my body exists means that they cannot be one and the same thing. We can know things under different aspects. For example, Victoria may know for certain that her husband David is the captain of the English soccer team, but not know for certain that David is the father of her sons, but that does not rule out the possibility that the captain of the English soccer team is the father of Victoria's sons.

In the same way, my ignorance of the brain compared with my knowledge of my own mental states (my thoughts) does not rule out the possibility that my mental states simply are brain states — in other words, aspects of one and the same thing. Therefore, Descartes' argument fails to establish dualism.

Graham Nutbrown

back


Karen asked:

What is the English translation of "arx axiom"?

Wow, what a question! Nice! First, it seems to have been the title for a now-defunct (as far as I can tell) Christian magazine, in which it meant something like the "original fortress".

This comes from "arx": (akra). A height within the walls of a city. The same city could have several arces, as was the case with Rome; but, as there was generally one principal arx, the word came to be equivalent to Acropolis (q.v.). At Rome one of the summits of the Capitoline Hill was especially known as the Arx, the German school of topography placing it on the northeast summit (Arx Caeli) and the Capitolium (q.v.) on the southwest (Palazzo Caffarelli). At Rome the Arx was the regular place for taking the auspices (Livy, i. 18; x. 7); outside the wall the haruspex turned towards it if it was in sight (Livy, iv. 18). See Haruspex.

And, of course, "axiom", which is a first principle, first assumption, or something like that.

So you see that one could loosely translate it as "first fortress", given that the highest point within a city is it's fortress... a debatable point, but anyway... this is supported by the following: "ARX IANICULENSIS" is the name given by modern topographers to the fortifications that were probably erected on the Janiculum, near the later porta Aurelia, when the first stone bridge, pons Aemilius, was built across the Tiber in 179 B.C. (see IANICULUM and literature cited).

There's also: "Arx": the northern part of the Capitoline hill, separated from the southern part, the CAPITOLIUM proper (q.v.), by a depression (v. ASYLUM) which was the citadel of Rome after the city had expanded sufficiently to include the Quirinal and Viminal hills-that stage of the growth commonly known as the City of the Four Regions (P1. 41-44). The height of this part of the hill was about 49 metres above sea-level, and its area about one hectare. This arx, also called arx Capitolina 1 (Liv. vi. 20. 9; xxviii. 39. 15; Val. Max. viii. 14. 1; Tac.Hist. iii. 71), preserved its military importance down to the first century A.D. (see Aberystwyth Studies v. (1923) 33-41, for proof that Sabinus 2 held the arx, and not the temple of Jupiter), though it had no permanent garrison. In the early days sentinels were posted here while the comitia were being held in the campus Martius, to watch for the signal displayed on the Janiculum of an approaching enemy (Cass. Dio xxxvii. 28). Another signal-vexillum russi co

So there you go. Here's where I got the information: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/. Go to the "dictionaries" link. This Perseus site is a FABULOUS resource, and EVERYBODY interested in antiquities should know about it.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Maryam asked:

Prove to me that you do not exist.

I've already committed myself to an impossibility. Simply by responding to your question, someone has to exist. The best way to prove I don't exist would have been to leave your question in the e-limbo of the Questions page. I just didn't have the heart. Sorry to disappoint you, but I do exist.

Brian Tee

back


Tonni asked:

What characteristics does Ayer assign to ethical statements? How does his view of their nature affect the evaluation of traditional ethical theories? Assuming that Ayer's position is correct, is there need for any further work to be done in ethics? If so, whose task is it?

Ayer is an ethical noncognitivist. This means that if his view is correct, then ethical statements do not have truth values. He's committed to that view as a consequence of his larger project, logical positivism. Positivism states that meaningfulness only occurs in statements that are verifiable. Since there aren't any scientific experiments that we could run to test or verify the hypothesis that "murder is wrong", it follows that it, and other ethical statements, aren't meaningful at all.

Of course, he does recognize that people say things like that, and that they're not just spouting gibberish. Ayer's solution is to interpret ethical statements as expressing the speakers' attitudes about their subjects. For example, if I were to say "murder is wrong," I wouldn't be stating a fact, I'd be doing pretty much the same thing if as I said "murder!!!" with vocal inflection and facial expression indicating disapproval.

My opinion, which is a rather common one, is that Ayer's position is pretty unreasonable. After all, we take ourselves to be making statements of fact when we make ethical judgements — that's why it's possible to disagree. If I say murder is wrong and you say it's not, then I think you're mistaken. There's no way that Ayer can account for this; how could I think that your vocal inflection is inaccurate?

If Ayer's position were correct, then I think that normative ethics and metaethics would both have to be pretty pointless, so no, I don't think there'd be any more work to do there. But there are other fields in the same region as ethics that might still have some work to do. Ayer actually mentions a couple himself in Language, Truth and Logic. Moral Psychology might still be worthwhile. Given certain virtues that are generally considered desirable, it's still a useful (and empirical) question as to what kinds of lifestyles, etc. are conducive to those aims. Ayer rightly considers this to be more a matter of psychology or sociology than of philosophy, but it's probably all that's left of ethics, once Ayer's done with it.

Ayer lays his position out pretty clearly in Chapter VI of Language, Truth and Logic.. It begins on page 102 of the Dover edition that I have (with a blue spiral on the cover).

Jonathan Ichikawa

back


Andrea asked:

Assume, as some existentialists do, that there is no God. Does this make life absurd?

Suppose you're a creature with great powers, sitting in the middle of nothingness. Is your life absurd? Ok, now suppose that you decide you want company and you create a universe with conscious beings. You could control them, like puppets, but you decide not to. Is your life less absurd than before? The same? More?

Steven Ravett Brown


It wouldn't follow at all, just because of atheism, that life is absurd. Whether it is or isn't absurd needs to be discovered independently of that issue. But the theist's belief does suggest some absurdities — e.g., that something can come from nothing, that an all good, all powerful and all knowing being would stand by while horrible things happen to innocent beings (imagine even an ordinary human standing by watching as a child starves to death even though he or she could easily step in with some help).

Tibor Machan


There are many who believe that there is no such entity as God, including an increasing number of atheists. Do atheists lead absurd lives? Indeed, atheists are likely to believe the opposite, they might ask: Are religious people leading absurd lives by believing in a God for which there is no proof?

It could be claimed that your question arises from a religious belief that sufficient evidence from history and mystic experience exists to indicate the probable existence of God. Ask yourself whether your life would be fundamentally changed if it was announced tomorrow that it has now been officially proved that God does not exist.

Belief in God depends on faith: established faith is difficult to break down, even by the most convincing arguments. This is because the belief becomes a firmly established concept, and fundamental to a preferred world view. From this position it is quite likely that a believer in God might consider that a life which does not include a deity at its centre is somehow suspect. It may also lead to the view that life without God is meaningless and aimless.

A non-believer may, however, centre faith in the ability of humanity. He/she may point to the progress made by humanity throughout history, and what appears to be a powerful self reliance on knowledge and intellect. They may point also to the horrendous wars and human and natural tragedies, that are not only revealed in history but continue in the present. Then, there is injustice, unfairness, uneven distribution of wealth, creating massive poverty on the one hand, and great affluence on the other. All this, they may say, proves beyond doubt that there is no God. Believers will, of course, counter this by claiming that man having been given freewill by God chooses to use that freewill in pursuit of self interest, power and greed, leading eventually to his own downfall. God can only look on and weep for the demise of his creation.

In conclusion, there is some absurdity in both the lives of believers and non-believers, but neither provides a convincing argument for or against the existence of God. Happy is the agnostic who enjoys the full benefits of life whilst waiting for the answer to the question.

John Brandon

back


Victor asked:

Is it possible to suffer because of love?

I say is impossible, nobody has proved me wrong.

and Michelle asked:

Why is it that you love someone so much it hurts?


What are the views of Richard Dawkins on the body/ soul distinction?

Richard Dawkins is an atheist. He does not believe that the universe was created by God, nor that the conditions being exactly right for the emergence of intelligent life-forms, such as humans, was anything other than chance. All the complexity of life on earth, including human consciousness, can be explained, or will be explained, by reference to evolution by natural selection.

He is also a materialist. That is, he believes there is no evidence for anything immaterial or non-physical. So, not only is there no God, there are no souls, there is no life after death. You are your body, nothing more. Therefore, Dawkins has to accept one or other of the various materialist theories of the mind. Broadly speaking, he has to believe that either mental states simply are events in the brain, or that they are at least caused by events in the brain.

Dawkins is unpopular with many religious believers because he has written so scathingly of religion, and especially of creationism, but many philosophers who are not themselves theists or dualists think his arguments are overstated and simplistic in that he draws extremely firm conclusions from arguments that underestimate the complexity of the issues (philosophically if not biologically).

Dawkins is not himself a philosopher. The philosopher with whom he seems most in sympathy is Daniel Dennett, so it might be worth checking out his books, such as Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves. A writer with whom Dawkins is associated and who has attempted to account for all mental processes in term of brain activity is Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works.

If we reject the idea of an immaterial soul, we are still left with a question about what makes you you. Do you have a true self? What is the connection between your self and your body? This connects with the question of personal identity, and with other question in the philosophy of mind. In order to be sure that the person typing this now is the same person who was typing another answer yesterday, do we need to refer to my body only, to my brain specifically, to my memories, or what?

The questions raised by the old philosophers, such as Plato, Descartes and Hume, do not go away. Their own "solutions" may be rejected or modified, but they often perceived the difficulties and the importance of the questions so sharply that they still influence the debate today. There are still plenty of philosophers who are theists, and some who are dualists (Richard Swinburne is one). They are not stupid people and when Dawkins gives the impression that they are, he is wrong to do so, in my view.

Graham Nutbrown

back


Don asked:

What are some of the difficulties faced when trying to research human behaviour?

This is one of the o-old questions that I'm answering just for the fun of it... Here's one problem: just what is human behavior? Sure, you move your hand, that's behavior... but is talking behavior? What about thinking? After all, neurons are firing when you think, and you can see that in various ways, these days.

For a very interesting critique of behaviorism, there's always the classic: Chomsky, N. (1967). "Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior". Readings in the psychology of language. L. A. Jakobovits and M. S. Miron. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall: 142-171.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Lobelia asked:

I'm studying Plato and Aristotle, I need to know what are the main differences between the two on the theory of the body and the soul?

Plato gives an ontological priority to the soul, and definitely believes it COULD exist separate from the body, and quite possibly believes it DOES exist separate from the body (i.e. before birth and after death.)

Aristotle sees the soul as distinct from the body, but dependent upon the body for it's existence. Also, Aristotle sees the body as dependent for the soul for it's existence. A soul without a body is an unintelligible concept to Aristotle, the biologist that he is. And, a body without a soul is also unintelligible (that's a corpse, or just a big pile of earth, water, air, and fire — but not flesh).

Think of the Aristotelian body and soul as analogous to a husband and a wife in a marriage: husbands need wives to be in marriages, and wives need husbands to be in marriages, husbands cannot exist but in a marriage, and wives cannot exist but in a marriage. The same goes for the body and the soul.

Luke Fedoroff


back


Barry asked:

I'm a second year philosophy student and am having real trouble trying to grasp Kantian philosophy. What we're concentrating on at the moment is his account of space and time, his transcendental metaphysics and his assertions on knowledge and the outside world. I've tried reading his Critique of Pure Reason, but fail repeatedly to make any sense of it at all — it's just a litany of unsupported assertions, multifaceted definitions of vague terms (e.g. concept, intuition, judgement, predicate, transcendental etc) that do not seem directed toward any particular end. What is the kernel of what Kant is trying to explain? It is infuriatingly difficult to make sense of such needlessly verbose postulating — I am crying out for someone to enlighten me in simple language, like you do so well on this website! I am reading Terence Edward Wilkerson's commentary for students on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which is easier to make sense of.

Take a look my answer on Answers page 21.

That's one thing he's doing. Perhaps the main thrust of the whole trilogy (the three Critiques), however, is to demonstrate that free will is possible. Not, mind you, to prove the existence of free will... merely to show that it is possible. And what he's doing, in a sense, in the first two books, is going through everything else, all the laws of the mind, in order to get them out of the way so that in the Critique of Judgment he can say, "well, we've done all that and there's still something we can't possibly explain... (i.e., what he is terming "genius") that must be how we can, perhaps, have free will." Monumental, right? Wow, what a computer programmer he would have made.

Steven Ravett Brown


It so happens that I myself find Kant's prose as lucid and transparent as one could wish; and I am not here giving you the point of view of a seasoned reader, but reflecting on my experience as a 17-year-old when I read the Critique as my first-ever philosophy book. Why I am telling you this is to warn you that the prejudices to which your question testifies is just about the greatest ill favour you can do yourself in approaching a philosopher. Legions of informed readers assess this work as possibly the greatest philosophy book ever written; but in your 7 lines I find "litany", "verbose" and "infuriating" and therefore I cannot help wondering what kind of a dressing down you are going to dish out to Einstein when you get around to having to solve his state equations. Or do you think you might possibly adopt a humbler attitude then? Or is it too far fetched of me to believe that with Einstein you might stand in awe at the man's intellect because you may not understand his mathematics, but because Kant happens to write in German (or English, if you're reading a translation) you think you have to understand everything the moment you start reading?

Anyway Im glad you are reading Wilkerson to help you along. My best suggestion is that you take the above to heart and start again. Then you might find that the ideas of Kant are by no means unsupported, vague or any of the other crimes of which you accuse him, but are relatively clear-cut except in those passages where additionally you are required to know something of the general historical and cultural background. Now that's why a guide is indispensable, because it saves you reading all the philosophers before and adjacent to Kant. And then, once you have successfully accomplished that task, you'll feel much better about philosophy in general and Kant in particular. And possibly (this is what one hopes for after all) also a lot better about yourself and your ability to meet such challenges in the future without having to vent your frustration.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Amadea asked:

Can we ever be said to know anything?

and Sheilla asked:

What are the sources of knowledge?

If the answer to Amadea's question is no, then Sheilla's question is immediately spurious. In everyday terms it would seem rather odd to deny that we could ever know anything. With the assistance of what we call memory, we are able to identify objects and events made available to us by way of the senses. Recognition of objects and events can be referred to as knowledge. From this point of view the source of knowledge is simply the senses. Philosophers who subscribe to such a view are called 'empiricists'.

Some empiricists claim that if there is a deeper source of knowledge beyond the senses, then we can know nothing about it, because we cannot get beyond the relay system of senses. In other words, we have no facility to probe beyond the senses to what some imagine to be the 'real' world. The great German philosopher, Kant, called suspected objects and events in this contemplated real world, "things in themselves". The best we can hope for with regard to knowledge from this world view are the representations of the real world made available by the senses, i.e. sense data.

Information given to us by the senses may be understood as 'percepts', things perceived by the senses. Within this sphere of understanding it is considered that percepts are assembled by the mind into 'concepts'. These may be regarded as packages of knowledge subsequently stored in the part of the mind we call memory. Those subscribing to this view consider the total knowledge of each individual to be made up of concepts.

Materialist philosophers, including scientists, believe that we are in direct contact with the real world. They also are empiricists who depend upon the senses for information, but the senses in this case are reflecting the world as it really is. Knowledge from this view is of the real world, not sense representations. However, such materialists would probably support the notion that knowledge is made up of concepts derived from percepts.

Knowledge is linked to understanding, the better our understanding the more valid are our concepts. A three or four year old child asked to draw a tree would be commended for drawing a brown stick with a green blob on top, this represents his/her concept of a tree. However, a twelve year old presenting the same image might be rebuked for not trying harder, the general notion being that a twelve year old should have a more advanced concept of a tree, a better understanding of what is meant by a tree. Our knowledge can be said to increase by adding more information to our concepts, expanding them in other words by increasing our understanding of the subject matter of each concept. Considering knowledge from this point of view, it seems that neglected concepts can fade or deteriorate, interpreted in everyday language as memory loss owing to lack of interest. The psychological view is that interest is the bedrock of memory. No interest, no learning. Put another way, no accumulation of knowledge, no adding to concepts.

Knowledge is associated with truth, we refer to 'true knowledge'. This is compared with belief, which is a sort of dodgy knowledge, it could be true, but then again it may be false. Theories and hypotheses are listed under the latter. True knowledge, on the other hand, has access to proof, concepts or judgements based on true facts is real knowledge. Some philosophers put it another way, and state that for a proposition to be true it must correspond to a proven fact. Hence propositions may be true or false. Personally, I do not subscribe to the notion that knowledge is true belief. From my point of view knowledge is one concept and belief is another, as described above, there is a distinction between the two. In my opinion 'knowledge is true belief' is a contradiction in terms, and misuse of language. Admitted there are beliefs which can eventually prove to be true, but we are here dealing with a different concept.

As you will appreciate, the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) is a very large and diverse subject, which has taxed the minds of some of the greatest thinkers. Another philosopher would probably answer your questions in a quite different way, and possibly disagree with some, or even all, of my views. Some might answer from an 'Idealist' point of view. Idealists disagree with the notion of a material world. their world is somehow in the mind in the form of 'ideas'. Such ideas are not to be confused with the everyday concept of the term, they are far more complex and beyond anything we can enter into here. However, it follows that Idealists have a different approach to the debate on knowledge than do materialists and fundamental empiricists.

Then there are the 'Rationalists' who believe that knowledge is available by pure reason. Kant proposed that our minds are endowed with knowledge which we contribute to our perceived concept of the world. In a complicated way sense data (percepts) cannot stand alone as knowledge.

I suggest you read A.J Ayer's Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Unwin: and Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.

John Brandon

back


Bud asked:

I realize that Jehovah's Witnesses say they are Christians. I have always been of the understanding that Christianity is a belief in Christ as God (as in the Trinity). Can you explain to me how Jehovah's Witnesses can state they are Christian when they say that Christ is not God?

I have a copy of a book published by the Jehovah's Witnesses titled Reasoning from the Scriptures. It is given to members of the field ministry, the ones who come knocking on your door, it is like an A-Z of their beliefs, with sections for objections that could be raised to these beliefs and set responses to them. My favorite section is titled: 'How to respond to potential conversation stoppers.' I'm not sure if non-members are allowed to have a copy of this book, so don't tell anyone, Here is what the book says about JC:

They believe, not that Jesus Christ is part of a Trinity, but that, as the bible says, he is the Son of God, the first of God's creations; that he had a prehuman existence and that his life was transferred from heaven to the womb of a virgin, Mary; that his perfect human life laid down in the sacrifice makes possible salvation to eternal life for those who exercise faith; that Christ is actively ruling as King, with God-given authority over all the earth since 1914

Witnesses worship Jehovah as God; Jesus for them is the Son of God, the one who showed us how to worship God properly. They don't believe in the Trinity because it is not a bible teaching, (there is no direct scriptural support for the doctrine), but is rather a attempt to think about God rationally, in philosophical terms, which produced a theological dispute in the early church; the Arian controversy, which lead to the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). It was with Augustine however that idea of trinity was clearly formulated.

Even if you don't agree with their beliefs, the (literal) interpretation of scripture by Jehovah's Witnesses, and perhaps particularity this issues of the trinity present us with a wider and philosophically interesting problem, namely the nature of the relation between the two great heritages of the west: Athens and Jerusalem, Greek and Jewish thinking. Can the ideas on one be translated into the other or does the doctrine of the trinity show that trying to understand God in philosophical/ metaphysical terms of form and substance, hypostases and ousia for example over the ethical relationship to God, the covenant of Jewish belief show that there is a fundamental divergence, a schizophrenia in the western mentality?

Brian Tee


Hi. I am one of Jehovah's Witnesses. That's true that we do not believe that Christ is not God but rather that they are separate people. Jesus Christ is the son of God and if you read the Bible you will see that Jesus never once proclaimed that he was God but rather God's son. who then is God? I don't know what religion you are but the Bible says that God's name is Jehovah. Some Bibles have removed this name for various reasons. If you have anymore questions you can ask any Jehovah's Witness, they will be happy to talk with you.

Natalie Kate

back


Jenny asked:

Can knowledge be universal or is it possible that different cultures have different truths?

Oh, dear, you had to use that word... "truths", didn't you. I'm going to skip that one, because when one starts applying it to the beliefs and mores of different cultures it begins to lose whatever meaning it had in philosophy, and become a sort of nice, fuzzy metaphor. I'll stick to the first part of the question, "can knowledge be universal?". My answer to that is short and sweet. Consider the lowly lightbulb. What happens to lightbulbs (hooked up to generators, of course), in cultures that do not believe in science? Um... they still light up, don't they. You go over to the switch, flip it up and down, and gee whiz, it just keeps going on and off... What happens to, say, atomic reactors in the same cultures? Well, all the little thingies keep flying around and the reactor just keeps going. What about vaccines, in cultures that believe in magic? Sorry, vaccines just keep working... Yes. Knowledge can be universal.

Now, the more interesting question, perhaps, is whether knowledge is universal. And there you'd have to be quite clear on just what you mean by "knowledge". I've glossed over that in the above quite purposely, since there are literally libraries written on the latter question. And I'm going to keep glossing over it, sorry... but if you want a rather long, complex, and superb (in my opinion) answer to that take a look at: Kitcher, P. (1993). The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

Steven Ravett Brown


Let's adopt an uncomplicated definition of "knowledge": for a belief to attain the status of knowledge it has to be both true and justified. What "true" and "justified" are taken to mean will depend on the theory of truth we subscribe to. For example, if we subscribe to a correspondence theory of truth statements or propositions are true when they point to a fact about the ways things are in the real world, when they correspond with reality. If we subscribe to a coherence theory of truth, a belief is true if it coheres with other beliefs within your network of beliefs, but there is no way of justifying a claim that your network of beliefs is superior to mine or anyone else's.

So the underlying nature of justification differs in the two theories. In the case of the correspondence theory, justification implies gathering evidence about reality, the way things really are. In the coherence theory, justification may (or may not) depend on that kind of evidence, but now your beliefs about justification, evidence, etc. are themselves part of your total network of beliefs. The most you can say is that the network is internally coherent, consistent, reliable, effective for your purposes.

The coherence theory is obviously more sympathetic to the idea that truths are specific to different cultures, because different cultures are different networks of belief. So relativism about truth and reality tends to go together with a coherence theory of truth, whereas absolutism about truth and reality tends to go together with the correspondence theory. Whichever we adopt there could still be a class of beliefs that are, as it happens, universally held to be true.

Take the Buddhism's "Three Universal Truths" These are 1. Everything is changing and everything depends on every other thing; 2. People are always changing, physically and mentally; there is no such thing as a permanent self; 3. People always suffer because we cannot be satisfied but always yearn for something more or better. There doesn't seem anything supernatural or unscientific in these and Buddhism is a pretty cross-cultural religion, so perhaps there could be wide agreement on the truth of these statements. (Actually, this wouldn't happen because anyone who believes in the immaterial and immortal soul will not accept 2.) But even if there was worldwide agreement, this fact alone would not make them true — for the correspondence theorist, they would have to be well-founded and supported by powerful empirical evidence; for the coherence theorist, they would have to fit into existing network of beliefs without dislodging other beliefs, and certainly without dislodging the core beliefs.

Of course, we could take a position of realism about the physical world, and maintain that truths about it are absolute and universal, but of relativism about, say, ethics and aesthetics, maintaining that moral and aesthetics truths are of a different kind and can be relative to cultures.

Graham Nutbrown

back


Christophe asked:

Why are questions about "meaning" addressed mostly by analysis of words and sentences?

It may be a consequence of the linguistic turn, but I believe that "meaning" does exists at levels of evolution where there is no language.

(If you are interested, I had a try on a systemic approach on "meaning". See my short paper at http://www.short-theory-meaning.fr.st/.)

Well, you're in luck! Bermudez just came out with a book on non-linguistic thinking: Bermudez, J. L. (2003). Thinking without words. New York, NY, Oxford University Press. So there's a real treatise for you to read. However, the idea of non-linguistic thought is actually not a new one in psychology, only, for some bizarre reason, in philosophy (I think that it's because philosophers are almost exclusively verbal thinkers and so literally cannot conceive of non-verbal thinking... I've had problems with that attitude for a long time). Anyway, there's quite a lot about nonverbal thinking in non-philosophical arenas:

Arnheim, R. (1974). Art and visual perception: a psychology of the creative eye. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.

Clarke, E. F. (1993). "Generativity, mimesis and the human body in music performance." Contemporary Music Review 9 (1/2): 207-219.

Derrida, J. (1993). Memoirs of the blind: the self-portrait and other ruins. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Dienes, Z. and J. Perner (1999). "A theory of implicit and explicit knowledge." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (735-808).

Goodman, N. (1976). Languages of art. Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Company.

Goodman, N. (1988). Ways of worldmaking. Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Company.

Herz, R. S. (1998). "An examination of objective and subjective measures of experience associated to odors, music, and paintings." Empirical Studies of the Arts 16(2): 137-152.

Kozbelt, A. (2001). "Artists as experts in visual cognition." Visual Cognition 8 (6): 705-723.

Robinson, J. (1997). Music and meaning. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press.

Tsur, R. (2000). "Metaphor and figure-ground relationship: comparisons from poetry, music, and the visual arts." PsyART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts 4.

and

Gendlin, E. (1991). Thinking beyond patterns: body, language, and situations. B. den Ouden and M. Moen. New York, NY, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 7: 22-152.

Gilovich, T., D. Griffin, et al., Eds. (2002). Heuristics and biases: the psychology of intuitive judgment. New York, NY, Cambridge University Press.

Allen, C. and M. Bekoff (1997). Species of mind: the philosophy and biology of cognitive ethology. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.

Midgley, M. (1995). Beast and man: the roots of human nature. New York, NY, Routledge.

Bickerton, D. (1990). Language and species. Chicago, IL, The University of Chicago Press.

Armstrong, D. F., W. C. Stokoe, et al. (1996). Gesture and the nature of language. Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press.

Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism. New York, NY, Vintage Books.

McNeill, D., Ed. (2000). Language and gesture. Language, culture and cognition. New York, NY, Cambridge University Press.

These should indicate to you that you need not at all consider yourself in isolation.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Michael asked:

Do you think the principle of zealous advocacy is morally justifiable for the practicing lawyer? This principle assumes it is always good for people to be aided in exercising their legal rights and that lawyers cannot presume to morally judge the law in deciding how to act. These assumptions do not seem morally right to me. How could yo defend or attack such a principle using various ethical theories?

I think even a murderer has a right to defend himself because the law is punitive and we don't want to punish an innocent man. So the law provides these rights reflecting our moral attitudes. In the eyes of the law, we are innocent until proven guilty.

I don't see what is wrong with this 'zealous advocacy' principle. A lawyer is a professional person and as such his moral judgements should not affect his actions on behalf of his client. He is doing a job and has to uphold the principles of the law. The law keeps a sense of integrity. If a solicitor knows (ie has evidence) that his client is guilty, the law is that he should not continue to defend him. And in good conscience, he shouldn't.

The law is not moral in all its aspects and sometimes reflects aspects of culture that not everyone approves of. The law is about protecting rights and freedoms determined by society. In the culture we live in today people are defended in claims for compensation where there looks like an element of greed. Also the law is failing to recognise that individuals are responsible for some things that happen to them and sometimes blame is misplaced. Take the case of the woman who spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued MacDonalds. Lawyers probably did morally judge in this case, but they still have to behave professionally and do their best. If you wanted to exercise your legal rights, wouldn't you expect the lawyer to want to help? On the hand, lawyers might be responsible for this aspect of our culture. I'm inclined to believe it is lawyers who are responsible for encouraging greed and law suits without merit by offering to take on cases on a no win no fee basis.

The main ethical theories which students have to know about are utilitarianism (J S Mill) and deontological theory (Kant). Basically, the former states that the 'good' thing to do is that which will maximise the well-being of greatest number. For the utilitarian, then, it could be suggested that lawyers shouldn't judge the law since they would undermine what they should, professionally, be upholding. You don't seem to have a problem with the law as such, just the zealous principle. On the other hand, lawyers are only professionals who carry out the law. It is Judges and Parliament who make the law, so if lawyers did make moral judgements it probably wouldn't have much effect, except that professional status of lawyers would be lowered which is bad for lawyers and the public because the public wants to rely on professional standards being met. Utilitarianism may or may not support the principle. It is a difficult of weighing up the benefits for everyone of abandoning the zealous advocacy principle.

For Kant (you can find more detail through the search engine) a person should act on what he sees to be his rational duty as a human being amongst other human beings. He should treat others as he would want to be treated as a rational being. To behave as a rational being is to perform one's duty rather than to act from inclination. The actual law, which isn't the 'Kantian law', ie self-determined by and for all rational beings, but just law determined by Parliament and Judges (whose judgement might be influenced by inclination) can be morally, ie rationally judged. Lawyers should morally judge the law on rational grounds. But if they just don't like it, which is a matter of inclination, that isn't even a moral judgement for Kant. The question is probably how much of the law has a rational basis and whether it holds man in respect as a rational being.

But there are other ethical theories. You might must hold that morality is a matter of conscience and then the lawyer shouldn't commit himself to the principle of zealous advocacy.

Rachel Browne

back


Barry asked:

Are we living or are we dying?

Yes.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Lucy asked:

What are the strengths of the design argument?

First of all, this argument is simple to understand and has merit since humans are designers by nature and it is natural to think in terms of things having purpose.

For theologians, the design argument carries weight because it is consistent with Scripture. The Bible states that we are made in God's image. Therefore, there are certain things that we will resonate to. According the apostle Paul, the creation of the real universe was indeed ex nihilo, from nothing, but by the direct infinite power of the Creator instead of random fluctuations proposed by strong naturalists. Paul declared that the power and planning of the Creator could be understood by the obvious design of the creation. This design should then lead us to the Scriptures, through which the Creator may be personally known. Paul further warned that those who reject such physical evidence are without excuse (Romans 1:20).

Evolutionists have difficulty accounting for apparent design in objects like the eye, the heart, and the brain where many different parts come together to form the whole. These individual parts have no purpose except in the function of the whole. How can evolution account for these detailed congruent occurrences? So far, it can't.

Thus Paley's "watchmaker" is even stronger than before, centuries after its first occurrence. The chief reason is the discovery of "watches" in nature, beautifully constructed and running smoothly. This reference is to hundreds of carefully balanced equations, constants, and properties of matter. It is further realised that if any of these quantities were changed in the slightest way, the result would be catastrophic.

The knife-edged balance of protons and forces is indeed a strong testimony to the Creation. They hardly can be believed being artificial relationships resulting merely from human measurements and constructs. Instead, the intricate physical values have forced themselves upon our senses. Other similar "coincidences" involve such quantities as the fine structure constant, nuclear forces, and the total number of particles in the universe. All seem carefully chosen. Evolutionary change is entirely unable to deal with such permanent properties of nature.

Max Planck, one of the most influential physicists ever, stated: "According to everything taught by the exact sciences about the immense realm of nature, a certain order prevails — one independent of the human mind...this order can be formulated in terms of purposeful activity. There is evidence of an intelligent order of the universe to which both man and nature are subservient."

Altogether, the timeless design argument, valid for the apostle Paul and William Paley, as well as for Max Planck and thousands of present-day scientists can be considered as a strong one.

Simone Klein
www.sophiasworld.at


What a refreshing perspective, Lucy! You may be aware that for over 100 years only the other, the negative has been asked because everyone who has dealt with Bishop Paley, the most famous instance of it, has had nothing better to do than to find refutations. The trouble with these is that all are based on a materialistic, reductionist and deterministic point of view. Now it is the case that Paley's argument is a notably poor specimen, aimed at what Dennett once called the "intuition pump", or the knee-jerk reaction we all show in the face of such arguments. But to answer your question, its strength is that it is intrinsically irrefutable. Whether you believe in the design argument or repudiate it is a matter of opinion, whether your name is Lucy or Dennett. The latter might marshall more sophisticated arguments, but not conclusive ones.

I have space here for only two examples, but they may suffice for your purposes. Both are variants of Paley's proposition. (1) If you find after the most refined and advanced technological exploration of the universe that it is "fine tuned" through a number of fundamental constants to be one of just a tiny handful of possible universes where carbon-based life can evolve, whereas there are billions of possible universes that never attain the required criteria, then you might well propose that this demonstrates design. It is not a valid counterargument in this case to suggest that we are imposing this notion ex post facto. We are, after all, here and talking about it.

(2) If you find, after investigating with all the scientific resources at our disposal, that the structure of the genetic software and hardware is such that the possibility of it arranging itself by chance is in the range of trillions to one, then you have a good case for assuming that the chance is zero in the given time frame available for it to happen. You may therefore legitimately propose that some agency unknown to science was responsible and do so in all confidence that it is not a stupid attitude to hold. After all, the facts in these cases are such that no-one is in any position to confidently pronounce yeah or nay; Dennett or Dawkins might have more sophisticated arguments than Lucy to persuade you that its all just matter clicking together by random action, but sophistication is not in this case tantamount to an unchallenged truth! And so, to slot this into its proper philosophical spot, the design argument covers what is known in philosophy as "teleology"; and this is a key term you may wish to pursue for more on the subject.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Michael asked:

Why is it not good for teenagers or people under 18 to view or get involved in anything related to pornography?

A good question. Now tell me, what is pornography? Is it explicit depiction of sex? Then we can't have sex education, can we, if we don't want pornography, if that's what pornography is. Is it depiction of sex as pleasurable? Same problem. Is it the depiction of sex in a "non-educational" context? Well, first, you can see that since I'm putting that in scare quotes I'm having some problems with that concept... what about looking up stuff in libraries, for example? But let's say, for the sake of argument, that an "educational context" is one which is "supervised" by a "qualified adult", ok? Leaving aside the question of the meanings of the latter quoted phrases.

So, then, why is it not good for those under 18 to view, say, explicit depictions of sex in an unsupervised setting? Well, here's the answer I'd give. A child ("person under 18") is very actively engaged in learning about the world, and does not have much experience in evaluating, i.e., in distinguishing good from bad. That's what a child is. Certainly, there are people who are adults at the age of 18, but by-and-large 16-18 seems a good lower boundary for the above abilities.

Depictions of sex are very culturally determined, and unfortunately many of those depictions are violent, degrading, and portray sex as shameful, "dirty", and so forth. Do we want children to learn that sex is some or all of those things? Well, I don't; I want children to understand sex as good, life-fulfilling, pleasurable, interactions between fairly equal adults... etc... and in addition realize the problems that may ensue through sex: jealousy, depression, STDs, and so forth. So I wouldn't want a child to see what I've termed "pornography" above, not because I think explicit depictions of sex are necessarily bad, but because I think that in our culture they definitely tend to be. And I truly don't know a culture in which this is not the case, at least to the extent that there are enough depictions of sex from the above negative viewpoints that a person who could not discriminate, who is still learning, would have a very good chance of learning what I would most definitely feel are the wrong attitudes.

So unless there are clear individual cases in which one knows that a person under 18 is not a child, or until we consistently portray sex as positive (in roughly the manner I outlined above) I will agree — not happily — with those who want to restrict the unsupervised access of children to sexual materials.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Stuart asked:

I have a question directed at some of the more "certified" (i.e. with diplomas, professional certificates, et al.) philosophers out there.

I am currently wading through Philosophy 1 and Philosophy 2 compiled by A.C. Grayling. These are the base reading texts for the University of London External Programme in Philosophy. I find that 40 per cent of the text consists of historical reports of the writings of long dead philosophers. I have also been perusing the long list of philosophical questions that this Pathways site offers for the curious. I find that a good proportion could also be classed as about the history of the writings of long dead philosophers.

My question is — why is the formal study of philosophy so tied to the understanding of the muddled thinking and flawed arguments of such long dead thinkers? Why in the world should it matter to anyone but an historian how Kant's ideas relate to the modern world? Or how Aquinas compares to St. Augustine on some subject?

I can see how it might be productive to contrast the viewpoints of several different thinkers on some particular subject — say the reality of universals. But surely the notions of Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, etc., on this matter are out-dated? There has been an awful lot of argument and criticism on this (or any such) subject over the ages. Has no one compiled a more carefully reasoned analysis? Why is reading Plato's argument supposed to enlighten one?

Why isn't the study of philosophy focussed on the examination of particular issues or questions, rather than on the history? Has no one since Descartes formulated the Idealist argument in a clearer and more easily readable form than managed by him? Is Aristotle really the best formulation of the Realist argument?

1. The writings of some philosophers are enjoyable to read. Descartes' Meditations comes into this category, as do some sections of Hume's Enquiries (but not Kant's Critique of Pure Reason). It can be much more boring to read second-hand accounts of what they wrote than it is to read their own words.

2. On the other hand, philosophy is cumulative. It proceeds by making finer distinctions and by exposing contradictions in previous writers' ideas. The earliest form of the argument in question is often the best place to start because it is the most straightforward, and the easiest to do your own problem spotting on.

3. And yet, we have to treat the earlier texts with respect and try to determine what the philosopher really meant — try to put his arguments in the best light. We might need to take into account some aspect of his intellectual context: what was not a problem for him could be for us, as concepts adapt to historical changes (such as scientific discoveries and moral or religious changes) and two concepts which were once compatible may cease to be. Also, we may also need to reject one part of a philosopher's position but attempt to salvage another part. For example, we might reject Descartes' substance dualism but retain his internalism (the view that mental states are located in us and we have a special first-person access to them).

4. To a surprising extent, philosophy is not like other subjects. Amazingly contemporary-seeming ideas can be discovered, or rediscovered in older texts — for example, Spinoza on the mind. On the other hand, philosophy papers written just a few years ago can quickly seem very dated. It is not a subject where we can easily separate the old from the new. If we went for the very new, we'd be looking at highly technical academic papers on very detailed aspects of very difficult topics. It can be a relief to go back to the guys who posed the problems in the first place and to reconnect with the big questions that make philosophy important.

Graham Nutbrown


Well in a sense it doesn't. But actually it does, haha. Here's one take on it: as I keep emphasizing on this site, Western philosophy is 2-3000 years old. You simply cannot fully understand modern philosophers without some background. Where are they coming from, what they are reacting against, what tradition they like, don't like, etc., etc., etc.

Here's another take on it: suppose you were studying physics. Would you ask the same question, learning electromagnetic theory, if what you wanted to learn was quantum electrodynamics? Well, you might. And then a teacher would explain that you simply could not fully understand the concepts in the latter without some grasp of the concepts, mathematics, etc., in the former.

Reading Plato is not supposed to enlighten one, in any profound sense. But it does give you background to understand better what Heidegger, for example, is talking about (since he was a big Aristotle fan, and Aristotle to a great extent reacted against Plato), or where mathematically-inclined philosophers are coming from when they speak of the "reality" of numbers. And so forth... I could go on and on with examples.

In addition, you get a sense of philosophy's origins: for example, we have a tradition, in the West, of questioning everything. Where did that come from? In my opinion, it comes rather directly from Socrates' life and death, which latter resulted, among other things, from his questioning the state religion of his day. Is this important? Well... it is if you want to investigate why we're questioning everything, certainly a valid topic, wouldn't you agree?

So... try to realize that what you're getting is essential background that you will need to understand the complexity of modern philosophy, just as you'd need comparable background to understand mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, and so forth.

Steven Ravett Brown


I probably should not answer your question at all, because I'm only very `lightly` qualified. Therefore in accordance with your criterion, I'll just give the question back to you and challenge you to re-submit your question after you've done this:

1. Produce sufficient reason for your claim that certain dead philosophers are `muddled` thinkers and guilty of flawed arguments. Who are they? Which arguments? And on whose authority to you judge them so? Your own?

2. Produce a watertight argument why Kant's ideas should not relate to our concerns.

3. Produce an unimpeachable argument for/against universals so as to show that your claim in relation to Aristotle, Descartes, Kant etc. is true.

4. Refute the Idealist argument.

The problem with a view like your's is that it assumes, without giving any good reason, that philosophy must `progress` like science, craft, technology etc. You might therefore also stop still for a moment and produce a really good argument for the validity of that assumption. Look around you. Are the poor and the deprived in this fantastic world of our's any better off than they were 2000 years ago? Or are you just taking a stand on affluence and comfort? On lazy thinking, which holds that philosophical problems are solvable once and for all?

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney


Just a quick response to this. Personally, I am amazed when I read long dead philosophers, not at their "muddled thinking and flawed arguments", but at the fact that people writing long ago, in societies far different from ours, in the absence of all the knowledge that we have accumulated since, actually have such amazingly insightful things to say to us today. My favorite example is Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

If all we are doing is history of ideas, then there is merit to your question. But I see philosophy as engaging with the important questions, and this can be done by intellectually engaging with what the great thinkers of the past have written — not just absorbing it, but entering into a dialogue with them.

Finally, notice that when a great deal of progress has been made, those parts of that philosopher's arguments do get dropped off philosophy courses. Aristotle's writings on the physics of motion, for example, are no longer studied as philosophy — rather, as part of a history of discredited ideas. This doesn't discredit his ideas that still have bite, though.

Tim Sprod

back


Trent asked:

How is the knowledge Husserl obtains in the epoché pertinent to the world outside of the epoché? Is he just examining how we know and then applying that process to how we construct the outside world?

Sorry I missed this one before... anyway, look at it this way. Suppose you wanted to wriggle around Descartes' problem (existence of the world, etc.) and his dualism, ok? Now, one way to do that might be to say, "The 'existence' of the world is just another thought or concept that we have when we look around at 'things', or whatever. What if we just ignored that concept and looked around anyway?" That, in a sort of crude nutshell, is what the epoche is and what it's supposed to do. We look around, and we merely ignore or "bracket", as Husserl liked to call it (and boy oh boy do I have problems with this concept, as an act!) the idea that things "actually" exist. Now, are we looking at the "same" world? Yes, of course we are; no phenomenologist would claim that we're seeing a different world, merely that we're seeing it in a different way, another matter entirely ("radically" different, as they like to put it).

Now, does one obtain "knowledge" this way? Is Husserl examining how we know? Well, yes in a sense he is, in a very abstract way. But he's not so much "constructing" as "deconstructing" the world (And does that latter term sound familiar? Haha, yes, he started that movement... unwittingly.), i.e., showing that when we remove something, that idea above, we see the same world in what he would understand as a more profound and complete manner, one which was not occupied with the question of "existence", but with more important (to him) questions of constitution, i.e., what things are "made of", as experiences. So, yes, that's knowledge... and Husserl and phenomenologists believe it's deeper, in a sense, than mere "empirical" knowledge, since it bypasses (so they hold) that question.

But the main goal, of the epoche, anyway, was to solve, by avoiding, the Cartesian dilemma. To go further, to what he would have considered "real" knowledge, you have to in addition apply the "phenomenological reduction"... and that's yet another level of abstraction, which does, according to Husserl, result in profound knowledge of absolute entities, the philosophical or experiential equivalents of Platonic ideal objects (and Husserl had problems all his life with whether he was an idealist or not... but I'm just not going to go there). One might indeed claim that one does obtain knowledge of "another" world through that reduction... but again, Husserl would have denied that, because it is absolute, indubitable (apodictic) knowledge of the "natural", "pre-scientific" world that he was after.

So the brief answers to your questions, are, first: totally pertinent because it's the same world; and second: sort of.

But my teeny exposition here just cannot do justice to Husserl's work. First, his own ideas changed rather radically as he matured, and second, he wrote literally thousands of pages on this stuff (which the Husserl Archives are still bringing out). With a lot of redundancy, a lot of ranting, and some absolute sheer brilliance, such as, for example, his analysis of "time consciousness". I don't even know where to recommend you start reading... there's always the Ideen, but I actually think that the Logical Investigations are more approachable:

Husserl, E. Logical Investigations. Translated by J.N. Findlay. Vol. I, International Library of Philosophy. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.

Husserl, E.. Logical Investigations. Translated by J.N. Findlay. Vol. II, International Library of Philosophy. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.

But again, you just cannot easily compare any of his writings separated by more than a few years, since his ideas were always changing.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Vicky asked:

Can a moral person be happy?

The short answer is — Yes!

The longer answer is — it depends on one's moral standards.

If, as many people, you adopt or inherit your moral standards from one of the many religions extant, then you most likely have an "unselfish/ altruistic" foundation for your moral beliefs. You will probably hold that, ceteris paribus, it is the welfare of others that is your primary moral concern. In that event, your own happiness is at the mercy of others — either because you are called upon to make sacrifices in the interests of the common good, or a duty to help others, or a commandment to not be selfish and self centered. And in that case, you will only find yourself happy when someone else makes it their business to make you happy. Making yourself happy is immoral.

But on the other hand, if you adopt your moral standards after a reasoned analysis of the best evidence available and without any preconceived conditions, then you will realize that the welfare of oneself and one's family is your primary moral concern. From this standard of morality, making oneself happy and allowing oneself to be happy is a noble ethical pursuit. And in that case, happiness is the expected self-generated reward for a properly conducted moral life.

You takes your pick, and you reaps the consequences.

Stuart Burns

back


Ross asked:

What is the rule of recognition, and what role does it play in helping us to understand how legal systems operate?

Isn't there a jurisprudence site?

As far as I understand it, rules of recognition actually are the legal system: This would be rules about contracts and compensation and that the court can make rules itself in certain cases (e.g. in case law when there is no precedent). As such they would seem to be the content of the law as well. The rule of recognition is that those within the system must recognise these rules and that ultimately the court and legal officials create the law. So the source of law is the legal system itself as opposed, for instance, to morality as the source of law. This is also to define the law in terms of it's being a system of rules as opposed to being a system of obedience and punishment or orders and threats. It does, therefore, lead us to look at the nature of the rules and commitment and why they differ from moral rules.

Hart thought that a society must accept primary rules if it is to survive. These primary rules are restrictions on violence, theft and deception. Doubt about the scope of these rules leads to the rules of recognition, or the written law. A sophisticated legal system does seem to be a set of rules rather than a matter of, say, Austin's notion of obedience and punishment: We would find such descriptions of systems barbaric. Perhaps Hart's definition of the legal system is correct but it is certainly open to question and is much argued about. Whether or not it is correct it has led to questions in jurisprudence of greater complexity than those raised by the obedience/ punishment model. See for instance Hart's Postscript: Essays on the Postscript to the Concept of Law edited by Jules Coleman.

To define the law in terms of its being based on our moral norms might help us understand the legal system too, if we followed Dworkin rather than Hart. We could proceed by trying to discover what our moral norms are and whether they are soundly based and then go on to assess whether laws and actions of the courts correctly reflect our norms. This would lead to an understanding of how rules map a possible source.

The role of something as specific as Hart's rule of recognition where this is acceptance of the legal system by its officials in itself doesn't have much of a role in furthering understanding as far as I can see. But in describing the legal system as a system of rules and, as such, reasons for action, further analysis of these concepts is called for. Also that Hart's description or that his overall concept of the law is taken as having a basic source in social conventions both allows competing theories to arise and a further analysis of whether rules are conventions. All theories give rise to dispute and analysis.

As far as furthering understanding of how the legal systems operate, it would seem to me that studying the law of legal systems themselves is the first principle of advancement.

Rachel Browne


Hart in his great text The Concept of Law emphasises the role of rules in any adequate understanding of the nature of law and legal systems. He suggests law is a union of primary and secondary rules. Indeed the move from a pre-legal set up to a legal one is captured by the fact that in the pre-legal set up individual behaviour is guided by primary rules whereas in the legal set up behaviour is guided by primary and secondary rules. Secondary rules allow the overcoming of inevitable problems that arise as a society becomes more complex. Among secondary rules are rules of adjudication and change but absolutely fundamental is the rule of recognition. The rule of recognition is that by reference to which the validity of a rule as law is established and by reference to which legal systems can be identified. A rule is a valid law if and only if it can be traced back the relevant rule of recognition. Laws are laws of a given legal system if they are all valid by reference to the same rule of recognition.

The great debate between (say) Hart and Dworkin in part is a debate about whether an adequate understanding of law demands a rule of recognition or whether among the materials of law are materials that enjoy full legal significance despite not having a pedigree owing anything to a rule of recognition. If Dworkin is right and law is an irredeemably moral enterprise then at least issues to do with rule of recognition are more complicated that a simple reading of Hart's seminal work might suggest. You should read Hart's postscript to the 2nd edition of The Concept of Law.

Ian Gregory

back


Alana asked:

Are you the real you or are you an image of you?

How about this one: suppose that you could take someone (while they're alive and conscious), strap them into a machine which could scan their brain as completely as you want (down to the electrons or whatever), and project an image of that scan, real-time, three-dimensionally, into the air in, say, another room. Ok? Now... is that image conscious? Why or why not? Well, the classical answer is that it can't be (aside from the science of scanning,etc.) because there's no internal causation involved in any of its processes. You see? The image of one neuron doesn't cause the image of another neuron to fire, or whatever. But then one must ask... so what? If the processes are the same, even as images, why isn't the image conscious? What is causation, that it should "cause" consciousness? Haha, nice one, right? I don't know the answer to this one... I'm just throwing it out to you to chew on for a while. So in answer to your question... maybe it doesn't matter, really...? Or...?

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Chloe and Joey asked:

Do non-cognitive interpretations of religious language create more problems then they solve?

For this answer I have so far looked at the doctrine of analogy by St. Aquinas as it does not use past experience and it is used to make a statement/ assertion, but I only know of this one variation of a non-cognitive language and I need more so I can answer the above question with as much background knowledge of non-cognitive language as possible.

The traditional view has it that to say that an indicative sentence has a non-cognitive function is not to say anything but to show or express something. So there is a prima facie tension in saying that a non-cognitivist can make an assertion.

Perhaps the best and most well-known background to non-cognitivism about religious language stems from A.J.Ayer's famous book Language, Truth and Logic. Strictly speaking the non-cognitivist holds that when we utter an indicative sentence containing religious terms such as 'God exists' we are not making an assertion or expressing a proposition. That is to say we are not saying that some state of affairs exists which makes the statement or proposition true or false. Ayer's motivation for this is because there is no way that we can verify the statement or proposition. Ayer also went on to claim that the meaning of a proposition resided in its method of verification. This caused almost everyone to start pointing out how any statement of verificationism could not be verified (and hence could not really be a genuine statement/assertion).

Whilst verificationism has come and gone the motivation for non-cognitivism about certain forms of discourse such as religious discourse and ethical discourse has remained. The problem for non-cognitivists has always been to say what the meaning of the indicative sentence consists in.

This is typically an anathema to religious Christian converts but not always. A branch of the Christians who follow Don Cupitt calling themselves 'The Sea of Faith' actually hold that religious language does not function to state facts but instead functions to express emotions and values. This approach rejects what most people profess to believe and thus requires mass self-delusion amongst religious converts about what they believe they are doing when they use language. Many critics of this approach comment that it is supported by people who like dressing up in traditional christian costumes and preaching or telling traditional christian stories but who lack any real conviction that God exists.

The latter development is to collapse the distinction between cognitivism and non-cognitivism and claim that it is impossible to give a theory of meaning for language. This view is influenced by Wittgenstein's later writings and his followers.

Try Ayer first. Then read some of his critics such as Church. You could then try searching for Crispin Wright's "The verification theory another puncture another patch" which was a journal article (but i have forgotten which) but he is difficult to read so leave it till last.

Cupitt is easy to read and gives an historical overview of the non-cognitivist tradition and motivations for taking this view from a more continental perspective. Try his works in chronological order.

Julian Bennett

back


Zero asked:

Compare and contrast the Socratic conception of the soul with that of the atman in the Bhagavad Gita and the self of the Tao Te Ching. Are these similar or different?

I've been looking for questions of this kind for a long time, I don't Know about Socrates so I will be speaking of the atman and the tao only.

Atman in Hinduism is the real self of someone. 'I' In Hinduism is not my body, nor my shape, nor even my thoughts and personality, there is something in me that is far deeper, this is the true self, that doesn't change in my reincarnations. This is the atman. The Brahman is the universal self. If the atman expresses the innermost depth of me, the Brahman does the same for all being.

And in the most mystical of all Hindu traditions, The advaita Vedanta, a golden rule is well known stating that 'Atman = Brahman'. This means that My true innermost essence is the true innermost essence of the whole universe, that the universe of opposites, or plurality, of pain and strife, is only an illusion 'Maya' as a result for the ignorance 'Advida' of reality. The ultimate wisdom in advaita Vedanta is the Atman/ Brahman realization, experiencing the atman, that is the Brahman.

It is to be noted that this realization is not intellectual. You don't gain the ultimate wisdom if you'd shout 'I am the Atman and this is the Brahman, my essence is the essence of all that is' you have to 'EXPERIENCE' this. Just like mirage, if you'd say to yourself 'This is an illusion' you will still see water in the desert. When one practically realizes the atman/Brahman non-duality, all dualities and pluralities in the world will fall, thus the world itself will fall and the duality between himself and the world will fall,

Taoism, offers some metaphysical stuff as well, the Tao, roughly translated as the way is the ultimate origin of all that is. From within the Tao, both yin and yang arise. Yin and yang are pairs of opposites that interact forming the whole world. This is exactly what Rudolf Otto stated, "Black does not cease to be black, nor white white. But black is white and white is black. The opposites coincide without ceasing to be what they are in themselves." This is a logical paradox, but lets bring in mind all this Taoist metaphysics (and the advaita Vedanta metaphysics as well) was constructed upon mystical states of consciousness, and mental thoughts and emotions are quite often paradoxical, you may love and hate a person at the same time, also, a mystic feels all things are one, although still seeing them in a plural manner.

Hindus expressed their thoughts in the atman/Brahman non-duality. Lao tzu expressed them in the yin and yang both opposites flowing from within and into the one, the Tao.

Unsurprisingly, there are quite a handful of other words that express the same thing that the Tao and the atman express. We have Meister Eckhart's desert, the Gnostic Pleroma, the one of Plotinus, The natura naturans of Spinoza, the Platonic 'good', and maybe also Hegel's Absolute.

Walter T. Stace, A philosopher who I think was unfairly ignored by the philosophical society, spent quite an effort convincing people that religions are paths to the same goal, his books Religion and the modern mind, Mysticism and philosophy and The teachings of the mystics are indeed recommended if you are looking for a serious study of this stuff.

I'd be quite glad to share opinions with anyone regarding such mystical issues.

Arthur Brown

back


D-ster asked:

Can good exist without evil? or is evil a necessary condition to distinguish good from evil?

So tell me, what is "good"? Is it feeling good? If so, then clearly you can feel good without, say, feeling bad (or indeed without ever feeling bad; surely, for example, sugar tastes sweet, and you enjoy that, whether you can taste anything else). Is it performing a good deed, like, say, saving someone from drowning, or giving someone money? Well, again, you can do this without knowing about "evil", or doing something evil, right? Is it something like generally and abstractly deciding to help others? If so I still don't see why there needs to be evil to somehow make us aware that we're doing something desirable, something that should be done. Is it knowing that we're doing "good"? Well... you might be able to argue this one, but I think you'd have to push it. Surely we are aware of having choices, always, and that there are better and worse ones, in a variety of ways. And the better ones, in, for example, modes of helping others will simply be "good", in my opinion.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Ray asked:

Are you a brain in a vat? Does it matter?

Am I a brain in a vat? Impossible to prove either way. Does it matter? Depends on how you mean the question. In terms of my day-to-day doings, no, it doesn't matter. How could it, if I don't actually know one way or the other? I would still behave in the same way and would perceive everything around me in the same way.

My year 11 students have been looking at this question and found the discussion in Stephen Law's Philosophy Gym interesting. The film 'The Matrix' also takes this as its basic premiss.

Lyn Renwood


In 'The Matrix' the question is raised whether it 'matters' whether I am a brain in a vat (or, rather, a body in a vat) but the film doesn't give the answer. It asks, 'Would you take the red pill or the blue pill'? Take the red pill, wake up to reality and fight for the revolution, or take the blue pill and forget that you were ever asked to make the decision.

Would I still bother to post these questions and answers, if I suspected that I was a body in a vat? Yes, because the activity would still be what I believe it to be — human subjects conversing about philosophy. Would I still bother to keep fit? Yes, because that has important practical consequences for me in my virtual world.

But if I had the choice to take the red pill and discover the awful truth or take the blue pill and continue living a contented lie? In my answer to Dian in the early days of Ask a Philosopher (Answers 5 23) I wrote "I would take the red pill, without hesitation. As a philosopher, I have to say that." Why? Because the philosopher's ultimate concern is with 'the truth' — at any price.

However, as Ray's question shows, there is a third possible alternative. Take the red pill, discover how bad things really are (a world turned into a post-apocalyptic hell) then ask to be put back in the vat but NOT have your memories erased.

Geoffrey Klempner


I thought it would be worth mentioning an alternative response to this question because it is rarely represented on these answer pages and this gives the impression that philosophers are all in agreement over the impossibility of knowing whether we are brains in vats. This alternative response comes from the tradition in philosophy which questions the assumption that fallible knowledge is impossible.

The first response to this question would be to look at the context in which it is asked. For instance a philosophy student may ask the teacher 'am I a brain in a vat?' to which the answer could very plausibly be 'No' (given that you are unlikely to have a brain in a vat asking such questions in your philosophy class). On the other hand you could say along with the other philosophers on this list 'I don't know'. Although I think that it would strike most people as a decidedly odd thing to say. In the same way if someone asked you whether you were awake or not and you said 'I don't know' it would cause some puzzlement.

The philosopher who holds that they don't know whether someone in their class is a brain in a vat or not is assuming that they cannot know what it is possible for them to be mistaken about.

They are relying on their experiences being a reliable guide to what exists and yet they are aware that it is possible for their experiences to be systematically deceiving them. On this view I cannot know anything because knowledge has to be infallible.

The alternative view to the above is to say I can know things without being infallible and to point to how the term 'know' is actually used in everyday life (where claims do not require infallibility). According to this view the source of puzzlement is due to the philosopher taking terms out of their ordinary context where they have a use and placing them in another context where they cease to function.

There is no easy way to settle this question over what you can know. However as an indicator of which position to adopt you could try the following test to see what your intuitions tell you is the more plausible.

Do your intuitions tell you that you can tell the difference between a brain in a vat and a person?

or,

Do your intuitions tell you that you cannot know something unless it is impossible for you to be mistaken about it?

As to the second part of the question 'does it matter' — Well ask yourself whether you would trade places with a brain in a vat. If your answer is no then ask what reasons you would not trade places with a brain in a vat. This will indicate what sort of factors 'matter'.

Julian Bennett

back


Paul asked:

Hypothetical question on present evolutionary theories.

1. Would all present theories of evolution be at risk if NASA embarked on a genesis project? or if some of Earth's plant seeds were released into outer space?

2. Everything on Earth is directly or indirectly involved in a reproduction cycle. So why should space be any different?

1) There would be absolutely no effect on the "theory" of evolution (if you want call it that; that's the common term for most scientific bodies of work, because they haven't been absolutely proven... which nothing empirical can be. The "theory" of relativity, to take just one example, is probably less certain than the "theory" of evolution). Why should there be? DNA would still be DNA, subject to mutation, etc., etc.

2) Yessss... depending on what you mean, I guess. First, you must be referring to life on earth rather than just everything, and second, I'm not quite sure what you mean by "involved". Living things pretty much have to reproduce, because otherwise, given accidents, entropy, etc., they'd eventually be killed or die. So the ones that didn't aren't around any more. Is that what you mean?

As for "space"... I assume you mean something like "creatures living in other places in the galaxy" or something like that, right? And, given my reasoning above, sure, why not?

Now, what's the point? Are you asking whether hypothetical creatures on other planets evolved? Hey, why not? Evolution isn't something mystical or weird or whatever, it's just a consequence of noise in a genetic system giving rise, occasionally, to superior genes. Like the classic example of putting 100 monkeys in a room, typing away madly... and sooner or later typing out the works of Shakespeare. Except for one thing. Every time a monkey types out a sensible sentence, that gets saved, while the garbage gets thrown out. So the sensible sentences accumulate. Ok? Well... DNA has lots more than 100 thingies fiddling with it at any given time, and it's been a looong time, as in billions of years, that it's been fiddled with. So a lot of sensible sentences have accumulated. What makes them accumulate? Come on, you can see the answer to that... they're read out into various chemicals or structures or whatever, and the bad ones kill the organism, the good ones keep it going.

Steven Ravett Brown


No. 1: Not at all. Your idea of evolution seems in need of sharpening. What is `evolution?` It is a common mistake to think of evolution as something that `happens`. But in fact it's a human concept, an observer's history of the adaptation and proliferation of life forms on Earth. If life were to arise anywhere else in the universe, the same struggle for adaptation would commence; but to the degree that conditions on another planet might differ, the history would run another course. That's all.

No. 2: Keep asking. When you find the answer, line up for a Nobel!

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Abdulhamid asked:

Does God really exist??

We have to begin by agreeing upon a definition of divinity. I will take the liberty of assuming that you have in mind a monotheism, that you envisage divinity in terms of a single omniscient omnipotent universe-creating entity.

I happen to believe that there is no such entity. My atheism is motivated primarily by Ockam's Razor Principle, whose basic claim is that the best explanation for any puzzle or phenomenon is almost always the one involving the least complexity.

Regarding God (assuming I can refer successfully to a non-existent!), a universe with a God is more complex than a universe without one. So the Razor Principle, at least this application of it, invites us to believe that there is no God.

Nevertheless, this is not a knockdown proof that there is no God; more an argument that, other things being equal, reason constrains us to believe that there is no God.

Two counter-arguments spring to mind. The first of these is that nothing can self-create, therefore there must be a God, if only to supply this lack in the case of the universe as a whole. The problem with this line of argument is that, notoriously, it carries over to God him/herself. Theologians tend to be wary of the idea of an infinite regress of metacreators.

Secondly, St Anselm's Ontological Argument:

1. We can conceive of a God (see above), one of whose attributes is perfection. 2. An existing entity is more perfect than a merely conceptual one. 3. Therefore God exists.

Very tricky. People are still arguing about it a thousand years later. What it's saying is that perfection implies necessary existence. Personally, I think that if perfection is understood that way, it follows that we can't conceive of a godless universe. But this is absurd. I certainly can conceive of a godless universe. So I turn the whole argument, rather question-beggingly I admit, on its head. Instead it becomes a sort of Reverse Ontological Argument:

1 We can conceive of a godless universe 2 If God was perfect there could be no godless universe 3 Therefore there is no God, at least not one with perfection as one of its attributes in St Anselm's sense.

Of course, it's quite in order to believe that although reason constrains you not to believe in God, nevertheless you have faith in his/her existence. The reason/faith distinction has a venerable pedigree, and there is simply no intellectual basis on which an atheist can question a theist's faith. Nevertheless, I really don't think there is a God!

Richard Craven

back


Shen asked:

Who are the philosophers who define killing? Or, are there any philosophies regarding killing?

As far as I know philosophers don't define killing. Perhaps they think we know what it means and surely we do.

There are philosophies about the difference between killing animals and killing humans and there are philosophical issues about euthanasia. As to killing animals, our preciousness has led us to disguise this in the term 'culling'. Euthanasia is probably a euphemism for killing too. Maybe we have to kill to survive and have to perform mercy killings out of compassion but don't like to admit to it as 'killing', because that shows us how brutal we can be. Although I'm not sure euthanasia is brutal if it is supposed to be merciful. The idea of humans killing is something we skim over. We don't like to look at it much as it shows how appalling we are. In war 'deaths' are spoken of. No mention of 'killings' no mention that someone actually DID it.

In analytical philosophy, killing normally figures in the problem of a sum: Should we kill the one to save the many? This is getting even further from the brutal truth of killing. And who ever has this problem? Surely we can consider morality without looking at abstract problems that don't actually arise.

This being said, killing has been spoken of by Levinas (deceased continental philosopher) and Raimond Gaita (current analytical philosopher) and in the same vein. Killing is described as something we cannot do to another person. To kill another person requires that we don't perceive them as such. If we could see the humanity we couldn't do it. I think this idea comes from Socrates. It would follow that the further away an animal is to us the more killing is possible. We wouldn't be able to kill our pets as we know them as our family. A mercy killing is all that we could perform.

So why are we so squeamish that we have to use the word 'culling' when it comes to animals who are not pets? And why use 'deaths' rather than 'killings' in the case of war?

I'm sorry I don't have any philosophers to lead you to, but there are lots of questions that you can consider yourself.

Rachel Browne

back


Tataiat asked:

What is the difference between "Epoche" and "Reduction" in Husserl's Phenomenology?

Yes, this can be confusing at first. I don't want to go into the whole background here... for a nice introduction you can look through: Ihde, D. (1977). Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction. New York, NY, G. P. Putnam's Sons. Take a look at my answers to Trent also. I'm just going to skim through this rather complex issue very quickly.

But basically they are two very different things. The epoche is the first step in getting around the Cartesian doubt: what can we be certain of, and why can't we have certainty about the world. Husserl sort of cuts the Gordian knot here by simply having one suspend belief in the world and, in that mind-set, looking at all experiences as leveled, so to speak, on that dimension. So there is no "privileging" of "real-world" experiences; everything is equal, and we don't even bring Cartesian doubt into the picture.

But we still want certainty, and there's the problem of particulars, for one thing: things keep changing. So how do we get to apodictic, absolute thingies, "essences"? Well, we go through the second step, the reduction. This consists of varying what we experience (read Ihde on the techniques here), and "extracting", so to speak, the essence, the unchanging core (or, from another point of view, apprehending the essence which spontaneously appears, as a result of "abstraction" — of some sort; Husserl is totally unclear on this — from the particulars).

And so we have, first, eliminated the question of the world vs. the "mental" with the epoche, and second, found, in all our experiences, those which are essential, certain, apprehended without doubt: apodictic. You see? The end, problem solved. Haha, according to Husserl, anyway. As you might expect there are just a few people who have problems with all this, including me. But until you can wade through some of the Logical Investigations and the Ideen, you simply do not have the background to read the critiques of Husserl.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


David asked:

How do I know that what I perceive as the color red is the same color that you perceive as being red?

There are a couple of ways of approaching an answer to this question, depending on just how the question was intended — as a question about knowledge, or as a question about perception.

You know that you are using the label "red" correctly if you have adequate evidentiary justification for a belief that you are calling "red" the same suite of things in world that others call "red". This is the process of learning what the symbol "red" means. And it is the process of learning the English language.

To know more specifically that you are labelling as "red" the same things that I label as "red", you need to compare your list of "red" things with my list of "red" things. If the two lists correspond sufficiently, then we are both using the label in a similar manner. The match between our respective lists of "red" things need not be exact. It merely needs to be sufficiently similar to avoid confusion in most cases.

To know that you are perceiving the color red the same way that I do is a separate question. And you may be surprised to find that it is largely irrelevant. It makes absolutely no difference to anyone (other than a scientist curious about that specific aspect of perception) whether we each perceive red in the same way or not. One of us could be color blind, or wearing color transposing glasses. Or it may be natural for "red" things to appear differently to each perceiver. Makes no difference. All that matters is that we each respectively call "red" (roughly) the same things in the world.

It is only if we find different things in the world that we each label as "red" that we can explore the differences in how we perceive "red". And aside from those clear cases of color blindness, we will almost always find that such differences in our respective lists of "red" things is due to a difference in our vocabularies. My wife, for example, has a much richer vocabulary of "red-like" color names (crimson, raspberry, candy cane, garnet, rose, wine, etc.). So I label as "red" many more things in the world than she does. Does she perceive "red" differently? Doesn't make any difference. And barring more scientific investigation with specific light frequencies, there is no way to tell.

Stuart Burns


This is actually still a hotly debated question. The short answer, in my very strong opinion, is that you don't. But there are various caveats to this, aside from the several schools that will claim I'm simply wrong. The first caveat is that if you mean something like: could I be seeing green when you see red, and vice-versa, then you've got problems because of various asymmetries in the color absorption patterns of our retinas and the way we process color in the cortex. If you look at some of Palmer's work, you'll see detailed arguments to this effect (e.g.: Palmer, S. E. (1999). Vision science: photons to phenomenology. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.). There are only certain color substitutions that will preserve the symmetries in the "color wheel" of color relationships that humans see. So if you stick to known colors you might be able to make a very restricted claim of this sort, but that's about all.

But if you're asking whether when you see red you're seeing something that I cannot experience at all, because in the same circumstances I see (i.e., have the conscious experience of) a completely different color, call it "bred", then we're in another area entirely. Then all the human color relationships can be preserved, and all the physical characteristics; the only difference is in our experiences of color, and mine and yours are simply different across the board. Then we're stuck (and note that I'm still giving you my viewpoint on this), at this point in our knowledge of the brain and of consciousness. This is an aspect of what's termed the "hard problem", i.e., how to know what's going on experientially for other people, to put it roughly. You can see that there will be no practical differences, as far as we can tell (and zowie, if there was one, whoever found it would win the Nobel) between us. I'd still cross at bgreen lights, while you'd cross at green lights; I'd drink borange juice while you'd drink orange juice.

If you want to be absolutely blown away by all the debate around this question, go here: http://ling.ucsc.edu/~chalmers/online.html and look for stuff on the "hard problem".

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Ine asked:

Can a person decide about an other person if he's guilty or not?

Certainly: but whether the decision is right or wrong is quite another thing. Although I have never in my life entered a court of law, other than to view the furniture or discuss its history, I have always been critical of the events taking place therein. The number of innocent people sent to prison or the gallows over the years is incredible, and these are only the ones we know about! It always seems to me that in court proceedings the issue is not whether the alleged wrong-doer is guilty or not guilty, but which barrister produces the more convincing argument! These arguments are presented to a jury, the members of which are chosen at random from the general public, (although the term random could be in question, considering the parameters obtaining in the range of choice). Whether we like it or not, a juror is no different to any other person when it comes to making snap decisions based on preconceived ideas of what a guilty or innocent person may look like, or how they may behave under interrogation.

Looking at the question from a philosophical angle, unless the perpetrator of crime has been caught red-handed, then all judgements in court are subject to false interpretation. Courts present examples of the differing views of 'empiricists' and 'rationalists'. Empiricists might claim that participants in a trial would have to be present at the scene of the crime when it was actually perpetrated to make a true judgement, they claim that all knowledge is derived through the senses. The witnesses they rely on in court could be good liars, or have misinterpreted what they witnessed, or they could have been got at. Rationalists, on the other hand, may argue that judgements can be made by reason and intuition from the evidence provided. Ask yourself which of the two options you would choose if you were an innocent person whose life depended on the verdict of the jury!!

Most of us are prone to making judgements about people almost everyday of our lives, no doubt we often condemn the innocent as guilty.

John Brandon

back


Anthony asked:

Philosophy is all in the mind of the individual. One does not go to school to learn about how to be a philosopher, one goes to study how others used their own ability. One cannot learn how to do philosophy; One just does. One can learn about others thoughts and then build on the idea.

I am a freshman art student and iowa state university in the US...just found this website while trying to find some answers.

Philosophy, as I see it, starts with appreciating and understanding the arguments of the great thinkers of the past and present.

Are you going to come up with all the issues on your own? Going it alone, might you not be an amateur? For all I know you might be a genius, but it doesn't really show in your question.

In England we study one subject for three years to get a degree and I felt that even after three years of the study of philosophy there was room for improvement and had to go on to a graduate course. For a BA you learn to understand the issues and write philosophy and then you go on and learn to think, more confidently, for yourself.

You can't criticise from outside because you don't know what you are criticising.

If you were to go on a philosophy degree course, you would see that there is plenty to learn.

At London University it was said that English Literature students were always in a dream world in contrast to Philosophy students who were always highly anxious because they were in a constant state of feeling that they didn't understand.

I don't know why people denigrate philosophy. After philosophy I studied law as a post-graduate and that is much easier than philosophy. Revising for law exams you get bored and go to bed early, in my experience, but you still pass. Philosophy, on the other hand, is really hard work and you stay up into the early morning before exams.

Don't know what you have read. If you are an art student and haven't read Sartre's trilogy, Roads to Freedom, which is literature, then this might start to get you interested in his philosophy, and you can move on from there.

Otherwise, get the Complete Works of Aristotle and see what you think. It is really amazing.

Rachel Browne


I want to question two assumptions in your question.

Firstly, philosophy is not all in the mind of the individual, as your later comment on learning about the thoughts of others indicates. Philosophy is in the public, intersubjective space between people. It is a communal activity par excellence. Only derivatively can it take place in an individual's mind.

Secondly, one does have to learn how to be a philosopher, and we learn that, too, in the same shared intellectual space. We are not born with intellectual ability (although we are born with its underpinnings) — we must develop intellectually through engagement with others. We become philosophers by taking part — at first, very hesitantly and poorly, later more confidently and skillfully — in philosophical inquiry with others. [I point out that this is not restricted to philosophy, but applies to all disciplines — indeed, it applies to being a person at all.]

Tim Sprod

back


Dennis asked:

I am a school principal. I teach some education courses at a local college. I've been assigned a new class, Philosophical Basis of Education. I always try to make my course very relevant to my students, whether they are under-grads/ student teachers or teachers in a grad program. The new class is made up of present teachers who aspire to become administrators. Do you have any suggestions on how to tie in philosophies/ philosophers into present issues in education?. How can I relate administrative responsibilities such as curriculum, budget, supervision of instruction, special programs, et al, to historical figures and "isms" in philosophy? I'm looking for a creative twist on teaching this content.

I've been frustrated in not really being able to answer this... but the problem is this: first, you ask how to tie philosophy into "present issues" in education. Well, that's pretty do-able, from Plato through Aristotle through Dewey, and so forth... there are a reasonable number of philosophers writing about education. But then you want to know about administrative details: budgets and philosophy? Supervision of instruction and philosophy? Like it or not, philosophers usually aren't too concerned with budgets and details of supervision. None I know of, anyway; and it seems from the lack of answers here that I'm not alone.

Here's one sort of off-the-wall suggestion: try looking at Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral Politics. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, and his "nurturing parent" vs. "strict parent" metaphors. That might give you ideas about styles for some of the above things.

Steven Ravett Brown


I'm sorry to have taken so long to getting around to answering this question, which I find very interesting. I am afraid that I can't offer you a direct link to the historical figures (philosophers), but I would take a different tack in any case. I think that a review of the history of ideas is a great way to kill the study of philosophy, unless the students are already fired up with philosophical enthusiasm.

Here's the approach I would take. Look at the issues you mention and then search for the underlying big questions. Indeed, ask your students to discover the big questions that they find underlying these issues. Then enter a dialogue to try to find some answers — of-course, you would need to be prepared with some possible lines of inquiry and some ideas to inject into the discussion. From this, a link to philosophers and "isms" may follow.

Let me give a few examples. Curriculum: What criteria should we use for deciding which subjects need to be taught in schools? Ought we to teach solely from what the children are interested in now (child centered), or should we be equipping them with knowledge and skills they will need in the future (knowledge centered/inoculation theory of education)? Or should it be a mixture? What is the best balance between learning the knowledge of the past and preparing for the challenges of the future?

Supervision of instruction: What is the relationship between the knowledge/abilities we wish to convey and the pedagogical techniques we use? What is the relationship between content and process? Is good teaching a universal approach (i.e. we just have to find best practice and then get all teachers to teach in that way), or is good teaching something that depends on the individual teacher, and may differ from person to person and context to context?

Special programs: Does the provision of special programs clash with the concept of equality (= equal treatment)? Or is it entailed by the concept of equality (= equalization of abilities)? Even if unequal treatment is justified by the concept of equality, what criteria can we use to decide the relative allocation of resources?

In other words, start with the sorts of questions that administrators (or at least, reflective administrators) ask themselves. These are the questions these people will have to (or ought to have to) grapple with when they are doing their future job, and you are showing them how they can harness philosophical thinking and insights to do that job better.

Tim Sprod

back


Jess asked:

Do we have a mind in addition to our brains? If not then how do we explain conscious thoughts?

The answer to your first question depends, of course, of just what you conceive "mind" to be. Some people (philosophers included) conceive "mind" to be some sort of non-material "spirit" that animates the human animal. In which case, naturally, the answer to your question would be "yes". Others are more materialistic, and consider that all there is is the brain, so the answer to your question would be "no".

Me, however, I consider the "mind" to be the product of the brain in action. Somewhat akin to the majesty of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony being the product of an orchestra in action. Materially, all that exists is the orchestra. But the majestic harmony produced can be regarded (and studied) as something entirely different.

As to your second question, I would highly recommend Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett. I found it an eminently readable and very entertaining exploration of your very question. I feel sure you will enjoy it.

Stuart Burns


Bearing in mind that we call many things by names of which we do not know what they are — for example, God, but Mind will do as well — it's a pretty tall order to give a positive response. However, a very simple argument is that several hundred thousand species on earth possess a brain, but only humans seem to command a mind in addition. In my view, this is a perfectly conclusive basis from which to argue for a mind as an autonomous agency. This need not imply that it's a thing — in fact, it is also pretty conclusively established that the mind is not a physical structure, but a process by which the brain self-organizes its internal dynamics. How it achieves this self-organisation is a million-dollar question; and the only clue we seem to have to date is the complexity of signalling required for thought processes and the like, as compared to the routine of somatic functionality. There are, of course, hundreds of books and papers available for you to chase up this issue; but the worst you could do is to plunge head first into this wasp's nest. This area is the more contentious because we know so little that can be called factual. So you find books like Dennett's popular Consciousness Explained, which doesn't explain consciousness at all, but only his toy model of a pretty weird mechanical contraption he calls a "Joycean machine", or Crick's Astonishing Hypothesis, which simply gets stuck on visual perception and moves no further; or Eccles Evolution of the Brain, which after presenting all the latest findings goes back to Descartes to offer a replacement for the pineal gland; and so on and so forth. If you want a sane perspective aimed at the ordinary reader, I suggest you consult Gerald Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire and/ or Walter Freeman's How Brains make up their Mind. Then you can make up your own mind on what you want to believe; but at least you'll be informed on what we know — from the horse's mouth.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Demarcus asked:

What the world may be like if we do not protect the environment and what will it be like if we do?

The environment does not need protecting, Demarcus. It's we who need to protect ourselves from ourselves and our careless and greedy `management` of the planet's resources, biological and fossil. If we don't protect the environment we simply impair the conditions under which human life is possible (not mentioning comfortable). An environment without humans would repair itself. That's the grim truth.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Kate asked:

What is eudaimonia?

Go to this site: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ (which is a marvelous source of info in general), then go to "Classics" in the left-hand bar; then to "Other Tools AND Lexica" in the bar; then to "Dictionary Entry Lookup"; then put "eudaimonia" into the "Find" box. This is an absolutely stunning resource, as you will see.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Danni asked:

Do you think that heaven is just an interim state, a place where our souls are stored much like a filing system until they are ready to be transferred to a different body? Also do you think that our souls are fully cleansed once they enter a new body or do they retain parts of old memories and former selves and that is why certain people can remember things about the past and of past people even though they might know nothing about them at all? Is the idea of life after death a coherent concept or is it something we use to comfort the sick and dying?

Ok... why don't you read a guy named Philip Jose Farmer. He's a science fiction writer, and is fascinated by questions like these, and attempts to create scenarios which answer them reasonably coherently; much more coherently, in my opinion, than do conventional religions. Try the Riverworld series; try Inside Outside and Night of Light.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Matthew asked:

Does behaviour reveal the 'mind'?

Can you think of anything else we have to rely on, given that we're not telepathic?

Steven Ravett Brown


In philosophy the view known as Behaviourism reduces the mind to behaviour. It doesn't say that behaviour reveals the mind; it says the mind equals behaviour, in the sense that the meaning of any mental state term (such as "fear" or "pain") is the public behaviour associated with that term. This means that I do not have a special first-person access to my mental states. They are not internal states that I "perceive" through introspection or subjective, direct experiences. In fact, you could correct me when I say "I'm afraid of spiders" by pointing out that I never scream or run away when I see one.

I think most people would agree that behaviourism goes too far. However, we might wish to maintain that appropriate behaviour is relevant to the meaning of at least some mental states. An alternative theory, Functionalism, retains behaviour as the output, when it defines the mind in terms of functional descriptions. Both Behaviourism and Functionalism accept that there are internal processes involved but they maintain that these are not relevant to the meaning of the terms.

One of the problems that gave rise to Behaviourism was the problem of how we could ever learn the meaning, or the applicability, of mental state terms if they are purely private phenomena. This is a problem associated with the later philosophy of Wittgenstein.

The most famous Behaviourist philosophy was Gilbert Ryle, a professor at Oxford university in the 1940s and 50s. In response to your question, Matthew, he would have said that you were making a "category mistake": the mind is not the sort of thing that can be revealed. It's not the mechanism behind the behaviour (the soul or the brain). But Ryle's theory, in my view, could not cope with the kind of mental experience that seems to be most like private,internal perception, such as visualising something in your "mind's eye". Nevertheless, his book The Concept of MInd is worth reading.

Graham Nutbrown


Unfortunately our concepts of behaviour and mind have suffered pretty severe damage by Skinnerism and associated doctrines through the middle of the last century, and I would say we're not yet fully recovered: your very question is proof of it. But inasmuch as a worm's behaviour reveals nothing we would call 'mind', it is hard to maintain that human behaviour should. On the contrary, I'm inclined to state, as dogmatically as any behaviourist, that most of our behaviour in day to day life is pretty much the result of rote and habit and of semi-automatic navigation. When "exceptional" behaviour occurs, such as premeditated murder, you might get a little closer to the mind, but only in consideration that such an act requires a certain amount of planning.

Accordingly I would respond that the mind is revealed only in those departments of our behaviour where we perform acts which go beyond our animal capacities: thinking and speaking; designing and planning; making poetry and music; doing science and philosophy; and so on. But these are not what we commonly mean when we speak of "behaviour" without any adjectival condition. And thus my answer to your question is "no": for when you read a line of poetry, what you detect in there might be the work of a mind, but certainly nothing that could be brought under the classification of "behaviour".

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Elia asked:

Demonstrate how Democrats and Republicans might disagree on how to understand some aspect of American society using inference to the best explanation.

This is my (somewhat cynical) view:

'There's no such thing as love, there's only hurt and selfishness, and the pain that goes along with it.'

Can this really be rationally criticised, in the face of human 'love' being reduced to a mere biological and physiological mechanism? Or would any criticism of this view be merely an emotive (but irrational) reaction?

Isn't the conception of 'true love' merely a myth, a 'figment of the imagination', a nice but ultimately misleading concept? Note that the question isn't restricted to sexual love, or 'eros', love (in other forms) has strong religious connotations ("God is love", "Love God with your whole soul, and your neighbour as yourself").

If we can rationally say that God does not exist, can it be equally rational to say that love has no real existence, either?

If that 'grand feeling' of love (for God, the world, and fellow humans) is nothing more than a pathetic physiological state of arousal brought on by base chemical reactions in the brain and body, which evolved in order to lull humans into acting in the interest of others to promote the survival of their species, doesn't that imply that is not so grand at all, just a somewhat pleasant 'feelgood' illusion?

Can a truly rational person really avoid such a cynical conclusion, other than by succumbing to that same emotion which is expressly designed to delude the mind by overriding reason and logic?

I'd appreciate any contributions on this issue!

Given that we have the concept of love which is quite contrary to hurt and selfishness and pain, then this isn't a possible reduction. This isn't cynical but conceptually false. Love simply isn't about hurt, selfishness and pain.

The biological and physiological descriptions are already reductive descriptions of love. They are descriptions of the non-emotional. But love is consciously engaging with the love object.

I don't think we can consciously engage lovingly with God, but could be wrong about this. It just isn't what I think love is.

Why are you going on about rationality? What is that? According to Kant we can logically argue for God and against, so no-one comes out wiser. That we can argue logically for the existence of God doesn't mean it is rational to do so, or sound and sensible. For sure, it doesn't seem sound and sensible to say that love doesn't exist.

Surely we are more sophisticated than all that 'survival and evolution thing'.

Reason and logic figure large in philosophy, but not in ordinary life. And I don't think it is a matter of chemical reactions in brain and body that have led me to stay with my husband for 20 years, for instance. From my point of view (!) it is conscious experience, and not all rational at that. I have two dogs I'm allergic to and chemical reactions and rationality (whatever that is) would lead me to get rid of them, but I love them because of the individuals they are. That can't be reduced to anything. And there is no larger principle.

There is no truly rational person. If you think you find one, run.

Rachel Browne

back


Ashley asked:

Through time, there have been at least hundreds of thousands of UFO sightings. Do you think that even with the most proof, that the majority of these "sightings" are the real thing?

First, go here: http://www.csicop.org/si/; then go here: http://www.skeptics.com.au/journal/journal.htm; take a look around for a while.

Then read these:

Schick, T., Jr. and L. Vaughn (1995). How to think about weird things: critical thinking for a new age. Mountain View, CA, Mayfield Publishing Company.

Shermer, M. (1997). Why people believe weird things: pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York, W. H. Freeman and Co.

Young, A. W. (2000). "Wondrous Strange: The Neuropsychology of Abnormal Beliefs." Mind and Language 15(1): 47-73.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Breann asked:

I've learned so much about all the different kinds of philosophers but never have I come across one that believes in a little bit of everything. Is it possible that the determinists have some things right, the skeptics have some things right, and the rationalists have some things right, and what were are searching for, in fact, is the middle ground in which all theses ideas cross to form the absolute truth. Is it possible that unless you can take the small truths from each one and combine them to form a new thought process, that we may never reach truth at all?

You might be interested that one of the great philosophers put forward the same thought. Leibniz in one of his letters once wrote that in his reading, he always learnt something; and the more he observed the cantankerousness of authors in respect of each other, the more he realised that where they agreed all were probably right, but where they disputed with each other, all were probably wrong. Take this pronouncement with the grain of salt which is intended. So there is one philosopher who qualifies for your category of one who accepted a little bit of everything. I'm inclined to agree with you and him as well. I'm sure that all philosophers have their ways in which they hit on a little bit of the truth, each according to the shape of their mind.

However, there is a problem with the other assumption you're putting forth. One can't make a philosophy from such bits and pieces. While you can learn from them, the most important aspect to understand is that the truth is not in the bits, but the bits are in the truth. And although such great thinkers as Aristotle and Confucius advocated what they called "The Golden Mean" as the most probable way to approach the truth, I think they were really talking about the way to achieve happiness and personal contentment, not the Truth with a capital 'T'. In fact Nietzsche once said (I believe he was right in this) that the Truth is so elusive that only those who dared to approach it in the most extreme fashion had any chance of actually touching it. So again you are right in saying that we may never actually reach it. Leibniz is probably a very good instance of this: because in spite of his acknowledgement above, he then went on to develop a philosophy of his own which is one of those 'extreme' paths to the truth that few people have been prepared to follow to the end.

You probably have heard it said many times that the Truth, for instance about ourselves, is usually a bitter pill to swallow and that's why we resist it with all our might. This is an aspect to ponder. How true! How hard it is to face up to ourselves, how hard we defend our own views and opinion and dig our heels in when someone points out that we may be wrong about the beliefs we cherish most. You might indeed say that this striving for the most bitter truths we must discover within ourselves is the real beginning of a Philosophy of Truth, and this is one reason why thinkers who were obsessed by it, such as Nietzsche, were loners, exaggerating everything, crying Wolf non-stop and eventually snapping over. Truth is a dangerous thing!

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Sarah asked:

Do we exist?

You know, people keep asking this, and philosophers here keep replying:

YES, BECAUSE HOW COULD WE DOUBT WHETHER WE EXIST IF WE DIDN'T EXIST??

Now, at least, instead of answering in the future, I'll just refer to this answer page.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Lisa asked:

Where can I find out about St. Thomas Aquinas' view on faith and reason, his metaphysics, theory of knowledge, ethics, political theory?

Imagine Koko the gorilla were able to read print and was browsing the list of questions. She then comes upon the present 'question'. She reads through it, curious to find out...what? Read through it yourself. Or, not. If I had my preferences, I would not even bother to write it. You'll see why, I hope, once you read it.

All that follows is a question, yet not a question. I prefer the latter: it is not a question, it is living. But, some will want to answer it, so I write it. Perhaps it could be translated for a Koko. Perhaps a Koko would want to answer it.

"I prefer traipsing in the woods to philosophy. Good stuff. Following wild rivers. Sleeping to the sound of creeks. I love rivers. The clear ones. Sleeping high in the trees, or near the ground. All two minutes of sleep I get each night, I enjoy. To watch the animals. One does not need to be rational. Not in the end.

"That is where God is."

Humans are an anomaly. We know of none like us, in the concrete sense, although the SETI program hopes. Only for want are we ever compelled to ask the 'big' questions (I speak for myself, anyway). I don't think animals do. I wonder what we could ask Koko about that? Would she understand the question? This would be worthwhile field work in philosophy. Ok, so I'll ask the question. Would Koko understand that I have already asked it? Did you?

Are animals able to understand the idea of God?

Would Koko realize what it would mean to us if she understood?

It is not a question. At least not a pointed one. Not for me. But, answer it if you wish. Did I really have to spell it out for you? No, it is not a question. Not at all. It is bigger than that. It's an answer.

What is the question, really? This, I think, Koko would understand.

You may not like my answer, especially when you read what I want to say first. Beware of shallow, sentimental denials of what is extraordinary about humans in order to preach a 'back to nature' doctrine that is altogether unsustainable — not just in terms of philosophy, but as a result of the evolutionary passage. Note in particular that I said 'extraordinary' in place of the 'anomaly' of your question. Humans are not removed from nature; we have simply been endowed with a power which (on the whole) we do not understand, for which no user manual has been written, which in consequence we tend to mismanage and for which philosophy tries, as best it can within its own human limitations, to make amends.

In the last analysis, we are so much a part of nature that if we carry on as we have in (say) the last 200 years, the worst that will happen is the removal of homo sapiens from the scene: there are anthropologists and evolutionists who promote the view that we represent an overspecialised branch of the chimpanzee genus. It may be true. But that's no excuse to shut our eyes to the problems which this overspecialisation creates for us. Consider that Koko herself is such an 'anomaly': she too, is far too overdeveloped for her own good, too big, too cumbersome, too reliant on an exceptional and probably short-lived congenial habitat (regarded on the geological time scale). Above all, she does not have enough intelligence to defend herself against the dangers which threaten her survival if the earth's climate or environment changes rapidly. As a species, apes are not much older than humans.

But I'm not going to overstate the case for 'brains'. After all, I've already put the 'contra' case, which is of elementary simplicity. We either make the grade or we fail. Stuffing around with nuclear technology and plundering the earth of its hoard of fossil fuel is a fine way of running the gauntlet. But this problem is not cured by pretending that we have the option of dismantling civilisation and joining Koko in her 'natural' estate. That is the way to accepting defeat, to pretending that we aren't what we are. Since I can't go on to write a book about this, I'll put my case in a nutshell, which is: that the only way for humans is to recognise (which we have not yet) that our intelligence is not merely a gift which enables us to overcome the innumerable adversities and inconveniences which attend to creature life, especially for creature as big as ourselves, but also confers on us the responsibility to put those achievements into the context of the evolutionary stream from which they emerged.

The theory of evolution has, to my mind, no other rationale. That's why I'm dismayed about the idiotic tinkering with genes that is presently going on. Instead of spending huge sums on this and other projects based on idle curiosity, we should be looking at ourselves as products of evolution and find some way of organising our societies which is not destructive. But try selling this to industry, commerce and military! This is where the problem lies. We are still, according to our instincts and genetic inheritance, fundamentally arboreal simians — greedy, wasteful, aggressive, competitive, dominated by our lusts. We have made very little effort to understand this very unambiguous legacy from our physical past.

To return, however, to your initial statement. I recently read a book by Rudolf Pannwitz who wrote something like: We keep asking the same questions of Nature: may its time to consider that the answers have been given, moreover that they have always been the same. Maybe with our ingrained prejudices, we simply have not listened properly, our own inner voice deafening the voice of Nature. And so we keep going over the old ground, time and again. Unfortunately I don't know if the book has been translated into English, but you can chase it up on your own. Its title in German is Der Aufbau der Natur, which reads in English, "The Order (Structure/Architecture) of Nature". With some luck you might find a congenial philosophy in there.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Maria asked:

How can the philosophy of Buddhism such as The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path be compared to other schools of philosophical thought?

For example, how can the whole concept of the eightfold path be related to Plato's or Aristotle's philosophies?

I'll tell you what, take a look at the Introduction and first and second chapters in the following: Solomon, R.C., and C.W. Martin. Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through Classical Sources. Fourth ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

They do a good introductory job of relating a variety of religions and philosophies.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Andrew asked:

Is time an object or is it a perspective?

More likely the latter. Consider that time is not an observable: it is something we inject into our experience. Even Newton, who believed that time was absolute, could do no more than put a 't' into his equations to stand for time. Unlike gravity, which, though we don't know what it is, can at least be observed, time cannot.

Nevertheless there are many ingenious theories, both philosophical and scientific, which attempt somehow to account for time. The two which loom largest on our horizons are Kant's (time is an a priori matrix of experience) and Einstein (time is a coordinate in the spacetime manifold). In this context, there is an interesting book by Adolf Grunbaum you might like to chase up: Philosophical Principles of Time and Space, where the author tries to give a causal theory of time.

A radically divergent point of view was proposed centuries ago by Leibniz. You can read about it in the Correspondence between Leibniz and Clarke, which was underestimated for the whole time that Newton's theories held sway. Today the temper is changing; Leibniz is on the way to being rehabilitated. His idea is that time does not exist at all, and again there is a fascinating book on this subject by Julian Barbour, The End of Time. Barbour goes into considerable detail from a physicist's point of view (relativity, quantum theory etc.), but was deeply influenced by Leibniz in the elaboration of his theory.

For what its' worth, however, I might give you an analogy of the kind of thing that Leibniz might have used in illustration of his theory: a highly intuitive explanation. Movies are made up of frames, each of which is one picture. In order for us to see this reel as a movie and be deluded into accepting it as 'flowing' in real time, it must be run at 24 frames per second. Accordingly each of the frames is 1/24th second of time: a time capsule. Now take the reel and cut it up into all its single frames, then shuffle them like a pack of cards. You now have (say) 10,000 stills, each of them a 'slice' of time in the adventure that was, previously, a movie. You can pick up one frame and in a vague sort of way (by memory) make an effort to recall where, roughly, it fitted into the sequence. But the point is, of course, that no time is 'in' or 'flowing through' this picture. The picture just represents an instant, 1/24th second, of some story. So do all the others. Therefore the only way to look at each still in the context of time is to say that each belongs somewhere in that whole story when contemplated as a story: that each of these stills is, somehow, related to all the others by the idea of a sequence in which, properly, they should be arranged. Now you understand from this that you could say the same of the photos in your picture album. They too are stills from a life; and they too are related to an underlying idea of sequence. But there is no 'object' which you might call time at their back — strictly regarded, there is only the idea of sequence which relies on your memory to assure you that, somehow, each can be placed in a particular order in relation to every other.

Now let's say that your photos, or the frames in the movie, were numbered so that you can put them in their exact order. What have you achieved? The recreation of time? Hardly! Time does not begin to 'flow' just because you put the pics in order, does it? In fact, not even Kant's a priori experience of time can be said to apply to this. Putting them in order is nothing other than correlating the pictures or stills. And this, precisely is Leibniz's (and Barbour's) theory of time. That there is nothing like 'real' time; it is just an order of succession which we, using a perceptual technique which evolution bestowed on us, impose on this succession. Ultimately, for each moment that we live, our perception does the same thing with the 'snapshots' of which our adventures are comprised: our brain interprets these as a continuum, and hence we have the impression of a flow where in fact there is none. Real life impressions are probably much faster than 1/24 second, but still finite. The impression of a time flow is created by all these 'moments' being instantaneously sorted into memory slots. And now you need nothing more than to acknowledge that all of us gradually lose that sense of time as our memories age, that sooner or later our memory loses its hold on the exact sequence. And once you realise this, you may come to acceptance that Leibniz and Barbour are probably right: for the more our memories fade, the more these 'movies' become 'stills'. In memory the 'sense of time' disappears and becomes a mere order of succession, which we remember as best we can. Where did time disappear to?

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Jo asked:

I'm interested in the issues about value judgements and objectivity in social research and would be grateful if you could give me some ideas as to where I might be able to find any useful information regarding this subject.

Well this isn't really my field, but here are a couple of refs. The articles by Lynn and Shaffer might be the most interesting to you.

Evans, J. St. B. T. Bias in Human Reasoning: Causes and Consequences. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd., 1989.

Harrison, L.E., and S.P. Huntington, eds. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Lynn, F. M. "The Interplay of Science and Values in Assessing and Regulating Environmental Risks." Science Technology and Human Values 11, no. 1, Spring (1986): 40-50. Shaffer, N.E. "Understanding Bias in Scientific Practice." Paper presented at the Philosophy of Science Association: proceedings of the biennial meeting 1996.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


JKS asked:

My question revolves around the relationship between science and philosophy. Lately, I have heard a few professional philosophers endorse a view that insists upon philosophy's subservience to science. I have heard some of them maintain not only that there are there "no distinctly philosophical issues," but also that all philosophical ideas should line up with the scientific worldview. Now, to me, this seems unbelievable. Has philosophy become so devalued in our time that its existence depends on the findings of science? I would like to hear some philosophers share their thoughts concerning this matter.

An interesting question. In my opinion philosophy could never be subservient to science, seeing that science is actually a branch of materialist philosophy. Something scientists are unlikely to accept. In the past there was no division of science from philosophy, both were contained in what was generally known as "natural science", a mish-mash of religion, basic science and philosophy; religion being the dominant facet. Scientific theories were not accepted unless they conformed to religious bias.

To say that science plays no part in philosophical debate would be ridiculous, and we must bear in mind that there is a branch of philosophy devoted specifically to science. Overall, philosophy spends a great deal of its time and energy in debating

and often criticizing the alleged discoveries and theories of science. Also, philosophy has the advantage of being able to bring to bear moral and ethical issues on many of the proposals of science. Particularly where science is being influenced by politics and big business.

Science receives more popularity than other branches of philosophy because of its involvement and influence on the everyday lives of the general public. Most people can recognise the influence of science in medicine, food, transport, leisure activities, military concerns, etc., but most would rapidly find an excuse to be elsewhere if you tried to talk to them about metaphysics, dualism, existentialism, monism, cause and effect, time and space, etc.. This leads to the mistaken view in society that science is concerned with the 'real' world, whilst philosophy is seen as little more than some sort of contemplative exercise concerned with abstractions and alternative theories. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Since ancient times there has been a progressive selection of items called 'scientific subjects' from the great collection of philosophical and religious knowledge, so that most people have become indoctrinated to believe that biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy are the domains of science, and any comments by philosophers pertinent to these 'spin-offs' is commonly regarded as an intrusion. However, to the more discerning the fallacy in this thinking is readily revealed. The act of science trying to divorce itself from philosophy leads to the creation of the most intricate complexities. Do the theories that attempt to explain the origins of the universe and the origins of life belong to science, philosophy or religion? The study of cause and effect — science or philosophy? The study of cosmology — science or philosophy? The study of mind — science or philosophy? The study of 'matter' — science or philosophy? The study of language — science or philosophy? I am sure you can think of others.

By believing it can divorce itself from philosophy science has made a rod for its own back, it has cocooned itself firmly in the 'matter myth' and left itself no alternative in the search for "what there is". Philosophy on the other hand has a far more open-minded approach and is willing to consider and analyse all possibilities. Even philosophers themselves often overlook the fact that philosophy is a great analyser of both the received concepts and personal concepts that make up our world.

Much as science attempts to portray itself as the 'Oracle', and that what it does not know now will eventually be revealed, much of its boasted knowledge is based on theories and not fact. The 'Big Bang', 'Relativity' and 'Evolution' are all theories. Science has a dreadful record of putting forward theories as facts long before the evidence is available; a case of here is a fact, the evidence will come later. Having preconceived the evidence required to prove the alleged fact, they then proceed to establish the case on the most flimsy evidence. Evolutionists are still seeking the "missing link" over one hundred years after the theory was proposed, no one seems prepared to admit that what we see in nature is straight forward adaptation to a changing environment. If the change is gradual enough the life form involved will adapt to meet the conditions, if the change is too fast the life form in question becomes extinct, it does not mutate into something else. Evidence of this appears throughout the Geological record.

I have pointed out why I believe philosophy can never be subservient to science. I could say much more, being educated as a scientist as well as a philosopher, however, before it appears that I have set out to denigrate science, let me say that I have aimed at alleged weaknesses in science simply for the purpose of dealing with this question. The world, as we all appreciate, owes a great deal to science, but discussing this would be answering another question. By the way, philosophers and religious leaders also make mistakes and come to premature conclusions.

John Brandon


This is a question that deserves a serious and well-considered answer. Unfortunately, it also demands a book length answer; but while a few books have been written on the subject, it is perhaps inevitable that their authors are prejudiced in favour of one or the other and argue accordingly. Objectivity in this subject is hard to come by. Let me, however, within the scope of five minutes' reading, outline a perspective for you from which you might draw some conclusions of your own.

A couple of thousand years ago, a branch of philosophy sprang up known as the Sceptics. In its extreme form, known as 'Pyrrhonian Scepticism', these thinkers produced rules and criteria for philosophical investigation which put in doubt almost everything you could possibly claim to know. Human cognition, they claimed, was so limited that you put up almost any argument you pleased and they would shoot it down in flames. This kind of scepticism is not dead; it undergoes resurgence every so often, and one might well claim Hume as its most prominent recent expositor. For anyone who accepts these premises, 'there are no distinctly philosophical issues left'.

Now for the converse. Just before 1900, the German scientist and philosopher of science, Ernst Haeckel, pronounced in the full flush of his unbounded confidence in the efficacy of scientific explanation of the universe that barely a dozen scientific question were genuinely unresolved. He expected that within two or three generations the universe would be cleared of all its mysteries. Science would glory in the triumph of its success and the human race would settle down and die of boredom. Well, he didn't put that last thought forward, it is my addition. But you get the drift of it. Under this criterion, 'there were no distinctly scientific issues left'; once everything is discovered, what do you need science for?

Just recently, Stephen Jay Gould wrote a book (The Grandeur of Life) in which he sought to demonstrate that this dreaded dilemma was in fact waiting on our doorsteps. The gist of his argument is that we are living in an age where new discoveries are diminishing rapidly; we already know so much that we must knock at the door of ultimate particles to have anything new to ask of Nature at all. For everything else, discovery is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Discovery requires enormous expenditure (witness the genome project) for very little knowledge, and he expected this process to continue through to exhaustion.

Again, however, the diagnosis reads: 'There are no distinctly scientific issues left'. Rather, according to Gould, the remaining issues were technological. However he wrote, I believe, before chaos and complexity theories took off their nappies and started walking.

These three examples ought to tell you something about how much we really know. Next to nothing, in fact. Expect the unexpected. But to address the specific issues of philosophy in this context:

Philosophical issues are not measurable in scientific terms. What and whom you choose to believe is your decision. Scientists may on the whole prefer to cast their votes in favour of their colleagues in any confrontation with philosophy; and the prestige of science in our day its such that most ordinary people would do the same. But this says nothing about philosophy itself, nor about its issues. The truth is that distinctly philosophical issues have not been exhausted but pushed aside. Philosophy deals (for example in metaphysics) with such basic issues as life and death, beauty and love, justice and honour: are these issues really passé or is it not simply a (societal) prejudice that we prefer to glut ourselves on use-once-and-throw-away products, on instant gratification, on unreflective absorption of information via electronic media, on here-today-gone-tomorrow fads and gimmicks, on big noise, big pollution, devastation of resources, famines, non-stop wars, what have you? You can't be serious!

No-one could seriously maintain there no philosophical issues remaining. At the very bottom of the human presence on this planet you find a concept of value, a philosophical concept. Now science does not (cannot under its own terms) acknowledge this concept into its methodology, but the very fact of its existence is based on this philosophical concept. No value, no science. Ergo: remove philosophy and science becomes instantly meaningless. — Why bother with particles? For what possible purpose if not to affirm or dispute the philosophical conception of a fundamental particle? Why evolution? Just to satisfy an idle curiosity? No: because even against our most inane striving for a valueless science, it is the value we place on human life that makes us enquire about evolution: because we want and need to know what we are here for.

Thus the great danger facing us: that ignorance about philosophy serves to throw a cloak over this fundamental fact and depict for us a mere research project as the means and end of civilised existence. I regret to add that many philosophers have allowed themselves to be bulldozed into shame for being just philosophers, and now they rush around seeking niches for themselves where science can't reach, e.g. language philosophy and sundry other abstruse subterfuges. But this is not essentially philosophy: the agenda of philosophy is concerned with the fundamental facts of human life, all centred on the concept of value. Abandon it, and then ask yourself: why am I doing all this — all this science, working, holidaying, gambling, playing, studying, loving, marrying, procreating? And when you're through, the realisation might suddenly dawn on you that in all this there is some purpose. Maybe you don't know what it is, but then without philosophy, you haven't a hope in Hades of ever finding out.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Joel asked:

What does 'Phenomenology of Death' mean to you?

What does 'Freedom' mean to you?

I would question whether, strictly, there could be a phenomenology of death, that is of death as such, the essence of death, death itself rather than the secondary effects death has.

This is because I can know nothing about death, it is refractory to knowing, death as such cannot be represented in thought or consciousness or rather death as such exceeds any thoughts. Death itself is a pure question mark, a stumbling block that shows us the limits of our relation to the world. And yet at the same time it points us beyond those limits: Death shows me that existence is not my own, there is this 'something other' than I cannot grasp. The world is not just my world any longer, the fact of death shows me that something absolutely alien, foreign can invade the world, shattering whatever secure and comfortable hold (theoretical or otherwise) I thought I had, In this sense the supreme uncertainty and mysteriousness of death points me to the realization that reality is bigger than me, bigger but unknowable. (When we consider that phenomenology as a philosophical method is often criticised for being inescapably solipsistic, to have found a way out of the enclosure of my own consciousness at the very point where this consciousness comes to an end [literally] offers an interesting possibility for a re-examination of phenomenology.)

Of course it is not just my own death that concerns us; Other people also die. Here death is just as mysterious, but another aspect also reveals itself, the death of another person calls my freedom in to question, if the realization of my own death shows that the world is not my own the other person's death shows that my freedom is not my own. A dying person calls to us for help, for us to be there for her, not to let her die alone, to keep her company, to stop doing what ever it is we are doing and to be responsible, this is not just some theoretical hypothesis designed to justify some view, but I believe an everyday occurrence. It is there in the person's eyes, a silent and yet unmistakable appeal... According to Levinas (a philosopher who spent most of his time dealing with these issues) "The death of the other who dies affects me in my very identity as a responsible 'me' ". My freedom, my life, before the death of an Other, is at the disposal of the Other.

This may sound a little excessive to some, but remember we are dealing here with excessive subjects. Of course it may very rarely happen that we give up our time perhaps our life for another, maybe that is because in the face of the pure question mark of death we become to scared to look, and yet I am pretty sure than when we do encounter an other person's call for help the connection between death and freedom becomes apparent.

Brian Tee

back


Daniel asked:

This is from Daniel Flores and Mario Caballero. We're in high school here in Monterrey, Mexico, and we want to know an answer of this question:

Is there something at the edge of the universe?

and Matt asked:

Does the universe extend an infinite distance, or does it have to end somewhere? Or is it just all one big loop?

Suppose that you were a 2-dimensional being: you're flat, like a drawing on a piece of paper, ok? Just suppose that, all right? Now, suppose that you lived, not on the flat surface of a piece of paper, but on the surface of a huge sphere, a ball. Ok? You're on a teeny bit of that ball, and because you're flat, you can't look up off the ball. You can only look around on its surface, even though the ball, a sphere, is 3-dimensional. You don't see that, just the surface (there's an old book, called "Flatland", by a guy named Abbot, that you might try to get for a bit more on this). You can infer that it's a sphere, by taking various measurements... but you can't see it, because you're stuck on the surface. Are you with me? Now. You can look far off, but still on the surface of the ball, and things fade out... it's a big ball, and you can't see around it (otherwise you'd see the back of your 2-dimensional body)... it's just too big. You ask, "Is there something at the edge of the universe?"

Well, we are beings on the surface of a 4-dimensional sphere (actually there may be more than that... but we don't need to think about that to deal with this question). But since we're stuck on the surface, that surface, which is 3-dimensional, is all we see. We don't see into the 4th dimension to see it as a sphere, just as the flatties, above, don't see into the 3rd dimension from the surface of their sphere. We infer that it's 4-dimensional. So... is there something at the edge of the universe?

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Diana asked:

I am a doctorate nursing student at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I found your website through my journeys on the web. I have a question and I seem to be having some difficulty getting it answered. Perhaps you could answer this.

Where did the term "Positivism" come from, as in Comte's work and the later Logical Positivists? Is is synonomous with Empiricism?

I would really appreciate any insight you could shed on this matter. I am eager to find this out and share it with my Philosophy class.

There are two main stream of positivism, both with a somewhat unfortunate history. The first was actually inaugurated by Auguste Comte, who was a contemporary of Schopenhauer, Balzac, Byron. His philosophy comprised, roughly, an evolutionary argument for philosophy: the oldest and most primitive stage is theology, the second metaphysics and the third, last and pinnacle, science. His special scientific interest, remarkably, was sociology, from which he expected great things for the future of mankind. Now the term 'positive', by which he identified his philosophy, was intended to convey the notion that philosophy must take proper account of experience, and to this extent there is an unquestioned affinity to empiricism. The difference may be seen in the approach he preferred, which is essentially descriptive rather than conceptual or analytic. It would be nice to say something deep and meaningful about Comte now, but his philosophy never gained much of a foothold even in his native France.

The positivist movement was revived under changed auspices in the 1920s by Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap and a few like-minded thinkers, whose 'place of business' was Vienna, on which account they are collectively known as the 'Vienna Circle', even though they themselves preferred the designation 'Logical Positivists'. Their principles were rather more radical than Comte's and pretty aggressive too. They condemned all metaphysics as stupid and demanded that philosophy admit only propositions which can be incontrovertibly 'proved'. An outgrowth of this is verificationism, the idea that test and experiment, sufficiently repeated with similar results, yield philosophically acceptable propositions. This too, was an eminently optimistic philosophy; but unbeknownst to them, Hume had already disproved the tenets which they used for their foundation stone 200 years before the Viennese ever met.

An important issue arises out of 'positivism', pretty much the only genuine philosophical value that can still be attributed to it. It is the recognition that we humans cannot 'in principle' have positive knowledge. We can enjoy the positive aspects of our science for the fruits which it yields, but these are strictly 'subject to change without notice' at any moment. All theories have a 'use by' date written on them, except that we never know what that date is. The only positive logical certainties given to us are false theories. What has been proved false, is truly so. Coda: what has been said above has application to a critical appreciation of much of the verbiage produced these days in favour of science. Every time you read a sentence containing the word, 'Science has proved x', examine it for its contents: if the claim is for positive proof, you can safely dismiss it. This is especially the case in the field of medical science, where certain medicines may be pronounced 'safe' on the basis of experimentation, but I'm sure you are aware that every one of these carries the indispensable disclaimer. (I sometimes wonder how advertisers get away with claiming that 'science' has proved the efficacy of one brand of shampoo over another!).

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Stephen asked:

A friend once asked me if we can know whether or not our lives are actually real, or if we are merely living in a dream.

I replied that there must be some reality to our lives. Why? Because we are able to ask the question.

Surely if our lives were actually no more than a dream, we would not be able to suspect anything different. But, given that we are capable of asking this question, our consciousness must be sufficient enough for our life to be more than 'a mere dream'.

I'm now trying to work out if there are any flaws in this argument.

In addition, although people in their dreams at night (and while awake, for some people) often 'reality check' (i.e. pinch themselves) to determine if they are awake or asleep, surely to ask if their waking life is itself a dream makes little sense. The concept of 'dreaming' (to most people) is surely derived from reflecting on the dream state when awake (to contrast that state to their waking condition) — and unless the person is actually aware of a waking state in contrast to a dreaming state, there can be no conception of 'dreaming'. Hence, no 'dreaming' without a real life.

Thus, for a person to ask if their 'real life' is itself a dream seems like nonsense, as they have no 'higher reality' to compare it with. They would merely be using the analogy of dreaming (as contrasted with everyday life), and applying it to everyday life (as contrasted with "X" — but with no corresponding concept "X" at all).

My conclusion is that the question "Is everyday life just a dream?" is basically nonsense, and the answer to it (if it can actually have an answer) is thus necessarily false.

Are there any objections to this line of reasoning?

(Of course, it is another question entirely to ask whether or not you are dreaming right now. In theory, it is not possible to prove absolutely that you are not dreaming. In practice, however, most (sane) people can distinguish between waking reality and dreaming in general, it seems, except under the most unusual circumstances. It is also possible for people to learn how to dream lucidly, so they are aware they are dreaming when in a dream. Surely this would lower the probability that a person is actually dreaming without realising it. Philosophers seem to be far more concerned with the theoretical possibility, however — however improbable this may be).

On a related point, I once heard of a philosophy student who had a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental institution after hearing Descartes' "dreaming argument". He could no longer accept that anything is real anymore, and so his reality simply fell apart. Perhaps this subject should carry some form of 'health warning'? Just a suggestion.

I think your reasoning above is good. You have some good criticisms of the sceptics' claim that 'we are always dreaming.' The only point of criticism I would make is that you say that what the sceptic says is necessarily false and yet admit that the philosopher (who in this case is the philosophical sceptic I take it) is concerned with improbable theoretical possibility. Now if the sceptic is saying something that is theoretically possible then what they are saying cannot be necessarily false. That is, what the sceptic is saying cannot be logically impossible. What the sceptic is saying may be plain vanilla false though.

The sceptic may adjust the claim to 'we never know on any particular occasion whether we are dreaming or not.' However, I think you could argue a case for being able tell the difference on any particular occasion by using similar (everyday) considerations like the ones you mentioned above.

You note that the sceptic (philosophical sceptic that is as opposed to ordinary sceptic) is far more concerned with theoretical possibility however improbable that may be, than most. This is because the philosophical sceptic (Descartes was presenting the arguments of the philosophical sceptics in Meditation I) want to claim that knowledge requires 'infallible' beliefs. Thus if there is any room for the possibility of error then we cannot have knowledge. The ordinary sceptic claims, by contrast, that knowledge does not require infallible beliefs.

If you want to take your reasoning a little further you might consider whether there is a difference between what is possible and what makes sense to say. In considering what it makes sense to say you would need to look at Wittgenstein's works especially On Certainty. You might also like to consider whether things that make no sense to say i.e., are nonsense, are capable of being true or false.

Finally, there is a remote danger of insanity arising out of reading Descartes but not one that warrants a health warning. The best antidote to scepticism was found by David Hume — go out with your mates and enjoy yourselves.

Julian Bennett


Well, take a look at the "brain in a vat" argument:

Brueckner, A.L. "Brains in a Vat." The Journal of Philosophy 83, no. 3 (1986): 148-67.

Putnam, H. "Sense, Nonsense, and the Senses: An Inquiry into the Powers of the Human Mind." The Journal of Philosophy 91, no. 9 (1994): 445-517.

Then look at these:

Blakemore, S.-J., D.A. Oakley, and C. Frith. "Delusions of Alien Control in the Normal Brain." Neuropsychologia 41 (2003): 1058-67.

Spence, S.A. "Alien Control: From Phenomenology to Cognitive Neurobiology." Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 8, no. 2-3 (2001): 163-72.

There are dreams in which we are aware that we're dreaming. In addition, there are dreams in which we dream we are asleep. To put it explicitly, what you're touching on here is what is termed the "skeptical" argument in philosophy, and you might take a look at Descartes' Meditations on whether we know that there's a world out there. This is not exactly a question that philosophers have been unaware of, over the last few millennia, but Descartes probably was the first to really get people upset about it. There are many, many responses to Descartes. I'm not even going to give you references... there are literally libraries of stuff on this question. Just go look him up, read him, then keep going. Have fun!

Steven Ravett Brown


Your key argument looks suspiciously like the argument from polar concepts which enjoyed a brief spell of popularity among Oxford philosophers in the 50's.

The form of the argument is this:

The concept of X implies a contrast with the concept of Y. (The concept of dreaming implies a contrast with the concept of being awake.) Therefore, it is impossible that every case that occurs is in fact a case of X and not of Y.

Here's a counterexample to that argument. Suppose some clever counterfeiters have managed to pass a large number of counterfeit banknotes into circulation without detection. There is in fact no way of telling by looking at a bank note whether it is counterfeit or genuine. Over a period of time, the genuine notes go out of circulation until eventually all the bank notes in circulation are counterfeit.

What we can learn from this is that there is more to understanding the alternatives dreaming/ awake or counterfeit/ genuine than simply appreciating the polarity or contrast. Genuine bank notes are notes which have been printed and distributed by the government. That is a historical fact about each bank note, even if there is no way of deciding one way or the other by looking at the note itself. (Faced with the alarming situation I have described the government could decide to 'make' the counterfeit notes 'genuine' by an act of Parliament. But that would not alter the historical facts.)

Similarly (as Descartes believed) the fact that my present experience corresponds to an external, material reality is a fact about its ultimate source which cannot be discovered by looking at the character of the experience itself. There are arguments which one can use against this claim, but not the argument from polar concepts.

Geoffrey Klempner

back


David asked:

I just got finished watching a movie called 'Waking Life' where a young man while dreaming explores basic philosophical questions.

My question is this If you believe that by thinking you exist, then isn't it possible that a dream could actually exist? I mean couldn't a dream itself think and have dreams of its own? Is existence just a series of mutually accepted experiences?

This is an answer to David's question, and Stephen's question, above.

This is a common confusion of pretty ordinary facts. Dreams are not "real" in the sense presupposed by your question. We know pretty well where dreams come from and what role they play. In a nutshell, the hypothalamus is a kind of perpetually active "driver". While you're awake it happily purrs along, directing all the myriads of information generated by your sensory modalities to their proper destination, although on a busy day it can get pretty congested and cause the occasional hiccup in transmissions. Now you may be aware that complex electronic equipment is sometimes very costly to switch off and on again, so it's better just to keep it running nonstop. It' s like that with the hypothalamus. It must be kept "on" because it always has to be on the ready for emergencies. But when you're peacefully asleep, nothing much happen to keep it going, so the next best thing is to reach for bundles of information that can be piped through again just for the sake of piping it through. Hence dreams. (People in solitary confinement suffer hallucinations from the same cause.)

This is more or less the normal picture and one reason why most dreams are pretty nonsensical. The signals now feeding through the hypothalamus don't belong to any particular order of events; and when you sometimes get the feeling that you're running standing still, it is because the signals being sent to your muscles and your cortex are at loggerheads with each other: although the cortex produces running images, the legs can't move along. Exceptional circumstances may prevail, however, when you're still excited even though you've fallen asleep. Your memory may still be working and trying to access your waking brain while "you" are asleep. It is reliably establish that some people have solved (say) difficult mathematical problems in their sleep. But that's got nothing to do with dreaming per se. It's your memory transgressing union rules.

There's more to it yet, because at times the "excitement" I referred to can be long standing. Jung and Freud published interesting theories on this, but again neither of them (or any other psychologist) would wish to be read as promoting a separate reality for your dream life. And although I just admitted what apparently your movie proposed, nevertheless it is an exceptional state, a less than one in a million possibility. So if it came down to me buying a lottery ticket or trusting a dream to give me a Nobel Prize calibre inspiration, I think I would take the ticket.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Gonzalo asked:

I would like to know if you could comment on the influence, or, lack of, that Wittgenstein had on cognitive psychology. I am trying to pursue independent studies on philosophy and psychology and I thought that it would be interesting if there were a correlation between the two.

Undoubtedly there is, but aside from Dennett's clear and explicit indebtedness to Wittgenstein, that's quite a bit to unravel. I certainly recommend you check out: Dennett, D. C. Consciousness Explained. 1st ed. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1991, for the connection, which he mentions in the Appendix. But private language considerations aside (and I've got to say I don't agree with W's nor D's position on that), Wittgenstein's influence was huge but I believe rather indirect. Thus, his general abandonment of the analytic position espoused in the Tractatus reverberated throughout the community attempting to apply those techniques to analyzing the mental. AI would seem to be an exception, oddly, but Dennett took another tack, as I mentioned. Anyway, you might check these out:

Wittgenstein, L. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology. Vol. 1. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Vol. I. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Wittgenstein, L. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology. Vol. 2. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Vol. II. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

They make quite interesting reading, very Blue-and-Brown booklike.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Taneisha asked:

Are humans born with the tendency to be violent or are we born totally innocent of violent tendencies and our environments cause us to violent?

Unfortunately the truth is: we are born with a tendency to be violent. It is inscribed in our genes, for the very good reason that once upon a time, when these genes were fashioned, violent behaviour of a certain kind was a survival necessity and therefore part of our species profile. The conditions under which that behaviour was appropriate have long since disappeared, but the instincts which cause it remain as dormant triggers.

This is the evolutionary answer to your question. I happen to believe it is the only way to understand the depth of the problem. Psychology is a great help too, of course, but it doesn't and can't tackle the underlying aetiology, so no matter how much psychology you apply, you won't get to the bottom of it. To explain:

1. Species profile: Simian, arboreal.

We are primates. As such, we are related to the group of animals called simians, which also includes apes and monkeys. Arboreal means that our distant ancestors lived in the trees. Instincts generally reflect the needs imposed by a habitat. Accordingly monkeys, as arboreal creatures, have instincts formed to cope with that kind of life. For example, you might have also asked, why do we have stereoscopic vision? It relates to the same question, because it relates to the same genes and instincts. The answer is, that monkeys need such vision for the purpose of brachiation, swinging from tree to tree, sometimes in a great hurry. You need to be able to judge the whereabouts of the next branch very precisely or pay the penalty of a broken neck. This kind of vision is our legacy from the arboreal days.

I assume you know that evolution only ever builds up, never down. Somatic remnants of our simian days are too obvious to need stressing, including the stump of a monkey's tail we all retain at the base of our spine. Whatever changes occurred to our species profile since then — genetic, instinctual — is also additional. We are monkeys plus. Monkeys were Lemurs plus. And so on.

Monkeys live on the fruits of the trees. They live largely in trees and sleep there. Moreover they live as small communities. As such they developed excellent communication skills, including devices such as warning cries if a predator approached. Let me give you a characteristic vignette of what would be observed if a leopard looked like wanting to climb a tree to get its dinner. The monkeys would gang up and produce a lot of noise (crying, screeching, banging) hoping to frighten the aggressor away. They also know how to grab hold of loose branches and fling them at the animal. This is an instance of a well-developed instinct of 'pseudo violence'.

Monkeys do not have the 'tooth and claw' to defend themselves physically against predators (neither do we!). Their skills are primarily of the kind I have just described, although in addition of course they can hop quickly from one tree to another and scatter. But let's focus on the 'display, screeching and flinging'. It is a good 'show' and with a bit of luck a leopard might thus be discouraged from pursuing its prey, because being less intelligent than monkeys, it may not always 'see through' this harmless exhibitionism.

2. Human evolution: the descent

It is a fairly well accepted version of human evolution that we descended from the trees. In general, animals don't change their habitat voluntary; hence there must have been a strong compulsion on that group of monkeys whose lineage we still represent. We suppose the forested savannahs in Africa might have shrunk at some stage, and suddenly these groups found themselves having to adjust to a life in flatland, with many wrong instincts.

Let me leap over a lot of intervening eras; but roughly 2 million years ago, there were hominids still almost indistinguishable from monkeys and apes, and these would, as I said, still circulate the same or nearly the same genes as their distant arboreal cousins. As mentioned, any changes would have been plus. Thus hominids were distinguished by a larger and more complex brain.

One outcome of this, eventually, was a much greater resource of intelligence, in particular the skill to make implements, and among these (most noteworthy) weapons. Planned hunting is another benefit of complex brains, and the two go together. You can't hunt without weapons.

But you can also turn a lance at your neighbour. And thereby hangs the tale of real, lethal violence.

3. Instincts plus

One can easily live with the idea that a simian in high alarm, about to launch a noisy display-and-aggression show, would do so in a state of high emotion and amid a rush of adrenalin. Exactly how our bodies react to danger and unexpected situations. Hence there is no qualitative difference to this when it occurs intraspecifically. Monkeys fight among each other as we do. But we often do it with weapons (or we use our intelligence for even more insidious schemes for harming others such as economic deprivation). The difference to monkey behaviour is that weapons kill.

So there you have an answer, not complete, but enough to explain the basis of violence and why it is correct to identify it as innate. It boils down to an argument that our instincts to aggression were originally the self-protection mechanisms of an inadequately endowed species having to cope with dangerous predators; but the form this defence took is distinguishable from violent aggression only because monkey do not on the whole have the means of inflicting lethal violence. Whereas we, with our brains and still the same instincts, when 'turned on' to behave violently, have those means and use them, often directly contravening our own interests. But with animals, and hence with us, the body always has first priority. It takes more than just intelligence to avert a person bent on violent behaviour. In fact, if you consider how much of our thought and teaching and science we expend on containing our tendency to do violence, you can hardly doubt that it arises from instincts plus, of which the plus part did very little.

One last comment: Someone else asked recently about pollution, why we produce so much and seem so poorly equipped to dispose of it. Same reason. Arboreal creatures drop their garbage on the ground. There's plenty of fauna on site to recycle it. But we let our imaginations and invention dominate; we don't remember that the rubbish involved in our billions-of-tonnes worth of unwanted goods exceeds the capacity of the cartage firms on the ground and in the sea. So we have to take care of it ourselves. I think you might agree that so far we've shown ourselves pretty inept at the job.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


John asked:

What is the meaning of life? (seriously)

I believe this is a question that can be answered, without dodging or making excuses. The first step is to define meaning. I define meaning as precisely "the interpretation of something by an intelligence." Thus, the meaning of my life is precisely what I think it is plus what everyone I've met thinks it is. By understanding something, we give it meaning.

Unfortunately, this question is often usually asked with the intention of asking "what is the purpose of life?" This question does not have the same simple response.

So, you need to ask yourself the following things :

1) Do you believe in God? If so, everything changes. The meaning of your life continues to be how other people understand it, but there's the additional meaning given to your life by God.

2) Do you really mean what is the purpose of life? If so, you must look at other areas. Many people have proposed 'purposes'. Again, the religious crowd have a host of options to choose from here — everything from an explicit list of the things you should do in life through to just accepting life's inscrutable nature and accepting its rightness on faith.

3) Do you really mean what is the impact of my life? Again, this is a different question. Does Hitler's life have more meaning that your own? How about Einstein? How about Pope John Paul? Well, you could argue that in some respects Hitler's life does have more meaning — Hitler is understood at some level by many more people. Sure, it's a meaning pregnant with cruelty, unhappiness and psychological damage — but nonetheless many people have given significant thought to the matter.

Anyway, I hope these short comments help.

Tennessee Leeuwenburg


Your question is a very simple one, and a very common one — especially to those new to the subject of philosophy. In fact, in my own very limited experience, it is the question that most frequently starts an individual on the road to a deeper investigation into the various subjects of philosophy.

On further investigation, one will usually find that this very simple question is also a very complex one. In fact, one will quickly discover that one has to be more specific about just what one means by "meaning", "life", and "meaning of life". It turns out there are a number of ways to interpret this seemingly very simple question.

Here is a small sampling of the ways that I have found this question actually intended. By "What is the meaning of life?" do you mean:

i. What is "life"? In the sense of how or why is "life" different from "non-life"?
ii. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of life? In the sense of "why does life exist at all?
iii. What is the significance of life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? In the sense of does it matter to the rest of the Earth or the Universe whether there is life or not?
iv. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of the human species?
v. What is the significance of the existence of the human species (to the Earth or to the Universe)?
vi. What is the purpose (or function or intent) of my life? A much more specifically intended question usually posed by someone struggling to find some anchor to their daily struggles.
vii. What is the significance of my life (to the Earth or to the Universe)? Also a very specifically intended question posed by someone feeling overwhelmed by the apparently insignificant role allotted to the individual by "Science" (We each are one of six billion humans living on a tiny speck of dirt circling a run of the mill star at the outer edge of a run of the mill galaxy that is one of trillions in the Universe — how insignificant can you get?)

I am going to try to provide a brief answer to your question from the point of view of (vi) above. And along the way hopefully approach a response to some of the other possible interpretations of your question.

First, an important disclaimer. I am a realist/ materialist. I am not an idealist or a dualist. So my answer to your question will exclude any reference to religious or spiritual concepts. For answers from those perspectives, you will have to seek guidance from your friendly priest, minister, or spiritual advisor.

The first step in answering your question, is to acknowledge that you are a member of the species Homo sapiens. As such, you are a primate, a mammal, an animal, and a living organism with a 3 to 4 billion year evolutionary history behind you.

The second step is to acknowledge that the "thing" that has been evolving over the myriad of generations that have lived since the dawn of life on Earth, is the genetic code and not the individual. You, yourself, are but a bio-chemical machine. You were constructed by the fertilised cell that was the result of the union of your mother's ovum and your father's sperm. And you were constructed in accordance with the recipe encoded in your genes. You are a survival machine for the genes in your DNA. (I refer you to the works of Richard Dawkins for further argument on this point.)

That then, is your answer. The meaning of your life, your function, your purpose, the reason you exist, is to ensure that your genes get transmitted to the next generation.

This is a general principle of all life. So the general answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" is quite simply — for each individual organism to ensure that the genes that are encapsulated in each organism get transmitted to the next generation. Or, in a more general wording — the meaning of life is to ensure that life continues.

Many people will object to this answer, including many professional philosophers. But any alternative they offer to my answer will come either from their religious or spiritual premises (which I have specifically disavowed), or from out of thin air. As humans we are gifted with the ability to choose alternative goals in life. And you are free to pursue whatever ends tickle your fancy.

However, regardless of what other goals may be offered instead, if you are not successful at fulfilling this evolutionary meaning of your life, then your genetic codes (and their 3 to 4 billion years of ancestry) will vanish from the future. The future will be populated by individuals whose ancestors were successful at this evolutionary purpose.

Stuart Burns

back


Ayman asked:

What's the meaning of life? I mean...even I've lost the sense of life...it doesn't even have any sense. Please answer me back.

I have been thinking about this myself lately, it is a question that comes up on these pages a number of times and I have several attempts at answering it in the past. Here is my position to date: What's the meaning of life is the wrong question to ask. It's the wrong question to ask because it is based on a mistaken view of our life. The mistaken view says that our lives have a structure, a narrative, like that of a story or a film, that our lives have a beginning middle and end that we think has to make sense to have some direction or story arc to it, and in the same way that when we see a film or read a book that plays with this traditional narrative structure we think that the film makes no sense, when we look at our lives and see that the seemingly narrative structure as no focus we tend to ask what is the meaning of it all. If in fact our lives are not so structured then, we need to rethink what we are asking. The down side is that I don't know what these new questions are yet.

It seems to me that in our lives time has a more playful role, it stops and starts, loops around, reverses repeats, in other words it does not follow a simple straight trajectory. Our lives are much too complicated and intricate to ever be able to fit into any pigeonhole of meaning any one all embracing explanation. This is not to say that what we do is meaningless, just that if we change the way we view our lives we need then to change the question we ask about it, maybe if we pay more attention to the weird little time trips we go on we would find that these contain there own significance? Unfortunately this idea only occurred to me a few days ago I haven't had the time to explore the roles all these different times play!! But I'll let you know when I do.

Brian Tee

back


Cara asked:

Who was the philosopher who discussed the topic of wearing different "masks" for different occasions or for the people we are around?

Try these:

Goffman, E. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1975.

Goffman, E.. "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life." In Down to Earth Sociology: Introductory Readings, edited by J.M. Henslin, 113-23: Free Press, 2001.

Steven Ravett Brown


Nietzsche.

See esp. The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil.

Alya Diarova

back


Richard asked:

1. Is it logically possible to travel backward in time and live in a former era? why or why not?

2. Is it logically possible to make a robot (a mechanical device composed of inorganic materials) that can think, feel, and act like we do? Is it physically possible? why or why not?

3. In his book The bible and UFOs Larry Downing claims that the miraculous events recounted in the bible were actually caused by space aliens. is his claim as reasonable or more or less reasonable than the claim that god caused them? why or why not?

The answer to Questions No. 1 and 2 is 'no'. The answer to Question No. 3 is: science fiction is not science.

Let me pursue No. 3 first. God is not science fiction. It is a metaphysical concept. Whether or not you believe in it, is your business, but you might like to consider the following: There are four ontological proofs, at which various highly educated and sharp-witted thinkers have tried their hand, including Anselm, Descartes and Leibniz. Kant thought he disproved them all. Perhaps. But of the essence to Kant's disproof is the further recognition that certain matters of human cognition are simply not provable: there is room for doubt. For example, if such a concept as God is describable in a logically coherent form and (say) a computer program written with all possible variables does not hang up, then the concept is sound. Kant's disproof in effect boils down simply to stating what earlier philosophers had (maybe deliberately) overlooked: that a proof (or a computer programme) does not necessarily confer existence. Big difference.

So the belief in an all-powerful God as the source of our universe is not an irrational belief, just unfashionable. Some scientists like to put 'infallible' arguments abroad, and in particular all manner of proofs based on materialistic considerations, but these fall necessarily into the same bracket as Kant's disproof. You can't prove that God exists; but from the puny evidence we possess of how the universe actually functions, it is not possible to construct a waterproof argument for the contrary supposition. As Leibniz truly said: the necessary (logically unimpeachable) truths are so few you can count them on the fingers of your hands. Everything else is contingent. But anything you know only contingently is at best a reasonable assumption. Just as Kant said.

Now where does this leave Mr Downing? I would say in Fairy Land. I'm pretty well read in this kind of literature myself; it fascinates me. But when you close such a book, your brain should come back to life. The fact is that not a single shred of evidence has ever been produced, nor a single cogent argument ever been proposed, why any stories or artefacts from ancient days could not be explained by the presence on Earth of a higher civilisation of, say, the Sumerian type. Maybe Atlantis was real? I'd be willing to consider it. At least you don't have to go fossicking into outer space.

Question 1 is difficult; probably more difficult than most of us realise. We are so brainwashed these days by the copulation of light with time that we forget what kind of human artefact time actually is. Again: there is no incontestable proof that time exists. Photons may be emitted in a quantum experiment and observed to be travelling backwards in time. But this is theory: and in the theories which apply to this situation time is either 'renormalised' or the particle admitted to be more than one. Either way, you cannot hitch a ride. More importantly, the only logical argument for time travel ever produced that has any merit at all was Godel's. Einstein was horror-struck by it and repudiated without stopping to think. However, Godel's point was: in a universe where this is possible you would have to leave nearly all your current cosmological theories at home and most of the advanced scientific experiments we perform routinely nowadays wouldn't work.

You realise, I hope, that this is a huge domain, where everyone has different opinion. But I think everyone who argues for, if they were prodded really hard, would have to admit that, in the end, none of the knowledge we possess today permits time travel. It relies totally on extrapolations of unproved extensions of relativity and quantum cosmology. Indeed you ought, perhaps, to read Julian Barbour's book on The End of Time. He makes a good case that time is a fiction. Point blank.

Other than this, the same question is often asked and the Pathways contains a good database which you should check out. There's even a discussion by myself, where I produce more arguments against it, from a different perspective, in the middle of other people arguing for it. So a very democratic database, worth reading.

Finally No. 2. Keep asking for proof. Anyone who tells you 'yeah', shift the burden of proof onto their shoulders. Because there is a short answer. The only thinking+feeling+acting that occurs anywhere in the universe, as far as we know, is connected to biological fibres. There are good reasons for this stress on 'biological': feelings are obviously connected to nerve fibres; but in fact it is no different with thinking. So the whole idea of a robot with feeling+thinking+etc. is at bottom nothing more than a pretence: the 'Frankenstein syndrome', as I like to call it, humans fancying themselves at 'playing God'. It is also the pretence, not backed up by any sufficient scientific reason, that the products of thinking+feeling+etc. are portable, e.g. that you can take them, like the contents of your CD and copy them as data to another.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Leslie asked:

This has made me crazy trying to find the author . Can you help?

"Chance favors the prepared mind"

I am hoping to smuggle in two unrelated questions.

Question 1: This question is about logic: Since predicate logic is about individuals, why not simply treat modal terms as predicates such as Nx=is necessary, or Px=is possible, instead of creating a whole new predicate modal logic? (since a 'de re' reading of modal terms is appropriate when they are applied to individuals).

Question 2: Concerning David Lewises analysis of counterfactual conditionals: Is it possible to both utilize his analysis of counterfactual conditional without presupposing his realist view of possible worlds? More precisely, could you be an actualist or a possibilist and still use possible worlds as truth-grounders for counterfactual conditionals?

This is not the kind of stuff I'm usually interested in... but you got me intrigued. So, I'll give you some sort of off-the-cuff answers...

1) Take a look at this brief exposition: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/prop-attitude-reports/dere.html . It seems to indicate that this distinction is, while real, nonetheless a semantic one between different meanings of whatever term we are individuating (or abstracting). Given that, and the truth-value ambiguities mentioned in the article, one would desire, I would assume, rather than splitting this semantic distinction into two very different systems of logic, treating them as different cases of an underlying unity. Thus, modal logic.

2) Well, after glancing at Lewis, D. "Humean Supervenience Debugged." Mind 103, no. 412 (1994): 473-90, I must say that I don't understand your question. From what I see there, Lewis does not have a realist view of possible worlds at all. If I understand your terms correctly, Lewis himself is a "possibilist" and the truth of a counterfactual does not depend, for him, on possible worlds being real, but on the relationships of counterfactuals to the real world.

Steven Ravett Brown


When we make modal statements about individuals, we want to say things like, 'Napoleon was necessarily human' or 'Frege was possibly diabetic'. In other words, the modal necessity or possibility qualifies the predicate — 'human', 'diabetic' — not the object to which the predicate is applied. Your predicates 'Nx' and 'Px' seem to have a very narrow use. You can say things like 'Frege is a possible object' (an object which exists in some, but not all possible worlds) or '7 is a necessary object' (an object which exists in all possible worlds). But you can't use 'Nx' or 'Px' to express the statements I have made about Napoleon or Frege.

For example, the statement:

(Ex) (Fregex & diabeticx & Px)

says that there is an object x ('Ex' — in logic text books the 'E' is written backwards) such that x is Frege and x is diabetic and x is possible. But that is not what we wanted to say.

Regarding your second question, you're right that the formal structure of Lewises analysis of counterfactual conditionals in his book Counterfactuals (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1973) carries over to a theory which states, e.g. that possible worlds are just maximally consistent sets of sentences, rather than real worlds in their own space and time, as Lewis believes.

According to Lewis, the counterfactual conditional statement, 'If Gore had won the election, the USA would not have invaded Iraq', is analysed in the following way. (I won't use symbolism this time!):

a. Go to the possible world (or worlds) most similar to the actual world at the time when the winner of the American Presidential election was decided, where it is Gore and not Bush who wins the election. (In other words, imagine the smallest difference necessary to make Gore, not Bush win.)

b. In that world (or those worlds, if several worlds are equally similar) the USA does not invade Iraq.

The point of this is that we are not just explaining a way to decide whether or not to believe a given counterfactual statement. The aim is to explain what it is for a counterfactual statement to be true. What kind of fact are we asserting (or claiming to assert) when we assert a counterfactual statement? According to Lewis, we are stating a fact about how things are in other possible worlds.

If you are one of the class of philosophers of logic who refuse to understand this question about the truth conditions of counterfactual conditionals (because, these philosophers will say, counterfactual statements can't just "be true" or "be false" — they don't "state facts" in that sense) then there is no problem with thinking of possible worlds as just mental constructs or sets of sentences. (Lewis still thinks there is, but we needn't go into that here.)

However, there is a problem if you disbelieve in the reality of possible worlds, but still want to claim (as you seem to want to do) that counterfactual statements have truth conditions which can be analysed using Lewises method. The easiest way to see the problem is if you consider that if counterfactuals can be true, then there are, or ought to be many more counterfactual truths out there than there are sentences or sets of sentences — just as we believe that owing to the limits of language, there are many more truths out there than there are sentences to express them.

Geoffrey Klempner


Lewis says that modality operates over a possible world which is a different domain and Px, if it quantifies at all and remains predicate logic, only quantifies over this world. What is possible is what is not actually true in this world. A predicate is property which is true or false of an object. Predication doesn't express possibility. It is not always a real possibility in this world that an individual might have done something different in accordance with essence and potential. If de re truth is about potentiality and essence of individuals, this doesn't support cases of logical possibility. How would predicate logic say how I might have been a cat? I am not a cat and cat qualities cannot be predicated of me. It is against my essence and potential to be a cat, but this is something we often say to people who ill-treat cats, for example. It is certainly logically possible that I might be a different type of conscious being n and are we not talking logic here?

Also, what makes a counterfactual true is a comparison of different worlds in terms of closeness. So possibility is positing some other state of affairs than the true or false domain of the real world over which we actually predicate and so a distinction has to be made.

Rachel Browne

back


Jean asked:

Could we consider Epicureanism as a kind of "bourgeois" Buddhism? Could Epicureanism lighten the sufferings of an Sudanese farmer or of a mutilated Sierra Leonean?

You were saying about the sufferings of a Sudanese farmer and Sierra Leonese person. These people have obviously been exposed to great suffering and by that I mean pain.

Epicureanism is just saying the aim is to have happiness (a considered happiness however). Pain is the complete opposite of that.

Epicureanism can offer nothing to the man who is being mutilated except a possible path in a future when he not about to be exposed to pain. In fact it can lead to great despair when you realise the life of pleasure that you marked out is not open to you.

It is no different to any other idea that humans have come up with their history. What help is an idea when you are about to have pain inflicted on you. There are plenty examples to the opposite but these all require an element of faith. A love of democracy can override some pain levels and religion more but ultimately the human will collapse before great enough pain.

The answer to your question may be then it can offer no hope except in self-delusion. Religion though promises some epiphany beyond the way we exist. And in this way we have to believe and take the leap of faith that Kierkegaard talked about. To some degree there is a separation of mind and soul and this is shown in out of body experiences and near death experiences. We can leap with our soul yearning for the salvation and the help and love of God, but the mind is well and truly rooted into the body.

If the mind suffers enough then all that the soul has endeared itself to burns away. Unfortunately there is no way out of pain, we can delude our self in this moment that the next moment wont contain any pain if we this or that. But that is all that it is, a self-deception of the mind.

Perhaps I was a little too negative there and taking the volume to 35 and a idea can cross some levels of pain. But we cant ignore the fact that the mind is the most sensitive of our senses and anything such as great pain is all that we can know when it is with us. We just have to hope, I can advocate nothing else, I do believe in God.

As for what lies beyond this world I can't prove it one way or the other, the same way with god. no conscious effort on our part can prove it one way or another (god is another matter if he decides then we get to see the proof take for example Jesus).

I think Hamlet's speech in Hamlet sums it up a bit, but you can take more hope in the story of Jesus' passion.

In the garden he prays rigorously to avoid the cup of suffering that he is about to have. He then gets the strength from god that overcomes that. I speak from the outside I have never had that, but I said earlier you can only hope. But then the hope is really just looking forward to the same old [  ].

In that long ramble I said a lot but it did not come to much, the dice lay with the reader about were to take it. That's quite ironic taking the subject into consideration.

- Reply if you could. I hope I don't sound mad; its good to hear other people's points of view on the subject. People convey better what they mean in writing and you can ask your friends to write to you about just whatever you're thinking about.

Rudabaga

back


Tom asked:

Should the citizens of a country have to have an official passport to be able to roam the world freely?

It seems to me that a passport would destroy the notion of free travel, since it would burden one with the contingent label of 'being from ...' to the exclusion of everywhere else. This is a costly situation since then we are confronted with borders, inside's and outside's, interiors and exteriors. Travel, movement is then not a freedom, but a courtesy, granted or not by those who stand guard at these borders. Think back to the diversion between East and West Germany, or the road stops in Israel/ Palestine. With 'official' papers, passports, visas were citizens of a country able to roam freely? Is not this freedom a suspicious, curtailed freedom? It is a not very welcoming freedom, perhaps not a freedom at all but gratitude a favour done by those on the inside to those on the outside.

Derrida talks about Hospitality, an unconditional openness to whoever comes along. Of course this has risks we can never be sure just who will arrive at our door step, and yet this risk seems to be what is demanded by the ethical. Of course international movements of citizens is not merely an ethical matter, it is political and economic, yet the same demands apply. See Derrida's essay 'On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness'. Passports seem to grant freedoms, yet this is the illusion of freedoms; what passports serve is the continuation, enforcement and protection of boarders, of exclusion and segregation. Witness the world wide political minefield of asylum and refugee issues (a basic human right under the Universal Declaration of 1948). A true freedom to roam the world would have to see the elimination of passports and of borders, of courtesy giving way to hospitality.

Brian Tee

back


Alchymia asked:

What is the Philosopher's Stone?

Nice name you've got — is it a coincidence? The philosopher's stone is not a real stone (although some people thought is was), but a concept of the ultimate truth. At different times in human history, people had different ideas on what this concept ought to mean. The alchemists, for example, believed it related to the secret of human and cosmic harmony; and many thought that the Sun (the life giving star), being symbolised by gold, implied that this harmony was achievable through the transmutation of base substances into gold (a.k.a the philosopher's stone). Part of the same lore pertains to the 'elixir of life'. Now as Jung pointed out, this was really a philosophical concept, used in the purification rites of adepts on a purely symbolical level. The alchemists studied chemistry seriously because the substances and liquids of the body have an enormous influence not just on the body, but on the mind as well. But there were many simple souls around who took this chemical symbology literally.

In 'normal' philosophy, however, the expression is nothing more than a facon de parler, in the vein noted above. Thus, when Schopenhauer conceived his book on Will and Imagination, he announced in his Preface that he had found the philosopher's stone, meaning: the ultimate truth about human beings. The term is not used any more, of course, because we are so sceptical (not to say, cynical) today about such 'metaphysical' ideas. But then we go ahead and invent such surrogate metaphysical notions as the 'big bang', a philosopher's stone if ever there was one. And so heavy, you would need all the cranes on earth to carry it from place a to b — always providing you could find it (it's very, very small)!

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Sherry asked:

I often ponder questions, as many before me have done, and many will continue to do. However, when someone feels that they may have an idea or theory that is new, it may be assumed that it has been previously addressed as there are many minds thinking, and publishing (I do not want to use someone's ideas without permission). I do not know where to begin to see if my idea has any merit as my own, and I understand philosophy is generally built upon the theories of others, however I remain untrusting of explaining my idea to anyone else. It evolves around the probability and explanation of other planes of existence. I am not an expert, in fact just someone who enjoys philosophy as a choice over doing other things in my spare time. I know it is very complex, and I don't know how to approach this subject to investigate the merit of my ideas, or how to establish if my theory is my own, as I am writing a novel and would like to incorporate it somehow.

Well, look. You're almost certainly correct: probably many others have had this idea. Let's assume that. Then, why not talk about it? Unless you're scared of people making fun of you; not unreasonable, but I'm afraid you're going to have to bite the bullet on this one.

Now, let's assume that you actually have an original idea. First, is it any good? I could have the idea that there are other universes made of ice cream, and probably that's original, but so what? Again, a reason to bite the bullet and put it out there. Second, let's assume it's a good idea. Ok... now, if you get it out, you will have subjected it to others' scrutiny. And just what in this are you "untrusting" of? They will make fun of you? They will steal it? As to the first, yes, probably some people will. And, so? That happens to everyone. As to the second, yes, some people will. And, so? That also happens to everyone.

So you can sit on it and wonder, or you can put it out there and get some feedback, some bad and some good. Well, look at what's going on in the world... that's what's happening. People with good ideas get them out. Mostly, the people who sit on their ideas are crackpots. Yes, sorry, but it's true. Gregory Benford, for example, the science fiction writer who is also a practicing and respected physicist, says that he's approached all the time by people with various ideas. And he can tell who the crackpots are because they're the ones who get paranoid, hide their ideas, fear that he or someone will "reveal" the "truths" or "insights" or whatever that they have found.

If you have an idea, get it out into the world. Whatever happens then, happens... but if it's good, you have the satisfaction of having improved things, just a bit, one way or another. And if it's not... then try again with another idea.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


K-Ci asked:

Why is the moral disposition of (the Christian) God in the Old Testament of the Bible different from that of Jesus' in the New Testament? God in the Old Testament allowed killing (for instance, Moses killing the Egyptians) while Jesus won't even lift a hand to any sinner. God gave Moses "thou shall not kill" as one of the Ten commandments yet He himself allowed such acts.

For this reason, isn't "good" higher than God? Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?

K-Ci leads with a literary question that poses a problem for any theology that takes the literary literally. It is, however, no more a philosophical question than is, for example, 'Why is Peter O'Toole's portrayal of Henry II in the 1964 film Becket different from his portrayal of that monarch four years later in A Lion in Winter?'

K-Ci's next question is philosophical, but it requires parsing. 'Higher' implies comparison, which implies commensurability. If God is an actual being (something that can act) and 'good' is a term of judgment (which cannot act), neither can be 'higher' than the other, because an actual entity and a term of judgment are incommensurable.

In K-Ci's second paragraph, the classic conundrum finally surfaces. One's metaphysics will determine how one resolves it. Partly following Brand Blanshard (Reason and Ethics), I apply the judgment 'good' only to an actual being that both satisfies a desire and fulfills an impulse of a subject (also actual). Neither desire-satisfaction nor impulse-fulfillment alone meets the conditions of our judging something 'good.' The subject's nature and the wider (ultimately cosmic) causal context within which it is situated determine what is possibly good for it.

Embedded in the conundrum is another metaphysical question. It asks whether God is unilaterally responsible for the metaphysical situation. In classical theism, God apparently is so responsible. That is, classical theists are disinclined to suggest, for example, that God 'finds' Godself in the metaphysical situation, which God has no choice but to exemplify. Such a suggestion would grate against their religious sensibility with its notion of God's majesty. They say that God never violates the laws of logic, but only because logic is not other than God's nature. Logic, they say, is not something 'external' to God. They use such locutions as 'God does not look outside himself' to ascertain what is intelligible, rational, or good — as if 'looking inside himself' would give God any more discretionary control over the intelligible, the rational, or the good.

I would appreciate learning of one text of classical theism that states or implies that God's nature is as much under God's sovereign control as is the cosmos. If it is not — if God is 'stuck,' so to speak,' with God's nature as we are with ours — then God is not responsible for the metaphysical situation. Indeed, according to classical theism as I understand it, before God exnihilates the cosmos God is the whole metaphysical situation. Before God can do anything in accordance with God's nature, that nature must be a datum (a 'given') for God. God's nature is therefore not under God's sovereign control. Not even God can alter God's nature or annihilate its sole instance ('commit suicide').

With that foot in the door, we can now consider whether God might be 'forced,' as it were, to consult other data that God did not unilaterally decree. This will lead us at once to our resolution of the conundrum.

Classical theism holds that God is the unilateral 'exnihilator' (bringer-out-of-nothing) of the cosmos (the widest possible context of all moral decision-making). This entails that God has settled what is good for any possible subject. God's commands (leaving wholly aside how they might be known as God's commands) merely explicate an aspect of that arrangement. For if God the exnihilator unilaterally foreordained and then caused-to-be the whole scheme of subjects with desires to be met and impulses to be fulfilled, it is hard to see how 'something' could be good — or better, why an injunction must be performed — except that God sovereignly decrees or commands it. After all, God willed or commanded into existence the whole context of injunction-performance. God's moral relationship to the cosmos as commander to commanded mirrors perfectly his (alleged) metaphysical relationship of exnihilator to exnihilated.

Perhaps, however, God is not at all in the injunction-commanding business just because, contrary to the advertisement of God's public relations firm, he's not in the cosmos-exnihilating business. Perhaps God is in the business of luring subjects into experiences of greater and greater interest (contrast and intensity), which God consequently enjoys with them. The motive here is love. In a relationship characterized by love, neither lover utterly controls (or would want to control) the other or the situation both find themselves in.

Of course, modern science's imperative to expunge all aim from the universe rules out any cosmic evolutionary hypothesis wherein an end-envisaging and end-coordinating agency plays an indispensable role. Whatever else that imperative may have going for it, however, it is not itself a discovery of science. It expresses a philosophic choice that precedes empirical inquiry. Modern science's effort to explain aim in terms of exhaustive, and aimless, determination by the past has been a failure. For to explain aim in terms of the aimless is to explain it away. That failure justifies subjecting the aforementioned choice to critical scrutiny. On a view of evolution alternative to the modern, final causality and efficient causality are irreducible to each other and equally indispensable to our understanding of actual things and the cosmos they comprise.

The atheist has no greater (if unwitting) philosophical ally than the theist who poses the false alternative, 'Either classical theism or atheism.' God's envisagement of possible goodness (desire-satisfaction plus impulse-fulfillment) guides God's present provision of initial aims for all other decision-makers. Each of them responds with (at least some degree of) self-determination, and the result is the creative advance of the cosmos.

So if we are forced to choose between the alternatives of K-Ci's question, I would choose 'God commands it because it is good,' but I would reformulate the question by substituting a metaphysics of love for that of unilateral imposition and command.

Anthony Flood

back


Willy asked:

Why are many of the doctoral degrees called 'philosophical' (as suggested by the abbreviation of 'Ph.' in 'PhD') when they do not seem to have anything to do with philosophy at all?

Old habits die hard. Let me remind you that Galileo demanded to be put on the payroll of Duke Gonzaga as the 'Court Philosopher' (not scientist); that Newton's book on his cosmology is graced by the title Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (not Principles of Science) and that in Kepler's Epitome of the Copernican System, all questions and answers are framed in terms of their philosophical (not scientific) content. If you were a poet or a writer, then similarly the highest rung to which you might aspire in the academic world would be a PhD. Ditto with music (though this is usually conferred honoris causa, because few universities have a music department). You want to be taken seriously? Then aim for acknowledgement as a philosopher. It relates to the prestige of Philosophy as the Queen of all Sciences. This little piece of vanity has retained its immortality to this hour.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


David asked:

I am a first year philosophy student and me and my friends where discussing this, but I was wondering could you take a stab at it for me. The question is, 'Can you describe nothing?'

Oh dear. Well, take a look here: Casati, R., and A. C. Varzi. Holes and Other Superficialities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995. That might help.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Rachel asked:

How do our conceptions of meaning, truth and knowledge relate us to the external world? What does 'external world' mean?

Most of humanity, including some philosophers, postulate from their everyday experiences the existence of an 'external world'. Most people, excluding some philosophers called 'Idealists', and some called 'Rationalists', believe that all experience is generated in a solid (material) world, and fed to our brain (mind) by way of the five senses. Philosophers who claim that all knowledge comes to us through the senses are called 'Empiricists'. Some empiricists claim that our senses interpret an external material world as it really is, a tree is a tree, a house is a house, a stone is a stone, etc.: we simply see, hear, feel, taste and scent 'what there is', the only mental link is language, by which we make our identifications and exercise our communication skills. Most of those who believe in an external material world are also 'reductionists', any material object reduces down to smaller material objects, descending finally to atomic particles.

Those who hold the belief that there is an external world which coincides directly with what we could call the popular or naive notion of reality, hold that this world is controlled by physical laws, which humans ignore or defy at their peril. The mind, though important, has a limited input within the bounds of natural law. On the other hand, those who are called idealists and rationalists believe that the mind plays the major role in establishing reality in the world. There are though some very intricate complexities and some distinctive variations within the metaphysics of both idealism and rationalism which cannot be entered into here. Suffice it to say for the purpose of answering your question that within this complexity is a general notion that there can be no real proof available of an external world, because we do not have direct access to such a world; all we do have access to are our own mental interpretations of what is given to us by our senses.

You may now appreciate that meaning, truth and knowledge are very much dependent on your world view. With regard to truth, the general view for those believing in an external world, is that for a proposition to be true it must correspond to a fact in the world. When we are concerned with observing the external world, we talk about 'perceiving' things, in other words the information coming to us by way of our senses are 'percepts'. To build up an understanding of the external world we are obliged to bring to bear mental processes on these percepts to form what we call 'concepts'. Without going too deeply into the ramifications of concept formation, I shall say that contained in what is referred to as knowledge of the world is the formation and association of concepts.

Meaning, truth and knowledge are, therefore, embodied within the concepts which constitute our world view. Because the senses cannot always be trusted we sometimes form false or mistaken concepts; meaning, truth and knowledge can be distorted by false percepts leading to errors in our understanding, such errors often lead to conflict between individuals and even nations. Also some concepts can mean different things to different people, and when reflected back into the world will lead to different views of the same subject or event. This leads us back into reflections on truth and reality. Is there a fundamental truth, and what do we mean by reality? Questions that will probably fascinate philosophers for many years yet.

John Brandon

back


Xiomara asked:

Is it possible that there could be a parallel universe according to the laws of atoms, protons and neutrons?

And if in fact, it does exists, are we the ones in the "real" universe or are we just the fake ones?

And is there just one parallel universe? Could there be millions of them?

Very interesting question, Xiomara, and one that exercises many philosophers and scientists today. In consequence there are many books and papers written on the topic. Because there are so many, I'm going to give you a very small answer; if you want to know more you might just have to do some research on your own. I'll give you a couple of references at the end.

Now, firstly, the idea of many possible worlds occurs at least twice in the history of philosophy before our time. Once in ancient Greece, when Anaximander and Democritus allowed the possibility; but they did not enlarge on it. Then again in the 15th century when Nicholas of Cusa raised the same question again, namely whether God would be content with having created just one world. Again, however, he just speculated on it. With the onset of the modern age, however, we find the German philosopher Leibniz speculating seriously on the possibility and outlining some theoretical principles. Much of what Leibniz wrote serves as a philosophical foundation for contemporary theories, so this is the point at which my outline might proceed.

Now the main issue addressed by Leibniz is 'compossibility'. His thought was: God could create any world he might like, but being the rational Being par excellence, he would of course create the richest possible world. Thereby he would impose automatic limitations. For example: noxious gas and human lungs are obviously not compossible (can't exist side by side): one has to go. But in another world, noxious gases may well find their place. So God may well have created an innumerable range of universes, just for entertainment. Would we know? Of course not. But in principle, many worlds are conceivable with the collection of atoms that make up the world.

Now this idea is seriously entertained in quantum cosmology. When a human observer watches a quantum event, there occurs what's called a state vector collapse. It means that a swarm of billions of particles moved forward like a cloud, and this implies billions of possible outcomes to the experiment. Then, as you watch, an outcome results. One of billions that might have. What happened to the others? Well, normally we would say, they vanished. But some theorists maintain the one we see is only the one we see. The other possibilities continue on their merry way to make up another possible world. And so on and so forth. This is, in effect, like saying that of these billions of possibilities, only those that are compossible with us are actually experienced by us; meanwhile our universe unfolds in parallel with all the others, side by side, so to speak.

Another theory, also originating with Leibniz, says that time is an illusion: 'just an order which relates one event to another.' Therefore our world, the world in which we perceive time, is the only world we can personally experience. In this world, all events are stacked like packs of cards, and each microsecond we kind of 'pick a card' that is ours and that's how we advance in 'time'. Actually there is no time; the stacks are sitting perfectly still and we just happen to draw one after another which represents our experience. In this picture, there is not just one universe, but billions of them, all interlocked, though we can know only the one which happens to be inscribed in the one card we draw. Sounds crazy, but of course I'm simplifying very much here. The point about the cards is that all stacks together represents the sum total of events possible in that billionfold universe, but there is only one path through all the stacks for the universe which we inhabit.

I could go on forever, but one last possibility will have to do. This one is probably the closest we will ever approach to actually knowing something about a second cosmos. The idea here is connected to the 'chirality' of matter. It's like screws, which you must turn clockwise into a nut. What if you have an anticlockwise screw? Bad luck! So with matter. It interacts and forms structures we can see and measure because atoms etc fit together. Yet certain observations suggest that 'anti' matter also exists. That is, if a matter particle collides with an antimatter particle, mutual annihilation results. Now this is a logical difficulty. It is axiomatic in science as well as philosophy that creation from nothing and destruction into nothing are impossible. If nonetheless it happens, a good assumption is that the matter does not actually disappear, but disappears from sight. How? Because they lose their chirality and then we can't 'see' them any more. So an argument could be put that our's is actually a 'dual universe' of matter and anti-matter.

Two books on this subject are worth looking into if this interests you, and they each have good bibliographies to steer you further along this path. One is The Left Hand of Creation by John Barrow, the other The End of Time by Julian Barbour. See you in the next universe some time!

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Gessler asked:

In studying epistemology and educational psychology I have found a gap in some of the research done. Dr. Howard Gardner developed a theory of multiple intelligences, or different types of smart (visual, textual, aural, logical-mathematical, etc.) but no-one in the field of epistemology has taken this theory and run with it. I would like to do some research in this area, and cannot find anything that I can start with. Dr. Gardner has been very helpful in answering my e-mails and sending me materials, but I have found nothing on the philosophy side of the issue. Got any ideas?

In general, I think your best bet would be to look into the philosophy/ psychology of the creative process; of art, if you wish. I don't think you'll find specific references to different types of "intelligence" (please be careful with that concept, ok? It's really ugly.)... but you will find references to the creative process in general and to various manifestations of it. People who come to mind immediately are: Goodman and Arnheim (who really is a psychologist, as I'm sure you're aware), but there are many others.

Here are some refs that might lead further:

Arnheim, R. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974.

Dienes, Z., and J. Perner. "A Theory of Implicit and Explicit Knowledge." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22, no. 735-808 (1999).

Gibson, J. J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.

Kozbelt, A. "Artists as Experts in Visual Cognition." Visual Cognition 8, no. 6 (2001): 705-23.

Lehar, S. "Gestalt Isomorphism and the Primacy of Subjective Conscious Experience: A Gestalt Bubble Model." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2003).

Tsur, R. "Metaphor and Figure-Ground Relationship: Comparisons from Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts." PsyART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts 4 (2000).

and:

Goodman, N. Languages of Art. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976.

Goodman, N. Ways of Worldmaking. 5th ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988.

and:

Deliege, I. "Introduction: Similarity Perception <-> Categorization <-> Cue Abstraction." Music Perception 18, no. 3 (2001): 233-43.

Dissanayake, E. "Antecedents of the Temporal Arts in Early Mother-Infant Interaction." In The Origins of Music, edited by N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown, 389-410. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Gasche, R. The Tain of the Mirror. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Gendlin, E. "Words Can Say How They Work." Synthesis Philosophia 10, no. 19-20 (1995): 67-80.

Kosuth, J. Art after Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991.

Levinson, J. Music, Art, and Metaphysics: Essays in Philosophical Aesthetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Mehler, J., and S. Franck, eds. Cognition on Cognition. Edited by J. Mehler, Cognition Special Issues. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995.

and:

BonJour, L. "Rethinking Intuition: The Psychology of Intuition and Its Role in Philosophical Inquiry." British Journal of the Philosophy of Science 52 (2001): 151-58.

Clark, A. Microcognition: Philosophy, Cognitive Science, and Parallel Distributed Processing. Edited by M. A. Boden. 4th ed, Explorations in Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993.

Guilford, J. P., and R. Hoepfner. The Analysis of Intelligence, Mcgraw-Hill Series in Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Veale, T., and M. T. Keane. "Conceptual Scaffolding: A Spatially Founded Meaning Representation for Metaphor Comprehension." Computational Intelligence 8, no. 3 (1992): 494-519.

That's about what I can come up with, offhand. I'm sure you've encountered much of it... I think what's necessary is a comparative, synthetic, study of this issue. A fascinating question. Of course, if you go back to Aristotle, you'll find in his works all sorts of categorizations of various intellectual activities and types. But I don't know anyone who's really followed through with that in philosophy, in any specific way, aside perhaps from Goodman.

Another perspective on different ways of thinking, if not different types of intelligence, would be the phenomenologists and their contrasting of "scientific" and "natural" kinds of thinking and "being-in-the-world" (which I have many problems with... but that's another issue). Here you'd have to go to Husserl, Heidegger, perhaps Derrida, for example... and Dreyfus might be another source. In fact, Drefus is quite nice, and approachable, and you might ask him about this issue. He wrote, e.g., Dreyfus, H. L. "Samuel Todes's Account of Non-Conceptual Perceptual Knowledge and Its Relation to Thought." Ratio XV, no. 4 (2003): 393-409.

Good hunting.

Steven Ravett Brown


I'm a secondary school teacher with a background in philosophy. perhaps the problem is that gardner's theory has to do with LEARNING whereas epistemology deals with KNOWLEDGE. you might need to look for clearer links between the two — even going so far back as Plato's ideas of an immortal soul, implying we are born knowing everything and a teacher's job is merely to guide us to recognise this. Curly topic — good luck with it.

Lyn Renwood

back


Gary asked:

Are we ever likely to get to the truth about the nature of mathematics? I guess I mean; decide between the competing views on the nature of the subject (I'm thinking Logicism, Formalism, and Intuitionism, but then I studied back in the 70's and there must be some new 'isms' by now). Actually I'm prompted to write after having read about Greg Chaitin and his view that math is empirical (I used to laugh at John Stuart Mill for holding an empiricist view of the nature of mathematical truth but I'm more inclined to take GC seriously).

So, to sum up:

What are the modern views on the nature of mathematics? (Can you recommend any good reference works?) Will we ever be able to decide between them? Could mathematics be empirically based?

I like the empiricist viewpoint myself. Take a look at these:

Hacking, I. The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas About Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Lakoff, G., and R.E. Nunez. Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Narens, L. "A Meaningful Justification for the Representational Theory of Measurement." Journal of Mathematical Psychology 46 (2002): 746-68.

Null, G.T., and R.A. Simons. "Aron Gurwitsch's Ordinal Foundation of Mathematics and the Problem of Formalizing Ideational Abstraction." Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 12, no. 2 (1981): 164-74.

Steven Ravett Brown


you might want to look at:

Stewart Shapiro, "Thinking about Mathematics."

Paul Benacerraf and Hilary Putnam (eds) "Readings in the Philosophy of Mathematics."

Gideon Rosen and John Burgess "A Subject with no Object."

Crispin Wright "Frege's Conception of Number as Object."

Crispin Wright and Bob Hale "Reason's Proper Study."

Hartry Field "Science Without Numbers"

Please note that only the first two listed assumes no familarity with the field and the literature, so if you are not au fait with recent developments and theories in phil maths then you should have a look at the Shapiro first, which should give you a good idea of the landscape before diving into the others. The Benacerraf-Putnam collection brings together key papers in phil maths up to about 1975 so might be worth a look too.

Rich Woodward


This is too large a field to debate in the context of a question/ answer format. For whatever satisfaction you may get from it, I recommend Reuben Hersh's What is Mathematics, Really?, where the author defends the viewpoint that it is a social institution. But he goes through every mathematician of note, ancient and modern, to justify his point of view, and he uses historical vignettes, fictional dialogues and practical (real life) working situations in illustration. Since Hersh is a mathematician, he ought to know. A point of view radically different, though in the last resort cognate, was put forth by G.H. Hardy in his book, A Mathematician's Apology. Hardy thought of his work as an art form and demanded that it should have no practical application whatever, nothing other than the production of a beautiful artefact. He was not alone in this. Morris Kline, too, has written on the social and artistic aspects of mathematics; in fact, there is a surprisingly large literature on the metier as art.

And then there is that eloquent and magnificent plea for mathematics as the "saviour" of mankind from the computer by Roger Penrose, called Shadows of the Mind. Problems that are "not computable" are a cinch for us humans, Penrose claims; and this is his warrant for asserting that "in principle" a robot cannot ever be endowed with anything like consciousness. Now here are three books I would consider indispensable. There are many more, of course, but you have to start somewhere; and these titles will at least introduce you to three of the major enquiries on which the subject of "what is mathematics" thrives.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


Dennis asked:

I'm from a small town and have been in the military since high school graduation. With all this in mind, I am having a hard time with philosophy. My PHIL 101 VCR course is kicking my brain in to overdrive and I usually understand everything that is thrown at me, but this subject is very interesting and also confusing. Basically, I was just wondering if others have initially have this problem and one day will all the reading and intense studying make me click and understand it all? I do not want to give up because many have studied this subject and have found it to be useful and some day I want to use this knowledge in my life too.

In direct answer to your first question: yes. Others have this problem. To your second question: no. You will not understand it all. But hey, no one does, so relax. If someone did, then we'd all read that person and wouldn't have any more questions to think about, right?

Here's one take on it. "Mastery" of various fields, from taxi driving to game playing to learning a science, has been studied (sorry for lack of refs), and what has been found is that it takes human beings 5-10 years to master an area, i.e., to get to where they see patterns in it rather than disconnected precepts. So you can count on a) not understanding it as a set of unities for that long, and b) getting some grasp of it after that long. But mastery does not imply that you understand everything; chess masters, for example, can be beaten.

Here's another take on it. Philosophy, in the West, is roughly 2-3000 years old. To reasonably thoroughly understand it you need some grasp of that much knowledge and thought, because it all interconnects. Is that possible? Yes... after about 5-10 years of study.

Now, what you could do, and what lots and lots of people do, is fasten on one person (Hegel is popular for that sort of thing, for example; so is Schopenhauer) and read him (or her) exhaustively (for, say, 5-10 years), embrace their philosophy, and interpret everything else in those terms. A big mistake, in my opinion. You get an extremely biased and narrow viewpoint on what is an enormous and hugely varied area of human thought.

Take a look at some basic sources, and read, read, read. Write extensive comments on what you've read. Show your comments to someone, and welcome their pointing out your inevitable mistakes and misunderstandings. Um... that sounds like going to school, right? Right. A very old tradition in philosophy, starting with Socrates and Plato.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Gary asked:

Has evolution stopped, or are cyborgs (and all the other intended man/ machine hybrid species) the next step?

In the future will machines alone be able to exist?

Are we among the last of the human species?

Gary also asked:

If, with a brain only 3 times the size of our nearest great ape relatives, we have produced mathematics, philosophy, science, art, literature, and music, does this not lend credence to those who hold to strong versions of AI, and that in the near future we will have truly intelligent machines?

Is the brain a machine?

No evolution has not stopped, it can't.

Cyborgs being the next step (without doubt) doesn't presume that evolution has stopped.

Off course you don't mean to be arrogant, but thinking of a human made future in fact still is.

The fact that mixes of humans and robots are surely going to happen doesn't mean that this'll be tomorrow. Neurologists are far too optimistic, in fact they only understand a fraction of the human brain. They are far in copying, not in understanding. For instance the storage capacity of human brains is a million times bigger than of the largest earth computer, the speed is about 100.000 times higher and the energy consumption at least 1 million times lower.

Off course a brain can be seen as a machine, but that doesn't help us. Its complexity is at the moment far beyond human technology (that means faster, smaller, using less energy, more creative).

Robots the next ages will have human brains. Even if not anymore they'll be an extension of human thinking. Not the present robots that can maw our lawn, but really intelligent, creative beings.

Henk Tuten

back


Jay asked:

Do you think this world is an illusion?

I'll give you a short answer on this, because for as long as I don't know what you mean by 'illusion', I can't properly evaluate your thinking. So I'll just assume that when you say 'illusion', you understand this in some fashion analogous to 'fake', 'figment' or 'deception'. Then your worry about whether the world is real or just a product of our imagination can be resolved very easily.

What we see, hear, touch, smell, taste etc. are illusions of a particular kind, namely the calibrated responses of our nervous system to the energy output (or reflection) of objects in the world. Our nervous system, in collaboration with the brain, evaluates that output very much as it impinges, namely as forms of energy (or resistance to penetration etc), but translates it in the auditory, visual and other cortices into something which we can apprehend. Thus a particular spectrum of this very large wave bandwidth is piped through our visual apparatus where the subtle differences in output are 'coloured in', so to speak, to facilitate recognition. Colours that are meaningless to big animals like ourselves, for instance infra red, we cannot differentiate; they remain invisible to us. But bees, which need to recognise such frequences, can see those colours. So you see, our perceptions are evolutionary conditioned.

I would recommend to you that if you are earnestly concerned about the possibility of the world being just an illusory bric-a-brac with no existence other than in our minds, that you look into a good book on the body and especially the nervous system. Rather than allowing the bite of doubt grab hold of you, learn to appreciate the absolute marvels of adaptivity to the terrestrial environment which Nature has produced, especially the human brain. Marvel ought to cure you of doubts. It's like good medicine. Consider finally that unilateral illusion is a contradiction in terms: if everything is illusory, than obviously nothing is. Neither one nor the other can possibly be true.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney


No. It couldn't be because the very idea of an illusion rests on the idea that the world is well enough known by us to distinguish between those experiences that provide us with illusions and those that give us the real dope. For example, you could be reading these lines and because of some brain disease could be seeing a bird wherever the letter "e" appears. But for that to be an illusion, there must also be cases where someone can see what is actually there, namely, the letter "e." Otherwise the question as to whether what you see is an illusion couldn't even arise.

Tibor Machan

back


Diana asked:

How did life beginning?

In Spanish: 'Como inicio la vida?'

I hope that you know the answer.

No one "knows" the answer to that question. But there are some very good guesses. Go here:

http://human-nature.com/nibbs/

and look around for a while. Don't be intimidated. Just look around.

Steven Ravett Brown


Like every other philosopher and scientist, I wish I knew! The only option we have is to choose what we regard to be the most likely of the several theories presented to us. Religion offers us an instant creation notion, all the plants, animals, fish, creeping things and a pair of humans, male and female, miraculously appearing fully grown and developed. There are problems here however, when it is claimed that the off-spring of Adam and Eve go into another country to find wives. Very confusing! I wonder where they came from?

Science, though a bit more logical, fairs little better. Here we have the not too convincing idea that molecules were brought together in mud pools to form the first living cells, the energy being provided by heat from the earth's crust, and/or lightning. From then on humans eventually developed through a series of very fortuitous accidents, having first been some sort of multicellular organism, then maybe fish, then some sort of four legged mammal, progressing to bipedal ape, then a sort of hairy half human, half ape creature before becoming what we now recognise as intelligent humans.

The problem with both these materialistic ideas is about the production of material particles from a vacuum. Because both religion and science are blinkered by the matter myth it is unlikely that the answer will come from either of these sources. Although one must admit that advances in the science of physics are beginning to shed new light on the problem of origins. In my opinion the answer, if there ever is one, is more likely to come from the more open approach of philosophy. There are those however, like the philosopher Kant, who believe that many answers to questions about the world and nature are beyond the reach of the mind of man. None of the theories so far produced are in a position to be proved either right or wrong, true or untrue, therefore, they must remain in doubt.

John Brandon


back


Trent asked:

In the Cartesian Meditations by Husserl, is he using his concepts of pre-predicative judgement and evidence as those modes of perception that influence on a sort of unconscious level? Possibly those elements that influence from the sub-conscious that we are unaware of?

No, I don't believe so. I think that perhaps the best notion of "predicative" might be found on p. 50 (of the paperback translation, i.e., towards the end of pp 21 in the Second Meditation), where Husserl speaks of "particularization". To predicate is to make explicit in a sense similar to "objectify" or "particularize", where a sensation or act which is predicated is one which has been clearly differentiated and categorized, differentiated from other sensations. That is, able to be made into a predicate in a formal sense. You see? And so a pre-predicative judgment or perception is not so much unconscious, as it is not fully differentiated, more vague, less objectified or isolated from other judgments. Remember that Husserl's ultimate aim, as a former mathematician, was to place philosophy on a footing similar to that of mathematics.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Joan asked:

I'd like to know where I can find precise information about the modern philosopher Comte?

You could try any of the bigger dictionaries of philosophy. But the best (indeed infallible) way would be to go to your uni library and check the catalogue. When you've found the reference, go to the shelves where his works are kept, and I would say that you stand a very good chance that secondary literature will right there as well. Finally, look up the topic index for 'positivism', because some of that secondary literature might be shelved among books dealing with this particular subdiscipline, of which Comte is indeed considered the founder.

Jürgen Lawrenz
Sydney

back


David asked:

It is sometimes held that everything follows from a contradiction. If we abandoned that inference rule, which kind of proofs, if any, would be impossible? If not impossible, which kind of proofs would be radically more difficult?

It is not "sometimes held", as if that's an opinion. It is a provable result in formal systems with true-false dichotomies that a contradiction, since it equates a true and a false statement, entails anything. In other words, and putting it very roughly, since, in effect, true equals false, then anything goes. If you do this rigorously and formally in, as I say, a formal system where true and false statements are the only ones allowed, then it's easy to demonstrate that you can fill in the blanks and make any statement true... since false statements are, given your contradiction, true. You see? So you can't "abandon" that "rule", because it isn't a rule. It's a conclusion, an inference, resulting from the structure of these systems. Now there are systems with infinite gradations between true and false, i.e., fuzzy logical systems, and I don't know enough about these to say what the result of equating a mostly true and a mostly false statement would be.

At any rate, as I say, you can't "abandon" that "rule". If you said that you simply weren't allowing contradictory statements in your system, then logicians would merely applaud your rigor and continue with their work. Nothing would change; they might be a bit skeptical that you'd be able to be so consistent... but there are many people with that degree of consistency in a variety of fields employing formal systems. It's merely what's expected from a competent theorist.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Daniel asked:

Do I really need to be a philosophy graduate or teacher to answer a philosophical question when I already think I'm a philosopher even though I do not have these qualifications?

Do you really need to be a physics graduate or teacher to answer a question in physics, even though you already think you're a physicist?

Do you really need to be a mathematics graduate or teacher to answer a question in mathematics, even though you already think you're a mathematician?

Do you really need to be a psychology graduate or teacher to answer a question in psychology, even though you already think you're a psychologist?

Do you really need to be an economics graduate or teacher to answer a question in economics, even though you already think you're an economist?....

What you need is about 5-10 years of intense education, including reading, peer reviews, paper writing, publishing, etc. You can get that in other ways, yes. Do you have that background? If not, you are no more qualified to answer philosophy questions than you would be to answer questions in the above or other fields requiring deep technical knowledge, as philosophy does (and yes, I do have that background).

Steven Ravett Brown


My apologies to Steven Brown (and other well certified professional philosophers), but I must seriously disagree with his contention that it takes such intense formal education and background to be qualified to answer philosophical questions. I think it very much depends on the nature of the question involved.

Even high schools students are sufficiently qualified to answer some questions in physics, mathematics, psychology, economics, among many other topics. And most of the more interesting (in my opinion) philosophy questions do not require the intensive educational background to either comprehend or approach an answer.

I exclude here those questions of the form "what did do-and-so mean by such-and-such." I will grant that understanding or contrasting how various philosophers understood some issue does require the intensive study that Steven suggests.

But it doesn't take such study to form an opinion on, say, whether the Coherence Theory or the Correspondence Theory of Truth is preferable. And as long as one is prepared to accept the criticisms of others, I see no reason why anyone who understands the meaning of the concepts employed, can not offer an answer to a philosophical question of this sort.

Stuart Burns

back


Kristina asked:

Does every person have a single soul mate out there who is destined only for them? But then what if their soulmate dies, or they never have the opportunity of meeting their soulmate... would a person have to have multiple soulmates? But if a person has multiple soulmates, what if they meet several of their multiple soulmates at the same time, what happens then? Could you please give me some answers, because these questions have been bothering me for a long time. I believe that a person has a soulmate, but as the above questions illustrated, that doesn't seem to be enough.

I'm afraid I don't know the book you mention, nor do I see the point you are making in your other question.

But why do see the soul as only having one mate? Is the soul so rigid that it can't respond in a variety of different ways to different people?

You might have a soul-mate, if you have a soul, but you still have to choose them and work at the relationship so that it develops properly. Surely you don't think that you just meet the ideal person for you and everything goes on swimmingly after that? We are rational beings who live active lives and even if there were multiple possible people that we can love, we will choose those that suit our own way of life and our actual needs. The problem in real life seems to be that we can feel someone is our soul-mate, or "meant for us" when they are not. And we come to find this out by experience.

As rational beings we have to think carefully about what we do if it is to be successful for us. Although I don't believe in the soul, I feel my husband would be my soul-mate if there was such a thing. But I still wrote out for and against marrying him lists and compared them before the wedding. At the time the "for" list wasn't much longer than "against". Reasons "for" can become stronger.

Rachel Browne


Two ways of seeing this question: 1) Statistics; 2) Fate

1) If you go by statistics, you probably have a X number of people that are a perfect match for you, by means of analysis of what you like, how you are, etc. You should consider that this X number is very low, probably two digits, so you won't meet most of them, and if you meet one or two you would be considered very "lucky", literally.

2) If you believe in fate, you can believe that there is a soulmate for you out there, and you are destined to meet him, sooner or later. In this way, you need not worry trying to find him.

In my view, both perspectives show you the same answer: you can't actively pursue the quest of finding your soulmate. You depend either on chance or fate. They are very different, but both show you some hope for finding your soulmate.

Nuno Hipolito


back


Claire asked:

Please could you explain what capitalism is? I have found plenty of information on the web concerning the discussion of it, but no guide as to what constitutes a capitalist state.

Also, what then is the definition of a pre-capitalist state? Are some historical states (Greece, Rome etc.) pre-capitalist, or simply not evolved enough to be fully capitalist?

On these two issues I am quite confused!

Well done Claire! A very significant question. Sorry to take so long in replying. This is partly due to pure lethargy, and partly because I have been thinking about your question a great deal.

Some people think that philosophy, at least the Western Analytic version of it, is very much about finding precise definitions. Now, I tend to think that philosophy is rather more than that, but, all the same, you really have spotted a very important term which is crying out for definition. This 'Capitalism' turns up all over the place, it seems to get used to mean 'trading in goods', 'being rich', 'owning property' and all sorts of things. Everyone seems to know how to use the word, yet hardly anyone seems to have paused to put together a decent working definition of it. Dictionaries, as you have doubtless discovered, seem to be equally unhelpful, though they do tell us that the word 'Capitalism' was first coined by French communists of the 1840's simply to give a name to the customary system which their ideology was opposed to. So, in that sense, 'Capitalist' just means 'not Communist', and is necessarily pejorative. Now, shall we have a go at a clear definition?

So, what do we know about 'Capitalism'? First of all, it is quite clear that 'capitalism' is derived from the term 'capital', meaning 'that which is at the top', a word which seems to go back to the very foundation of language. Equally clearly, 'Capitalism' is something to do with economics, and in that field the word 'Capital' is used to signify 'those things which allow goods to be produced', such as machinery, labour and so on.

Secondly, those who write about 'capitalism' all seem to be clear that it is something to do with some special form of trading in goods which has arisen later in human development. The term is often used simply to mean any form of buying and selling. But that can't be reasonable, for I can't imagine that there ever was a human society in which goods were not traded. In the Bomvu ridge, in the Ngwenya mountains of the Kingdom of Swaziland, there is evidence of a very large ochre mine dating back 40,000 years. Now, mining ochre is very much a full-time job, and you can't eat ochre, so that means that the miners must have worked to exchange the ochre for other things, like food. I rather think that the discovery that if I have a spare chicken, I can exchange it for your spare spear, is one of the things which defines human society. So what is this special form of trading which constitutes 'capitalism'.

Here, I think, we have the definition:

CAPITALISM (n) A system of commercial organisation in which controlling interests in means of production (Capital) are traded as if they were themselves commodities.

That means, if I own the corn mill and charge you, the farmer, to mill some corn for you, that is just trading. If I sell you the mill itself, that, too, is just trading. But if I sell you just the permission to gain the benefit from the mill, say I sell you a half share of the profits from the mill, then that is capitalism, because it is trading in interests in a form of Capital Goods, namely, not the mill itself, nor its products, but the benefit in the mill.

Whether there ever was a society in which interests in capital goods were not traded, I do not know. Marx's assertion that capitalism grew out of feudalism and that out of family collectives is surely nonsense (I'm afraid Marx was not a competent historian), for family collectives are perfectly capable of trading capital interests, and we know, from records like the English Domesday Book, that such trading went on, albeit not on today's scale, throughout the European medieval period. You will find a most interesting article on the economics of Greece and Rome by Andrew Selkirk at http://www.compulink.co.uk/~archaeology/civilisation/synopsis.htm, which, I think, makes it quite clear that, (with a few reservations about Sparta), the classical civilisations did have capitalist trading.

What, then, do we mean by a 'Capitalist Society'? I don't think there can be any point at which Capitalism suddenly popped into existence. Rather, its prevalence has increased and increased over the centuries. Now, capital trading requires that the parties trust each other, because they are generally trading in some future benefit, not something physical, so it would be difficult to imagine it happening before a society had developed a system of civil law. After that, we might like to mark out the point at which a society becomes formally Capitalist as the point at which a formal system of Capital trading is established in a Stock Exchange. Not, mind, a commodities exchange, for that is ordinary trading in goods, and can be traced back at least as far as the trading exchange in ancient Rome called the Collegium Mercatorum. But in 1760 150 brokers were kicked out of the London Commodities Exchange for rowdiness and formed a club at Jonathan's Coffee House to buy and sell shares. In 1773 they voted to change the name to 'The Stock Exchange'.

We've put together, I think, a good definition of Capitalism here. I claim ownership of the copyright. Would you like to buy a 50% share in the future benefit from it?

Glyn Hughes


The essential points here are: (i) who owns and controls the means of 'production, distribution and exchange? and (ii) how is the allocation of production determined — ie who gets what?.

Try these definitions:

Communism/socialism: economic and political system under which ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange are in the hands of the State (effecting common ownership and control on behalf of the people).What gets produced, how much of it and who gets it are determined by direction of the State.

In contrast:

Capitalism: economic and political system under which ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange are in the hands of private individuals. What gets produced, how much of it and who gets it are not determined by anyone's direction but by the 'invisible hand' of the market process acting through the price mechanism and the profit motive.

Capitalism is usually associated with democracy; socialism, sometimes so; communism, not often so.

With a little historical research, it ought to be possible to discover whether Greek and Roman societies were capitalist under theses definitions.

John Sartoris

back


Ning asked:

I am a student from Ontario who took a grade 12 philosophy class last year. In class, our discussion seems intense, however it always seems like the classmates get into a huge argument. Through the course, I have gathered some questions that are troubling to myself. I hope you can explain some of these concepts to me and also point me to any reliable resources.

1. Is the nature of truth one or many? If one, then how do many people know truth? If many, can the nature of truth be as such that it is possible for something to be true and not true in the same way, at the same time, always?

2. Is it conceivable for there to be different truths? Are these truths simply the differences of perspective? If so, how and why. Are these different truths different parts to the whole (assuming that truth is one)? If so, how and why?

3. Does the nature of truth require that it be accepted universally, and if so what is that property, how and why? Also, is this property of truth (which makes truth a likely candidate to be accepted universally) a necessary condition for the nature of truth. If so how and why? This question is kind of confusing and wordy, I'm not really sure how to word this. The last part can also be asked as, "Is such a property of truth a necessary or sufficient condition to the nature of truth or if truth does not have this purpose as part of its constitution, then is it still truth?"

4. If the nature of truth is such that it must be accepted universally in order for it to exist, then is it true to say that if truth were not accepted universally, truth does not exist. If so, why?

5. What does it mean for truth to be 'accepted'? Why not use believed or thought? Also, why the choice of the term 'accepted universally'?

6. Who or what makes an acceptance of something? What is it (in terms of its nature) that makes 'acceptance' distinct from other like or dislike concepts? What is the purpose of acceptance?

7. Lastly, what is meant by knowledge. Traditionally, it has been understood to be justified true belief. If so, is there any problems with this definition of knowledge and one's agreement with either there being different truths or universal truths? If not, how and why?

These are very difficult questions that have been debated for literally millennia. Given that history, although I could give you my take on these questions, why would that be worth anything, really? Further, I could perhaps write an essay about this, but books have been written on these questions. My favorite book relating to truth right now is this:

Kitcher, P. (1993). The advancement of science; science without legend, objectivity without illusions. New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

I cannot recommend it too highly. But here are a few, a very few, other references, really an insignificant part of what's out there on this subject:

Ammerman, R. R., Ed. (1990). Classics of analytic philosophy. Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Co.

Giere, R. N. (1999). Science without laws. Chicago, IL, The University of Chicago Press.

Kitcher, P. (2002). "On the explanatory role of correspondence truth." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXIV(2): 346-364.

Kleiner, S. A. (2003). "Explanatory coherence and empirical adequacy: The problem of abduction, and the justification of evolutionary models." Biology and Philosophy 18: 513-527.

Putnam, H. (1981). Reason, truth and history. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Schlagel, R. H. (1986). Contextual realism. New York, Paragon House Publishers.

Walker, R. C. S. (1989). The coherence theory of truth: realism, anti-realism, idealism. New York, NY, Routledge.

You might think of these as sources for further reading.

Steven Ravett Brown


Ning asked what knowledge is and spoke about it traditionally being accepted as "justified true belief". This was Plato's answer in his famous work The Republic and the clearest objection to it is known as the "infinite regress argument". This means that each of our beliefs is justified on the basis of another belief, which is justified on the basis of yet another belief. When does this regress stop? Plato would probably say that it ends at the Forms, since they require no further justification, but this requires us to accept the existence of the Forms. For more help, try Stephen Law's new book The Philosophy Gym — it's a great read!

Lyn Renwood

back


Jason asked:

How do we know what is real and what is not real?

and Howard asked:

Does there exist a purely objective realty? By objective I mean apart from some conscience entity.

I suppose that if we were to be strictly pragmatic, we could say that everything we know of, everything we are consciously aware of is real. The way the question: "How do we know what is real and what is not real?" is phrased, implies that there are two sorts of things in the world, things that are real and things that are not real. Based on this concept, I find it rather difficult to deduce that real things exist and things that are not real exist also. It seems that we are in a category error. The concept of 'existing' is vital to the notion of reality.

For the purpose of answering your question, I am taking the concept 'to exist' for granted; although there is room for a debate in depth on what is meant by 'existence.' Even if we were to say that real things exist but things that are not real do not exist, what are we actually saying?! We find ourselves in the ridiculous position of inventing something like a unicorn or a dragon that breathes fire, simply to deny its existence and hence its reality!

I believe it can be taken for granted that most people are content to accept the naive materialist view that what appears to be 'solid' is real, whilst the reality of 'non-solid' things, like dreams, thoughts, hallucinations, psychic phenomena, etc. are questionable. It is in these latter categories that confusion arises owing to our predisposition to be selective. The materialist philosophy that we call 'science' has a very powerful influence over our thinking, and the selections made depend very much on arguments put forward by science. Science has progressed through a series of paradigm shifts concerned directly with what was accepted initially to be real, but in the light of advancing knowledge then became unreal. Examples are the 'flat earth theory,' the 'solid particle theory,' 'the earth at the centre of the universe,' etc.. Every paradigm change has brought about a wholesale change in what is regarded as real.

Some of the complex events, like imagining and hallucinating expose the difficulty of separating the real from the unreal. To imagine something is a real event, imagination itself exists, it is something we can describe. However, the 'subject' of imagination can be denounced as unreal, or it could be made real by a category switch. For example, if I imagine that I am physically flying, the actual imagining of the event is real, but the subject — a flying human — is fictitious, unreal; science tells us that the human being is not physically equipped to fly. However, if I relive in my imagination an event in which I was involved some months ago, the imagining is a real event, but the subject matter is not now fictitious, but takes on the reality of a 'memory,' memories per se exist. In the same way an actual hallucination is real, people have hallucinations, but, again, the subject of the hallucination is claimed to be fictitious or unreal.

Massive complications arise in philosophy when we divide philosophers broadly into two groups, called 'materialists' and 'idealists'. These two broad categories are based on two different world views. Materialists base their understanding of reality on the existence of a real solid world, made available to us through our five senses. Idealists on the other hand generally believe that the real world is somehow in the 'mind.' The latter far more flexible approach has a massive influence on what is regarded as reality. The view invites the possibility of a sixth sense, and affords ways in which psychic phenomena could be accepted as real events.

As you may deduce answers to questions about reality are not easily forthcoming. When we take into consideration the influence of language in our lives and on our concepts of reality the problem is further compounded. Do we live our real lives through our language? I don't know. Basically, the whole question is centered on our world view.

John Brandon

back


JJ asked:

Why do birds run [rather than fly?] when you go near them?

Birds land usually to eat some food stuffs left by people, when you walk near them, they think you just want to pass by, so they run away, just to be sure you won't hurt them, and then come back to place to continue their meal, so they don't miss the food location. Also they don't make an effort flying for such a quick event.

This is a good question, maybe someone may think it's not philosophical, but "simple" notes like this always inspired people to think about and invent really great things. And I think Aristotle or Socrates once wondered how a gecko sticks to a wall!

Arthur Brown

back


Michael asked:

Just a question on journalistic ethics. How extensive is a journalist's duty to protect his or her sources? I personally believe that in most cases, normal moral reasoning would not justify the breaking of a confidentiality promise. How would this relate to moral theories such as utilitarianism or kantian ethics?

The journalist doesn't have a legal duty to protect sources, but a professional obligation which makes journalism possible. If the sources knew that exposure was likely they wouldn't be keen to pass on information. The extent to which a journalist wants to go to protect his sources will differ. The courts can require disclosure of a source if the public interest is at stake, or to prevent a crime. It is possible for a journalist to refuse to comply with a court order to disclose a source if he is strongly committed to confidentiality of sources.

It isn't clear what 'normal moral reasoning is'. However, a Kantian believes that it is always morally impermissible to break a promise because you cannot universalise the maxim that one should make a false promise on pain of incoherence. This commitment to what we can rationally do is something Kant held rigidly to, to the extent that he held that if a murderer asks you where your friend is, and you are protecting him in your house, you should not lie. However, moral reasoning would normally be thought to take into account all the facts. It might well be in the public interest to disclose a source especially if maintaining confidentiality leads to crime. Kant's case of the murderer is strongly disagreed with by everyone. It is difficult to see how a journalist can be criticised morally if he discloses a source who could lead to information on terrorists when there is imminent danger of a terrorist attack.

The utilitarian, on the other hand, has to calculate utilities which, is to weigh up benefits and harms. He would have to measure the amount of harm caused by breaking an agreement. This would not just be harmful to him personally and to his source, but to the whole of the profession because it would lead to difficulty in acquiring information. Lots of people would be harmed personally and professionally and this has to be weighed against the number of people and nature of the crime disclosure is supposed to avoid.

Precise sums are going to be impossible, but utilitarianism seems to reflect the fact that a journalist might find himself in a moral predicament. Moral reasoning might justify the breaking of a confidentiality promise, but it will depend on the type of person and his commitment and the nature of the situation.

Rachel Browne


"Just" a question? Zowie, so is "what is DNA?"! I don't even know how to approach a quantitative answer to moral questions, and I don't know anyone who claims to, these days. The classical approach is, as you say, utilitarianism, where you add up "good" and subtract "bad", a la Bentham. It certainly seems impossible to disagree with your statement above, but I don't have a clue as to what it means, really. "Most cases"? "Normal" reasoning? As far as Kant goes, methods for the application of his general rules to specific cases are certainly not something he was concerned with, leaving us in the same dilemma. I could give you my own ethical principles, but they are also pretty general.

Really, the only way I know to approach this kind of very specific question is first to decide on your general ethical principles, as general as you can, and then just fumble your way to a specific answer, and hope you get it. Look at the results and see if they conform to your ethics. If they do, I guess you're ok... if not, well it's back to the drawing board: start from the same general principles and redo the answer. In other words, we're talking about a painful kind of process that the early cognitivists called "TOTE": Test, Operate, Test, Exit. Almost, but not quite, a fancy name for trial and error... the difference is that you're guided by general principles.

Good luck.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Brandon asked:

I believe what Benjamin is trying to say [about egoism and altruism Answers 20] is that when he goes out of his way to help someone he believes it is for his own self esteem. Since he helped someone other than himself he feels good about it. Which could also mean that he did it for himself rather than the person who needed help. His mind was only focused on how he would feel afterwards. That can be considered selfishness. However, helping out others because they are in need of assistance and not because it would make you feel better about yourself is not selfish.

Also Benjamin it is not instinctual of humans to think only of themselves in a situation where someone else may be in trouble. It is learned. Those who are taught at early age that putting others before themselves will do just that throughout their lives.

But what Benjamin is worried about then is that doing something which appears altruistic for reasons of his own self-esteem seems selfish. It is not a selfish action as the action is other-directed. Rather the motive to self-esteem seems wrong, or self-centred rather than other-directed.

If he feels good about his action after the event and this raises his self-esteem, he may still have acted for the other for purely other-directed reasons at the time. Those reasons were there. There was a need for assistance or a call to act and he duly performed. Even if he did this because of a need to raise his self-esteem he recognised that what he was doing was right and he saw the reasons or heard the call. There are many ways to raise self-esteem and choosing to do this by acting altruistically is a moral and un-self-centred choice or outlet of need.

You say 'it is not instinctual of humans to think only of themselves in a situation where someone may be in trouble. It is learned.' You mean we learn to think only of ourselves? How can this be, when we become social beings?

Rachel Browne

back


Dianne asked:

I am very stuck on writing a paper on Taylor's argument for fatalism in "The Story of Osmo" (from his book Metaphysics) and focusing on showing how his conclusion is not necessarily true just because of one specific premise. (I focused on the large parts of his argument in my draft, and it was suggested that I try to uncover the smaller parts on which these larger parts are ungrounded).

I was thinking therefore of just focusing on denying his premiss that the future is fixed, arguing that just because the past is unavoidable doesn't mean that the future is as well, but I am stuck because I don't have enough to say about that one point for a 4—6 page essay and was wondering if you had any suggestions. Perhaps I should focus on another premise, but that seems to be the most faulty in terms of the argument as I have it laid out, I just can't pinpoint the faulty assumptions that themselves LEAD to that premise (because it seems like Taylor just jumps to that conclusion simply from the fact that the past is unchangeable).

It was suggested that I re-examine Taylor's arguments, "those which are implicit and those which he doesn't state but might usefully make his position more forceful", but I don't really know how to go about doing so. I outlined the argument as I see it below (I ignored the story of Osmo itself because I took it to be irrelevant since it is, after all, a story; instead, I focused on Taylor's proceeding argument on why he and we should be fatalists, but perhaps Osmo's story is in fact important to bring up):

1) God Exists and is Omniscient (which implies foreknowledge).

2) Thus, there exists a set of true statements about each of our lives, both past and future.

3) Thus, we must have not only one possible past, but also only one possible future (just like the past, "whatever the future holds there is nothing we can do about it now")

4) Therefore, we are fated (and so fatalism is justified).

Sorry for being so "rambly" but I was just trying to throw out all the little things that have been confusing me and also explain what I've done so far. Any help you could provide would be very very much appreciated.

It has been a while since I have had the opportunity to read Taylor's argument for fatalism and the story of Osmo, but it seems to me that judging by the way you have presented Taylor's argument, the primary premise to attack is the first, which includes 3 powerful assumptions that can quite easily be challenged.

The first assumption of the premise is that God exists. While it is often a presupposition that gets the least treatment due to the almost difficult task of its proof, or lack thereof. It nevertheless is the easiest attack to place against Taylor's argument in this case Although Taylor can respond with a "weaker" version of God, or some Creator entity, he would need to build a separate case for that entity's existence and foreknowledge.

The second assumption of the premise is that God is omniscient. Often when the existence of God is argued, the "God" argued for is an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent creator being. This can certainly be challenged even if the existence of God, or other Creator entity, is presupposed, and/or successfully argued for. Specifically, a look at suffering, or the problem of evil can call in to question several, if not all of the "O"s typically ascribed to God.

The third assumption of the premise, is that God's omniscience implies foreknowledge. It is here that I believe the most interesting attack may be made. It is often the case that people assume that omniscience includes knowledge of events that are to occur in the future, this indeed is what the story of Osmo is predicated on, that somehow, future events are knowable before the events occur (thus Osmo was able to find the book describing future events in his life). However, there is no need for omniscience to include foreknowledge. An omniscient being need only know all things that are knowable, but what would make us believe that future events are knowable?

Past events are knowable, they have occurred, and one may form a true, justified, and warranted belief as to such, but if future events have no truth value until the event has occurred, then one cannot have knowledge about those events (assuming knowledge implies truth). Thus, omniscience need not imply foreknowledge.

Brian Heva

back


Chuck asked:

What is the importance, effectiveness and benefits of delegation to both the management and staff within a closed paramilitary service such as a substantial Police Unit of 5,000 staff?

I'm going to preface this with a warning that I've never worked in such a service, so my answer may be completely off the wall. However, if I understand you correctly, you're asking about the chain of command and about the nature of command in military organizations.

Let me start with the most general consideration: I think that it is an enormous tragedy that we must have such organizations; an indictment of humanity. Yet the historical record assures us that a military, and paramilitary police forces are necessary evils, i.e., that they are good in the sense of being moral, like it or not. Why are they necessary? Human history is largely a record of violence. There are various arguments to the effect that some societies have not been violent; that if we were ruled by women we would not be violent, and so forth. All this may be true, but seems hardly relevant against the great and horrible sweep of history. Such violence must be both combated and prevented, and in the end, when someone is physically threatening you or your family, what response is there but counterforce? Only the education of the young against violence works in the long term, and where has that happened in human societies, and how have such societies dealt with external violence?

What should the nature of military hierarchies be? Again, given human "nature" as we know it, we find that people are territorial and that they instinctively create dominance/submission hierarchies, as do virtually all other animals on earth. We are not, by and large, rational; rationality is perhaps the most difficult human attainment, and is usually achieved only temporarily and in restricted contexts. In an ideal, rational, organization, in my opinion, everyone would have their place and status determined by their demonstrated competence, and when told to do something by one more competent than oneself, one might question and discuss their decision, but usually only to learn. In emergencies, those less competent would quickly carry out the suggestions of those more competent. But again, humans are not rational. We do not seem capable of this kind of behavior: the straightforward acknowledgement of another's greater competence, and actions based on that acknowledgment.

It is my opinion that current military organizations go too far in both this internal force and in the rigidity of their command structure. Such structures, I believe, should, in times of peace, be extremely flexible so that competency is encouraged to rise to command. It is only in emergencies that the structure should be fixed, for the duration of the emergency, to enable rapid responses. And after an emergency is over, those in command should be evaluated by their peers to determine their competency in emergency situations, and the hierarchy altered accordingly. Whether this is possible, or to what extent it is possible, given the human limitations above, are questions I am not able to answer.

Now, getting specifically to the issue of delegation. You see now what my answer will be. Usually, in non-emergency situations, it is my opinion that there should be a great deal of delegation and indeed altering of authority, i.e., of command hierarchies, for the purposes of training and evaluation of competence in both emergency and non-emergency situations. However, the structure of the service should be such that in an emergency the delegation either stops or is severely restricted, as quickly as possible, in order to promote a rapid response to the emergency. Afterwards, normal flexibility should resume.

I imagine that the above outline is radically different from the normal military structure... but it seems to me the most effective in the long run. And in fact "battlefield promotions" are an accepted means of rapidly altering command structures. I think, however, that such promotions — and demotions — need to be carried out even more completely in non-emergency situations also.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Keme asked:

If there is God and he is almighty why then do we suffer evil in the world?

I accept Keme's factual assumption. We do suffer evil in this world. (Perhaps some philosophers would argue that evil is an illusion. But their allegedly veridical grasp of that illusion makes me wonder if their perception of other evil is illusory.)

To his factual assumption Keme links a moral presupposition, which we can explicate as follows. All things being equal, a moral agent who is able to prevent excessive suffering from befalling another, suffering from which good is neither expected to come nor can conceivably come is morally obligated to prevent it if he can.

The strength of this obligation varies with circumstances. They include the risk to himself, his loved ones, or his property that the prospective preventive act may expose them to. (This does not hold for those who profession it is to incur risk in order to rescue others in danger.) Generally, however, as risk rises, obligation weakens. (We regard as heroes those who perform their rescue obligations without regard to risk, especially when risk is significant.) Obligation is strongest where ability is great and risk is minimal.

In the case of God at least the deity of classical theism (that of Eastern and Western Christian orthodox theology) ability is infinite and risk is zero.

And thus Keme's implicit problem. For the existence of great power alone does not by itself make the occurrence of excessive suffering a puzzle. Many powerful men have made people suffer greatly, but their victims never wondered how it could be so. What would have made them wonder, and curse, was that anyone would praise their tormentors for being morally good. Keme omitted to mention God's moral character.

Neither has Keme specified what he means by 'almighty' or even by 'God.' We may ascribe to God great creative power without ascribing to him a monopoly of power, as does classical theism. In the latter philosophy, beings other than God do have power, but only by his leave. They have no power independently of God's decreeing that they have it, which power God can withdraw at will.

There is an alternative theism, however, wherein God exercises the power of persuasion. God 'lures' (Whitehead's term) other subjects of experience into arrangements that afford more intense experiences for them and for God. God does that, according to this alternative scheme, by providing each subordinate agent with an initial aim, which the agent may accept or replace with its own. In such an alternative theism, God is not unilaterally responsible for the metaphysical situation in which each agent (including God) finds himself. Neither is God unilaterally responsible for the actual cosmic order that results from the decisions and actions of all agents. God is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient factor in the actual world order.

In the alternative theism, whose ultimate coherence and adequacy to experience we cannot assess here, evil results from the collision of subjective aims. Collision is perfectly compatible with the existence of a universal end-coordinating God. Without God, there would not be any coordination of aims. There would, therefore, be no intelligible world with someone in it asking how evil is possible. Given a world that God can shape but not unilaterally determine, God cannot obliterate evil any time God wishes to. The classical theistic God can. But classical theism cannot satisfactorily explain why God apparently wishes to so rarely and selectively, especially when the demand for God to do so is so excruciatingly urgent.

Given our moral presupposition, then, the God of classical theism cannot be morally good. Yet classical theism affirms God to be precisely that. Classical theism is therefore incoherent. The reasonable person rules out the incoherent. One theism's incoherence, however, does not necessarily rule out every other. The God of the alternative theism we have been entertaining, in so far as this God is the universal lure to the better, does all within God's power to promote the realizable good in every situation. This God is therefore morally good. What God cannot do, however, is push gross matter around, as we can. Such pushing is, however, often what preventing excessive and pointless evil requires. God cannot be morally blamed for that inability.

If some kind of being recognizable as God is necessary for there to be a world, then the occurrence of excessive, pointless suffering does not disconfirm the existence of that God. On the supposition of the latter, however, we see how there can be 'excessive,' 'pointless' beauty.

Anthony Flood


There is an unstated assumption in this question. The assumption is that God intervenes in the world process. This assumption is understandable. The earliest Gods were personifications of natural forces. This is the genesis of the idea that God intervenes in the world. However there is no unambiguous evidence that God intervenes in the world. If God does not act in the world then there is no contradiction between the existence of suffering or evil in the world and the almightiness of God. Any contradiction is only apparent.

One way around this apparent contradiction is to diminish the attributes that are generally ascribed to God as the entity that is able to initiate the cosmos. This is Whitehead's approach, but it does not produce a very believable God.

A better approach is to consider why an almighty God would produce a world that he had to continually fiddle with. God would not have to fiddle with the best possible world. Perhaps Leibniz was right to argue that this was the best possible world. How could this world, with all its evil and suffering, be the best possible world?

Why would an almightly God initiate a cosmos anyway? Such a God needs nothing. The only motive God has for acting would be love. But as Aristotle argued, love is only possible between parties that are similar. Is God similar to the cosmos? It does not appear so. Is God similar to anything in the cosmos? There are some similarities between God and man. Man is capable of being creative, loving and good. Could mankind develop in these qualities so that he becomes like God? One man at least, Jesus, appears to have done so.

Perhaps then, God initiates the cosmos as a process involving both self-organisation and self-creation, so that a communal entity similar to God, and appropriate for God to love, could self-create. But wouldn't it be simpler for God to just create such an entity. It would not, for any creature God creates is necessarily dissimilar to the self-existent God.

The only avenue open to God appears to be to initiate a Cosmos, which should freely self-organise, and self-create at the human level, until it produced an entity that is similar to God. God could clearly not intervene in this process without frustrating the self-creation of such an entity. This is the answer to the question why we suffer evil. This is also the best possible world because no other world could possibly produce an entity that is similar to God and appropriate for God to love. This is my argument in "The Process of the Cosmos".

Dr Anthony Kelly

back


Nicole asked:

Time travel is an extremely interesting subject, but is it really conceptually possible?

Absolutely not, but it makes for a great story line, which is why so many science fiction authors are drawn to it. If you treat the subject seriously instead of as the basis for a science fiction story, you can disprove the viability of time travel on two levels.

First, if time travel was possible, someone, at some point in the future, would have discovered how to do it and visited the past. This hasn't happened (and remember, we're talking about the period from now to the end of eternity for this to happen).

How do we know it hasn't happened? It's because of the second point. Life isn't a virtual experience. If a time traveler inserts himself into a previous time, he ceases to become an observer of the past. He's now a participant. Even if all he does is watch from a distance, he's taking up space, breathing oxygen someone else was meant to breathe, diverting wind that formerly had no barrier to pass through, and so on.

This may seem to be an insignificant consequence, but it is a consequence nevertheless. The observer changed the past, thus altered history. That history is now different from the one he left, so not only can he not return to his exact former "present", it may be that his former society (which invented the time travel machine) no longer exists. If so, how did he travel to the past?

If you doubt the impact that a small, seemingly insignificant change can have on the future, know that even a minute change in weather pattern computer models can produce radically different outcomes days later. A slight breeze becomes a hurricane, or vice versa. Multiply this by a few centuries, and the change could be overwhelming.

But it's always fun to play with the subject, which is why time travel stories will continue to remain popular. Just don't put any real credence in them.

Phillip Ellis Jackson

www.sci-fi-jackson.com

back


Gessler asked:

I am a Kantian and a Skeptic at the same time, though this may seem problematic at first glance. I have been able to refine my view of Kant to include a subjective basis for the formation of a moral maxim. The problem is the Euthyphro Dilemma. If I extend Socrates' question past god and unto myself I am left with either duty being morally right because it is so, (which would create an objective truth that is not a priori) or that duty is morally right because I deem it to be morally right, (which seems to have a consequentialist bent to it.) Can these two halves be reconciled?

Try this: what if you turn around the normal way of thinking about morality, i.e., one centered on the entity, and looked at moral systems as entities themselves. Then ask: what would be the characteristics of the best moral system? The natural question then is, of course, what does "best" mean in this context? Certainly it cannot mean morally best, so it must mean something else. What could it mean that would make a moral system the best one for people to use? Well, what about the Darwinian criterion? That is, suppose we said that "best", when applied to moral systems considered as entities, simply meant that system most likely to "survive", i.e., to be used and promulgated. The question then becomes what the moral system most likely to survive is. Think about it... wouldn't a system that helped the people using it to survive and flourish, itself be more likely to survive, as a system, than those that do not? But then we have found the best moral system, haven't we.

The only possible hole here is, why define "best" for moral systems the way I do? But really, how else? What you want in a moral system is something that can be applied anywhere, to any situation, by any entity, for as long as possible... right? Well, if you just take those criteria as your requirements, then you've got it. So what it amounts to is that the system which maximizes the likelihood of its users flourishing is the best moral system, because that will maximize the likelihood of the system surviving and adapting to changing circumstances.

So in this case, duty is morally right because otherwise there is no one (given a likelihood argument re survival) to carry it out.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


John asked:

Does anyone know whether Martin Heidegger experimented with magic mushrooms (or other hallucinogenic drugs)? The reason I ask is: (1) his philosophy revolves around a heightened sense of 'belonging' to the Earth, which is akin to the experience of a mushroom trip (2) he spent a lot of time in the Black Forest and magic mushrooms grow there.

Are there really other hallucinogenic drugs in the Black forest? What are they? Do they make you feel that you belong to the earth as well?

Rachel Browne

back


Shannon asked:

What kinds of questions would a sociologist ask? Do you think that there are any commonalities between humans today and those of say 10,000 years ago?

I see at least one difference. 10.000 years ago there were no sociologists, these appeared at the beginning of the 18th century, shortly after the Enlightenment

What remained the same is that humans survive because of using their creative talents.

Sociological questions are based on Cartesian mathematics, i.e. the assumption is that you can build a large structure using knowledge about very small structures. Wittgenstein already rejected his view when younger that any picture reflects in some way reality. That means that in his final view sociological pictures might be complete fantasies.

Does that discredit sociology? No. It only says that it produces fantasies, and like all dreams they might contain some 'truth'.

Henk Tuten

back


Stephen asked:

Can a philosopher be regarded as a realist if they admit of subjective elements in perception?

How does a philosophy that accepts subjective elements in perception truly differ from Cosmothetic Idealism or even Idealism, or is it capable of refuting them without admitting some form of "common sense" or relying on consensus?

For example, in the old folk tale of the elephant, the three blind men each apprehend a "different" object: a snake, wall, or pillar-like object. How can we distinguish that there are real objects in themselves, without making an assumption and/or relying on "common sense" or social consensus, when sometimes our actual senses differ — in other words, we get different "pictures" even if we all do in fact apprehend the same object? Obviously this is an insignificant factor most of the time, but it still can happen.

1) Why not? The problem here is that you're thinking of "admit of" as implying existence. But think of hallucinations. Think of simple errors of perception. Think of optical illusions. Do we have to say that such things "exist", as real objects, just because we admit that we perceive them? No, of course not. And the same argument holds for other subjective elements in perception. The question then becomes where the subjective "stops", to put it crudely, and the objective "begins". There is no certain or definite answer to that question, as is obvious if you consider the classes of examples I've given you. But one can certainly be a realist and admit that one can have optical illusions.

2) Well I think that you can see the general answer to this from my first answer.

3) But the situation is even worse, because we must ask: what does consensus really add? If the three blind men felt the same parts of the elephant, and they were all having kinesthetic hallucinations, then they might all think it felt like a worm, or a brick wall, right? And how do they know that they aren't, and that it doesn't? This is a very nasty and classical question, best answered, in my opinion, by Kant. Briefly and sloppily, he states that we can not know what "reality" is "really" like, that what we do is find patterns in a kind of ambient chaos, and those patterns are derived in great part from internal parameters and constructs. But there are other answers to this question, of which Idealism is one. Many people today also argue for a kind of direct realism, where, barring hallucinations (and how we identify those does in these theories depend on consensus), we do perceive reality as it is.

Some of these might help:

Johnson, M. (1993). Moral imagination: implications of cognitive science for ethics. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Kant, I. (1996). Critique of pure reason. Indianapolis, IN, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Kitcher, P. (1992). "The naturalists return." The Philosophical Review 101(1): 53-114.

Kitcher, P. (2002). "On the explanatory role of correspondence truth." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXIV(2): 346-364.

Martin, M. G. F. (2002). "The transparency of experience." Mind and Language 17(4): 376-425.

Millikan, R. G. (1991). Language, thought, and other biological categories: new foundations for realism. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.

Quine, W. V. O. (1951). "Two dogmas of empiricism." The Philosophical Review 60(1): 20-43.

Schlagel, R. H. (1986). Contextual realism. New York, Paragon House Publishers.

Walker, R. C. S. (1989). The coherence theory of truth: realism, anti-realism, idealism. New York, NY, Routledge.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Courtenay asked:

I've never had any philosophy training but Im interested in Karl Popper's idea of falsification. Being a New Zealander his name has "popped" up sorry:) a few times. Can anyone provide a basic defence for layman like myself of critics of falsification? Can anyone provide a recommend a beginners book for someone who wants to refute modern criticisms of Popper? How can you defend falsification against such truths as 1+1=2 or that the earth goes around the sun etc.? Speak to me like a five year old! Assume nothing!

There seems to be a common misunderstanding that "falsification" is a programm to prove everything false. But this was never the intention of Popper. His idea was: If you claim that some theory of your design is right, then you should be able to name at least one test to decide this. If the test comes out like "A" as predicted, your theory will be confirmed, but if the test comes out like "non A" your theory will be shown wrong — either completely or at least with respect to those effects this test was testing. If you claim that "the earth goes around the sun", you should exactly state what this means and how it could be disproved IF IT IS NOT TRUE. There are so many claims around always: That the stars govern our fate — or that God does, or that God exists and is the creator of everything, or that the 9-11-assault on the WTC was a fake to get support for war on Afghanistan and Iraq etc.etc.. All those claims may be justified, but you have to prove it. What Popper was fighting against was a tendency of all true believers to keep their claims out of any real testing and only offering arguments instead.

Popper was impressed when in 1919 Eddington was able to confirm a certain result following from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity on the deflection of light by the gravitation of the sun. If this result would not have turned out as predicted, Einstein would have had to correct or even to drop his theory. Thus while this observation confirmed Einstein's theory on this prediction, it was at the same time a chance for falsification, since it offered a possibility to prove the theory wrong — at least in part.

Thus the idea of "falsifiability" is to tell exactly what results would prove a claim wrong, while in fact the claim may be justified. What Popper opposed were claims that cannot be proven wrong under any circumstances. An example is the Christian sect that predicted the end of the world for some day and hour. When — as usual — this prediction failed, the members of the sect were not at all subdued. Instead they even felt strengthened since they explained the negative result from their intense praying that caused God to postpone Doomsday once more. This is what Popper calls an "ultra-stable" theory: The structure of the theory is such that it cannot be disproven under any circumstances. Thus if you doubt the Christian concept of sin, then you do so because you are running off from God, or if you doubt the class-struggle of Marxist theory, then you do so because you are forced by your class-consciousness etc..

True believers — be they Christians or Marxists or UFO-logists or Muslims or whatever — always claim that their creed cannot be falsified "since it is right". This is the typical misunderstanding of the concept. Einstein's GTR was proven right by Eddington, but it was "falsifiable", while those creeds are not. Poppers conclusion was: "If a theory is not falsifiable, then it is very probably false." Any good and "scientific" theory allows to design some "experimentum crucis", some decisive experiment, that decides if the theory is false or not.

But there are problems: The fact that a theory is ultrastable does not prove it wrong. The sect of the example may be right. How will you disprove them? There are people that deny the Holocaust or the theory of (Neo-Darwinian) evolution etc.. How to disprove them? Thus there sometimes is no single "experimentum crucis" but only a complicated web of facts and arguments to support some theory or to make it "improbable". Today we can with the help of satellites etc. demonstrate that the earth is circling the sun. There even have been photos meanwhile showing earth and sun from Mars or Jupiter. But in the times of Galileo this was not as easy to prove.

One of the problems is: You can fake many evidences. If somebody claims that the whole of 9-11 or of Holocaust has been a fake, how will you disprove this? Usually all your information is second-hand. Thus those who think it is all fake are people that think that the whole world of information is a very great conspiracy to misinform people in the interest of "big business" or "the Jews" or "the military" etc., since all photos and reports may be forged by some interested party. If Hollywood can make us believe anything on screen, why should the mass-media be less able to make us believe anything?

Thus any statement is credible for each of us only in the context of some general assumption on the nature of the world and on the credibility of theories and information. We even may fall victim to delusions and errors and misunderstandings. Normally we can clarify these from other evidence. Thus you know that the actions on the screen in the cinema are not "real" since you take into account the fact that you are sitting in a cinema. This is confirmed by the rows of seats and the room and other visitors sitting there etc.. But without such references you may be unsure of what to think of the true nature of "evidence". And this is the main objection to Popper's program: Since we all judge evidences in some context and against some background of assumptions and expectations there often is a situation in which a claim cannot simply be proven or disproven by some single "falsifying" evidence as in the case of Einstein's prediction. Thus the concept of falsifiability is important, but it is not the simple separator of truth from error and lies that it seems to be on first sight.

Hubertus Fremerey


Technically you don't need to defend falsification against such "universal truths" as 1+1=2. Popper would have said it is a scientific theory because it CAN be falsified. by CAN I don't mean that it is likely, just that it is logically possible. The statement is worded clearly so that we could test it — it has what he called good testability. Popper wasn't trying to prove theories false, merely saying that each one that was falsified led us closer to the truth, whereas trying to confirm theories merely leads us to skew our results in such as way as to fit our hypotheses. Does that help? if not, email me directly. There is also a great website on Popper — do a search for 'Popper' and 'Science' and 'Conjectures and Refutations'.

Lyn Renwood


Here's a great beginner's book on this subject:

Edmonds, D. and J. Eidinow (2001). Wittgenstein's poker: the story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers. New York, NY, Harper Collins, Inc.

The two philosophers are Popper and Wittgenstein. From there... well, you might take a look at the list I gave to Ning in this same set of answers for further reading. One of the issues here is the difference between induction and deduction: 1+1=2 is deductively true, i.e., given assumptions you make about arithmetic, numbers, etc., it follows from those assumptions. But is it true that all crows are black? That the next crow you see will be black? That the sun will rise tomorrow? Those are inductive "truths", an entirely different kettle of fish, since they depend, in part, on hypotheses which cannot simply be assumed, but must be based on evidence. As I said to him, this is a simply enormous area in philosophy, to be approached with great caution and after much study.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Rafia asked:

How does information processing take place in human mind?

How do you decide whether a given example counts as an 'intelligent action'?

Different criteria for success for any Artificial Intelligence problems are defined by different philosophers. Should there be a general criterion for all type of AI products or there should be separate criteria? What might be the criteria for success?

The first question is one that a) no one knows anything like the complete answer to, and b) to understand what is known would require several years of background study. If you can assure me that you know what, for example, the "postsynaptic density" is and what "IPSP" stands for I might write you a teeny essay on it... or at least I'd know what readings to refer you to. If you don't know what those are... you've got lots of study ahead of you. You might start with: Kandel, E. R., and J.H. Schwartz. Principles of Neural Science. New York, NY: Elsevier North-Holland, 1981.

As to the second group of questions... 1) you might look up the Turing Test on the web. It's not generally accepted anymore, but reading about it will be informative. Then read about why it's not generally accepted.

2) Yes. And with good reason; no one knows what criteria to apply because, for one thing, no one really knows what "intelligence" means.

3) Separate criteria. You might look up "expert systems" for this one.

4) "Success" at what? Solving a problem? Defining "intelligence"? For an AI program to be "successful"? Taking the latter, of course you must use different criteria depending on what the program is supposed to do. Is it supposed to play chess? To model ocean currents? To predict human behavior? To translate? What is, for example, "success" at the translation of one language into another? Surely that's different from "success" at theorem proving?

You have raised hideously complex issues with these questions, and I'd advise some background reading so that you can understand how to narrow these inquiries down to manageable size. Each of your questions encompasses enormous bodies of work, which are still very active and which require study merely to understand, much less to answer anything like these issues.

Steven Ravett Brown

back


Marina asked:

I was wondering if you knew what 'Windmills of your Mind' was about?

Marina, if you are referring to the song "Windmills of Your Mind", it was written for the 1968 film 'The Thomas Crown Affair' and was used as a way of expressing the confused mind-whirring events happening between Steve McQueen's title character and Faye Dunaway's Vicky Anderson, for which the lyricists Alan and Marilyn Berman got a Golden Globe Award. I'll grant you the lyrics seem rather puzzling, but I suppose that, in not making much sense, it expressing exactly the emotion called for in the movie. Out of its original context, it becomes quite baffling, but, oddly and beautifully baffling. Now, how come baffling is beautiful?

We just love puzzling sets of words, don't we, us humans? What about Don McClean's 'American Pie'...

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry

... which has had academics and music-lovers falling over themselves to explain it as an eulogy for Marylin Monroe, or for President Kennedy, or an ode to cocaine, or goodness knows what else. The fact is that, as the philosopher William James put it, "it is natural and even usual to human nature to court the arduous". And so it is. We like difficult stuff. Not too difficult so as to get frustrating of course, but who would want to bother with a jigsaw which only had two pieces? Where would by the joy in mystery of a religion with no obscurity? Or, indeed, in a philosophy with no abstruseness.

Please, Mariana, do not assume for one moment that a lyricist necessarily means to make some sense in the words of a song. Obscurity, confusion and lack of immediate meaning can be things of real joy — they make us search into the bizarre corners of our own experiences, and there we so often find fresh those forgotten things which make us smile, or cry. The best of bards deliberately put in things which either have no meaning, or which have bewildering multitudes of meanings. Have a flick though any book of poetry or of songs and you'll see what I mean.

If you are entranced by 'Windmills of your Mind', may I suggest a little philosophical journey? Have you read The Tao Te Ching of Lao-Tze (I recommend the James Legge translation), or The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam? You might try Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra or flick through Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Sit back and enjoy them, but don't necessarily expect them to 'mean' anything. They're not always meant to make sense, they're meant to make you make your own sense.

Twinning to a tongue of fire,
Leaping live, and laughing higher;
Thro' the everlasting strife
In the mystery of life.

Glyn Hughes


I wonder whether Marina visited my Glass house philosopher notebook page for Sunday, 16th December 2001 where you will find the complete lyrics to the song, plus a MIDI version of the excellent arrangement by Sting. (Remember to turn up your speaker volume.)

'Windmills of your Mind' describes how you feel after doing too much philosophy. That day, I'd done enough philosophy so I just reproduced the lyrics.

...In response to Glyn, I heard that 'the day the music died' refers to the tragic death of Buddy Holly in an aeroplane crash.

Geoffrey Klempner

back


Shagufta

"Science discovers philosophy" — interpret? elaborate?

Science and philosophy had a strong effect on each other. Unfortunately, philosophy hindered science in the past, ancient Greeks thought circles are sacred shapes, and thus supposed a priori all planets (sacred bodies) have circular orbits. Kepler's discovery of elliptical orbits was shocking. It, as well as many other discoveries, made the empirical position stronger, if you want to know the shape of orbits, don't think, look! Science also influenced letting-go of metaphysics by modern philosophers.Theological dilemmas were no longer interesting, and religious discussions were outdated in the modern scientific culture. Science had a very powerful influence on modern philosophical movements such as empiricism (especially logical positivism) and pragmatism.

Also note that the 18th century (after the birth of modern science in the 17th century) testified to a great shift in philosophy, it was the age of Hume, Kant and others.

But philosophy didn't always play such a negative role, Hume's analysis of causality (18th century) anticipated the modern quantum physics discoveries (20th century) such as the lack of causality in the subatomic world! Also Kant's analysis of time and place were a major shift to considering them not absolute, which was finally realized by Einstein's relativity.

At the end, I'll tell you a small real story that happened to me in the past:

I used to take used syringes, block their small end and pull their shafts, they always returned back to place. 'Why?' I asked myself, is it that the vacuum inside pulls it, or that the air pushes it? Initially I was more convinced by the first hypothesis, because air, I thought, was not strong enough.. but later I asked myself: 'but vacuum is not something that exists, it's only a term we use to describe the absence of air.' No action such as 'pull' can be attributed to this negative term. Thus, the air somehow pushes the shaft inside.

About 5 years later, when I was 17, and I studied that the atmospheric pressure (which is quite strong enough) is the cause of this phenomenon.

'Oh, philosophy is wonderful' I thought to myself, 'it helped me correctly solve a puzzle without even knowing what an atmospheric pressure is!'

Arthur Brown

back


Andre asked:

What is our purpose as human beings on this planet?

Well, you could say that we are responsible for our own destinies; in that case we must create our own purposes. We bear the ultimate responsibility. So given this viewpoint, our purpose is whatever we choose it to be.

And you could say that we don't have a purpose; that our purpose is determined by some "god", or "gods", some creatures who control us. Well, I've always had problems with that. We must ask two questions.

First, what justifies their purpose. I mean, if there's some entity or entities out there who want to tell us what our purpose is, we have to ask what determines their purpose. Do they have a "god" also, leading to an infinite regress of gods? Or do they create their own purpose? But if the former is true, then there's really no ultimate purpose at all, just a regress of purposes. If the latter is true, then what's the difference between them and us? If they can be responsible for their own destiny, why can't we? Because they bully or force us? Threaten us with "hell" if we don't obey? Well, that's not much of a reason to embrace their purpose.

We could assume that they "know better" than us... but should we then abandon our own purposes and follow orders? In other words, the classic comparison is between us and sheep: "sheep may safely graze", and that sort of thing. But the difference between us and sheep is our degree of self-awareness and our ability to create our own purpose. Given that difference, it seems to me that embracing the purpose of some other being or beings is merely abrogating our own ability to create and choose our own purpose. If they (or it) can create their purpose, why not us, given that we, in contrast to sheep, are able to conceive this?

But the second problem is much more serious, in my opinion: we don't really have the slightest idea as to whether these putative superior entities: "god", or "gods", exist, what their characteristics are, and so forth. That is, human beings have believed in literally thousands of very radically different gods, or none, throughout history, all with different purposes. And people still believe in hundreds of gods today, all different (For example, can the god of the Christian Baptists really be the same as the god of the Catholics? Think about Papal infallibility, to take just one example. Can the Pope be both infallible and fallible in precisely the same context?). Do we flip coins? But this brings us right back to the beginning, doesn't it. In making this choice, we're creating our purpose just as if we weren't thinking of it as "choosing a religion". We're just adding a hypothetical superior entity to justify the choice... a real cop-out, in my opinion.

So ultimately it still comes down to: we create our own purposes. We can do this consciously and responsibly, or we can let others do it for us, and that latter is, in my very strong opinion, a serious abrogation of our moral duty.

Steven Ravett Brown


This is probably the most important question in Philosophy, one that I have tried to answer in the light of recent scientific knowledge.

It seems to me that the Cosmos, from the Big Bang to the present, is a process with a direction and a purpose.

Matter and Time both begin with the Big Bang. The first elements to form after the Big Bang are Hydrogen and Helium. The development of matter from these simple elements to the present complex material universe appears to involve self-organisation in accordance with laws of nature. Eventually a solar system with a life-friendly planet, Earth, develops.

Simple uni-cellular life then begins on Earth. It also becomes more complex, producing vegetative and instinctive forms. The hominids evolve and develop, ultimately producing our species, homo Sapiens.

Humans differ from other animals. Other animals are "hard-wired". Animals only know what they need to know for the species to survive. Humans are different. They have an intentional consciousness. They want to understand the world. They set out to discover what is real and what is good. They form cultures that are based on an understanding of the world. Their intelligence slowly develops. When they form an understanding of the world they tend to stop the search for better answers until something disrupts that understanding. It takes more than 100,000 years before they develop a critical intelligence. The pre-Socratics indicate this development.

As humans increase their knowledge of what is real and what is good they are able to develop more creative and more moral cultures. But this development is not inevitable. They can loose the plot.

Humans are potentially self-creative. They create themselves as individuals by the way they act. They also self-create through their cultures, as humans make cultures and cultures make humans.

Humans naturally seek the good, but they can fail to distinguish between real and apparent goods. So it appears that humans have a purpose on this planet, to understand what is real and what is good. This understanding will enable them to creatively change the world. The world can then be made better. Humans can become morally better and more creative. Humans are involved in completing the creation of the world.

It all starts with the Big Bang. The best explanation of the contingent Cosmos is that it owes its existence to a self-existent entity, a God. But then, why this long, painful, drawn out process?

The only motive for a self-existent God to act is to produce an entity that is similar to God and appropriate for God to love. But God cannot create such an entity. He can only create creatures. All he can do is initiate a process involving self-organisation and human self-creation. so that a communal entity might self-create in those characteristics that are similar to God, creativity and goodness.

An article on this theme "Lonergan, Metaphysics and Mythology" is due to be published in the next edition of the on-line Philosophy Journal The Examined Life.

Dr Anthony Kelly


It depends who you ask! Perhaps the easiest answer is to say that our purpose as human beings on this planet is to be the 'best' human being we can be. By best, I do not mean in a competitive sense, but rather to authentic, true to one's self, and to those principles of the good that guide one. These can be religious, moral, ethical, or humanitarian principles. To be human means to be one's self truly above and beyond all others of the same self. One of great religious writers from the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons said, 'The glory of God is a human person fully alive'. Obviously, Irenaeus contextualised this by his Christianity, as would all Christians, but those among us who are Christian and humanist (which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a contradiction) would see that being human means to engage in every aspect of the human project.

This means embracing all that life brings our way. It does not mean that we necessarily accept it as being constructive and beneficial to our human growth and development — for example, human suffering, sickness, injustice etc. are not conducive to human growth and development as it is largely understood (though some religious traditions would suggest that suffering can help us be better people), what it does mean is that we do not have to be less than human to be human. In other words, to be human means to be myself, however I understand that self to be, and where I experience that self. It means not embracing those destructive characteristics of human personhood, selfishness, self-centredness, aggressiveness, ill manners, discourtesy, apathy to the brothers and sisters who suffer all kinds of injustice at many different levels.

When we come to an understanding of the reasons why we exist (a life long process that is only fully completed at death) then, perhaps, we can examine those areas of human living that do not provide the environment whereby a human person can become the 'glory of God' through being fully alive.

Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM

back


Jorge asked:

Will the Universe really come to an end?

This is not a philosophical question, but rather a scientific one. The main law that is important to this issue is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which states that Entropy is in continuous increase, and that time is thus not symmetrical, that the future will hold more entropy and less usable energy than the past. Consider a ball that hits another ball, the first stops and the 2nd moves instead. Film it and view it from end to beginning, will you see a possible scene? Yes, thus this action is symmetrical in time. Now do the same with the scene of a melting ice tube. The reverse is not normal that water will lose heat to air and become a piece of ice. This action is not symmetrical in time.

Most cosmologists think that universe will end up in 1 of 2 possible scenarios:

1. That matter is not in a considerable quantity in the universe to generate gravity powerful enough to bring matter back together, thus the universe will expand till reaching very low temperatures and virtually freeze.

2. That matter can bring matter back together, in a big-crunch. What would happen after that is not known, whether the generated singularity will absorb the time dimension thus there will no more be 'Something after that' or that it will explode again in another big-bang (and thus the theory of the oscillating universe).

I recommend that you read The last 3 minutes by Paul Davies, in which he discusses all this stuff in detail.

Arthur Brown

back


Tim asked:

Would the world be better off if everyone was atheist?

No. We would lack a lot of beautiful art. Religion has been an inspiration. Also we could not visit and aesthetically appreciate cathedrals and churches.

Wars in the name of religion come and go. What is of value remains.

Rachel Browne


I teach religious education (no I'm not a Christian, no it's not just christianity these days etc etc!) and this is a question I get asked a lot.

So point one; in my experience god receives a very narrow definition (especially but not exclusively by atheists) a vaguely (but not usually accurate) Judaeo-christian definition, however god as a concept is infinitely vaster than that, or we wouldn't have so many different religions. The majority of people I have met when they say they do not believe in god are basing their lack of belief on the absence of a guy sitting on a cloud in a long nighty! Or alternatively on the fact that they do not believe Jesus to be their personal saviour. Neither of these is true atheism, to truly be an atheist is to say 'I do not believe in any force or power that created me, there is no purpose to my existence, i am an accident and my life and death have no significance or importance of any kind, nothing that i do has any value except the biological reproduction of my own gene patterns through my children' (that at least is my view — the perennial problem with philosophy is that there is always another view!).

Ah, I hear you cry, but what about the people who have thought it through carefully and feel that they can say the above, and I do not deny that there are such people, I know a few, not many but a few. I put it like this — Everybody believes in something, even 'I do not believe there is a god' is a statement of belief, all your actions are controlled by your beliefs. You don't jump off a cliff because you believe it will kill you, you don't know it will! All you know is that everyone else who has tried it has died and from that you form the belief that the same thing will happen to you!

If that's too up-in-the-air for you try this — god is something that is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. That is the classic definition and in former days everyone who had a problem for solving would turn to god, a question for answering they would ask god or needed a witness to an event they would refer to god. Today in England (and England is by no means typical) if we have a problem we turn to science, a question for answering we turn to science, a witness for an event? Science again (who do you think invented CCTV?), we expect that science can make us better when we are ill and can provide everything we need and can answer each and any question we put to it, not only that we regard it as infallible, there will always be electricity, what we can't do now we will be able to do soon, everything can be put right given time. Its not true but we believe it. Have we not turned science into a god?

In answer to the question then I don't think atheism is truly possible, humanity needs its gods, needs things to cling too. Would the world be better if we didn't — no, much that is good and beautiful and worthy of respect and admiration has come out of religion, however the world would be a better place if we all made an effort to understand each others gods, and to value them as facets of our own.

Alison Robertson